Charo, the award-winning flamenco guitarist, opens up about her journey to stardom, the death of her husband, and survival through music and comedy.
This cover interview originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #19, released December 2019.
María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, otherwise known as Charo, otherwise known as la Cuchi Cuchi, is many things. Many of us recognize her as a hilarious TV personality who has captured the hearts of millions around the world, performing on The Today Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and countless others since the ‘60s. Charo is an award-winning flamenco guitarist who studied under one of the most prestigious classical guitarists of the century, Andrés Segovia, and has gone on to gain wide recognition for her platinum selling album, Guitar Passion.
However, the entertaining, fun loving, and passionate musician is only half of who Charo is. As much as she may be a product of the entertainment business, she is also a lover of human, animal, and environmental rights. Among other incredible accomplishments, Charo is a member of PETA, and the recipient of the 2014 Ricardo Montalban Lifetime Achievement ALMA Award, awarded by The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. Charo is also a mother, a wife, and simply put: music is her life. The truth is that you can’t describe Charo in a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word; she’s a multifaceted character that, much like her age or the details of her upbringing, no one will ever fully get to know.
After discussing our current individual locations, debating whether we were going to speak in Spanish, English, or Spanglish, and reveling in her love of the ocean, we went straight into one of Charo’s many essential issues: our interaction with nature.
I can imagine you playing right in front of the ocean, or in the rain with a fire going inside, serenading us with your guitar.
Exactly. Nature is beautiful. I mean, we don’t pay attention.
Let me put it this way: we take [nature] for granted. We are living in the right time, according to me. We are in advancements in technology, and we have not yet to match it in nature, in the air, in the rain. When I’m happy and want to write some music, I listen to the sound of the wind. When [I’m] living in Hawaii, [I] just have to sit down and—not meditating—just be quiet and listen to the sound of the rain or the wind blowing the trees, bringing beautiful melodies. Seriously, I highly recommend if you have the opportunity, visit the island of Kawaii. You’re there along with the nature, mano a mano.
But I like also noise. So I’m very confused. I don’t mind if you write that down—I’m confused. After two weeks in nature, I say, “Where is the noise?” [Laughs.]
That’s something that I think people love about you. You’re multifaceted, and you’re not afraid to hide it—it all makes up who Charo is. And so, in terms of the guitar, which part of you comes out when you’re playing guitar?
I love music. It’s in my family. Although they’re all farmers, from both sides, my father and mother, music has been the medicine in my family for centuries. Music is like oxygen. I am lucky to come from family who understood that education is the best will that any parent could give to the children. Music is the dedication and oxygen in my family for generations. They were clever enough to support education for my sister and me just by raking tomatoes, potatoes, and spinach. I am a farmer. I know how to raise all kinds of vegetables and food. So I am two persons, but the main thing is always respecting nature.
Music is saving my life. About seven months ago, my husband passed away in a very tragic way. I am surviving, [but] I will never be the same. I want to talk to children, because what happened to me I hope will never happen to anyone. The love of my life, the man that gave me unconditional love, respect, and support—my biggest fan. He enjoyed every show, applauding, and so proud of me. But unfortunately, [because of] a combination of a perfect storm of education, side effects, and depression, he took his life.
So, why I am surviving: music.
I locked myself in the bedroom for about six or seven weeks, feeling numb. But then, I decided that life is beautiful. I went public to teach other people to take depression very seriously, and the side effects of medication. And I’m using the tragedy in my life to save lives. Music and the performances are saving me. The social media… I never, ever, ever thought that social media was important because I was very cocky and thought if I sold out all of my performances, if I always have the biggest record of selling CDs—but now the amount of downloads [of my music] shows how people need music, and love good music. So, that saved me. It’s my vitamin.
I feel honored to talk to you and tell you that not every day is sunshine, but if you have a good sense of humor you can survive that day. But again, music is the greatest thing that’s happened in my life. [When I was a little girl], all of a sudden a developer decided to take all of the land. Overnight, they took all the land of everybody in an area of Spain—Murica, near Valencia, where I was born—and everybody became homeless. So my life and my sister’s life has been tough, but again, education, the sacrifice of my family, and music saved us.
Were you already playing guitar during that time? Or did you learn for the purpose of making money?
Oh no no no! I was the most happy little girl you ever met. I was about seven or eight and happy with no care in the world. I was introduced to the gypsies in Carabańa every July and August in the land of my grandparents. I was already fascinated by the sound of guitar and fascinated by the way [the gypsies] lived. They don’t care if the next day they’re going to have food, they just welcome the night and the sunset. They play guitar, make a fire, and dance. Even the children [playing] bulerías, authentic flamenco. That fascinated me, my sister, and my cousin. We went, “Oh, this is beautiful. This is different.” They do not believe in discipline and they do not care for nothing.
That was the happiest time in my life. And then one of the gypsies was very grateful to my grandma who allowed them to be there for the whole summer and eat food from the trees, potatoes, whatever they needed, because my grandma—mi abuela—spoke to people and listened to them. She was a wise woman, very educated in her own mind. So, that’s about the time I fell in love with music. The [gypsy] men taught me so much until they left one September—because they always leave at the beginning of September—and by then I was good enough at age nine, when we became homeless. We had nothing and [my mother] did not allow that my sister and me look back. And I remember, even as a little girl, crying and my mother singing to us. We always use, in our family, the support of music.
We survived. And at the age of nine, we ended up in Madrid. That is where I began studying—though I already knew a lot—with the famous Andrés Segovia. I had the luxury to be working in his institution, and once in a while, between engagements and tour, he’d show up. He had a bunch of students and we were all very nervous and scared when he’d show up, but every single word that he said I learned them, I listened. He said, “When you play guitar, hold it very tight to your body, to your chest, and listen to your heartbeat and play according to what your heartbeat is telling you.”
