Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco in Jerez

Flamenco Forms: The Bulerías

No flamenco form is as vital or ubiquitous as the bulerías. Its “inconfundible” — (unmistakable, “unconfoundable”) pulse powers fiestas in most flamenco territory. In Jerez, especially, it is everywhere — the song, the dance, the guitar, the local anthem expressed in endless variations that are normally joyous but can have astonishing emotional reach and power. In my years there, at countless sessions in bars and basements and in that city’s terrific flamenco peñas — associations open to everyone — it was a shared bond between every artist and aficionado.

It’s logical to see the bulerías as simply an outgrowth of the soleá — a sped-up version that still can serve as a windup or remate, often in the same flamenco mode and rhythm and basic melodic structure. Like many typical remates, would have a sort of natural tendency to leave the flamenco mode and go into the major key.

This debt to the soleá doesn’t fit with the idea that the bulerías may have originally been a major-key thing, just another variant in the major-key cantiñas/alegrías family with its folkloric (even jota-inspired) genesis. (This would imply a non-Gypsy origin, in musical terms.)

The big Diccionario del Flamenco reveals that most of the bigshot authorities lean toward the former theory. José Blas Vega calls the bulerías “the daughter of the solea” and links them to the “estribillo” that Loco Mateo used to rematar [wind up] his solea. J.M. Caballero Bonald says they are “direct inheritors of the soleá”, created primarily to accompany dancing. He adds “the gamut of bulerías styles is virtually uncontrollable, although one can distinguish two distinct groups: true “bulerías festeras” or bulerías for dancing, and the “bulerías al golpe”, or bulerías for singing, whose most defined variant is customarily called, with good reason, the bulerias por soleá. The former group is
especially fertile and flexible (? movedizo), allowing a series of improvizations and thematic borrowings even from exotically distant musicalstyles. The latter group, as its name indicates, is clearly derived from the soleá and its clear role as a song that isn’t danced gives it a hierarchical position among the noble forms derived from the primitive songs.”

Pedro Camacho writes: “Rhythmically, the bulería is a “cante bolero”, whose origin is almost certainly the earlier jaleo, or festive song (canción jaleada) that accompanied euphoric dancing. In this sense, it is a “boleria”. When the Gypsies incorporated into this dance the traditional verses of the soleá or soleariya [a term for a soleá using three-line rather than the more common four-line verses], and arbitrarily accommodated these melodies, the “bulería gitana” was born, still sometimes called the jaleo.”

Fernando Quiñones writes of bulerías “A song descended from the soleá … though more lively — there are even some bulerías a golpe, with much more of soleares than of bulerías. The original bulerías might have derived from the old “juguetillos”, and are still sometimes absurdly viewed as throw-away time-killers; but they are much more. The bulerías as a song has real merit.”

José Luís Ortiz Nuevo: “This relatively modern song comes to us from Loco Mateo via El Gloria, a perfect synthesis of deep expression. It is a condensation of the solea, with the essence of its rhythms and the light of its echoes and musical form. It flows from the palmas and the dance like a ceaseless cyclone, a flow of the emotions of the fiesta. Properly heard, it
incites a vertigo of courage and fury. But nowadays, all the “renovations” are carrying it in the opposite direction — stretching its tercios (verses) to excessive lengths, unnecessarily sweetening its laments, carelessly breaking up the precision of its compás. The cuples and coplas (verses based on popular songs rather than flamenco styles) are today disfiguring its true character, with the acquiescence of many aficionados.”

End of citations from the Diccionario.

Again, it’s true that lot of early versions of this relatively recent form (first taking shape in the late 1800′s) are in the major, so maybe the bulerías didn’t come directly from the soleá after all. I prefer to believe it did — it gives a certain borrowed gravitas to the bulerías

Nomenclature note: The soleá is the soleá. The bulerías is (are?) the bulerías. But I’m convinced that there is another form, distinct from either and with a its own tempo and melody (maybe just one single melody, unlike the soleá with dozens or the bulerías with several basic melodies and infinite modifications), and that it is most properly called either the bulerías por soleá, or the soleá por bulerías, or the bulerías al golpe or the bulerías pa’ escuchar (the bulerías to sit down, shut up and listen to.)

Is it all perfectly clear?

Well, maybe this will help. The bulerías is characterized by its unique rhythmic pattern or compás. Like the soleá, it can be heard as having accents on the third, sixth, tenth and twelfth beats; like nothing else, it can be heard (and clapped to) with beats on the first and second, fourth and fifth, seventh and eighth, and tenth and eleventh beats; it is often clapped with beats on one two three, seven eight, ten. Oh, and there’s often an underlying emphasis on every other beat: two, four, six, eight, ten and twelve.

Happy to have cleared that up for you.

Brook Zern

P.S. An artist friend of my father, who also played flamenco, asked me to come to his class on abstract art at Cooper Union in New York and bring my guitar. I did, and he asked me to play some bulerías, which I also did. He asked the class what they thought of this musical interlude and they said, basically, “It was so free, so wild, so impulsive.”

He then turned to me and asked what I was doing, and I started to explain and diagram all those strict and inviolable rules, the underpinning that made it really work.

When they got bored and restless, he turned to them and said: “Why am I telling you about this? Because a lot of you think you can become abstract impressionists without ever learning how to draw.”

Well, I thought that was pretty illuminating — only a firm underlying structure, a basic knowledge, can provide the true freedom required to improvise and to express your vision.

In fact, I wrote that little story in this blog several years ago, confident that it would be as thoroughly unread as nearly everything else in these virtual pages. Imagine my surprise and, yes, delight, when I read the headline of an interview with perhaps the greatest and free-est tradition-minded flamenco dancer, Farruquito. “You have to learn to draw before you can become an abstract expressionist, he said.

That interview is somewhere in this blog, and I can’t help thinking that maybe somebody mentioned it to him. Okay, I flatter myself — what else is new, you say.


February 5, 2017   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Agujetas Speaks – Interview by Paco Sánchez Múgica – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:

Manuel Agujetas died a year ago. Shortly before, a Jerez publication called Voz Jonda ran an interview by Paco Sánchez Múgica titled “Agujetas, the man and the myth: “Flamenco is a lie”.

I’ve translated it here, starting with a few personal comments in italics:

The lion in winter? Portrait of the artist as an old man?
And is that a trace of mellow we see in this portrait of Agujetas?

Note: I got a kick out of seeing that Manuel still got a kick out of the Village Voice article I wrote when he showed up at the Sangria restaurant in 1976.

An ironic note: The actual headline of the article was: “Duende on Hudson Street — A Flamenco Master Sings for his Supper”. Well, I have too much invested in the mythology of “duende” and “black sounds” to take Agujetas seriously when he says in this interview that duende “is all a lie”.

Hey, Who ya gonna believe – me, or the man who held the patent on it and insisted it doesn’t exist?

Manuel’s memories of the time we spent in New York and Madrid were always sharper than mine – there was a formidable mind behind the forbidding persona he usually projected, and it shines through in this interview.

Incidentally, I had always felt grumpy that I’d never been invited to the endless round of private juergas which I assumed were the major part of Agujetas’ artistic life, as they were with all the other legendary singers he names. Now I learn from this interview that there were no such sessions — he had no interest in singing in private. It makes me feel better about the nights when he tolerated my nervous efforts to accompany his songs – a mismatch for the ages, but at least I wasn’t keeping him from lighting up all those amazing intimate fiestas and jam sessions that haunted my imagination. (He could be very hard on guitarists, even very good ones, who took up too much sonic space. Contrariwise, he seemed to appreciate my fearful approach and almost inaudible volume levels, which covered a multitude of sins — mine, not his.)

Okay, okay, here’s the interview:

A warm autumn afternoon. A narrow secondary road. Like an asphalt line traced with charcoal and marked with country houses. The sun is weak at five o’clock. The municipal terminal of the town of Chipiona, on the northeast coast of the province of Cadiz. “In Jerez they say I was born in Jerez; and in Rota, that I was born in Rota. I grew up in those two places,” says Manuel de los Santos Pastor. But there’s no birth certificate. “Do you need one to know how old a man is? There’s a monument to me in Rota and now they’re making another one in Jerez,” Agujetas says. There’s a feline aspect, but he’s engaged in friendly conversation with a neighbor who sometimes sometimes rests to listen to him. Manuel touches his right leg; the circulation isn’t very good lately. “The doctor tells me I have to walk.” Agujetas – how ironic – has even tried acupuncture [ironic because his name refers to the word for needle]. “But it’s useless, it’s a lie. They put in the needle [la aguja] and it doesn’t hurt.” He rubs his leg. “It burns here.” Walking has become a routine, walking through the farmland and going back home. He invites us to accompany him and gets into the car. We arrive at “Los Milagros” [The Miracles – his house.] “Here I come with my guards,” he jokes to his wife Kanako when we go in. As Luís Clemente would say, “With Agujetas anything is always possible.”

