Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco and the Bullfight

Bullfight News from the Culture Section of El País – translated with comments by Brook Zern

In today’s edition of the great Spanish newspaper El País, in the Culture Section that encompasses Music, Art, Cinema, Music, Architecture and Literature – and also the singular Spanish art they simply term Toros – there’s a report by Jan Martínez Ahrens. Here’s an attempted translation followed by some comments.

José Tomás Takes On Time Itself [José Tomás Torea al Tiempo]

There are those who think that José Tomás goes into the ring to kill brave bulls. But given his appearance yesterday in the ring of Aguascalientes, Mexico, what this Spanish maestro really fights is time itself. The substance that maintains and regulates the universe becomes tame, acquiesces beneath his cape. The torero knows how to nail himself like a knife in the sand, and make the bull, the spectators and, on certain occasions, the bullring itself gyrate around him.

This is what happened – nothing more and nothing less – with the half-ton of pure speed that was the second bull of the afternoon, named Pollo Querido or Beloved Chicken. The matador took hold of the hands of the clock and began to turn them backward, at his whim [a su antojo]. Motionless, in the center of the space, he deconstructed all that had come before [todo lo que se le venía encima]. The afternoon, the light wind and even the immense sighs of the bullring were caught in his magnetic field. All of that occurred, yet it was not his finest day. Perhaps nothing will surpass the bullfight of Nimes in 2012, or the complete anthologies of the art seen during his first three years; even so, in Aguascalientes, the maestro revealed his ability to confront the past. Right here, where five years ago [un lustro] we saw that dark and terrible goring by the bull called Navegante that was at the point of killing him. It took 18 bags of blood, each holding 200 milliliters of blood, to keep him afloat. Upon awakening from his coma, José Tomás, a bullfighter who has always been aware of what’s history, spoke for posterity: “Aguascalientes, I bathed your bullring with my blood; and from your blood I filled my veins.”

And on Saturday he returned to the same plaza that had seen him fall. Dressed in Gold and peacock blue, with a red bow tie. At the gate, stepping from his car, he seemed distracted, meek [manso]. He signed autographs, he let himself be carried in by his friends. Leaner, his face deeply lined, and with a graying braid that recalls the bitter travails of his trade [un mechón cano recordandoloe las amarguras del toreo]. When he entered the ring, José Tomás gave a wink to Mexico. His ceremonial cape bore the image of the Virgen del Guadalupe. Then…then came the art. At times, electric; at other moments, slow, parsimonious, with the liturgical rhythms of a great sacrifice. The bull could charge crazily; he received it with classic natural passes, naturales, feet together, two statues in motion. José Tomás, with each pass, drew nearer to his own myth. To that image of a torero that coexists with death on his breath. Without letting himself be intimidated by the body-to-body, he and the bull lost themselves in another dimension, very far from Aguascalientes or from the Las Ventas ring in Madrid. In a strange place that no one is capable of reaching in those moments.

Soon after he started, his sobresaliente [main assistant] Victor Mora commented to this publication: It’s going to be insane, crazy, madness una locura – he’s coming in strong.” But beyond strong, José Tomás arrived believing in himself. And that was what he spilled in the plaza. Without it being his best faena, without surpassing his glory days, he offered a recital of himself. And as always, everyone could see at some point the sword blade of tragedy [todos atisbaron, en algún momento, el filo de la tragedia]. In the infirmary, where five years before he had hung suspended, oscillating between life and death, they followed the course of events with clenched fists. “Let him fight, but with God in front of him,” said a trauma specialist.

José Tomás needed no divine intervention. It was enough to take time itself under his cape and make it disappear from view.

End of article. The original is found at: http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2015/05/03/actualidad/1430629640_020990.html

Translator’s note:

I don’t like to offend the sensibilities of the vast majority of people who feel that the bullfight is beyond the pale. Many are devoted aficionados of flamenco, and some are experts I rely upon. I respect their position, which is probably more defensible than the alternative. But I still suspect that flamenco cannot be fully understood without some comprehension of the bullfight and its meaning within its own turf.

Again, note that this is in the Culture section of El País. Not the Brutality section, or the Immorality section, or the Abomination section, or the Sports section (if bullfighting were a sport, the winner wouldn’t be known in advance). The civilized world, including Catalonia, may have excommunicated the ritual art of the bullfight, but a large number of Spaniards support it because for them it’s an essential part of their culture. And it seems Mexico is still on board as well.

