Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Authority Estela Zatania

Singer José Valencia and Dancer Pepe Torres at the 2014 Nimes Flamenco Festival – deflamenco.com report by Estela Zatania – translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco’s Geographic and Human “Interior”

Thursday’s flamenco schedule at the Nimes Festival began with a noontime conference by our friend José Manuel Gamboa about France’s contribution to flamenco, a history of French fascination with the art in the Nineteenth Century when it was rejected within Spain.  As Gamboa explained, and as is verified every year in Nimes, those early links have never been broken.

At night in the theater, it was the turn of the best of Morón de la Frontera and Lebrija, two indispensable elements in the flamenco axis centered on Seville, each town with its special and unmistakable perspective.  If the Morón scene was dominated by the relaxed aire of Diego del Gastor’s “cuerda pelá” or stripped-down guitar, Lebrija was propelled by the intensity and urgency of the flamenco of Jerez and Cádiz.  That’s the source of the musical personality of singer José Valencia.  A still-young yet mature singer, who is striving to open a professional path as headline in the art after decades singing as part of the finest dance companies, unwavering in his defense of classic flamenco song.  No ditties, no bouncy pop.  (Ni temitas ni temitas.)

The winner of the Giraldillo al Cante prize at Seville’s last flamenco Bienal as well as on two earlier wins for cante accompaniment of dancers and as the Revelation prize for new talent, he was accompanied by the Malaga guitarist Juan Requena, who received the Giraldillos prize for Song Accompaniment.  With his first recording now two years old, and another in preparation, and with the admiration of his colleagues as well as aficionados, Manuel Valencia is now at his finest professional phase.

His appearance onstage was met with clamorous applause. And soon that big, round and flamenco voice filled the air with cantiñas with the distinctive flavor of Lebrija.  In the soleá, he started well, but suddenly something went wrong with his throat that resisted an easy resolution.   With great musical expertise, Valencia sought out less brilliant tones and less demanding song styles, saving the situation thanks to his knowledge and professionalism.  The free-rhythm malagueñas leading into the rhythmic or abandolao version went well.  In the siguiriyas, the instability of his  throat gave an added touch of warmth to José’s normally Pavarottian singing.  He then decided to take a real chance [cortar por lo sano] with a marathon round of bulerías, out front and alone before the possible danger, with no other accompaniment than the discreet handclaps of Juan Diego Valencia and Manuel Valencia, and the muted knocking of Requena on his guitar.  The singer loosened his necktie and spoke into the mike: “I don’t want to defraud you.  I’m going to die right here!”  He then launched into a series of classic bulerías with great taste and gusto, and some semi-danced touches; even his vocal chords obeyed, and with those bulerías all the rest would have been too much.  Animated, José Valencia rounded off this difficult recital with a martinete in the style of Antonio Mairena.

After a rest, we returned to our seats to receive a outburst of Moronism though the art of Pepe Torres and his group.

Morón de la Frontera has produced a surprising number of dancers, of whom the maximum present-day example is Pepe Torres.  His work is held in high esteem by aficionados because despite his youth, he conserves the art of the older generation, not as a museum-bound relic but by giving new life and validity to the approaches of El Farruco, Rafael el Negro, Pepe Ríos, Paco Valdepeñas, Antonio el Marsellés and even el Gineto de Cádiz, all reflected in his dance.

Pepe, polyfaceted as he is, added the beautiful touch of opening with his rendition of siguiriyas on guitar, an homage to his granduncle Diego del Gastor.  He then danced to the tonás and the siguiriyas, with an interlude for a vocal and guitar rendition of the tarantas.

His danced alegrías is one of the high points of the recital, done to the song of Luís Moneo, Moi de Morón, Guillermo Manzano and David el Galli, and the immense guitars of Paco Iglesias and Antonio Moya.

A solo rendition of the sung tientos tangos, and afterwards the soleá, the form most closely identified with the Morón locale, and a long and tasty finale por bulerías.  Pepe then called José Valencia and his group, and it all ended up in a classical fin de fiesta to the delight of the audience.

