Montoya, Carlos García: 1903-1993: Guitarist
Carlos García Montoya: 1903-1993: Guitarist
Carlos Montoya transformed flamenco guitar in the 1950s and 1960s, showing that it deserved consideration as an art form outside of its traditional context as background music for dancers with casta-nets. "Hailed by guitar wizards such as Steve Howe, Robbie Krieger, and Eddie Van Halen as a genius and inspiration," wrote Guillermo Juan Christie in Guitar Player, "Montoya asserted the independence of the flamenco guitar as a viable world-class solo instrument, and his impact on the spread of flamenco cannot be underestimated." Montoya impressed audiences from the Orient to Latin America with his agile technique, and broadened the appeal of flamenco by recording over 40 albums. Wrote Billboard, "Montoya was a performer whose passionate style and improvisational skills earned him enormous public acclaim and provided a model for other flamenco guitarists."
Gypsy Heritage Influenced Music
Montoya was born in Madrid, Spain, on December 13, 1903. His father, Juan Garcia, who sold mules to the Spanish Army, died when Montoya was two. His mother, Emilia Montoya, was an amateur guitarist, and began teaching her son when he was eight. Emilia's brother, Ramón Montoya, was also a flamenco guitarist, but was too busy giving lessons to his own son to provide them for his nephew. The family nonetheless made sure that Montoya was introduced to the best players, and as his technique advanced, he began to study guitar with a local barber, Pepe el Barbero. Soon, however, he surpassed his teacher. While Montoya continued to learn from other players, he remained basically self-taught, and although he would one day compose flamenco music for orchestras, he never learned to read music.
Montoya's gypsy heritage also played an important role in his choice to become a musician. Gypsies had immigrated to Spain from India in the fifteenth century and were forced to settle in the Andalusian province. There, the Gypsies absorbed the folk cultures of the Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Spanish. Flamenco featured guitarists who improvised variations on a small number of chords as dancers tapped their toes and clicked castanets. Many maintained—as did Montoya—that only Gypsies could play flamenco with real heart. Montoya inherited this culture and was what the Spanish call "gitano per los cuatro costados," which meant he was Gypsy on all four sides of his family.
At a Glance . . .
Born Carlos García Montoya on December 13, 1903, in Madrid, Spain; died on March 3, 1993 in Wainscott, NY; son of Juan García and Emilia Montoya; married Sally MacLean, May 4, 1940; children: Carlos Jr., Allan MacLean.
Career: Played in local cafés at age 14; toured Europe with dancer La Argentina, late 1920s; toured Far East and United States with La Teresina, 1933; toured Latin America with La Argentinita, 1938; immigrated to United States, 1940; performed as solo and concert guitarist, mid-1940s-1989.
At the age of 14, the budding flamenco guitarist began to learn the tools of his trade by accompanying dancers in nearby towns. Montoya earned a dollar a day, which he used to buy wine for other players in exchange for lessons. Because he made so little money, he worked as a clerk during the day at the post office and later at a courthouse. His skill and reputation grew, and before he was 21 he had performed for famous dancers of ballet and flamenco including Juan el Estampio, La Camisona, and Antonio de Bilbao. In 1924 Montoya joined the army and was stationed in Morocco, where he remained for the next three years. During that time he continued to practice guitar and play for others. He moved to Madrid after completing his military service, and continued playing in cafés.
Toured With "La Argentina"
In 1928 Montoya met Antônia Mercé, a dancer known as "La Argentina," and she invited him to join her troupe. He remained with Mercé for three years, traveling throughout Europe, and then joined Vicente Escudero on his flamenco tour. In 1933 he traveled outside of Europe for the first time, touring the United States and the Far East with La Teresina. Montoya received a warm welcome in Japan where he was offered a two-year teaching position at the University of Tokyo. Although he turned the offer down, he allowed the university to make a film of his playing method to use as a teaching tool.
In the late 1930s Montoya toured the United States and Latin America with Encarnación López ("La Argentinita"), and when war broke out in Europe in 1940, he moved to the United States. He later became a citizen, and on the eve of his naturalization performed at the White House for President Truman. In New York he became reacquainted with Sallie Ma-cLean, an American flamenco dancer, and the couple married on May 4, 1940. Montoya continued to tour with La Argentinita until her death in 1945.
In the late 1940s, at his wife's suggestion, Montoya decided to break away from tradition and establish flamenco guitar as a musical art form in its own right. This required performing without dancers and singers, without the clapping of castanets, and without audience participation. Montoya enlivened his performances by including many of the percussive elements common to traditional flamenco. His specially built guitars included metal plates, allowing him to vigorously tap his fingers against the guitar, and he learned to imitate the sound of the dancers by stomping his heels as he played. "His flamboyant musicianship drew huge audiences everywhere he played," noted Christie, "and for many his name is still synonymous with the flamenco guitar."
Performed at Carnegie Hall
Montoya and MacLean settled in Manhattan, but the guitarist toured frequently. "He often joked that his second home was the aeroplane," wrote Howell Llewellyn in the Independent, "and that there was not a town or city in the United States that he had not played." In the 1960s he composed Suite Flamenca, a concerto that blended orchestrated music with flamenco guitar. In January of 1966 Montoya performed the piece with the St. Louis Symphony, and called the evening one of the highlights of his career. "Montoya became the first flamenco guitarist to tour the world with symphonies and orchestras," noted Kim Summers in All Music Guide. He also continued to play a large number of concert dates during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979, at the age of 74, his schedule required him to play up to three concerts per day, leading to a total of 390 shows for the year.
Even in his eighties, Montoya continued to dazzle audiences. He performed at Carnegie Hall on his eightieth birthday and, at the age of 85, played before an audience of 450 at the Village Vanguard. Stephen Holden wrote of the artist's Carnegie Hall performance in the New York Times: "At 80, Mr. Montoya's technique remains impeccable, though decidedly unflashy." Montoya also proved himself an innovator by blending country, folk, blues, and jazz with flamenco, and while these experiments were controversial to purists, they proved influential to new flamenco groups like Ketama and Pata Negra. Unfortunately for the world of music and international flamenco lovers, Montoya passed away on March 3, 1993.
When once asked to compare himself to another historical figure, Montoya—without irony—chose Columbus. Like the great Italian explorer, Montoya discovered new chords and approaches to the flamenco guitar. "He was a great ambassador of flamenco arts," wrote Christie. Montoya, as a concert and recording artist, was perhaps the guitarist most responsible for moving flamenco from its Gypsy origins to the world stage. "The solo flamenco guitar has its own delights," noted Guitar Player, "and we know these thanks to pioneers such as Montoya, who had the courage to take center stage and try to covey their musical tradition on guitar alone."
Carlos Montoya, Allegro, 1981.
Guitar and Flamenco, EPM, 1990.
Art of Flamenco, Columbia/Legacy, 1993.
Flamenco, Fonit Cetra, 1997.
Tango Flamenco!, Fine Tune, 1999.
Current Biography Yearbook, Wilson, 1968.
Billboard, March 20, 1993, p. 10.
Guitar Player, April 1996, p. 60.
Independent, March 17, 1993, p. 35.
New York Times, March 29, 1983, p. C-14.
"Carlos Montoya," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 3, 2003).
"Carlos Montoya," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 3, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.