Someday, by popular demand, the bullfight may be eliminated worldwide as a stain on the planet. It will take with it a marvelous animal, bos taurus africanus, a/k/a the fighting bull, because they cost a fortune to raise, running free over immense spaces for five years, far longer than the bovines we pen, medicate and kill for our McDonald’s Happy Meals. It just doesn’t pay to raise fighting bulls as food, though they will likely become food after their afternoon in the sun. Their true value is only revealed in their final twenty minutes in the ring, where people pay a lot to see them in the hope they’ll be as formidable as they should be.

But, defensive generalities aside, this was a very specific event.

Not many years ago, José Tomás blazed into the realm of toreo, a supernova whose light outshone all the other stars in the trade combined. There was a mad rush to see him – specifically, a mad rush to see him while he was still alive. He had the glow of greatness upon him, and the shadow of death as well.

Of course, you’ll see plenty of enthusiastic reports and raves about toreros in every season, some bought and paid for but others that come from the heart. But you will hardly ever see their writers struggling to delineate a strange phenomenon that is essentially beyond of the realm of normal experience, clearly identifiable by some sort of time warping generated by the artist’s work.

Yet there was an era when it was relatively common – an era when not just one but two active matadors could generate this temporal vortex. One was named Curro Romero; the other was Rafael de Paula. De Paula was a Gypsy from Jerez. Curro Romero was a non-Gypsy from Camas, right outside of Seville. (I assumed he, too, was a Gypsy, and I was far from alone in that regard.) Reports, or reviews, of their work mentioned the effect quite matter-of-factly, noting when it came and when it left. I remember a headline following an astounding afternoon in Malaga that said, “Curro Romero Stops the Clock.” For what it’s worth, those two bullfighters, and especially Romero, are constantly referenced in flamenco verses — to quote Camarón: “Curro Romero, Curro Romero, eres la esencia de un torero.”

José Tomás has a different style from those great artists – sobriety, a sense of profound responsibility, perhaps reminiscent of the retrospectively doomed Manolete who died in Linares in 1947. But the effect is the same.

I have also experienced this effect during flamenco sessions. It is rare – I mean rare; two nights in a hundred would be a pretty good average; three would be a fluke. And of course, you need to look first for artists who are well known for making it happen: the late singers Terremoto, Fernanda de Utrera, El Chocolate, Juan Moneo “El Torta”, La Piriñaca, La Paquera, Juan Talega, Manolito de la Maria, Francisco Mairena and the living José Mercé, El Capullo de Jerez, Manuel Moneo, and of course Manuel Agujetas – not all Gypsies, of course, but there does seem to be a pattern if anyone is still keeping score. And dancers Carmen Amaya, Manuela Carrasco, Farruquito, Pepe Torres and of course Antonio Montoya “el Farruco” himself. It’s harder for a guitarist to hook into this battery; I think of Diego del Gastor, then Melchor de Marchena, Juan Habichuela, Perico del Lunar, Manuel Morao, Moraito, sometimes Niño Ricardo.

I took a shot at writing about this whole phenomenon a long time ago. In the following paragraph, I was wrapping up my muddled thoughts when I realized it was better to step aside and let a keener observer take a shot at it. And yes, his exemplar happens to be a gitano.

I wrote: “There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal, and this is characterized by a remarkable time-distortion effect which is frequent in nightmares but otherwise quite rare. Ernest Hemingway observed this phenomenon some sixty years ago, when he wrote in Death in the Afternoon about a bullfighter called Cagancho, “Cagancho is a Gypsy, subject to fits of cowardice, altogether without integrity, who violates all the rules, written and unwritten, for the conduct of a matador.” But then he went on to describe those infrequent occasions when Cagancho “can do things which all bullfighters do in a way they have never been done before and sometimes, standing absolutely still and with his feet still, planted as though he were a tree, with all the elegance and grace that Gypsies have and of which all other elegance and grace is just an imitation, moves the cape spread full as the pulling jib of a yacht so slowly that the art of bullfighting, which is only kept from being one of the major arts because it is impermanent, in the arrogant slowness of his veronicas becomes, for the seeming moments that they endure, permanent.”

What a sentence — just as long as it needs to be, as it takes the reader through a series of tightly controlled passes around the writer. Thanks, Ernest.

