Music of the Heart
When I was young my father taught me flamenco guitar. Now I yearned to be part of that world again
I’ve been in Spain only two days, and already my fingers hurt. It’s a prickly sting, like when a fallen-asleep limb returns to life. The sensation delights me. It means I’m doing something right.
Yesterday, after arriving in Madrid, I took the Metro to the Delicias neighbourhood, walked to a non-descript apartment building and knocked on a stranger’s door. A thin, soft-spoken woman invited me in and handed me a $3,000 guitar. “Can you play something?” she asked. This was the reason I’d come to Spain. Because I once believed I was destined to be a tocaora.
Forty-five years ago, when I was two, my father also came to Madrid and knocked on strangers’ doors. A renowned classical guitarist, he was enamoured of flamenco, and in Spain he learnt from anyone willing to teach him. He approached performers in bars, befriended buskers on sidewalks and somehow—no one in my family knows how—managed to study with Paco de Lucía, the greatest flamenco guitarist of our time.
I started playing classical guitar when I was five. Every afternoon at our home in the US state of New Hampshire, I practised while my father instructed and critiqued. I played scales till my fingertips stung and peeled and became calloused, and by age seven, I was called a child prodigy. I attended master classes—always the youngest student by a decade. Sometimes I performed with my father.
Then, at 11, I quit. Heartbroken, my father distanced himself. Guiltily, I followed suit. Soon we spoke only when necessary. Mostly we bickered—about chores, rules, perceived injustices. Our relationship didn’t fully rebound until, in my early 20s, I found myself pulled back to guitar, and we resumed lessons. Our closeness returned, and he started teaching me flamenco. Then, when I was in my early 30s, he got sick.
Before he died a few years later, my father told me there were almost no tocaoras—female flamenco guitarists—in the world. If I kept practising, I could be one of the first. I promised, and he bequeathed me his guitar. But after he died, I couldn’t bear to play it. He’d spent so much time with his arms around that instrument, it seemed an extension of his own body. Holding it gave my grief an unbearable tangibility.
So for 13 years it sat mostly untouched, coming out only when my toddler begged to see it. Ellis was careful with his grandfather’s instrument in a way that made me want to pass it down to him—both the guitar and the music. Problem was, I couldn’t really play anymore.
One night, I googled ‘female flamenco guitarists’. Were they still scarce? I landed on a website that insisted tocaoras were on the rise; Antonia Jiménez was the most important name in Spain. On a whim, I wrote to her. “If I travel to Madrid,” I asked, “will you give me lessons?”
Now, a few months later in September 2017, here was Antonia sitting with me in her living room, politely enduring my defilement—on her alarmingly high-end guitar—of music I once played well. And this was only the beginning; I’d contacted two other prominent tocaoras, one in Granada, another in Barcelona. I would spend the next three weeks in Spain immersing myself in the world of female flamenco guitar—a world so new it didn’t exist while my father was alive. A world I now yearned to be part of.
Despite her parents’ objections, Antonia Jiménez decided at an early age to take up flamenco guitar. (Photo By Laura El-Tantawy)
Flamenco has mysterious origins, but people agree somewhat upon the following: its roots lie in the mingling of gitano (gypsy) music with Moorish and Jewish traditions. In time, flamenco emerged as an outlet for the poor and oppressed. It consists of cante (song), baile (dance), toque (guitar) and percussive elements that include clapping, finger snapping and shouts of encouragement (like “olé!”), plus a more esoteric layer known as duende, the dark emotion at the heart of everything. The rest of the backstory is mostly the stuff of late-night, sherry-fuelled debates. There’s just one final point of consensus: Women can sing and dance flamenco, but guitar pretty much belongs to men. It’s a good old-fashioned boys’ club.
Antonia spent her life crashing that club. She began playing at age five, despite her parents’ objections. At 14 she found a teacher and by 15 was earning money accompanying singers and dancers. When I met her, she’d spent 30 years studying with masters, composing, and touring the globe, and was finally recording her first album. But her father died 13 years ago without accepting her vocation. “He never once said ‘Good’,” she confides. “He never said ‘olé.’ I had to do this for myself. I fought for my career, and it was very, very hard to grow in this atmosphere.”
I can’t help but compare our lives. We’re almost the same age. Our fathers died the same year. We both began playing at five. But I stopped, and she couldn’t be stopped. Before my father died, he was teaching me soleares, a standard flamenco form. Determined to relearn this in Spain, I came prepared, carrying a thick folder of sheet music, plus a photocopy of a soleares arranged by Paco de Lucía and transcribed by my dad in 1972.
Antonia is reverent of the transcription but balks at my folder. “Flamenco is 90 per cent improvisational,” she explains. She suggests I follow along while she plays falsetas, or soleares melodies. Then her hands explode across the strings like fireworks, and all I can do is stare. And panic. And realize how unprepared I actually am. She suggests I record a video of her playing slowly.
Back in my rented apartment, I watch the video and practise fanatically until I memorize the falsetas. When my fingertips start tingling, I’m euphoric. I run my thumb over them like they’re a row of tiny talismans. Heading into our second lesson, I’m slightly more confident. As Antonia tunes her guitar for me, I’m reminded of my dad—the way he cradled his guitar like a favourite child. He wasn’t the most affectionate parent, and the tenderness he showed his instruments is likely why I was drawn to guitar: to be closer to him by proxy. I fumble my way through the falsetas. But Antonia says she’s impressed, and I decide to believe her.
