José Manuel Martos is a professional flamenco guitarist originally from Mérida, Venezuela. He is in the early stages of his professional career and resides in Sevilla, Spain, where he’s studied for a number of years. He works as a teaching assistant at the Fundación Cristina Heeren and performs weekly at El Callejón Del Embrujo, a flamenco tablao in central Sevilla.
The interview was conducted on January 27, 2018, in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla. It will be presented over the course of several posts.
I am José Manuel Martos-Cabrales. I was born in Venezuela and I am a flamenco guitarist.
What was your first experience with music?
My first experience with music was with my family, with my parents and my uncles. Most of them were guitarists and musicians. They weren’t flamenco musicians, but they were well-trained in the classical music of Venezuela.
When and why did you start learning flamenco?
I started because there was a flamenco school in my city and it caught my attention. I started by teaching myself though. I used books and some audio-books at first.
How old were you at the time?
I would have been about twenty. I’m thirty-six now.
How did you first get involved with the flamenco community?
At first, as I mentioned, I started studying on my own. I then started playing in that school in my town that had flamenco. I started by learning to accompany dance. I kept studying and went to Caracas on several occasions to study there. Caracas is the capital of Venezuela, where there’s more flamenco and more guitarists. I traveled a few times to continue my studies with the guitarists there, since they were better trained. I started getting involved little by little with the main dance academy of Venezuela.
What is the image you have of the flamenco community? What is it to you?
The flamenco community is really big and it’s always growing. The number of people interested in learning to play the guitar, sing, and dance just keeps growing. Flamenco is starting to occupy a lot of space at a global level. I think that I see this as a good thing, this path that it’s on. It’s something that will never cease to exist, it will keep spreading throughout the world.
At what point did you realize you were talented enough to work as a professional artist?
Fortunately, it has always been easy for me to do certain things. With my instrument, with the guitar, I realized I was picking it up quickly, that I was able to assimilate things well. That made me want to learn more and more, but in Venezuela I got to the point where nobody could give me any more information. Because of that I decided to come to Spain and study. The first time was for a vacation, but in reality, I came to study. I don’t remember if it was two or three months. I think it was two months, or one, I don’t remember. I got to Spain, I went to Jerez de la Frontera, and I was also here in Sevilla. When I realized I wanted to continue growing on an artistic level, I wanted to come study more in Sevilla and live in Spain. So that’s why I came in 2009, and I’ve been here in Sevilla since then.
Did you start right away with the Fundación [Cristina Heeren]?
I started studying with a guitarist in San Gerónimo who has a school there. His name is Francisco Solís. I started with him and various other guitarists, with Miguel Ángel Cortés, Ramón Amador, Salvador Gutiérrez. I always searched for something different in each guitarist. I studied a lot in Jerez de la Frontera with Manuel Lozano “El Carbonero,” and with many others. The following year I came to Sevilla and was at Esperanza Fernández’s school and was with Miguel Ángel Cortés there for a year. And after finishing that, I enrolled at the Fundación Cristina Heeren where I’m still at today. Even though I’m working there now, I continue to learn and develop there.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as an artist?
I think the main challenge for any guitarist is to have and to hold on to a space for yourself within flamenco. You always have certain things in mind, visions that don’t go away, of playing in certain theaters, or peñas, or other places. Training myself well, so I could be part of the flamenco community, and to do that as a foreigner, that was my main challenge. That’s complicated here in Spain, that they would open the door to a foreigner, allow you to work in a tablao, or in a place like the Fundación Cristina Heeren. I think that was my biggest challenge, preparing myself well, and then fighting for that goal, to become part of the flamenco world, little by little.
Have you ever come close to quitting music in a time of frustration?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment of frustration like that. I’ve always been a patient and steady person with my study of the guitar. I’ve always been aware that you need to respect the instrument too. But never, never have I said, “I’m going to put down the guitar or that I can’t do it.” I don’t think I’ve ever said that.