These days, guys like you would be accused of purveying or perpetuating a bunch of romantic bullshit. On a lesser level, flamenco traditionalists face the same charge. All I can say is, Holy Cow.

And maybe now it’s safe to mention the dreaded D-word: duende.


Brook Zern — brookzern@gmail.com

May 4, 2015   4 Comments

Flamenco Artists Speak – El País Interview with José Menese, Rancapino and Fernando de la Morena by Iker Seisdedos – Translated by Brook Zern

From El País of June 15, 2014 

Three Roads to Purity in Flamenco Song

-  Past, present and future of flamenco, according to Jose Menese, Rancapino and Fernando de la Morena

-  A unique recital will bring the three together in Madrid at the end of June

 Translator’s note:  When I insist that there is a ruling flamenco establishment in Spain, the claim is often questioned by people whom I consider to be part of that informal cabal. 

If there is such a group, its idol is the late Enrique Morente, that brilliant, courageous and iconoclastic Granada singer who first proved he had total command of a vast part of the great flamenco song tradition and then went on to break old rules with new and daring approaches to the art.   

During the recent years I’ve spent mostly in Jerez, I’ve found that bastion of traditional flamenco was not buying Morente’s act.  But it has also been clear that the town’s alternative attitude,  reasonably termed purity or “purism” before those words became epithets, was falling out of favor nearly everywhere else in Spain. 

(A decade ago, I unintentionally antagonized Enrique Morente’s posse during a New York Flamenco Festival by using the word “controversial” in rewriting/translating program notes – it was an urgent last-minute request, as usual, done without any thought of compensation, as always.  The idea that his radical and daring new work, ridiculed and parodied in Jerez, was somehow “controversial” outraged his people, and admittedly it was not in the original text.  Because I had done the work for someone else, I wrote abject apologies to Morente and several others including a leading “critic” and avid booster who clearly felt that Morente was beyond all criticism.  I don’t think my apologies were ever accepted.)

This article puts three traditionalist artists in the spotlight, or on the firing line, as, among other things, they try to explain their resistance to “morentismo” – and the high price they pay for their apostasy. 

José Menese, who appeared in the sixties as a hugely gifted (and non-Gypsy) follower of the great Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena, has been very outspoken in attacking Morente and other artists who are trying to change the essential nature of flamenco song.  He continues to take real heat and suffer heavy career damage without apologizing.

Rancapino, emerging from Cadiz in that same time-frame, is a greatly admired exponent of traditional flamenco song , now recognized as a national treasure – perhaps it helps that he doesn’t usually seek controversy.  He’s a sweet guy, and I was surprised to see him weigh in against the Granada faction.

Fernando de la Morena is an admired figure from Jerez, part of a revered family tradition – an elegant man I’ve been privileged to hear on many public and private occasions.  He bears witness to the suffering brought upon Jerez by wealthy bankers and other un-indicted co-conspirators

Oh, yeah — the interview:

The appointment is in one of those corrales de vecinos or modest courtyarded multiple dwellings in Seville’s Triana district, from which the Gypsies were expelled in the 1950’s.  The participants come from three magical vertices of flamenco’s dramatic ritual:  the Seville countryside, the ports of Cadiz, and Jerez de la Frontera.  José Menese (La Puebla de Cazalla, 1942), Alonso Núñez “Rancapino” (Chiclana, 1945) and his contemporary Fernando de la Morena, born in Jerez’s barrio de Santiago, on June 27th will converge on the Teatro Español during Madrid’s Suma Flamenca Festival to celebrate “50 Years of Cante”, though in fact they have between them more than two centuries of art if we start at their birthdates.  It will be a sensational gala, supported by the Comunidad de Madrid, where each represents his own:  Menese, the torrential song unleashed by Antonio Mairena and that he still follows, affiliated to orthodoxy, immersed in the quarrels between the old and the modern, and also his adherence to the Communist Party.  Rancapino, with his aphonic [Note:  perhaps "tuneless", a word I'd take issue with] way of honoring beauty.  And De la Morena, cantaor de carrera tardía que se bajó del camion de reparto al compás de una bulería perfecta [whose career began late, but was always marked by the rhythm of a his perfect bulerías].

