Carlos Montoya Brought Controversial Changes to Flamenco and Left a Mixed Legacy


Some time ago, a headline in the cultural pages of Spain’s El País newspaper caught my eye. The flamenco dancer Sara Baras, it was reported, had been a “triumph” at a recent performance in Paris. How odd, I thought, that such a thing should be newsworthy; surely to be considered a success, a flamenco artist had to stun audiences in Jerez or Seville—home of true aficionados—rather than a northern European city.

The story highlighted a general Spanish tendency in which homegrown talent—in any field—often has to succeed abroad first before it can be recognized back home. “No one is a prophet in their home country,” as the local proverb has it, and well-known Spaniards from Picasso to Formula One driver Fernando Alonso and classical ballerina Tamara Rojo are all examples of this bias.

Success is, in addition, a double-edged sword. Become too successful and the same tongues which once dealt out so much praise can be employed to lash out with bitter criticism. And no artistic community is more prone to back-biting than the world of flamenco, not least due to its rumbling internal battle between “conservatives” and “progressives,” traditionalists and experimenters. Witness some of the comments directed recently toward the young Catalan singer Rosalia (whose wonderful album, Los Angeles, I urge everyone to listen to, by the way.)

A tocaor who received more than his fair share of opprobrium from purists was
Carlos Montoya (1904–1993), one of the most celebrated flamenco guitarists—outside Spain. It is possible that the first time many readers of this column heard flamenco guitar was when listening to a recording of Montoya. Certainly, I have fond memories from my own teenage years of playing a battered old cassette of his, and being captivated. Before Paco de Lucía, no one did more to export flamenco guitar to the rest of the world—particularly the U.S., which became Montoya’s home following the outbreak of WWII. Yet his dissemination of flamenco came at some considerable cost to his reputation among other flamenco performers—perhaps not unfairly.

Born in Madrid in 1903 to Gypsy parents, Montoya was taught the basics of guitar by his mother after his father died. A teacher (Pepe el Barbero) was eventually found for the young boy, but within a short time Montoya had outgrown him and needed new tuition. His uncle was the well- known guitarist Ramón Montoya. Ramón refused to give his nephew actual lessons, claiming he was too busy teaching his own son, but did agree to take Carlos with him on tour so he could pick things up along the way. This became the young player’s apprenticeship, and by the age of 14 he was accompanying professional bailaores and cantaores on Madrid stages.


His career began to blossom when he was asked by the dancer La Argentina to tour with her. There followed several years of performances around the world, particularly in Latin America and in Japan, where Montoya was offered a two-year post as professor of guitar at Tokyo University. He turned that down, but not before agreeing to be filmed. Footage of his guitar-playing went on to become a cornerstone of the development of flamenco in that country.

Montoya settled in the U.S. in the early 1940s and was naturalized after marrying local dancer Sally McLean. He continued playing a more traditional form of flamenco for some years, but toward the end of the decade started to change his style—to play flamenco guitar as a solo instrument (the first major player to do so) and create the sound with which we are all so familiar.

Was his American wife behind the shift? Some say she was. Or perhaps it was the effect of finding himself in a different environment, surrounded by such powerful musical forms as blues and jazz. Whatever the reason, from this point on, Montoya began to experiment. And perhaps his most controversial move was to take a more relaxed approach to compás.

As regular readers of this column will know, compás refers to the rhythm and beat of flamenco, and it is pretty much sacrosanct. To be fuera de compás—“out of the groove”—is cardinal sin número uno. Yet it was precisely this sacred cow that Montoya decided to sacrifice.

The result was a greater freedom with tempo, allowing him to produce what might be described as a more “romantic” sound, and foreign audiences lapped it up. Back home, however, the response was cooler; his populist style was regularly lambasted as “degenerate” and “absurd.”

Whatever one’s view, however, the fact is Montoya did more than anyone to introduce flamenco to millions of people around the world who otherwise might never have come across it—something for which the man needs to be given his due. He was also the first major flamenco guitarist to perform regularly with orchestras, and his recorded legacy includes more than 40 albums, many of them popular titles during the 1950s and 1960s in particular.

It is perhaps ironic that Paco de Lucía—universally recognized as a flamenco giant and ambassador for the art form—later blended jazz and other musical forms into his style, just as Carlos Montoya had done decades before.

Except that Paco never lost his compás.