Flamenco Guitarist Diego del Gastor – A loving 2008 appraisal by Luís Soler Guevara – translated by Brook Zern
This is a translation of a talk given by Luís Soler Guevara in 2008 to mark the centenary of the birth of Diego del Gastor. Señor Soler is a highly respected flamenco expert whom I knew in Málaga. He clearly loved Diego, as did many others who spent time with him in his home town of Morón de la Frontera. Soler wears his heart on his sleeve here, and one might wonder if his adoration has clouded his judgement or his normally sound critical faculties. (Fortunately, I never lost my objectivity in this matter, although for years I assumed the Flamenco Society of San Diego was a religious organization. Still, I have always maintained strict objectivity regarding Diegod.)
Apologies for some likely mistranslations:
Mi Abrazo a Diego del Gastor — My Embrace ot Diego del Gastor
Flamenco aficionados, those of us who dedicate ourselves to investigating, studying, writing – in other words, to inventing a history of the art – fall short with respect to the guitar. We can reflect upon aspects of the guitarist, or sketch his profile as a person, and possibly situate the guitarist’s position in the history of the art, abandoning ourselves to his capacity to generate deep emotions. It’s this latter aspect that is reflected in the title of this article: My embrace for Diego del Gastor.
Diego has evoked so many perceptions among writers, poets and aficionados the I find it very deifficult to say anything new about him; and since I’m not a musician, the task is even more daunting. Still, the evocative aura of this great guitarist is so extraordinarily rich that these times come to consecrate his expressive capacity, even for those who may not know music but feel touched by his magic.
So let these words serve as a prologue to the marvelous sound that Diego, more than anyone else, institutionalized as the toque de Morón – the Morón guitar style. For that reason, I’ll try to say something about a man who, beyond Andalucía, sowed a unique approach to making the guitar make music.
His name was as singular as his playing. Before him, I know of no other guitarist with his name. It’s as if the history of flamenco reserved it especially for him. It’s enough to say those five letters for everyone to know who we’re talking about; even when a guitarist plays his signature variations or falsetas we can’t help noticing who his name, escapes like a sussuro: A whisper that, beyond admiration, conveys adoration of his music.
Diego didn’t seek interviews, but he didn’t avoid them either, in one, done for Spanish National Television, he said that his baptism lasted for five days. Five letters that on that occasion were given to him as a name. Five letters, like the five continents to which his magical sounds eventually expanded. Five letters that can define and describe his artistic personality.
Diego had lots of duende, his playing was impressive, his personage was special and his art was grand and original.
Diego was not a virtuos of the guitar; nonetheless he had many virtues. Among them, the one that stands out to me is the virtue of making us fall in love. In love with his profound and majestic toque festero – the lighter styles that were the pulse of so many fiestas or flamenco jam sessions. Diego’s guitar exists in the realm of the sacred.
His art, though born in this world, belongs to the sacred. He created his music as oysters create their own beautiful works: some irritating agent, though barely noticed, slowly, without any hurry, but inexorably. His dream, a living legend from an earlier time that refuses to die with the dawn of a new millennium, remains vital, and stands out in the desert of phantasms that arise in the flamenco galaxy of opportunism and glitz.
For Diego, flamenco was never just a spectacle or a commodity; when this happens, it is actually devalued. For Diego, flamenco is a culture steeped in centuries. It is a way of thinking and feeling while confronting life. A way of expressing one’s totality of life experiences and of communicating them to others through a lyrical art.
I’d like to pursue this intimate concept of flamenco whose greatest power is the most authentic expression of lives and traditions through music. I’d like to keep hauling this cart full of diverse passions that awaken and feed this Andalusian culture. I want to continue embracing Diego del Gastor – his wizardry and his imperishable enchantment. His unique way of feeling flamenco. I want to follow this flag, although I don’t like the abanderados.
I don’t want to become distracted by criticizing the consumerism that devours so many musics that flow from the heart of human beings. Still, I’ll say, paraphrasing a poem by Georges Brassens: “People don’t like it when someone has his own faith.” That’s an issue I don’t want to get into right now, one that generates attitudes and actions with respect to how one also understands flamenco.
Diego is more essence (fondo) than form. I love that essence and the ethic of things, more than their forms and aesthetics. But I can’t ignore the latter. Perhaps for this reason, those words, although situated on the border of passion, do not imply the abandonment of the merely rational.
While other Diego de Gastors may keep arising in this Andalusian landscape, my heart will keep navigating toward the paths that seek the road leading to the majestic in the art of flamenco. His providential figure, more than a song to life, was a song to love, a challenge to the impossible, a challenge to what we call art, and despite the fact that my soul is aflame, I will continue to embrace that sound.
Diego del Gastor was also Diego of Arriate, Diego de Ronda, Diego de Moron, de Utrera – Diego of a thousand different flamenco geographies, because he came from all of them. All those places where in a night of profound emotions we would discover his musical talent and his deeply personal way of caressing the guitar.
Diego, despite the fact that he rarely left his home – when he did, Utrera and the countryside were his preferred pilgrimages – generated afición in hundreds of people who, even if they were born abroad, decided to live their lives enveloped in this culture. In this – more than a task, a devotional sense of a sensibility that was so impressive – I believe he was unsurpassed. For him, it was all just natural. He was a teacher of many who never asked to be his students. Those who would be inculcated and impregnated with the simple maxim: There is no better university than life itself. And in this, Diego had the real doctorate.
Diego has been a great ambassador, especially in the U.S.: Surprisingly, he was almost as well known in California as in Andalucía. People of note in worlds as diverse as Bergamín, García Ulecia, Don Pohren, Steve Kahn, Roger Klein, William Davidson, Estela Zatania, etc., discovered the warmth of a man whose spell would captivate them forever.
It all happened without Diego traveling to the other stages of the world that are so crucial to the reputation and projection of so many other artists. For this reason, the singularity and the figure of Diego del Gastor in the flamenco world can not only be found in his artistic qualities, but also in his role as the ambassador of a unique and very intimate concept of flamenco.
His gigs, almost always marked by restricted appearances and hundreds of encounters in the flamenco world of Morón, were shared with the likes of artists like Juan Talega, Manolito de la Maria, Perrate, Joselero, Fernandillo, Curro Mairena, Bernarda de Utrera, Enrique Mendez and just a few others, but above all his muse, Fernanda de Utrera.
The Morón-born historian Juan J. García López offers us this information: “In Japan, his style is pedagogically systematized in conservatories; in New York, there exists a school of guitar that studies his musical forms and artistic modes. That school carries his name: The School of Diego del Gastor.”
Yes, Diego created a school, albeit limited in terms of repertoire, but very distinctive and intensely real and current. His falsetas and variations, somehow terrifying as well as tremendously demanding, constructed and expressed with an enchantment that is deeply profound, have not passed unnoticed for many, including some who may not acknowledge their source. Those who have questioned not the flamenco essence of his art but his framework and technical prowess.
Moreover, what gives value to an artist’s work, regardless of what he creates, is how he does it. Diego, as well as having enormous talent, had an intuition and a special heart that generated music. He captured the essences of old popular and folk songs and choruses, even from classical pieces, where he incorporated those fragments into his repertoire, giving them a rare flamenco aspect. He did his his way – that is, differently from anyone else.
Perhaps his trademarks created a certain envy in other artists, those who fall of their own weight while Diego never chased a professional career or competed with the famous guitarists of his time. He only tried to express himself within his singular sensibility, and at that he succeeded.
We hear his impressive sting in the flamenco form called the soleares, in his interrupted silences in the realm of the siguiriyas, in his musical resolutions based on the malagueñas that Ramón Montoya recorded in 1910 while accompanying the singer Niño de la Isla. And in the arrangements and combinations that he enployed to give a flamenco flair to one of the most beautiful of all classical pieces, Beethoven’s Fur Elise.
Diego put his soul into everything he played. Without soul, art cannot be sublime. Art is a mixture of the expressive qualities of the artist and the domination and knowledge of technique. For that reason, when some aficionados wish to diminish the importance of the Morón style of guitar, they focus o its technical deficiencies, defending the well executed, placing value almost exclusively on technical perfection, and forgetting the essential quality of the elements of flamenco substance that the artist must generate to create truth.
Diego was very delicate. He had, and felt, a profound respect for flamenco. He liked silence and quietude, not the applause of the public or the voices of those whose shouted encouragements were simply showing off, and revealed no understanding of the art’s rhythmic essence; his performances were preceded with enormous elegance, and his mastery of the crucial quality of saber estar – of “knowing how to be” – were almost religious.
