Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Cartageneras

Encyclopedia of the Cantes Mineros [Flamenco songs from the mining regions of Eastern Spain] – by Juan Vergillos – translated by Brook Zern

Encyclopedia of the Cantes Mineros [Flamenco songs from the mining regions of Eastern Spain] – by Juan Vergillos – translated by Brook Zern

From “VaivenesFlamencos.com – “A Magazine of Flamenco Today”, by Juan Vergillos, winner of the Premio Nacional de Flamencología.

Translator’s note: The so-called “cantes mineros” are an important family of flamenco forms, and they can be especially confusing for us outsiders.

Structurally, they are derived from the ubiquitous fandangos. Perhaps the oldest versions of fandangos in flamenco are the rhythmic forms, notably the fandangos de Huelva, the fandangos de Lucena and the verdiales. Each sung verse consists of six melodic lines – but only five lines of text, because one line of text is repeated. (Usually it’s the first line, which is repeated as the third line.)

While most flamenco songs work in an unusual (for us) mode, usually called the Phrygian, the sung and/or danced fandangos initially seem to work in our familiar major key – the first line going from G7 to C, second line going from C to F, third line going from F to C, fourth line going from C to G7, fifth line going from G7 to C — but there’s a catch. At the end, during the sixth line, the song exits the major-key format and slips back down into the exotic (for us) Phrygian. implicitly passing from A minor to G to F before coming to rest on the tonic E.

[Note that these chords do not dictate any required pitch or register to the song -- the use of the capo in flamenco guitar means that its pitch can be raised arbitrarily in half-tone intervals to match the vocal range of any singer. Also, the guitarist may choose to use a tonic chord of A instead if E -- while the intervals between the chords remain unchanged.]

At the end of the 1800’s, those bouncy fandangos were slowed down and the rhythm was abandoned so they became more serious-sounding – the Spanish say they were “aggrandized”, which sounds right. These forms included the malagueñas, the granainas – and the cantes de Levante, a sprawling and confusing family that includes the tarantas, the cartageneras, the mineras and more.

While the malagueñas work in a tonality rooted in the familiar guitar chord of E major as described above, the granainas are based on the guitar chord of B major (an A major chord barred on the second fret). The cantes de Levante are traditionally based on the guitar chord of F sharp major – an E chord barred on the second fret, but with the two highest strings, B and E, played unbarred, resulting in a disturbing, “darkling” and mysterious sound.

It’s worth noting that while flamenco is an Andalusian art, these Levante forms are from Spain’s East Coast above the southernmost region of Andalusia. But again, they are based on musical conceptions that are firmly “andaluz”.

Enough background – here is Juan Vergillos’ report on a new CD by the singer Jeromo Segura titled La Voz de la Mina: Antologia de los Cantes Mineras de La Union, and a new book, Cantes de las Minas, by Jose Luís Navarro García, with valuable insight into this often confusing musical realm.

Singer Jeromo Segura, from the province of Huelva, was fascinated in 2013 by the cantes de las minas, a fascination that led to his winning the [very prestigious] Lampara Minera at the International Concurso of the Cantes de las Minas in that same year. For his second CD, he has chosen songs exclusively from that category.

Seguro has made an authentic encyclopedia of mining styles, demonstrating his love for these unique forms using his sweet, intimate voice that is rich in feeling and precise. He uses today’s terms for the songs – terms often derived from the rules of the contest he won. Thus the so-called taranto, a name that was never applied to a flamenco style until 1957 when the singer Fosforito used the term on his first record for what had previously been called the minera. The “murciana de Manuel Vallejo” which that Seville singer called “cante de Levante” on a 1923 record but that today, evidently because of the record collector Yerga Lancharro is called the murciana. Seguro includes one of these, with the verse that Vallejo used back then.

