Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer Miguel Poveda

1996 article/interview with El Chocolate – translated with comments by Brook Zern

1996 article/interview with El Chocolate – translated with comments by Brook Zern

This article/interview by Teresa Sesé about the fabulous flamenco singer El Chocolate appeared in La Vanguardia of May 16, 1996.  (As usual, parentheses were in the original articles; anything in brackets is explanatory.)  My comments appear below.

Chocolate:  “I’m not a strange singer, I’m a delicate singer [or: a sensitive singer].”

It is said of Antonio Núñez “Chocolate” (born in Jerez de la Frontera in 1931) that he is “un raro genial” [a strange, peculiar or eccentric genius].   But he says that people shouldn’t confuse eccentricity with delicateness and that he, like some singers from the past, is “un cantaor delicao” [a delicate singer; possibly a sensitive singer].  And he says, for example, that to sing well one must like “the faces of the public” and that, sometimes, an inopportune movement in the audience can eradicate inspiration.  “But does this make me raro?  No, this is the mystery of an ancient way of communicating [una communicación milenaria] – the delicacy or sensitivity of the flamenco singer.”

Revered by aficionados and possessing one of the most singular personalities in the world of flamenco song of the Twentieth Century.  Chocolate will sing tonight at he Pati de les Dones del Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona.  The second half of the recital will feature the singer Miguel Poveda and the guitarist Chicuelo.

For Chocolate, flamenco song, like the bullfight [toreo] is an art of inspiration.  And to round out a good bullfight [cuajar una buena faena] one must be a gusto [feeling good – or perhaps, “in the zone”].  “It’s important to note that the public welcomes me and inspires me [me anima].  I like it when they shout encouragement [me jaleen] at the end of each song, that they clap for me, because si se aplatanan, I get the feeling that they don’t understand me, and it brings me down.”

Born in the province of Cádiz [i.e. Jerez] and raised in Seville from childhood, Chocolate got his name from his loved of cacao.  He learned to sing at the same time he learned to walk and talk, and he sang on the trains going to Huelva or Alcalá de Guadaira, in the city streetcars or for the wives of the Guardia Civil military police at at a barracks near his house in exchange for a hot meal.  “Buenooo, if I arrived to sing in the middle of a fight…” he jokes.  But for him, the real game was soccer.  “I was better than anyone with both feet, but I earned money first from singing.  One night they gave me five duros [25 pesetas, about a quarter] in the Alameda de Hercules [a legendary center of Seville song] and I immediately gave up football.”

Chocolate has shared stages with Juanito Mojama, el Niño Gloria, La Moreno, Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol…; he sang for the dancer Manuela Vargas and for Carmen Amaya in the film “Los Tarantos”; and he owns the most important prizes and awards in the realm of flamenco.

Singing that wounds [Un cante doliente]

Even so, his fame has not spread much beyond the limited circle of aficionados (though his appearance in Carlos Saura’s film “Flamenco” left a number of spectators nailed to their seats.)  “The pure flamencos, the basic ones – we don’t work every day; what I do isn’t flamenco pop or whatever they call that stuff nowadays.  It is still an art for a minority,” he argues, and then adds, “You know what’s happening?  I like myself a lot [me gusto mucho] – only when you get to that point do you learn to sing – I’m enamored of myself.  And because I like myself so much, there are times when I say, why should I go somewhere when I won’t be good.  It’s better to just sing for myself, no?”

Because the song, he reflects, has to hurt [tiene que doler].  And he laments the fact that today we are not seeing new “cantaores de pellizco [singers who give you chills, give you goosebumps.]  I wouldn’t want to die without continuadores [who will carry on that way of singing].  I’m sad to see youngsters who do not transmit the grief and lament in the songs.  Today everyone wants to create.  And the song is a very old art that is already fully formed [que ya está hecho], an art that has its seasons, its stops and starts, its temperament… Those of us who live this way are disappearing.  And then, what will happen?”

End of article.

Well, El Chocolate did indeed disappear, though he lived long enough to win a Grammy [his refreshing response:  ”Que es un Grammy?‘] and to tolerate my backstage harangue about how great he was and how lucky I was to have known him in Seville in the mid-sixties.  And we know what happened after he left us: The once-dominant notion that someone like him [did I mention that he happened to be a Gypsy?] may occasionally have something that certain other people don’t have, has gone from unfashionable to anathema.

In fact, today’s in-step aficionados would sincerely lament missing this concert — but only because the second half showcased an up-and-coming Barcelona singer named Miguel Poveda who has become the most important singer of our time.  [Did I mention that Poveda happens to be a) not a Gypsy; b) not raro; and c) a true genius and a master of virtually all significant flamenco song forms, as well as a wonderful guy?]

I was astonished to learn that El Chocolate got his name from his childhood love of cacao [c.f. Sabicas, who loved habicas or garbanzo beans].  I had casually misreported or fabricated the “fact” (I hope I’d heard somewhere) that he got his name from the color of his unusually dark skin.

I recall that he sang all the time — not flamenco, but Spanish songs and advertising jingles and whatever — though he didn’t like the Beatles songs (apparently because of intervals that were bigger than he was comfortable with).

I also recall that to my utter surprise, he gave a very technical and detailed singing lesson to my friend Anita Volland, who had already learned a lot of the songs of the immortal Niña de los Peines.  I had warned her that El Chocolate was obviously an instinctive genius who had no idea how he did what he did. Fortunately, Anita knew better.

