Interview with Manolo Franco. Cordoba, Spain July 2007
With this interview, Manolo Franco gives us the opportunity to get to know him, telling us of his beginnings in Seville, his relationships with singers, dancers and guitarists, his experience with the Giraldillo contest, his position on the faculty of the Conservatory of Cordoba and his new instructional series of DVDs and CDs that has been created along with producer, Manuel Salado. This interview will give you an opportunity to meet one of the most sought after guitarists in flamenco today. Enjoy!
La Falseta (LF): Here we are with Manolo Franco, from Seville, at the Cordoba Guitar Festival in Cordoba, Spain. Well, thank you very much for allowing us to interview you.
Manolo Franco Barón (MFB): You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.
LF: Let’s start from the beginning. You started playing in Seville, right? How old were you?
MFB: Well, I was born in Seville, I live in the capital city of Seville and, more or less, I started playing guitar when I was about 12 years old.
LF: Who instilled flamenco in you?
MFB: There is only one family member that instilled flamenco in me and that was my uncle Manolo Barón, may he rest in peace. He was a professional guitarist. He was in many professional flamenco companies like the company of José Greco, who was in the United States. Paco de Lucia was also a member of that company when he was just a young boy. I was never really able to see my uncle perform because I was very young and he was always touring, working outside of Spain. Sometimes, he would come to our house and I would watch him through a window. Most likely that’s when I developed a passion for the guitar. At that time I probably was 4 or 5 years old.
Then, at about 12 years old, I started to study with my flamenco teacher, Antonio De Osuna. He was my private teacher.
LF: Did you start with traditional flamenco or something else?
MFB: No, no. I started with traditional flamenco, the pure stuff. After that, my uncle, Manolo Barón, would teach me things. He would come to my house on vacation; because he lived in New York City, in Manhattan…… he was married to an American woman, who was a dancer in the José Greco Company. Her name was Carolina de los Reyes. My uncle would teach me some classical guitar stuff and some things to help me develop my technique. He taught me things like, “La Catedral”, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”, “El Colibrí”, things from Albéniz, Villa-Lobos, etc.
LF: Were you able to read music at that time?
MFB: My uncle, yes. He would teach me these things by showing me. Unfortunately, I have never been able to read music.
LF: Which guitarist, with whom you never had direct contact, influenced you most with his music?
MFB: First, because we were more or less of the same generation, I listened to Paco de Lucia. After that, I listened to Sabicas, Niño Ricardo, and Ramón Montoya. But because of the age….. I listened to the records of Paco and the records of Camarón.
LF: Was it perhaps because you saw him on T.V., listened to him on the radio, or saw him on tour?
MFB: It was he who amazed me the most. After that, I realized that many of the things that Paco did were influenced or done by others. I was like, “Hey, that’s not Paco’s! That’s Niño Ricardo’s!” I started kind of backwards. I started with Paco and then worked my way backwards, listening to the music of Niño Ricardo, Ramón Montoya, Sabicas, etc..
LF: And what about cante? How did you become…… let’s be frank, one of the best accompanying guitarists of cante, especially in today’s flamenco?
MFB: Thank you very much. It kind of happened in waves. Besides having a private teacher that would teach me falsetas and other things, I went to dance academies, not to learn how to dance but to learn how to accompany dance. Furthermore, it was my first job as a professional guitarist, playing for dance.
LF: How old were you at this time?
MFB: I was about 15 years old when Matilde Coral first took me on stage with her. There were a lot of professional flamenco artists with her. That’s when she first hired me as a professional guitarist, around 15 years old. At 13 or 14 years old, I was in the dance academies learning the rhythms and different flamenco styles. All the people that worked with Matilde were professionals and, since I new all of the choreographies and music, she would take me with her.
LF: You, in 1985, made a record titled, “Aljibe”.
MFB: Right, it was in 1985.
LF: Have you done any other solo record since then?
MFB: No, because I concentrated on becoming an accompanying guitarist.
LF: Is that where your passion really is?
MFB: I like it. The only thing is that I’ve come to realize that my curiosity for concert flamenco guitar is still there. For this reason we made the instructional DVD and CD series that we will speak about later. In reality, they are concert flamenco pieces. I needed to record all of the ideas and pieces that I’ve had sitting around.
LF: Let’s talk about the first prize that changed your career forever. I believe it was in 1984, correct?
MFB: Yes. The Giraldillo del Toque.... it was in 1984. As a result of this prize, I was able to record, “Aljibe”.
LF: Was it part of the prize?
MFB: No. It was not.
LF: But it helped you get the support to record the album.
MFB: Exactly. It helped me record the pieces I had at the time.
