Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer José Mercé

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

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

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

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

by Fran Pereira

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  Explain that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  And what’s the problem?

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

Q: Do you think it’s gone forever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you in advance, maestro.

Your devoted admirer,

Brook Zern


December 28, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – 2001 Interview by M. Rodríguez – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

In Diario La Rioja of November 7, 2001m M. Rodriguez interviewed Jose Mercé.  A translation:

José Mercé: “We Must Make the Flamenco of the 21st Century” — The Singer Has Sold More Than 200,000 Copies of His Album ‘Aire’

Madrid — They say it’s the best, the flamenco voice that rings out today with the most authority, gathering up the music’s roots and adapting the art to his own time.  He is the first Spanish artist to appear (last July 28th) in Britain’s famous “Woman Festival” [?], moving an audience that was brought to its feet.  This artist insists that flamenco is universal.  An anthology of José Mercé has appeared this fall to satisfy those who follow the career of this singer, whose album “Aire” sold more than 200,000 copies, a new mark in the history of flamenco.

This Gypsy from Jerez, age 45, born on Merced street, has been a singer since he was 13; he married at 27 and has several children.

Int: “Has flamenco ceased to be strictly for a minority?”

JM: “I’m absolutely convinced that flamenco is international, universal.  In England, the auditorium was packed.  Those who insist that flamenco is for the few or for minorities have simply failed to change with the times, and remain stuck in the seventies.  They think of flamenco as hidden, and I want to make a little room for it where others cannot enter.  My family recalls this well, because in my parents’ time one could only sing or play for the rich señoritos who paid, when flamenco is really a music of the people and for the people.”

Int: “Back then, the whole atmosphere of flamenco and its people was looked down upon…”

JM:  “Yes, that was when the bailarín [male dancer — can connote a more formal style than ‘bailaor‘] had to be homosexual and the bailaora had to be ‘of the life’ [of ill repute; a prostitute].  They treated us badly, we were held in very low esteem.  I had the great luck to miss that period.  My parents didn’t become flamenco artists but passed their lives in the countryside.”

Int:  “Flamenco is now being compared to and mixed with jazz or blues.  How do you view these combinations?”

JM:  “It’s true that jazz, like the blues or flamenco, was made by and for the people, for folks on the streets.  I’m one of those who says that the blues and jazz are to America are what flamenco is to Spain.”

Int: “But there are flamenco artists who don’t like such fusions.”

JM: “We must respect the roots and the bases, but nowadays [a partir de ahi] one can make such fusion.  If the purists say otherwise, let them follow their own chosen path, and see how it would be to live today the way we lived in the seventies.”

Int: “José Menese is no fan of fusion.”

JM:  “Well, I’d say to Menese that I have done what he does now, and I’ll keep doing it, but I’d also ask that he and others let the younger ones live, let us do what we do, because it is also good to take risks and make mistakes.  I will always sing [pure] siguiriyas, but I’d also say to other singers that they should make an album like “Aire”.  I’ve shown that I can sing like they can.  Now let them show that they know how to do what I did.  We must make a flamenco for the 21st Century, in which people share the music and participate with you.  But in my concerts I also sing a martinete, the most primitive flamenco form there is, and the young people in the audience respect this song and then get into the other songs.  I have the satisfaction of having furthered the involvement of young people.  But that is not my triumph; it is the triumph of flamenco in general.”

Int: “What do you think of Estopa?”

JM: “I don’t see Estopa as flamenco, it’s more pop.  But, without doubt, it is one current.  Groups like Ketama or Pata Negra, without being flamenco at the base or the root, have introduced many new touches.”

Int: “Flamenco is finding new horizons.  Is the life of the Gypsy in Spain also evolving?”

JM:  “I have never experienced any ugly incidents in terms of conflicts or differences between payos [non-Gypsies] and Gypsies.  But I’d like to think that Gypsies are making progress for the better.”

End of interview.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014:  Mercé is the finest living singer of flamenco’s deepest forms; (the other contender, Manuel Agujetas, is past his prime.)  He’s also an advocate of doing his own thing on the side — or maybe it’s flamenco that’s the sideline, since that 200,000-copy sales record is about a hundred times higher than any all-flamenco, all the time recording.

