Classical and Flamenco guitars from the best luthiers
Malaga is beautifully situated on the Costa del Sol, the most desirable seashore destination in Spain. To me, it is little more than a jumping-off point to all of southern Spain’s attractions, the way Madrid used to be a portal to all of Spain’s attractions until I stopped to smell the roses one day (literally) and have since enjoyed a few different tours of all the flower city had to offer. I hope to have the time to appraise Malaga similarly in the future, but on previous visits, it was only a fly-in fly-out airport. On this trip, there was at least a quick tour of the Atarazanas Central Market on the schedule.
What is today a huge glass-roofed showcase of local seafood, meat, and produce, is entered through a Moorish gate which was once the city gate through fortifications that no longer exist. It is a reminder that centuries ago this was originally an Arabian shipyard that had many uses before Eiffel designed its iron and glass reincarnation in the 19th century. Visit the building, then stay for the food.
And we did. What started as a short tour became a long lunch, as plates of food from the various vendors began appearing with glasses of beer and wine. It was a perfect way to wash 20 hours of dull airline food from our culinary memories, to be replaced by the freshest and finest of local ingredients presented by smiling, welcoming people. The busker playing the accordion on the patio reminded us that our musical journey was beginning in style.
Linares / Jaen
From Malaga, we drove north to Linares, just outside of Jaen, where Andres Segovia was born. He is the best-known guitarist in the classical music world, the one who legitimized the guitar as a concert instrument. Before his death in 1987, he’d achieved more honors in his nearly century of life than any other Spanish musician, culminating in King Juan Carlos bestowing the title ”Marqués de Salobreña” to honor his musical contributions to Spanish culture.
In a quote recognizing his Spanish roots with a reference to Don Quixote, it was said of him that “Andres Segovia was a man riding music, and his guitar was Dulcinea.” I loved that literary reference to the man as much as I did this culinary reference: “A Cookbook for Guitarists” with his name on the cover. We got to see these and many more mementos from his life at the Andres Segovia Museum, which was created by a bequest from his estate.
While there we heard a guitar concert which was remarkable, for me, because all the musicians were Japanese, a race that reveres flamenco music almost as much as the Spanish do. Featured were Takeshi Tezuka on guitar and Yoko Takaki playing the piano. The concert included no dancing, and no compositions by Segovia even though it was his house (!) but was beautifully played in a simple salon setting.
The original program called for Segovia’s “Estudio sin luz”, something I was excited to hear, but at the last minute there was a change, and it was whispered to me that the Segovia piece was eliminated from the program because “he wasn’t that good a composer.” Now you know the inside track I move on.
After a tapas dinner, which became our typical fare for nearly the whole trip, we spent the night comfortably at the Santiago Hotel. Since I rarely sleep on planes, I was up a full 36 hours by the time I got into bed. That’s probably why I started to develop flu-like symptoms the next day.
From Linares, we drove to Granada, a city that is home to 43 master craftsmen who build some of the finest guitars in the world. It was here that Antonio de Torres Jurado (Torres) learned his craft and perfected the modern guitar design. Segovia performed on Torres’ guitars. The Guitar Making School of Granada grew up around Torres’ and Segovia’s pioneering work and is still going strong today. Without it, the classical and flamenco musicians Spain is famous for could not exist.
We checked into the Hotel Aurea Catedral, our nice, centrally located bed for the night, before walking to meet Manuel Bellido, one of the most famous of living luthiers. He graciously invited us into his workshop where he and his two sons still hand-build guitars. There were walls of chisels and planes of various sizes, some handmade by Manuel, with molds to help shape the guitar walls, and racks of various guitar pieces waiting to be assembled.
We visited another luthier’s studio, John Ray, who is editing the new edition of the classic: “La escuela granadina de guitarreros” or “The Granada School of Guitar Makers”. He explained that it takes about four months for him to make a custom guitar and that the flamenco guitars are lighter, with different interior braces than a classical guitar. Here is a video of him explaining how he does it.
We also met the venerable Antonio Marin Montero in his cigarette-smoke-filled tiny workshop, whose early skills earned him a place under the masters of his time, and whose instruments are widely sought after today.
No visit to Granada is complete without a tour of the Alhambra. Built and added to over centuries, there are palaces upon palaces, with gardens, fountains, hedges, intricate tile work, and elaborate carvings and paintings on many levels to be studied, enjoyed, and gawked over. Visits are by appointment booked way in advance, so plan ahead to see this truly spectacular hilltop compound.
At Venta El Gallo, one of the gypsy caves dug into the hillside across from the Alhambra housing a restaurant and performance space, we met Manuel Fernando before the evening’s performance. He demonstrated some flamenco guitar riffs before allowing each of us to hold the instrument and feel the resonance it made through our bodies. He was an engaging and willing teacher. That thrilling experience as we sat around the dinner table waiting for food, made his later performance all the more vibrant and captivating.
From Granada, we drove to Cadiz on the southern shore of Spain. This was because I wanted to see the city, not for anything to do with guitars or flamenco. We walked along the windy beachfront for a bit, and through a botanical garden which was more of an arboretum with such magnificent trees! But my flu was getting worse, so I retired to the El Faro restaurant to sip some medicinal sherry and wait for our crew to tour the cathedral and regroup for lunch. This is a great local restaurant, worth a visit when you are in town. Order their specialty – fish baked in salt – and enjoy the presentation as much as the food. Here is a link to a video called “The Last Supper”, a reference to our recreation of the famous painting, that includes the salt-baked fish.
