Here Come Las Tocaoras! by Jason Webster
Women’s rights, like democracy, came relatively late to Spain. Franco’s “National-Catholicist” regime held back many social reforms—divorce was only finally legalized in 1981, and abortion as recently as 2010.
So it should come as no surprise that the world of flamenco has rarely been a bastion of equal opportunity for women, particularly given its close links with the socially conservative Gypsy community. This has been most apparent among guitar players. Female guitarists—tocaoras—have existed only as a tiny, uncelebrated minority. Until now, that is.
There are many reasons for this, but of the three pillars of the art form—dance (el baile), singing (el cante) and guitar (el toque)—guitar playing is the only one where a gender difference makes no difference, turning a woman performer into a potential threat to male domination.
Yet, female guitarists have existed probably for as long as flamenco itself. The Victorian British travel writer George Borrow mentions an unnamed woman guitarist resident in the jail of Toro in his classic book The Bible in Spain. In the early 20th century, Adela Cubas, Victoria de Miguel (who was taught by Andrés Segovia), Paca la Coja, and Trinidad Huertas (“La Cuenca”) were all well-known and highly regarded players.
Franco’s Civil War victory in 1939 brought great social change, however, and female guitarists became less prominent over the second half of the 20th century as a result. Happily for us, this trend is now waning, and you can talk about a great leap forward for tocaoras in recent years—although it is interesting to note that to a significant degree this new movement is coming from outside Spain or from non-Spanish players.
Among native Spanish guitarists, the most important name at present is Antonia Jiménez, from Puerto de Santa María. Now in her early 40s, Jiménez has accompanied singers such as the great Carmen Linares, Montse Cortés, and the young, award-winning Juan Pinilla from Granada. She has also been at the center musically of the critically acclaimed show De Flamencas, an homage to female performers by the celebrated dancer Marco Flores. In addition, Jiménez has gone on to create her own production, Dos Tocaoras, in conjunction with Marta Robles, a classically trained guitarist from Seville who has concentrated more recently on flamenco.
In this video Antonia Jiménez (toque), Marco Flores (baile), and Mercedes Cortés (cante) perform Seguiriya.
Other Spanish players of note at present include: Pilar Alonso, who studied under Manolo Sanlúcar and bills herself “Spain’s first official female flamenco guitar teacher;” Laura González; Mercedes Luján; and Celia Morales, who has her own school in Ronda.
Interestingly, however, the first prominent woman flamenco guitarist to record an album lives not in Spain, but in Montreal. Caroline Planté’s 8 Reflexiones came out in 2010 and is a treat. Taught from a young age by her father, Marcel, Planté shows total mastery not only of her instrument, but of the many different palos of flamenco. The album combines sounds from rap and African music, and as such fits well into the mold of “flamenco-fusion” that has been in vogue for so long now.
Caroline Planté and Tamar Ilana perform Fandangos de Huelva.
But the moments of pure flamenco are the ones that stand out, with Planté’s performance showing both subtlety, great accompanying skill (not least on the track with singing star Duquende), as well as unique flair. Let’s hope a follow-up album won’t be too long in coming.
Another “foreign” player who has taken a similar, if even less orthodox, route is Bettina Flater from Norway, who combines songs in her native language with her guitar playing in two albums to date: Women en Mi (2012) and La Gota y La Mar (2014). Personally, I admire her courage, and the results are interesting, but the marriage of flamenco and Norwegian song is not always successful, and in some instances upstages her undoubted skill as a guitarist.
A 2011 performance from Bettina Flater.
There has been a great leap forward for tocaoras in recent years, although it is interesting to note that to a significant degree this new movement is coming from outside Spain, or from non-Spanish players.
Continuing the trend of non-Spanish players challenging perceptions about female guitarists is Noa Drezner. Born in Israel but based in Jerez, Spain, Drezner has a great future ahead of her. Still in her early 30s, she has already partnered with Antonia Jiménez in De Flamencas and was one of the most exciting talents to appear in Alicia Cifredo’s 2010 documentary on female flamenco guitar players, Tocaoras. She tours regularly in Israel, where she is a soloist with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod, and as of this spring, was working on her debut album.
Noa Drezner and Carmen Tundidor perform Un Poco de Azucar.
After years of prejudice, today, female flamenco guitarists are undoubtedly on the rise and becoming noticed (a book about them, Mujeres Guitarristas by Eulalia Pablo Lozano, was published in Spain in 2009). In fact, as Drezner says, it can even be an advantage to be a woman in a male-dominated world, as the strangeness of being a tocaora can attract more attention and publicity.
The numbers are still small, and there is a feeling of sisterhood among many of them. But we will only know that real progress has been made when articles such as this are no longer written, and male and female guitarists are mentioned in the same breath, with no reference made whatsoever to their gender.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Jason Vieaux, Joaquin Rodrigo, female flamenco guitarists, a special focus on contemporary luthiers, and much more. Click here for more information on the issue.