Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer Manuel Moneo

The Complicated Relationship Between Jerez and Antonio Mairena – Article by Estela Zatania from Sevilla Flamenca, 2009 – Translated by Brook Zern

The Complicated Relationship Between Jerez and Antonio Mairena

By Estela Zatania

Translator’s note:  The following article appeared in Spanish in Sevilla Flamenca magazine in 2009.  It was written by the author and critic Estela Zatania, who gave me permission to translate it into our native English.

Estela has lived in Spain for the last four decades, and in Jerez since 2005.  I’ve also spent a lot of time in Jerez, and have been fascinated by the conflicted or dismissive nature of this flamenco stronghold’s attitude toward the great singer Antonio Mairena.  This article illuminates that topic.  I have interjected data, usually within brackets, to explain or clarify certain points for non-specialist readers.  Estela wrote:

If the image and the lifework of the flamenco singer Antonio Mairena have lost some of their earlier luster in the decades since his death, nowhere is this disenchantment more evident that in the flamenco stronghold of Jerez de la Frontera.  In fact, when the subject is Mairena and Jerez, I feel like I’m writing an apology, when in fact the towering figure of that singer is far above any need for justification from anyone.

In the history of flamenco, there have always been opposing figures – the great singers Manuel Torre and Antonio Chacón…the two masters of cante bonito or “pretty song”, Pepe Marchena and Juanito Valderrama…the two singers who introduced fresh sounds and approaches, Camarón and Pansequito…  In this sense, the contrasting pair who most cleanly divide flamenco devotees would be the singers Antonio Mairena and Manolo Caracol, both born in 1909, and whose centenary year we are celebrating now.  In my experience, it’s rare for any serious flamenco fan to acknowledge that both of these men are indispensable figures.  It’s an unfortunate schism, one that only grows with the passage of time; in earlier years, relations between the camps were more harmonious, and less reflective of local chauvinism, than is the case today.

On the one hand, we have Antonio Mairena:  The essence of dignity in flamenco song; the rejection of romantic tremendismo – in this case, wild-eyed Gypsy passion based on a fictitious image; the unconditional veneration of flamenco elders who saw him as the guiding star, the True North of flamenco; majestic cante that reaches great depth without stridency or histrionics.

In the other corner, Manolo Caracol, singing with a mysterious echo that evokes a timeless heritage, enormous communicative power and a natural capacity to put across his inspired, deep and very personal song.

The history of flamenco song in the Twentieth Century cannot be understood without considering both of these figures.  But there seems to be an invisible barrier after passing the town of Lebrija heading south, before arriving at Jerez.  Once you cross this frontier, you are in Caracol territory, despite the fact that the man himself was actually born in Seville.

In 1972, Antonio Mairena presented his recording titled Antonio Mairena y el Cante de Jerez.  That title was chosen in lieu of two other possibilities:  Brindis a Jerez (Dedicated to Jerez) and Homenaje a Jerez (Homage to Jerez), which, although not ultimately chosen, indicate the real intention of the work.

Nonetheless, in that city of flamenco compás or rhythmic patterns, of that flamenco state of grace called “angel” or angé, of the tabancos and rural gañanias and crumbling patios de vecinos where poor families lived and sang and danced while crammed together, Mairena always seemed to damned with faint praise, always on the receiving end of backhanded compliments from the flamenco lovers of Jerez.

There were lots of lukewarm comments about Mairena being a “great student and researcher” who had created a “magnificent labor” or document – always with the expressed or implied P.S.: “No pellizca”.  (Mairena’s art doesn’t give you chills – it doesn’t touch your heart or shake your soul.)  And that, among flamencos, is the gravest fault any singer can have.

For more on that issue, we can turn to the venerable Jerez singer Manuel Moneo Lara.  In a city that is obsessively “Caracolera”, Manuel is the champion and defender of the song of Antonio Mairena.  It’s not an easy role.  A few days ago, in the outside terrace of the Gallo Azul restaurant in midtown Jerez, Manuel Moneo had a lot to say in this regard.