Two stories and a large garden, all modest. Two goats graze quietly on the lawn, near the well, and cats of different sizes and colors appear and vanish. Light pants, a black shirt and a colorful shirt unusual for a man of at least 75. Or three years older than that. He doesn’t know exactly where he was born, and doesn’t know when. “Que mas da la edad de un hombre”, after proclaiming that “love doesn’t understand languages”. He says those words, in his wise and cultured illiteracy. [“en su sabio y culto anaflfabetismo”]. And he urges us, “Speak, speak, ask whatever you want.” Now we start to talk to the man. Suddenly, Agujetas stops being Agujetas and changes into a man who is miles away from his own legend. Agujetas, as we’ve already said, is Manuel de los Santos Pastor. The self-proclaimed “king of cante Gitano [Gypsy flamenco song]. An endangered species. The last dinosaur of song with no concessions. Paleolithic. Contradictory. Controversial. A Gypsy, an estirpe, 100% pure crystal, as Walter White might say, Incorruptible. Uncontaminated and uncontaminatable. Aspero en el trato, huraño. But oat this time, no trace of the personality, just the person.

There’s none of the usual reticience [sequedad] with the media. Not a trace of the arisca and irritable public personality he tries to project. Here, he attends to us entranable. Between affable smiles he speaks of one of the goats, as if to break the ice: I bought her very young, now she’s pregnant – I have to distract myself with something. Like her (he indicates Kanako) with her cats…” In front of the photos, he says, “I’m not dressed as an artist here. Well, we’re out in the country, right? I’m a little sick, though I’m not one of those who have those veins in their legs.” He goes through a doorway, and shows us a relic that he made with his own hands and that hangs on his porch, almost like a little sanctuary: a strange crucifix, “more than 40 years old. I’m friends with all the abstract painters,” he says. “This (pointing at the Christ) I made with a file that was in my kitchen. But I castigate myself. I caught pneumonia 40 years ago; when I recovered, they told me “Ya te ha quitado el arresto, recogelo. Ouka Leele me daba 80.000 duros [400,000 pesetas] for the Christ.”

[The interviewer writes]: Let’s begin. Manuel, for those who may not know you… But he suddenly interrupts the question: “Who doesn’t know me? Name somebody” (he laughs). We correct ourselves: How do you spend your days here? “I’m not here often, I’m rarely here. I’m always going to France or to Japan… They say there’s flamenco in Japan but that’s a lie – there are a few poor back-up artists [“artistas de cuadro”] who don’t have anything else to do so they go to Japan. To sing there you have to go to a bar, where they put up a little portable stage floor and they dance and play the guitar. But people go there to give classes, usually female dancers. When I go to see my mother-in-law, I rent a theater to appear in. It costs me a million [yen?] and I make two million. And I earn two million here in Spain, so why do I have to go over there?” But even so, he travels a lot. “Yes, I travel – who in Spain will pay anything? And even less in profit. Here you can call up a little peña [flamenco association], and they pay 200 or 300 [euros] — nothing.”

Tell us about purity [pureza] – your purity. Where it comes from? “I haven’t lived purity, and I was the last to emerge [Yo no he vivido la pureza, yo fue el último que salió.] When I showed up, El Chocolate [the great Gypsy singer] had been around for thirty years. Terremoto [the great Gypsy singer], thirty years. La Paquera [the great Gypsy singer], forty years. Mairena [the great Gypsy singer, older than the others who were not much older than Agujetas]…I was the last to come forth. I emerged one year after Camarón [the great Gypsy singer, much younger than Agujetas]… But since I’ve been fighting for flamenco puro, joé! [joder, the strongest expletive in English but much milder in Spanish]. I mark the end all those who did classic flamenco. Everything is being lost. Everything is modern. I never stopped singing and singing, and now everyone wants flamenco puro.”

Is it really appreciated enough? “Andalucía doesn’t stand up for flamenco, or for any music at all, because Andalucía is [musically] illiterate. I sing in France and nobody says a word. Nobody. When I get up, the chillíos, look…Because they’re people who know about music. But here? It’s not that they are disrespectful, it’s that they just don’t know. And in Jerez? In Jerez they all think they know about flamenco, but when they go to hear it they’re all talking and eating sunflower seeds. Because they think they know, but they know nothing. Nothing about singing or dancing.”

But Manuel, not even the good aficionados? “Well yes, those who really like it, yes. Those who really like it.”

Well then, Manuel, just in case there’s a remote possibility that someone has never heard of you, that you are, in the words of Manuel Torre [the greatest Gypsy singer], the last [of the artists who can generate the fabled] black sounds [soníos negros].”

“Don’t say that. It’s a good thing that Antoñito [Manuel's son] isn’t here, si no te pega. I don’t tell you anything. That kid wants people to tell him he’s better than his father, understand? A man of nearly fifty. Kid, that’s when you’ll hear it. He left here in tears. He was getting over a drug habit little be little, and they’re starting to call him to sing, three or four places. Now that he’s getting cured, I tell him, ‘Antonio, not like that.’ And sometimes he leaves crying. Where will someone tell him your father is here.’

Can flamenco song be taught? “Nobody can teach you that. The one who teaches him when he’s here is me. But my father [the great singer Agujetas el Viejo] never taught anyone anything, Nobody. Nooo. My father was working at the forge. I put the iron in the right place. My older brother placed the coal. And my father sang when he was resting. Because the notion of a blacksmith singing at the forge is a lie, a myth, because you can’t sing a martinete [a very difficult flamenco song] while you’re working. How can you sing a verse – you’d have to stop swinging the hammer [martillo]. Get the idea? It’s all a lie. It’s a lie told by people to fool other people. Why? Then my father would do two songs, resting and singing. Or he was in a corral at a friend’s house. Or on Sunday he’d sing a few songs for friends. And we’d listen. Don’t think that my father would say ‘this goes like this, and that goes like that’. Que va! [That’s nuts.]

Besides arte jondo [deep flamenco song], do you listen to other music?”

I never listen to any flamenco. Not by anyone. Ever since my father died, I don’t listen any more. I keep the record here, the one I made, and that’s it. But I don’t listen to my father’s singing – I have to be very good… to listen to it. Because when our family dies, let them be quiet and not bother That’s what they have to do. Then, everything is a lie. Flamenco is a lie and the books about it are a lie. There has never been more of a singer than Juan Talega [a great Gypsy singer] in the epoch I knew. I met him a few days before he died. I met La Niña de los Peines [the greatest female Gypsy singer] and she died a few days later. I didn’t know any of the other old masters. And I knew Antonio Mairena.

How were things between you and Mairena? “It was okay [Me llevé bien]…for a few days Because the man fell in love with me [se enamoró de mí]. People said “Agujetas slugged Mairena – you knew about this, right? Agujetas hit him. I didn’t hit anyone. We were at a Flamenco Festival and [the great guitarist] Melchor de Marchena took me out [me sacó]. Curro Mairena [a great singer, the brother of Antonio] was with me. There was the Yunque de Oro [Gold Anvil, an important prize], but we went for the festival, not the prize. For the best singer – and the way I sang, the public was with me, Then the guy gave the prize to aquel que era el que le hacía cara. The guy passed by thirty seats on my side, I was in one, he was in the other. I was put in jail for a half hour, until the festival ended.

Despite the incident, he doesn’t hide his admiration. Antonio was a maestro. True, he was a bit cold. But he was a maestro, man. They shouldn’t tell stories about Antonio. Antonio learned from the four old singers of Jerez. He took old songs, from my grandfather and my grandmother and from Manuel Torre. To know how to sing like Antonio… Maybe he was cold, but he was a maestrazo [a great master]. Don’t say that stuff about the Gypsies – that the Gypsies don’t like them. There are those who don’t even know how to open their mouths, but want to sing stuff by Mairena or me. Let them go where that takes them. People will go to see flamenco knowing that it’s not flamenco.”

Like sand castles erased by the tide, Manuel knocks down the urban legends surrounding serious flamenco. Those that shape the deepest mythology. The mystique about the dark night of the soul, or the dark trunk of the Pharaoh, like the “soníos negros” or black sounds, which [the great poet Rafael] Albertí revealed was nothing more than Federico García Lorca’s obsession with the sound of the sharps or flats on a piano. The black keys, the “black sounds” it seems. Agujetas offers no doubts when he’s asked about the duende, that other great unknown: “It’s a lie…” [Es mentira, es mentira, eso es mentiiiiraaa. Aquí no hay duende ni ná [Here there is no duende or anything]. I don’t know anything about it. Duende is for little kids, the guy who comes to you, the bogeyman [coco]. The same. [Iguaaaa.] I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know what it is. I have no idea.” And a new parenthesis: “And my father, as I’m going to tell you, in that era was a man who had a sweetheart and when he saw that he had two kids, Antoñito and Dolores, me dió por ser artista he set me toward being an artist, po carajo, well, I went to become an artist. Nothing happened here. Now, I sent the money I made to my daughter. I wasn’t here, like all artists. It’s the same with movie actors, they send money to their children and their wife, but if the man goes to America and comes back with nothing, well then, there’s no papa. If he brings money, there’s a papa. Have you heard this? Well, there it is, so you’ll know.”

He revisits his comments on duende: “It’s all a lie. There is no duende, no bogeyman, none of that.” And he says “Cantar [to sing]. There are those who need drugs, wine and the rest. I don’t need anything. I take a little water and I sing. Why should I be ashamed of singing (he laughs) if I live from it.”

Is it also untrue that business of the enormous juerga [flamenco jam session, usually private] that flamencos need in order to be a gusto [in their element, at their peak] and to seek out the real truth of the flamenco song? Haven’t you been in such juergas?

