Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Dancer Carmencita

Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern


The Myth of the Taranto

Montse Madridejos and David Perez Merinero close this Centennial Year of Carmen Amaya with the publication of a biography in images of the dancer, and a defense of the thesis that she was actually born in 1918

By Juan Vergillos

Carmen Amaya. Montse Madridejos y David Pérez Merinero.  Prologue by Juan Marsé.  Edicions Bellaterra, Barcelona, 295 pp.

The present-day image of flamenco has been built in part upon myths.  Above all, those which originated, and from which current myths are based, in the period when there were no investigators with adequate tools to understand (conocer) the past, or even the approximate realities.

Many of these myths have been undermined thanks to the investigative research of José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, Faustino Nuñéz, José Manuel Gamboa, José Luís Navarro, Gerhard Steingress, Antonio Barberán, Manuel Bohórquez, Rafael Chávez and many others, among whom we can now include the authors of this new work.  Of course, one should not forget the work of pioneers like Anselmo González Climent or Luís Lavour.

Nonetheless, the myths of flamenco, including the most tendentious and those most lacking a factual basis, remain with us despite their faults.   In flamenco historiography, more than in any other discipline, the old journalistic saying still reigns:  “Never let reality ruin a great story.”  What do they say about Carmen Amaya frying sardines in her room at the Waldorf Astoria?  Well, someday it will become clear that this fraudulent (“supercheria”) notion was perhaps an astute commercial move by Sol Hurok, the impresario who led Carmen Amaya through the entresijos [ins and outs] of “show business norteamericano”.  It’s all rather curious:  Carmen Amaya went from being crowned Miss Morena of 1935 in Spain to being The Queen of the Gypsies in 1942 in the U.S.  Of course, the Spaniards, delighted to buy into any American product, ate up that Carmen Amaya was dubbed Queen of the Gypsies – the image that is still sold both within and beyond our borders – forgetting, for example, not just Miss Morena of 1935 but also the artist who made cine social (socially conscious cinema?) with [the great avant-garde filmmaker] Luís Buñuel.  And so we see that Carmen Amaya, viewed logically, is many Carmen Amayas.

This book by Montse Madridejos and David Pérez Merinero analyzes these and other myths that comprise the larger myth of flamenco.  The publication, nonetheless, is basically a book of photographs: it reconstructs the life trajectory and artistic arc of the dancer through the authors’ well-stocked visual archives.   Despite the various myths that, in my view, the work disproves in its brief text: that she was born in 1913, that it was Sabicas who presented her in Madrid in 1935…and of course that business of the fish fry.  The best of the sardine myth-building is the 1988 portrait by Eduardo Arroyo titled “Carmen Amaya frying sardines in the Waldorf Astoria”.  But curiously, the authors never address one of the major Carmen Amaya myths: that in New York in 1942 she invented a new dance called the taranto.  The fact is that in 1942 there was no flamenco style called the taranto, although there was a form called the taranta and also the minera, the latter form being what we now call taranto.

My impression, once I checked it against the program for that event, thanks to my friend La Meira, is that Carmen Amaya danced an instrumental number composed and interpreted by Sabicas and titled El Taranto, probably, as the title indicates, based on an estilo minero [one of the song forms from the mining districts of southeastern Spain, notably the cities of Almería or La Unión] . The word taranto alludes to the miners of Almería but in 1942 it didn’t refer to a flamenco style.  For that, we have to wait until 1957, the year in which [the great singer] Fosforito, applied the term to one of his mineras, according to Rafael Chaves and José Manuel Gamboa.  The reason for this nomenclature change is known only to Fosforito himself.   But the way Carmen Amaya danced that form – using a binary rhythm [2/4 or 4/4, relatively uncommon in traditional flamenco] – gave us a new formula that would stay with us, though there were precedents in the dance of La Malagueñita and in the great Encarnación López Júlvez, “La Argentinita”; so says José Luís Navarro.

And in fact, reality is always more interesting, rich, complex and marvelous than the blinkers [anteojeras] through which we sometimes look at people.  Reality is so fascinating that by comparison myths are just child’s play.  Doesn’t it seem miraculous, for example, that the first woman ever to appear in a moving image was a dancer from Almería named Carmencita Dauset?  And it’s equally marvelous that the most famous and influential dancer in flamenco’s history was born in the Somorrostro district of Barcelona [despite the persistent story that she was born in the Sacromonte, the Gypsy district of Granada].  And that the date, despite the current centennial celebrations, was not 1913 but 1918, which is the hypothesis of the authors of this book.  And which I agree with, backed by data, of course, above all that of the padrón [census record] of Barcelona in 1930.

And so we will again return to Carmen Amaya’s centennial year in 2018.  And you’ll see it happen.  As [the early flamenco historian] Anselmo González Climent said in the 1960’s, in his essay titled “Toward a Historiography of Flamenco” – a truly visionary text – “deep archaeology must have an objective character, y no gendarme [the word refers to a police officer, as in France.]”  And that’s true because myths are tendentious and partisan.  So is history, of course, but it demands of itself a minimum standard of objectivity.  And that minimum is what gives us life, what this marvelous work provides to help us enjoy even more the myth and the reality called Carmen Amaya, the flamenco dancer of the Twentieth Century, and the most famous ever.

Carmen Amaya (1918-1963) was the most popular flamenco artist of her time and remains the best-known in her chosen realm.  And all that as a result of the Spanish Civil War, from which she fled in 1936 to head for Buenos Aires via Lisbon.  In her voyage form the Argentine capital to New York, the city que recala [where she made landfall]  in 1941, she toured all of Latin America, including Brazil, and appeared in several films and on several recordings made in Argentina, Mexico and Cuba.  In 1947 she returned to Spain as the world’s most famous flamenco dancer, thanks to her work in New York and Hollywood – although in Spain, she was not well known at that time.  She had to rebuild her national career, combining her international tours with appearances in Spain.  She settled in Begur [near Barcelona] at the end of the fifties, and died there in 1963 of kidney failure.  She didn’t live to see her last film, Los Tarantos, directed by Rovira-Beleta.