“The fact is Antonio Mairena loved Jerez.  He came to the weddings here and all the Gypsies were crazy about him, everyone wanted to be at his side.  He was often together with Manuel Morao (leading figure of Jerez guitar and patriarch of the Morao family), and Morao told me in glowing terms of his admiration for Mairena.  He said to me, “Look, Manuel, listen to a siguiriyas with the guitar of Melchor de Marchena accompanying Antonio Mairena and it’s a symphony.  The blending of music and song could not be better.  I’ll tell you the truth: Here in Jerez I have problems because of Mairena.  I like the singers here, but when I wake up in the morning and listen to a toná by Antonio Mairena, I start to cry.  My kids say, “What’s the matter, Papa?”  I listened to Mairena, that’s what’s the matter.

I love Antonio – while at the same time liking Caracol very much.  Caracol has a few things, but I have to say that for me Caracol is at his best when he sings coplas (the sentimental, melodramatic Spanish popular songs that earned a fortune for Caracol, vastly outselling his flamenco recordings.)  Antonio fought for the song of the Gypsies, he lived and died for the cante, he lived the weddings and celebrations.  The way Antonio delivered himself on the record “Mis Recuerdos” couldn’t be matched by any other singer.  He was a complete singer, measured, vocalizing well, transmitting the pain of flamenco, carrying the cante.  Where else are we going to learn this?

Juan de la Plata, director of the Cátedra de Flamencología of Jerez, tells me that it was in Jerez where in 1954 he conducted the first interview of Antonio’s artistic career, for a newspaper in the northern town of Gijon where he was a correspondent.  After Mairena won the Golden Key of Flamenco Song in the Cordoba Contest, he received the first national homage of his life, organized by the Catedra de Flamencologia and celebrated in Jerez’s prestigious Villamarta Theater.

Among the participants were leading figures of flamenco song such as Juan Talega and La Perla, and the poets Ricardo Molina, Antonio Murciano, Manuel Ríos Ruíz and Amós Rodriguez Rey.  At that occasion, Mairena was presented with a gold plaque with the words “Rey del Cante” [King of Flamenco Singing”].

In 1959, he was named Honorary Director of the Cátedra de Flamencología, and soon afterward he participated in that institution’s festival dedicated to Manuel Torre and marking the placing of a commemorative plaque on the house where that revered singer, so admired by Antonio Mairena, was born.  In 1964, Mairena was given the National Prize for Research (Premio Nacional de Investigación) for the book Mundo y Formas del Cante Flamenco written in collaboration with the Cordoban poet and flamencologist Ricardo Molina.

On many other occasions, according to Juan de la Plata, Antonio Mairena would come to Jerez to sing as the leading figure in the various festivals organized by the Cátedra, as well as in almost all of the early editions of the town’s famed Fiesta de la Buleria.

But the institutional recognition of Mairena in Jerez was more generous than that of the city’s flamenco community in general, a fact that Manuel Moneo often points out:

”Mairena loved Jerez so much, and the people speak so badly about him.  The respect and aficion that I have for Antonio comes from my grandfather Pacote, of the Lara family.  My grandfather always told me ‘Terremoto sings well, Agujetas sings well, but the way Antonio sings the siguiriyas, the solea, the martinete and the toná – there’s just no comparison.  And that’s where my love of the art comes from, because I love Manuel Torre, Manuel is my idol, and Juanito Mojama – but from that era to now, well I like Antonio more than anyone else.”

Once upon a time there was the song of Jerez, a great corpus and a tradition with singers of all sstripes and varying abilities, all with a form of singing that practically defines flamenco song.  Antonio Mairena came on the scen and gave body and coherence to those songs.  He made them great (los engrandeció) without taking away their essence.  “The person who knows most about flamenco only knows ten percent of the story,” Mairena has famously stated.  Antonio Mairena was a usufructuario [a legal concept that refers to having full use of something, without owning it.] of flamenco; he never claimed to possess it, but to make good use of its forms, treading with care and leaving them intact, without compromising their integrity, striving to create within the existing parameters.

He conserved flamenco forms and songs that the Jerezanos themselves had practically abandoned.  Luís and Ramón Soler, in their book The Songs of Antonio Mairena say, “a wide range of singers from the Jerez area had tossed into oblivion the songs of Diego el Marrurro, Loco Mateo, Manuel Molina and Paco la Luz.”  Mairena rescued them, with great care and knowledge, and served them up on a silver platter for following generations.

