For those already immersed in the world of flamenco, Manolo Sanlúcar needs no introduction. He is a virtuoso guitarist, composer, and teacher, and is one of the great artists in the history of flamenco. His students include guitarists Vicente Amigo, Juan Carlos Romero, and David Carmona, amongst others. He has won countless awards and has performed across the globe in the world’s greatest concert halls.
The interview was conducted on May 12, 2018, at Manolo’s home in Sanlúcar De Barrameda, Spain. It will be presented over the course of several posts.
My name is Manolo Muñoz Alcón; my artistic name is Manolo Sanlúcar, which I use because I was born in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Cádiz, Andalucía, [Spain].
What was your first experience with music?
My first experience was right after I was born. My mother put me in the crib and my father grabbed the guitar and started playing for me. Because of this familiarity, these customs and habits at home, the guitar meant a lot to me. During my childhood, there were certain moments when I understood the guitar as if it was a member of the family since it was always around. It was everywhere. My father also told me I had to be a guitarist because, when I was just a couple months old, I got a bad case of pneumonia. It was serious, and the doctor said he couldn’t save me, that he was certain I’d die before the next sunrise. My father decided to grab the small rag he kept in the guitar case to clean the guitar. He put it in a heater to heat it up and then placed it on my chest. He said, “well, if he’s going to die, I’d prefer to take the risk, so he can at least be warm.” After doing that for maybe two or three or four hours, I started coughing. When I started coughing he began calling out to me again. He said that this had saved me. That rag still had the marks of the strings on it, of the guitar’s soul, and because of this he always insisted I be a guitarist (laughing).
Where there professional artists in your family?
No, in my family the guitar starts with my father. He was a natural artist, very artistic. He was a special person, and he sang too. He was tremendously funny and had an incredible sense of humor. Because of this, people adored him. Here in the neighborhood he ran a small business, a bread store. He also liked soccer and bullfighting. He was such a restless person and was impassioned by life. His children, of which there are six of us, all have a little bit of him inside us. He was a tremendous lover of the guitar and studied with one of history’s greatest flamenco maestros, Javier Molina. Javier Molina and Ramón Montoya were the two most prominent guitarists of the time, and he was my father’s teacher. But, my father had to go by bicycle to Jerez [de la Frontera] to receive the classes.
It was about a 60-kilometer trip. There were no portable audio recorders of any kind back then. He had to go to class and just remember everything. Sometimes he’d get home and couldn’t remember. Can you imagine? That’s why I’m rather rigorous and critical of young people today. I know those difficulties, that anguish. I’ve had some privileged students, privileged in the sense that I’ve brought them into my house and allowed them to stay several years as if they were my own son. I’ve done this without charging them anything and have supported them while they’re here and many don’t place any importance on this at all. They consider it their birthright. If they’d look back a little more to see what their elders have suffered through, maybe they’d value things a little more.
When did you start learning to play the guitar?
When I think back, the first memory I have is of my brother Isidro’s baptism. Families here really celebrate baptisms and we always sing and dance. [At Isidro’s] baptism, I grabbed the guitar. I didn’t know how to play well, but I started playing and it surprised my father, actually it surprised everyone. That’s the first memory I have of all this. I was about six or seven years old. This was when my father first decided to sit down and teach me. He didn’t want to push me to do it unless it was something I really wanted to do. It had to be mine. He needed to see some kind of reaction. In my opinion, his teaching was magnificent. We’d sit down in our chairs, face-to-face, in our house’s large courtyard and he’d teach me. He’d talk about the music he was teaching me, who it was from, who the guitarist spent time with, which singers he played for, what he was like as a person, what the singer was like. It was tremendous. I received that knowledge, which wasn’t academic, from him. It was knowledge of life and knowledge of feeling, of affection in the Platonic sense. I’m referring to when [Plato] talked about the theory of feelings, not the emotion of the feelings, but of the feeling of the music. It’s a philosophical concept based in musical scales, that each one has its own personality and identity and is harmonized with human feeling in different ways. My father didn’t have that knowledge and those references, but it was all taught to him. It’s interesting because that’s served me well. I’m older now and studying that and getting closer to Greek musical theory and Greek philosophy and I can recognize the existence of all this here in Andalucía. When I express myself, I can’t forget this. Rather, I have to express what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing, what I’m understanding. It’s all still intact and eventually it comes out. Incredible, right? It’s powerful how things maintain themselves, are passed down, and persist in spite of all the political changes, in spite of the things that exist. You can still feel it in your guts.
What was your flamenco community like at that time?
The space was reduced because of [limited] mobility. What I mean is that since there were few means of communication, the distances were enormous. You simply got together with the people who were closest. The people of my town didn’t have the same [artistic] level as those in other towns. But, there was a passion for flamenco in Sanlúcar and people used to get together a lot. I started with that group of aficionados. I won a prize here when I was eight and at thirteen I left with one of the biggest flamenco stars of the day, Pepe Marchena.
