This article was published in the Madrid newspaper "Dígame" on August 23rd, in 1955, and was written by the Jerez aficionado and author Juan de la Plata. The interview is accompanied by three photos of Javier, in one of which he is seen playing with classical postures. You can see a scanned image of the article here, another interview with Javier here and yet another interview here. Click here for more information on Javier.
Javier Molina can be considered the grand master of all the active flamenco guitarists in Spain. Despite his eighty-five years of age, he still teaches and plays occasionally for a group of gentlemen that have the habit of visiting his house to listen to the wizardly playing of the maestro.
In the Andalusian art of guitar playing, Javier Molina represents three-fourths of a century of complete dedication to the most flamenco of all instruments. Three-fourths of a century of constant strumming on stages, in cafés cantantes, country taverns, and the patios of ranches and estates. Javier has played flamenco since he was seven and has spent his entire life accompanying flamenco song with his guitar playing. He has appeared onstage and many other places, where his great mastery has caused the admiration of his listeners at all of the most important fiestas.
He is the man who, with his art, most often accompanied the great Don Antonio Chacón, that genius who, with his singing, earned the title of Don. Among those of his class and profession, this is more than a simple title of honor and dignity, to be bestowed upon any decent person. He played his guitar por seguiriyas for Manuel Torres' singing (Niño de Jerez), and his exceptional artistic and thoroughly creative qualities have shone brightly alongside the most celebrated singers and dancers of recent years.
Javier Molina was born in Jerez de la Frontera in a street of the typical Santiago neighborhood that is named after the patron saint of the city: "Nuestra Señora de la Merced." He grew up in Jerez, where he still lives, in a house in the San Pedro neighborhood. We went there to see him, in order to hear what he has to say about his life and his art.
Javier's apartment is small, with two or three rooms. On the walls, one can see paintings of the Virgin, guitars, photos from his days of splendor past, of his childhood, a portrait of the bullfighter Lagartijo el Grande, and a painting of our Lord, the "Señor del Gran Poder." His entire house is saturated with that old flavor found in the houses of elderly artists that have nearly completely withdrawn from public life.
Javier attended to us courteously, inviting us to sit down. He took out his old but well-conserved guitar and began to play seguiriyas, soleares, alegrías, tientos, farrucas... All playing styles, the dramatic as well as the frivolous, come to life through his talent and artistry; through the smooth and agile hands of a marvelous artist. Without putting down his companion the guitar, he explained to us how he began as an artist. He spoke about playing in public at eight years of age in the Alameda Vieja of Jerez, between performances at a modest puppet theater owned by a blind violinist. Javier made his first earnings there: Two pesetas a day!
The old guitarist never learned from teachers. He only received a few classes from an aficionado friend of his brother, the latter a celebrated dancer who went on to form a trio with Javier and Chacón. The three were unknown at the time, and began to perform in public in cafés cantantes, forming part of what were then called "artistic concerts."
This story is from one of those concerts. Javier tells us as he caresses the strings of his instrument.
—"We performed in a colmado in Facinas, a little town in the campo de Gibraltar, and when we passed the tray around, a drunk threw in a duro (five-peseta piece). Just imagine how thrilled we were. Nobody would give you that much back then; it was a fortune for us. Since that was something to celebrate, we had a fiesta for this generous member of the audience, and it went on for nearly an hour. So imagine our surprise when, the next day, we see this drunk from the night before come into the hotel demanding that we give him back the duro! He said that, because he was a 'bit tipsy,' he hadn't realized how much he'd given us. So, naturally, we didn't give it to him, and, after raising a big fuss, he went back to wherever he'd come from."
Since we're into anecdotes, Javier also tells us what happened to a less-than-brilliant singer that he was accompanying onstage.
—"The poor fellow hadn't slept for several days because he'd been traveling, and he fell asleep right there onstage. He fell into the orchestra pit, and he went on singing, all covered with blood."
The maestro tells us:
—"I've played for the best and the worst singers."
—"Who was the best, maestro?"
—"There've been good and bad singers."
—"But the best..."
—"Don Antonio Chacón. He was the most complete singer that I ever met."
—"Did you play for him often?"
—"Just about any time that he sang. He was a great friend and a perfect gentleman."
—"How many more famous singers have you accompanied with the guitar?"
—"Tomás el Nitri, Manuel Torres (Niño de Jerez), Caoba, señor Manuel Molina, Paco la Luz, Loco Mateo, Chato de Jerez, the Marrurro brothers, La Serna, Cabeza, Frijones, and a lot more whose names would make an endless list, among them, Juan Breva, Canario, Fosforito, and Mescle, who was worth a whole cortijo (country estate) when he sang and was really funny."
—"Who was better, Chacón or Manuel Torre?"
—"I've already said that Don Antonio was the most complete, but I liked Manuel Torres por seguiriyas more. Now then, Chacón was a genius por malagueñas. And those caracoles of his!"
—"What style is that?"
—"A style of alegrías that Don Antonio Chacón created and sang como los ángeles (like the angels)."
—"Which of today's artists have you played with?"
