Juan Martin has been named as one of the top three flamenco guitarists in the world by America’s bestselling guitar magazine. Closer to home, The Times has described Juan as a ‘giant of the flamenco tradition’. And he’s coming back to perform at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Saturday 9th March.
Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred spoke with Juan about his performance and why he’s included our town in his ‘Solo’ tour.
“I’m looking forward to it. Last time I had a very good time,” said Juan, who was full of praise for Shaftesbury people. The previous time he played here, he felt that locals were interested in his music and were very supportive. “I think the quality of the audience is very important.” He speaks highly of the Arts Centre team, too.
Juan is respected by lovers of flamenco worldwide, but back in 1984, he gained mainstream attention playing to millions of TV viewers on the BBC’s ‘Top Of The Pops’. Juan performed the theme tune to ‘The Thorn Birds’, one of the smash hit TV series of the early eighties. His record entered the UK Top Ten but Juan rarely receives royalty payments now.
“I didn’t actually write the theme. It was Henry Mancini who wrote it,” Juan said. “I’m not the composer but what it did was very important. It broke me with the public. I got invited to do ‘Top of the Pops’ which was a unique experience. And I was invited onto well known TV programmes like Wogan and Gloria Hunniford. The purists moaned about it, but as the saying goes, ‘the dogs bark and the caravans move on’.”
Juan saw the benefits of the additional exposure. “It doesn’t mean that you’ve sold out. I think you have to get real and have a contemporary relevance. If you only perform within your own area, that’s where you stay, and then a large amount of people don’t know you exist,” said Juan.
“I would go and play flamenco and they said, ‘Oh right, there’s something else here’. The Thorn Birds was a lovely, gentle theme with the Royal Philharmonic playing with me. Then people got more involved with what I regard to be my real music,” he added.
Juan has also worked with rock royalty. In the early 1980s he collaborated on a progressive rock album with Jeff Beck and musicians from Roxy Music and Marillion. He believes that artists should broaden their range.
“I think it’s important, if you’re a guitarist, that you don’t just listen to guitarists. You should appreciate the sound, the timbre of a cello or a flute. It widens one’s composition. Not that you may necessarily play with those instruments but the textures influence you,” said Juan.
“The guitar is a small orchestra. There are 108 notes. If you play certain notes in the bass register it can evoke a cello and then in the top notes it’s more like a harp or a flute. It gives you another perspective than if you just play guitar, guitar, guitar.”
Juan has written many flamenco guitar-playing guides and, because he teaches, he finds that many members of his audiences come to his performances to study his technique. His students want to emulate their master. “Yes, in fact too much so,” he said. “They are bit technique mad. I believe that if you love the music enough, the technique comes together as you love it. It’s very important to have the correct hand positions and to know exactly how something functions.”
Juan is known for his flamenco teaching materials. “When I wrote my original guitar method, there was just an accompanying audio tape. It’s now a CD. But nowadays you can teach via video in a much more detailed way. If you see it, it’s so much better than having to write a page about it.”
Juan believes that flamenco has grown in popularity in Britain over the years. “Very much so,” he said. “There’s a long, long association with Spain. If you go to the south where flamenco comes from, there’s Jerez. The word sherry comes from Jerez. Bristol imported all these wines. You will get English names in the Spanish bodegas. There was always a connection with England,” he said.
“The introduction of tapas bars happened when we had the common market and it made Britain far more familiar with Spanish food and wines. People have always gone for holiday in Spain.”
I asked Juan when he first realised that he was really talented. “In Spain, singers and dancers used to say ‘Oh, you know, you’re playing well, you should come and join us and maybe play for the singing and dancing’. That is another technique,” said Juan. “It’s a very difficult thing. You have to learn to follow the singers’ melodies and get the right chords and also give what we call the compás, which is the rhythm, for the dancer whom you follow. A lot of people think the dancer is dancing to your tune. It’s the other way. You follow their feet. If she or he is going quicker, you follow them.”
Juan is highly knowledgeable about flamenco’s influences and heritage. “There are certain scales that came out of Byzantium and they mix with the sounds of Andalucía. The gypsies came from north of India to Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, and then of course, within Spain itself and Europe, all sorts of things enter into that,” said Juan. “There are records of flamenco dancers going back to the times of the Romans. It’s a long history and it’s always been a fusion. We are very near to Morocco, so the sound from the Arabic lute came into it also. It has always drawn on many cultures.”
I asked Juan whether a British flamenco player would ever be as good as somebody from Andalucía, who has grown up with these cultural influences. “It’s becoming a universal music,” replied Juan. “At one time it was very jealously guarded – and it still is. There’s such an interest in it globally, a bit like jazz. To begin with you had to come from New Orleans to be a good jazz player. Now, I went recently to Bergen in Norway and there were amazing jazz musicians playing in the hotel. I think the same similar thing is beginning to happen in flamenco. I wrote a book a while ago called ‘The Art Of The Flamenco Guitar’. It went to a lot of places and is used now in conservatoires from Sydney to Toronto to wherever.”
So what will Juan play at his forthcoming Shaftesbury concert? “Traditional flamenco styles,” he said. “Some are what they call ‘toque libre’, which will be a free form. They’re more melodic pieces. The ones that are to a set rhythm are very much more exciting. I play my own music within those traditional rhythms and harmonies. There are certain laws you must stay within.”
Juan recommends that anyone who wants to establish themself as a flamenco player should be influenced by the ‘great masters’ but a player should not imitate. “You are judged very much on your creative ability. If you play other players’ material, once you’ve been going a while, that is not very well respected. You’re just copying. Learn from their music, listen to their records and then try to form your own style, within the canons of the art you know.”
So how can Juan’s Shaftesbury audience show their continued appreciation? “Water is very respected in Spain. When people encourage an artist they say ‘agua’ because it’s a precious commodity in a country where we have problems with the rivers going dry. Here is rather the opposite,” smiled Juan. So does he want us to shout ‘agua’ at the end of his Shaftesbury show? “Yes, as long as it doesn’t encourage the rain to fall as we leave the building,” he laughed.
Juan Martin performs at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 7.30pm on Saturday 9th March. You can buy tickets from the Box Office.