Writings and essays about flamenco

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!


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