Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer Antonio Chacón

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   1 Comment

Flamenco Forms – Tientos

A correspondent asks about the flamenco form called the tientos.  I tend to think of Rafael Romero and Jacinto Almadén for tientos, a form which seems real serious (sometimes deadly serious) but doesn’t seem “jondo” or “deep” — not because I reserve that term a priori for the big 3, but because tientos and other serious cantes don’t seem to have the same approach or the same aesthetic objective.  For me, even the best tientos (or peteneras, or caña, or serrana) just sort of lies there — it may be done well, or badly, or brilliantly, but it doesn’t have the potential to reveal vast layers of deep meaning to me.  I wish I appreciated these forms more.

It’s also worth noting that while there may be several sort-of-different melodic approaches for a singer to choose from in the tientos, it seems there’s really only one tientos; of course, this is quite different from the case of siguiriyas and soleá, which have literally dozens of different manifestations, often bearing the names of individuals or places.  (The tonás/martinetes may have had many distinct variants as well, though most have been lost.)

The big Cinterco Dictionary says the tiento (it insists on the singular, though it says it’s a plural noun) “is a song with three or four 8-syllable lines, usually followed by one or several 3-line estribillos, whose measure is uniform.  It’s a recent song, dating from the beginning of this century — derived from the earlier tango, which has the same compas, though the tientos is slower, more solemn and complex.  It was in Cadiz where it began to be called the “tango tiento“, which means “tango lento” (slow tango); later, in Seville, this term was forgotten, so only the adjective “tiento” remained and the form became a new cante in itself, due to the further slowing of its pace, and evidencing a certain influence from matrixes (matices) of the siguirya and the solea.  It’s a danceable cante, with verses that are customarily sentimental (patética) and sententious.  As a dance, some say it was created by Joaquin El Feo.  It is majestic, sober and dramatic, with a decidedly ritual air.  Oral tradition says (the singer) El Marrurro was one of the first to cut the tientos to this style, after which El Mellizo fixed it in its present form/context.  Molina and Mairena write: “It was Enrique el Mellizo who aggrandized the tango until it became the tientos.  Quinones seconds this, and agrees that (the incomparable Gypsy singer) Manuel Torre was the first “divulgador” (to give it a public profile), as he was announced in his 1902 presentation (theatrical debut?) in Seville as a singer of tangos (i.e., tientos).  But José Blas Vega (one of the dictionary’s two authors) affirms that its first presenter (difusor) was don Antonio Chacón, writing: ‘The tango-tiento de Cadiz, of El Mellizo, is the musical “equilibrio” from which Chacon pulled forth the tientos; he knew the Cadiz school of song, and brought to it his great creative and musical sense, so the tientos of Chacon are impregnated with enormous melodic value.  Chacon may also have heard tientos in Jerez, by Marrurro, whom he knew and admired in his youth.  Those tientos, of Marrurro, have been lost, though (guitarist and cante expert) Perico del Lunar referred to them.  The first reference to tientos appears in 1901, but the name didn’t gain currency until years later.  And although Chacón in his recording of 1909 and 1913 kept using the name tangos, he is credited with spreading the name tientos simply because the public, and aficionados and artists, identified the new modality of tangos lentos or tientos with the style that Chacón — not Manuel Torre and not Pastora Pavón — gave to it in recasting it.  Later, there were written references like this one from 1914: ‘How often I’ve heard people sing the famous tango popularized by Chacón, the Gayarre (who was Gayarre — an opera star?) of flamenco, as in “Qué pájaro será aquel“‘, thus alluding to the famous tientos verse.  Paco Percheles wrote: “Don Antonio Chacón was, contemporaneously with Manuel Torre, the other artificer of the tientos, which he popularized in Madrid, elevating them, as with everything to which he applied his art and his faculties, to a higher level.”  Augusto Butler wrote “Undoubtedly, it was Chacón who gave the form vigor and strength upon adding it to his exhaustive repertoire — and evidently gave it the name tientos.”  But José Blas Vega clarifies “These comments don’t stop us from affirming, in the spirit of truthfulness, that Manuel Torre with this version of tango lento, much more accented by him due to his interpretive tendencies, met with great success in Seville.  From him and from Chacón, Pastora Pavón (Niña de los Peines) got her main influences for tientos.  It’s enough to hear the tientos of Chacón and analyze them through extensive recordings, to appreciate that he has been the modern fundamental fount of this style, in which the tracks of the maestro are perceived directly or indirectly in some 70% of recordings, though time has unfairly obscured his creative and diffusionary labor.”  For some years now, not just in public but in recordings, most interpreters have linked the tientos to the tangos, usually beginning with tientos, given its greater expressivity and possibilities for timing (temple), and ending with tangos, which is easy, since the guitar simply has to lighten/brighten (aligerar) the rhythm.  Other important past interpreters were Tomás Pavón, Aurelio de Cadiz (Sellés), Manolo Vargas, Antonio Mairena, Pepe de la Matrona, Bernardo de los Lobitos, Manolo Caracol and Terremoto.  Today its a common (prodigado) cante with evidences of its Cadiz and Triana sources, as well as the personal touches of its early specialists, which makes it fair to say that in the last 50 years it scarcely shows any evolution (por lo que puede decirse que en los últimos 50 años apenas si se aprecía en los tientos alguna evolución).