The book by Navarro Garcia is a reedition of the 1989 version, giving biographies of the great creators and historic interpreters of the genre, from the more or less mythical like Pedro el Morato and La Gabriela to those who have made recordings and whose biographies are well established such as Antonio Chacón and El Cojo de Malaga. Thus, the different cante minero styles, tarantas, cartageneras, levanticas, murcianas, etc., are presented with the biographical data of their creators. The history of the cantes mineros, their interpreters and festivals and contests, notable La Union, stops in 1989. There is a chapter dedicated to the start of the mining industry in Jaén, Murcia and Almería. The first edition of this book generated new investigations about the genre, among them one by José Francisco Ortega who wrote the booklet that accompanies the CD by Jeromo Segura.

To that list, I’d like to add one done two years ago by Rafael Chaves Arcos: both books have contributed enormously to our understanding of the songs and singers of these forms. Research his advanced a lot but we should underline the pioneering text of Navarro García’s “Cantes de las Minas”. For many years it was the key reference work in the field.

The crucial “matrix” style of the cantes mineros is the taranta, perhaps from the town of Linares: That’s the view of Rafael Chavez and José Manuel Gamboa among other researchers of these forms. All of the other styles are modalities or variants of the tarantas, and within the tarantas we find great melodic variety, with some of those variants given their own denominations. Moreover, all of them without exception are accompanied on guitar by the style used today for the tarantas [i.e., using the tonic chord shape of the partly-unbarred F sharp. On his CD, Segura offers two tarantas styles – that of La Gabriela, probably the basis of the mineras, and that of Fernando de Triana. The first, perhaps composed in the [late] Nineteenth Century, was first recorded in 1908 by the Seville singer Manuel Escacena, and memorable versions have come from the voices of Seville’s La Niña de los Peines, Jaén’s La Rubia de las Perlas, or La Unión’s Emilia Benito. The taranta of Fernando el de Triana, whose authorship is not in doubt today, was recorded by El Cojo de Málaga and La Niña de los Peines, who was the first to record it.

Many who haven’t heard early recordings will be surprised by La Niña de los Peines’ mastery of the cantes mineros. But she, born Pastora Pavón, was a master in all songs, and many served as reference points for other singers in her era and afterwards. Segura’s versions are sentimental, intimate, sweet and also academic.

Regarding the cartagenera, Rafael Chaves believes that the one called “cartagenera grande” on Segura’s disc is melodically linked to the malagueña while that of Antonio Chacón would be reasonable views as a “taranta cartagenera”. In any case. Both are accompanied today in the tarantas style, as are the rest of the cantes mineros. And both were recorded in his day by Chacón who is, logically, the man responsible for the reference versions of these two cantes.

For the minera, the star style of the Festival de La Unión, Segura offers seven versions, although all share a single melodic base. It is traditionally associated with El Rojo el Alpargatero, though it bears the imprint of Antonio Piñana. Pencho Cros and Encarnación Fernandez. On this record, Segura offers one by Piñana, four by Cros and two by Fernández.

The levantica and the murciana, like the minera, are tarantas with a single, specific melody. Both are linked to the singer El Cojo de Malaga, whose verse Segura sings in his murciana, a song that at one time was labeled by singer Gabriel Moreno as “taranta de Linares”. The levantica follows the model of Encarnación Fernández, using a well-known verse that Ginés Jorquera composed for that singer from La Union who was born in Torrevieja, according to Ortega’s album notes.

The taranto, as we’ve noted, was known in Chacón’s time as the minera, a name that at that time covered different cantes but today is linked to only one style as analyzed above. On the record, Segura follows the model imposed by the Jerez singer Manuel Torre in the 1920’s when, the term taranto was never used.

The so-called “cantes de la madrugá” [early morning songs] are another variation on that same model, and owe their name to the Jaén singer Rafael Romero. Segura provides two examples, both with verses recorded by Romero. Finally, he offers three verses of the mythic fandango minero of Pencho Cros.

End of article.