—"With Niña de los Peines. I toured Spain for two years with her and Estampío and Cojo de Málaga; with Lola Flores, in her first performances in public, when she was sixteen and I gave her dance lessons; and with Manolo Caracol, whom I accompanied in his debut in Madrid when he was still just a kid, in the theater 'del Centro,' in Atocha Street, with Ramírez, who was a very famous dancer."
—"Did you know Ramón Montoya?"
—"We were close friends, and we performed together on many occasions. Every time he was asked who was the better of the two, he'd answer that I was. He sure could lie, because he was the greatest player of all time. When I heard that he had died, it hit me so hard that I became ill and had to be put to bed."
—"What styles are the easiest and the most difficult in flamenco guitar?"
—"The easiest is sevillanas, and bulerías is the hardest to play on the guitar."
—"Please tell us about modern singers."
—"There are good ones and bad ones; there always have been."
—"Manolo Vallejo. He knows the most, and sings the best of today's artists."
—"What do you think of modern singing?"
—"Flamenco nowadays is falling apart. People used to sing much better than they do today."
—"Who's the best modern guitarist?"
—"Without a doubt, Niño de Ricardo."
—"Have you had many students?"
—"Quite a few. In the six or seven years since my retirement, I haven't stopped teaching. Before that, I'd taught the daughters of Bombita III and Morenito de Algeciras. After I'd stopped performing, I taught a few that are professionals today. Some of them are Lápiz, Palma, and the Moraíto brothers."
The conversation trails off with the old guitarist. We've gone up to the terrace so that Pereiras can play some records. Javier complains that the old cafés cantantes have disappeared forever. According to him, they were like universities of cante. He proposes the creation of an educational center to train the voices of inexperienced singers, teaching them to sing well, so that pure flamenco does not disappear.
He confesses to us that he is a fervent follower of Lagartijo, the bullfighter. He tells us about the recordings he has made, and reminds us of the homage to Don Antonio Chacón in Jerez, the land of his birth, in 1933, and in which Javier took part. Others intervening were Pemán, Julián Pemartín, and all of the Jerez flamenco artists of that time.
We also spoke of another fiesta that took place three years ago, celebrating the bicentennial of Domecq, in the well-known vineyard "El Majuelo," where Julián Pemartín improvised a poem that began with:
This appeared in the Argentine newspaper "La Nación" on May 11th, 1937 without the name of the journalist. Click here for more information on Ramón.
In the early hours of yesterday morning, the celebrated guitarist Ramón Montoya arrived in our city aboard the steamship Campana, from Marseilles. He is considered to be the most complete performer of popular Andalusian music, and has come to our capital, contracted by the owners of the Maravillas theater, where he will perform in tonight's presentation of regional art, as part of the show being offered by the dancer Carmen Amaya. Montoya has been involved in performances of the art of cante jondo for over a quarter century, and his skillful playing has been compared to important figures in flamenco expression such as the Macarronas, Niña de los Peines, and Antonio Chacón. In an interview held in the Maravillas theater, the famous guitarist remembered all the "greats" that have venerated the popular singing styles of the Andalusian people. He offered many colorful episodes, some picturesque and others sentimental, and others involving the actor Manolo Vico, linked to the artistic life of Montoya through several adventurous performances on the peninsula. At plain sight, Montoya offers no clues as to his place of birth, nor does his accent when he speaks. Upon seeing him, with his face lit up, one would say that he was from the north of Spain, and his manner of speech seems to be perfectly Andalusian. But from the very first questions, Montoya speaks at length and in detail on all things that one may ask about him.
—What region are you from?
—I'm from Madrid, from the Avapiés district, that silly neighborhood that defines the capital of Spain so well. On occasion, I've had to present my personal documents just to demonstrate that I'm a native madrileño.
I was supposed to come to Buenos Aires about seven years ago, when García Malla invited me to perform in the Casino theater, but the fear of being at sea—after all, I'm gitano as well as madrileño—kept me from acting on those tempting offers. I remember that Manolo Vico, who knew about this country, told me on several occasions: "Don't be silly, Ramón. Go over to America, you're going to earn piles of money!" But I have to confess that those interesting contracts lost all their appeal at the mere thought of so many days at sea.
Montoya began playing in the cafés cantantes of Madrid
—How did you become a guitarist?
—In the cafés cantantes of Madrid, many or most of which don't even exist any more. From that period, I have warm memories of the Marina café, where I started, located in Jardines Street, number 21. I also worked at the famous Naranjeros café, in Cebada Square; the Gato café, in the street with the same name, the owners of which responded to the colorful name of las hermanas Higorrotas (the Brokenfig sisters); the Magdalena café, also in the street of that name, between the squares of Antón Martín and Progreso; and also the Pez café, in Ancha Street, of San Bernardo. In the Marina café, I got to play with the famous Macarronas, with Malena de Salud, the daughter of El Ciego, who, for me, is the greatest female performer of male dancing. She would come out in a short jacket with chaps and a calañés hat, a tiny little thing with a great big voice that went perfectly with her art; Anita Caña, who has very good artistic qualities; la Mejorana, one of the greatest performers of classic flamenco dance; and Antonio de Bilbao, whom they met in Buenos Aires in the San Martín theater, in Eulogio Velasco's group, several years ago. That reminds me of the unusual way in which Antonio de Bilbao came to be known in Madrid. It happened on one of those memorable nights in the Marina café. After the performances of several artists, and encouraged by several of his friends, Antonio stepped onstage and asked me to accompany him. Judging from the way he looked and dressed, no one could have suspected what a great dancer he was. He wore a beret that revealed his Basque origin, and when I asked him what he was going to dance, he told me, "Por alegrías." I looked at him and thought that it was all a joke, so I responded by playing the same way. But he reacted, and told me confidently:
"No, play it right; I know how to dance!"