For him, that was the rule of conduct to follow when exercising the ritual of flamenco song and guitar. If a fly bothered him, it wasn’t because he was fussy, though in some measure he was, but because of his high regard for the art.
Diego loved the flamenco song so much that at times, he buscaba arropes in the family tradition to interpret some styles of soleares. Among them were those sung by his father, and those that he, along with his brother, the singer Joselero, called “flamenco songs (cantes) of the Sierra de Grazalema”.
Some will know that Grazalema is a town in the province of Cadiz whose mountains surround Arriate, Ronda and El Gastor, where Diego was born, baptized and spent his early years.
He showed those songs to Joselero, and later they entered the repertoire of the great artist Juan Peña el Lebrijano. Diego, aside from being a guitarist, was thus a transmitter of songs.
We can’t be sure, but it seems that those old variants of the soleares, possibly originating in that area, were incorporated into the soleares of Anilla de Ronda, a singer and guitarist, who was related to Diego. Anilla, also surnamed Amaya, and a Gypsy as was Diego, was widely admired as a singer of soleares.
One possible interpretation of all this leads us to say that the songs brought to light by Diego dated back almost a century and a half, and the family tradition brings it to us today.
This is one revelation among hundreds, among thousands of sounds, that leads me to say with some justification that the evolution of time has conserved and polished through the years the manifest grandeur of this musical culture of southern Spain, unprecedented in the history of civilization. Diego Flores Amaya is one more link in a chain whose reach offers us a perspective of centuries.
Photo caption – Diego, with Curro Vera and neighbors from the Barrio de Santa Maria in Morón
Having said this, it seems proper to note that Diego was a great aficionado of flamenco song, a quality that is not often seen among the new figures that have arisen in flamenco guitar, where technique dominates their approach, but where the heart, that motor of deep emotions, remains firmly in second place.
To this last thread, let me offer some reflections that underline the contrast between the guitar of Diego del Gastor and the new conception of flamenco shared by most of the great flamenco guitarists, whose prestige I won’t question, much less criticize.
To illustrate, I will describe some qualities that apply to guitar playing. First, the tendency to accelerate the rhythm. Then the sheer velocity in the production of notes. Today there are excellent guitarists who, in a common phrase, eat up the guitar – but who may not digest or assimilate it. They can play ten notes per second, but are incapable of generating a silence that captivates the soul.
Silences are not the negation of music, but the most exquisite of its contrasts. Music is the organization of elements which expresses the combination of sounds and silences, Silences are the space which fills our sense of reflection. Without those silences there are fewer moments for reflection and that therefore one cannot fully relish the sublime moments in guitar playing. Diego took the distance with respect to that conception or current of understanding the marvelous world of music.
Diego felt the necessity of transmitting his art. For that he had to interpret and above all digest what he wished in order to call forth the rest, In every artist’s mind there is something deeply present: the communication of his world, his work and his art.
To digest and absorb is also to meditate very carefully upon something in order to understand it. No one would drink boiling coffee because, aside from burning you, it would not have real flavor. In other words, the act of drinking coffee requires spaces for reflection in order to appreciate what you’re doing. When we speak of harmonic sounds, and although the human ear, as a receiver of sound, is scientifically prepared to instantaneously connect to its production, its storehouse of associations and its understanding demand a temporal space to enjoy the process.
Taking that theory to extremes: If a guitarist could produce all his sounds at once, we would achieve the complete negation of harmony and of music itself. We could only perceive one single noise.
When the rhythm accelerates, the silences become shorter. Almost imperceptible, one might say. And the less silence, the less sosiego and the fewer reflections. I think it’s fair to say that allowing oneself to be captivated by the notes of a flamenco guitar requires a great calmness. Without that predisposition it’s impossible to perceive all its distinctive aroma.
Let’s take as an example a sung soleares. The interpretation of the sound does not rise at the peak, but at the conclusion, in the transit toward the end, when the song is reaching its close. Raising the voice is relatively easy. What’s really difficult is maintaining its descending scale, the sostenido (sharp). In those spaces, in those silences, we find the best flavors, the best moments. The guitar also seeks this catharsis. Sustaining a note is much harder than elevating it. And I believe that here we find the world of Diego.
Another current today is the construction of very extended falsetas together with the singing action: the tendency toward concertism. In this situation the accompanying guitar per se should not take over the mission of the principal subject in a flamenco oration – that is, of the singer – but should instead complement the work of the singer. That’s done by offering dialogues, and indicating paths so the song can be manifested in its fullest dimension.
Photo caption: Steve Kahn and Diego del Gastor in Morón, 1967. Photo by Chris Carnes
The act of singing, or of playing in the guitarist’s case, is necessarily the product of the register of the artist. This register stores a treasury of dialogues that the singer as much as the guitarist transform in establishing through the principal aspect, the song. I say the song, not the singer.
Remember what Fernanda de Utrera said in an interview: “Diego and I were the pair that most perfectly complemented one another (se ha compenetrado] in flamenco. Each of us in love with the art of the other. I was the strings of his guitar, and he was the urgent lament (queja) of my voice.” And she concluded: “No one knew how to draw out what I carry within myself like Diego del Gastor.”
Francisco Ayala also offered a lucid analysis of the figure of Diego, affirming: “The playing of Diego del Gastor contains more soul, more duende, than the playing of any other flamenco guitarist today. Diego doesn’t adhere to the modern trend for speed and for personal showing off (lucimiento), admittedly necessary for those who must compete in today’s commercial atmosphere of flamenco. On the contrary, he tenaciously retains the simplicity of times gone by, before the flamenco guitar was turned into a virtuoso instrument, when it was still fundamentally a genuine and primitive medium for expressing the depth of flamenco.”
In some way, he exaggerates the great aficionado/artist of Morón. Diego is just that way, neither competing nor feeling like a competitor. He just expresses way of being, a form of feeling, of living, a way of making flamenco; his way, neither better nor worse than another way, but different. And that difference, fundamentally, is located in the soul that he puts into everything he plays.
Perhaps this phrase could increase the level of confusion in some not very initiated aficionados, since they may think that every artist puts his soul into whatever he does. That may be true, as certain as the fact that every athlete wants to win, but it’s just as certain that only one person can actually succeed. Allow me this metaphor: This is Diego. From him we see from the beginning the great virtue of falling in love with his art.
Diego’s playing is like a river,: mysterious and enigmatic, such that we will never be able to verify how its waters flow to so many seas and so many oceans.
Also allow me the following reflection: There are some who approach a flower just to see its colors. Others, however, may also appreciate its smell. There are those who approach the sea to look at it and only see its surface. Then there are others who also want to know its depths. Diego is like the flower that only reveals its true profile and its true aroma when we get to the bottom.
At the root of this consideration I ask this question: Why should we stop with the appearances of things, in their forms; why not penetrate right to the essence? Diego’s guitar is like that deep and warm sea whose flavors and pleasures can only be paladear and felt by submerging oneself in its waters, by abandoning oneself to its notes.
My embrace of Diego del Gastor must necessarily take note of these aspects. Now, from the perspecitive of years gone by, though it’s difficult not to submerge oneself in this well where time gives rise to a nostalgia that idealizes those yesterdays, I feel that my heart remembers – perhaps aided by the many celebrations that are marking the centenary of his birth – with more urgency than ever. Diego left us thirty-five years ago. For me, more than an enormous void, he left a world of magias that I have been discovering, slowly, the same way that oysters perform their beautiful work.
My embrace of Diego del Gastor is just one more. One more embrace among the many shared with hundreds of aficionados, whose sensibilities recognize the singular fact of an artist born asido the belly of a guitar, who knew how to use its six strings to evoke emotions that were as fascinating as they were insolitas unexpected.
My embrace of Diego del Gastor is not a farewell but an encounter. A long-lasting encounter with an artist whose greatest treasure was captivating me. Captivating me forever with that extraordinarily rich music extracted from the people, from the essence of centuries past.
My embrace of Diego del Gastor also signifies my most sincere recognition of this Andalusian culture that you have given me. My embrace of Diego is my embrace of an art that sows passions, that spills emotions, and that is the envy of the whole world.
Thank you for your attention.
Conference for the Pablo Olavide University in Carmona, July 3, 2008 by Luís Soler Guevara
Translator’s note: The many flamenco people who never bought Diego’s act will no doubt find this laughable. Well, maybe it’s a bit overwrought, but I think it sheds light on the character and the genuinely mysterious art of Diego del Gastor. It has been my imagined privilege to carry his music in my fingers for more than half a century, and as I struggle to do it justice and recapture his unique air (aire) and his unmistakeable creations, I sometimes think of a line from a flamenco song, probably a malagueña: “Perlas a millares” which must mean “pearls by the thousands.”