“Never, never, not one, not a single one. No juergas. There you have it. They’re a bunch of frauds. And in their book they say that I’ve been everywhere when I haven’t even left my house. I sing and I sleep. Others keep saying I was with them to god knows where, and I – god knows – I haven’t gone anywhere. Once when I was with this guy’s uncle [he indicates the photographer, alluding to his uncle the painter Paco Toro]. I just took a copita at the Feria and in his house with his wife and kids. Never, with Toro, nothing more. No juerga. What do you think. All the rest just a lie. They also said that Manuel Torre went to bed with his son’s wife. All a lie. Manuel Torre – a man like that going to bed with his son’s wife?”

So much confusion between flamenco and what is not flamenco – true?

“No, none at all. Confusion is what we see in the people who go to see it, those who like what is not flamenco. You can’t have a book about flamenco because it isn’t flamenco or anything like it – it’s just garbage.

And the market for recordings?

“There is no market – it’s over. No company offers flamenco discs. Maybe they put out a record with two or three artists together – but who do they sell them to? To their friends? Before, they’d come to me: ‘Agujetas, we want to make a record. What’s your price?’ Six or seven million [pesetas, maybe $50,000] plus ten percent,’ ‘Okay, let’s do it’ Now? Where can you make a record nowadays? Nobody calls me. One came out where they wanted two songs from me. Two songs. I took whatever it was and that was it. I have my live performances, but those are outside the country. I don’t have a manager because that’s worthless; they call me here at home.”

And even so, Manuel says that he has a Japanese passport and U.S. residence [residencia norteameriana] due to his last two marriages, and has toured the world twice, though never in Australia. “The first time I went to New York, I didn’t go to sing; I went with a gachí [a non-Gypsy woman -- La Tibu or Tibulina, a fine American dancer who died about a decade ago.] I went to a restaurant, and there was flamenquito [a diminutive term meaning “flamenco lite”], performers with Spanish names but who weren’t Spanish, and now they even have bars there. And fijate [get this!] there was a newsstand with a newspaper hanging up, and I saw a picture of me; and I asked the lady to read it to me and she said “The Leading Figure in Spain is now in New York” (he laughs). I have it right here, here’s the paper. I got to know a lot of countries, like I’d been born there. It seemed that way, at least. I told my father that. For me, it’s as if I’d been born in America. And he told me, “It’s because your uncle was there, and he brought back English chickens.”

But he doesn’t travel by plane. “The doctor told me: You have cañas tapás [a medical condition, clearly]. But the doctor wouldn’t operate yet. Now I can’t fly, the blood thing is scary. And now I’m headed to Japan, and it’s going to be a nice voyage. When I finish a gig in Paris and another in Jerez, I’m taking a train to Moscow, and after that, a two-day boat trip to Japan. Two weeks in a train! (He laughs]. One station, another station. But seeing the countryside. It’s scary, you won’t believe it. Those boats are preparaos. The boats float on the water, and if a boat goes down, it goes down.”

With all that traveling, do you want to sing again in Jerez?

“If I don’t feel bad, I’ll sing. If someone makes a stink about it, who cares? I sing well everywhere and that’s it. For the poor guy who doesn’t know, kmaybe he has more responsibilities. But what are they going to say to me? I rehearse every night. Even sleeping. I get up in the morning, I have a headache, but I practice every day. You can’t let this thing stop (he indicates his throat). And often I practice sitting here for an hour or so. Because if you don’t do that, yur voice will close up. The mouth has to be open. If you stop, it closes up and then how can your voice ring out? I don’t have anything written – I start singing a verse and 300 come out. According to what I encounter, with help from above.”

Winding down. Agujetas returns. “Okay, that’s it – your recorder will wear out. And the people will see this interview and say, whoa, look what Agujetas is saying. And you’ve done what no one else has done in your lifetime, with money. I’ve done it for you. (He laughs). You’ll be astounded, the other day a team from Moscow TV was here and I spoke about two words and they give me four thousand dollars. I didn’t do anything, right? That’s good. Nobody has done that – I did it for you because you made me a poster,” he reminds Juan Carlos, whose mural-sized photo of Agujetas was on a wall for weeks at the San Telmo roundabout in Jerez. And he insists: “4000 Euros” I tell him I don’t give credit, that I can’t believe he allowed us to interview him in his own house. So human, so entrañable. So far from the flamenco God that he is for those who love him. And those who hate him.” (He laughs.) You don’t believe it? Noooo – whatever you can believe. You say that Agujetas charged you a lot. Come on, you’ll be late.” “Habeis sacado la entrada ya?” he questions.

And that’s it – punto y final.

End of interview. The original is at http://www.lavozdelsur.es/agujetas-el-flamenco-es-mentira – corrections are always welcome.

The pictures are excellent. The bottom picture links to film of part of the interview.

December 26, 2016   1 Comment

Flamenco Singer Manuel Agujetas – Obituary by Manuel Bohórquez – translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco Song’s Last Cry of Grief

By Manolo Bohorquez

from El Correo de Andalucía, December 25, 2015

A flamenco singer has died. Not just any singer, which would be terrible news. No, one of the greatest masters of Gypsy song (cante gitano). Yes, Gypsy, because that’s what Agujetas always was and always wanted to be. His father, Agujetas el Viejo, was also a singer, a Gypsy from Rota with a sound that came from centuries ago, metallic, dark as a cave, that put you in the last room of the blood. Manuel de los Santos Pastor, or Agujetas, who died this morning in Jerez, was the only one who remained of those Gypsies who took the song from the marrow of his bones, a singer who only had the song, who felt alone since the day he was born and who sang so he would not die of solitude. Unsociable, a strange person among strange people, as were Manuel Torres and Tomás Pavón [perhaps the two greatest male flamenco singers who ever lived]. Manuel Agujetas detested anything that was not the flamenco song or freedom, and who fled from stereotypes or academic schools, from technique, from treatises, from la ojana. He was, in the best sense of the word, a wild animal. Some critics reproached him for being too rough, disordered and anarchic, but he had the gift, that thing that correct and professional singers lack. That they can’t even dream of. You can fake a voice to sing Gypsy flamenco, but Manuel never faked anything. He was the Gypsy voice par excellence, the owner of what Manuel Torres called the duende, the black sounds that captivated the early flamenco expert Demófilo and García Lorcca. A stripped-down cry that could kill you in the fandango of El Carbonerillo, but that when it was applied to [deep song styles like] the siguiriyas or the martinetes, reached a terrible dramatic intensity. No one sounded as Gypsy as Agujetas, with such profundity. No flamenco singer carried his voice to such depths, even though he could be a disaster on a stage, not knowing how to deal with the accompanying guitar and repeating verses and styles to a point of overload. There is no such thing as “Agujeta-ism”, or attempting to copy his inimitable style; but his admirers are found all over the world and have always been faithful to him. A minority, to be sure, but devoted unto death. And they have not claimed official honors for him, as happens with other singers of his generation, They have loved his art and have wanted to experience it, knowing that he was unique and without parallel. Manuel had a charisma that wasn’t for stadiums or big theaters, but for an intimate setting. Someone who has an old LP of Manuel Agujetas feels as if he has a treasure, a relic, something sacred. And someone who heard him on a stage, with that antique aspect, that scar on his face and those sunken eyes, knows that on that day he lived a truly unique moment. Surely this death won’t make headlines or be reported on radio or TV. And what else? Those of us who heard him during an outdoor summer festival in a small town, or a small theater or a flamenco club will never forget it, because in each line, in each of his chilling moments, Manuel nailed to our soul a way of rendering deep song that didn’t die today, with his disappearance, but that died decades ago. It will be a long time before another Gypsy is born, if one is born at all, who has such an ability to wound you with his singing. And when he wounds you fatally, when it kills you, it is a desirable death. The last great pain, the last great grief of song has gone. May he rest in peace.

End of article in El Correo de Andalucía of December 25th, 2015. The original is at http://elcorreoweb.es/cultura/el-ultimo-dolor-del-cante-AI1183398, Olé to Manuel Bohórquez, and a final olé to Manuel Agujetas, the greatest singer I ever knew and the greatest singer I ever heard. Please refer to other entries in this blog for more translations and opinion about Manuel Agujetas.

Brook Zern

December 25, 2015   1 Comment

The DeGypsification of Flamenco – 2011 Article by Producer Ricardo Pachón – translated with comments by Brook Zern

The important flamenco authority and record producer Ricardo Pachón– he was behind Camarón’s crucial tradition-breaking late-career releases — describes a major movement which is changing the malleable history of the art and the economic distribution patterns among the artists. Reprinted yesterday on a very interesting Facebook page, Puente Genil con el Flamenco, it drew a furious reception, including the chilling comments of Pachón’s extremely influential now-former friend Faustino Núñez, whose response to this communication might be termed excommunication. My two cents’ worth follow.

The DeGypsification of Flamenco
By Ricardo Pachón, 2011

You could see it coming for a long time: the Gypsy Tsunami. The revolt of angry Gypsy artists against Andalusia’s cultural administration that is marginalizing them ever since the region’s Statute of Autonomy claimed “exclusive competency in the matter of competency in flamenco as a singular element in the cultural patrimony of Andalusia” (Point 1 of Article 68).