In a telephone interview on September 21, 2009, the veteran singer José Salazar who has vast knowledge of Antonio Mairena’s work, underlined that same point:

“Mairena recorded songs of Jerez that, if not for him, would be unknown to anyone.  He was the best scholar/researcher in the history of flamenco song.  He took many things from Jerez when nobody cared about them, and he never said ‘this is mine.’   He was our idol in those years, he enhanced Manuel Torre’s fame, putting him in the realm of the greatest of all time.  He did more for flamenco than anyone.  All of Spain looks to Antonio Mairena when it comes to singing the soleá and the siguiriya.”

Manuel Torre and Joaquín de la Paula were the most important reference points for Antonio Mairena.  In his book “Las confesiones de Antonio Mairena” (p. 70-73), he rejects the idea that Manuel Torre had a very limited repertoire and was erratic or inconsistent. He said that he had always heard Torre sing in a masterful way, and that Torre’s knowledge was encyclopedic. Mairena writes:

“When I have reconstructed and recorded some of those songs, at a time when they were almost unknown even in Jerez itself, I based my interpretation on the way Manuel Torre sang them, as in the siguiriya of Joaquín la Cherna, who was Manuel’s uncle.  Manuel sang those and other songs, like those of Diego el Marrurro, although he imprinted them with his own unmistakable stamp.

“The sounds of Manuel Torre, beyond what Federico García Lorca called the ‘rajos negros’ (black roughness, harshness, hoarseness), could seem downright electric. I believe it is highly unlikely another Manuel Torre will surface in Andalusian Gypsy singing.” (Candil magazine, no. 23, Semblanza de Manuel Torre)

Here’s Manuel Moneo again:

“I have always followed the line of Manuel Torre, who I’m completely crazy about, because I love Torre and Antonio Mairena, both of them, though of course I didn’t know Torre.  When I listen to him, I tremble, because for me everything that Torre does is good; when I hear his taranto, with that voice like a trumpet…  And Mairena has followed that path.  The fact is, there are some very bad followers of flamenco in Jerez, who must not like the cante in my view, because you have to listen to Mairena, learn from Mairena, and hear him sing a whole gamut of soleares that no one else knows…I just don’t understand those people.”

Returning to Luís and Ramon Soler, authorities in this matter:  “…Antonio Mairena drinks from the fountains of Jerez to give us, reworked according to his own way of singing, some styles that were known to very few.  Despite the fact that a significant portion of Jerez’s aficionados withhold praise from Antonio, you need only to isten to the singers of Jerez to see the influence the maestro of Mairena de Alcor has among them.”

Manuel Moneo, too, has spoken of this curious contradiction, singers who owe a lot to Mairena but deny him the stature that he deserves:

“I see the people and often think, this foolish Joe Blow says he doesn’t like Antonio – and then he goes and sings Antonio’s songs.  It’s just plain wrong.  I sing and try to keep to my own family’s way of singing, but sometimes the idea of Antonio comes to me, and that’s what comes out.  I spent a lot of time with him, but he never heard me sing professionally because I was too young.   I heard him in his hometown of Mairena del Alcor, and when he heard me he said I sang very well, but the times we shared – more than anything the times in the Bar Volapie, and private fiestas, and Antonio at a fiesta when we’d be drinking and bonding all night long — well, you can’t imagine how well he sang the bulerias, like the angels, I tell you.  Antonio started to sing bulerias and no one could hold a candle to him – and how he danced!  And remembering Juanito Mojama, because he learned directly from him.”

It’s clear that Manuel Moneo feels hurt by this lack of understanding on his home turf, but his eyes shine when he talks of Mairena.  It’s beautiful to see the integrity of this inspired singer, faithful to his convictions, bucking public opinion.

“Lots of people say, ‘Manuel, how well you sing, but sometimes you sound like Mairena.   And I say, “Hey, is this supposed to be a bad thing, that I sound like Mairena, if he is the greatest of the greats? – because aside from the other man I’ve mentioned [Manuel Torre], no one has sung like he has.