End of story.

Juan Vergillos, a well-known expert, gives an informative review of the book at hand, and also gives a mini-history of the fundamental change in flamenco studies over the past few decades.

I’ll comment on those changes in a separate entry.  For now — glad to have a chance to spell co-author David Pérez Merinero’s name correctly; Estela Zatania, an admirer of his work, recently set me straight on that.  Also glad to see the eminent dance scholar and Carmen Amaya authority La Meira cited in this review; it was a pleasure to learn about flamenco’s long history in New York when I helped her and Nina Bennahum set up their very successful exhibit and conference series at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center last summer.

About the taranto that’s discussed in this article: the word was applied to a song form long ago, and appeared on Manuel Torre’s amazing rendition of the song.  Still, I used to define it as a sung “cante minero” that had a steady, binary rhythm (which Torre’s version didn’t have.)  But Fosforito may have invented that sung version to accompany a dancer who wanted to use the form’s darkling, dramatic guitar-chord shapes (make a barred F-sharp chord on the second fret, then lift the bar enough to free up the first and second strings — presto, that haunting tonic chord alone is the infallible identifier of the tarantas, or the taranto.

Who first danced the form?  Carmen Amaya way back when, with Sabicas?  La Malagueñita or La Argentinita, before that?  Another bailaora in the fifties, GloriaRomero?  I’ve heard stories, but of course, stories are the same as myths — except when they are true, of course, as they often are…

(Note that Carmen Amaya cooked up a phenomenal piece with Sabicas for their “Queen of the Gypsies” record.  It was called a rondeña, — yet another song tied to the tarantas/taranto/minera family — but instead of it being just Sabicas’s restatement of Ramón Montoya’s great guitar-solo-only original, it was a gripping duet face-off between two giants at the top of their game.

December 31, 2013   10 Comments

Soundscape – The flamenco recordings playing at the exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York – 1913-2013″ at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

On March 12, the exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York — 1913-2013″ opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center where it will run through August 3rd.

I’ve written about it in another blog entry, noting the extraordinary work of Carlota Santana of Flamenco Vivo in organizing it and the remarkable efforts of the dancer and scholar La Meira and the author and expert Ninotchka Bennahum in selecting and  arranging the materials.  They also wrote the impressive catalog that details the history of the dance in the city during the past century.

I added a section about the guitar in New York, and also selected the 21 recordings that are played as the so-called “soundscape” — it has a better ring than “background music” — playing during the event.  The objective was to shed light, or sound, on the materials that are displayed.  In the room, one can read a brief description of each cut.

(Some of the rare material in the show was generously contributed by Carlos Montoya, the son and namesake of the most famous concert guitarist in the world for many decades.  I also contributed some items, including LP’s and 78′s, programs — among them, two disintegrating tissue-thin sheets describing the programs and extensively detailing the cuadros or groups of artists working at the 1965 New York World’s Fair — and the 1951 José Ramírez flamenco guitar signed on its face with a black market Parker pen by the dancer Vicente Escudero — see the entry detailing its acquisition and “defacement” elsewhere in this blog.)

Just for the heck of it, I decided to write a lengthier description of the cuts and place it here, for anyone who wanted to know more — or who wondered how I could justify each cut, at least in my own mind.  (The process was painful, because the number of cuts, like the number of photographs and items in the exhibit, was very limited.)

Here is that full version:

1.  Carmen Amaya dances and sings a bulerías titled “Ritmos de Carmen Amaya” accompanied by Sabicas; from the recording Queen of the Gypsies – The Rhythms of Carmen Amaya

Notes:  This hell-for-leather bulerías reveals the seemingly telepathic connection between the flamenco’s greatest dancer-guitarist pairing of all time.  Carmen Amaya threw away the rule books and the frilly dresses, put on the pants and danced with an intensity that may never be matched.  Fast footwork, always an expression of raw masculinity in dance, became ferociously female as Carmen simply surpassed everyone else in the business.  She danced with a snap and instantaneous precision that would not be seen again until the advent of Michael Jackson.  Her energy and intensity were still undimmed near the end of her life, as revealed in the fine film Los Tarantos, with her nanosecond transition from seated to dancing in full fury.

When Carmen Amaya met Sabicas, she found her musical match and soulmate – the fastest, cleanest and most precise flamenco guitarist in the world.  Whenever they appeared in Buenos Aires, traffic was diverted from the midtown theater area.  When they stormed New York – well, the rest is dance history.  They epitomized an art that is the emblem and essence of southwestern Spain.  And both were born in the opposite corner of the nation, she near Barcelona and he in Pamplona.

2. Manuel Agujetas sings a siguiriyas, “Desde que te fuiste” (“Since you left me”), accompanied by guitarist David Serva, from the 1977 record Palabra Viva (the Living Word).

Notes:  Manuel Agujetas, who in 1976 set up shop for months in a dinky New York restaurant with his wife, the very talented New Yorker dancer wife Tibulina Lubart, briefly reappeared in New York last May.  The New York Times accurately described him as “a great singer” and more specifically “a great Gitano singer”.  He is the living embodiment of the immensely difficult and absolutely terrifying component of flamenco called cante jondo or deep song, which a Columbia student named Federico García Lorca called the realm of the sonidos negros, the black sounds.  This is tragedy told in the first person, directed to no one, expressed simply because it must be expressed.  It is traditionally linked to just a handful of gitano or Gypsy artists – Manuel Torre, the paradigm; Manolo Caracol, who at age twelve was the real winner of the Granada Deep Song contest of 1922 organized by composer Manuel de Falla; Fernanda de Utrera, the empress of the soleá; Terremoto de Jerez; El Chocolate; and today, the great José Merce.  Agujetas is not simply a link to a vanished past; he seems intimately and inextricably connected to separate reality.  Agujetas is accompanied here by the astonishing American flamenco guitarist David Serva, the only American player to truly enter the core of flamenco and make a career in Spain.