End of article by Estela Zatania in deflamenco.com  The original is seen at:

http://www.deflamenco.com/revista/resenas-actuaciones/jose-valencia-pepe-torres-festival-flamenco-de-nimes-2014-1.html#.UtoV1OD0DoB

January 17, 2014   1 Comment

Article About Manolo Morilla, Guitarist of Morón de la Frontera, 1924-2013 – translated by Brook Zern

The following article by Luis Javier appears in his blog called Morón de la Frontera: Historia, Flamenco, Deportes.  It celebrates the life of the guitarist Manolo Morilla, a guitarist and guitar teacher from Morón.  I’ve added a brief commentary at the end.  The original is at: http://morondelafrhistoriaflamencodeportes.blogspot.com/

The original includes at the end a link to an excellent appraisal and  interview that the flamenco expert Estela Zatania (who lived for many years in Morón and knew Morilla well), conducted with him in 2001.  It’s at this URL:

http://www.comunicaflamenco.com/revista/entrevistas/entrevista-a-manuel-morilla-por-estela-zatania-1.html

Here’s a translation of Luis Javier’s piece:

The Guitar Weeps: Manolo Morilla Has Died

After several weeks of Spring, this morning the clouds again covered the sun.  It seemed that the weather had joined in this day of mourning in Morón, grey and sad, the guitar seeming to weep from above.  And for good reason, because maestro Manolo Morilla was no longer with us.

It was a long-ago March 12 of 1924 , in a casa de vecinos shared by many families, when Manuel Morilla Verdugo, son of Manolo and Carmen, entered this world.   The child grew up in the narrow streets of the town, with dreams of playing professional soccer.  His father played a little guitar, but Manolo also heard the music of Pepe Amaya, the older brother of Diego del Gastor, who practiced in a studio by the Cuesta Portillo, while he played his games.  Finally he was struck by “the inclination”, and Seville’s Betis soccer team lost a great player, but the guitar gained a great maestro.

Manolo learned first from his friend Barolo López.  Later he would get to know the great Pepe Naranjo, inheritor of the styles of the mythical Niño Álvarez and Pepe Mesa, who became his teacher.  Almost seventy years after that encounter, in a series of conversations with Manuel in his house in the Barrio de la Guita – fortunately recorded on video – the octogenarian guitarist recalled point by point how thing went on that first meeting with Pepe Naranjo, and also those first classes, with the melodic falsetas (variations).  Fortunately, the chain of the Morón school of guitar had acquired a new and indispensable link.

Manolo remembers that Naranjo came to appreciate his playing  so much that he proposed that Manolo should buy one of his guitars, a Santos Hernandez that Naranjo had acquired in Jerez from the great Javier Molina himself.  The price was high for that era, but Manolo decided to buy it, paying off the debt month by month at the Banesto bank, often with great effort.  Afterwards, Pepe Naranjo regretted the decision to sell and tried to buy back the guitar, but Manolo managed to resist and kept the guitar as the true treasure that it was.

There were years of sharing evenings with Cristóbal Jiménez – another privileged disciple of Naranjo – and also Manolo el Gitano, El Jilguero, el Niño Rosa… and Diego del Gastor, with whom he always maintained a great friendship.  It was an epoch during which he forged his own style of playing, with an air and feel that exhaled the essence of Morón and spread it to the four winds.  And aside from his style or air, there were his well-known variations, known among many aficionados as “morillerías”.