In doing research for the exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York” that was presented at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library, I noticed that a very famous dancer who appeared in the Big Apple well before 1900 was named Carmencita Dauset — more accurately, Grau Dauset. She was actually filmed in the Thomas Edison’s studios, and seems to have been the first dancer ever filmed. The name Grau rang a bell — because the legendary pioneer singer and creative giant of the cantes de las minas, called “El Rojo el Alpargatero”, was born Antonio Grau Mora. Sure enough, he was her brother — and he sang flamenco during her successful run in New York.

Yes. Incredibly, at least to me, a great flamenco singer was appearing in the U.S. in that era. It would be two generations and many decades before another great flamenco singer would again grace our shores. It would’ve been nice if Edison had recorded El Rojo — his agents were recording flamenco singers in Spain back then — but no such luck. There are no recordings of Antonio Grau “El Rojo el Alpargatero”.

Final note: The form called the taranto is often defined as simply a melodic variant of the free-rhythm tarantas — where the free rhythm has triple time or 3/4 feel when it acquires any feel of a steady beat.

But for flamenco dancers and singers who work with them, taranto means something else: It is a version of the song that is instead done in a strong duple rhythm, our familiar 4/4 or perhaps 2/4 time. The even rhythm makes it danceable. It was a big hit for the then-young singer Fosforito around 1956 or so. A bunch of us aficionados are busily trying to pin down the artist and the definitive date for the first rendition of that rhythmic taranto, with its very different feel, but no luck so far.

Brook Zern

March 6, 2015   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Rocío Marquez – article by C. David Carrón from La Razon.es – with comments by Brook Zern

Today’s edition of the online La Razon.es has an article about the important young singer Rocío Márquez titled “Sweet Flamenco: The clearest voice in “jondo” [“deep”, referring to deep flamenco song, though her specialty is not the three forms that traditionally fall in that category; “jondo” is increasingly used as a synonym for “flamenco”.].

Written by C. David Carrón , it stresses the change in taste that has made “cante bonito” or “pretty flamenco song” so popular in the last decade or so, at the expense of the rough, ragged, and raunchy flamenco that displaced the reigning pretty song starting in the mid-sixties.

A key factor in this sea change has been the Fundación Cristina Heeren in Seville, where many of today’s most successful non-funky flamencos have been educated and trained.  This admirable foundation inherently challenges the Gypsy-centric notion that flamenco is best learned within families, notably Gypsy families.  It offers excellent training to all comers in all flamenco disciplines, and for many years it even offered becas or scholarships to promising young people who otherwise would not have been able to get good instruction.

The article:

Rocío Márquez – “Sweet Flamenco: The clearest voice in “jondo”

Her duende [intense emotive power] is nearer to that of the singers La Niña de la Puebla or Pepe Marchena than to those flamenco singers of the last thirty years, who believed that to sing was to rip one’s throat to shreds.  “Formerly,” she says, “the timbre of flamenco was very sweet; then the broken voices arrived.  Now sweetness is returning.  I’m very sweet,” she says, and she’s not referring just to her singing.  Rocío Márquez, born in Huelva in 1985 and still shy of thirty, can claim to be the only singer in history, along with Miguel Poveda [probably today’s most successful and popular flamenco singer], to have won four prizes in a single Festival of Flamenco Mining Songs [Spain’s most important annual contest].  (Beside winning the overall Lámpara Minera or Miner’s Lamp award, she triumphed in the categories of mineras, tarantas, murcianas, and the songs of Malaga, Granada, Córdoba and Huelva), much like the most important master of flamenco.  But she also belongs to a new “jondo generation”  that “studies”, preparing for a career the way an opera singer would.