“Moreover, Antonio is ninety percent of the songs of my region.  Just as he does the siguiriya of Marrurro, he also does that of Loco Mateo and of Frijones – the one that says “I’m going to El Moro so I won’t ever see you again, because the grief you cause me keeps growing all the time.”  There was a venta, a roadside place here that the folks called “El Moro” that belonged to Manuela del Volapie’s father, but I don’t know if the verse refers to that, or to serving time in the army over in Morocco.  Maybe that’s it because it was really tough serving there, but when he says “Al moro me voy”, you think of Frijones.  In the song on “Mis Recuerdos”, you also recall Frijones in the solea apolá, when he sings the one created by Charamusco.  They were at a fiesta and Antonio said, “what good voices the people in the Jerez countryside have,” and everyone got drunk, and then he sang the one that says “Charamusco, Charamusco, it was in the early hours of the morning, I tore up my shirt listening to him sing.”

“The thing is, Antonio truly loved the art, and never stopped learning about it. He’d listen to a guy sing, and if he was in Madrid, ‘Where do they sing well?  In the town of Rota, Agujetas [probably referring to el Viejo Agujetas, the highly respected father of Manuel Agujetas]?  Well, let’s go and find him.’  He made everything he touched somehow greater – that’s what I see in him; maybe it would just be a short song, but he gave it importance, singing in the Gypsy way that lets you feel the pain.”

Another anecdote comes from the outstanding Jerez singer José Mercé.  The youngest of the generation of singers who derived their art in the traditional way, directly from their life experience in a pre-modern Spain, he often recalls the fear that he and Camarón felt when they were kids, singing in a roadside inn after Mairena had sung, impressed by his art.

Manuel Agujetas is another follower of Antonio Mairena and has recorded his songs.  In the Soler’s book Los Cantes de Antonio Mairena, we see these characteristically frank words from Agujetas:

“Mairena, Juan Talega, Manuel Torre y la Niña de los Peines were the true greats; the rest were just affected, posturing gentlemen artists singing for affected, posturing gentlemen.”

In that same book, we learn that Manuel Agujetas appears in one of the programs in the documentary series Rito y Geografia del Cante interpreting three styles and verses of the siguiriyas of Juan Junquera and El Marrurro in the same order that Mairena recorded them in 1974.

Here’s Moneo again:

“Agujetas el Viejo told me that few could ever sing the way Antonio sang.  The fact is, jerezanos are very much in Caracol’s camp, when there’s really no comparison; each one follows his own path, right?  I like Caracol, but what seems strange to me and what I ask is, why don’t people here like Antonio Mairena?  What people like in Jerez is the Rubichis [including the Agujetas family], and the Moneos [notably including Manuel Moneo’s brother Juan Moneo “El Torta” who doesn’t seem nearly as indebted to Mairena], and my people from the Lara family, and Mairena has always been a titan, a giant artist, for us. The people love the singing of Terremoto de Jerez, which seems very good to me, and I grant that he’s a genius, but hey, for me Antonio was distinct from all others because there are singers who sing bits of this and that, but Antonio’s art ran the gamut, with solea, siguiriyas, martinete, tona, taranto, everything, and a lot of it was Jerez cante.  Mairena rendered he cante of Paco la Luz [a Jerez legend and direct ancestor of José Mercé] like few have ever done – it drove me absolutely wild.”

Antonio Mairena knew the singer La Moreno, a woman born in Jerez but linked more closely to the ambience of the flamenco places in the Alameda de Hercules district of Seville in the heyday of that place, when Mairena was singing alongside Pastora Pavon “La Niña de los Peines” [the supreme female singer in flamenco history], and Pepe Pinto [her husband, a noted singer] and Niño Gloria [a great singer].   Moneo says:

“Antonio and his brother Manuel Mairena were with la Moreno in the Charco de la Pava, a venta in Seville, and he met El Gloria and La Pompi – you bet he knew Manuel Torre!  In fact, one day they told Torre to go to Mairena del Alcor, because the only real singer left was El Niño de Rafael, as Antonio was known in his youth.  Antonio sang with Torre in a theater, and after listening to Torre he said, “I’m not going to sing after that man”, and in fact nobody sang after that.