Going back to the text we’ve cited, we see that Manolo never wanted to be a professional guitarist.  The guitarist Bernabé de Morón, for example, suggested on some occasions that Manolo join some of his troupes that were touring Spain, but that wasn’t the life Manolo wanted.  His work and his family, combined with his love of Morón, meant that his art was confined to private gatherings and a few appearances in local festivals.  In these intimate situations, he accompanied the greatest figures in flamenco song:  Tomás Pavón, Antonio Mairena, Aurelio de Cadiz, Perrate de Utrera. Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, Joselero, Miguel Vargas, José Menese, El Lebrijano… and also the town’s aficionados whom he accompanied in private reunions — fiestas or juergas –  in the house of Paco el Daleao, or in Los Llorones, or in those Flamenco Masses that were performed in different parts of Andalucía.  Here we recall artists from Morón who also sang to his accompaniment:  Enrique Méndez, Fernandillo, Paco Moreno, Crujera, Pepe Palomo, “El Jilguero” – and some still with us, including El Niño Rosa, Juan Manuel Guerra and Paco Camacho…

It was Manolo’s magisterio on the guitar that distinguished him.  Dozens of young people studied with him.  And it wasn’t just local youngsters who came  the Barrio de la Guita, but students from around the planet: Germany, Japan, Australia, the U.S. – even professionals took classes with him to perfect their playing, among them Agustín Ríos and the singer Calixto Sánchez.  And there is his school of playing, his greatest legacy, which includes professionals like his son Juan, Tito Muñóz, Dani de Morón and Juan Torres. As well as others who have carried on his style as aficionados in other Andalusian towns, including the late Diego Joaquinito and Juan Luís López, Manolo Coronado, Alfonso Clavijo and Paco “El Leri”, all bearing witness to his work as a teacher.  TEACHING, a blessed word that should be engraved in gold letters on any epitaph recalling Manolo Morilla.

And now we can expect that the homages will begin – posthumously.  Fortunately, though, Manolo enjoyed some in his lifetime, such as the recognition given to him at the Municipal Pools in June of 1978,  brilliantly announced by Alberto García Ulecia.  And in 1998 his art was celebrated by his students, and by the Las Aguilas Neighborhood Association of San Francisco.  And in 2008 the Flamenco Cultural Forum presented him with its first Insignia de Oro – the last great recognition he received, with a large number of Morón’s aficionados present.

In conclusion, we believe that homages should be given to the living, though perhaps now he will at last have a Gazpacho festival dedicated to him, or he will be given the Gold Insignia, perhaps with a black ribbon, to soothe the consciences of certain people, those who denied him such honors in life.  We shall soon see…

If this great professor of guitar is to be given a tribute, there are other ways to do it, such as releasing the documentary film shot in 2008, or publishing the private recordings of his playing, both alone and with other artists, such as his duets with Diego del Gastor, or his accompanying of the great singer Antonio Mairena in those memorable moments so intensely lived in the club Los Llorones.  There is plenty to include in such a legacy.

Today, April 28th, a portion of Manolo Morilla’s ashes were thown to the four winds from atop the Castle of Morón, in the shadow of which Manolo spent so much of his life since childhood.  Today the earth received the remains of one of its most outstanding sons, who know has his place in our history.  Hasta siempre, Manolo – here’s to you, forever.

End of article.  I regret  that I, like many others who spent serious time in Morón, never sought out or even met Manolo Morilla.  I was virtually unaware of his existence, or I might have tried to learn something from him that could have shed additional light on Pepe Naranjo, Pepe Mesa and other early artists who contributed to the town’s glorious tradition.   At the same time, I certainly don’t regret an instant of the time I spent instead with Diego del Gastor, and with his four gifted nephews (including Agustín Ríos, who evidently studied for a time with Manolo Morilla).

The important guitarist Dani de Morón is evidently indebted to Manolo Morilla as an early teacher; this would explain why his approach doesn’t seem to owe much to Diego del Gastor.  The article also mentions the old-time playert Bernabé de Morón, whose work and solo LP seem to have no connection to the town’s unique guitar heritage.