The Gypsies have been settled for five centuries in Spain, and have been persecuted from the reign of the Catholic Kings (the Pragmatic of Medina del Campo, of 1492) to the most recent Laws on Wanderers and Malfeasants of the Franco era. A nomadic people who became sedentary in Atlantic Andalusia and created one of the world’s richest musical genres. We are speaking a flamenco territory: the Gypsy sections of Triana, Alcalá, Utrera, Morón, Jerez, Arcos, Los Puertos and Cádiz. (The Gypsy sector of Triana was eradicated and destroyed in 1957 by order of the Civil Governor< Hermenegildo Altozano y Moraled, a distinguished member of the Opus Dei.) We are speaking of certain musical styles that employ an alternating rhythm within a twelve-beat cycle combining binary and ternary rhythms: the tonás, martinetes, livianas, seguiriyas, corridos, cantiñas, soleares and bulerías. And we’re speaking of the large number of Gypsy creators of these styles, from El Fillo to Camarón and passing through Manuel Cagancho, Juan el Pelao, Tío José de Paula, Enrique el Mellizo, Manuel Torre, Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena… Supported by the above-mentioned Statute, the next move by the politicians was the creation of an Agency of Flamenco through which have passed the most diverse ["variopintas“] people, unfamiliar with this musical world but holding the power to decide what is and what is not flamenco. Since the flamenco territory we’ve described is far too small for their electoral ambitions and proposals, they had to seek voters in all eight of Andalusia’s provinces – and thus arose the idea of the “café for everyone”.

The Gypsy movement, that is taking shape and growing stronger with every passing day, doesn’t just focus on economic exclusion; the problem is greater than that. It goes to the Formulario (proposal) presented to UNESCO by the communities of Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura that launches a crusade to deGypsify flamenco. On page 2, they call flamenco a mode of “popular expression”, as if to say the entire populace sings and dances the soleares and the bulerías [two complex flamenco styles that require either extensive study or early immersion in a setting where they are performed frequently and naturally – a situation that is very rare, even unknown, outside of certain Gypsy families in Andalusia.]

On page 3, we find an enumeration of the “musical forms of flamenco” among which are included the sevillanas, the fandangos, the verdiales, etc… all modalities of Andalusian folklore [rather than actual flamenco], in a readily danceable 3/4 rhythm that has nothing whatever to do with the complicated metric of flamenco. And here we have the core of the problem for the indignant Gypsies: The politicians have decided that all Andalusian folklore is flamenco.

UNESCO’s consideration of flamenco to be declared an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity – along with [relatively minor or seemingly inappropriate] things such as the mountain whistlers or the Mediterranean diet only underlines the “danger of extinction” [that is one requirement for inclusion].

What’s lamentable is that flamenco does not exist as a “musical genre” on the servers and portals of the Internet. We are still bunched with Latin Music or World Music. And it’s the Internet where the economic and commercial future of the art will be determined. And it’s here where the professionals in the field of flamenco (artists, critics, investigators, producers, etc.) will have to define, once and for all, what is and what is not flamenco. Now, diverse categories can exist within a musical genre, as is the case with blues or rock. For example, Flamenco (the forms mentioned above), Flamenco-folk (i.e. Andalusian folklore that has been flamenco-ized); Latin-flamenco (styles like the rumba); flamenco fusion (for all the recent blinding with jazz, blues, rock and more). It’s just a matter of getting to work.

It is unacceptable that the Junta de Andalucía should say to UNESCO (page 27 of the Formulario) “At this time, our Cultural Consejería are seeking the inclusion of different manifestations of flamenco such as the sevillanas school of dance, the bolero school of dance, the verdiales [a very folky form and fandangos], the trovos [ballads] of the Alpujarra mountains…”

Now we have the “First International Congress of Flamenco”, November 2011. A strange matter, given the fact that the “First International Congress of Flamenco” was organized by UNESCO in Madrid in June of 1969. The second, also organized by UNESCO, was held in 1971. The records of both were published by the Institute of Hispanic Culture. The Scientific Committee of the 2011 Congress consisted of 81 members, and naturally, not a single Gypsy. While in those earlier UNESCO Congresses, authorities including Fernando Quiñones and Caballero Bonald were joined by three eminent Gypsy experts and artists: the singer and author Antonio Mairena, the singer Juan Talegas, and the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.

And that is the affront that the Junta de Andalucía has thrown at the Gypsy community and that is confronting Gypsy anthropologists and musicologists as well as regional Gypsy associations, which have turned to the Institute of Gypsy Culture within the Ministry of Culture, which has responded with the publication of the manifesto “Somos gitanos, somos flamenco.” (We are Gypsies, We are Flamenco.)

End of 2011 article by Ricardo Pachón.

Translator’s note: Sr. Pachón makes a serious case against what he sees as an organized effort to strip Andalusia’s Gypsies of their claim to a crucial element — maybe the crucial element — in the creation, preservation and interpretation of flamenco.

He has been around the block, as we say in English. I remember seeing him at flamenco sessions in Morón and Seville in the sixties — sometimes singing a bit.

I don’t agree that the term flamenco should only apply to the eight forms he names, beginning with the martinetes. I think it’s more logical to call most so-called flamenco forms “flamenco” – including the various forms of alegrias, the sometimes vapid but often charming Latin-American forms like the flamenco guajiras and flamenco milongas, and the many highly developed variants of fandangos including the malagueñas and tarantas. For me, the only logical candidates for expulsion are the sevillanas and the rhythmic forms of fandangos. All of these styles have a folkloric aspect that others don’t – they are performed by large numbers of ordinary folks, just like the jotas and the sardanas in other regions of Spain.

Also, I know that the alternating rhythmic cycle Sr. Pachón refers to and that underpins most allegedly Gypsy flamenco styles, was a pre-existing musical tradition on the Iberian peninsula and not a gitano invention as may be implied.

But I share his concern over the deGypsification movement — the term seems fair enough — that has come to dominate the field in the last decade. Suffice it to say that Spain’s most important authority on flamenco, Faustino Núñez, begins his educational talks by banning any use of the “G-word” in his presence and no, I am not making that up. The intention may be excusable or even laudable — in an ideal world, no one group should be singled out for alleged special contributions to an Andalusian (or Spanish) art form that incorporates so many influences. The real-world effect, however, is to further marginalize a group that deserves recognition for its indispensable creative role in taking flamenco from the realm of remarkable regional folklore to that of high art.

I was at that 2011 “First International Flamenco Congress” that Pachón mentions — not invited, but I snuck in. I noted one interesting thing right away, when the Mexican architect who represented UNESCO stood up and said that the designation of flamenco as a patrimony of humanity was in danger of being withdrawn because the petitioning authorities had misrepresented their willingness to provide essential support to the art and artists. (I wrote the long American contribution to that petition, at the behest of a noted Spanish authority, José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, who had once been — well, a sort of “gitanista” and “purista”, like so many others, before the pendulum swung away from that position. He knew I wasn’t on board with the revised history, but asked me anyway. I was glad to do it, though I never envisioned the declaration’s complex ramifications, both positive and negative.)

The other thing I noticed — only after the conference was over — was the total lack of Gypsies as speakers (or, it seemed, as attendees).

To bring such matters up today risks one being branded a “racist” — a twisted meaning that, nominally in a noble effort to be fair to all, forbids special recognition of any group. (Note for any Spanish readers: In the U.S., the traditional definition of a racist is one who tries to make things even worse for members of a minority group, especially a distrusted or despised minority group. Those who try to make things better for a minority group are not called racists but “progressives”. For an American, at least, it seems strange to be branded a racist for any pro-minority stance, even including the sin of “gitanismo”.)

Historical note: In the early or mid 1970′s, after I spoke at an event sponsored by the New York Society of the Classical Guitar (I was the Flamenco Editor of their elegant publication Guitar Review), a guy came up to me, smiled, and said in a Spanish accent, “I notice that you hold the racist position regarding flamenco.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that I singled out one race or group as deserving special respect and recognition. He said that he was a classical guitar teacher at the State University of New York (SUNY) and had studied with Segovia. I didn’t argue with him, didn’t think to ask where he was from, and didn’t face the same accusation directly for decades. When I went to Jerez to live, around 2005, I often saw his fliers for lessons — “José Franco, discípulo de Segovia, diplomado en New York.” By that time, the charge had resurfaced again in flamenco circles as more and more authorities — without the smiles — forcefully rejected the notion of a Gypsy-centric perspective on flamenco. Call it the New Anathema.

The astounding irony, of course, was that I had come to Jerez because of my — umm, bias? Preference? Ethnic imbalance? Okay, okay — I had come because my racist taste in flamenco dictated that I should live for years in the town that most powerfully reflected the Gypsy aspect of flamenco, the home of the legendary Gypsy families whose names resonate through two centuries of the art as the most important creators and interpreters of the most important forms of flamenco song.

I was now officially a racist. And it was Señor Franco of Jerez — Jerez! — who first nailed me on that poisonous charge, more than three decades earlier. (Did I mention that Antonio Chacón, by any measure one of the two or three greatest singers in the history of flamenco, high falsetto voice and all, was also from my adopted city and was not a member of the G-word faction? Or that he was a devoted admirer of Manuel Torre, also one of the two or three greatest singers ever, and as G as they come? I even think it was mutual.)

Flamenco is sometimes compared to the blues (an early attempt is my 1972 article reprinted in this blog – search for “Vallecillo”.) I am happy to report that there is no parallel movement to strip African-Americans of their central role in the creation story of that other great cultural masterpiece. Yet.

Brook Zern

P.S. Unlike so many of the experts, including my friend Estela Zatania of Jerez, I can’t buy the notion that reference to ethnicity is never, ever, proper or productive.