The chat among these legends of flamenco song, well-known elders, begins with the inevitable moments of mourning (for Paco de Lucía, for the writer and critic Felix Grande, for the Jerez singer El Torta and others) and goes on to the woes of aging, noting the effects of their baipá [a Spanish rendition of the English word “bypasses” which is then rendered in parentheses] and other results of a well-lived life, before going on to subjects that are more or less cabales [a word that refers to true understanding in flamenco.]

Q:  How have things changed in flamenco song during the past 50 years?

José Menese:  Very much.  Not just in the song; there have been changed in humanity, in the human, in the essence.

Q:  For the worse?

José Menese:  Not for the better.  Though I’m not saying anything, because when I do, everybody hits me with everything they’ve got.  I’m the most beat-up guy in history.

Q:  I guess you’re saying that because of your last polemic about Enrique Morente, where you said on TV that “No tiene soniquete el muchacho…” [“The guy doesn’t have the right sound, the character one looks for in a singer, and he knew it, he knew how to sing the soleá as God requires.  And then, he turned his back on it [echó mano de esas cosas].”

José Menese:  I know that they were going to give me an homage in Granada, and that’s off because of what I said.  That’s the leche [milk, usually mala leche or “bad milk”, nastiness].  The power of that family… [still very important, largely thanks to the beautiful singing of Enrique's stunning daughter Estrella]…  The other day on Canal Sur TV I met a singer who confessed to me:   “I’m glad you said that – somebody had to say it.”  But I’m the guy who does it and takes the blows.  If you ask me, “For the better?  [A mejor?]  Well, that’s what I wanted, and what Rancapino and Fernando wanted, but that’s not the way it is.

Rancapino:  I hope you’ll all pardon me for saying this:  In Granada, they’ve never sung flamenco well [no se ha cantado nunca bien].

José Menese:  I say that the idiomas [ways of speaking?  languages] are tremendously important.  Córdoba – what has it given to flamenco?  Nothing, but let’s not exaggerate [pero no lo exageres tampoco].  Malaga?  [Just] the malagueña.  Jaén?  I don’t know. They say it gave us the taranta de Linares.  I don’t know if that’s the case, because the miners were going all over the place.  In my 71 years, I’ve realized that flamenco was really developed  in Seville, Jerez, and Cádiz and its nearby ports.

Rancapino:  And you can stop counting right there.

Menese:  Are we lying, primo [cousin] Fernando?

Fernando de la Morena:  The expression is totalitarian, my friend.  [Note: this seems to indicate agreement.]

Q:  How are these various schools differentiated?

Rancapino:  The song is the song, it’s born with someone or it isn’t.  And that can’t be changed.  The fact that some sing with a prettier voice or a hoarser voice, that’s the least of it.

Fernando de la Morena:  I’ve always sung, but I didn’t start it seriously until I had three kids and was working at the Bimbo bread bakery.  I didn’t record until late, until I was 50; I sing for the public now, but I’ve always sung.

Q:  What have you gained, and lost, with the years?

José Menese: Flamenco has arrived where it has arrived, but there it has remained.  It needs a renovation [not with novelties and fusions but rather] in the people who sing and transmit it, so that it really reaches deep within the listener.

Q:  There’s also the Patrimony of Humanity [a recognition granted to flamenco by UNESCO in 2010] that makes it sound like it belongs among the fossils in a museum.

Fernando de la Morena:  Patrimony of Orphanhood, that’s what flamenco really is.

Rancapino:  Olé tú!  [Hooray for you!  You said it!]

José Menese:  It’s a tremendous paradox that just when it’s named a Patrimony of Whatever of Humanity, that’s when singers stray away from everything that’s expected.  What’s wrong?  Well, like with the bullfight where only five or six matadors duelan.  That’s the way it is with flamenco song.  It has to hurt, and if it doesn’t hurt, well, just go to bed, pal.  [Note: Doler means: to cause pain (dolor) or anguish within the witness – this is considered a crucial virtue in the realms of serious flamenco and toreo.  It is also a crucial distinction between these great Spanish arts and virtually all great non-Spanish arts that usually seek to evoke pleasure even in their pathos.  Go figure.]

Rancapino:  It has to hurt, yes!  Pero con faltas de ortografía!  But with a lack of orthography.  [Note: this refers to another requisite quality -- that of being essentially untrained or instinctive; flamenco should not smell of fancy handwriting or high literacy, but should transmit emotion directly.]

