No overview of the past 40 years of Spanish guitar would be complete without an appreciation of Manolo Sanlúcar, a contemporary of Paco de Lucía and co-instigator of the late-20th-century revolution in flamenco music. Like many leading figures in the art form, Manuel (Manolo) Muñoz was brought up in a flamenco family, born in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda near Cádiz in 1943. His father was a guitarist and used to play with the legendary singer Pepe Marchena. The young Manolo was taught by his father from an early age, making his professional debut when he was only 13. In his early career he was supported by La Niña de los Peines, and for a long time was accompanist to singer La Paquera de Jerez (Francisca Méndez Garrido), a powerful thunderstorm of a cantaora, who facilitated an important turning point in Manolo’s artistic development. It is commonly said that a flamenco guitarist needs to spend ten years accompanying dancers and another ten with singers before he should play solo. Manolo did his full apprenticeship, and after adopting the stage name ‘Sanlúcar’ after his home town, started playing concerts and recitals across Spain, where his unmistakeable talent, clean sound, and technical virtuosity made him quickly stand out as someone to watch.
It was the early 1970s and Spain was entering a fascinating transitional phase socially, politically, and culturally. The Franco regime was in its death throes and old taboos were being broken. Like many of his contemporaries, Sanlúcar started to experiment with his chosen art form, pushing flamenco in new directions, and extending its boundaries. As he later commented, “We realized that the guitar needed to be harmonically enriched; flamenco guitar [at the time] was harmonically impoverished.”
Some of his explorations moved in the direction of “easy listening” and pop, heralded by the track “Caballo Negro” on his 1974 album Sanlúcar. With its use of drums, electric bass, and rhythm guitars, it was one of the milestones in the development of what later became known as nuevo flamenco. This was followed several years later by the hit tracks “Candela” (1980) and “Al Viento” (1982).
Apart from this lighter sound, however, Sanlúcar’s greatest legacy perhaps lies in his marriage of flamenco with classical music, a format in which he shines both as a composer and virtuoso. This relationship began with his Fantasía Para Guitarra y Orquesta (1978), an ambitious four-movement piece with clear influences from Joaquín Rodrigo and the Spanish classical guitar tradition. This was followed in 1982 by his “flamenco opera” titled Ven y Sígueme, in which the noted singers El Lebrijano and Rocío Jurado performed, and his ballet, Medea, which has been taken around the world by the renowned Spanish National Ballet company.
As with all flamenco greats, however, Sanlúcar is engaged in the complex balancing act between innovating and remaining loyal to tradition, and while forays into the classical world have opened new possibilities, he has never forgotten his roots. The synthesis that this has produced in his music is best represented by Tauromagia (1988), one of his masterpieces and, in my opinion, the best flamenco guitar album ever recorded. The music charts the course of a bullfight, from the animal’s life in the countryside, to the beginning of the fight, the pageantry and various sections of the lidia (the actual bullfight), and finally the torero’s triumphal exit through the main gate. The bulería “Tercio de Vara” alone has a subtlety, balance, and complexity to it that makes the entire album worth listening to, while the final track, “Puerta del Príncipe” has become one of Sanlúcar’s signature pieces and was featured in Carlos Saura’s celebrated film, Flamenco. (Watch a clip below.)
After performing such great service to flamenco, scoring huge successes, and winning countless awards, in 2013 at the age of 70, Sanlúcar announced that he was retiring. He has not played in public since, but he leaves a rich legacy, not only in the new territory that he explored for the art form, but in the large number of younger players who have been inspired—directly and indirectly—to follow in his footsteps. If you don’t know his work, go out and discover it—you have a treat waiting for you.