In 2005, she got a beca from the the Fundación Cristina Heeren.  There she learned that it wasn’t enough to have grown up listening to one’s grandmother, mother and cousin, nor was it sufficient that she could sing the correct melodies of the fandangos at two years old, or to have made the rounds of Spain’s flamenco clubs from the age of fourteen.  This was just the base, the price of admission:  Talent was an expected requirement, but it had to be buttressed by listening to the elders, and immersing oneself in flamenco’s theoretical and musicological bases.   Only thus, knowing the true tradition, could one surmount the complexes of the “immobilists”, [i.e., old fogeys and stick-in-the-muds] who called themselves purists:  “One must respect the essence, but also be aware of the fact that we are talking of tradition that is just a century and a half old; that is to say, we’re dealing with a relatively young art that must be allowed to advance and grow because if not, you are “coartando” [cramping or hobbling] the art, she says with certainty.  And she demonstrates this, because in here recording career, with the albums “Aqui y Ahora” [“Here and Now”] and “Claridad” [“Clarity”], she is just as likely to revive popular songs as traditional jotas, or to dare to sing an orthodox petenera as to collaborate with other artists in singing Argentine tangos.

She learned to sing siguiriyas with José de la Tomasa [a superb singer who happens to be a direct descendant of Manuel Torre, the greatest Gypsy flamenco singer of all time]; she learned that “as a singer, one has the same virtues and defects as one has as a person”.  That is to say, if on getting angry one can’t slam a door, neither can one become carried away by the song’s emotion; it’s better if the tears are flowing down the cheeks of the spectators.  She also knows that it was artists like Enrique Morente who opened a door through which those of her generation must pass.

With this knowledge, she has continued to build a strong career:  On first hearing, her voice stands out for its great arabesques or oriental ornamentation and her perfect “afinación” or pitch and melodic accuracy, but she has attracted a following through her infinite capacity to transmit down to the finest matrix of these venerable verses.  Recently, at the Andalucía Flamenca festival in Madrid’s National Auditorium, she was named the “heredera” – successor or inheritor –of the two women who have brought the most to flamenco song in recent decades: Carmen Linares and Mayte Martín.  She is part of an emerging group of artists from the province of Huelva that follows the path of Arcángel, with other great singers like Argentina.  She’s about to leave for a tour of France, accompanied by the guitarist David Lagos [a marvelous Jerez player] and the percussionist Agustín Diassera.  In her recitals one hears echoes of Don Antonio Chacón [considered the supreme master of flamenco's non-Gypsy forms and non-Gypsy vocal style], Manuel Vallejo, Pepe Marchena and Juanito Valderrama [the latter two are the greatest exponents of cante bonito].  And in December she’ll be going onstage in Madrid’s great Teatro Real; to accompany the tenor José Manuel Zapata.

In the next fifteen years, we’re sure to hear a lot of talk about Rocío Márquez. Since aside from her skyrocketing ascent she gives conferences about flamenco.  Unlike earlier generations, she is able to construct paragraphs about her art and transmit it to the faithful and to the merely curious.  And when she can’t quite find the exact word she seeks, as she herself  says, “I burst into song: fortunately, there’s a flamenco form for every feeling or sentiment.”

End of article.

Ms. Marquez’s triumph at the crucial Festival of Mining Songs proved her mastery of this special group of songs – the exquisite tarantas, mineras and murcianas among others.  Unlike some other “pretty songs” like the garrotín or the colombianas or the milonga, those songs from Eastern Spain are very demanding and melodically complex.  Their greatest recent interpreter was Antonio Piñana, who inherited his knowledge from El Rojo el Alparatero and Antonio Grau.

Like most articles these days, this one simply assumes that flamenco’s so-called purists are nuts.  Any ignoramus who doubts that flamenco is better the more and the faster it lightens up is either despised or pitied.  Still, there is often a failure of nerve in this regard – the artists who most enthusiastically embrace innovation and the related phenomenon of fusion frequently feel compelled to pay lip service to the idea that tradition (and thus rigidity) deserves the kind of  respect they don’t give it.  In nearly every interview, they’ll mouth a phrase about how they are courageously smashing all existing rules and templates – but always with respect for the pure art and its venerable canons.  And never because the pay is better.  In the case of the sweet Ms. Márquez, it comes out as “We must always respect the tradition but…”  Emphasis on the “but”, not on the “tradition.”