May 1, 2013   No Comments

Guitarist Paco de Lucía Speaks – 1986 Interview by Diego Caballero – Translated by Estela Zatania

A while ago I was digging around my basement for stuff to add to the displayed items at the new Lincoln Center exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York” that just got a rave review in the New York Times.  I found a 1986 issue of the magazine called “Puerta de Sevilla” that I’d bought at that year’s Flamenco Bienal.  I slipped it to Estela Zatania, the author and the critic for the invaluable web publication deflamenco.com that always offers extensive English-language news and reviews as well as stuff for sale.  She ran it there on March 28th, added smart commentary, and also provided a fine translation which saved me the angst.  Like all Paco interviews, it’s a gold mine of frank comments and fascinating reflections on his art and his life.

For example:  ”Without doubt, it’s the Gypsies who know the most about flamenco.”

Here it is, followed by a few of my observations.  The deflamenco.com url is:

https://www.deflamenco.com/revista/entrevistas/paco-de-lucia-interviewed-in-1986-1.html

The Son of Lucía

The maestro arrived as workers had just finished placing the last chairs on the inlaid stone floor of the Patio de la Montería, when the rest of the group had been rehearsing for a good hour or more.  He had just arrived from Athens and was soon on his way to Argentina, as casually as someone who just stopped by to pick up a newspaper and a loaf of bread, but not without first putting the crowning touch to the fourth Bienal de Arte Flamenco, if only to dull the memory of the terrible reviews Seville critics gave him just two years earlier.  The maestro is timid and closes his eyes, but spits out passionate statements when the topic is flamenco and his unorthodox approach.  The shining star is reflected in the prophetic rippling in a cup of coffee, while caressing the sinuous curves of his blond instrument.  Paco de Lucía is performing for an audience of flamenco fans.  The Reales Alcázares seems to require starting out breaking with tradition and without forgetting the roots: a minera crossed with fandangos, a perfect pretext for making good music.

“Guitar is changing and I have an obligation to my followers to open new paths”.

The maestro Sabicas doesn’t like it when you join up to play with strange people like Al Di Meola and Chick Corea, he thinks you don’t need that to be the greatest.

It’s an opinion I respect as if it came from my own father, because we must all be at the feet of Sabicas, but it’s still just an opinion.  We flamenco musicians don’t know about chords, and we weren’t able to attend a conservatory to learn music.  Flamenco is in a very special moment, it needs to receive every possible contribution in order for us to learn things we’re not accustomed to in our own music.  For me personally these encounters have been very useful.  Guitar is changing and I have an obligation to my followers to open new paths.  Mike Oldfield is a great musician who’s not part of our world and from whom we have a lot to learn, that’s why I seek out his music.

A trying experience.

There were times it drove me crazy, I even had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep; it was really quite a challenge I’d undertaken.  Sabicas thinks flamenco shouldn’t evolve, that it has to be monotonous and always sound old-fashioned.  In my opinion it has to be left to sound the same, but with a new vocabulary.

It had been announced that you were going to take part in Camarón de la Isla’s new record, but you never showed up.  What happened?

Simply that I was on tour, far away, and it was impossible to return for the record.

Is it very different playing in Seville compared to Moscow or Japan?

Anywhere is easier to play than here.   There are people outside of Spain who really know music and they listen in a different way.  Here, people are looking for a certain feeling, basically if it sounds flamenco, but abroad no, they hear you as a musician which is exactly how I feel most relaxed and the least nervous.  In Seville I have to consider playing things that are simpler and more flamenco, outside you have more freedom.

Someone recently called you a machista, only half-jokingly.  Can’t women learn to play guitar?

One thing is for sure, in order to play flamenco it takes a lot of physical strength and a lot of nerve.  You have to caress the guitar and then destroy it, the dynamic must be very strong.  Anyhow, many women wouldn’t be able to sit eight hours a day, guitar in hand, it’s thankless work to have to be practicing all the time.

Paco de Lucía believes women and guitars are the same gender, which is why he feels they are incompatible, with their sinuous curves, beings who will never be dominated although appearances seem to indicate the contrary as explains the son of Lucía with no qualms whatsoever, glancing at his well-manicured cat-like hands in case a nail has dared to threaten its very valuable place and mission.  “We machistas think like that…we think of having women under our thumb, completely dominated, but that’s fiction.   Maybe that’s why they don’t get along, and why there are so few excellent women guitarists, because they’re so similar”.