José Menese:  There’s an anecdote that García Lorca tells in [his conference of 1933 – (a note inserted in the article itself)] titled Juego y teoria del duende [Interplay and theoretic of the duende].  Once, in a flamenco fiesta in El Cuervo with Pastora Pavón [La Niña de los Peines – that name inserted into the article], Ignacio Sánchez Mejías [a legendary torero] and the sursuncorda [?] of that moment, she was singing passively, transmitting nothing, when a man [Note: Lorca termed him “one of those genies who materialize out of brandy bottles”] yelled “Viva París!”  And she, always proud, was offended [by the implication of glossy, urbane sophistication rather than raw emotion].  She asked for a pelotazo de machaco [a very stiff drink] and then she got into it.  It rips at the vocal cords.  One has to fight with the song, and then the people went crazy, tearing at their clothing.  Flamenco is just that way, like the bullfight and paintings.  And there you have it.

Q:  And what will the real aficionados do when, like the King, these artists abdicate?

José Menese: [laughter].  I’m not going to retire, as long as I’m okay here, knock wood [points to his throat], I’ll stick it out.  I’m a republicano [opposed to royalty].  I remember this by [the late flamenco expert, poet and author] Fernando Quiñones:  “Porque a rey muerto / rey puesto / bien que lo dice el refrán / y es antiguo ya / solo ha conseguido el absurdo criminal / dejar sin padre a esos hijos / y el mundo sigue igual.”  Things will keep on as they are.

Q:  Although the royals are no longer our fathers?

Fernando Moreno:  Let’s trust in the chaval [the kid, the new King, Felipe VI] whom they have prepared for this.  Yo tengo 69 tacos pero aún así, de política, natimistrati.  [I’m 69, but even so, when it comes to politics, I don’t have a clue [?]

Q:  Not even about the economic crisis – how do you see the crisis?

[Laughter]  Jose Menese:  This crisis has overwhelmed everything.  I’m not a pessimist [but...]  Culture is flat on the floor.  The theater no longer exists, classical music no longer exists.  They’re even taking away the bullfight!  What happened the other day, when all three toreros were gored and the fight couldn’t continue – that’s not normal.

Fernando de la Morena:  Y a las pruebas nos remitiéramos en el pretérito que le perteneciere…Olé, que gitano más fino! [?]

Q:  Do you see hope in Podemos [a new political movement/party, [Yes] We Can]?

José Menese:  I was pleased because the kid [party leader Pablo Iglesias] strikes me as marvelous, but we’ll see.  I began as a militant in the Communist Party in 1968 [when the party was banned under the Franco dictatorship].  I’m still affiliated, though the party doesn’t exist today.  The problem is that we’ve lost our ideals.   A ti te cogen fumándote un canuto, como me pasó a mi el otro día no a mí, sino a una persona que iba conmigo, y se arma la de dios es Cristo.  Nonetheless, they rob millions and millions and absolutely nothing happens.

Fernando de la Morena:  And nothing appears – nothing here, nothing there.

Q:  The case of your hometown of Jerez is one of the worst.

Fernando: What my father taught me is that you have to work.  And now you have to be glad to have a job.  But my kids… and everyone’s kids…

Q:  Do your kids have jobs?

Rancapino:  Fat chance!  [?]

Fernando de la Morena:  It’s the same in flamenco.  We’re like El Brene who sang for tapas at restaurants long ago.  They’d say “Brene, sing a little song.”  “Yeah,” he’d say, “As soon as you give me a little tapa of potatoes.”  And here we are again, we’ve returned to the old days [of begging for food]”.

Rancapino:  There’s no afición for flamenco these days.  Before, a singer would start to sing and forty people would stop and crowd around.  Now, if the greatest singer ever, the Monster Number One who for me was Juan Talega, arose from his grave and started to sing – well, no one would care and he’d just have to go back home.  [Note:  One of Rancapino's uncanny gifts is that he could always evoke the spirit of the great and ancient-sounding Juan Talega, even when he was young.]

José Menese:  It’s like what Don Quixote said to Sancho Panza. With your belly full you don’t create much.  Today they learn flamenco in schools, but singers have to be born.  This business of giving singing classes seems horroroso to me.

Q:  How did you learn about the death of Paco de Lucía?

José Menese:  In La Puebla. And I thought of a photo where I’m singing with him.  Testimony of a time of incredible natural richness.