(On several occasions, I’ve recommended the Fundación Cristina Heeren to very promising American flamenco students.  When they get on the plane, they think I’m an expert.  When they come back, they regard me as a hopelessly confused relic of the Dark Ages.)

Still, putting my own prejudices aside, and listening to the huge talents and the sheer artistry of Rocío Márquez or Arcangel or Argentina (all from Huelva, which in the past produced few artists who excelled beyond the local tradition of rhythmic fandangos) or the incredible Miguel Poveda (from the Barcelona region), it’s tempting to admit that flamenco is all the richer for it.

Tempting, but not irresistible.

Brook Zern

November 9, 2013   1 Comment

Holy Cash Cow! India Buys Into Spain’s Most Venerable Flamenco Festival – News article from murcia.com – translated by Brook Zern

Historic Accord for  Flamenco at the International Level

That’s the headline in today’s edition the Spanish publication Murcia.com

Background of this accord:  The party of the first part is the cash-strapped annual Festival del Cante de las Minas held in the town of La Unión in the province of Murcia – perhaps the most important of all flamenco festivals, despite its out-of-the-loop locale on Spain’s Lower East Side and its special focus on the songs of that area’s mining towns – the tarantas, the cartageneras, the mineras and a few more.

The party of the second part is India, specifically the Maharajah of Jodhpur, who has what Spain and its festivals so sorely lack these days: cold cash.  He also evidently shares the notion that flamenco is closely related to some forms of Indian music.  (Note:  This idea depends on the actual fact that the Gypsies or rom originally come from the Indian subcontinent.  It also implies that the Gypsies are hugely important in the development of flamenco – an idea that has become quite unfashionable within Spain’s official flamenco establishment.  But money trumps ideology.)

The subhead:  India will host the first International Edition of the Festival del Cante de las Minas

The article:  Following an agreement between the Maharajah of Jodhpur, HH Gadj Singh II, the Consul Minister of the Embassy of Spain in India, Don Ramón Blecua, and the Mayor of the town of La Unión and Executive President of the Foundation for the Cante de las Minas, Francisco Bernabé.

The agreement foresees the creation of a Center for the Study of Rajastani Music and Flamenco, which will organize an annual flamenco festival in which, in addition to the musical component, studies will be made about the possible common origins between the two forms of artistic expression.

The festival, which will last about one week, will have a first part featuring important stars of flamenco, and a second part that will feature local artists in contests for flamenco song, guitar and dance which have made the Festival of the Mines the most important of all flamenco festivals.  The winners of this Indian edition will automatically be qualified to enter the final phases of the La Unión contest.

The financing of the event will come from the Mehranghar Fort Trust of Jodhpur, as well as certain other public and private Indian entities that wish to help further the project’s development.

The memorandum of agreement was signed in the Urmaid Bhawn Palace, the official residence of the Maharajah of Rajahstan, attended by many of his family members including Princess Shivranjai Rajye.  It featured performances by a Rajastani group composed of four musicians and a dancer, and the Spanish flamenco troupe “Raices Flamencas” made up of the singer Antonio Mejías, the guitarist Antonio Muñóz, the dancer María Canea and the percussionist Josué Rodríguez, whose duende delighted  the many officials and  authorities as well as the press and broadcast media that covered the event.  Then the Rajastani group appeared, followed by a joint performance of both groups with original musical fusion that demonstrated beyond doubt the shared roots of these styles, to enormous acclaim and applause.

In the words of Francisco Bernabé, “we are joining in a historic accord that will mark a before and after for the international projection of flamenco in general, and the Cante de las Minas in particular, since never until now has such a significant step been taken by any flamenco festival.

The Executive President of the Foundation for the Cante de las Minas added, “this will generate an important flow of cultural, touristic and empresarial exchange between India, which is now the world’s fifth most important economic power, and La Unión – and by extension the Region of Murcia and Spain, that can only generate extraordinary benefits for both parties.”

To conclude, he noted that in addition to the ties on every level, “this event provides a new source of funding for the Cante de las Minas festival, since the contract guarantees that the initiative will never involve any costs for the Foundation, and that in fact it will receive a percentage of the income that will be generated.”