But for the record, I do not think there is a racial or genetic DNA component that makes one embryo grow up to be a great flamenco artist, or a great cook or criminal or blues guitarist — rather, as Hank Williams Junior once sang, “If I get drunk and sing all night/ it’s a family tradition”. And there are many fine flamenco artists whom I and many others initially assumed to be Gypsy but were not, and vice versa. Any difference is strictly environmental, of course. Though sometimes at the flamenco peñas of Jerez at two a.m., surrounded by loud flamenco music and little kids running around or suckling at their mother’s breasts, I’ll see a pregnant woman leaning back and beating out the complex rhythms of flamenco on her belly. And somehow I can’t help wondering whether such lessons taken in utero in Jerez will give the occupant a special edge that I never quite got before my own birth in Philadelphia while the radio was broadcasting “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”.

P.S. Family tradition? My father started studying and playing flamenco guitar in the mid-1940′s and kept it up for two decades, very possibly the first American to take that challenge seriously. I grew up with that sound in my ears, especially when I just wanted to get some sleep. And predictably enough, I grew up to become a flamenco guitarist. For fifty years I’ve been learning great stuff from great players. But sadly, I tend to play like a guiri — the Spanish word for an outsider who’ll never really get the hang of it. But that’s another family tradition. In fact, guiri was my father’s middle name — literally. Yes, my father was named Edward Geary Zern. And in Spain, there are gitanistas and andalucistas, but there are no guiristas. Thanks a lot, pop.


March 28, 2015   7 Comments

Manuel Agujetas leaves his soul in La Guarida del Angel – article by Juan Garrido in Diario de Jerez – translated with comments by Brook Zern (and a radio program about the event)

In the Diario de Jerez of March 2, Juan Garrido wrote:

Manuel Agujetas leaves his soul in La Guarida del Angel

A recital that lasted more than two hours. Styles of soleares and siguiriyas that are no longer heard. A Gypsy who is the exception to the rule.

The truths he possesses cannot be better transmitted. A true privilege for aficionados who came from around the world, from Japan, Barcelona, Huelva and Malaga.

Also those from here in Jerez, who trust him to reveal the most ancestral elements of flamenco culture. The authentic melismas of a past generation reverberate in his songs.

His rendition of the songs of Carapiera or Manuel Torre are chilling, but he is always himself. He isn’t compared to anyone else because his style is strictly his own. It’s unusual to see him in small venues like La Guarido del Angel, where one can appreciate the closeness with a strong man of such character.

The sensations generated were inexplicable, since only those who experienced them could understand it. Domingo Rubichi accompanied him superbly on guitar. Also on view was the dancing of his wife Kanako who revealed her love of true flamenco.

Never glancing at the clock, Agujetas took us into the world of the spoken fandango, unhurried, never rushed. He sipped some tea for his cough, and warmed up for the martinetes.

The aficionados shouted. “The day you’re not around, it’s all over, Manuel.” Then there were some saetas [religious flamenco songs] that you won’t hear, even in dreams, during Holy Week.

When it was over, we returned to reality. The reality of Agujetas as a singer is exceptional. A living soul who continues to head up the Olympus of the Gods of flamenco song. The living history of the cante of Jerez.

End of article. The original is at: http://www.diariodejerez.es/article/xixfestivaldejerez/1974283/manuel/agujetas/se/deja/alma/la/guarida/angel.html

Translator’s note:

What can you say about perfection? A few years ago, the savviest aficionado in Jerez, foreshadowing the cries of today’s crowds, told me “When Agujetas is gone, it’s all over.” Granted, he was a member of the Agujetas clan, as is the guitarist Domingo Rubichi who accompanied him for this show. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

I view Agujetas as a throwback to the era when giants walked the earth. You’ll find plenty of entries in this blog that try to sketch the essence of the man, starting with a 1976 article I wrote for the Village Voice. (As a person, it’s an understatement to call him problematic. A lot of people hate him, some for good reasons — he can leave damage in his wake. One recent rave review ended by urging people to boycott all of his appearances and recordings because his behavior and character fell so far short of acceptable.)

One of the many miracles of this man is that he’s still alive, never mind singing so well so far beyond his expected prime

In 1972, I began an obsessive fifteen-year effort to help ensure the preservation of the 100 programs in the now-fabled TV documentary series “Rito y Geografía del Cante Flamenco” — because I was sure that the greatest artists would not be around very long and it was crucial to have all those fabulous films (now happily free on YouTube by searching for “Flamenco” and “Rito” and the name of an artist or style). Agujetas was a particular focus of that struggle, and I was amazed that he was still around when I was finally allowed to repair and buy the films in 1987. I certainly never dreamed that he – virtually alone among the major protagonists — would be alive and kicking today, 43 years after the films were made.

The pendulum of flamenco preferences has swung away from artists we once viewed as purer, deeper and more authentic than their lesser colleagues.

Today, of course, scholars question the very meaning of words like “authentic” or “pure”.

Well, I can’t define purenography, but I know it when I hear it. Heck, I even believe in duende, whatever that is, and I know exactly when, a very few times for a very few minutes in a very good year, it shoves an icy knife into my back.

The songs we hear are a solea that is soon repeated, another solea, and a siguiriyas. Agujeteas is even older than I am, but boy, he can still summon up what an old time blues giant called the “hellhound on my trail.”

Agujetas’s 1972 program on Rito y Geografia is on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xx8IenwJABE

In addition, you can hear several songs from his recent recital by going to the following url and pressing the play button:


That url connects you to “Caminos del Cante”, the superb radio program that the Jerez flamenco (and sherry) expert José Maria Castaño has been presenting for many years. It covers all aspects of flamenco, though always from the Jerez perspective — in other words, leaning toward the increasingly unfashionable view that deep is better than shallow and that Gypsy — not as a genetic inheritance but as one way of approaching the problem of flamenco expression — is even better than its marvelous alternative. (It has been my occasional honor to be part of the weekly panel, where I try to get up the nerve to try and say something unstupid.)

Brook Zern

March 2, 2015   No Comments

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – Article from Diario de Jerez by Fran Pereira – translated by Brook Zern

This article from today’s Diario de Jerez is by the admirable Fran Pereira, a Jerez flamenco expert whom I consider a friend.  My own observations follow:

José Mercé, cantaor:  “I’ve never known an era as bad as this one; today the artist has to present himself on his own”

He has just released “Forty Years of Flamenco Song”, a collection tracing his trajectory.  His next project is to record an anthology “that I don’t want to come from any big multinational label”

by Fran Pereira

His words reveal a certain disillusionment about something he has been defending for many years.  In his day he was criticized for deviating from orthodoxy in flamenco, but it was this path, around 1998, that enabled him – as he himself acknowledges – to break with everything and become known as one of the most significant artists of our country.  He has just released a selection of his recordings, this time to retrace his extensive trajectory as a singer and also serve as an appetizer for what will be coming soon, a new record and an anthology for which he asks for support from those institutions that in his view “give more importance to other musical forms than to flamenco.”

Q:  “Forty Years of Flamenco Song” – what is the hidden message behind that title?

A:  A lot, because in fact I’ve been at this for a lot more than forty years.  I recorded my first record for when I was thirteen and with [the flamenco expert] Manuel Ríos Ruíz, but none of that material is included.  It was long ago, and it had a little of everything, from the first recording in the seventies to the latest.  There’s a little of everything, though not all that I would have liked.

Q:  Is it the anthology you’ve always talked about?

A:  No, it’s a collection that the record company wanted to release in time for Christmas, so people could give it as a gift.  They made the selection, and there are some classic numbers and other done after 1998, when I recorded “Del Amanacer” and my career took off [dio un vuelco].  Three CD’s that show the evolution.  But the anthology is another thing entirely.

Q:  Explain that…

A:  Yes.  I am recording the anthology on my own, using my own recipe, and I don’t want it to come from a multinational.  Since I’m doing it myself, I can do it little by little without anyone’s help; I pay for the studio and everything else.   It’s painful that for all our efforts to defend the purity and orthodoxy of flamenco, which is our culture, more importance is given to every other kind of music, whether it’s rock or pop, than to our own flamenco.  With every passing day I’m more confused about why flamenco was declared an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity [by UNESCO], because at the moment of truth our art is abandoned and rejected.

Q:  Returning to the new disc, the only new number is a song you do with [the brilliant guitarist and sometime fusion advocate] Pepe Habichuela.  Any reason for that?

A:  No, it’s a villancico or Christmas carol that’s done by the Gypsies of Madrid; the music is like a jota [a non-flamenco musical style].

Q:  If you look back at those more than forty years dedicated to flamenco, are you satisfied?

A:  Yes, I’m very content with what I’ve done.  Moreover, the hard part – and I’ll return to this topic – is to maintain oneself and I think I’ve known how to do that.  In any case, I still have a lot to do, like the anthology I’ve mentioned and new projects we’re working on that will come out next October and in the spring of 2016.

Q:  A look at your appearances shows you are one of the privileged artists, and you never stop working.  In all of your long career, have you ever seen a time as bad for culture as this one?

A:  Truthfully, no.  Some years ago there was a decline, but it was minimal; this period is the worst I’ve seen.  It’s incomprehensible that the tax on tickets to cultural events has gone up to 21% — the result has been to kill culture, and a nation without culture is a nation without an identity.  Today nobody presents (expone) anything – the artist has to do it all himself and that’s complicated, at least for those who are just starting out; those of us who’ve been around still have to fight, but the younger artists face a complex challenge.