Last week in New York, it was my real privilege to reminisce about Diego with one of the few people who actually did capture his essence, the great aficionado and noted photographer Steve Kahn, who created an important show of photographs by himself and others capturing the essence of those years we squandered at the figurative feet of this giant. The original article appears, with photos of Diego, Steve and others, at this url:
P.S. I like the notion, mentioned above and widely believed in Spain, that in New York there was/is a school devoted to the preservation of the upkeep and preservation of the guitar style of Diego del Gastor. Of course, there never was such a thing. But for decades I was playing his stuff for any willing or unwilling listeners, usually alone but joined for one recent decade by Steve and then by Ian Banks, another fine interpreter of the style, who is still presenting this living tradition at cafés and other venues in the Big Apple.
Come to think of it, I guess maybe it could be called a school. Yeah, why not?
To see this man at work, go to YouTube, add “flamenco”, “rito”, “Diego del Gastor” and “English”. Yep, that was the first of the 100 programs in this great Rito y Geografia de Flamenco documentary series that I liberated starting in 1972 (I bought it on 16 mm film), and it made my year; fifteen exhausting years later I finally got the rest.
Abrazos a todos, as they say in Spain.
February 16, 2017 No Comments
From ABCdeSevilla, September 17, 2016, comes this report from the Biennal de Sevilla, the major Andalusian flamenco festival.
Vicente Amigo, the Messiah of the Guitar
The brilliant guitarist makes history with a memorable concert that marks a before and after
By Alberto Garcia Reyes
Once upon a time there was a guitarist who came down from the sky. A hero with fingernails of velvet born to caress the monument of Andalusian sound. His name was Vicente. Vicente Amigo. And they tell of the legend who arrived in Seville after the reign of Paco de Lucia, and without saying a word, without even tuning up his guitar, sat down and made history with his rendering of the soleá. A solea dredged up from the veta of a mine only known by the angels in paradise.
He began with a piece from the mining region of Spain’s southeast, with the essence of the great guitarist Niño Ricardo, sounding both megalithic and avant-garde. He weaved a thousand melodic variations of immense profundity. Without technical excess or technical deficiency, Launching a duel between perfection and emotion. Playing like a torbellino, not intending to please us, but to give us pain.
Once upon a time there was a king who asked for no realm beyond the deep well of his guitar. A protoman chosen for the succession. A deity who played the flamenco tangos for the dance of his cousin Antonio. Inventing new harmonies to bring new green shoot to olive groves a thousand years old. A captian of a paper boat who slowed the pulse of his bulerias to oil the yemas of his fingers with a distinctive, slow sound, like the procession of the toreros in the Maestranza bullring. The timonel of some tanguillos that seemed to loose falcons from his hands, but were never a vehicle for virtuosity.
Once upon a time there was a guitarist who played far above our possibilities. A supergifted technician who never made us notice that virtue, but only of his artistic creativity, his ability to move the listener. This was his secret. That he was not a slave to the guitar, not a siervo of its demands, but a transmitter of emotion And the road toward the heart has risks that do not come from the faculties of execution. Because the guitar does not have strings, it has barrotes. And the Prisoner Number One in the jail of guitar playing was born in Guadalcanal, Cordoba. Once there was a simple crazy man who apreto the clavijas of the siguiriyas, playing up the neck in the fourth position without using a capo. Changing the pasa to flamenco without rising from the Camilla table on which se arropa the history of this art.
Once upon a time the inheritor of the throne of guitar, in a shared reign with Rafael Riqueni, seated on a golden chair and embracing the rosewood symbol of the south, which is the cross carried by the martyrs of guitar playing when they want to shout out that those six strigs are the sum total of who we are. Vicente sometimes struck the guitar with too much power, but hi was in Seville proclaiming the advent of his monarchy. And in festive full sail he stopped at the Callejón de Agua, again in the soleá. In the key of the mysterious taranta. Una excelsa barbaridad. One must be very pure to play in this key without sounding like the flamenco from the eastern mining districts. This was the secret: to create something totally new without it being noticed.
Once upon a time there was a sublime creator who tried to pass through unperceived. I’m sorry, Amigo, but excess humility is only worthwhile behind the guitar. On the other side, we saw everything. We saw the king. The one in command. The most important guitarist that the Twenty-first Century has so far produced. In the Biennal de Sevilla. Dancing in celeric phrasing, encircling the electrical bulerías that El Choro dnced in accents that must be sought two hundred meters deep in the earth, where the soleá apolá as once sung by Camarón
sends down its roots, with its echoes of the hollow sound of the great singer Niño Gloria, but above all. Of the singer Rafael de Uterer.
Once upon a time there was a man who came to Seville and wrote his name in the register of the uniques. If sometimes I forget myself, insult me. I have not been worthy of witnessing the definitive elevation of Vicente Amigo to the Olympus of flamenco. And I swear on my innards that I saw the new Messiah playing with the firmament in his hands. His destination unto death, Al que va a dirigir esta hasta que se muera. A un cristo que busca con la mirada su sitio en cada latigazo A Christ who seeks with his glance his site in every lash of the whip. El cielo. Heaven itself.
Translator’s note: The original is at:
It’s interesting that this hyperventilated consecration of Vicente Amigo simply confirms what most observers have suspected for at least two decades: That with due respect to the wondrous Tomatito, who took over Paco de Lucía’s role as accompanist-in-chief for the legendary Camarón, Vicente Amigo — and not someone who has arisen among the incredible crop of younger guitarists — was indeed the Anointed One in terms of the contemporary guitar itself.
February 15, 2017 No Comments
No flamenco form is as vital or ubiquitous as the bulerías. Its “inconfundible” — (unmistakable, “unconfoundable”) pulse powers fiestas in most flamenco territory. In Jerez, especially, it is everywhere — the song, the dance, the guitar, the local anthem expressed in endless variations that are normally joyous but can have astonishing emotional reach and power. In my years there, at countless sessions in bars and basements and in that city’s terrific flamenco peñas — associations open to everyone — it was a shared bond between every artist and aficionado.
It’s logical to see the bulerías as simply an outgrowth of the soleá — a sped-up version that still can serve as a windup or remate, often in the same flamenco mode and rhythm and basic melodic structure. Like many typical remates, would have a sort of natural tendency to leave the flamenco mode and go into the major key.
This debt to the soleá doesn’t fit with the idea that the bulerías may have originally been a major-key thing, just another variant in the major-key cantiñas/alegrías family with its folkloric (even jota-inspired) genesis. (This would imply a non-Gypsy origin, in musical terms.)
The big Diccionario del Flamenco reveals that most of the bigshot authorities lean toward the former theory. José Blas Vega calls the bulerías “the daughter of the solea” and links them to the “estribillo” that Loco Mateo used to rematar [wind up] his solea. J.M. Caballero Bonald says they are “direct inheritors of the soleá”, created primarily to accompany dancing. He adds “the gamut of bulerías styles is virtually uncontrollable, although one can distinguish two distinct groups: true “bulerías festeras” or bulerías for dancing, and the “bulerías al golpe”, or bulerías for singing, whose most defined variant is customarily called, with good reason, the bulerias por soleá. The former group is
especially fertile and flexible (? movedizo), allowing a series of improvizations and thematic borrowings even from exotically distant musicalstyles. The latter group, as its name indicates, is clearly derived from the soleá and its clear role as a song that isn’t danced gives it a hierarchical position among the noble forms derived from the primitive songs.”
Pedro Camacho writes: “Rhythmically, the bulería is a “cante bolero”, whose origin is almost certainly the earlier jaleo, or festive song (canción jaleada) that accompanied euphoric dancing. In this sense, it is a “boleria”. When the Gypsies incorporated into this dance the traditional verses of the soleá or soleariya [a term for a soleá using three-line rather than the more common four-line verses], and arbitrarily accommodated these melodies, the “bulería gitana” was born, still sometimes called the jaleo.”
Fernando Quiñones writes of bulerías “A song descended from the soleá … though more lively — there are even some bulerías a golpe, with much more of soleares than of bulerías. The original bulerías might have derived from the old “juguetillos”, and are still sometimes absurdly viewed as throw-away time-killers; but they are much more. The bulerías as a song has real merit.”