And he certainly did know. He was so good that he put all the dancers, guitarists and the public right into his pocket. He caused such a sensation that the owner of the café came straight over and made me contract him. That used to be part of my job at the time, as the official house guitarist. I asked him how much he wanted to earn, and he said, "Two pesetas." That was a good salary back then, but if he'd said fifty we would have given it to him. I was earning seven pesetas, which was also quite good, but because I was playing outside the café, I was earning over twenty duros (100 pesetas) a day. The only thing I can say about Antonio de Bilbao is that not long afterwards, he was the king of the Marina café, and all of Spain began to praise him. I also have to mention Faico, an excellent interpreter of the farruca. He went to perform in Paris and had a big hit with the La Giralda pasodoble. Ramírez de Jerez put on some great shows there, too, with farrucas and tangos, as well as Monijón, the cousin of Faico.
—Which bailaoras do you remember as the best?
—Mariquilla, la Flamenca, in classic styles, on the same level as Macarrona; and Encarnación Hurtado, la Malagueñita.
He considers Chacón to be the most complete performer
—But in cante jondo—Montoya continues—the greatest artist to have been born in Spain is Antonio Chacón, or, better said, Don Antonio Chacón, because if anyone deserves to be called Don, it's him. For me and many others, Chacón was the master of all the cantes flamencos. It can be said that he was not only a cantaor, because he could talk about painting, literature and medicine. He took his singing seriously. He could start at eight o'clock in the evening, and go on until the same time the next day with the same enthusiasm and effect. He'd overshadow everyone, and wherever he went, nobody could compete with him. For fifteen years, I accompanied him with this guitar that's been with me now for twenty-seven years, the one that the flamencos call la leona de Montoya (Montoya's lion). Chacón was the greatest singer of the gitano style of seguidilla, and, at the same time, he was a gentleman and a friend. When he died, he didn't leave behind a penny, after having earned over two million pesetas. He used all his money to live as the great man that he was. In the Levante styles, Manuel Torres was great, also. He was a magnificent singer of the murciana and the cartagenera. Manuel Escasena was another great singer, and Antonio Chacón admired him. Escasena's head was strangely shaped, and people used to compare it to a cucumber. I remember that Chacón once said to me about him, "Montoyita, have a listen to this 'cucumberhead'; he's extraordinary." On more than one occasion, Chacón himself saw to it that a hundred-peseta note was given to Escasena at a juerga in Villa Rosa, pretending that some other person had given it to him. Good old Antonio Chacón was a kind man. I remember when Chacón introduced me in Seville at a party, at the time of the fairs. The biggest names in cante of that period were there, and it was me, the great unknown, who accompanied Don Antonio. When he introduced me, he just said, "First, you're all going to sing, and then I'll sing, accompanied by Montoya, and I assure you that I'm going to make all of you cry." That's exactly what happened: everyone ended up crying. He admired me so much that he even forgave me at a party of the Duke of Medinaceli for arriving late because I'd preferred to go on with a game of pool. He simply said, "Montoya, are you a pool player or a guitar player?" On another occasion, back in Seville, the admiration of the Andalusians made them refuse to believe that I'd been born in the capital, and he replied in a friendly way, "Tell 'em you were born in Seville, will you?"
In Paris, he performed in the Opera Cómica with la Argentinita
The conversation turned to his more recent performances and the events to take place in the Maravillas theater. Montoya tells us:
—I've just finished performing in Paris for eight months. After the first three, I was going to come to Buenos Aires, but my stay there was extended, and they wouldn't let me come here. I performed several times in the Pleyel, in Paris, and twice in the Opera Cómica, accompanying Encarnación López, la Argentinita—she went over really big. That countrywoman of yours is an excellent dancer! For me, she's the most complete artist in Spain, among bailaoras, and even with that tiny voice of hers, she sings wonderfully. She's all art of the finest quality, and the public of Paris could appreciate that, just as the public of Madrid had done before that. Then, I performed in Brussels, in London and in Switzerland, until I was able to leave for Marseilles, to board the ship, for all those days at sea. I don't even want to think about that, because I'll need all the courage I can muster for the return trip.
"In my performance in Buenos Aires, my repertoire will consist of interpretations on the guitar—on my leona—of pure classic flamenco art, such as soleares, malagueñas, granadinas, mineras, tarantas, rondeñas, bulerías, tango in major and minor, guajiras, farrucas, seguidillas and la rosa; and I'll perform each piece according to the public's wishes. I've received many references to the Argentine people, and I've been wanting to meet them for a long time."