End of article.

May 14, 2013   No Comments

Flamenco Dancer Antonia Mercé “La Argentina” receives the Cross of Queen Isabella medal – Two 1931 articles – And was she murdered by Spain’s Fascists in 1936? (hey, just sayin’) — translations and comment by Brook Zern

Flamenco Dancer Antonia Mercé “La Argentina” receives the Cross of Queen Isabella medal – Two 1931 articles – And was she murdered by Spain’s Fascists in 1936? (hey, just sayin’) — translations and comment by Brook Zern

The Spanish publication El Sol of December 4, 1931, carried this article:

“The chief of the Government, upon arriving yesterday afternoon at the Congress, spoke a moment with journalists and said: ‘Gentlemen, the only news I have for you is that this morning, as interim minister of the State, I signed a decree awarding the lazo de Isabel la Católica to doña Antonia Mece, “La Argentina”, as recognition of her work in introducing foreign audiences to the pure art of the Spanish dance, for which she has garnered resounding triumphs.”

“Tonight,” Señor Azaña added, “I will have the pleasure of presenting this emblematic artist the award during the event to be celebrated at the Español Theater and in which “La Argentina” will appear for the last time in Madrid.”

“The medal is presented at my behest, and is the first of its type to be given by the Government of the Republic since the new regime took office.”

End of article.

An ABC item from the following day shows the head of Spain’s government, Sr. Azaña, placing the medal on La Argentina.  Caption:  ”The head of the government, Sr. Azaña, during the intermission at the second concert by Antonio Mercé (La Argentina), in the Español Theater, awarded the illustrious artist the Cross of Isabel la Católica.  It is the first condecoración (medal) to be awarded by the Republic.”

Note by Brook Zern:  I translated these from a wonderful Spanish website, www.papelesflamencos.com — aside from the historical interest, I wanted to brag that 77 years later I got the same award, which is given for work done abroad to further interest in Spanish culture.  (Pilar López, sister of La Argentinita who evidently was not related to La Argentina, got the same award — it was always called the Cruz for men, and was often called the Lazo de Dama for women until recently, when it became the unisex Cruz.)

I noticed when translating the articles that this was the first such award granted by the new Republican government headed by Azaña — and wondered if this might have put La Argentina into the bad graces of the Fascist Nationalist government that stole power from the elected Republicans beginning with its invasion in July, 1936.

I immediately dismissed this as my leftist paranoia.  Then, while searching for more info about La Argentina for the “100 Years of Flamenco in New York 1913-2013″ exhibit planned for the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, I looked her up.

Specifically, I turned to the excellent book Una Historia de Flamenco, by the terrific Spanish authority José Manuel Gamboa who has become a friend over countless copitas in the now-defunct El Colmao in Jerez.

And sure enough…or, more precisely, circumstantially enough…here’s his expert info.

First, he cites an announcement of a memorial Mass celebrated in Paris marking the first anniversary of her death on July 18th, 1936.  He then cites an authority named Fernando Collado who wrote: “Her death generated impassioned comments about the cause.  Se asegura [passive voice, "one is assured"] that this genius of dance was poisoned by Fascist espionage agents. ‘Antonia Mercé, thanks to her friendship with General Sanjurjo, died at the orders of the Fascist High Command.’  The Barcelona newspaper La Noche said “On July 15th, Antonia Mercé was in Lisbon, where she talked with General Sanjurjo, who was an old friend.  She was one of just two people who knew that Sanjurjo had to take an airplane on the 19th in order to rendezvous with Franco in Tetuan [to initiate the invasion, moving the generals and their troops from that Morrocan coastal town across the Strait of Gibraltar to southern Spain.]  The other person was the airplane’s pilot.