Q:  Some years ago you said you wanted to record with the greatest guitarists.  We will see that happen someday?

A:  Yes.  In fact, in the anthology I mentioned I want to record with the best of them.  Of course, Morao [Moraíto] and Paco de Lucía have left us, though I’ll include at least some recordings with Morao.

Q:  And is there a concrete date when this anthology may see the light?

A:  Right now, there isn’t .  I haven’t designated a time, and keep working on it when I can.  The sad thing is that the institutions don’t offer the help that the project needs – no one has done it since [the great singer] Antonio Mairena.  That’s what hurts me most.  Not even in my own turf, always known as the cradle of flamenco song, has anyone proposed anything to me along these lines, though always, wherever I’ve been in the world, I have carried the flag for Jerez.

Q:  Today, as we enter 2015, making a recording is not the same, right?

A:  Of course not.  The recording industry has changed a lot.  Today anybody can make a record but then hay que plasmarlo en el directo [you have to do it live].  That’s where you find the true artists, because in the recording process, with today’s technologies, you can do anything.

Q:  From your vantage point, how do you view flamenco’s situation in your home territory?

A:  Look, since the barrios [presumably the Gypsy barrios] disappeared, unfortunately no one has appeared.  We need people who break [rompa], who can wound [hiera], with those ecos [flamenco power and resonance] that flamenco always had, but that is now sleeping.  I believe that since the decade of the fifties, no one has come along who can do this.

Q:  And what’s the problem?

A:  Maybe it’s the ozone layer (laughs).  But seriously, pues que se empieza antes por el tejado que por la base [people begin with the roof instead of the foundation].  You have to begin from a firm foundation, lay the cement, and then [only then] let everyone do whatever they want.

Q: Do you think it’s gone forever?

A:  I hope not.  I hope that there will be a return to flamenco’s root, its origins, and that we will reclaim our rightful place.

Q:  Well, at least your team keeps making fans happy.

A:  Yes, Real Madrid is the only thing that functions in this country.

Q:  Looking at your scheduled appearances and projects, you can’t complain…

A:  No, fortunately I can’t.  I can’t ask more because I have a lot of work, and I’m ending the year with a lot of jaleo [noisy celebration].

End of story — the original is at: http://www.diariodejerez.es/article/jerez/1929404/no/he/conocido/una/epoca/tan/mala/como/esta/ahora/solo/expone/artista.html

Translator’s note:  José Mercé seems to consider himself the last of the truly great flamenco singers – he says that no others have arisen since the 1950’s. when he came along.

He’s right.  At least, that’s one way of expressing my awed admiration for this man’s flamenco singing. Of course, there are dozens of excellent singers of serious flamenco who are younger than he is.  But for me – and apparently for him – the ocean between mere excellence and sheer, magical flamenco magnificence is virtually unbridgeable, and he is alone on the latter shore.

He will be remembered in the same breath as Manuel Agujetas (alive and possibly well, but inevitably past his absolutely fabulous prime), and the vanished El Chocolate, Terremoto, Fernanda de Utrera, and Manolo Caracol as well as the geniuses of prior generations.

In most  Mercé interviews I read (and often translate here), he has a different agenda.  In those, he comes out with both barrels blazing to attack people who, like me but well-known and influential, crankily lament the rise of vaguely flamenco-ish pop fusion.

That kind of music has made Mercé a megastar by Spanish musical standards, and especially by straight flamenco’s feeble-selling  standards.   It’s what he’s referring to when he mentions Del Amanacer, the album that made him a hot seller by including pop-fusion material.

At a New York press conference a decade ago, he insisted that people pay attention to the second half of a next-night concert where he stopped singing glorious flamenco to Moraito’s great guitar and launched into songs like “Mammy Blue” with a bad back-up group.

(To me, that title alone indicates the fundamental misunderstanding of good rock/pop that so often afflicts Spanish artists who wannabe “rockeros” – yet another word that, like the original Spanish term “música ye-ye” somehow reveals their tin-eared miscomprehension of good rock.)

Now he wonders why a multinational won’t give him the money to record the great anthology he envisions.  Well, maybe it’s because he was an important part of a corporate movement to wean people away from real flamenco and into a not-very-good realm of semi-pop.  It led to a guy called Pitingo – a gifted flamenco singer – doing an album called Blueserías that featured his earnest attempt to tackle Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”.  And to hundreds of other best-selling sellouts, of course.

Of course, I’m thrilled that flamenco’s greatest singer has committed himself to record an anthology of the art’s greatest songs.  I understand his resolve and his need to leave a definitive record of his brilliant voice and the enormous knowledge that comes from the nearly incomparable musical heritage of his family, his grandfather and great-grandfather.

But since he’s not in it for the money, and since these days anyone can make a good recording, I wistfully wonder why he doesn’t just book sixty hours of studio time starting next week, call in the guitarists who would all be honored to join him, and just lay down seventy or eighty tracks of  his many great styles of the siguiriyas, soleares, bulerias, tonás-martinetes, plus any of the other sixty flamenco forms that fit his temperament.

It won’t sell, of course, so just put it up online, as the perfect complement to the many, many superb Mercé recordings we already have.  The perfect gift to flamenco and to posterity.

Thank you in advance, maestro.

Your devoted admirer,

Brook Zern


December 28, 2014   No Comments

Navidad Flamenca in New York – A 1997 actual review – by Brook Zern

I write excessively about flamenco but rarely review actual events.  This may be my self-preservation instinct, since flamenco artists often think that “critic” should be another name for “supporter” or “avid fan”, or ideally, “ardent admirer”.  But mostly it’s because I can either experience an event, or I can watch it critically while taking notes (or worse yet, photographs) and as a result miss the whole point or at least the intended spectator experience.  But here’s something I wrote about an interesting 1997 event – a reconstructed Flamenco Christmas celebration in midtown Manhattan, put on by the then-still-marvelous World Music Institute.  I like the intro, you may skip the rest):

What’s the opposite of an Armimom?

Yes, a Navidad.

And I liked the Navidad Flamenca show in New York.  At first I was miffed because there wasn’t much in the way of heavyweight flamenco — just a soleá por bulerías by Pansequito and a tarantas/taranto by Aurora Vargas.  But I was looking for the wrong thing, as is often the case.

(I spent my first few Ferias of Seville complaining because nobody sang the tragic siguiriyas, until some kind person — actually, it was El Chocolate — took me aside and said “It’s the Feria, stupid.  You know, the Feria.  Good times, happy music, celebration — the Feria.  BuleríasSevillanasTangos.  Happy music.  Don’t you have Feria where you’re from?”).

Anyway, this was Navidad, so I tried to relax and enjoy it and it was pretty good.  Pansequito continues to use remarkably extended lines in the cante to good effect — I remember being astounded when I first heard him in the early 70′s, wowing the crowd at a Ronda festival; it seemed few had heard this kind of stretched singing line.

I’d seen a lot of Aurora Vargas at the Seville Feria about ten years ago, where along with Juana la del Revuelo she was the hot new number.  I’m not crazy about her singing, but when she’s doing the whole shtick — festive cantes and catchy pop-style cuplé plus powerhouse dancing — it’s a gas.

I was delighted that there was only one guitarist, since this helps me understand what’s going on.  Niño de Pura, whose early recording was technically amazing but chilly, may not have been the ideal person for the job at hand.  He didn’t get carried away and trample the singers — indeed, he often seemed to hang back — but something was amiss.  Maybe he couldn’t find the right balance between propelling the artists and overshadowing them, so he didn’t give them quite the support they needed.  I wasn’t amazed by any freshness in his musicianship; the tendency to use sort of wimpy, arpeggiated intros that gradually turn into recognizable forms like bulerías wears thin after the fourth time.  (I was standing in back next to guitarist Arturo Martínez, who noted a creative similarity between Niño de Pura’s approach and that of Chuscales, who might’ve done better.)

But golly, he sure had some great technical resources.  He did long picado passages in flat-out bulerías, lasting several compases, all in triplets.  I’m sure Paco de Lucía could do it, and maybe better (after all, he does quadruplets in alegrías and sextuplets in soleá, which may be the equivalent; but Paco only uses triplets in short bursts for bulerías, or so it seems to me.)

Anyway, it was good to see real flamenco without any big production effects or extraneous themes.  (Well, Christmas — though, grinchily, I thought that the villancicos — traditional Spanish Christmas songs, done here in flamenco style — were mostly a waste of time and talent.)  And if last month’s Calixto Sánchez presentation (which I also liked) was distinctly non-gitano, this one struck me as Gypsy indeed.

Peter Watrous reviewed the next night’s presentation in the Times (and talked a bit about the song and the verses, undermining my claim that the papers always neglect this aspect.)  His review, though intelligent, still seemed as off-center as most others.  (I had mentioned to one of the organizers from the World Music Institute that the Times often does “stingy” reviews, as if the reviewer is reluctant to provide a snappy quote which would really help everyone in the future.  She didn’t know what I was talking about, but the ungenerous Watrous review seemed like a perfect example; he obviously liked it, but I couldn’t see a single phrase that was usable.)

“Brilliant!”  “Amazing!”  “Socko!”  “Well, pretty darn good, considering!”  Now, be sure to put this critic’s name up in lights!!