What are some other things that have helped you develop?
Many people have helped me. I think the support I’ve had has been the best it could have been, the support of my teachers, of my family.
That’s an important one because not everyone has that.
Yes! I’ve always received support. The support of those who’ve been around me has allowed me to evolve and have my own place within this complicated world of flamenco. For real, if it wouldn’t have been for that… I think that’s what everyone needs, a little bit of help. I have some talent, which is always important too. Talent, luck, and the support of your teachers and family, you need to know how to use that, how to take advantage of it, and how to be grateful for it. You need to be respectful of flamenco too, and of how you do it, because we’re in flamenco’s birthplace. Because of that I’ve been really patient and respectful and have been able to move forward little by little.
Do you think you have your own defined style?
No, having a defined style requires much more study and much more preparation. You learn from so many different guitarists and maestros that to say you have a defined style is complicated. Usually people like a particular guitarist. In my case, I follow either a guitarist or a style. For example, I follow Pedro Sierra a lot. I like his compositions and his way of playing the guitar. I think I identify more with him than with other guitarists.
You’ve told me that you’ve also studied the Jerez style quite a bit though, right?
Yes, Jerez as well, but the Jerez style isn’t a general style for all the palos (formal structures) within flamenco. Jerez is characterized by certain palos. In Jerez you have the bulería, soleá, and the siguiriya. Those are the three palos they play the most, but, for example, to play taranto, malagueña, granaína and all that, the Jerez style isn’t used much. It’s a distinct style for specific things. Because of that Sevilla is more open; I think Sevilla’s guitar is more complete.
And there’s also the school of Caño Roto [of Madrid]. What are the characteristics of the Caño Roto style?
I think the difference is in the studies and the general way of playing the guitar. The Caño Roto style is violent and really strong. In contrast, the guitar here in Andalucía is more melodic, sweeter, calmer, and more paused. To start, the Caño Roto style requires that you study a lot because it’s very technical. It’s a difficult style, for me it’s the most difficult style there is in flamenco. The school of Jerez, Sevilla, or of Andalucía in general is much easier and more accessible to any guitarist and, personally, I like it more. It lets you listen more than Caño Roto. That’s why I say it’s a such a violent and strong way of playing.
In your experience, have you already seen changes in how flamenco is taught?
Yes, for sure. The teaching of flamenco is getting more and more methodical. Before, at least when I started, almost everyone was self-taught, and things were visual. Now, there are many methods with written music and with guitar tablature. What you do need is a method for developing patience within flamenco guitarists. The application of patience is important because the flamenco guitar is complicated. Of all the musical genres that have guitar, I think flamenco is the most complicated.
I agree (laughing)!
Yeah (smiling). And the methodology needs to be followed. The methodology has advanced a lot. We’re always getting more books, more technique videos, videos of everything, of dance, of singing too. Little by little, step by step the flamenco methods are moving forward, but as I said, flamenco is complicated.
What’s the best way a guitarist can go about learning accompaniment?
The best way, in my opinion, to learn to accompany singing and dancing is by listening to a ton of singing and seeing a ton of dancing. But you must first understand that everything, every palo has a structure. By managing the structure of each palo, you can accompany. Also, a little bit of common sense, and by this I mean a basic musical sensibility, is needed to accompany and to know that we guitarists are accompanists and are there to support the dancing and singing. We must know we can’t disturb the other artists. I think that to accompany we need to have the same [artistic] sensibilities as the singer or dancer and then apply that to the guitar. We need to give the singer what is wanted and give the dancer what the dance needs.
So, in addition to the structure, the personality of each artist is also important.
Exactly, but knowing and managing the structure allows you to do what you want to do. By knowing step-by-step what happens from beginning to end, you can navigate little by little. You can go where you want if you don’t abuse the instrument or the role of accompanist, because that’s what we are. We’re accompanists.
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