Can you talk a little bit about your new single?
I am very proud to let you know that in honor of love, a celebration of love, I will introduce at the end of this year the single, “Besame Mucho.” All guitar, all me.
I [recorded with] two tracks. One, the melody with the technique of Segovia. And then another track, me playing again, quiet bossa nova. And believe me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my musical career because it’s personal. It’s the most emotional masterpiece that I’ve done. Every time I play it I cry because of the emotional responsibility of my husband. To honor him and honor love, that is my best move. In my case, and in my family’s case, [music] is the medication. I am very happy to show, through your magazine, the real me. When you see me in a concert, in a beautiful theatre, you are to see a happy woman, keeping people very happy, introducing beautiful music. The only time that I find myself happy now is performing with a guitar in my hand. I don’t see any other happiness—parties or nothing. My way to survive right now is my guitar, my music, my family, and my son. Instagram is helping me so much because it’s like as if you have a friend telling you to stay strong, God bless you, in different languages. When I don’t have my husband around, Instagram is helping me.
When you were offered the opportunity to present yourself as a television character for millions of people, did you feel like you had to put down the guitar?
I believe that [in the] world of entertainment, you are not only working because you like it, for yourself. The people who call themselves entertainers in show business—and I am one of them—we got the job. [We have] an obligation to entertain and make [people] happy.
Everytime I say, “Cuchi Cuchi,” which is the name of my family’s dog, Cuchillo, [my family] would laugh and they were giving me cookies, or caramel, or whatever. I was able to understand this is a hell of a business, so every time that I was looking for attention or wanted my family to look at me, [I would say], “Look at me, look at me, Cuchi Cuchi!” and I got attention. So this is part of me seeing people having fun.
And then, when I came to America, it was very make it or break it. The king of Latin music, Xavier Cugat, was the person behind the power of what we now call salsa. So, I came to America and Xavier Cugat met my sister and me. But I was on a trial. If I didn’t make it in America, we would get on a plane and go back to Spain. I didn’t speak English, [so] I picked up my guitar—but [America was] not ready. They would not let me play the guitar. But I remember, kind of scared, [thinking], “Did [Xavier Cugat] like me?” And whatever he was asking me, [I started saying], “Cuchi Cuchi!” and people started laughing, and he was laughing, [so] that became the persona.
Most of the people didn’t know the other persona: the guitar, the musician. The next day my name was no more Charo. Overnight, America found “Cuchi Cuchi” and that is the character that became so powerful. For me, Cuchi Cuchi means money. Not only that, it saved me.
And then we had a problem. Cuchi Cuchi took over the real me: my preparation, my knowledge, my guitar, my education. I became an idiot. One day—I’m taking you back to 1997 or 1998—I was getting ready to do a show and I looked to the mirror and said, “Ok, Cuchi Cuchi showed you the way to the bank. Now it’s time to be who you are.” I recorded Guitar Passion and it became such a hit. The producer was telling me, “Why are you changing from the Cuchi Cuchi that everybody loves into that guitar?” And I told him that now I am doing what I am supposed to be doing with my life, I always can be a teacher. When I play guitar, I can feel it. A lot of people look in disbelief, thinking, “What? Is that the same person that three minutes ago was dancing merengue and having fun?” So that’s me. I can be two persons.
Do you like that kind of shock factor?
I like it because I know that they’re already having fun, they got what they paid for—”Oh! Cuchi Cuchi is changing costume, let’s see how she looks right now, hahaha,” into “Oh my god, I didn’t know that, I wasn’t expecting that.” At the end of the day they had a surprise, and they felt that it was worth it to see the show. It didn’t bother me. Now, it did bother me when I was about to go to television, and to see the resistance in the ‘90s and the beginning of the ‘00s, of producers telling me, “Yes, I know you play guitar, but however, can you do the Cuchi Cuchi?” At that time I was very young, and I was saying, “Ok fine, I have to work,” until I said enough is enough. But now I just enjoy it. It’s very important to see people laugh, now I know how important it is just to laugh… It’s a great therapy. I know that when I announce, “Ok, you’ve seen half of me, and now you’re going to see the other half, I’m going to play guitar,” I feel confident. Like the job is done. And I get the feeling that the audience feels the same way.
How do you want people to remember your legacy? Is it through music, comedy, or something else?
[Pauses and takes a deep breath.] Such a good question. [Pauses again.]
Everything that happened until [the day my husband died] was good. I was happy, very much into life, really nothing to worry about. I had a great life, a good family, more than I dreamt I would have when I was a little girl. But, not now. If there’s ever anybody that wants to think about me or remember my legacy, it’s that life is beautiful and education is more important than money. I want [people] to know that [both characters are] really important to me… the respect for such a beautiful instrument, and also the person that loves everybody and understands that laughter and comedy are really important.
So, if I had to tell you how to describe me, I’d say, “Ok this is a woman who loves life, loves entertaining, and give the most you can give at showtime.” I want to be the most honest possible; entertaining is very important work. But also, if you are lucky enough to not only entertain through comedy but as a good musician, then you have the perfect formula. A woman that respects both fans and music. Sometimes I make a joke when I’m on stage and if the joke is good I laugh more than the audience. [Laughs.] Because when the curtain opens I am so happy, but when the curtain closes, I am not happy. I’m not happy because I don’t have a beautiful man, laughing and hugging me. I don’t have that anymore. And that is the truth.