This is the siguiriyas, which along with the soleá and the martinete is one of just three deep song forms – three forms out of the more than sixty in the panorama of flamenco.  But somewhere there is a scale, and it shows that those three weigh as much as all the others put together.

3. Steve Kahn plays a bulerías on his record, Steve Kahn – Flamenco Guitar.

Notes:  Steve Kahn, another gifted American flamenco guitarist, is one of many foreigners to fall under the spell of Diego del Gastor, who made a career while never going far from his home town of Morón de la Frontera, some fifty kilometers from Seville.  Diego refused lucrative offers and intense efforts by Spain’s leading record companies because he had no desire to be famous.  To hear him play, you had to go to where he was, and that’s how Steve, and David Serva (accompanist to Agujetas in the above siguiriyas), and many others including this writer all ended up living in Morón for months and years.  In Diego’s seemingly simple yet ultimately inimitable approach to the instrument, many flamenco artists and aficionados heard worlds within worlds.

It is said that Diego del Gastor was “never recorded” – yes, unless one counts the hundreds of hours of tapes we foreigners made of him playing solo and accompanying now-legendary singers including Fernanda de Utrera, Juan Talegas and Manolito de la María, in which case he may be the most recorded of all guitarists.  Note that the underlying aesthetic is completely different from the marvelous high-speed, high-power bulerías of Carmen Amaya and Sabicas on the first selection.  In fact, speed is not necessarily seen as a virtue in this kind of flamenco – the intent is to simply let the music unfold, not to have it zip by faster than it can be absorbed.

Steve Kahn is also noted photographer, and during his many years in New York he created an exhibit of photographs taken by many foreign pilgrims, himself included, in the flamenco environs of Morón during the sixties and seventies.  The exhibit, “Flamenco Project” has been acclaimed in many Spanish cities; it  is accompanied by a book that also includes essays by veterans (this writer among many) who felt fortunate to fall into that strange vortex or singularity.

4.  Enrique Morente sings a granainasEngarzá en oro y marfil”, sung by Enrique Morente, accompanied by Sabicas, on the LP/CD “Morente – Sabicas – New York y Granada”.

Notes: You don’t have to breathe Gypsy fire to sing great flamenco.  Enrique Morente was from Granada, and he drew his inspiration from the other side of the flamenco coin.  He concentrated on the rich, complex and often lovely songs, drawing his first inspiration from Don Antonio Chacón, who earned that honorific “Don” for being the greatest vocal master, the greatest creator of new styles and the finest gentleman in the business.  Chacón built on the foundation of the fandangos, a major branch of flamenco in which beauty is not a handicap but an asset.  His malagueñas were ravishing, but perhaps his greatest creation was this granainas that Morente sings here.  He is accompanied by the adopted New Yorker Sabicas, in his final appearance with a singer.

What do you do when you’ve proved you are the best in your chosen realm of flamenco?  Morente answered that question by becoming a new kind of singer, using his total command of the tradition to make daring new conceptual leaps and forging new music, new melodies and new ways to vocalize.  He teamed up with Spanish rockeros and with daring recording engineers to make historic albums including Omega, Lorca, and El Pequeño Reloj.  When he died far too young a few years ago, he was the most revered flamenco singer in Spain – and not long before that, he filled Carnegie Hall with new New York acolytes.

Today Enrique’s stunning daughter Estrella carries the flamenco song flame for the family; her art doesn’t sound funky, but it’s gorgeous from the word go.

5. Fernanda de Utrera sings a soleá, accompanied by Diego del Gastor.  No label.  No company.  No multinational enterprise.  Just some dedicated foreign aficionados who were determined to preserve Spain’s cultural heritage.

Notes:  The first great female flamenco singer to appear in New York was Fernanda de Utrera, master of the deep song form called the soleá.  When her mother put her on the train to Madrid, she gave Fernanda some garbanzo beans so she would have something to eat in New York.  Soon she was onstage in Queens at the 1965 World’s Fair with her sister Bernarda, a fine singer of flamenco’s festive songs.

This cut is from one of the miles of tape recordings made by various Americans in and around Morón de la Frontera in Seville province.  It reveals a crucial side of flamenco which is by definition not found on official recordings made in studios.  It is instead made within an intimate gathering of artists and aficionados who know one another, and have gathered in a juerga or fiesta or, in English, a sort of jam session, with no schedule and no predictable outcome, assuming it starts at all.

In other words, the objective of this event is not to create a product.  If the truth be known, the aim is to create a few fleeting moments when some mysterious force or entity seems to invade the proceedings and take over an artist.  The entity is called the duende, and in the realm of flamenco and the bullfight in Spain, it is as real as it is rare.

Some of the foreigners went to certain Andalusian towns in the sixties and seventies did not go to “hear flamenco” or “find flamenco”.   You could do that almost anywhere.   Instead, we went with the hope of penetrating a normally closed circle of artists and aficionados so that we might be present to witness something unique  — a performance that went far beyond inspired.  In other words, we were hunting down the duende, and we knew that this word was used in southern Spain in just two contexts.

We were there on the off chance that in an intimate flamenco session at about five in the morning, or in a bullring at exactly  five in the afternoon (“cinco en punto de la tarde” in Lorca’s timetable/lament) we might see an artist simply bypass all normal barriers of performance, seemingly without effort, and start to function as – what? – well, perhaps as human receiver/transmitter mediating between the normal world and a realm beyond our ken.