LF: One of the jury members that year was Paco de Lucia, if I’m not mistaken, right?
MFB: Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlúcar, Víctor Monge Serranito, Juan Habichuela, Mario Escudero and some others that were not guitarists but were very important in the flamenco world such as, Félix Grande.
LF: It’s said that the participants were the most stressed out that year than any other year because of the makeup of the jury.
MFB: Most likely. I don’t think a jury of that makeup has ever been at any other contest since….. or ever will be.
LF: Who were the participants that year, if you can recall.
MFB: Yes. That’s something I’ll never forget. The participants in the finals…. The finalists were, Tomatito, José Antonio Rodríguez, Paco del Gastor, Pedro Bacán, Rafael Riqueni and me.
LF: You were the first prize winner.
MFB: In this contest, yes.
LF: All of the guitarists were top notch. It must be quite difficult because you are competing in an art form where every guitarist has a unique style of playing and his own thing.
MFB: Of course, but I am completely against contests and competitions. I want to make that very clear. At that particular moment, the jury came to that decision. It wasn’t only that you had to play solo flamenco guitar. People believe that the Giraldillo is about that. No. No. No. You had to also play for cante and baile.
MFB: Exactly, The prize was for the best round player in the three disciplines. You have to play in the three categories and be the most complete in the three.
LF: Of course, you’ve had professional relationships with all of the participants during your career.
MFB: Yes. We’ve come together on different recordings, concerts, working on different projects.....
LF: Is there any old-school guitarist that really impacted you? Meaning, “Man, that’s awesome, that’s really flamenco!”
LF: Who? If you only had one choice.
MFB: Yes, it’s a bit delicate of a topic because everyone has their personal tastes. But for me, the one who impressed me the most listening to him the first time was Sabicas.
LF: Did you every meet him?
MFB: Yes. He actually came to see me perform at one of my concerts.
LF: Here in Spain?
LF: What was your experience with him like?
MFB: It was very short but it was a very humbling experience. He was very kind to me. But I can remember when I first heard that taranta, I said, “Wow! What’s this?” His way of harmonizing, the cleanliness of his playing…… simply incredible.
LF: Let’s change a bit the direction of the interview and talk about your new instructional series of DVDs and CDs that you’ve put on the market with producer, Manuel Salado. I believe, at the moment, there are 10 volumes. How did this project come about?
MFB: Yes, at this moment there are 10 volumes.
LF: The collection was produced by Manuel Salado.
LF: But all of the music is yours, composed by you and of course, and not only are there concert flamenco pieces but also lessons on how to accompany cante.
LF: Can you explain to us how this idea came about and how you were presented with the opportunity?
MFB: Yes. In reality, it wasn’t my idea but that of the producer, Manuel Salado. He saw the opportunity. In regards to my compositions, it’s an instructional video of my concert pieces. But, we also wanted to make an instructional video of accompanying cante. Each DVD and CD is dedicated to a different palo (flamenco style). So for each composition, there is a segment on how to accompany that palo. Everything is based on a pretty traditional form and somewhat easier for the less experienced or beginning guitarist. The concert pieces are more for advanced players. After, we wanted to make, for each palo, a segment on how to accompany cante with a more traditional approach, with sheet music, tempo slowed down, focusing individually on both the left and right hands. Also for me, on a personal level, it was my desire to record the things I had sitting around for the longest time, since “Aljibe”, that I wanted to record.
LF: So, in reality, it’s almost as if you recorded 10 albums!
MFB: I guess you could put it like that. I don’t like to record an album every year but I think it’s good to record something when you really have something to say. It was a while for me but I guess better later that never.
LF: Besides the music, I saw that it is very well adapted for the Non-Spanish guitarist. It’s in 6 languages. It’s very nice for the guitarist that does not speak Spanish.
MFB: Yes. It’s in Japanese, English, French, German and Chinese, aside from the Spanish. I think the sheet music is very important because there are always guitarists that are able to read music, especially classical guitarists. The falsetas are put to a metronome so that you can keep time while learning the falsetas, to keep you in compas.
LF: You now are on the faculty of the Conservatory of Cordoba, correct?
MFB: Yes. I just finished my 3rd year.
LF: Apart from the courses you give in the Cordoba Guitar Festival, It seems that you’ve always had an interest in the teaching of flamenco and the expansion of the flamenco art in general. How did you get hooked up with the Conservatory?
MFB: I’ve been teaching flamenco workshops for many years, since the first ones I taught in France, when they would hire me to give classes and concerts. Well, with the conservatory, they kind of hand selected us, El Niño de Pura and me.