Rancapino:  Afterwards I went to his funeral.  Because Paco liked me a lot, ever since the years when I went with Camarón to Algeciras and then to Madrid with Paco’s father, who made him study so hard.  And I said to his father [Francisco], “Paco, when will you make a record of my singing?”  And he said, “You?  Tú vas a grabar en un queso!”  [You’d record on a wheel of cheese!” [?]  [Laughter]  Camarón and I went everywhere together.  Hasta lo casé con La Chispa.  [I even married him to La Chispa [his wife].  I went to la Linea because I liked one of La Chispa’s sisters.  The whole family really liked me – except the sister.  Ya que no casé yo, casé a Camarón.  Since I didn’t get married, he did.  [?]

Q:  You didn’t stay a bachelor.  Is it true, Rancapino, that Felipe González [Spain’s first Socialist leader, after Franco's death] is the godfather of one of your children?

Rancapino:  Fortunately or unfortunately, yes.  Look, we were at a fiesta in [with?] El Chato in Cadiz.  And in conversation it came out that I had a lot of kids.  And I said, “I’ve got so many kids that one hasn’t even been baptized.  And he said, “I’ll baptize that one.”  I said, “look, the only thing I can give you in exchange is the kid, because I don’t have anything else.”  [Laughter].

Q:  Is flamenco still more appreciated outside of Spain than here at home?

José Menese:  Yes:  They treat us differently than they do here in Andalucía.

Rancapino:  Just yesterday a young Japanese woman came to Chiclana to be with me.  She had to be pretty brave, because I’m no Robert Redford.  [Laughter].  And she started to sing.  And I said, “How can this be?”  Fernando, how she sang the soleá!

Q:  And is it the same?

Rancapino:  “How could it be the same!  Never!  Once I spent six months in Sapporo singing to a young Japanese woman.  Since I couldn’t remember her name, I called her Maruja.  Then she came to Madrid.  And in six months she learned to cook and to dance.  For me to learn that would’ve taken me six years!

Q:  You must have learned some Japanese…

Rancapino:  Sayonara and arigató.  And chotto matte.  That was to ask them to wait a while longer for me.

Fernando de la Morena:  Musho tomate.

Rancapino:  With potatoes!  [Laughter].

End of interview by Iker Seisdedos.  Corrections are always welcome and will be added.  The original is found at:  http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2014/06/14/actualidad/1402757369_102448.html

Translator’s coda:  Why do I devote so much time and effort to translating artist interviews, when just being a flamenco aficionado is masochistic enough?  It’s because I like the art and the artists so much that I need to understand what they are saying to outsiders and to each other.  And while I understand Spanish reasonably well, that’s not the same thing as understanding the Andalú dialect of five a.m. as spoken in the darkest bar in deepest Jerez, rendered by a bunch of gravel-voiced, aguardiente-seared, life-long black-tobacco smokers who have just sung their guts out (amid the inevitable excuses of “mu refriao” — I can’t sing, I have a terrible cold), and who are constantly interrupting or shouting at each other.  It’s a luxury to have someone else do all the work of putting that conversation into recognizable Spanish, and just having to fabricate an English approximation.

– BZ





June 16, 2014   2 Comments

UnPop Quiz – On the Nature of Flamenco’s “Soníos Negros”

Under the Topic line “Scientific Research”, I got this e-mail today from a flamenco friend and expert:

“If someone walked up to you in a flamenco context and asked “what do they mean when they say ‘soníos negros‘?” – What short answer would you give?”

(Soníos negros is “sonidos negros” or “black sounds” in the loose and lazy Andalusian dialect I prefer to actual Spanish.)

I answered:

“Assuming this is not a trap, I would try to give the hopelessly romantic answer I actually believe:  The “soníos negros“ are the sounds of the deepest, darkest and most desolate flamenco forms, as they lead you into, through and then out of the bleakest and blackest realm of the human soul.”

She replied:

“There was no trap.  It’s actually to help a mutual friend understand the concept better, because I was having trouble putting it into words…”

I was relieved.

Soníos negros“ is a term that was first or best bandied about by Federico García Lorca, in his wonderfully overwrought essay “Teoría y Juego del Duende“.  Duende is  a uniquely Spanish concept — almost always restricted to the ritualized arts of flamenco and the bullfight — that refers to a state of transcendence or possible possession of an artist, whereby normal limits of expressive power are surpassed, apparently unwittingly, and the art is directly transmitted, apparently effortlessly.