– Brook Zern/The Flamenco Mailing List

Comment from 2014:  Flamenco promoters are always looking for an angle to hang a show on.  And sometimes, great minds seem to think alike.  A few years ago, I strolled from our apartment in Jerez to a big Christmastime flamenco event organized by a local flamenco organizer, emcee and maven, Pepe Marín.  It was called “Navidad Flamenca en Nueva York”, and it supposedly showed a celebration by a group of flamenco artists, mostly from Jerez’s noted gitano families, who were inexplicably stranded in or transported to Manhattan.  A few weeks before the show, I ran into Señor Marín.  ”Hi,” I said, “you don’t know me but I’m from Manhattan, and maybe I could tell you what it’s like there during the holidays so your show would…”

He looked at me — need I add that I knew this would happen? — as if I were out of my mind, and said, “No, we don’t need anything,” and kept walking.  And the show, title notwithstanding, had nothing whatever to do with New York or the U.S. — it was just the funky regular artists from the Peña Flamenca Tío José de Paula doing their zambomba schtick (zambombas are a local Jerez style of folky Christmas songs) and winding up with the Jerez National Anthem, which is bulerías until the cows wake up.

Give him an A for Ambition.  But no O for Originality.

Brook Zern

January 19, 2014   No Comments

17 Complete Programs from the Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco Series – Plus Today’s Most Important Radio Shows – Now At Your Fingertips.

I’ve been lucky to know and learn from two of the most knowledgeable authorities and most important figures in the fight to document great flamenco and disseminate crucial information about the art.

José María Velázquez-Gaztelu has for decades presented a great twice-a-week radio program on Spain’s national radio and television network, RTVE.  It can be heard on podcast recordings at http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/nuestro-flamenco/

But Señor Velázquez-Gaztelu had another trick up his sleeve.  Around 1970, he was the key man and on-camera figurehead in the creation of 100 magnificent black-and-white half-hour TV programs of Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco that ran weekly for two years.

(Before I met him, I’d spent fifteen years trying and failing to get permission to pay RTVE to protect the films and make a first copy for the Ethnomusicology Department at Columbia University ; it was finally granted in 1987, and for about a decade I apparently had a monopoly on the series.  Then a poorly done and poorly documented commercial cassette version of most shows was released by Alga in Spain; and then, happily, Señor Velázquez-Gaztelu created a gorgeously restored DVD version containing 72 of the shows, each 4-program disc also featuring his newly added commentary and recollections with available English subtitles, and each bound into striking small books giving invaluable information about every cut.)

Yes, all flamenco aficionados have seen some random, confusing moments of often brilliant b&w performances from these programs scattered all over YouTube.  But the true greatness of the series derives from the integrity of the total package, including the scripting, interviews, location selections and establishing scenes that make every program an artistic whole – as well as a window into a vanished Spain just feeling the first breezes from what would soon become a hurricane of cultural, sociopolitical and musical change.)

In recent years that I spent largely in the flamenco epicenter of Jerez, I soon realized that José María Castaño, author of the definitive book “De Jerez y Sus Cantes”, was the go-to guy for flamenco info and insight.  His radio program, Los Caminos del Cante, is a treasury of great talk and great music, and his article on Jerez’s crucial Gypsy/flamenco families is translated in this blog.  (He lets me sit in on some panel discussions; my finest contribution, with momentary lapses, has been keeping my mouth shut and listening to a half-dozen genuine experts argue with each other.  Arguing, or listening to heated, rapid-fire arguments in the region’s mystifying Andalusian dialect, is the true key to flamenco knowledge – or it would be, if I could just understand half of what was being shouted.)

This dynamic documentarian duo comes together, at least virtually, in an article  written by Castaño and translated from the Jerez progam website, www.loscaminosdelcante.com  – which also includes his incisive articles and editorials signed with the program name,  Here it is:

The Rito y Geografía del Cante series is online on the website of RTVE

There is no doubt that this series is the most important ever done for television.  It inherited the mantle of the great Archivo del Cante Flamenco 3-record set created by the noted Jerez writer José Manuel Caballero Bonald.

Soon after those field recordings were made featuring a select group of emblematic artists, the decision was made to go out again, this time with TV cameras, to reveal a truly exceptional artistic generation.  From the singers Antonio Mairena to Manolo Caracol, through Terremoto and Fernanda de Utrera and the guitarist Diego del Gastor, plus a huge list of other artists – all were filmed for national television.

Heading the project were two great professionals, Pedro Turbica and José María Velázquez-Gaztelu who covered a large part of Andalusia’s geography to document an array of spoken and sung testimonies that remain an unequalled primary source and reference point.

The RTVE website has decided to let everyone enjoy every episode of the series, restored to an extraordinary audio and visual level of excellence.  It can be accessed by clicking on the following link:


End of article

(Hey, looky the one guitarist named above from a cast that included every major player in Spain — the one we gringos are often unfairly accused of worshipping unduly.  Yes, it’s Diegod el Gastor.)

Again, while the article doesn’t spell it out, there are just 17 of the complete shows on the RTVE website — though they’re among the best.  The artists, in alphabetical order:  Camaron (accompanied by Paco Cepero, not the other Paco), Manolo Caracol (2 shows), Fosforito, Diego del Gastor, Juan el Lebrijano, Paco de Lucia, Antonio Mairena, Jose Menese, Enrique Morente, La Paquera, La Perla de Cadiz, Siguiriyas (2 shows), and Triana.  (An additional show made quite recently features Velázquez-Gaztelu talking about the series with the very knowledgeable José Manuel Gamboa.)

What?  Free is good, but you want more for your money?  Well, if you’re willing to shell out a few bucks per show, you’re in luck.  The excellent commercial version done by Señor Velázquez in 2005 initially had four beautiful slipcases each containing four books-with-DVD’s, each in turn containing four shows — 16 volumes containing 4 shows each equals, um, 64 shows, but two more DVD’s were issued recently — Volumes 17 and 18.  Those 8 additional programs mean a total of 72 of the 100 shows are out there somewhere (just google the series, and you’ll stumble on all of them loose or in groups.  (Hey, if I’ve got unrestored copies of all 100 shows, does that mean I still have a monopoly on the remaining 28 shows?)

Brook Zern

December 29, 2013   1 Comment

Flamenco Singer Samuel Serrano – Article from La Flamenca – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Last year, at four in the morning in a roadside venta called the Templo Flamenco, near the seaport town of Chiclana, I heard a guy sing.  I thought he was one of the finest flamenco singers I’d ever heard.  I also realized that he might still be singing great flamenco sixty years from now, when I was a hundred and thirty-two, which was a great relief.

His name is Samuel Serrano.  He is the real deal.  Important people are working to give him the success he deserves, without pushing too far too fast.  (He was accompanied by the great Paco Cepero, who’s involved in the effort.)

I don’t know this kid, but he just friended me on Facebook.  I was delighted.  His Facebook page included an article from the online publication La Flamenca.  (url is below.)  The English robotranslation left much to be desired, though mine does, too. But here’s a version:

Flamenco Que Viene [Up-and-Coming Flamenco]: Samuel Serrano

Born in the town of Chipiona in 1994, and now singing with a well-aged voice that can never be forgotten, Samuel Pimentel Serrano is one of our great hopes in the realm of the most traditional flamenco song.

His background says it all – the blood the the Agujetas family of Jerez de la Frontera flows in his veins, in his bitter laments, and his ending cadences – Gypsy singing “puro y duro” (pure and hard/straight up) is one of the key identifiers of this young singer who is not yet 20 and already has a bright path ahead.

His throat seems fatigued from suffering, weathered in the Gypsy forges that no longer exist, and in the fields with the now-vanished workers; it is dark and imbued by his lineage (“raza”); there is no better credential for Samuel Serrano.  Close your eyes when he sings, and you recall Juan Talega, El Chocolate, Terremoto and Antonio Mairena [all immortal Gypsy giants of song].  Are we exaggerating?  No more than we’re telling the truth.

His goals are no different than those of other good artists who want to make their mark, stride slowly and firmly, learn from the great professionals, and seek the counsel of wise elders such as his artistic godfather, Paco Cepero, who has discovered other great voices within the tradition of the Cádiz area.

His vocal lament has dramatic shades, and his torn voice seems quite at odds with his youth; rather, it is an ageless voice trapped in an adolescent’s body.  And beyond that, it dares to enter the domain of the most challenging forms of flamenco.  Its supple ease in the [fiendishly difficult] siguiriyas, its purity in the [crucial ] soleá, its flavor in the [storming, driving] bulerías, its wisdom in the [bleak, barren] martinetes, its sheer skill in the [gripping, dramatic] fandangos.   It dominates all the flamenco styles, and despite its broken quality it is agile and flexible.

Inevitably, one is struck by its “agujeteo” – its kinship with the voices of others in his family [notably Manuel Agujetas, the paradigm of emotive Gypsy singing].  Then there’s the trademark aspect of Jerez, the great bastion of the Gypsy tradition; and his love of pure song that is done “por derecho” [“by right”, or expressed from within the tradition and its heritage].   With Samuel Serrano, aficionados have one of the veins that nourish the heart of the singing tradition; vocal command in a voice that already emerges scathed and hurt, that contains the black sounds and the immaculate, well-aged purity of the timeless tradition that is embodied within him.

