The “flamenco troubadour”

During the Christmas break, we went to see some friends in Jerez, and took a long walk in the town centre. As I was walking through the famous neighbourhood of La Plazuela, I was thinking how the worst moment to learn about the existence of someone is the moment they stop existing. Unfortunately, this is what happened to me with Manuel Molina.

On the 19th of May 2015 I heard that Manuel Molina has sadly passed away. Intrigued by the fact that I could not recall any of his songs, I immersed myself in his Youtube videos. Although I have heard about the duo “Lole y Manuel” before and I knew Manuel was the guitarist there, I was surprised to find so many videos of him singing by himself. When I learned that he not only sang, but wrote songs, I started to pay attention to the lyrics, and soon could confirm what the obituaries said: Manuel Molina was not only a guitarist, but also a singer, a composer and an outstanding poet!

Or as some like to call him: a “flamenco troubadour”.

Going back to his beginnings: Manuel Molina Jiménez was born in 1948 in the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta in a gypsy family. He took his first guitar lessons from his father, who was a flamenco guitarist known as “El Encajero”. When Manuel was still young, the family moved to the coastal city of Algeciras -where Manuel’s father was from and – where Manuel met the adolescent Paco de Lucía. Funny to think now, more than half a century later, when Paco de Lucía is internationally known as one of the greatest flamenco guitarists of all times -and Manuel is not- that at the peak of his popularity, Manuel used to hire Paco as his support act in sold-out concerts across Spain…

Not much after Manuel’s family moved to Algeciras, they moved again, this time to Seville, where they settled in the famous Triana neighbourhood. In Seville, Manuel first formed part of a group called “Los gitanillos del Tardón”, then in 1968, at the age 20 he joined the rock band “Smash”, considered to be pioneer in the so called ‘andalusian rock’ (“rock andaluz”). In Smash he first started “blending” -as he called it- different music styles with flamenco. 

The breakthrough or call it big success came to his life when he started performing with Lole in 1972, forming the duo “Lole y Manuel”. Lole, born as Dolores Montoya Rodríguez in Seville, comes from a gypsy family with flamenco roots: her father was a dancer and her mother, known as “La Negra”  (‘The Black’) was a singer and a dancer. Lole and Manuel not only formed an artistic duo, but they also became emotionally involved, got married in 1975 and had a daughter, Alba Molina, who also became a singer.

Although their marriage didn’t last, “Lole y Manuel” have become one of the most popular musical groups in modern Spanish history, topping music charts throughout the 1970’s, making flamenco a bestseller. Manuel experimented with new rhythms and created his own unique style of accompanying song and dance, while Lole sang with a clearer, more melodic voice that was common at the time. This “hippie flamenco” combination has become an instant hit with young Spaniards. No wonder, Anto remembers listening to them so much as a child. My father-in-law, Antonio explained how Lole and Manuel changed the perception of flamenco for his entire generation. Earlier, flamenco was regarded as music of the past, but thanks to Lole and Manuel, the generation of my father-in-law, youngsters in the 1970s, started to listen to this ‘new flamenco’ (“nuevo flamenco”). Lole and Manuel opened the door to a new type of flamenco fusion.

The release of their first album, “Nuevo Día” happened to be around the time when Franco was dying in 1975, and it proved to be very timely as it matched the hopeful spirit of the period, not least because the title means ‘New Day’. More albums followed, together with some sort of international recognition when Quentin Tarantino used their track “Tu Mirá”  in his 2004 film Kill Bill: Volume 2.

After their split as a couple in the 1980’s, the artistic collaboration only continued sporadically, but Manuel’s career hasn’t stopped there. He continued to perform: either having his own performances, singing and playing the guitar, or accompanying famous dancers like Farruquito or Manuela Carrasco. Later on, he formed an artistic duo with his daughter, Alba.

On all those YouTube videos I watched after the news of his death, I noticed how he holds the guitar differently from any other contemporary guitar player I have seen. Manuel held the guitar vertically, almost hugging it, turning his face towards the guitar, instead of holding it horizontally, leaning on the guitar or sometimes turning away from the guitar. I learned that the holding the guitar horizontally is a style revolutionised by Paco de Lucía, which was adopted by majority of his time, as it is a more comfortable way of holding the guitar and it allows for quicker, virtuous movements with the right hand. The “old school” way of vertically holding the guitar has become a characteristic and peculiarity of Manuel.

