in conversation with Paul Magnussen
At what age did you get interested in flamenco?
The fact is that I was doing music from very early on. Because in the family with any kind of celebration there was always music, singing and whatever, and I remember being a tiny kid. And relatives and parents always like to show off their children, so they asked me to sing the song of the day.
I remember those times. Some of the kids will always follow the lead of people who are very much in the limelight, those who are famous and who are virtuosos of something or other. And at that time people like Antonio Molina and Juanito Valderrama, and people who sing canciones españolas, were the famous ones that everybody heard on the radio.
I tended to sing songs from those people, and my brother used to say “You’re crazy. You mustn’t sing that, you must sing proper flamenco!” Because he was more committed to the real stuff at that time, and I was obviously just a tiny kid.
Which brother was this?
My only brother, Antonio. I had seven sisters and only my one brother. So becoming properly interested came later; and soon after that I picked up my brother’s guitar, and I started playing the things I heard him play, and so on.
Then I started playing mild flamenco, but really it came a bit later, because soon after that I went to school. There was a group of rondalla (they play melodies and kind of folk things).
Bandurrias and things like that?
Exactly. So anyway, I played the guitar in that group. But that wasn’t flamenco at all, except whenever there was some kind of celebration in the school. Apart from playing with the rondalla and the group in that way, they always asked me to play flamenco as well as a sort of token thing on my own. So my background was in the flamenco scene, but there was something else going on with other types of music.
And then eventually I suppose when I was a bit older (maybe 12) when I reallyI mean, I remember distinctly seeing a guy that I still can see in my memory, walking past my house, playing the guitar: a kid, a bit older than me, playing a falseta.
And to this day it’s the first falseta that I know in Soleares, the first falseta I teach everybody. And that grabbed me so strongly that if I was to put a date when I truly became interested in playing flamenco on the guitar, it was that day and that guy. And I remember even his name, because he was the older brother of another guy who was in school with me, of my age.
So then soon after that, you discover how complex and how beautiful it is, and then you can really join in the fiestas. When people are singing, then you do search much more for what they are doing, and it becomes more serious for you. My brother was happier then.
You must have played with your brother?
Yeah; the only trouble was, we only had one guitar.
That could be a problem, certainly.
It was his guitar I would play, because I was too young, I couldn’t…
But of course there were moments and occasions in which we might have more than one thing going, and obviously we played together.
He was a jolly guy, I mean he was not professional by any means but he was a very creative player. He always did his own thing, and very badly played at times, but really quite rhythmical. And he inspired me.
Were your sisters interested in flamenco?
Well yes, obviously. They all did the singing and the dancing, in amateur circles and family circles as people do. And they sang the songs they heard on the radio and so on. There was no television, there was nothing more. There was no academic learning. You know, it was just sort of part of the community. And part of the community was flamenco, and so they imitated the people they liked, in the same way I did on the guitar.
What about your mother? Because I know she was a very strong influence on you? Did she like flamenco?
Absolutely. I remember when anything was going on (say on the radio), and there was a song being sung, she would actually tell the words, because she knew practically all the songs. Anybody singing a fandango, minera or whatever it was they were singing, she knew the words. It came very deeply from her own background. It’s not that she sang these songs to me, but she knew all those songs and she had a contact with them.
I also know that she was very rhythmical. My mother was a very graceful lady, in the sense that when she was young she used always to be a very happy person in the farm; you know, they were peasants, and everybody liked for her to dance with others in the naïve celebrations of that time.
But then as soon as my father was around he wouldn’t allow any of that. So the point was that I never saw my mother in action in flamenco. But I know for a fact that she was rhythmical, and that she was involved at least in enjoying it.
At that time, did you have any idea of what you were going to do with your life?
Not really. It was fascinating to see stars coming along, even pop stars from America or whatever. And it was a world that really did hit me. I thought it was so mysterious and out of reach for me, but fascinating. I dreamed sometimes of perhaps being part of that world. I could see these people doing wonderful things that I admired, and I dreamed sometimes that I mightif only God were good enough to allow me to be part of that world, but never believing.