Is it just hype, or is it true you have a double in Moscow who calls himself Paco de Rusia?

The Association of Russian artists gave me a tribute some months ago, and it included a surprise, the live performance of someone I was told is a faithful fan.  He calls himself “Paco de Rusia”, and he combs his hair just like me.  I do the comb-over to hide my receding hairline, but he does it to look like me even though he has hair.  No, he doesn’t play badly, he’s just beginning.

In your previous concert within the Bienal, they did everything but throw rolls of toilet paper at you as they did with bullfighter Curro Romero.  It was as if there had been a secret agreement to bad-mouth Paco de Lucía.

There’s an easy explanation, it’s because in Seville there are flamenco critics who don’t have the vaguest idea what flamenco is, they’re individuals who, rather than write about something they know, they just string sentences together, but they do know that no matter how well a gypsy sings or dances, none of them is capable of writing for a newspaper.  Without a doubt, it’s the gypsies who know the most about flamenco.  But as far as the reviews, I refused to have the concert recorded live because the sound system was terrible.  They think they have power and a bad review is enough to ruin anyone’s career.  It’s laughable, they give you a bad review for purely personal reasons.  It didn’t bother me, but it’s infuriating that authority they think they have.

Tell us about how you go about your work.  Why do you always play with your eyes closed and a look of rapture?

Playing guitar is very hard, you need complete concentration.  I’m a timid person who prefers to be in the audience rather than on stage.  I wasn’t born to have everyone hanging on my every move, so many people looking at you.  You have to have a very balanced emotional state, that’s why I close my eyes when I play.  If you open them and see people talking, or some guy yawning, the whole performance falls apart.  When I close my eyes, I manage to focus much better.

Playing with contemporary musicians, the “strange people” like Sabicas calls them, you have to forget about your background a little to get into their mainstream world of pop music.

Playing with them, I had to play their music and forget about flamenco, that’s why I had such a hard time now and again, but on the other hand, it was worth it for the learning experience.  Aside from that, I’m defending a culture and a race which is the flamenco people, discriminated against for centuries until Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca came along and initiated a process of dignification.  It used to be shameful to be a flamenco.  We have a lot to be grateful for to Manuel de Falla and to all the musicians who bring in new blood.  We’re musicians and flamencos, that’s our place.   I won’t abandon my roots, and will try to do new things without losing the aroma and the flavor of flamenco.  In my work there’s a great deal of rage against this discrimination which still exists, although somewhat less than before, because fortunately things are changing.

Do you have everything planned out before going on stage?

Of course not.  There’s a very big margin for improvisation in my shows.

Does a person learn to play in the stony silence of the theaters, or in the impulsive heat of battle of nighttime gatherings?

Most of us learn to play getting drunk in the street in the wee hours of the morning.  That’s why I said that about women.  This isn’t the best atmosphere for them.  Aside from that, a women will always lift less weight than a man, it’s something ordained by nature.

We’ll let you go now, you’ll be needing to warm up…

You’d be surprised, I don’t play much to warm up my hands, I do it to record or play a concert.  And the guitar doesn’t really need to be warmed up.  An hour before a performance I do take it out and play for a while, file my nails, get focused…but not when I’m at home.

After Seville, the power and imagination of Paco de Lucía moves on to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, then back to Spain and afterwards Asia.  In the middle of all these comings and goings he must find time to make a record with his friend Manolo Sanlúcar and formalize a contract with the record company.

“I prefer Moscow to Seville because here audiences know too much about flamenco and there are times when your psychological state just doesn’t let you play”.  The son of Lucía of Algeciras, is getting paid a million and a half [pesetas], more than Sabicas and Chiquetete combined, but this time he left a smooth cloak extending from flamenco and directly to the heart.