Among hundreds of bullfighters, exactly two – Curro Romero from Seville, whom most people assumed was a Gypsy, and an actual Gypsy from Jerez named Rafael de Paula – might occasionally do this.  They were easy to find in the escalofón or ratings columns published in the bullfight weeklies, because while others who fought a hundred times would have cut eighty or a hundred ears. those men would have cut perhaps eight or ten ears, in a good year.  And yet we followed them from town to town, because – well, because they were obviously doing something that was qualitatively different from all the other matadors.  They were bringing down the duende, and the whole crowd of thousands knew when it started and stopped, and they were so happy that they kissed strangers and cried because that was what they had desperately hoped to experience.  And the newspapers the next day would matter-of-factly note the fact, and perhaps mention the strange feeling of time slowing down that characterizes those moments.  Typical headline:  “Curro Romero Stops The Clock”, or “Rafael de Paula Enduendado en Jerez” (“Rafael de Paula Duendified in Jerez”

(Yes, we now know that this always deadly and very Spanish spectacle is simply barbaric and/or morally indefensible and even illegal in parts of Spain that would rather not be parts of Spain.  But before our enlightenment, Life and Time and Sports Illustrated and Holiday and a dozen other American magazines reported on the bullfight season at least once every summer.  While some flamenco-seekers in those years already hated the bullfight, others thought it was an important art which shed light on a culture and its music.)

Alternatively:  A few hours before sunrise, in dingy, smoke-choked rooms in bars and roadside ventas, the handful of flamenco singers mentioned in the notes on the Agujetas recording above just might pull off the same trick.  Fernanda de Utrera was one of two women – the other was Piriñaca de Jerez – who could make the leap into this void.  Piriñaca once said, “When I am singing well, I taste blood in my mouth.” This is why we were there.

Of course,  the postmodernist deconstructionist authorities  who are now in charge of Spain’s official flamenco narrative will reassure you that this is all romantic nonsense designed to extract something from us gullible rubes.  And come to think of it, we usually shelled out a few bucks for the wine, or Tío Pepe sherry if we could.  Somehow, we thought we came out ahead.

6.  Carlos Montoya plays a solo bulerías on an anthology record, Las Guitarras Flamencas.

Notes: Carlos Montoya was the first guitarist to leave Spain in order to build a career as a soloist.  He was also by far the most successful, in large measure because he was a truly charismatic performer.  After proving himself as an accompanist for more great dancers than any other guitarist, he made his move.  In reality, he had no choice.  In Spain, the idea of a flamenco guitar concert was incomprehensible, because the “proper” purpose of the flamenco guitar was to accompany dancers or singers.

While we loved the dancers, flamenco singers have never really been appreciated in America.  The often rough voices, the language barrier (many Spaniards say they can’t understand the agonizingly extended vocal lines and the deep southern  Andalusian dialect) and the alien, oriental nature of the melodies remain an acquired taste that virtually no one wants to acquire.  But the guitar was both exotic and accessible, especially in the hands of a magnetic personality like Carlos Montoya.  He came to New York in the fifties, settling in midtown a few blocks from the immortal Sabicas and the brilliant Mario Escudero – making the Big Apple the epicenter of the concert flamenco guitar explosion for decades.

Montoya knew that hard-core aficionados would likely prefer the music of Sabicas, and would dismiss some of his mannerisms as crowd-pleasing efectismo – striving for effect at the expense of flamenco expression.  But the pleased crowds voted for Carlos Montoya and never felt deceived.  He sold out halls and even stadiums, and made more than 60 LP’s.

In fact, this bulerías reveals a very Gypsy style.   In an era where flamenco guitar concerts have devolved into group performances inspired by jazz quint-, sext- and septets, it’s remarkable that these lone artists could hypnotize audiences with two pounds of wood and six nylon strings.

7.  Antonio Piñana sings the Cartageneras del Rojo el Alpargatero “Los puntales del cante cartagenero” accompanied by his son, Antonio, from the record Antología de Cantaores Flamencos.

Notes:  Among the remarkable items in this exhibit, the most striking may well be the actual film of the Spanish dancer Carmencita, who was wildly popular in America at the turn of the last century.  She was so well known that when Thomas Edison decided to use his new-fangled motion picture camera to capture a dancer for the first time, he asked  Carmencita to come to New Jersey (the town probably wasn’t named Edison yet) for her close-up.

Her real name was Carmen Grau Dauset.  And when flamenco song buffs heard the name Grau, it rang a bell.  It seems that Carmencita was the sister-in-law of one of the most important singers in flamenco history.  He was called El Rojo el Alpargatero, but named Antonio Grau.  Regrettably, he was never recorded.  Incredibly, he sang in New York City – no doubt the first important flamenco singer to work in America, and probably the first of all.  He was the key creator in a distinct branch of exquisitely ornamented fandangos from the eastern mining region of Almeria that includes the tarantas, the cartageneras, the mineras and others.  He passed his music on to his son, who in turn entrusted it to the late Antonio Piñana.

In other words, this the music that Carmencita’s never-recorded brother-in-law probably sang in Brooklyn more than a century ago.  It might be considered the world’s first sound track, except that the song is in a free rhythm while the dance is most certainly not.

8. Carmen Amaya sings and dances a rondeña accompanied by Sabicas; from the 1958 LP Queen of the Gypsies.

Notes:  They’re back – the dynamic duo does a number on everyone by creating a previously nonexistent musical number.  Granted, the rondeña song did exist as a rare variant of a folky, bouncy fandango.  And Ramón Montoya, the progenitor of the musically developed flamenco guitar (and uncle of the famous New Yorker Carlos Montoya), had created or perfected a new guitar-only flamenco piece (the only such piece in the repertoire) using a unique tuning to create a mysterious and evocative free-rhythm form of the same name.

But Amaya and Sabicas at their creative peaks here conjured up a new rhythmic pulse and a singular melody.   It may never have happened again, and we are fortunate to have this recording.

9.  Luís Vargas sings a tangos, accompanied by Basilio Georges, on “Cante Flamenco”.

Notes:  There have been all too few singers living in New York, and our cadre of hard-core aficionados have treasured them all – in the older generation, we have had Paco Ortiz, Domingo Alvarado, and not many more.  Luís Vargas is a fine singer, steeped in the traditions of his native Cádiz but commanding a wide range of flamenco forms.  Here is his rendition of the form including the distinctive Tangos of La Repompa de Malaga.  The tangos, incidentally, is that rarity among flamenco pieces – it’s in a solid 4/4 tempo, march time or rock time, just like 98.6% of all the music that sells in the western world.

