The world’s top female flamenco guitarists on the Spanish art form and the business behind it

February 14, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
Tocaoras are skilled musicians—and they are a rare breed both within Spain and across the world.
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Although familiar worldwide, flamenco is more than meets the eye or ear.

Technically, it is a Spanish art form that originated in Andalusia in southern Spain, encompassing the traditions of a mixture of communities—including Jews, Arabs, and the Romani, among others—within its three components: baile (dance), toque (guitar), and cante (song).

Emotionally, the art form is one of the deepest expressions of human passion. “It’s a way of living, feeling, and taking an attitude toward life,” says Celia Morales, a flamenco guitarist with her own school in Ronda, Spain. “It is the joy, the celebration, loneliness, tragedy: It is the music that comforts the senses as much as it hurts them.”

Because of societal, cultural, and even political factors, however, the instrumental expression has—at least until recently—been relegated to men. Although a hefty number of women have pursued careers in the singing and dancing portions of flamenco, very few have become tocaoras—female flamenco guitar players.

“The industry is a reflection of society,” says Miguel Marin, the artistic director and producer of the yearly Flamenco Festival USA. “While singing and dancing women have exercised a leading role and there are more of or an equal number of [female] ‘stars’ in dance and vocals [compared to men], in the guitar [sphere, things have been different]. I am not sure why that happened.”

Some attribute the singularity to Spain’s overall attitude toward women’s rights: Abortion was legalized in the country less than a decade ago, divorce in 1981. Others specifically bring up Francisco Franco’s dictatorship over Spain between 1939 and 1975, and the status of the female population under his regime: “The Franco dictatorship meant the steps made by the women’s movement for women’s rights in the world of work, particularly in certain areas, went into reverse,” explains former flamenco teacher Eulalia Pablo in her book Mujeres Guitarristas.

Most consider the general attitude toward women in the industry to be a result of old-fashioned machismo and sexism, assuming guitar-playing to purely be a man’s job. “In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many female guitarists, and they had an important role in the evolution of flamenco,” Marin explains. “Machismo might be the cause of this relegation of female guitarists [to the sidelines in following times].”

One such musician was Adela Cubas, a self-taught guitarist who reached fame in Spain but wasn’t able to translate her success across the ocean. “[She] was the first authentic guitarist in history,” says Morales, whose own students are all boys. “At that time, it was frowned upon that a woman was an artist. Much worse if it was flamenco.”

And yet tocaoras outside Spain have more easily been embraced by the art form’s community. Afra Rubino (Sweden), Noa Drezner (Israel), and Kati Golenko (United States) are only some of the musicians whose flamenco guitar-playing skills have been rewarded with fame.

The situation is dire when it comes to education as well. According to El País, the most prominent Spanish-language daily newspaper in Spain, as of 2017, only one in 10 flamenco teachers in the music conservatories peppering Andalusia was female.

As is the case across most cultural circles, although the walk toward gender parity is a slow one, it is peppered by charismatic individuals able to stand out from the masses and achieve recognition in their dedication to the craft, closing the gap between what is and what should be. In flamenco guitarist circles, one such character is Antonia Jiménez, one of the most successful and renowned tocaoras of today.

Hailing from Puerto de Santa María, Jiménez is now in her mid-forties, and she has accompanied flamenco singers (Juan Pinilla, Montse Cortés) and dancers throughout her career. Jiménez has also collaborated with Marta Robles, a classically trained guitarist (flamenco guitars differ from the latter: They are designed to cut through the sound of dancers stomping their feet), on Dos Tocaoras, their own flamenco production.

“I think the reason there aren’t many tocaoras is the consequence of 40 years of dictatorship in Spain,” Jiménez says. “At that moment [in time], the woman was considered like an object in the flamenco world.” Nevertheless, she is hopeful about future prospects: “I see that there is a generation of young girls who are playing guitar very well and who come very strong.”

When prompted to discuss the treatment she’s endured as a woman throughout her over three decades in the business, Jiménez acknowledges that things might be changing for the better. “Today there are fewer differences and, as long as it is in my hand, I always try to be treated as an equal,” she says. “I think that like the global society, people are beginning to become aware of the need for equal treatment for everyone. It goes very slow, but it goes forward.”

If the recent Grammy Awards are any indication, that progress might also include a wider audience for the art of flamenco in general: Contemporary flamenco Spanish singer and songwriter Rosalía performed at this year’s award show and won for best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album. “Even though flamenco has always been an international art form appreciated throughout the world, now it has broken another wall,” Marin says. “It has become mainstream, which means that many more people can connect with it.”

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