José Luís Ortiz Nuevo: “This relatively modern song comes to us from Loco Mateo via El Gloria, a perfect synthesis of deep expression. It is a condensation of the solea, with the essence of its rhythms and the light of its echoes and musical form. It flows from the palmas and the dance like a ceaseless cyclone, a flow of the emotions of the fiesta. Properly heard, it
incites a vertigo of courage and fury. But nowadays, all the “renovations” are carrying it in the opposite direction — stretching its tercios (verses) to excessive lengths, unnecessarily sweetening its laments, carelessly breaking up the precision of its compás. The cuples and coplas (verses based on popular songs rather than flamenco styles) are today disfiguring its true character, with the acquiescence of many aficionados.”
End of citations from the Diccionario.
Again, it’s true that lot of early versions of this relatively recent form (first taking shape in the late 1800′s) are in the major, so maybe the bulerías didn’t come directly from the soleá after all. I prefer to believe it did — it gives a certain borrowed gravitas to the bulerías
Nomenclature note: The soleá is the soleá. The bulerías is (are?) the bulerías. But I’m convinced that there is another form, distinct from either and with a its own tempo and melody (maybe just one single melody, unlike the soleá with dozens or the bulerías with several basic melodies and infinite modifications), and that it is most properly called either the bulerías por soleá, or the soleá por bulerías, or the bulerías al golpe or the bulerías pa’ escuchar (the bulerías to sit down, shut up and listen to.)
Is it all perfectly clear?
Well, maybe this will help. The bulerías is characterized by its unique rhythmic pattern or compás. Like the soleá, it can be heard as having accents on the third, sixth, tenth and twelfth beats; like nothing else, it can be heard (and clapped to) with beats on the first and second, fourth and fifth, seventh and eighth, and tenth and eleventh beats; it is often clapped with beats on one two three, seven eight, ten. Oh, and there’s often an underlying emphasis on every other beat: two, four, six, eight, ten and twelve.
Happy to have cleared that up for you.
P.S. An artist friend of my father, who also played flamenco, asked me to come to his class on abstract art at Cooper Union in New York and bring my guitar. I did, and he asked me to play some bulerías, which I also did. He asked the class what they thought of this musical interlude and they said, basically, “It was so free, so wild, so impulsive.”
He then turned to me and asked what I was doing, and I started to explain and diagram all those strict and inviolable rules, the underpinning that made it really work.
When they got bored and restless, he turned to them and said: “Why am I telling you about this? Because a lot of you think you can become abstract impressionists without ever learning how to draw.”
Well, I thought that was pretty illuminating — only a firm underlying structure, a basic knowledge, can provide the true freedom required to improvise and to express your vision.
In fact, I wrote that little story in this blog several years ago, confident that it would be as thoroughly unread as nearly everything else in these virtual pages. Imagine my surprise and, yes, delight, when I read the headline of an interview with perhaps the greatest and free-est tradition-minded flamenco dancer, Farruquito. “You have to learn to draw before you can become an abstract expressionist, he said.
That interview is somewhere in this blog, and I can’t help thinking that maybe somebody mentioned it to him. Okay, I flatter myself — what else is new, you say.
February 5, 2017 No Comments
Recent entries in this blog have focused on the great flamenco singer Manolo Caracol. An entry in another blog, David Pérez Merinero’s excellent “Papeles Flamencos” from January 24th, 2017, reveals that in 1969 Caracol received a notable honor, the Order of Isabel la Católica. It was granted by the Chief of State, who at that time was the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
Specifically, Caracol received the “Cruz de Caballero de la Orden de Isabel la Católica” and the blog entry goes on to say it is “within the the Royal Order of Isabel la Catolica a distinction of minor categoría (the recipients’ names are not even published in the BOE). (The blog adds “If, improbably, some reader of these pages wishes to acquire a similar decoration, they’re available on ebay for 200 euros.)”
Okay, I think Cruz de Caballero may translate as “Knight’s Cross”. In 2008, I received the Cruz de Oficial, which translates as “Officer’s Cross” — the third of six categories, and one step higher than the Knight’s Cross.
(Here’s the drill: Beyond category is the King of Spain, who is the Grand Master of the Order — that was Juan Carlos I in 2008, and is now his son Felipe V. Next up is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is the Grand Chancellor of the Order. Then we get to the First Class recipients, who are Knights of the Collar (Caballeros del Collar) — limited to just 25 people at any one time; and the Knight Grand Cross people, or Caballeros Gran Cruz; limited to 500 people at any time. Lowering ourselves to the two categories of Second Class members of the Order — first there are the Commanders by Number or Encomienda de Numero, limited to 800 lucky winners, and then the mere Commanders or Encomiendas, with no fixed limit.
Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Next is the Third Class of the awards, specifically the Officer’s Cross or Cruz de Oficial that I received. Fourth Class is the Knight’s Cross or Cruz de Caballeros. Both of these categories “enjoy personal nobility and have the privilege of adding a golden heraldic mantle to their coat of arms.” (Great. Now, where can I buy a coat of arms? For that matter, how do I start enjoying personal nobility?)
Bringing up the rear are the Fifth Class holders of the Silver Cross (Cruz de Plata) and the Sixth Class folks, who hold either the Silver Medal (Medalla de Plata) or the Bronze Medal (Medalla de Bronce). (There used to ba a Gold Medal but it was abolished long ago.)
Mine came with the requisite fancy scroll signed by then King Juan Carlos I, which is better than Francisco Franco any day. On the front it bears the legend “Lealtad Acrisolada” which means “Proven Loyalty”.
On the royal website, https://casarealdeespana.es/2016/02/08/orden-de-isabel-la-catolica/ I see the Cruz de Oficial but not the Cruz de Caballero, which might’ve been dropped or superseded.
Anyway, I was told that I should be referred to as “Ilustrísimo”, which seems to mean “very illustrious” or possibly “fully illustrated”. So far, this has not happened.
My official English-language notification said I’d been knighted by King Juan Carlos, which I happily take at face value, since an Officer is considered a Knight, but of even higher stature.
I sure hope my name appears in the BOE, whatever that is, but have my doubts.
(I got the thing for increasing American understanding and appreciation of Spanish culture – in my case, through the prism of flamenco. Seventy years ago, when I was five, my Pennsylvania Dutch and Communist father took up flamenco guitar and inflicted his practicing on me night after sleepless night until I went off to college. Sadly, I had become habituated to the racket and have been inflicting it upon myself and everyone in my vicinity for the fifty years since. I’ve spent years learning about flamenco in Spain, and talking and writing about it here in the U.S., to no apparent avail until I was notified about the Cruz – which I assumed was a very elaborate and inventive hoax until I had eliminated all the usual suspects.)
You assume I am delusional, in the grand tradition of other quixotic obsessive wannabes? Okay, check this out: http://www.flamencoexperience.com/
Better known and/or more deserving recipients include: Samuel F.B. Morse, of code fame, in 1859; Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s late uncle; La Argentinita, the great Argentinian dancer (see the remarkable story of this elsewhere in this blog); Imelda Marcos and Saddam Hussein in 1974 (a vintage year for dictators); Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballet dancer in 1993; Celin, Pepe and Angel Romero, the “Royal family of the Spanish Guitar” in 2000; Fernando Botero, the Colombian artist; Mexican President Felipe Calderón; Jorge Drexler, the Uruguayan singer-songwriter in 2010; Montserrat Caballé; Plácido Domingo, and scores of others.
February 5, 2017 No Comments
From 1850 — The First Accurate Description of Early Flamenco Singing by Gevaert – translated with comments by Brook Zern
Long ago, I posted something from a Spanish magazine, a report on flamenco in 1850 as written by Gevaert, a noted Belgian musicologist of that era. Here’s a brief excerpt, starting with the words of the modern-day author Arie Sneeuw and then quoting Gevaert:
“Finally, we have the brief description, already referred to the repertoire in totality, of the use of the voice and the tesitura characteristic of cante flamenco:
‘What also testifies to the Arab origin of these cantos is the guttural and cut-off, interrupted (entrecortada) way of singing — a way that seems to be compulsory (de rigor) for all of them. All of this music is sung in the highest registers of the voice, and it is not uncommon to hear the entrada (entrance passage) of a cana or of a fandango done with a C-note from the chest (realizada con un do de pecho).’
(Sneeuw then says): “Since starting a phrase with a C from the chest is probably the most difficult way of doing any type of singing, this passage, together with the one above which refers to breathing, gives us an idea of the demands that were placed on singers in those days — or that they imposed upon themselves, since one would customarily implicate the other.