He has already performed in key sites like the seafront Baluarte [bulwark] of Cádiz, accompanied by the guitarist Niño Pura, on Canal Sur TV, Spanish National Radio, in Madrid and teaching Master Classes alongside his godfather Paco Cepero in the Festival de la Yerbabuena that he recalls with pleasure.

Wherever he goes, he makes is mark.  His listeners seem to be transported through time, returned to an era quite different from our own, imbued with the essence of good song, of a rich heritage and of the bright hope that his youth lets us feel though the magic that he dispenses.  Samuel Serrano: darkness turned to light.

End of translation.

Remember the name, Samuel Serrano.  Despite all his advantages, and something that looked like real charisma to me, he faces one enormous obstacle:  Very few people like this great and rarefied style of flamenco song, in which terms like duele “it hurts”, hiere “it wounds” and no se aguanta “it’s unbearable”, are considered high praise.  The original article is at:


December 28, 2013   No Comments

The Legacy of Lola Flores: La Faraona and her immortal spell – article by Fran Pereira from Diario de Jerez – translated by Brook Zern

The Legacy of Lola Flores:  La Faraona and her immortal spell – article by Fran Pereira from Diario de Jerez – translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  Jerez, a/k/a World Headquarters of Traditional Flamenco, has a striking statue of the town’s favorite artist close to two flamenco peñas or clubs and right near the main radio station where José María Castaño does his flamenco show, Los Caminos del Cante (get the podcasts, if only for the great recordings he plays).

But that’s not a flamenco artist cast in bronze – it’s a fabulous, charismatic woman who sang, and danced, and acted, and was beloved by the flamencos, the non-flamencos and everyone else.  Many people assumed she was a Gypsy – “The Pharoah-ess” implies an Egyptian connection that Gypsies sometimes falsely claimed to have — but she wasn’t – she was more Gypsy than that.  And more flamenco than the flamencos, too; go figure.  (When one of the town’s great flamenco dancers opened a nightclub, he called it Lola.)

I really didn’t care about Lola Flores when I went to live in Jerez.  Her old films seemed over-the-top, even cheesy to me.  But some artists – Piaf, Oum Kalsum, Billie Holiday, Amalia Rodrigues – are beyond category, and she may qualify.

The Christmas Eve article is by F.P., who is Fran Pereira, a concrete and virtual friend and perceptive writer and critic.

(Parentheses, if any, are in the article.)  [Brackets are injected by B.Z. to clarify things that some American readers wouldn’t understand].  And it goes like this:

The Legacy of Lola Flores:  La Faraona and her immortal spell/witchcraft

Last April, the team of the TV program “Imprescindibles” [“The Indispensables”] headed by the director Talia Martínez de Marañon, came into Jerez to begin filming the documentary “Ole, ole, Lola Flores” [it rhymes in Andalusian] that will air on Christmas day at 6 p.m. on Channel 2.  It’s a look at the life of the woman called “La Faraona” through the eyes of artists and friends, with her granddaughter, Elena Furlase, as the connecting link.

Over several months, the older daughter of Lolita [Lola’s daughter] and the production team visited various places that were significant in the personal life of Lola Flores.  Beside Jerez, filming was done in Seville, Barcelona and Madrid.  In Jerez, they shot at 45 Calle Sol, the house of the well-known Bastiana (mother of [the flamenco rapper and rapscallion] Tomasito), on calle Cantarería, the Tabanco El Pasaje, the Villamarta Theater, and, naturally, the flamenco club La Peña Tío José de Paula, for a fiesta featuring its traditional group of women as well as Joaquîn El Zambo and Diego Vargas, who for years were part of Lola’s troupe that toured the entire planet.

Scenes were also shot in the Centro Andaluz de Documentación del Flamenco [formerly the CAF], where [the also indispensable key keeper of the documents] Ana Tenorio, got her start.  “I know that Lola drank from this deep flamenco fountain, and that was what distinguished her – without being an orthodox flamenco artist,, she still had a flamenco rasgo [essence] that set her apart from other artists of her time,” she said.

From that beginning, the team worked to seek out her connections with other key people; the dancer Maria Pantoja, who is said to have been her dane teacher; the piainaist Nicolás Sánchez, and the guitarist Sebastián Nuñez.  To speak about them, the team turned to [the outstanding Jerez dance teacher] Angelita Gómez, “who also had those same teachers,” said the director.

In the film, Angelita reveals that “María Pantoja taught her how to move her arm; she taught us about the “soniquete” [unique feel and rhythmics] of Jerez, and how to dance the bulerías – but then it was the guitarist Sebastián Núñez who showed us how to listen, to know how to listen, to distinguish between all the flamenco palos [forms], and with Nicolás, how to follow a copla [sung verse].

Lola debuted when she was 16 at the Teatro Villamarta [still the town’s main theater], in the company of Custodia Romero.  The documentary takes a close look at [the great veteran Jerez guitarist] Paco Cepero, who worked with her often.  “In those days,” he says, “being a flamenco artist was frowned upon,” he says.  We had to “amoldarnos” [conform to the whims] of the señoritos [spoiled “little gentlemen”] for hours on end, and afterwards they paid us whatever they felt like.”

To reveal the wide trajectory of Lola’s life, “Imprescindibles” raided the archives of Spanish National Television/TVE, with interviews and scenes from her life.  Another man who appears in the flamenco critic Pepe Marín.  “Lola had a magnificent evening that wasn’t centered on just anyone, but on [the great flamenco and popular-song genius] Manolo Caracol, but Manolo was a lince [very astute, a mind reader] – he knew who was a professional and who wasn’t.”

After her films like “Embrujo”, her shows like “Zambra” and her many records, Lola “signed the biggest contract of her era in the Bar Chicote in Madrid.  Six million pesetas [perhaps $100,000] in the ‘50s.  Cesáreo González, the producer of Suevia Films, made her a star in Latin America, as he would later with Carmen Sevilla.  Lola said she earned every nickel of those million.  Endless film shoots, marathon days of promotion on radio, TV, press conferences, concerts, film openings, tours, airplanes.  And all the time wearing a flamenco costume from morning till night,” said Talia.

Films like “Ay, pena, penita pena” or “La Faraona”, which gave her the stage nickname she kept, are among the ten pictures she made in Mexico.  There she spent time with Ginger Rogers, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”, Edith Piaf, Pedro Infante, Agustín Lara, Pedro Vargas, María Félix, Jorge Negrete…and here in Spain, in film festivals and trips through Europe meeting Winston Churchill, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner…

She worked in El Paralell de Barcelona year-round, sharing the bill with [famed flamenco/pop singers] El Principe Gitano and Rafael Farina…and contracted the guitarist Antonio Gonzalez “El Pescailla” who, as his cousin Moncho “the King of the Bolero, said, “Antonio and Juan between them were the guys who made it happen [“los impulsores de todo”]; then [the pioneering rumba flamenca singer] Peret internationalized it all, but it was Juan and Antonio who between them created the rumba catalana [the Latin/flamenco rumba born in Barcelona that swept the nation for years – and subsequently swept the world in the hands of the Gypsy Kings, who'd been the young French backup guitarists for the wildly popular and usually incompetent Manitas de Plata.].  Antonio and Lola “se admiraban mucho” – admired him [Moncho] a lot.

“He fused Cuban music, boleros, swing, and didn’t let my grandmother Lola just do coplas or Spanish songs or flamenco.  I believe that my grandfather opened this door for her”, says his granddaughter Alba Flores.

As an artist. Lola seemingly continues to grow even today.  “Lola was modern, and brave.  She invented new ways to sing that still seem fresh and novel, like her rapping in “Come me las maravillaría yo”, says [the famous singer-songwriter-man] Joan Manuel Serrat, another artist entrusted to be part of the documentaru.  “Ever since I first stepped onstage, Lola was a star who had earned a guaranteed place in the firmament.  She fought to become an artist, to be a womean, to be free – she fought to be a person beloved by everyone who knew her,” he added.

In that era, Lola and Antonio opened the tablao [flamenco night club] Caripén.  It was the Sistine Chapel of flamenco, the gathering place to see true art at four in the morning,” recalls Paco Cepero.  And as Moncho recalls. They were generous.  “Every night there was a Gypsy stewpot for the artists who worked in all the tablaos, and they didn’t really charge anything.  They knew they could get a decent meal at that hour.”

Estrella Morente’s grandmother and her uncle knew it well.  Rosario was the wife of Lola’s guitarist Montoyita [who frequently accompanied Estrella's late and already-legendary father Enrique Morente], and their daughter Victorio “La Globo” debuted there at age 13.  For that reason, Estrella says that “we belonged to a generation that was the fruit of of those encounters between Lola and other artists.  If there hadn’t been places like Caripén, it would’ve been impossible to join all those souls together, to create and to dream.”

Estrella, together with Miguel Poveda [the other superstar of flamenco as well as more popular song forms] adds music to the film.  Poveda himself says that “Lola nevers goes out of style; such a genius doesn’t understand passing fads.  She never hesitated to say where she came from or how she felt, and so she lived with absolute freedom.”

That freedom was defended by another of her grandchildren, Alba Flores, the daughter of Antonio.  “She fought to be free enough to go as far as a person could go.”

She was, according to [the magnificent bullfighter who just turned 80] Curro Romero, “an induplicable artist; we will never see the likes of that woman again.”

End of article.

Wotta dame.  Now back to certifiable flamenco…

December 25, 2013   3 Comments