Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Books

Flamenco Guitarist Javier Molina – A 2006 appraisal by Brook Zern

JAVIER MOLINA (1868-1956) – A 2006 Appraisal by Brook Zern

Javier Molina, jerezano y tocaor, died half a century ago. If Jerez is the vital center of flamenco guitar, at least until the advent of Paco de Lucia’s very different approach, then Javier Molina is the man who essentially created this fabulous style.

And this anniversary did not go unobserved. At the Jerez campus of the University of Cadiz, a conference marked the occasion with panelists who included guitarists Manuel Morao and Manolo Sanlúcar, as well as Balao, a long-ago student of Javier Molina who currently teaches in Jerez.

The towering figure of Javier remains an almost palpable presence in Jerez. Yet there is something enigmatic about his enormous legacy.

Why, for example, are we left with just four brief recorded examples of his singular art? And why does an outsider find it so hard to pin down exactly what he created, and exactly how he changed the sound and feel of the flamenco guitar?

Four cuts. That’s fewer than we have from Manolo de Huelva, another singular genius – but one who was obsessed with secrecy, and evidently succeeded of robbing posterity of his art. Four cuts – two siguiriyas, two soleares – all with Manuel Torre, by many measures the greatest flamenco singer who ever lived – all recorded in 1931, when he was 63. And then nothing, during the 25 years before the guitarist’s death.

It seems almost ironic, then, that his life itself is so thoroughly documented. In fact, he may be the first flamenco guitarist to have written his own autobiography.

In 1964, I bought a copy of “Javier Molina: Jerezano y Tocaor – Memorias Autografas de su Vida Artistica”, by Augusto Butler, a noted man of letters of that era who often used the pseudonym “Maximo Andaluz” to underline his devotion to that region and its culture.

While Butler provides the fine prologue and detailed notes, the work itself was written by Javier and describes his life and art until about 1941, when he retired from the active flamenco life It’s a remarkable collection of keen observations and reminiscences that illuminates the entire early and middle phases of flamenco’s history.

Javier started playing professionally at the age of eight – his few lessons were probably from Paco el Barbero who had learned from the legendary Maestro Patiño – and he was still quite young when he went to work in the early cafes cantantes with singers including Juan Breva, El Marrurro, Enrique Ortega, El Canario and other key figures of that epoch. He soon became friends with a young shoemaker named Antonio Chacón – Manuel Torre’s most avid fan, who would also become his most credible challenger for the unofficial title of Spain’s greatest flamenco singer.

The rest is history. Javier and Chacón became one of the greatest pairings in all of flamenco, working in Seville where Javier would remain for some twenty years,

Don Pohren, in his brilliant “Lives and Legends of Flamenco”, cites the “unending number of creations from his fertile mind”. He notes that Ramón Montoya, often considered the main progenitor of flamenco guitar, was both the main rival and a devoted admirer of Javier Molina, and that the jerezano had a strong influence on Ramon’s musical development. Pohren also states that Javier was “less flashy and far more earthily flamenco than Ramon”

Javier’s accompaniment is absolutely superb, as those few cuts with Torre prove. It’s interesting to note that he was also a notable soloist. But it seems that his funky/earthy side wasn’t the one he flaunted in his solo work. In a revealing and cranky note, Augusto Butler says that Javier “had a real weakness for his ‘solos’. When the moment was propitious, and even when it really wasn’t, we’d hear him interpreting – magnificently, it’s true – his arrangements of operettas and zarzuelas that were then in vogue. If only his preferences as a soloist ran toward the old styles that he must have heard a hundred times, the art of Maestro Patiño, or [Julian] Arcas, or Pepe Lucena or Habichuela, to name a few of his immediate antecedents, it would have been most reasonable; but to squander his time and creative capacity on such ingenuous nothings…”

Another early treatment of Javier’s importance is found in Juan de la Plata’s monumental 1961 work, “Flamencos de Jerez”, in which he says that Javier Molina and Paco Lucena were the first flamencos to use all their fingers, and not just the thumb, in their playing. (While it may well have seemed that way, the claim is probably somewhat overstated.) He confirms that Ramón Montoya, described as the only artist worthy of comparison with Javier, “often said that he was formed as a player by working at the jerezano’s side”.

The earliest description of Javier and his work is found in Fernando el de Triana’s seminal “Arte y Artistas Flamencas”, which says that his mastery was so extraordinary that he was called El Brujo de la Guitarra, the Wizard of the Guitar, adding that “Javier Molina is the guitarist who most carefully conserved the accompaniment of the most difficult old songs.”