(The great majority of rhythmic flamenco forms use a weird polyrhythm or amalgam with twelve beats, of which five (yes, five!) are accented.  So in the soleá, the alegrías family and the bulerías, the accents are on three, six, eight, ten and twelve; the peteneras and the guajiras accent the one, four, seven, nine and eleven; and the siguiriyas and serranas accent the one, three, five, eight and eleven.  This is why you can’t tap your foot to flamenco songs without years, or at least hours, of practice.)

Guitarist Basilio Georges is a valued asset in the New York flamenco scene, both for his expert playing and for the tireless work that he and his wife, the dancer and singer Aurora Reyes, do in keeping their midtown group Flamenco Latino active in teaching and performing both flamenco and Latin music in the city and far beyond.  This recording resulted from their determination to properly document the art of Luís Vargas.

10. Mario Escudero plays his bulerías titled Impetu on Mario Escudero Plays Classical Flamenco.

Notes:  For decades, New York – the world capital of the concert flamenco guitar – was privileged to be the home of the marvelous guitarist and true gentleman Mario Escudero.  Mario had made a name for himself accompanying dancers including Vicente Escudero (no relation) and other superb artists.  He was a dear friend and ardent admirer of Sabicas, and it was mutual – they made several duo recordings that have never been surpassed.

Mario Escudero had received some classical training in Spain, and it gave his artistry a broad musical dimension.  In fact, he was a visionary of the flamenco guitar, determined to give genuine structure to solos that were usually just random agglomerations of a guitarist’s store of material, whether original or borrowed from others.  Mario patiently explained that there was a way to build a theme and development into a guitar solo.  And then he proved it with this remarkable invention in the complex bulerías rhythmic pattern or compás.

His bold move was vetted and seconded by the young emerging genius Paco de Lucía, who included Impetu on an early recording – in retrospect, an honor bestowed only on Mario and on Esteban de Sanlúcar, another genius who, like Sabicas, left Spain before the Civil War but who settled in Argentina.

11. David Serva plays a bulerías on a private recording of a concert in Minneapolis in 2006.

Notes:  David Serva, the American who accompanies Agujetas on the second selection, displays his singular solo style in this bulerías, which draws on the guitar tradition embodied by Diego del Gastor.  David was the first and, according to Diego, the best of the foreign players to go to Morón de la Frontera.  (In the early sixties in Greenwich Village, where we both played in coffee houses, David showed me my first Diego material.  It’s among the finest music I have ever learned.)

The piece includes some of David’s own astonishing falsetas (melodic variations), which build upon the Morón style to create a very personal statement.  The ability to create worthwhile flamenco guitar music is surprisingly rare even among Spanish players; for an outsider, it seems even more remarkable.

Bulerías is usually played using the chords of A Phrygian or A Natural – most typically descending from D minor to C major to B flat major to a tonic or root chord of  A major.   (It’s not necessarily in the key or register of A, because in flamenco the guitarist might fasten a capo or cejilla around the neck to raise the pitch by an arbitrary amount, to match the singer’s  range or just to put more edginess into the guitar’s sound,)

This bulerías, however, uses the chords of E Phrygian rather than A –- characterized and defined by a falling chord sequence from A minor to G major to F major to the tonic or root chord of E major.  (This descending rather than ascending nature is one key, so to speak, to the essence of flamenco music.  In fact, it is called the Andalusian Cadence.)

12.  José Mercé sings a tangos called Bandera de Andalucia accompanied by Luis Habichuela on a CD titled Cultura Jonda – 14.

Notes: It’s possible that José Mercé today is the only true master of deep flamenco song who is in his prime.  He sings the soleá, the siguiriyas and the unaccompanied martinetes or tonás with a profundity – aficionados call it an eco because it seems to resonate in a space and time of its own– that only the aging Manuel Ajujetas can equal.  Mercé is the proud inheritor of a family tradition that extends back into the dawn of cante jondo.

Not long ago, at a press conference in New York, Mercé urged everyone to pay close attention to the second half of his City  Center recital the next evening, because it would be challenging and difficult to understand.

In the first half, he gave what may have been the finest rendering of  great flamenco song forms ever seen on a major New York stage.

For the second half, the curtains opened to reveal a rock or pop group, with José as the front man and lead vocalist.   He launched into a strange musical mélange that was, if nothing else, all his own.  And that was why he was so proud of it – because he had stepped outside of a glorious but confining family tradition and created unique music.

Afterwards, I was walking on 55th Street with Liliana Morales, a fine dancer and teacher and a  jewel in the city’s flamenco scene.  (When she had very little, she shared it all with a stream of confused visiting flamenco artists, helping them with heedless generosity.)  We were seated at a restaurant counter when José Mercé happened to walk in.  He saw Liliana, she saw him. They each let out  a yelp of joy and fell into each other’s arms, laughing and sharing memories of when they were kids, working and learning the ropes together in the tablaos or flamenco night clubs of Madrid.  Watching them, I envied Liliana’s vast intangible wealth.

Today, Mercé is not just the best but also the best-selling singer in the business.  His records, like that recital, are divided between incredibly intense flamenco song and his new thing, and total sales have far exceeded the half-million mark that is otherwise unheard of in a profession where five thousand copies constitutes a smash hit.

This tangos is from the early phase of Mercé’s career, and reflects the influence of Camarón de la Isla, his contemporary in the tablaos, who from the seventies until his death in 1992 would work with guitarist Paco de Lucía to revolutionize and transform the art with a fresh and contemporary air.   It is a harbinger of Merce’s later willingness to break rules.

Here he has created an anthem to Andalucía, using a backing chorus.  The guitarist is Luís Habichuela, who died young and was part of Granada’s great Carmona dynasty that includes Juan Habichuela – for many years acknowledged as the finest accompanist in the flamenco tradition – and Pepe Habichuela, a creative genius who has played with jazz artists and actually made good music while doing so.

