Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Guitarist Carlos Montoya

A New World to Conquer: How The Flamenco Guitar Took Manhattan and America – by Brook Zern

A New World to Conquer:
How The Flamenco Guitar Took Manhattan and America

Note:  This was written for inclusion in the elegant catalog that accompanied the Lincoln Center Library Exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York”

Flamenco music, a product of Spain’s southern region of Andalusia, has a mixed pedigree at best.  It started with some distinctive songs that packed an emotional wallop – songs that first drew public and press attention in the mid-Nineteenth Century but may have been brewing long before that.

Inevitably, the music reflected the mélange of peoples and cultures that had defined the area – Celts, Vandals, Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, the Moors who occupied the region from 711 until 1492, and the Gypsies who had wandered from India to the western end of the then-known world.

Inevitably, too, Spain’s glorious folk and formal dance traditions meant that a new style of movement would arise, appropriate to the specific rhythms and emotional mysteries of these song forms.

And Spain’s emblematic instrument, the guitar, was on hand to provide the rhythmic underpinning and melodic support to hold it all together.

Flamenco was ready for its close-up.  By the 1870’s, it had coalesced into a distinctive style of singing, dancing and guitar accompaniment that would be immediately recognizable today.  By the early 1900’s, flamenco consisted of more than fifty forms, each defined by a specific rhythm, key and melodic structure – and each with its own emotional landscape.

But flamenco wasn’t finished creating itself.  A few Spanish visionaries shared an impossible dream – a dream of appearing alone in a spotlight in a concert hall, and distilling each flamenco form into nothing more or less than a blaze of music emerging from a single guitar.

One was from Madrid in the center of Spain, one from Alicante on the Eastern coast, and one from Pamplona.  All were beginning professional journeys that would lead them to Eighth Avenue and 55th Street in Manhattan, give or take a block or two.

Why was this strange self-exile an intrinsic element in the creation of the concert flamenco guitar?  Because Spain wasn’t interested.  In Spain, everyone knew that the guitarist was simply a supporting player, hired to enable the nation’s star flamenco singers and dancers to shine.

A flamenco guitarist in the spotlight?  On a concert stage?  Absurd.  Where were the real artists?  It was as if – well, in American terms, it was as if a blues musician had decided his instrument was so fine, so complete, so evocative  that he didn’t need to sing at all, but instead would give two-hour concerts of incessant guitar.  All by itself.

As for flamenco guitar solos, well, Spaniards knew you’d have to be crazy to voluntarily sit through twenty of them.  Or – is this so different? – you’d have to be an American.

Americans loved flamenco dance, all right.  That art, or its Spanish-dance predecessors including classical and bolero-style dancing, had been packing us in since before the Civil War, and by the 1940’s New York City was infested with the troupes and troopers who would become legends – the incomparable Barcelona-born Carmen Amaya, Pilar Lopez and La Argentinita from guess-where, the young Brooklyn-born José Greco, and dozens of other lesser lights.

On the other hand, Americans hated serious flamenco singing.  That may seem like an overstatement, but even today, with our professed love of diversity and tens of thousands of hours of reggae and salsa on the air every year, you will not find serious flamenco singing on American radio, anywhere, ever.  And since flamenco song is far too assertive to generate indifference, the remaining response is outright distaste.

(One of the few U.S. records of flamenco singing, from the early LP days of stereo and sound effects, was titled “Music to Speed the Parting Guest”, and it did exactly that.)

Enter the pioneers of the concert flamenco guitar.  The most successful figure was a Gypsy from Madrid who had already made a name for himself accompanying many of the greatest dancers of his time.  His name was Carlos Montoya, and his uncle thought his playing was inferior.  This might not normally be a problem, but in this case it should have been catastrophic.

His uncle was named Ramón Montoya, and he held the patent on flamenco guitar.  Starting around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Ramón Montoya had solidified the still amorphous sound of the instrument into dozens of distinctive guitar forms.  He had raised the previously lax technical standards of flamenco into the realm of genuine virtuosity, and had also introduced new mechanisms borrowed from the classical guitar, notably arpeggios and tremolos.

Ramón was revered as an accompanist, and was sought out by the greatest divo in the the history of flamenco, Don Antonio Chacón – that “Don” was an unprecedented honorific in an art form, flamenco, that was usually associated with low-lifes, alcoholics and worse.

Ramón was the towering progenitor of this art form, and in 1936 he made the first flamenco guitar album – not in Madrid, but in Paris.  There was simply no audience for this in Spain, and he returned to the role of backup man.

