February 22, 2024

Sun, sea and rock ‘n’ roll: how Torremolinos got its groove back | Spain vacation

II am in Torremolinos. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – and you have a point. But I’m not here for the sun, cheap booze and a full English version, even though there are plenty of supplies of all of the above. I’m here to relive my well-spent youth (albeit in a decidedly middle-aged way) at the 30th Rockin’ Race Jamboree, an international rockabilly festival that takes over Spain’s much-maligned seaside resort every February for a wild weekend – and played an important role in increasing the city’s fortunes.

The Rockin’ Race is the creation of couple Guillermo Jiménez and Vivi Milla, from nearby Málaga, where they also run a record store and label, both dedicated to American music from the fifties and sixties. Like all the best festivals, it started in 1994 as a gathering of friends sharing their love of music. Three years later they had outgrown their location in Málaga; the hunt for a new location took them the 16 kilometers along the coast to Torremolinos.

A vintage car adds to the 1950s rockabilly atmosphere. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn’t the obvious choice. In the 1990s, London was the red-hot center of the European rockabilly scene, along with famously hedonistic weekenders in British seaside holiday camps. Spain was barely on the rock ‘n’ roll map, and some resorts on the Costa del Sol fell into disrepair. But 30 years later, the rockabilly and vintage scene has exploded across the continent, and the Rockin’ Race Jamboree is one of the biggest festivals, with more than 5,000 attendees and more than 40 bands and DJs from around the world.

It is not only a highlight on the calendar for rock ‘n’ roll fans, but also for the region’s tourism sector. The town’s mayor claims it represents a 40% boost to the local economy, and the event is now financially supported by the Andalusian and Torremolinos authorities, EU funds, Iberia Airline and the Costa del Sol tourist board. This is not an anomaly; Other Spanish regions have also seen the value of supporting specialist music festivals as a way to encourage off-season travel, including the mod/60s underground festival, the Euro Groovy Weekend in Gijón in January, High Rockabilly in Calafell in September and the Drácula’s Funtastic Carnival in Benidorm in October/November – described as “three nights of crazy garage punk”. As a British musician and former festival director, this level of support for popular music is astonishing – and enviable.

The festival is subsidized by regional governments and attracts an international audience. Photo: Jon Nazca/Reuters

However, the injection of municipal funding has not affected the atmosphere: at the Rockin’ Race the foundation remains strong, and it still feels like a giant party created by music lovers for their friends. During the day, the main action takes place at a pool party and rooftop bar at the mid-century beachfront hotel La Barracuda, and the festival’s nighttime venues have expanded to include the city’s Asturias Auditorium, and as of last year the ‘Paradiso’. , a traveling wooden circus dance hall from the 1920s, complete with stained glass and original hand-painted images. Accommodation is booked months in advance throughout the city. On the Monday after this year’s festival, people were already booking for 2025 as they checked out of their hotels.

Festival goers come from all over the world: Mexico, Japan, the US and all over Europe. Same for the bands. Over the years, the Rockin’ Race has expanded beyond its rock ‘n’ roll roots to include swing, blues, R&B, honky tonk, ’60s beat and garage. My highlights this year were the Surfrajettes, a female surf group from Toronto, and the bluegrass band the Po’ Ramblin Boys from Tennessee, who stole the show with a vibrant, energetic performance. The event’s official videographer, Chris Magee of Bopflix Films, documents the Rockin’ Race every year and says he has seen it go from a niche event to a city-wide phenomenon.

During the weekend you can walk into the smallest cafe or grocery store and they’ll be blasting out an obscure B-side from Sun Records, while every taxi driver in town has put together their own rocking soundtrack. Ana, manager of the Buensol Apartments, located in the heart of the festival, is among those looking forward to the weekend. “When I first heard that a rock ‘n’ roll festival was coming to Torremolinos I was a little worried,” she said, “but they are the most polite, friendly people we have all year, and they bring in a lot of money. the city. What else do you want?”

The swimming pool of Hotel La Barracuda is an attraction for festival goers during the day. Photo: Loïs Pryce

It’s somehow fitting that mid-century glamor has returned to Torremolinos. The city’s tourism story is a checkered one. In the 1950s it became a hotspot for stars looking for an alternative to the Côte d’Azur. Visits from Rita Hayworth, Graham Greene and Ava Gardner helped put a then rustic Andalusian fishing village on the map. In the 1950s, a striking modernist hotel, El Pez Espada, was built on the beach, bringing more celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot, while French visitors brought bikinis and topless sunbathing. The word was out. Torremolinos became known as a haven from the seedy bohemia, and when two Londoners opened Tony’s, Spain’s first gay bar, in 1962, it gained a further reputation as a safe destination for the queer community, despite homosexuality being illegal under Franco’s dictatorship.

Frank Sinatra mural in Torremolinos.
Photo: Wilf Doyle/Alamy

The money flowed in from the Costa del Sol, and for a while the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye, but as the 1960s raged on and Torremolinos added hippies and drugs to its attractions, Franco could not understand the ‘degenerate’ behavior that developed among his nose plays. In 1971, Tony’s was raided by armed police. The bar was closed and the city’s foreign ‘undesirables’ were rounded up and deported to their home countries. The party was over.

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The subsequent boom and fall of Torremolinos is well documented in British tourism, and probably best summed up by Monty Python’s 1972 Travel Agent sketch, which singled out the town as a byword for tacky package holiday destinations.

The band of American saxophonist Big Jay McNeely performs during the Rockin’ Race Jamboree. Photo: Jon Nazca/Reuters

There are still plenty of sun-bleached laminated menus with images of eggs and chips, but Spain’s seaside resorts are masters of reinvention, and Torremolinos has big plans to follow in the footsteps of Málaga, Lanzarote and Magaluf with a multimillion-euro regeneration programme. Much of it focused on celebrating the city’s decadent past and its growing popularity among LGBTQ+ tourists, who consider it the birthplace of Spain’s gay rights movement.

After decades in the wilderness, it seems the ‘degenerates’ are back in favor in Torremolinos, and thanks in part to the Rockin’ Race, the good times have returned.

Rocking race Jamboree is on February 6-9, 2025; weekend tickets cost €99 (day tickets also available), rockinrace.com

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