(Pepe is also a concise judge of character.  After a night at the amazing 1986 New York production of Flamenco Puro, I made a casually dismissive comment about the art of the late singer Pepe Marchena – Spain’s leading figure in a very popular subset of flamenco called cante bonito, or pretty song, because it values sweetness and fancy vocal ornamentation above all else.  Pepe looked over at me and asked, “Do you know what your problem is?”  I said no.  He said, “Your mouth is too big, and your ears are too small.”  For a moment, or maybe even longer, I was at a loss for words.)

Today, the Habichuela children and grandchildren are cheerfully mulching the flamenco rule book and making terrific music of their own.  That’s the way it goes, even if that’s not the way it used to go.

13.  El Chocolate sings a siguiriyas, titled (from the first line of the first verse), “Aunque murmure la gente” – “Even if people are whispering about us”, with guitar accompaniment by Niño Ricardo.

Notes:  Like many others, I consider the late Antonio Nuñez “El Chocolate” a charter member of the very exclusive (perhaps seven or eight members) Deep Song Masters Still In Living Memory Club.  (Agujetas concurs, which counts for much more.)

A few years ago, El Chocolate sang very well in New York’s City Center as part of the hugely successful Flamenco Festival.  This phenomenon was created by the visionaries Robert and Helene Browning, whose World Music Institute had offered music’s planetary pantheon to adventurous listeners; and by Miguel Marín, who insisted that such a festival could work despite my unsolicited advice to the contrary.  (Wrong again – but Miguel did write a long article for Andalucía’s official flamenco publication, detailing the daunting difficulties of attaining success.)

After the show, I found El Chocolate and launched into a long harangue about what a privilege it had been to know him and to witness his singing – all of it, because when he wasn’t singing hard-core flamenco he would walk around singing his exotic versions of Beatles songs or advertising jingles for Cola-Cao.  I had to tell him, because it was clear there might never be another opportunity.  There never was.

A decade or so ago, through some divine fluke, the tiny-selling El Chocolate won the Latin Grammy in the flamenco category.  No one will ever deserve it more.  Still, his initial response seemed refreshing:  “¿Qué es un Grammy?”

14.  Pastora Pavón “La Niña de los Peines” sings a peteneras, “Quisera yo renegar”, accompanied by Manolo de Badajoz on a 1929 recording.

Notes:  Manuel Torre? Antonio Chacón? Tomás Pavón? Manolo Caracol? – there is plenty of room for debate about who was the history’s greatest cantaor (the word means “male flamenco singer”).

As for history’s greatest cantaora, the verdict has been in for more than a century, ever since she started singing in the streets and cafés of Seville.  In the 1940’s, many New Yorkers haunted record stores, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next 78-rpm record by La Niña de los Peines.  They usually didn’t know about flamenco singing, or even care about the art itself.  All they knew, whether they were opera buffs or jazz fans, was that this woman had to be heard.  Like Edith Piaf or Amalia Rodrigues or Oum Khalsoum or Billie Holiday, this was a female voice that didn’t just transcend but simply demolished cultural barriers.

She sang everything brilliantly.  She absorbed the most profound songs from the magnificent Manuel Torre and her glorious brother Tomás, and scooped up everything else by just listening to the best interpreters and regurgitating it in new, improved and unforgettable versions.  To the public dismay and private delight of purists, she took Mexican ditties like Cielito Lindo and folksongs collected by Lorca like Esquilones de Plata, tossed them into the irresistible rhythm of her bulerías, and let it rip.

If she has a signature song, it is the peteneras that she recorded many times for many labels in her six decades as flamenco’s leading lady.  The origins of this song are unclear, since it doesn’t fit well into any particular branch that emerges from the trunk of the art.  A few of the early verses refer to situations between Jewish lovers, while another indicates that a woman called La Petenera was a famed femme fatale.

Unlike most flamenco songs, this melody seems almost catchy, or memorable, or even “memorizable”.   The rendition is supreme.

(In 1963, in the Seville bar owned by her adoring husband, the very popular singer Pepe Pinto, I haltingly exchanged a few words with Pastora Pavón, whose mind was gradually clouding over from what we now know as Alzheimer’s.  In my own mind, that momentito has become a hefty flamenco credential.)

15.  Sabicas plays an alegrías titled “Campiña andaluza” from his monumental first LP, Flamenco Puro.

Notes:  Sabicas had left Spain during that nation’s Civil War, and gone with Carmen Amaya’s troupe to the New World, finally settling in New York to launch his glorious career as a soloist.  We always called him maestro.  Sabicas didn’t exactly teach the guitar, but if we asked him which fingering he used for a certain falseta, he would indicate the correct version with a nod.  This was a lesson from Olympus.

In 1961, I went to Spain to learn how to play the real flamenco guitar.  I had been studying in New York for a few years with a fine player and fine gentleman named Fidel Zabal, who was my father’s teacher from the mid-1940’s to 1959, when I took up the challenge. Fidel was close friend of Sabicas, and he showed us a lot of his material.

When I was taking my first lessons in Madrid, the teacher asked me if I knew anything.  “Not really,” I said, “at least not the real flamenco guitar.  I just know New York flamenco, mostly stuff by Sabicas.”

His jaw dropped.  “You know the music of Niño Sabicas?!   “My god, how we have missed him!  Stay right there!”  He ran to a phone.  And a half hour later, I was laboriously showing Sabicas’s music to a half-dozen of the city’s best players, who immediately proceeded to play it with a professional punch, pizazz and command that I have never approached.

Moral: The grass might actually be greener on your own side of the fence.

Sabicas played with an uncanny mastery of flamenco’s fiendishly difficult rhythmic patterns, called compás.  His playing at any speed seemed effortless, and the sounds that emerged have never been equaled in the sheer beauty and perfection of every note and the glorious tone of the instrument.  It would serve as an object lesson for Paco de Lucía.

The twelve brilliant cuts on Flamenco Puro would give guitarists their marching orders for decades.  In addition to the maestro’s new conceptions, this alegrías incorporates some falsetas by the great unrecorded Jerez genius Javier Molina.