Humberto J. Wilkes, in “Niño Ricardo: Rostro de un Maestro”, writes of Javier and his infuence on Ricardo. “Javier Molina played with a fluidity and beauty as well as a very personal sound. He had good taste in choosing falsetas for accompaniment. He was the first guitarist Ricardo really ran up against, and Ricardo learned a lot from their work together at the Café de Novedades. Ricardo admired him so much that he wanted to make a recording called “Three Epochs of Flamenco guitar” in which he, Javier and Manolo de Huelva would each contribute a section. The idea came to naught, because Manolo refused to participate and Javier was too ill. What a shame – and yet, Niño Ricardo always carried Javier and his era in memory, and this served as the inspiration for many of his falsetas and his accompaniment”.

At the conference on Javier, Manolo Sanlúcar spoke reverently of Javier as one of his earliest and most influential teachers, while Balao recalled aspects of the man’s personality. But it seemed clear that the crucial link to Javier’s toque was, and is, Manuel Morao, who studied with him and was marinated and molded in his influence, to the extent that it would be hard to separate the contributions of the two. At the same time, it seemed that Sanlúcar and others wanted to make it clear that the signature Bulerías of Jerez, with their unmistakable pulse and power, owes more to the genius of Manuel Morao than to Javier. (In fact, this not really surprising, considering that the Bulerías form itself may not have been fully formed and stabilized until Javier was well past middle age.)

Like some other students of flamenco guitar, I still hope to learn more about how Javier really sounded and how his influence is expressed today, and to collect his surviving music.

A decade ago in New York, I was able to ask Manuel Parilla to show me some of Javier’s essential contributions, which included superb falsetas that were new to me as well as others that recalled Ricardo and, especially in the Alegrías, Sabicas. (These appear on the 1999 Parilla CD “Nostalgia” as “Recordando a Javier”.)

It was the conclusion of Juan de la Plata’s section on Javier Molina that offered the best hope for experiencing the art of this man. “His portentous and colossal toque, full of subtle flamenco essence, has been recorded for posterity in the Instituto de Musicología de Barcelona.”

In Jerez recently, I had the opportunity to ask Juan de la Plata about this excellent book (“A youthful indiscretion,” he called it with a smile) and those old recordings. He said it was possible that the Institute in Barcelona might still have them somewhere, though it could have changed its name. I said I hoped someone would try to unearth this aural treasure – a hope I repeated at the university seminar. Nobody volunteered. (Barcelona, anyone?)

Today, the Jerez school of guitar endures. And that is perhaps the greatest testament to the strength Javier Molina’s legacy. While other key areas have rushed to embrace the profound changes pioneered by the fabulous Paco de Lucía – notably the stress on a rich new pallet of harmonies, chords, shifting tonal centers and jazz-influenced scales and intervals – the guitar you hear in Jerez is still likely to be direct, powerful and recognizable, referring as much to its illustrious past as to its promising future.

Javier Molina rules!

February 28, 2017   No Comments

The Musical Genesis of Flamenco – Book by Guillermo Castro Buendía – Comments by Brook Zern

A new book by Guillermo Castro Buendía reflects the new thinking about flamenco’s history, development and perhaps its essential nature. It is titled “Genesis Musical del Flamenco”, and it’s an impressive contribution to the study of flamenco. I’m not on board with much of the new scholarship, or at least of some of its conclusions, (In my day, we didn’t need no stinkin’ scholarship — we drew our rigorous conclusions from, like, the vibe we got, man.) The book is analyzed in a blog entry by one of the defenders of the revised view, Paco Vargas.

In his introductory comments, Sr. Vargas offers the expected ridicule of the traditional view (“Those people obsess over how many fighting cocks the [great Gypsy singer] Manuel Torre had”), and he pays the requisite obeisance to “the great Faustino Núñez”, the diligent researcher and intellectual leader of their merry band. Skipping to the end, one finds a summation of the most important conclusions of Sr. Castro Buendía’s book:

- Flamenco music derives from Spain’s the varied and mixed musical tradition, and the sources are the following folkloric forms: fandangos, jotas, seguidillas, romances [ballads] and work songs. Forms that were widespread across the entire nation, and that during the Nineteenth Century – not before – were transformed by Spanish musicians (singers and guitarists) into the first flamenco songs. That is to say – in contradiction of the [fictitious] “Great Flamenco Novel” these songs did not materialize out of nothing in some mysterious way, but are the product of an artistic mutation of certain folkloric styles – not yet flamenco – that already existed.