Times change, tastes change.  El Chocolate’s notion that change in flamenco is not just unnecessary but inappropriate now seems not just unfashionable but absurd.

A lot of successful singers insist that Gypsy artists were overvalued until the world recently wised up; some seem to be dancing on their graves, or they would if they could dance.

But some discerning people still have a soft spot for the old perspective.  Among the artists who make clear their respect and admiration for the Gypsy contribution to flamenco, I’d say the massively popular Miguel Poveda — who will soon appear in Madrid’s huge bullring — is the main man.

June 2, 2013   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Miguel Poveda to Appear in Madrid’s Huge Bullring – Article from ABC.es – translated by Brook Zern

Spain’s major newspaper, in its online version ABC.es of May 8th, has an article by P.M.Pita about the brilliant and hugely popular flamenco singer Miguel Poveda.  It also touches on key issues affecting the state of the art today.  The URL is:  http://www.abc.es/cultura/musica/20130508/abci-poveda-201305071658.html

Here’s my translation, from my blog at www.flamencoexperience.com.

[Headline]  Miguel Poveda:  “The important thing is to open a new door, not bathe in the admiration of the multitudes.”

It’s one of the few stages that flamenco has not yet conquered: Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring.  The flamenco singer Miguel Poveda will assume that responsibility next June 21st, to celebrate his 25 years as a musician.  “The important thing isn’t to bathe in the glow of a huge crowd,” the Catalan artist said in a press conference today, “but to open a new door for other artists, a showcase that has featured many international figures but never a flamenco artist.”

But for him to arrive at this point, Miguel Poveda recognized the fact that many others have smoothed the path.  “It’s an homage to those who made it possible for someone like me to sing in Las Ventas, in Madrid’s Teatro Real, in the Paris Odeón and in New York’s Carnegie Hall – artists like Paco de Lucía, Carmen Amaya, Camarón, El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente…”

He also cited the other greats of cante jondo [flamenco deep song], including Lole (of Lole and Manuel), and Carmen Linares, “who besides being a great artist has always had the humility to support young artists, as she did with me.”  He tells a charming anecdote about her: “When she met me she said I didn’t look like a flamenco artists, and then she added, ‘but that doesn’t matter, because I look like a pharmacist.”

Instead of presenting material from a specific record, Poveda will offer a retrospective of his 25-year career, in which he has focused on different genres, or as he prefers to say, distinct musical “colors”  For example, “the color of the poetry and the poets whose verses I’ve sung, such as Rafel Albertí and Miguel Hernández.”

Also present will be the “copla” – sentimental popular Spanish songs which he says “I have always defended” [most recently in an extremely successful recording which probably far outsold any of his flamenco records] and “popular Latin-American music.  I feel great love for those styles, and in that part of the concert I will go from tangos to boleros to Mexican songs, with a nod to Chavela Vargas.  And finally, on to the fado, counting on the help of the fadista Mariza.”

It was inevitable that the talk would turn to the grave situation of Spain today, and of culture in particular.  “I don’t want to seem too pessimistic, but they aren’t making things easy for the world of art, and of course flamenco music, as always, is one of the musical forms that has it worst.  It’s obvious that the rise in the Value Added Tax [up from 8% to a punitive 21% for performances and cultural events] makes it almost impossible for an artist to develop his projects.”

He went on to enumerate the many obstacles that have made the road so difficult:  “The municipal governments are giving only minimal contracts, and artists have to arrange their own programs, managing themselves, taking all the risk of poor attendance.  And then there’s the problem of media coverage, because every day journalists are being fired.  It makes everything very difficult.”

As an example of the respect that other countries have “for their own music, and their own artists”, and that is lacking here in Spain, he cites the case of Argentina and “the admiration they feel for the tango, the class and elegance with which they treat it, the museums devoted to that art and its great figures.  It grieves me, because for me Carlos Gardel [the late, great tango singer] is in the same league as Manolo Caracol [the late, great flamenco singer].  But we don’t give Caracol the importance and respect that Argentinians give to Gardel.”

End of article.

Translator’s comments:

Poveda mentions Carnegie Hall, where Enrique Morente appeared about a decade ago as part of the New York Flamenco Festival and nearly filled the place.  At roughly the same time, I saw his invited guest artist, the Portuguese fado singer Mariza, do the same thing.

Mariza was clearly a phenomenal artist, but I was sort of nonplussed when she started the show by announcing that she was tired all those sad, draggy fados and she preferred more cheerful kinds.  I had always heard that saudade — roughly the same as sadness — was the defining characteristic of genuine fados, ever since a huge earthquake had destroyed Lisbon and killed thousands.  Oh, well —  if flamenco artists insist on changing with the times, I guess fado artists have the same option.

I think I also saw Poveda’s other co-star, Carmen Linares, in Carnegie Hall, among many other New York venues.  She is the most admired female flamenco singer in Spain, and the counterpart to Poveda.   (Jerez, where I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, has its own taste in flamenco song, and leans more toward hard-core, rough-edged, funky stuff as sung by often problematic people.  In other words, Jerez’s key artists aren’t necessarily folks you’d like to take home to meet your parents, or even your children.  Of course, most of Spain’s culturati think Jerez is just a backwater, and will just have to get with the program.  I think Jerez is a frontwater, and someday the rest of Spain will come to its senses…)

May 9, 2013   No Comments