On the other hand, the somewhat forced tesitura which the cante demanded — and which to a greater or lesser degree it still demands today — seems to be a natural corollary of the descending melodic line, as commented on earlier.”
End of excerpt. Again, it seems that a high voice has been part of flamenco, certainly of professional flamenco, for a long time. I’ve gotten a vague impression that the impetus for this might be related to Italian operatic style, though of course there is no other Italianate influence in flamenco song (I hope.)
January 29, 2017 No Comments
Flamenco Forms – The Rondeña – From José Manuel Gamboa’s book “Una Historia del Flamenco” – translated with comments by Brook Zern
The Rondeña: Flamenco Authority J.M. Gamboa’s take on the rondeña
The rondeña is a remarkable and haunting piece from the flamenco guitar repertoire, the only flamenco guitar piece without an associated song — though there is a sung rondeña that can be accompanied on guitar. Here’s a description of the rondeña from the excellent book “Una Historia del Flamenco” by José Manuel Gamboa:
“We know the rondeña of [the noted Spanish classical guitarist Julian] Arcas. We know that [the great classical guitarist] Francisco Tarrega, his disciple, interpreted works of the master, and that Miguel Borrull Sr. [a famed early flamenco guitarist] was an indirect student of Tarrega. It is only logical to suppose that it was Borrull who brought the rondeña to Madrid, home of the young Ramón Montoya [considered the father of the developed flamenco guitar, and often called the creator of the solo guitar version of the rondeña].
This was confirmed by [the important flamenco singer] Pepe de la Matrona who said, “The first person to play the rondeña was Borrull Sr. This refers to the guitar solo, with its distinctive altered tuning, that Montoya improved and and introduced to a wide audience, since Borrull’s flamenco activity was limited to the usual resources of the instrument, namely strumming [rasgueado] and plucking with the thumb [pulgar]. The rondeña used a lot of that. Moreover, in Borrull’s era no guitarist had decided to record concert pieces of this nature. That’s how Borrull’s rondeña passed into history through the hands of Ramón Montoya. In any case, we still don’t know who wrote down the scordatura applied to that concert version of the rondeña, since we don’t find it among the works published by the maestros cultos [the cultured masters of the classical instrument]. Was it a Borrull’s concept? What we do find, already in Arcas’s written works, is the concept. It’s reasonable to suppose that Tarrega and others had the word…not to mention Rafael Marín [another noted transcriber of early flamenco guitar pieces]. That talented individual writes – and publishes as early as 1902! – flamenco works of enormous complexity for the time, where all kinds of techniques are used, the full range of the guitar fingerboard is employed, and there aare even scordaturas, as the were called.
What is clear is that Ramón Montoya – and through him other great players like Niño Ricardo, Sabicas, Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlúcar and Victor Monge “Serranito” – are the inheritors of Julián Arcas and Francisco Tarrega, each adding to the collective wisdom found in the piece. And there you have it, in its significant sense.
If we have traido a colación the concert version of the rondeña – the sung version is one of the oldest known forms in the flamenco genre – the dates don’t correspond because the instrumental version has the characteristics of the version of the fandango sung in the Eastern regions of Spain which gave birth to the form called the tarantos. Let’s look at the relationship.
Ramón Montoya “sings” with his guitar – he plays a melody that, not long afterwards, the [legendary dancer] Carmen Amaya would sing in her productions and would record with the nephew of Ramon, [the great virtuoso] Sabicas [not actually a nephew of Ramón Montoya – that position was occupied by Carlos Montoya, who became the most famous flamenco concert guitarist]. Carmen recorded it with two verses, “Dame veneno” and “Abre, que soy el Moreno”. At the end, she bursts into her energetic footwork. Sabicas accompanies her in the key used for mineras. And it’s titled rondeñas. The comediógrafo [what’s that?] Alfredo Mañas, believing that this was just a labeling error and it should have been titled tarantos [a term that would subsequently be used for a rhythmic, danceable version of the free-rhythm tarantas], told Carmen as much. She answered tajante that there was absolutely no mistake, ant that this was indeed the rondeña, now and forever [de toda la vida – all her life].”
End of section. Thanks to José Manuel Gamboa for this insight, for his book, and for the hours we have spent in conversation at El Colmao in Jerez.
At a recent New York conference dedicated to the many forms of the fandango — the rondeña is one such form, as are the granainas, the malagueñas, the tarantas, the mineras and several other song and guitar styles — I attended one session which presented a very early version of the rondeña as it was played before 1850 by the Granada guitarist Francisco Murciano and transcribed by the noted Russian composer Glinka. It was fascinating, and to my surprise it sounded a lot like one of the fandango forms as played on guitar decades later.
A lot of today’s experts insist there was no such thing as flamenco — not guitar, not dance and not flamenco song — until after 1850 when flamenco burst upon the scene in some Andalusian cities and also in Madrid.
I can’t understand why, if the guitar music of the flamenco form called the rondeña existed before 1850, today’s authorities insist flamenco didn’t exist until after 1850.
(I believe in the comical theory that flamenco had a gestation period, and that some of the songs that were until recently attributed in large measure to the Gypsies of Spain were being developed and performed below the radar for decades. This is called the “hermetic period”, and is ridiculed in decent company. (Maybe it’s because the “proof” is that there are no records and thus no proof that there was such a period. On the other hand, if there were such proof, it wouldn’t have been a hermetic period, right?)
January 28, 2017 No Comments
Twenty years ago, I wrote the following post to a flamenco mailing list. i’m adding it here because the recording is a topic of a recent blog entry on the singer Manolo Caracol.
Subj: Re: Anthology(ies) – Caracol/Melchor
Ken Parker notes his preference for Manolo Caracol’s 2-LP or 1-CD anthology called “Una Historia del Flamenco” where Caracol is accompanied by Melchor de Marchena.
Since Ken appreciates Melchor’s great toque, notably por siguiriyas, it’s worth noting that before “Una Historia del Flamenco” came out on the Clave label, it was issued stateside on two labels, Washington and Top Rank International (Top Rank had a fuzzy red velveteen jacket). But those early versions included two guitar solos by Melchor — a siguiriya, and a solea. And while Melchor is, as Jacinto notes, probably the exact opposite of a soloist (despite several solo LP’s he recorded), his playing on these “Historia” solos seems pretty impressive.
I am always in awe of Manolo Caracol’s genius. A number of singers can be gripping if you’re attuned to flamenco and looking for that quality. But I think that only Manolo Caracol and Agujetas are obviously electrifying in a palpable way, even when they aren’t at the peak moments of their performances. (This is rarefied company. Terremoto and Chocolate can be equally great, and La Niña de los Peines can overshadow them all if you count vocal chops as part of the equation. But for drop-dead power, the scary kind that made Manuel Torre the greatest Gypsy singer ever, I think Caracol’s best recordings would be a good place to start.)
Here’s the listing for the Historia.
[faf]√ MANOLO CARACOL: UNA HISTORIA DEL CANTE FLAMENCO [HISTORY OF CANTE FLAMENCO]
2 Discos: Hisp HH 10-23, Hisp HH 10-24 [Precio: 710 pts.] 1958
Clave 18.1077, Clave 18.1078 1968
√Vega VAL 19 Hispavox France
CD: Hisp 781362-2
HISTORY OF CANTE FLAMENCO
Washington 713 714 USA
[gs]√Top Rank International RDM 1 USA
Cante: Manolo Caracol
Guitarra: Melchor de Marchena
I. Martinete “En el calabozo”; Martinete “Mis ducas no eran na”; Siguiriyas “El reniego”; Siguiryas de “El Marruro” “Mujer malina”; Siguiriyas (solo de guitarra: M. de M); Siguiriyas de Manuel Torres “De Santiago y Santa Ana”; Siguiriyas;/ Caña “Me pueden mandar”; Solea de Joaquin el de la Paula “Si yo pudiera”; Solea de Enrique el Mellizo “Tiro piedras a la calle”; Solea (solo de guitarra: M. de M.); Solea de Antonio Frijones “Al senor del baratillo”; Malagueña de Enrique El Mellizo “Soy como aquel jilguerillo”; Malagueña de Chacon “Que del nio la cogi”
II. Fandangos “Se la llevo dios”; Fandangos Caracoleras “Viva Madrid”; Fandangos de Huelva.; Taranta y Malagueña “Veneno dejaste”; Tientos “Antes de llegar a tu puerta”; Tientos Caracoleros”Cuando te vayas conmigo”;/ Saeta “Toitas las mares”; Mirabras “Debajito del puente”; Alegrías “La barca de mis amores”; Bulerías “Voz del pueblo”; Bulerías “a gorpe” [a golpe] “No quiero na contigo”; Bulerías Festeras “No quiero caudales”
As good as it gets.