- The most remote musical antecedents of flamenco are found in the music of the Sixteenth Century with the pasacalles, romanescas and folías); in the Seventeenth Century with the jácaras; and in the Eighteenth Century with guitar music, the most important being the special finger-strumming technique called rasgueado that would become the most important precedent in the development of flamenco guitar. That is to say, we’re talking about “musical precedents” and not flamenco forms or songs; thus, the beginning of flamenco will not be found in prehistory, antiquity or middle age. We insist instead: The mid-Nineteenth Century,

- The Arab musical heritage is unclear and still to be determined. Though historical logic dictates that it must have had its quota of influence upon the formation of flamenco song, that data we have now would tend to discredit it [discartarla] as the base or seed of flamenco.

- The Gypsy people did not bring any music to Spain, and so we must forget the theory of Indian music as an origin of flamenco. The expressive forms and musical elements traditionally associated with the Gypsies – sometimes as a racial thing – were already, like it or not, found in Spain’s popular and folkloric music before their arrival on the Iberian Peninsula. Those were: The Phrygian mode; hoarse, rough voices [“voces afillás”; the mixed binary/ternary rhythm pattern [hemiola or amalgamated compás]; intense expressive pathos; and melismatic singing.

- A deep relationship is noted between flamenco music and the musical styles that came to Spain from the Americas, most notably the zarabandas, chaconas, carios and, most signiciantly, the FANDANGOS, Attention! Not the singable fandangos we know today, but some instrumental and danceable forms that we’ll now discuss

- The influence of black music that arrived directly from Africa is indisputable, The black slaves brought to Spain rhythns, dances and musical styles that were important to the formation of flamenco music,

- Regarding the relationship between academic/formal music with flamenco, Guillermo believes that the infkuence was from esta hacia aquella, and not the other way around, as current thinking in flamencology. Nonetheless, it’s clear that flamenco guitarists assimilated and adapted many techniques of classical guitar such as arpeggio, tremolo, etc,

Summing up, dear readers, this book knocks down many of the myths of the “Great Flamenco Novel”, opening up an indispensable new horizon for properly understanding this art that we all love.

End of excerpt. The original is found at:


Translator’s note: While I’m on the other side of the fence, I have no trouble with a lot of those conclusions and some other points used by the serial debunkers of the old thinking. Skipping around a bit:

I agree with the idea that it’s dicey to claim Arabic music as the seed of flamenco, though there were certainly traces of that seven-century occupation that remained in Andalusia’s musical substrate.

Too many of us Western types, including Spaniards, seem to feel that all other non-Western forms sound the same. Jewish people tell me flamenco singing sounds exactly like their music, people from Pakistan and India tell me the same thing. And sometimes they write books allegedly proving their theories.

I agree with many of the non-Arab influences cited above, both Spanish and European. But the crucial element in flamenco song, to my ears and most others, is that it is non-Western.

Okay — wait. Flamenco song is many things. Some of the more than sixty forms sound one way, some sound very different. The sevillanas are catchy, and I could sing them if I could sing. They, and a lot of other flamenco songs, use the “follow the bouncing ball” approach, where each syllable is a beat/note (unless it’s held for two or more beats/notes.)

(Faustino Núñez, the authority cited above, uses the terrific term “cante silábico” or “syllabic singing” for this common approach that we’re all so used to.)

Equally important: the notes that are sung would be found, or implicit, in the chords that musical Westerners (except a few of us ungifted unfortunates) could readily select for proper accompaniment. In other words, our music is harmony-based, whether or not someone is playing the chords.

The other kind, non-Western, derives its direction from melody alone. It uses a line that rises from the tonic or root note, meanders around for a while without being glued to a clunky rhythm and without committing to an exact pitch for each nominal note, and ultimately descends back to the root.

Obvious examples would be the soleares, siguiriyas and martinetes. These are the flamenco songs that drive normal people to distraction or drive them away. (Inevitable intermission talk: “Why is that horrid man shouting and screaming while the pretty lady is trying to dance?”)


January 22, 2017   No Comments

Flamenco Dancer Antonia Mercé “La Argentina” receives the Cross of Queen Isabella medal – Two 1931 articles – And was she murdered by Spain’s Fascists in 1936? (hey, just sayin’) — translations and comment by Brook Zern

Flamenco Dancer Antonia Mercé “La Argentina” receives the Cross of Queen Isabella medal – Two 1931 articles – And was she murdered by Spain’s Fascists in 1936? (hey, just sayin’) — translations and comment by Brook Zern

The Spanish publication El Sol of December 4, 1931, carried this article:

“The chief of the Government, upon arriving yesterday afternoon at the Congress, spoke a moment with journalists and said: ‘Gentlemen, the only news I have for you is that this morning, as interim minister of the State, I signed a decree awarding the lazo de Isabel la Católica to doña Antonia Mece, “La Argentina”, as recognition of her work in introducing foreign audiences to the pure art of the Spanish dance, for which she has garnered resounding triumphs.”