End of excerpts from the out-of-print Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado del Flamenco, Cinterco, Madrid, 1988 (which has an aversion to paragraphing).

I disagree with the idea that the tangos and the tientos have essentially the same rhythm.  Speed aside, I know that the tientos has a “dotted” rhythm, which I hear as “and-a-ONE,-and-a-two,-and-a-THREE,-and a four,…” — the same “trick” rhythm that identifies the faster, and major-key, tanguillos and zapateado; the tango, on the other hand, has a flat-footed, 4/4 or even rhythm, “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and…”, just as boring as, say, the farruca rhythm, and so easy and obvious that even an American (me, anyway) can play it.  (Lately, modern guitarists have jazzed up the tango rhythm a bit by using neat triplet rasgueo — but the basic pulse remains simple.)

Brook Zern

February 5, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Antonio Chacón Speaks – interview from La Voz of June 28th, 1922 – translated by Brook Zern

Cante Gitano [Gypsy Flamenco Song]

Speaking with the Maestro Chacón

Article in La Voz of June 28th, 1922 by Luis Bagaria [evidently a gifted illustrator, judging from a caricature of Don Antonio Chacón – the “Don” would soon become a universal and unique expression of respect for Chacón – that accompanied the article.]

[subhead]  The decadence of the art [of flamenco].  The malagueñas of Juan Breva and of El Mellizo.  How Antonio Chacón got his start, and how the fear of singing made him celebrated for his malagueñas. Those “siguirillas” [siguiriyas]!  Those soleares!  Those tonás!  Those livianas!

Pardon me, reader, if once again I meddle in areas that are not part of my profession, and go into things for which God has not called me.  Be kind to me, because after all, you and I are Spanish, and we are all accustomed to such gentle tolerance,

The other day I was passing by the door of Los Claveles, when a friendly voice invited me in for a chato (glass of wine). I confess, hand over my heart, that it was not hard for me to accept; not only because the invitation was so readily acceptable,  but because it came from none other than Antonio Chacón himself, the catedrátrico (professor) and amo (master) of the art.

“My dear Bagaria. How are those caracoles [snails – also the name of a song Chacón likely created that praised the city of Madrid] coming along?”, synthesizing in that question his kind judgment about my drawings.

And after my somewhat evasive answer, he continued:

“I already know that you’ve been tangling with the trade of writing.”

I rejected that supposition with a vehemence inspired by my respect and friendship toward actual writers.  But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to talk, and indicated that I would like to talk to him about the “cante jondo” [“deep song”, a term reserved for a select few of flamenco’s many forms, considered the most profound, often tragic, and most emotionally powerful of all flamenco songs].

“Stop right there,” he interrupted, with a certain severity.  “You should call it “cante gitano” [Gypsy song] – none of this “cante jondo” business.

[Translator’s note: Antonio Chacón was not a Gypsy – he was in fact the greatest non-Gypsy singer in the history of flamenco; yet here he is insisting that this facet of the art is Gypsy – a claim that many non-Gypsies of that era, and an increasing number of non-Gypsies today, are denying with ever-increasing vehemence.  They are in effect disagreeing with the man they consider the paradigm of flamenco artistry and expertise.  See my further comments following the interview.]

Bueno, as you wish.  The fact is that you, who in this matter are the supreme authority, are speaking to the readers of this publication, La Voz, about cante gitano.”

“Fine – I am at your disposition, Bagaria my friend.”

I began the interrogation with the natural hesitancy of one who, not even being a student, would quiz the head of a great university.

“Was flamenco singing better in the old days than today?’