So when did you decide to go for it?
That was a bit later. You see during my teenage years, I was actually popular with groups of all kinds, because I could do it, and people wanted me to be with them. So one thing led to another and I actually travelled quite a lot (in a small time kind of way), to small towns and to bigger towns. I remember going to Barcelona, Zaragosa, Salamanca, Madridof course I was part of some organisation, I was part of a representative group of my town.
But nevertheless for me it was a wonderful experience. My aspirations, or my fascination with that world grew and grew.
So one day, I was working in an office and I thought, What I do at night, I want to do more fully. And I just left the office.
What were you doing in the office?
Well, nothing very much. First of all I started in a notary office. But soon I left there and I went to a huge hardware shop in Córdoba: because Córdoba was a very agricultural place, there was a lot of machinery and that kind of thing.
Anyway, the administration of that shop was quite big, there were maybe ten people in the office and I was just one of them, the smallest one I suppose, noting things in books and doing accounts. You know, nothing very much at all.
I was into music very much, so I decided to take the plunge and try to become professional. I remember going to Madrid, I played a few gigs in small-time tavernas and then I went to the Costa Bravajust trying my luck.
So this was still with the rondalla-type thing?
No, accompanying flamenco song and dance. I never did anything important, I was just an accompanist. When I got a job that’s what I did.
Who were your heroes at that time?
Niño Ricardo! Absolutely! Because you see, it’s hard to imagine and it sounds a bit silly; but we were terribly poor and I never heard anything but the radio in the house. I couldn’t go to concerts because there was no money to go to concerts. So if I had friends who had contacts or who knew somebody, that was my only way of getting to know other people, to hear other people and so on.
But Niño Ricardo was all over the place. He was accompanying great singers, Niña de los Peines, even Juanito Valderrama at that time, who remains actually a very good singer. It’s just that his style is not, strictly speaking, the best style in flamenco; but I respect him very much indeed.
Niño Ricardo was touring with people like that, and others; and his records were on the radio a lot. That’s what I heard. And whenever he came, I could never go to the concerts, I mean shows in the theatre.
But there was a peña in Córdoba that was called El Bordón Y La Prima, and friends of that tried to get any star, in the same way that happens now. And Niño Ricardo came. I once saw him there. But I was a kid, there was no contact other than just admiring this great guy.
I suppose the peña doesn’t exist anymore?
No, it doesn’t.
I remember you telling me too, that once your father took you to see Ramon Montoya?
Indeed, yes I remember that distinctly. It is extraordinary, but I have a memory of that [Montoya died in 1949]. I think my memory is strong because the feeling was that it was a very important occasion. I don’t remember the singer, but I remember for some reason the guitar because it was in a very upright position, which I wasn’t used to seeing. I sort of remember the demeanour of that guy, and it was Ramon Montoya. He made some kind of impression on me.
So you turned professional. Then this would be what, the late 50’s?
Do you recall Manuel Morao?
I do indeed. I remember he was once playing in Córdoba in a wonderful place I’m sure you are familiar with, the Palacio de Viana. And there was a big fiesta there, some congress for doctors or something. And Mairena was there singing, and Morao was accompanying him. I think Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera were also there, they left later. But Mairena and Morao were keen to play.
So I remember that occasion. Fantastic! You can imagine those two figures there, and Mairena was a young man, wanting to sing and always very active.
Again, I’ve always been a shy person; I’ve never gone up to these people, done anything that might get me close to them. But being there was very special.
First time I remember seeing was in England in 1963. What made you decide to come?
Well, first of all, I came with one friend of mine; but there were another two friends of mine were here [In England] already. The sister of one of them was married to someone in Brighton (I think it was). And so he decided (as youth does), Let’s go to England. And they called us, and said, “Why don’t you come? You can learn English”, and so on.
So I actually came with another friend and we stayed for awhile. I went to a school to learn English and I did little things in small restaurants. You remember the Havana in Swiss Cottage? The Witch’s Cauldron? Then little cafés and places like that.
The most important thing is when I came with the company of La Camboria. We came to a theatre here, it was a two week run. They asked me to play solo in the company, and it was something which I hadn’t really done before or considered doing.