He says “I’m one of those who says that the blues and jazz are to America are what flamenco is to Spain.”  Yo, José — so is yo, I mean, that’d be me.  Check out Juan José Tellez’s definitive bio of Paco de Lucía, the second half that begins “The first one to point out the close relationship between America’s blues/jazz and Spain’s flamenco traditions was the estudioso Brook Zern…”  The interviewer then says that there are those who don’t like such fusions.  Yo, interviewer, that’d also be me.  Go figure.

Seriously, Mercé says “we must respect the roots and the bases”, and he always will.  Meanwhile, those who think they’re following in his great and giant footsteps wouldn’t really know those roots if they tripped on them.

Brook Zern

January 10, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – Interview from El Correo de Andalucía – translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – Interview from El Correo de Andalucía – translated by Brook Zern

In the mid-sixties, when it was hard to find any information at all about flamenco, the newspaper El Correo de Andalucía carried a weekly column that we would avidly seek out and share.  Now it’s just another drop in the flood, but here’s an especially interesting interview by Alejandro Luque from the January 30th, 2013, edition.  In it, José Mercé, the greatest living flamenco singer who is in his prime, tells why today’s other important figures are not as good as he is and also addresses other issues.  (Mercé, incidentally, was recently nominated for Spain’s most prestigious cultural award, The Prince of Asturias Prize, though he didn’t make the short list of finalists.)

Headline:  José Mercé:  “The Seville Biennal should feature the best flamenco artists, but this year there weren’t any.”

Subhead:  Tonight the singer will fill the Fibes Auditorium with flamenco song from the deepest tradition [cante de siempre = the song of always] and with his new repertoire.

Twenty-four hours before filling the Fibes Auditorium tonignt at 9:00, the Jerez singer José Mercé opened up with the heavy artillery.  Yes, he did it with a smile, and without apparent rancor, but he was making a contentious argument.  “Fortunately, they didn’t ask me to participate in last fall’s Seville Biennal de Flamenco, which I think didn’t have much of what a Biennal should have.  The Biennal should have the best artists, and I feel that this past edition had none of them.”

“I don’t know if it’s a financial problem [problema de caché].  I think it’s more the programmers,” Mercé continued.  “I’m saying that for some time we in lower Andalucía [“Bajo Guadalquivir” = Seville, Jerez, Cádiz – the heartland of flamenco] have believed that we know more than anyone, and one has to be careful about that.  It’s hurting our music.  We fought hard to have flamenco recognized [by UNESCO in 2010] as an Intangible Patrimony of Mankind, and that’s very good, and it gives us prestige as artists, but it’s useless if the “mandamases” [people in control?] keep doing so little, and doing it badly.  Nobody fights for what is ours – we seem to be considered second rate [“segunda división”, second division in soccer leagues].

The artist, who repeatedly stressed his belief that “true flamenco song, maybe because of the ozone layer or the stuff we eat these days – I’m afraid it just doesn’t interest people nowadays”, was very critical of today’s flamenco song.  “I just wish [“Ojalá” = a survival of the Arabic word Inshallah or May God grant] that a flamenco singer would come along with that millennial echo that shatters, that wounds, that hurts; but I don’t find it,” says the artist from Jerez’s Barrio de Santiago, who is marking 45 years of his artistic career and is at the peak of his faculties.

And in a clear reference to the young artists who triumphed in the 2012 Biennal, such as José Valencia and Jesús Méndez, whose art is characterized by their extraordinary vocal qualities, he says, “It seems we’re back in the era of opera [probably referring to the “opera flamenco” of the forties and fities, when audiences valued pretty-sounding, ornamented flamenco song above serious, cutting, difficult stuff].  Flamenco is full of fine voices, with lots of power and command [poderío] but hardly anyone sings in the natural style.  Today everything is studied, mechanized.  I remember when the maestro Enrique Morente said “Olé to those who sing in the natural style”, — all my life songs have been done in the natural manner, lovely things that no longer exist today.  Today “cojo la tarjeta, ficho y hasta luego, Lucas” [? possibly a deprecatory reference to just going through the motions?]