Carlos Montoya, born in 1903, had a broader ambition.  In Spain, he accompanied many leading dancers and singers.  Then, in an unusual career move for a Gypsy, he joined the army – knowing this would entitle him to passport when he got out.   Soon he was touring the world with great dancers including La Argentina, La Argentinita, Pilar López, La Malena, La Macarrona, Vicente Escudero, Antonio de Bilbao, Faíco and Carmen Amaya – it is reasonably certain that no other guitarist has ever appeared with such an illustrious array of dance figuras.

He finally settled in New York with his Scottish-American wife Sally, who had a love of flamenco and a gift for promotion.  He began building a concert career, and his success was phenomenal.  He radiated charisma, connecting with new audiences who simply assumed that a flamenco guitar concert was the most natural thing in the world.

Montoya’s solo career coincided with the advent of the long-play record; in 1950, he made the world’s first flamenco LP for Folkways records in New York, and by the end of the century he had made at least fifty more for many labels.  The records were so ubiquitous that nearly every young American who became obsessed with flamenco guitar would say it was a Carlos Montoya record that ignited the passion.  The concerts and recordings were a potent combination, mutually reinforcing Montoya’s astounding public impact.  At the peak of his fame, he filled entire stadiums – an achievement never equaled by other soloists.

Carlos Montoya was the world’s most successful flamenco concert artist.  In 1973, at the Spanish Institute, I had the honor of introducing him on his 25th year as a soloist as he was presented with Spain’s Order of Civil Merit.   In 1983, he celebrated his 80th birthday with a Carnegie Hall concert that marked the culmination of his career.

But you can’t have everything, and in the flamenco business there is no necessary correlation between public adulation and insider admiration.   For initiates, Carlos’s playing was sometimes interesting but often imprecise and efectista – straining for effect at the expense of substance.

In fact, these people knew the greatest flamenco virtuoso of the era was also living in New York.

It had been a long, strange trip.  He was born in the Spanish city least likely to generate a flamenco artist, and indeed there is no sign it ever produced another.  Pamplona is the beating heart of the Basque country, where secessionism runs strong and Spanish can feel like a foreign language.

But in 1912, when Agustín Castellón was five, someone gave him a guitar.  Since no one played flamenco in Pamplona, he started listening to records and copying the guitarists.

He acquired his nickname from his childhood love of beans – habas, diminutively called habicas.  He was playing onstage at eight years old, and accompanying important singers in his teens.  In his early twenties he was Sabicas, which is to say he was the most adept flamenco guitarist in the world.

With his beloved brother Diego, he left Spain in 1936 to tour South America and Mexico as part of the company of the fabulous Carmen Amaya – two geniuses at the pinnacle of their art, squandering sheer magic wherever they went.

By the mid-fifties, Sabicas had settled in New York City and begun laying the foundation for a solo career.  It was his Town Hall concert of May 22, 1959 that amazed the audience and stunned the critics, who stated that for the first time, we were in the presence of a true flamenco guitar virtuoso.

He went from triumph to triumph, and his records were a revelation.  In 1959, his first LP, Flamenco Puro, provided marching orders for hopeful players in America and gradually filtered into Spain to reset the bar for every player who aspired to true virtuosity.

(I had started studying flamenco guitar in 1959, continuing a family tradition started by my Pennsylvania Dutch father in the mid-1940’s.  I learned from him and then from his teacher, Fidel Zabal, a fine Spanish player and a good friend of Sabicas whose material he showed to my father and to me.  Two years later, I was studying guitar in Spain with a noted professional – hoping to find “real” flamenco material – when he asked what I already knew.

“Nothing special,” I said apologetically.  “Just stuff from Sabicas.”

His jaw dropped.  “What!?  You know the music of Niño Sabicas!?  My god, how we have missed him.  Don’t move!”

He picked up his phone.  A half-hour later, I was surrounded by a half-dozen professional players, laboriously but correctly showing them Sabicas’s great falsetas (melodic variations) – which they immediately and joyously re-rendered in a way I could only envy and never equal.)

Sabicas ruled the realm of solo flamenco guitar for several decades, virtually unchallenged.  But he soon had worthy company – a younger compañero and escudero (the Spanish word means squire or shield-bearer, and refers to a knight’s right-hand man) appropriately named Mario Escudero.

Mario was inevitably overshadowed by his idol, but he was a genius in his own right, as demonstrated by his many fine recordings including breathtaking historic duets with the maestro.  His approach to guitar had a more classical sensibility, reflecting his prowess in that area.  For years, his presence and his personality graced the New York guitar scene.

