Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

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.