Arts and Culture

Are flamenco guitarists rock stars?

CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau - The Philippine Star

Flamenco is one of my passions, so I was excited to interview Adolfo Toyoda Timuat, an internationally renowned flamenco guitarist with major cred: he’s performed at Carnegie Hall, accompanied the young Joaquin Cortes as a student dancer, and is the name behind the classical Adolfo guitars.

As a relative newbie, however, I was surprised to find out that Adolfo is half-Filipino (I’d gathered from his name that the other half was Japanese), and has taught most of the handful of flamenco guitarists working in the country today.

“Flamenco guitar is — I cannot say rock — but the concept is like that, like Camaron de la Isla (a flamenco singer who worked with Paco de Lucia and Tomatito),” Adolfo says. “The guitar sounds like a wild instrument compared to a classical sound. It’s more a percussive sound — we think the guitar is a drum.”

Based in Madrid, Spain, for 25 years now, Timuat comes home to the Philippines about once or twice a year to perform. This year his alma mater, Far Eastern University (where he studied Civil Engineering), has made him part of its 2012-2013 cultural season, with a special concert on Sept. 12 at the FEU Auditorium.


Adolfo takes a guitar called Flamenca Negra out of its case. It’s a beauty, built of German spruce and rare Brazilian rosewood, with nylon strings and a bright, vibrant sound. Handcrafted for over 200 hours and varnished to a high sheen, one of these babies costs about 3,600 euros, though Adolfo says you can get a good-quality acoustic for about 500.

Spanish flavor: A respected guitar builder in addition to concert performer, composer and professor, Timuat plays one of his handcrafted Adolfo guitars.

“I have a shop in Cebu and one in Madrid,” he says. “My maestro was Arcangel Fernandez, the world’s greatest guitar builder who also used to play. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother and a Filipino father who worked at the US base there, Adolfo moved to the Philippines at age six. As a youth he fell in love with flamenco music when his father brought home a turntable and some records from Sevilla, Spain.

Listening to the Sevillanas and rumbas issuing from the speakers, the 13-year-old thought, “That’s the kind of music I want to play on guitar.”

At 15 he started performing in folk houses. At 18 he got serious about making a name for himself, doing the rounds of hotels like Silahis and bars like Tia Maria, “so lutong-luto na kamay ko,” he laughs.


But it wasn’t until he was 29 that his career really took off. American actor Anthony Zerbe (who’s probably most famous for the ’70s flick Omega Man) was in Manila filming a movie when he saw one of Adolfo’s students, Ramon de la Cruz, play in the hotel he was billeted in. A guitar aficionado, Zerbe told Ramon how great he was. Ramon replied, “You haven’t heard my teacher yet.”

De La Cruz accompanied Zerbe to Adolfo’s house — twice — since the first time Timuat was out performing in Baguio. Adolfo played for them, with Zerbe recording the impromptu performance on cassette. “He asked if I wanted to come to New York,” Adolfo recalls. “I was young so I thought he was pulling my leg.”

But Zerbe was serious; he’d submitted the cassette to the judging panel that auditioned potential Carnegie Hall performers, and Timuat passed.

Zerbe sent Adolfo a letter with a contract from Carnegie Hall, and the 29-year-old guitarist found himself playing a one-and-a-half-hour concert in front of a New York City audience — solo.

“Madre mia,” says the 50-something Adolfo now. “And those were paying tickets, not gratis, so I had to really make good or else. It was my most memorable performance because I played so badly,” he laughs. “Well, technically I played very well and they all liked it, but looking at it now, it was awful.”

The mileage he gained from that performance earned him another show at Lincoln Center and a United Nations-Juilliard scholarship that became his ticket to Spain. “That was one of the turning points. I had to perform for the director of Amadeus (Milos Forman) and the dean of Juilliard … they talked and said, ‘Okay, you’re going to Spain to study.’”


That yearlong scholarship sparked another love affair with Spain that for Adolfo has lasted to this day. He eventually got a master’s in Classical Guitar from the Real Conservatorio Superior de Musica de Madrid, and the title of Luthier of Stringed Instruments from Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, which comes with an actual license to build concert classical and flamenco guitars.

For four years he would accompany dancers at Amor De Dios, the best flamenco school in Spain, including Joaquin Cortes before Cortes became a star. He also played alongside top flamenco guitarist Rafael Riqueni, and taught guitar at the British school Runnymede to students like David Beckham’s children (when Beckham was with Real Madrid), and the czar of Russia.

I ask him if it was hard to break into Spain’s flamenco scene and he replies, “If you’re Spanish, you have to be up there, really. In my case I think they saw me as a novelty, a curiosity, so you have to prove that you’re good, because no foreigner really plays in Spain.”


Today Timuat regularly performs around the world, but what’s ironic is that he is more appreciated abroad than here. He dreams of putting up a Philippine Institute of Guitar but it looks like the Malaysians are beating us to it: they want Adolfo to spearhead an Asian Institute of Guitar in Kuching, which will branch out to other countries in the region, and include a guitar-building facility. “I cannot wait anymore because I’ve already shifted all the wood to Cebu, good for 3,000 guitars,” Adolfo says. “It cost me 40,000 euros and I cannot let it rot over there.”

It’s a shame that we’re losing the talents of one of our finest guitarists to another country, but such is the state of support for the arts in the Philippines.

Timuat remains philosophical about it all, though, telling me about the humility of the guitar masters he’s had the privilege of meeting, like John Williams (the classical guitarist, not the film composer). “The great Arcangel told John Williams, ‘I still don’t know how to build guitars.’ John said, ‘Maestro, don’t worry. We don’t know how to play them either.”

* * *

Adolfo Toyoda Timuat will perform a special concert at the Far Eastern University Auditorium on Sept. 12, Wednesday, at 1:30 p.m.








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