Sabicas had many American admirers, none more fervent than New York’s Dennis Koster.  Dennis plays both classical and flamenco guitar quite well, and he regards both Sabicas and his long-time teacher Mario Escudero as extraordinary and important composers, often integrating their works into programs that are primarily classical.  It is an interesting and revealing perspective.

16.  José Greco dances la caña, which is sung by Rafael Romero while Miguel García accompanies; from the record Danzas Flamencas.

Notes:  If New York ever had an official bailaor or male flamenco dancer, it was the late José Greco Bucci, born in Italy and dance-educated in Seville, who built his career while based in the Big Apple. In 1942, he toured the States with La Argentinita, working with her until her death in 1945.  He accompanied her body to Spain, and joined the Pilar López troupe before working with Carmen Amaya and Mariemma before founding his own group.   He did a memorable star turn in Around the World in 80 Days”, was a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show, and did shows at Lewisohn Stadium before audiences that could approach 20,000.

José’s personal style was very athletic, very efectista or effects-driven, and sometimes over the top.  But he was an excellent dancer, and today we can still see some of his charisma in the work of his son José II and his daughters Carmela and Lola.  If he was also showman, it was often in the best sense of the word: He was not  afraid to share New York stages with some phenomenal artists, up to and including the young El Farruco, now posthumously seen by many as the finest bailaor in living memory and perhaps of all time.  (As was often the custom in the early phase of such dance troupes, there was a mixture of flamenco and other styles, such as the jota and formalized dances in the bolero style.)

Greco even had an ear for guitarists, and when he took a youngster from Algeciras to New York, the kid was introduced to Sabicas.  The maestro listened to him play, recognized a budding genius and potential rival, and suggested that he stop copying the material of the great Niño Ricardo as most Spanish players were doing, and instead create his own style.  The kid listened, and when he walked out onto Eighth Avenue that night, the future of the instrument was literally in his hands.  A decade later, Paco de Lucía’s revolution was rapidly overshadowing and obliterating all the flamenco guitar music that had come before, including the styles of giants like Ricardo and Sabicas himself.

On this recording, a marvelous Gypsy singer named Rafael Romero sings his signature song, called la caña (that article “la” is unique in flamenco nomenclature, and seems to be a sign of respect for this unusual old song which was once revered as the “Mother of the Soleá”, although that historical claim hasn’t held up.)

Romero had been a key figure in a transformative earlier event.  In 1954, when it seemed that serious flamenco song was in danger of extinction due to a lack of interest, a French company decided to document its death throes with a swansong 3-volume LP called the Antología del Cante Flamenco.  Among the select singers they chose, Rafael Romero did a lot of the heavy lifting and the appealing caña was among its revelations.

The record won France’s Grand Prix du Disque, and suddenly, perhaps because of that fashionably French imprimatur, Spain woke up to the monumental cultural creation that it had been neglecting for so long.  (It probably helped that the great singer Antonio Mairena had been struggling for many years to put flamenco song in its rightful place.)

Whether it was the anthology, the current of mairenismo, or just a propitious moment, the die was cast.  By the mid-sixties, Spain had embraced serious and difficult flamenco music, along with the idea that singers from venerated Gypsy families had a virtual patent on intense flamenco feeling.

In this view, that extraordinary dimension may have resulted from the Gypsy experience since their arrival in Spain in the Fifteenth Century.   There followed several centuries of intense persecution, documented in the deep song styles that are traditionally attributed to Gypsy artists.  Those songs served as a testament and as a warning to future generations, and were restricted to Gypsy gatherings.  Only when the persecution eased in the mid-1800s did the music emerge into public view, joining the many other styles in the flamenco panorama.

This view dominated until the 1990’s when a backlash developed.  Today, gitanismo or “Gypsyism” is out of favor among Andalucía’s officially-anointed authorities and among most academic researchers and writers.  They distrust malleable oral histories and rely primarily on documents including newspaper reports that began appearing around 1850, insisting that the art itself didn’t exist until then.

Those of us who still retain gitanista views may be viewed with suspicion, and termed “racist” for bringing ethnic heritage – and an admitted predilection or bias – into the arena.

17.  The legendary dancer Pilar López sings and dances an arranged version of peteneras titled “El Café de Chinitas”, from the arrangement originally danced by her sister, La Argentinita.  Another singer, Niño de la Corredera, joins her at times.  They are accompanied by guitarist Pepín Salazar, on her record Suite Flamenca.

Notes: Pilar López, born in Madrid, was the younger sister of La Argentinita, who was born in Argentina before the family went to Spain.  Pilar was a professional from the age of 15, playing piano, singing and dancing.  There followed a string of triumphs in Madrid and beyond, and intellectuals and artists were among her adoring public.  In 1933, she worked with her sister for the first time in a version of Falla’s El Amor Brujo.  In 1943, they appeared in the Metropolitan Opera House in the sensational production El Café de Chinitas, and reports insist that in Washington’s Water Gate they danced on a floating stage while some ten thousand spectators watched from boats.  They went on to barnstorm the nation until Argentinita died in 1945.

After a year of mourning, Pilar formed the Ballet Español de Pilar López, featuring veterans of her American tour including José Greco, Manolo Vargas and Rafael Ortega.  A seemingly endless series of triumphs followed, as she conveyed her infallible sense of precision and elegance to a generation of great dancers, including Roberto Ximénez, Alejandro Vega, Mario Maya and Antonio Gades.  The accolades and awards were endless, and included two Silver Cups awarded in New York for the finest interpretation of flamenco dance as well as Spain’s Cruz y Lazo de Isabel La Católica.  She effectively retired from the stage in 1974.

This arranged version of a peteneras from El Café de Chinitas shows how this flamenco song, heard earlier as sung by La Niña de los Peines, is reimagined from the perspective of a flamenco dance production.

18.  Another legendary dancer, Vicente Escudero, dances and plays castanets to an arrangement of Isaac Albéñiz’s classical piece “Sevilla”, played on the piano by Pablo Miquel, on Escudero’s record Flamenco!