January 28, 2017 No Comments
Flamenco Singer Manolo Caracol speaks – 1970 Interview by Paco Almazán – translated with comments by Brook Zern
Translator’s introduction: This blog’s many interviews with great flamenco artists of the past are important. They can also be surprisingly relevant, shedding new light on contemporary arguments and issues. They let serious English-speaking aficionados understand the thoughts and feelings of those who shaped the history of the art.
As an example: No singer in my lifetime has been greater than Manolo Caracol. None came from a more illustrious artistic lineage, or more completely embodied the entire known history of the art. None were as prodigious — winning a historic contest at about twelve years old. And I think no recording reveals the emotional power of flamenco song as well as Caracol’s double-LP “Una Historia de Cante Flamenco”, on which he is magnificently accompanied by the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.
This interview by Paco Almazán from Triunfo magazine of August 8, 1970, goes to the very heart of the art. It served as a response to an earlier interview in that publication where Antonio Mairena, the leading singer of that time, had challenged the greatness of the other Gypsy giant, Manolo Caracol. Caracol would die not long after this interview appeared.
The interview can be found in the blog of Andrés Raya Saro called Flamenco en mi Memoria, at this url: http://memoriaflamenca.blogspot.com/2017/01/las-entrevistas-de-paco-almazan-ii.html?spref=fb
(My attempted clarifications appear in brackets.)
Sr. Almazán writes: Manolo Caracol started by weighing in on the casas cantaores – [the few crucial families who were immensely important in the early development of the art.] He claims that in reality, his family is the one and only real deal when it comes to bloodlines or heritage:
Manolo Caracol: The house of the Ortegas [Manolo Caracol is the professional name for Manuel Ortega] is actually the only one we know of. In the rest, there were one or two singers, but not a whole branch of them. I know of no other, because the house of Alcalá [a town that produced notable singers] is not a single family. Los Torres [the family of Manuel Torre, who remains the supreme paradigm of male Gypsy artistry] have produced some artists, and so have the the Pavóns [the family of the La Niña de los Peines, the maximum female Gypsy singer, and her brother Tomás Pavón, one of the four or five most revered male singers]. Pastora, Tomás and Arturo – three siblings, and that’s it. My great grandfather, [the legendary singer] Curro Dulce, who was my father’s grandfather; and on my mother’s side, [the legendary singer] El Planeta who was the inventor of the [important early song] polo, and was the world’s first flamenco singer. Or who created the polo, because I believe that flamenco songs are not made. Furniture is made, clothing is made, but flamenco songs are created. El Planeta was older than El Fillo, and from there on, and the Ortegas emanate from them. El Fillo was an Ortega, and was the first “cantaor” [singer] who was “largo”— who had an extensive repertoire. A great cantaor, a grandiose cantaor – that was El Fillo, and he was from Triana. Before me there were several cantaores. Now, in the Twentieth Century the most famous – well, I think that was me, and for that reason I say that even children know me and me biography. But I’d like to talk about today’s problems.
Interviewer’s note by Paco Almazán: Remember Caracol’s beginnings, after being one of the winners of the 1922 Concurso de Cante Jondo of Granada – he says “when I won the prize” [a stunning achievement for a twelve-year-old boy]. He traveled to Madrid and triumphed on the terrace of the Calderón Theater, reaffirming that Madrid plaza’s importance.
Interviewer: But Manolo, everyone accuses you of just that. Of having taken the cante into theaters, degrading the purity of flamenco! Don’t think that everyone thought it was a good idea!
M.C. It’s not a good idea? Well, what’s good? If right now the inventor of penicillin, Doctor Fleming, hadn’t shared it with the world, the sick would not have been cured. If I don’t take flamenco song to the people who might like it, and understand it, or at least welcome it. You can sing with an orchestra, or with a bagpipe – with anything! Bagpipes, violins, flutes…the man who has real art, real personality, and is a creator in cante gitano… You have my zambras [his rendition of sentimental popular songs with a flamenco aire, which had enormous sales], and my cantes [flamenco songs, which had more limited sales], all with roots of pure flamenco song, not fixed in a cosa pasajera!…But if this business of pure song [cante puro] has become popular now, starting about ten years ago, when the flamencologists decided to speak of flamenco and the purity of flamenco! Es un cuento! It’s a story! [A fairy tale]. This business of the purity of flamenco is a story! Singing flamenco and speaking of whether it’s pure flamenco…and they chew on the idea, and they talk, and talk [a clear reference to Antonio Mairena]. That’s not flamenco singing! That’s a guy giving a sermon. Cante flamenco and cante puro – not even the singer knows what’s what. He’s a cantaor who has been born to sing above him. The rest are just copying. That’s why today there is no creation, when before there was creation.
Paco Almazan’s note: How happy Caracol must have been after these statements! He goes on and on, and when Almazán asks him which artists he liked most or influenced him as a youngster, he gives us this gift:
M.C. There were different aspects. Who moved me the most, whose singing reached me most deeply – that was Manuel Torre. Who was most pleasing to listen to – that was Antonio Chacón. Tomás Pavón was pleasing, and also reached me. And another great artist, La Niña de los Peines [Pastora Pavón, sister of Tomás], the greatest cantaora [female singer] that was ever born. She was a singer who had everything, had altos and bajos [high and low registers]. And any singer who doesn’t have a good low register is worthless. There are many singers from that era who sing de cabeza [using headtones? In a studied way?], sing songs that never existed and that they couldn’t have known, and who call them cantes de Alcalá, or cantes del patatero [songs of the potato seller?] or of Juan Perico. [This again refers to Antonio Mairena, who probably invented certain styles of important song forms and attributed them to other, perhaps fictional, artists.] That’s worthless! It’s as if we dijeramos un aperitivo [served an aperitif?] to cante flamenco. Sing – sing and create – take command the way a great torero does, improvising. That’s real singing!
There are fewer real singers today. Today, as far as I know, among the younger singers I like Camarón [who would become a revolutionary and the most important singer of his generation], and among the veterans I like Pepe Marchena, a creator in his own style [the established master of a pleasing style of singing, with clear tone and a strong vibrato]. Juanito Valderrama [another pleasing singer, in the “cante bonito” or “pretty song” style] is an extraordinary artist [both Marchena and Valderrama, like Chacón before them, were non-Gypsy artists who represented a cultural counterbalance to the great Gypsy artists like Caracol; Caracol himself shows appreciation for both camps, when many others were partisans of one side or the other.] Valderrama doesn’t really reach me, but he’s a great artist and I like listening to him nonetheless. Those girls from Utrera [Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera] are true cantaoras, and a lot of admired artists today are copying them. The places with the best singing are Triana, Jerez and Cádiz. In Alcalá what there are is bizcotelas. That’s what you’ll find in Alcalá, bizcotelas and dust for the alberos of bullrings. Among the guitarists, there’s Sabicas and this boy [este muchacho] Paco de Lucía, who plays very well, although not on the level of the maestro [Sabicas]. And Mario Escudero, who has come here from America. And among the Gypsy players [in addition to the Gypsy artists Sabicas and Escudero] we have Melchor de Marchena, Niño Ricardo, and that other guy, Habichuela [presumably the great accompanist Juan Habichuela]. Manolo de Huelva is retired now, but is a phenomenon, although he’s eighty. [Many people who saw this guitarist at work say no one was better, or as good.] And in dance, after Carmen Amaya, from this period I don’t know anyone among the dancers, neither in this era nor before [delante de] Carmen Amaya. I don’t know anyone.
Paco Almazán writes: The interview is long. Almost at the end, the newspaperman asks if flamenco loses something with the new verses that some younger singers are using.
M.C. Hombre, if the verses come from the sentiment of the song and the person who’s singing, and if they’re good… You can’t sing a martinete [a tragic deep song form] and tell about a little birdie singing in its nest. Now, anything that touches on pena [grief, misery], of love, of the blacksmith’s forge – all that is worthwhile.
Then the final question:
Paco Almazán:. Can you put the word “airplane” [modern, unpoetic, unexpected and possibly inappropriate to some] into a cante?
M.C. It’s all according to what’s being sung, and how. You can put it into a bulerías [a lighter form], “Ay! I went in an airplane, I went to Havana…” and there you have it. They can create precious new verses as good as the old ones, with more profundity and more poetry.