“Tonight,” Señor Azaña added, “I will have the pleasure of presenting this emblematic artist the award during the event to be celebrated at the Español Theater and in which “La Argentina” will appear for the last time in Madrid.”

“The medal is presented at my behest, and is the first of its type to be given by the Government of the Republic since the new regime took office.”

End of article.

An ABC item from the following day shows the head of Spain’s government, Sr. Azaña, placing the medal on La Argentina.  Caption:  ”The head of the government, Sr. Azaña, during the intermission at the second concert by Antonio Mercé (La Argentina), in the Español Theater, awarded the illustrious artist the Cross of Isabel la Católica.  It is the first condecoración (medal) to be awarded by the Republic.”

Note by Brook Zern:  I translated these from a wonderful Spanish website, www.papelesflamencos.com — aside from the historical interest, I wanted to brag that 77 years later I got the same award, which is given for work done abroad to further interest in Spanish culture.  (Pilar López, sister of La Argentinita who evidently was not related to La Argentina, got the same award — it was always called the Cruz for men, and was often called the Lazo de Dama for women until recently, when it became the unisex Cruz.)

I noticed when translating the articles that this was the first such award granted by the new Republican government headed by Azaña — and wondered if this might have put La Argentina into the bad graces of the Fascist Nationalist government that stole power from the elected Republicans beginning with its invasion in July, 1936.

I immediately dismissed this as my leftist paranoia.  Then, while searching for more info about La Argentina for the “100 Years of Flamenco in New York 1913-2013″ exhibit planned for the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, I looked her up.

Specifically, I turned to the excellent book Una Historia de Flamenco, by the terrific Spanish authority José Manuel Gamboa who has become a friend over countless copitas in the now-defunct El Colmao in Jerez.

And sure enough…or, more precisely, circumstantially enough…here’s his expert info.

First, he cites an announcement of a memorial Mass celebrated in Paris marking the first anniversary of her death on July 18th, 1936.  He then cites an authority named Fernando Collado who wrote: “Her death generated impassioned comments about the cause.  Se asegura [passive voice, "one is assured"] that this genius of dance was poisoned by Fascist espionage agents. ‘Antonia Mercé, thanks to her friendship with General Sanjurjo, died at the orders of the Fascist High Command.’  The Barcelona newspaper La Noche said “On July 15th, Antonia Mercé was in Lisbon, where she talked with General Sanjurjo, who was an old friend.  She was one of just two people who knew that Sanjurjo had to take an airplane on the 19th in order to rendezvous with Franco in Tetuan [to initiate the invasion, moving the generals and their troops from that Morrocan coastal town across the Strait of Gibraltar to southern Spain.]  The other person was the airplane’s pilot.

But then came the accident which killed the general.  Someone claimed that the Spanish dancer belonged to Intelligence Service (in English].  On the 19th, La Argentina was invited to spend the night in the home of a certain aristocrat in Biarritz [on France's northwest coast].  She accepted, and went to the house in the company of the aristocrat, who was a count; a colonel; and an Artillery Captain in the Republican Army who a few days later joined the enemy [it was common for high-ranking officers to switch to the Nationalist side when the Spanish Civil War broke out].   They all arrived at the house together.  At two in the morning, the meal was over and as she got up, Antonia Mercé died as if struck by lightning.”

The article concludes with these words:  ”Throughout our experiences in Madrid during the war, few familiar names were implicated in espionage.  The few we heard, usually anecdotally, were hardly conclusive.  About La Argentina, nothing concerning her death was clear; she was found in a French home after having dined with two Spanish soldiers who went over to the Nationalists.  The speculation may owe more to her fame than to other reasons.”

Gamboa continues:  ”Remember that with the advent of the Second Republic, Azaña awarded her the Gran Cruz de Isabel la Católica.  On the 18th of July of 1936, a Festival of Basque Dances was celebrated in her honor.  According to some, it was after this festival [and not at that dinner] that she felt indisposed, dying on the road as she returned to Bayonne.”

To clarify: The death of Sanjurjo in an apparent air crash as he went to join the invasion forces gathered in Spanish Morocco has always been a mystery.  I think I’ve heard it blamed on Franco, since it eliminated a strong rival for the leadership of the rebellion.  The idea that La Argentina found out about the flight and notified an intelligence service that sabotaged or shot down the plane seems far-fetched, but in millions of eyes, mine included, it would make her a hero and a martyr in the fight against Fascism and Nazism.

(And of course, it would play right into the romantic image of flamenco dancers as femmes fatales, this time with a noble cause.  In other words, it’s such a good story that it must be true.)

Brook Zern — brookzern@gmail.com

February 5, 2013   1 Comment