Mercé feels privileged to have come from an illustrious flamenco background [una estirpe] “I am the great-grandson of [the legendary] Paco la Luz, and a descendant of [the great flamenco family] the Sorderas”, he believed that the notion of “great songs” (cante grande) and “little songs” (cante chico) is being overcome:  “Sometimes I go with a fandango of La Calza [a light style] instead of a siguiriya [a venerated “great song” style] because what makes a song great is the interpreter.

The singer, who promises a first part featuring “the classical and traditional song of always” and a second part with the repertoire from his latest CD “Mi Unica Llave”, will be accompanied by invited artists like [the flamenco pianist] Dorantes and [the great flamenco guitarist] Pepe Habichuela as well as his usual accompanists, the bassist Manolo Nieto and the guitarist Diego del Morao.

Nonetheless, the Jerez artist has special memories of his compadre, the late guitarist Moraíto Chico [the father of Diego del Morao], saying, “I will never find another guitar like that, the guitar that had the most “soniquete” [unmistakable style, swing and pulse, especially characteristic of Jerez] in the history of Spain.  That “solera” [ripeness, aged perfection, a term borrowed from the maturing process of the great sherry wines of Jerez] that Moraíto had was a gift from God.  Diego [his son] is a marvel, with more “diapason” [literally fingerboard – musical command of the full range of the guitar] than even his father had, but Manuel’s guitar sang.  It is “irrepitible”, unrepeatable,” he says.

Finally, when he is asked about the way he has opened his music beyond traditional flamenco to reach a huge public ever since 1998, he says, “I’m not sorry at all.  Fortunately I took this step to make flamenco more open, and thanks to that I often hear from people who say that they never heard flamenco until they started listening to me.  That’s a wonderful present.”

End of interview.

Sometimes I think there’s a sort of dissonance in attitudes about flamenco these days.  José Mercé brags of his bloodline here, as the inheritor of the great art of several crucial Gypsy families who shaped and continued the art of flamenco – most notably in the area of cante jondo or deep song.  At the same time, he parrots a view I’ve often heard – but usually not from Gypsies who are masters of those songs:  “There is no great song and little song – just great singers and little singers.”

Well, maybe, but the fact that there are hundreds of artists who can do a great job on a fandango and maybe two dozen singers who can do a good job on a deep siguiriyas must mean something; those who can do a great job can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Mercé also brags of his career move in creating a new sort of music that is essentially pop, with a certain air of flamenco.  At his press conferences, he insists on giving this fluff/stuff equal importance to his monumental and magnificent serious flamenco singing.  It seems that he’s walking a strange line:  Is he doing the pop to attract new audiences to the great flamenco that often shares space on the same CDs?  Is he doing great flamenco to call attention to his pop?  Hey, he’s a genius; he can do whatever he wants.

Mercé doesn’t share the Gypsy-centric attitudes of many of his devotees, referring with obvious admiration to “the maestro Enrique Morente,” the late genius from Granada who was not a Gypsy, and criticizing the vocal approaches of Jesús Méndez, inheritor of the wildly wise and Gypsy art of La Paquera de Jerez, and also the sound of José Valencia, a serious singer who may also be a gitano.

The term “natural” voice, as applied to flamenco vocals, often describes the voice of Manuel Torre, the paradigm of Gypsy masters of deep song.  But other great Gypsy artists, notably Manuel Agujetas who in his prime was as astounding as Mercé is today, had a different quality – rougher, more hoarse, possibly “afillá”.

A final point:  Mercé reveals an unpleasant truth about flamenco, and one that tells us why serious flamenco song is so unpopular.  Yes, unpopular, as in “Not coming soon to a theater near you”, and “not ever played on any American radio programs, ever.”

Mercé laments the many “fine” voices in flamenco, and wishes instead that there would arise “un eco flamenco que rompa, que hiera, que duele” (that shatters, that wounds, that hurts and aches).

He all but spells it out:  It takes a certain masochism to love deep flamenco, because it actually hurts those who know what is being expressed – tragedy that is both personal and historic, rooted in an ethnic disaster that befell a certain group in Spain long ago.

I once referred, half in jest, to deep flamenco song as “an acquired taste that no one wants to acquire.” Mercé says, again seemingly half in jest, that “maybe it’s the collapse of the ozone layer, or all the junk food we’re living on these days, but real song [cante de verdad] doesn’t interest people these days.”

Today, that’s the real tragedy of deep flamenco song.

May 11, 2013   No Comments