“Mairena was a very tall tree, he could do everything.  The solea of Cádiz, as no one had ever done, and the solea of Alcalá, he did it better than anyone else ever born; better than Manolito de la Maria, better than Juan Talega – for me!  And for any lover of flamenco who really knows the song.  The solea of Triana he did differently from everyone else.  Antonio came to Jerez for fiestas, drank a lot, and on a good night got together with the father of the guitarist Manuel Morao – those two together, it was to die for.  He came to Jerez to listen to Terremoto, and to la Bolola, a woman with a few little songs, sort of her special thing, so to speak.  And there in the house of la Bolola Antonio sang his siguiriyas”

Antonio Reina, the researcher, writer and president of the Antonio Mairena Foundation, also refers to that visit to Tía Bolola, a woman still remembered and revered in Jerez, with an anecdote known by every aficionado and that underscores the profound admiration that Mairena had for Jerez and its cantes.  He writes:

“I remember the last time Mairena went to listen to la Bolola, an old Gypsy woman from Jerez, who interpreted the songs with a certain flair.  When he returned he gave me the tape he had recorded and said, ‘Here is the yeast of the songs of Jerez.’  Just think of that description, the way it reveals the essence of the Jerez songs.”

Antonio Reina also gives us the gift of the following phrase that synthesizes the whole process we have been considering here:

“How many days and nights Mairena spent in Jerez, working to learn and to safeguard, the way you would treasure a family heirloom, the songs of Manuel Molina, Juan Junquera, Juanelo, Paco la Luz, José de Paula…!”

But we’ll leave to Manuel Moneo the last word in this virtual round table:

“Then they wonder if Mairena’s singing is ‘puro’.  What does ‘puro’ mean?  Havana cigars can be ‘puro’, but…  Think of it – when Antonio was singing with [the great Jerez dancers] Juana la del Pipa and La Chicharrona – that famous picture with Antonio dancing and singing [surrounded also by other great singers and guitarists], look who he sought out and got together with.  I have listened to Juanito Mojama, and for me, Antonio sang more Gypsy than Mojama, and better than anyone.  Manuel Torre was Manuel Torre.  Antonio wasn’t like anyone else.  And it hurts me, because they criticize me here in Jerez.  Antonio Mairena created a school of singing.  He had some defects, like everyone else, but those who are around today, they haven’t lived the art.  How can they badmouth Antonio Mairena?”

It’s true that some of the writings and theories of Antonio Mairena have not stood up with the passage of time, but his song remains as the most eloquent expression of a cultural heritage for which we aficionados are profoundly and eternally grateful.

List of resources consulted for this article:

Blas Vega, José y Ríos Ruiz, Manuel. Diccionario enciclopédico ilustrado del flamenco. Madrid, 1988/1990.

Castellano, A. Homenaje a los Clásicos. (Internet) Por-bloguerías 2008/5/20

Cenizo Jiménez, José. Duende y poesía en el cante de Antonio Mairena. Sevilla, 2000.

Lefranc, Pierre.  El cante jondo. Sevilla, 2000

Mairena, Antonio y García Ulecia, Alberto. Las confesiones de Antonio Mairena. Sevilla, 1976.

Molina, Ricardo y Mairena, Antonio. Mundo y formas del cante flamenco. (3ª ed.)  Sevilla, 1979.

Reina, Antonio. La obra flamenca de Antonio Mairena: ¿cante de pasado o de futuro?


Ríos Ruiz, Manuel. De cantes y cantaores de Jerez.  Madrid, 1989.

Soler Guevara, Luis y Soler Diaz, Ramón. Los cantes de Antonio Mairena. Sevilla, 2004.

Soler Guevara, Luis y Soler Díaz, Ramón. Antonio Mairena en el Mundo de la Siguiriya y la Soleá. Málaga, 1992.

Grabación: Antonio Mairena y el cante de Jerez. Ariola, 1972

Revista Candil. Escritos de Antonio Mairena. Núm. 23, sept-oct, 1982

– Estela Zatania

July 25, 2012   No Comments