After lunch, we drove to nearby Jerez de la Frontera to check into the most interesting Palacio de Anima Hotel. Buried deep in the cobblestone alleys of the old town, this felt more like a friend’s Paris apartment or French Chateau. It was a charming home with a covered courtyard, the walls filled with art partly hidden behind towering palms, with architectural details and objects d’ art creatively filling all the spaces between. The rooms were high-ceilinged and big and decorated exquisitely. Truly a lovely and comfortable urban oasis.
Manuel Lozano Gomez
There are cultural associations of flamenco lovers called penas, often founded by or focusing on a flamenco luminary. One we visited, the Pena Los Cernicalos & Carbonero School of Flamenco, was founded in 1969. It is the oldest in the region and the third oldest in the world. There we met flamenco guitarist Manuel Lozano Gomez, who performed as “El Carbonero” for five decades. His is the school in the pena’s title. He’s taught generations of students, some of his family, and has a long legacy of building the interest in flamenco we see today. He’s known for playing uplifting energetic dance songs and ballads, not the slow lament others may be known for. His shy smile and inquisitive eyes showed him to be an intelligent and caring performer. I hope has many more years to spread his kindness and wisdom and talent.
But it was not all just guitars. We visited the sherry maker Antonio Espinosa de Los Monteros in Jerez. Ostensibly it was to tour his guitar museum upstairs over the winery with more than 100 guitars and stringed instruments. Danny Gil Romero (Danny G to his flamenco followers) showed us around the huge area and then seated us for a brief lesson and performance. He has an engaging way in a space most conducive to good music. Downstairs the International Gold Medal award-winning sherry was fabulous! This is small-batch sherry, with a very limited number of cases available for sale, a glass of which sells for as much as 100 euros a glass! It was a most satisfying taste.
Paco Cepero, at 80 years old, is the oldest and most famous flamenco guitarist we met. He’s performed worldwide in solo concerts, with the top flamenco artists of his time, and composed and recorded with them as well. He’s the only musician we met who did not play (or dance or sing) for us. Instead, he joined us for the by-now ubiquitous tapas meal, and over sherry proved to be a fantastic raconteur. He charmed us with stories around the table at Casa Palacio Maria Luisa, while the attentive waitstaff kept our plates and glasses filled.
Tomas Moreno Romero
To keep flamenco alive and in the hearts and minds of younger generations, we learned that the older “purest” flamenco artists are passing, and a younger generation seeks something more for themselves. This is where Tomas Moreno Romero comes in. He is a bridge to the jazz, rock, and fusion flamenco today’s young Spaniards listen to. “Tomasito” as he is known, sings, plays the guitar, and dances, creating music videos and live performances that engage you with his impish grin and unbounded talent and energy. Tomas invited us into the gypsy compound of his youth, where his mother still lives, in the historic Santiago district of Jerez. It was the past and present of Flamenco meeting on so many levels. We passed busts and statues of the famous flamenco artists we’d met and heard about before stepping into one of the courtyards where flamenco was born, a place where gypsy families lived in rooms around a courtyard and relaxed over music and sherry in the evenings. And from this purist legacy of flamenco springs “Tomasito”.
In the US we have learned that “gypsy” is a derogatory term, substituting “Roma” when referring to them. It is different in Spain. Most of the flamenco performers today are gypsies. Many descended from the families of original flamenco performers. Everyone we met referred to themselves as gypsies – unabashed, unapologetic, and unaware of any stigma involved. So here I use the word gypsy with all the reverence and dignity they possess.
The hotels all become a blur after a while, partly because I was so sick. If you watch this video of the hotels visited you’ll hear my voice disintegrate over the course of the week until, at one point, I almost lose it altogether. Some of the hotels were very modern, some minimalist, and some overdone. All were fine. The most remarkable was the Palacio de Anima Hotel in Jerez. This was a typical courtyard home in the old quarter, elegant and refined. It was like walking into a friend’s home in Paris, filled with art and antiques, warm and inviting. There was a pool in the back courtyard and a dining patio where a fine breakfast was meticulously prepared and presented.
Then, remarkable for its location more than anything else, my tiny room in the Abba Sevilla Hotel was sleek and modern. When I opened the only window I was reminded of my stay in Bilbao, Spain, across from the Guggenheim Museum. There I looked down from the window at the world’s largest flower sculpture, Jeff Koons’ Puppy, who looked like he was begging me to come out to play. In Seville, the view from Abba’s window was of the largest wooden building in the world – the Metropol Parasol – or mushrooms as the locals say, with its graceful curves and a light display showing it in all its magnificence. And it was right there to explore.
There are many other fine penas that we visited, and other famous flamenco performers who were eager to share with us their part in flamenco culture. There were also other towns with a rich flamenco history, such as Marchena and Ecija. Each has Flamenco Festivals. The “Fiesta de la Guitarra” is in Marchena each summer, and Ecija has a festival in July. It turns out that Andalucia is a sunny and welcoming region, where sherry, flamenco, and the guitar have been created, nurtured, and improved over the centuries. You must go there to enjoy them all together.
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