But anyway, I played solo and the audience loved it. It was really tremendous success. And that stuck in my mind when I went back to Spain, and I was working in the Costa Brava and so on.
One day, for reasons that are really sort of personal reasons, I decided to try a career on my own as a soloist. And that’s when I came to London.
Several people have remarked that English audiences are very good for flamenco, whereas Spanish ones tend to take you for granted.
Yes, and also at that time the guitar was nowhere. The guitar just didn’t exist as a solo instrument in Spain. Just the singers, and the dancers of course are glamorous. But really the development of flamenco is the singing.
Even Ricardo, who was the best guitarist of his day, never made more than a handful of solo recordings, did he?
Exactly. No, it was just not the thing. I don’t know if it was good, bad or whatever.
I was really quite innocent in a way, quite idealistic if you like in being involved with these wonderful people who could sing and dance. And then living with them and being involved with them, I discovered that they were normal human beings; and sometimes, more often than not, I found myself disillusioned with their behaviour. And that actually was quite a shock to me.
For that reason I thought perhaps there was something else to do: and I decided to go solo: I decided to do something better for my life.
They fell off their pedestals?
Exactly. And also the life that I was leading was perhaps not going anywhere. I was making easy money, and really without much prospect of developing properly.
So I decided that a challenge like that was worth trying. And I remembered that the audience in London was ready-made, so kind, so receptive to solo guitar. And I decided that was the place.
So you already had a few contacts in England.
Of course, yes. I had already been playing in Antonio’s restaurant briefly. I don’t mind telling you that I came with a contract to be the main attraction there. So thank God for that, because it allowed me to come into the country.
And then you went back to Spain, but decided to go for it in ’67
And the rest we know, as they say.
Your first record came out on Phillips, is that right?
How did you manage to get that contract to do the record?
Well that’s interesting. When I was in Antonio’s restaurant I accompanied a dancer called El Sali. He was a very exciting dancer to watch, very animalistic and raw. And somebody there was fascinated by the thing we put together and wanted to do a recording. And we did, we did a recording for Decca. I think it was called El Sali and his Ballet Español or something like that. Anyway I played there. And the same man that did that recording moved to Phillips, and he asked me to do a recording for them. That’s how it came about.
Melody Maker reviewed that: they called you “A brilliant young guitarist in the Manitas de Plata class”. I still recall the expression on your faced when I told you about it…
(Laughs). God! Is that what they said? Obviously, Manitas de Plata at that time was a revelationin a way he made a lot of people discover flamenco: it was an exciting, new, exotic sort of music. And to somebody coming up, it was a great compliment (in a way) to be compared to Manitas de Plata.
Of course, people who knew flamenco knew that that Manitas de Plata didn’t have a clue. And of course I also knew that he was a very attractive showman and a very interesting raw kind of guitarist. But as far as flamenco was concerned, I was on a different track altogether, like most people I knew.
And that’s why I laughed, although I know it was intended as a compliment.
Your debut recital, as I recall, was the Wigmore Hall?
And I know the Wigmore is the favourite of most guitarists, because the acoustics are so kind to the guitar; even though there are places built later that are supposedly more scientific. Is it your favourite?
It is a lovely hall. It is so kind. It’s very intimate, and the guitar resounds in such an immediate, beautiful way that you feel very comfortable there. Certainly it’s my favourite in London, for sure, in that sense.
I don’t mind, obviously, playing in the Royal Festival Hall. I mean some people might not like it, but there’s a great dignity in the simplicity of that hall. And it carries, funnily enough. Nowadays I use amplification when I play there, but it carries even if you don’t do that.
It is a bit big.
It is a bit big for the guitar, definitely. I used to play a lot in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and I can handle that without any problem. But the Wigmore has got just something extra. (It’s also quite nerve-wracking, because a lot of debuts have gone on there, and you can imagine how worried one is there.)
But if I have new things to do, I always like to go there and do them.
You were teaching as well at that time.