Notes: Vicente Escudero, born in 1888, was one of the most important flamenco dancers of the twentieth century, and one of the most radical.  In the bohemian Paris of the 1920’s, he was drawn to Dadaism and surrealism – at one point, dancing to the sound of a massive electrical generator.  Among his pals were Picasso and Miró, Man Ray and Luís Buñuel, Juan Gris and Paul Eluard.  He worked with Diaghilev and when Ana Pavlova died in 1931 he performed at her tribute in London.  In 1932 Sol Hurok booked him for New York.  In 1939, he broke a flamenco taboo by dancing to the crucial siguiriyas, answering critics by saying “I could dance in a church without profaning it.”

By the 1950’s, this inveterate rule-breaker regarded the great Antonio as his principal rival.  Suddenly, he conjured up the new rules of dance orthodoxy – a ten point decálogo that happened to forbid a lot of Antonio’s coolest moves.

In 1961, as a student at Columbia College, I saw Escudero perform at the MacMillan theater on the campus – it was one of his many farewell tours, and in fact it really was his last hurrah.  I found his art confusing and disconcerting, and some others shared similar reservations.

(As a flamenco guitar student, I was probably watching the superb accompaniment of Mario Escudero, (no relation to Vicente) at least as closely as  I was watching the old man.  And years later, at the New York Society of the Classic Guitar, I saw an old film of Vicente dancing – in silence, because the separate soundtrack had been lost if it had existed at all.  I contacted Mario, who watched the film while recording precisely the accompaniment that had been missing; I hope that film has surfaced somewhere.)

The aesthetic of Vicente Escudero, minus the most disconcerting idiosyncrasies, infused the work of other dancers, most notably the brilliant Antonio Gades.

This exhibit includes a 1951 José Ramírez flamenco guitar on which Escudero has etched in pen his remarkable autograph that incorporates a drawing of a dancer and a guitarist and is dated “España 1952”.

19: Adela La Chaqueta sings a colombianas called “De los rizos de tu pelo”, accompanied by Sabicas.

Notes: When the great 1980’s Flamenco Puro production opened on Broadway, unsuspecting audiences were often overwhelmed by the intensity of the proceedings.  Fernanda de Utrera, El Chocolate, El Farruco – this was flamenco immersion therapy, starting with a dive off the deep end.  Even neophytes sensed that this black art could be not merely disturbing and desolate but downright terrifying.  In fact, deep song can seem like a dance with death – because death is always its real topic.  (Okay, putting aside all this absurd mumbo-jumbo – let’s just say  the show was not what a normal audience would expect for its entertainment dollars.)

And then Adela La Chaqueta came bouncing onstage, overflowing with joy and energy, and the crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief.  Yes, there is a happy component to a lot of terrific flamenco, and it came just in time.

On this recording, accompanied by Sabicas and his beloved brother Diego Castellón, Adela performs a colombianas, allegedly one of several charming cantes de ida y vuelta or “round trip songs” like the Cubanesque guajira and the Argentinish milonga, that emigrated from Spain to Latin America and returned with a lilt, a sway and a slightly lascivious tropical air.  Allegedly, because despite its name and that believable backstory, the colombianas was actually fabricated entirely in Spain by Pepe Marchena, the most gifted of Spain’s popular cante bonito or “pretty song” maestros.

(The runner-up was Juanito Valderrama, whose son Juan recently released a CD called “White Sounds”, riding today’s majority-pride backlash against the mystical myth-making that García Lorca weaved around Gypsy “black sounds”.)

20:  Antonio dances to a folk song, “Anda Jaleo”, collected and annotated by Federico García Lorca and possibly sung by Carmen Rojas.  The guitarists are Manuel Morao and Mariano Cordoba, on Antonio’s record Flamenco Fiesta.

Notes:  There is flamenco dance, the province of the bailaor, and there is the more formal and classical Spanish dance, the province of the bailarín.  In the world of Spanish dance, there was Antonio el Bailarín.  He was born Antonio Ruíz Soler, but as a professional he never needed more than “Antonio” or “the Antonio” to show he was in a class by himself.  (“The great Antonio” seemed almost redundant.)

As noted above, the revolutionary Vicente Escudero cemented his reputation by daring to dance the deep siguiriyas.  That left only the older and even more profound martinete as sacrosanct.  And no wonder – the song evidently predated the use of the guitar, and it was sung rather freely, not revealing a pronounced metric system.

Then, in a remarkable 1952 Spanish documentary film by Edgar Neville called Duende y Misterio del Flamenco, a breathtaking shot showed a small platform, at the foot of the great gorge of Ronda, one of the world’s most spectacular sights.  And there was Antonio, alone, blithely borrowing the rhythm of the siguiriyas but revealing a completely new dance form: the martinete, now a major part of the repertoire.

Here Antonio dances to “Anda Jaleo” – not a flamenco song but a popular or folk song which may be among those collected and annotated by Lorca.  (It has always seemed a bit strange to me that virtually all of the songs allegedly brought to light by Lorca have memorable melodies, irresistible hooks and marvelous lyrics, and have become permanent parts of Spain’s national consciousness.  Beginners’ luck?  Or did Lorca polish, refine or perhaps even invent some of these remarkable “popular” creations?  Hey, just sayin’.)

21.  La Argentinita sings and plays castanets to the song “Los Cuatro Muleros”, accompanied on piano by none other than Federico García Lorca.  From the Italian record “Canzoniere Spagnolo – Flamenco e Canti Popolari”.

Notes:  Again moving away from the unbridled intensity of hypercharged flamenco, we hear the restrained elegance of the great dancer La Argentinita as she sings and plays the palillos/castañuelas/castanets (pick one).

Tickling the ivories is a folksong collector who wrote the definitive essay on the phenomenon of the duende and also dabbled in poetry.

In 1929, while he was studying uptown at Columbia University and observing New Yorkers firsthand, Federico Garía Lorca wrote a letter to his family.  It began: “You have no idea how deeply moved these Americans are by the traditional music and song of Spain.”


Brook Zern




March 16, 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


November 18, 2012   2 Comments