by Jason Webster
The past few years have seen the deaths of a significant number of flamenco greats—musicians who revolutionized the art form, defined a generation, and helped propel it into the future. Among them are internationally renowned figures; Paco de Lucía and Enrique Morente perhaps being the most celebrated. But May this year saw the passing of one guitarist, who was possibly less famous outside Spain but who, at the peak of his popularity, used to hire Paco de Lucía as his support act for sold-out performances in football stadiums and bullrings around the country. That man was Manuel Molina, guitarist, singer, composer, lyricist, “flamenco troubadour,” freethinker, and one half of the chart-topping duo of the 1970s Lole y Manuel.
No flamenco guitarist understood the power of silence like Molina. While other soloists were forever speeding up, seeming to fit more notes than was physically possible into a bar, Molina was as content speaking the language of pauses, as much as the choppy virtuosity that defined his playing. Visually, he was an arresting performer, holding the guitar vertically—not unlike the figure in Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist,” but with his head turned in toward his instrument rather than away from it.
Molina pioneered his own unique style of accompanying song and dance, and absorbing influences as diverse as traditional Moroccan rhythms and the psychedelic blues-rock of Jimi Hendrix. He was one of the prime movers of what became known as nuevo-flamenco—the thrilling experimentation with the art form in the 1970s that made flamenco a bestseller once more and provided the soundtrack for a generation finally casting off the chains of the Francisco Franco dictatorship in Spain.
Molina was born in 1948 in the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta. His father was a Gypsy flamenco guitarist known as El Encajero. When Manuel was still young, the family moved across the strait to the Spanish mainland and the coastal city of Algeciras, where Molina first met an adolescent Paco de Lucía. “He was always busy studying the guitar then,” he later said of de Lucía.
Before long, however, Molina was on the move again. He finally settled in Seville, which remained his home for the rest of his life, and became the city with which he most identified himself. “A person can be from wherever he wants to be,” he once said, in a comment that typified much of the freedom of spirit that defined his character.
A chance to join the rock band Smash helped get him out of military service. (The lead singer had good contacts.) That also became the impetus for Molina to start mixing different musical styles with flamenco. In time, this would become known as “flamenco fusion.” Molina was there at the start, but tended not to use the term himself, preferring to speak of “blending.”
Real success, however, came when he started performing with Lole Montoya, daughter of the Gypsy flamenco singer La Negra. Artistic as well as marriage partners, they formed Lole y Manuel, one of the most popular musical groups in modern Spanish history. While Molina experimented with new rhythms, Lole sang with a clearer, more melodic voice than was common at the time, combining the flamenco aesthetic with a hippie flavor that became an instant hit with young Spaniards who, until that moment, had regarded flamenco as music of the past. The group’s first album, 1975’s Nuevo Día, came out just as Franco was dying, and encapsulated much of the heady, hopeful spirit of the period, not least with its title, which translates as “new day.”
More albums followed at the rate of one a year, but by the 1980s the marriage had ended and the artistic collaborations continued only sporadically. Nonetheless, the impact had been made, and flamenco would never be the same.
Molina continued to perform, either singing to his own guitar-playing or accompanying dancers such as Farruquito and Manuela Carrasco. International recognition of sorts came when the Lole y Manuel track “Tu Mirá” was used in Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 hit film Kill Bill: Volume 2.
This winter, Molina was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died a couple of months later. In a gesture characteristic of the man, he decided to forego any medical treatment. “Money,” he said, “is the real cancer. And the rest—lack of understanding, power, egoism—is the metastasis.”
He leaves a legacy of both words and music.
“We are in a cage,” he once noted, “but time marches on and we must try not to have any regrets.”
He also once remarked: “We want to make flamenco not only show its sad side, but its life-loving one as well: flowers, sunshine, and all those vital qualities needed to understand the Andalusian people.”
Joyful, independent, and unique, he died in much the way that he lived—uncompromising, always forging his own path, quintessentially flamenco. No one better could write his epitaph:
Let no one cry the day I die;
It’s more beautiful to sing,
Even if the song comes with pain
Enjoy this short short documentary about Molina made in 2013 by Tao Ruspoli.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Roland Dyens, Bradley Colten, a special focus on guitar education, news, reviews (CDs, sheet music, and live concerts), and much more.