Comment by Andrés Raya: Remember that in its day, this interview, as well as the earlier one with Mairena, generated a lot of response among the flamenco aficionados of Madrid, giving rise to long arguments and heated discussions. Even beyond Madrid. In its Letters toe the Editor section, Triunfo published letters from many provinces. I’ve got copies of many, and may rescue them from the telerañas.
A press comment [about the Cordoba contest] confirms what Caracol says here. It’s from ABC of Madrid, dated August 9, 1922, and already the Caracol child is named “the king of cante jondo”.
Translator’s comment: Interesting indeed that Caracol singles out Camarón — who would become the ultimate rule breaker — as the most important young singer.
At the time of this interview, aficionados were choosing sides. Manolo Caracol had incredible emotive power, but he broke certain rules — as evidenced by his insistence that flamenco could be sung to bagpipes or anything else. (Today, that inclusive view dominates flamenco to the extent that a flamenco record featuring just a singer and an accompanying guitarist, once the norm, is almost unheard of.) He owned the genre called zambras [not to be confused with the zambras performed mostly in the caves of Granada, that are rhythmic Arabic-sounding songs and dances.]
The opposing view was embodied by Antonio Mairena, who obeyed (and invented) rules — to the extent that if he created a new approach to a known style, he might attribute it to some shadowy name from history to give it validity. Mairena rarely projected the emotional power of Caracol — he was almost scholarly in his renditions, giving what critics sometimes called “a magisterial lesson” in flamenco singing, rather than jumping in headfirst and just letting it all hang out. (In private, though, he could be pretty damn convincing.)
I tend to believe that early flamenco song had a gestation period, a “hermetic” stage when generations of Gypsy families forged the beginnings of the deep-song forms (tonás/martinetes, siguiriyas and soleares, which deal with Gypsy concerns from a Gypsy perspective) outside of public view due to the intense persecution of Gypsies in that era.
Caracol, who ought to know a lot better than I do, says that his great-grandfathers [Curro Dulce, El Planeta] were not just the first known flamenco singers but the first flamenco singers, period: they invented the whole genre. (It’s hard to defend the idea of this “hidden period”, especially since the “proof” is that it by its very nature it would be completely undocumented anywhere. (I’m not so sure that these alleged hidden sessions would have been reported in the Seville Gazette when they were essentially illegal and dangerous.)
For that matter, Caracol, like most authorities today, views the idea of “pure flamenco” as absurd or meaningless, while I kind of like the notion. I never liked the gifted singers like Pepe Marchena and Juanito Valderrama who specialized in the cante bonito or “pretty song”, now back in vogue, while Caracol always admired them.
Oh, well. It’s still a privilege to hear from the man best qualified to talk about flamenco history, and that’s why these interviews are so valuable.
January 27, 2017 No Comments
A new book by Guillermo Castro Buendía reflects the new thinking about flamenco’s history, development and perhaps its essential nature. It is titled “Genesis Musical del Flamenco”, and it’s an impressive contribution to the study of flamenco. I’m not on board with much of the new scholarship, or at least of some of its conclusions, (In my day, we didn’t need no stinkin’ scholarship — we drew our rigorous conclusions from, like, the vibe we got, man.) The book is analyzed in a blog entry by one of the defenders of the revised view, Paco Vargas.
In his introductory comments, Sr. Vargas offers the expected ridicule of the traditional view (“Those people obsess over how many fighting cocks the [great Gypsy singer] Manuel Torre had”), and he pays the requisite obeisance to “the great Faustino Núñez”, the diligent researcher and intellectual leader of their merry band. Skipping to the end, one finds a summation of the most important conclusions of Sr. Castro Buendía’s book:
- Flamenco music derives from Spain’s the varied and mixed musical tradition, and the sources are the following folkloric forms: fandangos, jotas, seguidillas, romances [ballads] and work songs. Forms that were widespread across the entire nation, and that during the Nineteenth Century – not before – were transformed by Spanish musicians (singers and guitarists) into the first flamenco songs. That is to say – in contradiction of the [fictitious] “Great Flamenco Novel” these songs did not materialize out of nothing in some mysterious way, but are the product of an artistic mutation of certain folkloric styles – not yet flamenco – that already existed.
- The most remote musical antecedents of flamenco are found in the music of the Sixteenth Century with the pasacalles, romanescas and folías); in the Seventeenth Century with the jácaras; and in the Eighteenth Century with guitar music, the most important being the special finger-strumming technique called rasgueado that would become the most important precedent in the development of flamenco guitar. That is to say, we’re talking about “musical precedents” and not flamenco forms or songs; thus, the beginning of flamenco will not be found in prehistory, antiquity or middle age. We insist instead: The mid-Nineteenth Century,
- The Arab musical heritage is unclear and still to be determined. Though historical logic dictates that it must have had its quota of influence upon the formation of flamenco song, that data we have now would tend to discredit it [discartarla] as the base or seed of flamenco.
- The Gypsy people did not bring any music to Spain, and so we must forget the theory of Indian music as an origin of flamenco. The expressive forms and musical elements traditionally associated with the Gypsies – sometimes as a racial thing – were already, like it or not, found in Spain’s popular and folkloric music before their arrival on the Iberian Peninsula. Those were: The Phrygian mode; hoarse, rough voices [“voces afillás”; the mixed binary/ternary rhythm pattern [hemiola or amalgamated compás]; intense expressive pathos; and melismatic singing.
- A deep relationship is noted between flamenco music and the musical styles that came to Spain from the Americas, most notably the zarabandas, chaconas, carios and, most signiciantly, the FANDANGOS, Attention! Not the singable fandangos we know today, but some instrumental and danceable forms that we’ll now discuss
- The influence of black music that arrived directly from Africa is indisputable, The black slaves brought to Spain rhythns, dances and musical styles that were important to the formation of flamenco music,
- Regarding the relationship between academic/formal music with flamenco, Guillermo believes that the infkuence was from esta hacia aquella, and not the other way around, as current thinking in flamencology. Nonetheless, it’s clear that flamenco guitarists assimilated and adapted many techniques of classical guitar such as arpeggio, tremolo, etc,
Summing up, dear readers, this book knocks down many of the myths of the “Great Flamenco Novel”, opening up an indispensable new horizon for properly understanding this art that we all love.
End of excerpt. The original is found at:
Translator’s note: While I’m on the other side of the fence, I have no trouble with a lot of those conclusions and some other points used by the serial debunkers of the old thinking. Skipping around a bit:
I agree with the idea that it’s dicey to claim Arabic music as the seed of flamenco, though there were certainly traces of that seven-century occupation that remained in Andalusia’s musical substrate.
Too many of us Western types, including Spaniards, seem to feel that all other non-Western forms sound the same. Jewish people tell me flamenco singing sounds exactly like their music, people from Pakistan and India tell me the same thing. And sometimes they write books allegedly proving their theories.
I agree with many of the non-Arab influences cited above, both Spanish and European. But the crucial element in flamenco song, to my ears and most others, is that it is non-Western.
Okay — wait. Flamenco song is many things. Some of the more than sixty forms sound one way, some sound very different. The sevillanas are catchy, and I could sing them if I could sing. They, and a lot of other flamenco songs, use the “follow the bouncing ball” approach, where each syllable is a beat/note (unless it’s held for two or more beats/notes.)
(Faustino Núñez, the authority cited above, uses the terrific term “cante silábico” or “syllabic singing” for this common approach that we’re all so used to.)
Equally important: the notes that are sung would be found, or implicit, in the chords that musical Westerners (except a few of us ungifted unfortunates) could readily select for proper accompaniment. In other words, our music is harmony-based, whether or not someone is playing the chords.
The other kind, non-Western, derives its direction from melody alone. It uses a line that rises from the tonic or root note, meanders around for a while without being glued to a clunky rhythm and without committing to an exact pitch for each nominal note, and ultimately descends back to the root.
Obvious examples would be the soleares, siguiriyas and martinetes. These are the flamenco songs that drive normal people to distraction or drive them away. (Inevitable intermission talk: “Why is that horrid man shouting and screaming while the pretty lady is trying to dance?”)
January 22, 2017 No Comments
Flamenco Guitarist Mario Escudero Speaks – 1984 Interview with Francisco Vallecillo – Translated with comments by Brook Zern
“Mario Escudero – With the Bienal as Backdrop” by Francisco de la Brecha [Francisco Vallecillo] — originally published in Sevilla Flamenca No.8 [1984?]