“For the songs that one hears today, it is not necessary to study the way it was back then.  Then, before one began to sing, one had to be “someone”.  Today anyone can dedicate himself to the the song.  That is clear from the case of the old man Bermúdez – [Diego Bermúdez “El Tenazas”, an almost unknown singer who was the surprise winner of the 1922 Contest of Cante Jondo in Granada organized by Manuel de Falla and others who feared that the authentic deep song was being lost and hoped to revive interest in the art; Chacón was among the judges] – who despite his defects, was admired by everyone for his art , because he knew how to overcome the difficulties in singing the caña and the polo [two nearly forgotten forms that were considered keystones of serious flamenco song, but are not given such importance today.]

“Do you believe, then, that the cante is in a state of decadence?”

“What I believe is that if the songs sung today had the importance of the older styles, the art would not have lost its prestige, it would not be disrespected as it is today [“no se hubiera llegado al desprestigio de hoy”].

“But you realize that eminent artists of today have given great realce (splendor) to the art.”

“That’s true.  It owes the importance it has today to the painter Zuloaga and the composer Manuel de Falla.  But you can’t deny that it’s also a sad turn of events that it took the likes of these illustrious artists to give us  their hand, and raise us up from the decadence into which we had fallen.  It’s sad that it was not we ourselves who could do enough to raise us up.  Every day I explain myself less (not today, when I’m old, but even when I was young) about how we have lost the memory of the beautiful siguiriyas of Curro Dulce, and in general, all the songs of Silverio Franconetti [a key figure in the creation story of flamenco – one of the very few non-Gypsies in that role].  It has to be due to the fear of not being able to surmount the huge difficulties presented by the songs of these two men.  What can you say about those serranas, those cabales of Silverio, and those soleares of Paquirri?”

“In view of the fact that I have nothing to say about all this, please continue, my friend.”

“If the old man Bermúdez had sung these things in the Reina Victoria theater in Seville, the public would have seen the truth of what I’m saying.  Of course, that’s discounting the limitations that are to be expected in a man of seventy and who had not sung for many years.”

“And tell me, what is the cause of the decadence of cante gitano?”

“To me, the main cause was the great success of Juan Breva with his malagueñas.  The public was dazzled, and followed him, and ungratefully forgot the songs of the past.  Yes, it’s true that Juan Breva within his own sphere had real merit.  Then came El Canario, who with his delicious [delectable; accessible and easy-to-listen-to-and-love] song drew that public further away from the idea of the [rougher, unpretty, harder to appreciate] cante gitano.  And, if that weren’t enough, along came the exquisite singer Enrique el Mellizo, who knew how sing very seriously in the siguiriyas and admirably in the soleares [both deep song forms traditionally attributed to Gypsy creators], but who threw himself completely into the realm of the malagueñas – and while he sang them as I’ve never heard anyone else sing them, he abandoned the pure art [arte puro] and delivered himself over to the tastes of the era.”

“And you do not wish to speak of yourself?”

“Well, in my first years as a singer I started singing the siguiriyas, but with great pain and regret I had to abandon them (to appeal to the public, it’s understood) and follow the new trend created by Juan Breva, and El Canario, and Enrique el Mellizo.  And now you see me as a prisoner of the malagueñas.  However many thousands those malagueñas have given me (though I have nothing left), I am sorry about the way the old songs have been forgotten; I miss them, and when I see an old man like Bermúdez singing the old songs in the old way, my heart goes out to him, because I am a true admirer of my chosen art.”

“How did you begin to sing?”

“Well, listen.  The first time I sang was in Cádiz, in 1886, in the fair of Perejil.  I went to sing the siguriiyas, and when I had sat down beside the great [guitarist] Patiño I saw Enrique el Mellizo come in with his brother Mangoli and a group of intelligent aficionados and, to tell you the truth, I was afraid to sing the siguiriyas, and sang the malagueñas instead.  You could say that from that incident I drew my personality, my public persona.  The applause drove me to create various new styles of malagueñas.  Silverio heard about me, we met, and in 1887 he took me to appear in his famous café cantante in Seville.”

I asked Antonio Chacón for his view of modern singers, since he had given such interesting data about the older generations; but I could see that he wanted to dodge the question, and I didn’t insist.  He just told me, “That’s something I have to leave to the evaluation of those who listen to them.”

Giving a new direction to the conversation, I asked, “Which is the purest song?”