LF: I guess they called you guys because of you professional experience, the years in the art.
MFB: Yes. They called us because they created two new courses that did not exist before within the flamenco major, Cante and Baile accompaniment.
LF: Which class do you teach?
MFB: I teach both classes. Niño de Pura teaches both of them also. There are also other flamenco teachers that are on the faculty, Paco Serrano y Carlos Pacheco.
LF: How is the program? Is it successful?
MFB: Oh yeah, It’s great. You’ve got to understand that these courses were absolutely necessary in the study of flamenco guitar. They were fundamental classes.
LF: I have a tiny question. Are the students only Spanish or from all over the world?
MFB: There aren’t only Spanish students. There are some foreigners but the majority are Spanish.
LF: From Andalusia or from other parts of Spain too?
MFB: From all over Spain. Cordoba in one of the few conservatories in Spain when you can study flamenco in what we call, a “superior level”. I believe you can in Murcia and Barcelona. Perhaps in a few other places.
LF: Now that you are in a faculty position in a major conservatory…… you learned flamenco in flamenco clubs, parties, dance academies…… did you ever think, as a youngster, that you would teach in a university or conservatory environment?
MFB: Never in my life! I couldn’t ever have imagined it.
LF: Now that you’re here, how do you see it?
MFB: In reality, you never know what’s going to happen in life. At that time, I never could have imagined this happening to me or to flamenco itself….. That I would become a flamenco professor in a major conservatory.
LF: So…. You’re at the same level of classical music.
LF: This is kind of what Andrés Segovia fought for in the classical guitar world. Now, the classical guitar is in every major university and conservatory in the world, not only in Spain. Do you think the flamenco guitar will reach the level of the classical guitar, like Andrés Segovia did for the classical guitar? For example, there is already a flamenco guitar major in Rotterdam, Holland that was created by Paco Peña.
MFB: Yes, sir! First, it’s going to expand here in Spain because it’s not in all of the conservatories yet. Then it’ll expand to other universities and conservatories around the world. It’s going to be incredible. Getting back to the original question…… I could not and can’t believe that I’m teaching at a conservatory. I’m quite a timid and shy person…. To get in front of people and teach them.
LF: Who was the cantaor that most impacted you? What I mean is, I know that you’ve been working with Calixto Sánchez for quite some years, but I mean the cantaor that gave you your first steps.
MFB: Well, I always go back to the cantaores of my generation, like Camarón. Two things would come together. I would buy Camaron’s records because Paco was on them. So I would buy them for the both of them.
LF: It was like two for one. Kind of a bargain! Ha! Ha!
MFB: Yeah, it was like two for one (laughs). I liked Camaron and he was part of my generation, aside the fact that he was an excellent cantaor and Paco was recording with him. But, when I became more of a fan of cante, I realized that there were other things out there, other cantaores with different qualities. Those who impact you most are those with whom you have the most contact. Or those who help you break into the world of the festivals. I will never forget who has also passed away, Naranjito de Triana. Why? Because he’s the one who introduced me to the flamenco festivals and took me with him. I was still young, only about 18, 20 years old. I spent a lot of time with him. I had a very direct contact with him.
LF: As we get closer to the end of the interview, the majority of those who will be reading this article are guitarists. What guitars do you own? I suppose you have quite a few guitars.
MFB: I have (pause and laugh)……….. right now I have quite a few……….. Thank goodness that I have the adequate space for them and I don’t annoy my wife with them (laughs). I have two that my uncle gave me from Ramirez, a classical and flamenco. I’ve had also from Miguel Rodriguez of Cordoba. It was a guitar that I played a lot. The good part of my career was with that guitar. It almost gave me a certain distinguished sound that I’m identified with on recordings. I don’t play it very much anymore because it seems that the action and tension has changed a bit. I have some guitars from Conde Hermanos, one which I won the Giradillo with. I also have guitars from Juan Miguel Gonzalez of Almeria, who is here present with us. I used one of his guitars in my instructional series. These are the latest ones I’ve acquired. I also have a Manuel Reyes of Cordoba that I use when I accompany cante. I really like the action and tension of this guitar. I also have a guitar from Jeronimo Peña. It’s a beautiful guitar. It has very elaborate work on both the bridge and head. That’s more or less my collection of guitars.
LF: Well, I would just like to thank you very much for allowing us to do this interview. It was a real pleasure. Do you have anything to say to all of the guitarists that will be reading this interview?
MFB: I would simply like to say to be patient and to keep searching within the guitar and flamenco and to not give up learning, discover new things and, of course, to learn from whomever you can. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and best wishes!!
Errol Putigna and Manolo Franco