Yes. The thing is that in order to stay in the country… it was quite difficult, the European Union didn’t yet exist. I had a lot of friends I had acquired here, and they advised me to establish some kind of school; because they thought I could contribute something.
In fact I started a school in the Wigmore Hall studios. And I advertised for people to go there. I was teaching a lot of people at that time. Mainly because it was an income; but apart from that it was a means by which I could stay. These friends of mine wrote letters to the Home Office and so on, to request that I should be allowed to stay in the country because I was contributing with my teaching to something they didn’t have here.
You switched labels to CBS?
CBS was a one-off. After I had some success playing solo, I decided then to go back and do something with a company.
For me it was a very interesting time, because flamenco companies were touring the world and they were becoming a little bit pretentious, I thought. My love for flamenco and the flamenco that I love were one thing; but what I was seeing around was really something else. People felt that flamenco needed perhaps to be more spectacular.
I just felt that to return to the roots of flamenco, to sell flamenco as it is, there was some mileage in that. In fact I believe that flamenco doesn’t need any gimmicks, I think it is commercial just presenting it as it is. And that conviction drew me to start something in a very basic way. Also obviously, due to the fact that I was not a very powerful figure at that time. But to get the Queen Elizabeth Hall, instead of doing a solo concert (which people wanted me to do), I decided No: I’m going to hire very few people and I’m going to do a presentation of the art of flamenco the way it is, the way I see it, the way I feel it. And I did.
So while I was preparing that show, somebody became interested in doing a recording of it. But it was not possible to do it in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; so the next day, we just went the studio and did some things in the studio for CBS. That’s how that recording came about.
One thing I remember at that time, and I’m sure you remember as well: there was a “Guitar-In” where they had representatives of all different styles of guitar music…
And you played on the same stage with Jimi Hendrix.
But I remember you telling me that at that time, your mind was somewhere else, and you didn’t actually become interested in Jimi Hendrix until later.
Well, exactly, yes. In fact really it would be more true to say that I was very ignorant about what was going on in the world of Jimi Hendrix and so on. I was concerned with doing something myself; and therefore perhaps I just didn’t have sufficient time, or I didn’t develop an interest for other cultures in music. So I was quite ignorant.
But then after that I saw a very important human being doing something very important. And subsequently then I became interested.
How did the invitation to teach at Castres come about?
From my angle, simply because Robert Vidal asked me. I think I had played somewhere in France, and he had seen me. And he simply asked me if I wanted to go and teach in his festival, and play.
So absolutely, I was delighted to go. He was someone that I considered was very committed to the true art of flamenco. He even had a radio station in France where he conducted serious discussions about flamenco. So he was a great guy, as far as I could tell, so I was honoured and delighted.
Was he the first to bring together guitar teachers and pupils from all over the world?
I think that’s probably the case. In that sense he was a visionary, and very likeable; a very agreeable sort of fellow. He got friends from all over the place. And I don’t mind saying that coming to that festival initially, actually focussed my mind on a… How can I put it? On a philosophy of teaching, an approach to bringing flamenco in a sensible way to people. Because I had been doing it on my own for a long time. But I think that going there, I decided I was going to organise it systematically, in areas.
I decided to make a curriculum that I was going to follow. And I think from then on I became much more organised, in deciding my technique and the way I have to transmit it to others, and analysing what flamenco style are. From then on, a lot has happened; but I think it began there.
You’re one of the few teachers I’ve come across who has actually analysed flamenco. For instance, you can say that a particular falseta of Fandangos starts on beat 11, whereas other teachers can only tell you It starts here.
That’s actually quite complex. Because it has a melodic idea going in the compás which resolves in a different place from the raw rhythm itself. It’s difficult to explain verbally, but there is a basic beat 1-2-3, 1-2-3, with a heavy accent on the 1, that doesn’t coincide with the harmonic contents of the compás itself. In other words the resolution falls in a different place from these heavy beats.
Anyway, analysing that, I discovered really a lot of things, and that’s how I decided: not just, the falseta begins here, but where is here? That beat is not number 9, it is number 11. That, and many other things, I decided spontaneously, myself.