But then came the accident which killed the general.  Someone claimed that the Spanish dancer belonged to Intelligence Service (in English].  On the 19th, La Argentina was invited to spend the night in the home of a certain aristocrat in Biarritz [on France's northwest coast].  She accepted, and went to the house in the company of the aristocrat, who was a count; a colonel; and an Artillery Captain in the Republican Army who a few days later joined the enemy [it was common for high-ranking officers to switch to the Nationalist side when the Spanish Civil War broke out].   They all arrived at the house together.  At two in the morning, the meal was over and as she got up, Antonia Mercé died as if struck by lightning.”

The article concludes with these words:  ”Throughout our experiences in Madrid during the war, few familiar names were implicated in espionage.  The few we heard, usually anecdotally, were hardly conclusive.  About La Argentina, nothing concerning her death was clear; she was found in a French home after having dined with two Spanish soldiers who went over to the Nationalists.  The speculation may owe more to her fame than to other reasons.”

Gamboa continues:  ”Remember that with the advent of the Second Republic, Azaña awarded her the Gran Cruz de Isabel la Católica.  On the 18th of July of 1936, a Festival of Basque Dances was celebrated in her honor.  According to some, it was after this festival [and not at that dinner] that she felt indisposed, dying on the road as she returned to Bayonne.”

To clarify: The death of Sanjurjo in an apparent air crash as he went to join the invasion forces gathered in Spanish Morocco has always been a mystery.  I think I’ve heard it blamed on Franco, since it eliminated a strong rival for the leadership of the rebellion.  The idea that La Argentina found out about the flight and notified an intelligence service that sabotaged or shot down the plane seems far-fetched, but in millions of eyes, mine included, it would make her a hero and a martyr in the fight against Fascism and Nazism.

(And of course, it would play right into the romantic image of flamenco dancers as femmes fatales, this time with a noble cause.  In other words, it’s such a good story that it must be true.)

Brook Zern — brookzern@gmail.com

February 5, 2013   1 Comment

The Amazing American Odyssey of the Sensational Spanish Dancer Carmencita and the Legendary Flamenco Singer Rojo el Alpargatero – by Brook Zern, indebted to Professor Kiko Mora and others

The Amazing American Odyssey of the Sensational Spanish Dancer Carmencita and the Legendary Flamenco Singer Rojo el Alpargatero  – by Brook Zern, indebted to Professor Kiko Mora and others

A few months ago, my Google RSS feed for the word “flamenco” turned up a tantalizing reference to the possibility that the legendary flamenco singer Antonio Grau, professionally known as Rojo el Alpargatero, had performed in New York City in 1892.

I thought this was absurd.  Very few people in Spain like serious flamenco singing, and in this country the percentage becomes utterly negligible.  The idea that Rojo el Alpargatero was singing in New York at that time – well, it made no sense.

After all, this man was the mysterious key figure in the creation of an entire branch of flamenco song – the so-called “cante de Levante” or “cante minero”, the styles from the mining districts of the eastern region of Almeria.  The tarantas, the murcianas, the cartageneras and more– all were transmuted from simple folkloric songs into the exquisite and complex melodic masterpieces they are today, and Rojo el Alpargatero is given much of the creative credit.  Fine — but flamenco singers weren’t hanging around Times Square in the Gay Nineties.

Ah, but there was more to the story.  Because a few months ago, some flamenco dance people in New York had made a tantalizing discovery of their own.  They had learned that a pioneering Spanish dancer called Carmencita had spent years performing in the U.S. during that same epoch, reaching triumphant heights – and that, amazingly, you can view her art today.

That’s right.  The first dancer ever filmed was a Spanish dancer, whose repertoire included flamenco styles like the peteneras. fandangos and sevillanas.  She was filmed in the studios of Thomas Edison, who had recently invented the motion picture camera.  And this was no fluke – Carmencita was enormously famous in America, and her image lent prestige to the new medium of moving pictures.

Carmencita’s real name was Carmen Dauset Moreno.