The diagnosis of terminal cancer in the winter of 2014 and the fact that Manuel decided not to get any medical treatment put a quick end to his life. He died a few months after the diagnosis, in May 2015. “Money,” he said, “is the real cancer. And the rest—lack of understanding, power, egoism—is the metastasis.”

His legacy includes both words and music. Before he died he has been working on putting all his poems together in a 600-page-book, but unfortunately, I have no information whether it ever got published…

There is a short documentary on Youtube, made by Tao Ruspoli with & about Manuel, available here.

The obituary written by Jason Webster in the Classical Guitar magazine in the Fall of 2015  sums it brilliantly:

“Joyful, independent, and unique, he died in much the way that he lived—uncompromising, always forging his own path, quintessentially flamenco. No one better could write his epitaph:
Let no one cry the day I die;
It’s more beautiful to sing,
Even if the song comes with pain

These lyrics are from Manuel, he famously performed it before he died, resulting in a moving and beautiful song. It should come at no surprise that the above is one of my favourite songs of Manuel. Listen to it here to say farewell to one of the most authentic flamenco musicians of the XX. century.

 

Discovering the guitar

The other day I have realised – almost by accident – that the flamenco I have lately listened to, is fully dominated by guitar albums. This is probably an after effect of having just read a book about Paco de Lucía…

Throughout the years, as I have been discovering flamenco and it’s artists, I first found interest in getting to know the dancers (‘bailaores y bailaoras’). Without doubt the visual experience of the dance is the most catchy, especially for new audiences. Then my attention turned to the singers (‘cantaores y cantaoras’), trying to understand the words, recognising the different ‘palos’. Flamenco is the collective name of the art but there are many different forms within. It was an adventurous journey getting to know these forms: starting from the more joyful alegrías, bulerías, tangos, cantiñete, to the more sorrow soleá, malagueña, seguiriya, martinete, toná and so on. There are lots of different categorisations and names of the ‘palos’ (‘cante grande’, ‘cante chico’, ‘canciónes de ida y vuelta’, ‘quejío’ etc.) but I don’t think it is necessary to know these to be able to enjoy the music.

Only after the dancers and singers, I am now exploring the guitar players (‘guitarristas’) and I am discovering excellent artists and albums.

Just to mention a few:

  • The last album of Rafael Riqueni: ‘Parque de María Luisa‘, María Luisa Park ‘es una delicia’ as the Spanish would say. Delightful. The guitar imitating the sound of the birds is astounding.
  • The last album of Vicente Amigo ‘Memoria de los sentidos’ is amazing but the song ‘Requiem‘ dedicated to Paco de Lucía is just breathtaking.
  • ‘Palo Santo’ is the latest album of Dani Casares and the atmosphere of Easter (‘Semana Santa’) is wonderfully transmitted.
  • I really like Manuel Molina , although I wouldn’t categorise him as a guitar player only, he sings and he writes his lyrics, as well. If you listen to his songs, he is a true poet!

I haven’t listened so much to the old maestros Ramón Montoya or Niño Ricardo but more to Diego del Gastor and Sabicas accompanying singers of their time. I recently bought an album of Enrique Morente and Sabicas and it’s also wonderful. And without trying to list all of the guitarists, just a few I like: Pedro Bacán, Moraíto, Diego del Morao, Antonio Rey, Manolo Sanlúcar and Santiago Lara.

The first guitar album I was ever able to appreciate on its own was ‘Sentimientos’, Emotions from Santiago Lara. Santi is married to the dancer Mercedes Ruiz and they create and perform together. I have always been a big fan of Mercedes and her traditional dance from Jerez and through her, I got to know Santi and his music. Very pleasant on a Saturday afternoon while reading on the couch and listening to the raindrops on the window (yes, I live in London).

And even though I haven’t mentioned the other instrument players present in today’s flamenco, I haven’t forgotten about them! Artists like the pianist, Dorantes, drummers like Piraña and Javi Ruibal and the saxophonist Jorge Pardo are also important. Since the revolution initiated by Camarón and Paco de Lucía, flamenco is not restricted to the trio of singer-dancer-guitarist and other, new instruments have greatly added to the beauty of this music.