Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

3 posts from July 2023

31 July 2023

Recording of the Week: Flamenco runs in the blood

Dr Alejandro Martínez was a London-based GP with a passion for flamenco. An amateur guitarist himself, he was well connected within the professional scene and counted among his friends some of the greatest singers (cantaores), guitarists (tocaores) and dancers (bailaores) of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these flamenco stars would visit Dr Martínez when they passed through London on tour and participate in the informal sessions he hosted in his living room on Sunday afternoons. He recorded many of these private performances on his reel-to-reel tape recorder purely for fun and the novelty of playing them back instantly to the performers.

Dr Martínez’s recordings do not just capture outstanding performances from some of the biggest names in flamenco; they capture stories, conversations and jokes, and are punctuated with outbursts of raucous laughter, clapping, feet-stamping and even sung improvisations about the performers’ time in London with Dr Martínez. All of these details help to paint a vivid portrait of the artists and give us a glimpse of their personalities beyond the stage and recording studio.

Although Dr Martínez did not necessarily make the recordings to preserve them as an archive, they were later deposited at the British Library along with a number of his photographs. Now his collection offers a fascinating window into the vibrant flamenco scene of the time. The collection has since been digitised and a small selection of the recordings has been made accessible through the British Library Sounds website with kind permission from his daughter and the performers’ relatives.

Dr Martinez sat with guests

Dr Alejandro Martínez (first from right) and guests at a music session in Martínez’s living room. Photograph by Mina Martínez.

The recordings online feature performances from the likes of Antonio Mairena, Manuel Morao, Fernando Terremoto, René Heredia and Carmen Amaya. However, for this ‘Recording of the Week’, I have selected a clip from a session with the guitarist José Motos, recorded in 1959.  

Motos was born in 1930 to a gitano family in Salamanca and later moved to Madrid, where he studied under the influential flamenco guitarist Ramón Montoya. Motos became known for his technical virtuosity and was admired by his contemporaries, performing with respected artists including Paco de Lucía and Sabicas and touring with bailaores Antonio el Bailarín and Carmen Amaya. He was also the first flamenco guitarist to tour internationally as a solo artist, likely making this recording during one
of his London tour stops.

Jose Motos performing

José Motos (right) performing with an unnamed singer. © Dr Alejandro Martínez.

Here Motos performs a soleá, which is one of the slower, more solemn palos or flamenco sub-genres. Although the whole session is outstanding – and I encourage you to listen to the entire recording – this particular piece caught my attention. It displays the complete mastery Motos has over his instrument: we hear the percussive strummed chords, fiery tremolos and lightning-fast picado runs emblematic of flamenco, sharply juxtaposed with beautifully delicate passages and subtle colour changes. It is impressive to hear such virtuosic skill in such an intimate setting.

Listen to the recording of Soleares performed by José Motos (C993/16 S1 C4)

Though many of the performers Dr Alejandro Martínez recorded have since passed away, it was interesting to discover that many of their children and grandchildren are active performers in the flamenco world today. Flamenco truly is a tradition that runs in the blood.

This was the case with José Motos, who unfortunately passed away in 1978 at only 47 years old. His son Pepe Motos has followed in his footsteps and now works as a flamenco teacher, singer-songwriter and musician, and has collaborated extensively with other artists within and beyond the genre. After I got in touch with him and sent the audio recording of his father, I was delighted to receive this heart-warming reply:

You have no idea how happy you have made me.

I am 52 years old and this is the first time I have listened to my father’s voice.

He passed away when I was 8 years old and we have never had a document [of his voice] like this. Now I will show it to my son who is 21 years old and plays the guitar as well. He also looks a lot like his grandfather and is equally as talented.

I sincerely thank you for this gift.

[Translated from an email in Spanish]

This reminds us that these archival recordings are not just significant because they preserve exceptional musical performances – sometimes what is recorded alongside the music is just as valuable. While there are many commercial recordings of Motos available, this unedited session offered Pepe the unique opportunity to listen to his father’s voice for the first time in memory and is now a memento that can be passed on to his own son (also named José).

It is touching to see how historical audio recordings when reconnected to the right people can make such an impact on a personal level. The hope is that this recording will not only preserve the memory of José Motos but also inspire future generations of the Motos family to carry on their flamenco legacy.

I would like to thank Pepe Motos and Mina Martínez for their permission to share the recording and their contributions to this post.

This week’s post was written by Finlay McIntosh, World and Traditional Music curator.

10 July 2023

Recording of the week: ‘Who goes down Euston Road?’ 50 years of British Library memories

British Library building exterior 2018.jpg

Aerial view of the British Library, St Pancras. Photo by Sam Lane Photography.

This month, the British Library celebrates its 50th anniversary. Brought into being by the British Library Act 1972, the Library was established on the 1 July 1973.

Ten years later, the British Institute of Recorded Sound was incorporated into the Library, meaning this year also marks 40 years of the British Library Sound Archive.

The Library’s vast collections comprise upwards of 170 million items, ranging from books and manuscripts to music scores and sound recordings. Amongst the 6 million sound recordings held in the Library’s Sound Archive is an oral history interview with Sir Colin St John ‘Sandy’ Wilson, recorded in 1996 by National Life Stories for Architects’ Lives.

Together with his partner MJ Long, Wilson was tasked with designing a permanent home for the new British Library in the mid-1960s. The task would take more than three decades to complete; Wilson and Long battled government changes, funding cuts, design problems and soaring costs in what Wilson called his ’30-year war’ to build the Library’s St Pancras location as it stands today.

In this clip – taken from his 1996 interview – Wilson describes one of the many challenges they faced in the development of the building. He describes how the decision made in the mid-1980s to make St Pancras the point at which the Channel Tunnel would emerge in London fundamentally changed the status of the whole British Library building, and what that meant for the building design.

C467-17 BL courtyard Sandy Wilson

Download Transcript C467-17 BL courtyard Sandy Wilson

The British Library has no doubt seen its fair share of memorable moments in the years since the site opened in 1997, though whether Wilson’s fantasies of intercontinental romances playing out in the Piazza ever came true, we may never know.

You can read more about the challenges of designing the British Library in Niamh Dillon’s obituary blog to MJ Long. You can listen to both Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long’s full interviews online via British Library Sounds, and explore more about the architecture and design of the British Library.

What memories do you have of the British Library from the past 50 years? Share your stories with us on social media, @BritishLibrary on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.


This week’s selection comes from Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.



05 July 2023

Recording of the week: Don McCullin on war photography

I chose this interview with the war photographer Don McCullin to gain a deeper understanding of photography as a profession and, more specifically, photojournalism.

From Finsbury Park, London, Don McCullin has collaborated with many national and international newspapers covering major world conflicts. He has won several awards including the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award in 1964.

Photo of Don McCullin in 1964.jpg

Above: Don McCullin pictured in 1964.

In this conversation recorded at ICA London he begins by acknowledging photography as a way to discover himself. He wonders whether it is possible to shape people attitudes towards events with his photographs.

Don McCullin speaking at the ICA

Download Transcript Don McCullin

A question I’ve asked myself many times is how best to portray humanity using photography? What is the decisive moment for street photography? To cite Henri Cartier-Bresson’s words;

‘Finding a more honest way to approach people in photography is crucial: a compassionate manner is perhaps the way of doing it. ‘

A photojournalist will capture a moment. It has to be an honest exercise made with sympathetic eyes, with the intent to capture reality.

People often want to know what sparked the photographers curiosity in them. He talks about being the innocent foreigner; what is his role in these portraits of humanity?

A photograph allows us to look at society and question its dynamics.

Todays post written by Guilia Baldorilli, reference specialist