Obituary: Carlos Montoya

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The Independent Online
Carlos Montoya, guitarist, born Madrid 13 December 1903, married 1940 Sally MacLean (two sons), died Wainscott New York 3 March 1993.

ONCE ASKED who he considered was his historical parallel, Carlos Montoya answered: 'Columbus, because of my zeal in 'discovering' new chords.' The comment, made without irony, sums up the benign arrogance that characterised the US-based Spanish flamenco guitarist.

Montoya, a gypsy who was born in Madrid's former Jewish quarter of Lavapies in 1903, was taught to play guitar by his mother and a neighbour who was a barber. He never learnt to read music, but allowed others to score his innumerable compositions. 'For me, musical texts are mere guides. I believe in improvisation, which is the basis of flamenco guitar.'

But, oddly enough, Montoya's importance was not so much as an improviser of flamenco. In the 1950s, and encouraged by his American wife Sally MacLean, Montoya became the first flamenco guitarist to dispense with accompaniment and elevate the instrument to sole protagonist - until then, the guitar was used to accompany singers and dancers. Montoya transferred his art to the concert hall, becoming a concert guitarist, playing frequently with symphony orchestras.

The most famous of his 40-odd albums is Suite Flamenca (1966), recorded with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Nobody had done such a thing before with the flamenco guitar. On his 80th birthday, Montoya played at Carnegie Hall. But he never forgot the intimacy of flamenco. When he was 85, he performed at the Village Gate in Manhattan to a capacity 450 audience, exactly 30 years after playing at the club on its opening night.

However, Montoya's significance may in time be seen as more contemporary. Again under American influence - he lived in New York from 1940 - Montoya incorporated many forms into his music, including folk, country, jazz and blues. And one of the big debates under way today in what is called Spain's New Flamenco scene is the future of flamenco, especially since the death last year of its undisputed vocal king, Camaron de la Isla.

Since the early 1980s, many young gypsy artists have experimented with various crossover forms. Bands like Ketama and Pata Negra have used blues and salsa, for example, to point to possible future flamenco paths. What would Montoya have thought of all that? Which raises another interesting point. Montoya rarely played in Spain after the 1940s. His wife, Sally, said in 1988: 'We go to Spain every year to eat well, but Carlos doesn't want to perform there because everything has to be done through the Ministry of Culture and he hates bureaucracy.'

Elsewhere, however, he was a prolific performer. In 1979, he played 390 concerts, often three a day in different cities. He often joked that his second home was the aeroplane, and that there was not a town or city in the United States that he had not played.

Montoya began playing at the age of 14 in Madrid cafes and flamenco clubs with the greatest singers of the time - Manuel Pavon, Escasena, El Mochuelo, El Nino de los Lobitos. He played first in Paris and then in New York with the dancer Antonia Merce, 'la Argentina', but his wife convinced him by the 1950s to attempt the unheard-of - offer solo concerts.

He met Sally MacLean, a diplomat's daughter, in Paris in 1936 where she was learning Spanish dance, and they married in 1940.

There is much debate as to what extent Montoya ceased to play 'pure flamenco'. But few would disagree with the comment of Montoya's friend and fellow guitarist Felix de Utrera - 'When he plays, it's like listening to a gypsy harp.'

(Photograph omitted)