Funny thing – the bio of Rojo el Alpargatero in Angel Alvarez Caballero’s authoritative book “El Cante Flamenco” says that in Almeria he met his future wife, “with whom he did not delay in establishing a sentimental relationship so intimate that, according to one text, ‘vanquished by human fragility they knew one another carnally, with the result that she soon found herself embarazada’”.  (No, not embarrassed, though that’s also a possibility; the Spanish word means pregnant.)

And the vixen in question?  Her name was Maria del Mar Dauset Moreno.

The plot thickens – and yes, it turns out that Rojo el Alpargatero was indeed the brother-in-law of Carmencita.

And that confluence of events led to Rojo singing in the vaudeville spectacle that starred Carmencita.  The New York Herald of June 10, 1892 carried an ad for the show, part of a series commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America:

CARMENCITA IN CHICKERING HALL – GREAT SPANISH CONCERTS.  The return of the famous Carmencita, accompanied by the renowned Spanish artists Sr. A. Antón, the famous tenor; Señora Bianchi di Fiorio; Señor García; and the great novelty of the day: the genuine Andalusian songs, presented for the first time in New York by the famous Andalusian cantaor Antonio Grau, in “Las Ventas de Cárdenas” – THE SPECTACLE WILL BE COMPLETELY SPANISH.”

And so it happened that New Yorkers saw the enigmatic and never-recorded flamenco song giant Rojo el Alpargatero, presumably invited by his sister-in-law to present real flamenco song – a genre that had only surfaced publicly in Spain a few decades earlier (and that some confused scholars think was nonexistent before then).

The ad uses the Spanish word cantaor – an Andalucianized term that may have been fairly new, and refers specifically to a singer of flamenco.  (At the time, in Spain, I suspect that the more awkward but formal version “cantador” was still more common.)

The ad also uses the word “genuine” to describe flamenco.  It’s interesting to note that this attribute, still used along with the near-synonymous “authentic”, was already considered indispensable even 120 years ago in promoting the very first flamenco show in the Big Apple.  Plus ça change, as they say in Spain.

There is much more to the astonishing saga of Carmencita, of course, as revealed by Professor Kiko Mora’s superb and meticulously documented 2011 “Carmencita on the road: Baile español y vaudeville en los Estados Unidos de America (1889-1895).

Professor Mora obtained his Ph.D in Philosophy and Letters at Ohio State University and is Professor of Semiotics of Publicidad [Advertising] and Semiotics of Mass Communication at Spain’s University of Alicante.

In his conclusion, Professor Mora points out that Carmencita, who was primarily an exponent of the escuela bolera, was probably the most famous Spaniard in America, since Cervantes was not widely known at the time.  And he raises provocative questions – what does film owe to Carmencita?  What is the significance of her appearance in this first-ever dance film?  What does Spanish dance owe to her contact with American music and dance like ragtime and the cakewalk?  What does Spanish dance owe to her and others that followed in her footsteps – and, does American dance itself owe something to Carmencita?

All in all, a truly remarkable story.

(And yet another debt flamenco owes to Thomas Edison, who also insisted that his other invention, the phonograph, was used to record flamenco singers in Spain at exactly the same time – there are many recordings from the 1890’s, possibly predating all other ethnic music recordings and all priceless documents in themselves.  Edison felt that the recording of traditional world music was an especially important use of his device, because unlike classical music, such art could not be adequately notated on paper.)

Note:  It seems that Professor Mora has spoken of his findings at some universities in England, so there may also be an English-language version of his paper; I apologize for any dubious or disastrous translation…

Finally:  For those interested in the history of flamenco and Spanish dance, New York’s Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts will see a five-month exhibit called “100 Years of Flamenco in New York”, planned by Carlota Santana of Duke University who heads the Carlota Santana Flamenco Vivo ensemble that has introduced countless Americans to the art.  The exhibit will feature, among many other elements, the historic Edison film of Carmencita.  I’m involved with the effort, along with the scholar and dancer La Meira and the author and critic Ninotchka Benahum among others.  A report on the project will appear in this blog soon.

Brook Zern

flamencoexperience.com/blog

November 18, 2012   2 Comments