CANCUN (AFP).- Paco de Lucia, 66, the Spanish guitar virtuoso who brought flamenco to a world audience, has died of a heart attack while playing with his son on a Mexican beach.
Born Francisco Sanchez Gomez, he was credited with modernizing the gypsy tradition of his native Andalusia, absorbing jazz and pop influences in a decades-long career.
He suffered a heart attack on Tuesday as he was playing football with his eight-year-old son near the Caribbean resort of Playa del Carmen, where he had a house, his manager Jose Emilio Navarro told AFP.
He lived in Cuba but had gone to Playa del Carmen with his wife and two children, Navarro said. His body is expected to be repatriated on Wednesday or Thursday, the manager and a Spanish diplomat said.
"Paco de Lucia's death turns his genius into a legend," said Jose Ignacio Landaluce, the mayor of his Spanish hometown of Algeciras.
"Although he has gone, his music, his wonderful way of playing and his character will always be with us," he said in a statement.
The town called three days of mourning and flew flags at half-mast for "the greatest guitarist of all time."
'Flamenco gives me strength'
Born into a humble family on December 21, 1947, de Lucia grew into a musical giant who blended jazz, pop and classical influences with the folk tradition of flamenco.
He said his father, a singer of gypsy origin, introduced him to music and encouraged him to practice for hours.
"The gypsies are better since they listen to music from birth. If I had not been born in my father's house I would be nobody. I don't believe in spontaneous genius," the guitarist once said.
From the age of 12 de Lucia was out playing and earning at flamenco "tablaos" -- the intimate bars that are home to the authentic form of the tragic gypsy lament and dancing.
He had no formal musical training, but by 15 he had moved to Madrid and by 18 brought out his first album.
It was there that he met another gifted teenage flamenco artist, the singer Camaron de la Isla, then just 15 and freshly arrived in Madrid.
The two young men formed a legendary flamenco partnership, touring and recording together until Camaron's death in 1992.
In the 1980s de Lucia also teamed up with guitarists John McLaughlin and Al di Meola to produce the classic album "Friday night in San Francisco."
He branched out into jazz and bossa nova, drawing the scorn of traditionalists.
But he claimed to stay faithful to his origins, hunched over his guitar and grimacing with emotion as the flamenco "duende", or spirit, possessed him.
"Whatever I do my sound will always be flamenco -- because I am what I am," he said. "Being a flamenco player is what gives me strength."
'Universal' flamenco artist
In 2004, de Lucia was awarded Spain's prestigious Asturias Prize for the Arts as the "most universal of flamenco artists."
"His art has made him into one of the best ambassadors of Spanish culture in the world," the jury said at the time.
He had lived elsewhere in Spain and in Mexico and toured the world.
Tributes on Wednesday included Twitter messages from international stars such as the Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, who mourned "a musical genius."
Spain's royal family sent telegrams of condolence, the palace said. The country's culture minister Jose Ignacio Wert called de Lucia "a unique and unrepeatable figure."
Spain's General Society of Authors and Editors hailed him as an "absolute master with the best flamenco touch of all time."
"Paco lived the life he wanted and died while playing with his children by the sea," his family said in a statement.
"He filled this world with beauty and now he has been taken away."
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