“The toná and the liviana are the purest, because they have their own rhythm, and there is no way to get away from it, not this way or that way.

I asked him his opinion about the guitarists, and he answered:

“Of the old ones, Patiño for accompanying the song and after him, Paco el Barbero was also one of the good ones.  But the one who beat all the others in terms of execution [technique] was Paco de Lucena who, if he was not as classical as the others, outshone them in technical prowess and harmony.  Then we came to another era or stage in the guitar, beginning with Miguel Borrull and Javier Molina, who were also excellent accompanists, recalling the art of the three men previously named.  Today, it would be [Juan Gandulla] “Habichuela” and el Niño de Huelva [Manolo de Huelva], and [Ramón] Montoya.  Of the first two, I’d say they are worth a lot, and as for Montoya, well, it’s not for me to praise him, because I’ve chosen him as my tocaor (guitarist).

With these words, we were at the end of the conversation.  We raised the penultimate “chato”, and I seemed to hear the maestro mumble one of his creations [a malagueña]:

Rosa: si no te cogí / Fue porque no me dió gana; / Al pie del rosal dormí; / La rosa tuve por cama; / Por cabecera un jazmin.”

Rose, if I did not pick you, it was because I did not want to.  At the foot of a rose garden I slept; the rose was my bed, the jasmine my pillow.”

End of interview.

This is a gold mine of revelations, both professional and personal, by the incomparable master and great creator of very important styles of malagueñas, tarantas, cartageneras, and granainas – all examples of a glorious branch of flamenco song descended from the fandangos, in which non-Gypsy artists have always reigned supreme.

But note the deep regret that seems to haunt Don Antonio Chacón as he nears the end of his unparalleled career.  He says he became a slave to the malagueña and a style of singing he did not really respect; truly a prisoner of his own device.

Now, let me drag this interview into a current debate that divides the “mundillo flamenco”, the little world of flamenco.

In the 1960’s and 1970′s, the dominant view was that although the beautiful styles I’ve just named were important, as were many other styles, they did not measure up to the few forms that Chacón himself so clearly revered: the cante gitano forms including the siguiriyas, the soleares and the tonás.  If there were contests, they were won by Antonio Mairena, leader of the Gypsyist movement, or future Gypsy giants like Fernanda de Utrera and El Chocolate and Manuel Agujetas.

Flash forward to 2013:  For twenty years, a ground swell of support has been building for what many non-Gypsy Andalusians call the cante andaluz. Untrained Gypsy singers, who usually heard the traditional music of their families and felt its rhythms in the womb, are no longer winning contests.  Instead, the winners are emerging from teaching institutions and academies – in some cases, a diploma is even required to obtain professional engagements.

The new trend is away from the sonidos negros (black sounds, named and beloved by García Lorca], and a recent album by the son of famed cante bonito (pretty song) singer Juanito Valderrama is called “Sonidos Blancos”.  Scholars are looking at old press accounts – though evidently not this one – and proving, at least to their satisfaction, that flamenco doesn’t owe nearly as much to Spain’s Gypsies as was previously thought. (The leading figure among sociologists in Spain has told me that Gypsies have nothing to do with the siguiriyas, and gone on to question the entire notion of a real Gypsy identity.)

Many authorities are renouncing their former Gypsy-centric views as unfortunate or even racist (i.e., biased toward one ethnic group at the expense of another).  New authorities are slashing away at the concept of Gypsy primacy in any area of flamenco.  Spain’s official flamenco explainer-in-chief will not allow the word gitano to be used in his discussions, and crosses out the word when he sees it written on a blackboard.

And yet here is their culture hero – the ultimate non-Gypsy genius, Don Antonio Chacón – saying they are wrong.

Okay, not in so many words – but expressing his strong preference for cante jondo, which he insists on calling instead cante gitano, and his poignant regret at moving away from this “pure” flamenco (his word), and instead responding to commercial pressure from the very moment of his first public appearance – going for the dough,  He sings the crowd-pleasing malagueñas instead of the siguiriyas he had intended to sing, because he knows the siguiriyas is just too difficult for a sizeable public to appreciate.

An amazing document – the actual words of a man who is, by any measure, one of the three greatest figures in the history of flamenco song.

I’ve always heard stories about Chacón’s boundless admiration for Manuel Torre, his Gypsy counterpart who was the most revered of all gitano singers and the greatest siguiriyero of all time.  Seems like it was an understatement.

Brook Zern — brookzern@gmail.com

February 2, 2013   No Comments