“I want flamenco fans to know who I am, starting with Andalusia”
Mario Escudero was born in Alicante in 1928. As a child he was taken to Madrid where he spent most of his youth. He was presented in public for the first time in France by Maurice Chevalier at the age of nine. Then dancer Vicente Escudero presented him in the Teatro Espanol in 1944 together with Ramón Montoya in a program of traditional flamenco that included singer Jacinto Almadén. For a long time, he studied with Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. His career started out in intimate juergas and on the “Opera Flamenca” stages, traveling throughout Spain with artists such as Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, José Cepero, Antonio Mairena, Juanito Mojama, El Sevillano, Canalejas, Pepe de la Matrona, Pericón de Cádiz and an endless list of other major singers of the era. He has also recorded duo guitar arrangements with Sabicas.
Before he was 25, he had traveled widely as first guitarist with Vicente Escudero, Carmen Amaya and Rosario and Antonio. After his trip to the U.S. with Vicente Escudero, he found a lot of interest in the flamenco guitar in that country and decided to emancipate himself from flamenco troupes and try to establish the flamenco guitar as a solo instrument in concert halls.
In 1956 he began his career as a concert player after long musical study in New York, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Los Angeles, continuing the studies he had begun with Daniel Fortea in Madrid. When he gave his first concert in Carnegie Hall it was a complete success. Since that auspicious beginning he has recorded more than 30 LPs and played in many Hollywood movies including “Cafe Cantante” with Imperio Argentina, “Brindis a Manolete” and “Jalisco Canta en Sevilla” with Jorge Negrete and Carmen Sevilla. He continues to give concerts around the world, and has just enojoyed another success in New York’s Town Hall.
That’s a brief biography of Mario Escudero, with whom we spent some time listening to his opinions, refreshing some old memories and exploring his profound artistic sensibility. This last item is not difficult, for Mario is an open person, expressive and sincere, even brave in his judgments although he seems rather shy. In our extensive chat one April morning we touched upon some topics that might interest the readers of Sevilla Flamenca in relation to the personality of this maestro of the flamenco guitar…
Q: Mario, we’d like to follow the course of your professional life through the key people you’ve accompanied in your long and brilliant career. We remember meeting you many years ago in Madrid, when you were a kid who had already earned fame as a revolutionary player, in the area of the Plaza Santa Ana and Plaza del Angel, near that legendary flamenco “university” that was called Villa Rosa, around Calle Principe, Echegaray, and Victoria. One afternoon you introduced us to an unforgettable master of Gypsy dance, Francisco Ruiz, whose artistic name was Paco Laberinto. You were accompanying the [flamenco and popular singer] El Principe Gitano, who aspired to be a bullfighter, no less. Going back to that era, let’s talk about Vicente Escudero. Don’t you think his fame was greater than was warranted by the reality of his dancing, in which there were some marked deficiencies?
A: The passage of time and my good memories of Vicente prevent me from openly pursuing the thread you’ve started here. Yes, in fact, perhaps you’re not far from the truth here. But he had a distinctive line and a very personal style, and he was enthralled by the dance and by gypsies. Vicente Escudero was the first to dance siguiriyas. I started out calling him “Señor Escudero” and he vehemently corrected me. “No, I’m not Señor Escudero to you — I’m Tío Vicente [Uncle Vicente]”, and that’s what I ended up calling him.
Q: Your opinion of Carmen?
A: What can I tell you about Carmen Amaya that hasn’t already been said? She was the greatest living genius of dance, the eternal and inextinguishable flame; she represented the glory of pure inspiration, because she never danced anything the same way twice. Her successes were enormous and knew no frontiers. She danced for Toscanini and for Franklin Roosevelt.”
Q: You played with Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. To what extent were these men the roots of flamenco playing? And can you compare them?
A: Ramón was a great innovator of the flamenco guitar; Ricardo, who followed this same line, came later. With Ramón one must also talk of Jerez guitarist Javier Molina, another innovator. And with Ricardo, one must think along the different lines, but always innovative, of Manolo el de Huelva. The very personal style – and so clearly Andalusian, if one can say that – of Ricardo was extremely important. That was also true of the man from Huelva. But Ramón and Javier were the real pioneers in the innovation and perfection of flamenco guitar playing. All of them brought a great deal to the huge process of seeking new forms and to the evolution of the guitar: the evolution of playing toward what I call the three A’s: Aggressive, Accelerated, Arrogant.
Q: You’ve accompanied such exalted singers as Pastora Pavón “La Niña de los Peines”, her brother Tomás Pavón, Antonio Mairena, Juanito Mojama. Who had the most meaning to you when you get right down to it?
A: All of them. To make a comparison between these colossi would be sheer vanity on my part. There is no way to select a favorite. But the deepest and most indelible memories I have are of Tía Pastora [Pavón]: sweet and not cloying…a thousand years could pass, and there will never appear another singer like her.”
Q: What about your compadre, “El Nino de las Habicas” [the Kid of the Beans, Sabicas, who loved his "habas" as a child], Agustín Castellón — do you think he has influenced your playing?”
: A: Of course! He had a great influence on me, and in fact the guitar in general owes this genius from Navarre a wealth of contributions and new ideas.”
Q: Do you think there’s room in Spain for the concert flamenco guitar, for this spruced-up style whose rise you have contributed to?
A: I have no doubt that there is. This concert guitar, whatever clothes it may wear, today represents a kind of music that is unique in the world, and people are enthusiastic in their admiration of flamenco guitar. Why shouldn’t concert guitar have a place in Spain? One thing is certain: Outside Spain it’s valued more highly than in, and followed by multitudes of fans. But it’s gaining ground here, gaining strength, and with good reason, because it’s a genuinely Spanish art, just as Spanish as the instrument upon which it is played.
Q: You were in New York in February, and in April you’ll go back to play concerts in many states of the union. Are you thinking of establishing yourself definitively in Seville?
A: I sure am! What happens is that sometimes man proposes, and circumstance disposes. I have many obligations that must be met. But my decision to reside in Seville is definitive. I want flamenco fans to know who I am, starting with Andalusia. I’d like to do some teaching here,and I wish to live, be and work in Spain, because one’s homeland, that homing instinct, it’s very strong…
Q: Our mutual friend, Brook Zern, said in The New York Times of February 3rd that you are not only a guitar virtuoso, but also one of the players who has most significantly extended the style and range of flamenco music, and who had great influence on the most popular of Spain’s younger guitarists, Paco de Lucía, who included your composition “Impetu” on his first album. What do you think of the fabulous Paco de Lucía?
A: For me, he is a remarkably complete artist, with enormous personality and individuality, who follows the path laid out by Niño Ricardo better than anyone else and who has discovered a way to create an inimitable and unmatched personal style or “aire”; fabulous: imitated by many, equaled by no one.
Sincere thanks to Brook Zern for the transcription and translation of this interview”
Translator’s note. Thanks to Francisco Vallecillo for interviewing my friend Mario after he had gone to live in Sevilla.
I loved Mario — you had to get on line, because so many others did, too. Around this time, I ran into him on my way to my hotel on Calle Sierpes, and he insisted I instead stay at his apartment in the Heliopolis section of the city. (We spent many hours wandering the streets, unsuccessfully looking for the jewelry shop where he had left his diamond ring to be cleaned.)
Years later, in the nineties, he was often at the American Institute of Guitar on 56th Street in New York, where I spent my inexcusably extended lunch hours while allegedly working at Time Incorporated. His compañero Sabicas often joined him there. It was pure joy to share his time, his opinions and his memories.
Not long ago, after I had published yet another article waving the flag for the idea that Spain’s Gypsies are now being shortchanged by contemporary scholars (some of whom call me a racist for stressing the importance of the gitano contribution to flamenco) I received a note from Anita Ramos, Mario’s wife.
She wrote: “Brook — As Sabicas and Mario Escudero both said of you ‘Brook es un payo muy gitano.’ (“Brook is a very Gypsy non-Gypsy.” I don’t know if that contradicted or supported my thesis, but I consider it a very high compliment indeed.
(Vallecillo, incidentally, is still villified for his stance on the issue decades after his demise. He was not only a gitanista, but a devout mairenista — a follower of the great Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena, who insisted that there was something called “razón incorporea” or incorporeal reason — an inherited quintessence of something-or-other that gave them the ability to transcend normal expressive barriers in their flamenco artistry. The term seems idiotic, and the whole notion is beyond problematic — it’s hard enough being suspected of gitanista leanings without seeking a pseudoscientific justification for the failing.)
January 22, 2017 No Comments