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We're going to remember now the man regarded by fans and music critics as the world's greatest flamenco guitarist. Paco de Lucia died yesterday. The Spanish Embassy here in Washington says he had a heart attack while spending time with his family in Mexico. NPR's Felix Contreras reports that the 66-year-old was a modern superstar in a Roma or a gypsy tradition that was hundreds of years old.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Paco de Lucia's story is well known to flamenco fans around the world.

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CONTRERAS: He was born Francisco Sanchez Gomez in 1947. He was exposed to the flamenco culture in his home of Andalusia, the cradle of Roma tradition in southern Spain. His father and two of his brothers were flamenco musicians who inspired him to take up the guitar at age 7. He played his first public performance at age 11. And he made his first record when he was just 15.

What's also well known is that de Lucia was Payo, not Roma, which made his early accomplishments all the more extraordinary. In a 2004 interview, he told me that as a child, he didn't know the difference.

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PACO DE LUCIA: (Through Translator) I didn't have a consciousness about Gypsy and non-Gypsy because my childhood life was very mixed. Later, when I was older, I understood the difference. I knew I wasn't a Gypsy, but I was living in that same culture and philosophy and way of life since the day I was born.

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CONTRERAS: Traditional flamenco is a singer's art. The guitarist is normally just an accompanist. In the late 1960's, de Lucia met a young Roma singer from Andalusia named Jose Monge Cruz, who called himself Camaron de la Isla. And for almost a decade, the two shook up the sometimes staid world of traditional flamenco by pushing the voice and guitar combination as far as it could go.

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CAMARON DE LA ISLA: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: By this point, Francisco had become Paco and he took his mother's maiden name for his performances. While he was still working with the singer, he released his breakout recording as a soloist. It was called "Entre Dos Aguas," and it hit the Spanish top 20.

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CONTRERAS: De Lucia's use of jazz and other non-Roma influences often raised the eyebrows of traditionalists. But it also attracted the attention of jazz guitarists Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin, who invited him to form a trio that allowed de Lucia to indulge his jazz passions without traditionalists looking over his shoulder.

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CONTRERAS: By then, Paco de Lucia was a full blown superstar who went on to create a style that many say moved the music forward and influenced an entire generation of flamenco musicians.

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LUCIA: (Through Translator) My flamenco is not a fusion. I have always been careful that it doesn't lose the essence and the roots and the tradition of what is flamenco. I have incorporated other things but I have, as my only interest in all this, to grow as a musician who plays flamenco and not to bring things that some way or another changes the identity of this music.

CONTRERAS: Paco de Lucia created a place for himself in flamenco history that reached back to his earliest days in Andalusia, while always looking forward. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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