End of interview.

A few random notes: Paco’s 1.5 million peseta paycheck was probably about 15,000 U.S. bucks at 100 pesetas to the dollar.  In that pre-Euro era, countries could jiggle the value of their currencies at will, avoiding the disasters we see today when they must conform to the dictates of Angela Merkel’s Germany as it engineers more austerity for them, and more prosperity for itself.

In the mid-sixties, I remember the sensation caused when the sensational bullfighter El Cordobés pulled in a million pesetas — which was worth 16,000 U.S. bucks, because the exchange rate was just 60 to the dollar.

I’m sure someone can explain why the current carefully engineered suffering of Spain is a good thing, since it builds character and promotes fiscal discipline and besides, prosperity is just around the corner, due as early as 2021.  But I’m not sure the Euro is worth it — and in fact, a lot of savvy economists say it’s time to call Berlin’s bluff and see what happens, since it couldn’t be much worse and could be much better.

But I digress.

I shall now digress from that digression:

The bullfighter the interviewer refers to, Curro Romero, was indeed booed almost every time he entered the ring, because he acted in a cowardly fashion.  (What’s the opposite of cowardly in bullfight terms?  Bullardly?)  We screamed at him and threw our rented seat cushions, a 20-peseta investment, at him, and then had to sit on the hard hot concrete.  And we did it week after week.

Were we stupid?  Did we never learn?  Well, here’s the deal:  In the exceedingly unlikely event that Curro Romero was good, he was very good.  No, not very good like other bullfighters including the much greater Antonio Ordoñez.  Very good like on a totally different plane, stashed in another dimension, wrapped in an utterly separate reality.

Yes, Romero could take the whole crowd of ten thousand spectators to Duendelandia, a special region of Andalusia where clocks slowed down, or stopped (a typical headline: “Curro Romero Stops the Clock”) or, in one case I think I recall, actually ran backward.  Curro Romero did that, which is why he got contracts to fight at least a hundred times a year.  Because while other toreros who fought that often cut to cut a hundred or a hundred and fifty ears (two bulls and four available ears per fight, remember), Curro Romero would cut a piddling eight or nine.

But each of those ears, weighed on our handy Duendometers, weighed 48.7 times as much as the ears cut by human beings.  Just as the flamenco siguiriyas, on that same scale, weighs 35.67 times as much as a fine malagueña and 62.3 times as much as a charming colombiana.

Curro Romero, from Camas right outside of Seville, was one of two guys who pulled this off.  The other was Rafael de Paula, of Jerez.  That’s two out of about three hundred bullfighters.  And that percentage is about the same as in flamenco, where six or eight people can do the same trick out of about a thousand artistes who secretly or openly wish they could.  I won’t say who they are, but as Paco always says, “it’s the Gypsies who know the most about flamenco.”

And finally:  He hauls off and punches Sabicas a few times, smiling all the while.  I can’t recall the maestro ever saying he thought “flamenco shouldn’t evolve, that it has to be monotonous and always sound old-fashioned.”

Paco’s judgment of the maestro (whom he calls “tío”, a word we applied to Sabicas’s charming and competent brother Diego but never to Sabas) is hard and harsh.   (The interviewer, of course, begins by calling Paco de Lucía “maestro”, an honorific he richly deserves.)

Paco followed up later by accusing Sabicas of a failure of vision or nerve in not supplanting flamenco with a new kind expanded-harmony-based art form, like Paco’s.

He adds, “In my opinion [flamenco guitar] has to be left to sound the same, but with a new vocabulary.”  Hmmm.  Does French sound the same as Chinese, but with a new vocabulary?

I have saved the best for last, and invite any women to comment on Paco’s appraisal of a woman’s place in flamenco…

Brook Zern — www.flamencoexperience.com — brookzern@gmail.com

April 1, 2013   2 Comments

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?

http://flun.cica.es/flamenco_y_universidad/alborea/n009/salida04.html

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