I remember you telling me that France was not really the right atmosphere for learning flamenco and that’s why you decided to found your own festival in Córdoba.
Yes. If I got the idea of organising a proper flamenco method from Castres, I’m grateful for it to Vidal. But I also looked at the situation in Spain, in Córdoba, in Andalucía. There was no festival of guitar anywhere.
And so I decided I could do even better than Castres, and start something in my home town in flamenco-land, and kind of build a bridge between the rest of the world and Andalucía. That’s how I went about it: I decided that the true atmosphere of Andalucía was even better to learn, to really appreciate flamenco, for all those people from all those countries. And indeed it was proved right, because so many people came.
Did you fund that entirely yourself in those early days, or did you apply for funding from the Ayuntamiento?
Well, both! I applied for funding but I got none! I did fund it entirely myself: even to the extent of putting on concerts, engaging people always from Córdoba, because I didn’t have money for anything else. The concerts were open to the public: you didn’t have to buy a ticket, I just offered it to the town. So I paid the artists, but the audience didn’t have to pay. So really I was making an effort to build something there.
Eventually the authorities became aware of what a good idea it was, and they became more interested and more supportive.
And then the Festival grew, didn’t it? It came to embrace Classical Guitar as well.
Yes. You know what close friends John Williams and I are. And that opportunity, obviously, of having John come to Córdoba… I mean, I thought the guitar was abandoned. A true event of guitar in Spain didn’t exist. I have learned such a lot from mixing with classical guitarists, not least to appreciate the classical guitar.
So I wanted to introduce that there: and being a good friend of John’s, I thought I might get him to come. And he did come, indeed.
I launched that in 1983 and obviously it was a great success. So the Festival from then on included Classical Guitar.
Do you still do the Festival?
No, not any more.
Did it become too much work?
It was too much work. I mean, I hardly slept during that time. And the responsibility was very very great: You can imagine poor Karin, my wife, was looking after so many things and wanting to please so many peoplebecause she is that kind of person. And, having to deal with people who were dissatisfied with one thing or another, it was really a very serious amount of work.
And after a while, you’ve done it: the Festival is successful, the Authorities want it. So that’s fine! They can have it.
So it’s still going on in your absence?
How did you come to meet John?
I met him just before I started my company. It was an event in the Roundhouse (I forget the organisation that was doing it) that was to do with breaking down of racial taboos. It was a kind of support for racial integration and that sort of thing.
They invited me to participate in this charity, and I did, and John was involved with that as well. So that’s how I met him.
And obviously you’ve become great friends. Have you learned things from each other musically? And if so, what?
If you ask me, I certainly have learned from John. I don’t know if I have anything to teach John, but certainly I have learned a fantastic amount. You see, I admired John right from the beginning: I admired his control, his ability to do what he wants to do on the instrument at any time. That to me was fascinating and exciting, and something to emulate if I could.
But quite apart from that, I think that John has a maturity about all kinds of aspects of music. In discussion, and simply listening to him, I have awakened to so many things that I didn’t suspect before.
So in fact the way I perform, the way I approach flamenco pieces has to do with the learning that has gone on from people like John. Because he resolves musical phrasing and interpretation in such a beautiful way that it teaches me a lesson. And I try to do that in my own field, which was very disorganised prior to that. I mean, I’m not saying that (for example) Niño Ricardo had a disorganised way of playing. But by and large flamenco guitarists didn’t look for subtletythey just played, in quite a rough way.
That was fine, for what it was. But I wanted to do better and to go further; and I think in that sense John was a wonderful model to follow; and I certainly learned a lot from him.
You are in fact a closet classical guitarist, aren’t you.
Not at all! (Laughs).
I’ve heard you! You can play pieces that you’ve seen John play two or three times.
Well, I do like it very much, but I could never pretend to be a classical guitarist.
Funnily enough one of the first people that taught me a lot of classical pieces was Juan Tejeiro. I knew him many, many years ago and I’m sure he’ll remind you that he was very interested in flamenco, and equally I was very interested in classical. And he actually taught me a great deal, a lot of pieces in a very charming kind of way that to this day I remember.