Sabicas, meanwhile, continued his illustrious concert career, and sometimes played in the intimate Chateau Madrid in midtown.  His guitar had an unequalled clarity and sonority, his seemingly effortless technique set new standards, and his mastery of flamenco’s fiendishly difficult metric/rhythmic system called compás was absolute.  He created hundreds of superb falsetas, treasured and traded by lesser guitarists everywhere.

He also kept his hand in as an accompanist, making records with singers including Domingo Alvarado, Enrique Montoya and Dolores Vargas.  He never learned English – his guitar did the communicating.

But no one reigns forever.  And on a Manhattan evening in 1965 some local artists and aficionados took an eighteen-year-old phenomenon to meet the maestro.  The new kid on the block had been called Paco de Algeciras before he wisely switched that home-town moniker for his mother’s name and became Paco de Lucía.

The famous New York-based dancer José Greco, who had the wisdom to work surrounded by superb artists (including El Farruco, widely considered the finest male flamenco dancer of the last half-century), had brought Paco to town, as he had a few years before.

Sabicas listened to him play.  Like nearly every other Spanish guitarist of the era, Paco was hugely influenced by the brilliant and endlessly inventive Niño Ricardo.  Sabicas, possibly with a tinge of jealousy, told Paco to stop copying Ricardo and to find a different response to the challenge.

Paco took that advice to heart, and a few years later he had casually transcended all previous technical limitations, and was devising a new concept of how the instrument should sound.  In fact, he was even criticizing his venerable elders, including Sabicas himself, for their failure of nerve in merely polishing instead of reconceiving the flamenco guitar.

Paco would soon return to the Big Apple, billed as “the Paganini of the guitar”. A few months ago I wrote a blog entry for my website describing that event:

In 1970 or 1971, Paco de Lucia played in the small auditorium of the Spanish Institute in New York.  Afterwards, Sabicas went backstage to talk to Paco, alone.  Maybe I was reading into it, but I felt I was witnessing the passing of the torch — though that didn’t mean that Sabicas actually liked what Paco was doing, music-wise.

But the true media star of that predominantly brunette evening was the towheaded Andy Warhol, accompanied by some Velvet Undergrounders and other denizens from the Factory.  Warhol stood in the back, dressed in black, with that expressionless lizard look of his, but you could tell he was impressed by Paco’s playing, or his persona.  (The young Paco could seem almost eerily beautiful, I thought.  I took pictures of them both, but they didn’t come out.)

I had been shilling for the concert on Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, playing cuts from Paco’s “Fabulosa Guitarra” and “Fantasia Flamenca” LP’s, but nobody seemed to notice.  I was impressed that Warhol had the zeitgeistiness to somehow glom onto to this newest world-class musical genius.

(In the film “I Shot Andy Warhol”, about the woman who did exactly that and almost killed him, there is some flamenco guitar music played by Paco Juanas, a veteran New York player.  At a Spanish restaurant many years later, Paco Juanas let me sit in with him for a rendition of Paco de Lucia’s amazing alegrias in E minor when Sabicas walked in.  I quickly switched to one of Sabicas’s finest falsetas, entrusted to me by Fidel Zabal in 1960, but it was too late.  For the first time, the man we always called maestro seemed disappointed in my taste in flamenco guitar music.)

Not long after that blog post, I received a lovely note from Paco de Lucia’s son, Francisco Sánchez Varela.  He said that Paco had in fact been given a picture of himself with Andy Warhol, and that he treasured it and was very upset to have lost it, and that he hoped I might have another such photo.  I really wish those pictures had come out.

Indeed, Paco’s new vision quickly prevailed, nearly eradicating the wide and wonderful array of pre-existing approaches to the instrument.  Soon his endless search for new answers led him to explore other musical styles – most notably, jazz.

And with that small step, or giant leap, the days of the solo flamenco guitar were numbered.  For Paco so loved the idea of jazz ensembles that he hired some talented sidemen – horn players, percussionists, bassists, saxophonists, electric guitarists and anyone else who fit his musical mood of the the moment.

Today an ambitious first-rank flamenco guitarist in New York or anywhere else will not go onto a stage alone – or won’t remain alone after the first number or two.  Instead, he will be fronting a sextet or septet, subsuming his personal genius and the sound of his guitar into a musical mélange that, for better or worse, is the new context of instrumental flamenco.

I once spoke to Sabicas about this evolving turn of events.  He clearly considered it an unintended consequence of his long-ago intervention, expressing continued admiration for Paco’s genius but reservations about this new aesthetic.

Yet there was an almost palpable paternal pride in his words.  He picked up a guitar and showed how some of Paco’s key innovations were firmly based on his own prior revelations.

Sabicas knew that his advice on that fateful New York night had forever determined the future of his chosen art.

Brook Zern

February 3, 2014   2 Comments