I was really lucky because Pepe Pinto had spoken of me. “There’s a kid in Sanlúcar you should know about.” He called my father and told him he’d heard of his son and that he’d like to hear him play. I then went to Sevilla to see Pinto and that was incredibly lucky because his wife was Pastora Pavón, La Niña De Los Peines. At that age it was crazy to see myself among these older artists. I was there with my little guitar and it was like I was completely naked. They were the ones who introduced me to Pepe Marchena and I went to work with him. There were two companies in Sevilla, two smaller ones that were subsidiaries of the same larger company. Circuitos A La Detra was the name of the larger company. They supported both Marchena and Pinto, each one had his own company. When one was out on tour in Spain the other would rest. Pepe Pinto would leave on tour, not with Pastora because by this time Pastora couldn’t walk, but he had many great artists with him. As soon as one company would finish, I’d turn around and head out with the other.
I was protected well, because I was just a kid and they were all adults. They protected me in many different ways, including by teaching me, Marchena, Pinto, and also Pastora. Pastora was incredible. We toured from town to town. Back then there wasn’t television and there was little radio, so the artists usually went out early to the town’s main plaza and to the main cafe so the townspeople could see them. I stayed at the theater and studied. Pastora was getting old by then and her feet hurt and so she would also stay at the theater. From the beginning she would listen to me and would call for me. She gave me a nickname, Gatito (Little Cat), because she thought I looked like a cat, always dressed in black, with black hair and all. She’d say, “Gatiiito,” and I’d say, “yeah Pastora,” and she’d say, “get over here.” I’d walk over to the dressing room and she’d tell me to sit down there and practice. “Don’t pay attention to me, practice as if you’re by yourself.” I would begin to play and within a minute she’d start with, “mmm, mmm…” she’d start warming up her voice with my guitar while I played. I’d usually be playing some exercise or study and when I realized that it was a little uncomfortable for her, I’d start playing por Soleá or por Siguiriya or whatever. Then she’d grab on to what I was doing and would start singing. Then she’d explain to me what it was she was singing, how it was supposed to go, how it used to be done, etc. I recorded with Pastora when I was fifteen. To be a little more exact, I went in to record an album with [Pepe] Pinto on one side, and with his wife Pastora on the other, but all in the same studio. They were two separate recordings, they were not singing on the same album. The main guitarist was Melchor de Marchena and I was there as the second guitar. When they were singing something like a Malagueña or Siguiriya, Melchor would play solo. But when they sang Bulerías or Tangos, we’d both play together. That was my first experience recording.
What were some of your doubts in those early years, doubts about being a professional musician or other artistic doubts?
When I started [working] with the guitar, I started by entering a competition and received the top prize. After that, I was called on to work in some important festivals as an accompanist. At ten or eleven or twelve years old I was already accompanying some big people in flamenco. At thirteen I was getting a regular salary and starting to build a reputation. Because of all this, doing something else never really occurred to me. I didn’t even think of it, although I did work in my father’s bread store as well. I quit high school to work in the bread store. He didn’t ask me to quit, I did it myself. He didn’t want me to do it. I became a man early, in many different ways, not just because of my circumstances, but also physically. I was already shaving when I was twelve. My father used to talk about this to my brother. He said I was a child for only about six months (laughing)! What I’m trying to say is that after beginning to work and earn money with the guitar so early, I never thought about other possibilities for a career. There were no doubts in that sense.
What have been some of the most difficult challenges of your career?
There have always been challenges. I’ve lived with a permanent challenge regarding my own self. I believe I’ve had something, perhaps because of ignorance, that has born out a lot of fruit for me. I’ve had a certain audacity or boldness. I confess this to you, because it’s not something I am proud of, but maybe because of my own ignorance I’ve always thrown myself into things just to see what might happen. I’ve thrown myself into things I didn’t know how to do; I’d take a few steps at a time and then I’d figure it out. Ultimately, I’ve been able to keep moving forward. I’m not trying to say that I’m an especially intelligent or special person, what I want to say is that the impulse to do and to know has always carried me forward. It’s moved me ahead of myself, not of anyone else, of myself. I haven’t allowed things to take me backward.
What is your greatest achievement? What makes you most proud?
In what sense, as a human being or as an artist? For me, it’s that I’ve become a decent man who’s committed to his culture and to his country, with a certain sense of generosity and responsibility. Being a human being comes first for me. I feel I’ve been able to help a great group of guitarists, all of which are now either major artistic figures or nearly major figures. That’s what I’m proud of. I’m not proud of winning the top worldwide guitar prize (Festival Mundial De La Guitarra). That’s not what I’m proud of. I don’t want to return it either, I feel fine about it.
For those students who I bring into my home, the first thing I try to do it break them down to see how they are as people, to see if they’re well-built as humans or if they’re messed up. Of course, I don’t accept students that are sixty years old, I take ones that are fifteen or eighteen. I’ve done this with many young guitarists because we’re in a difficult world today. I’m positive that I’ve done well in this regard, my students are out there. I also think I continue to be an honest person because I’ve never taught my own music to my students. I’ve taught them the theory. Of course, many of my students sound like me at times because I’m their reference. When I see that one of them has something emerging that doesn’t sound the same as everyone else, I grab on to that cell and make music with it and then return it to them [so they can cultivate it]. I give them a complete work, but I always start with something they’ve given me. Look at my students and you will see that none of them sound the same as another, not one, because I don’t teach them my things! I teach them the fundamentals. I’ve tried to do things this way because I don’t want them to be imitators. I don’t want them imitating me. At the same time I also talk to them about other things. I talk to them about painting, about literature, about responsibility, and honesty.
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A special thank you to guitarist Kaveh Nasehi for his assistance in setting up this interview.