On my last night in Madrid, she performs at Casa Patas, a vaunted tablao (flamenco stage). This being my first flamenco show in Spain, and my understanding of duende being even flimsier than my grasp of the music, I’m expecting something gloomy and maudlin. Like sad opera with stomping. Instead, the show is celebratory, sexy, fiery. Duende, it turns out, isn’t about suffering; it’s about transforming suffering into joy and passion. I try to give Antonia all the olés her father never did.
Granada—the Alhambra palace, specifically—was the site, in 1922, of the first flamenco competition, Concurso de Cante Jondo, which brought flamenco to the world’s attention. Flamenco remains a constant presence here. My first impression of Pilar Alonso, when she opens the door to her apartment, is that she’s the happiest person I’ve ever met. Her face is an endless warm smile. She’s so bubbly, one might not take her seriously—if one didn’t know better.
Pilar Alonso performs with the all-female flamenco Arabic quartet Mujeres Mediterráneas. (Photo By Laura El-Tantawy)
Among the earliest female graduates of the lauded Conservatorio Superior de Música Rafael Orozco in Córdoba, Pilar holds degrees in both classical and flamenco guitar and now teaches at the Conservatorio Profesional de Música de Ángel Barrios in Granada, while also performing in Mujeres Mediterráneas, a flamenco Arabic quartet of women from different parts of the world. When I notice a framed photo of Paco de Lucía in her study, she says she considers him her teacher. At age 11, she taught herself flamenco by listening to his cassette tapes. I’ve learnt this was the customary method of studying with him. By all accounts, he almost never took on students.
I show Pilar my dad’s transcription. “It’s glorious,” she says, poring over it. “Magnífico.”
Leafing through my sheet music, however, she acts like I’ve thrust rotten chicken under her nose. She’ll instruct me, but this?! No. When she demonstrates the rhythm she intends to teach me, her hands become birds—darting and fluttering, dipping and swooping, graceful, furious. “OK,” she says. “Now follow along.” To be clear, there is no chance I can do this.
But during our second lesson, something happens. Pilar begins playing a melody my father taught me. A delicate, lively string of single notes, it’s as familiar as a lullaby. “That!” I shout. Tears blur my eyes, and then my fingers are plucking along as fast as hers. It’s as if a missing piece of me is back.
You don’t really go to Barcelona for flamenco. You go for Gaudí’s architecture, tapas, absinthe. But a flamenco guitarist has brought me here. Marta Robles began playing at age seven in Seville, has earned four degrees in classical and flamenco guitar, and has travelled the world performing. When I watched her online, I imagined we’d be instant best friends. But no. She’s tall, glamorous and intense, and she intimidates me. Even my precious transcription fails to impress her. She skims it, nods, returns to her beer.
Nor is Marta moved to provide reassuring answers to my hopeful questions. “No,” she says, “the situation isn’t improving for tocaoras.” I remind her that two nights ago she and another female guitarist played a private concert for the Rolling Stones. And days before that, her all-women group, Las Migas, got a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Flamenco Album. “Doesn’t this say something about the future of the tocaora?” I ask. “OK, maybe,” she concedes.
My final lesson in Spain is scheduled on the last morning before I leave for home, and coincides with a strike in Barcelona. Taxis are nonexistent, and the Metro has stopped running. I walk to Marta’s apartment, arriving late, worried there’s no time for a lesson. I need to check out of my accommodation in an hour. “Tranquila,” she says. She’ll take me. Marta doesn’t feel like teaching me soleares; instead, she’ll show me a rumba. “It’s like this,” she says, her hands a dizzying blur of knuckles and skin. “OK? Follow along.” This joke never gets old.
Marta Robles has been playing flamenco guitar since she was seven years old. (Photo By Laura El-Tantawy)
But she shows me again in slow motion. And as I study her hands, I notice how her fingers form perfect squares above the frets and her thumb never creeps over the neck of the guitar. And I hear my dad’s voice, forever correcting my form, holding my wrist between his long, slender fingers and jiggling it gently. “Let it relax,” he’d say.
So I relax my wrist and follow Marta’s lead, and a few dozen tries later, I get it. Not just the rhythm of the rumba but golpe, too, the trademark tapping of finger against guitar. “That’s it!” she exclaims, and we tamp our strings and play faster and faster until we’re strumming in unison and grinning widely at each other. And just like that, I’m no longer intimidated. I’m exhilarated and inspired and want to stay in Spain and spend every minute with these remarkable, revolutionary women.
Will I? No. But I do remember, finally, what it means to be musical. To practise until something beautiful emerges. To live for the moment when it all connects and you are elevated. And mostly, to share that magic with someone else.
The author, Lavinia Spalding. (Photo courtesy Lavinia Spalding)
I wonder if this is duende—an old suffering transformed into passion. I know holding a guitar doesn’t hurt anymore. It feels like a rekindling, like the redemption of a broken promise. It feels like joy. Marta drives me back to my apartment on her motorcycle, and as we zip through the streets, I experience a rare moment of pure freedom. The sense of something heavy being lifted away. I’ve long carried guilt and remorse for quitting guitar and missing my chance to be one of the first tocaoras. Those feelings are gone. Now I see how lucky I am. Antonia, Pilar, and Marta had zero female role models. I have three. They had countless obstacles. I have zero. I’m suddenly impatient to get home, tune my guitar and practise all they’ve shared with me.
And I intend to share it, too. I want to teach my son to play soleares someday. But I’ve ditched all my sheet music now. When the time comes, I’ll make him follow along.
From AFAR (July/August 2019), Copyright © 2019 by Lavinia Spalding