It is also a subject of ridicule or entertainment by the postmodernists and deconstructionists who are demythologizing  those phenomena that seem to fail their X-ray examinations of romantic fables.

I was once told, or more likely I made this up, that a team of biologists failed to discover the nature of the purring of cats because the purring stopped before they could complete their dissection.  I do know that when I was a kid, I caught butterflies at the butterfly bush and learned to mount them perfectly in glass cases, and then discovered that they had lost that part of whatever it was that made them butterflies.

It was the abstract comedian Steven Wright (“I spilled spot remover on my dog and now he’s gone”) who firmed up my thinking in this area when he said, “Perhaps you’ve seen my shell collection, on beaches around the world.”

Some things can’t be analyzed, and some things can’t be owned.

Brook Zern

P.S.  I was recently asked by a serial debunker exactly how I’d define the “so-called ‘pure’ flamenco” that he correctly assumed I preferred to the other kind.

“I can’t define purenography,” I said, “but I know it when I see it.”

— Brook Zern     brookzern@gmail.com






April 29, 2014   2 Comments

Hey, if they like flamenco so much…A Bloodless Bullfight in Tokyo -1999 Story from El País, translated by Brook Zern

In Madrid’s great El Pais newspaper of April 2, 1999, which is not April Fool’s day, there appeared this report:


The matadors in the first bullfight in Japan’s history, which took place last Thursday in the center of Tokyo, entered for the kill only symbolically, and won the support of a surprised local public.  In the portable bullring sent from Spain, the Spanish toreros Sergio Sánchez and Roberto Antolín “El Millonario”, fought bulls from the Mexican breeders Real de Saltillo and Martínez within the covered stadium of Yoyogi.  The banderillas used by the two bullfighters — usually barbed sticks placed in the animal’s shoulders — on this occasion were tipped with Velcro, and were stuck to another sheet of Velcro that had been appropriately placed on the bull.

Before the beginning of the fight, which was part of a reception ceremony for new employees of Safenet Ventures, a presenter taught the audience of nearly six thousand the proper way to shout “olé“.

The president of the company, who addressed his new employees while wearing a matador’s traditional suit of lights in gold and white, urged his new employees to assume the responsibilities of work with the same passion that motivates a matador in the ring.  A printed program offered a glossary of taurine terms in Japanese, and urged the audience to wave white handkerchiefs to simulate the request for official pardon that on very rare occasions may be granted to outstanding bulls and which, if granted, means they are sent back to their ranches to live out their lives.

Despite the lack of a picador on horseback, and despite the bright floodlights that replaced the sun in order to facilitate big-screen televising of the event, the bulls showed bravery and their composure allowed the matadors to take real risks, generating shouts that weren’t in the program.  After the end of the action, as a few dozen office workers in ties and jackets were given an honorary “round of the ring” on the shoulders of their co-workers, the matadors said that even though a corrida in this distant land would not be a major career move for them, at least they had the honor of being the first to fight bulls in Japan.  Outside of the ring, animal rights activists picketed the proceedings.”

End of story from El País.

Translator’s note: I don’t like transplanted bullfights, and bloodless bullfights seem like mere animal harassment, so this event seems peculiar to me.  Though in 1972 I did attend a direct-broadcast large-screen transmission of a Spanish bullfight in, yes, New York’s Madison Square Garden.  El Cordobés, often disdained for his superficial and show-offy manner that violated classical canons of the art – call him the Manitas de Plata of the corrida — did surprisingly well against six serious bulls.  And, yes, there were animal-rights protesters outside.  But back then, believe it or not, the bullfight had an appreciable profile in the states.  Life magazine and Sports Illustrated would do something on it every year, as would the Times and other media.

Today, I think the balance in this debate, if any, has swung so far in favor of the animal-rights view that it would be inconceivable to even think of such a thing.  Bullfighting, except on its native turf, has become beyond the pale, whatever or wherever a pale is — it may not be literally indefensible, but defending it would be pointless at best and foolhardy or risky at worst.)

Finally, and apropos of nothing, I wonder how long it took to teach all those Tokyo executives how to shout “Olé!”

Brook Zern

January 18, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Estrella Morente Speaks – 2013 Interview in eldiadecordoba.es by Alfredo Asensi – translated with comments by Brook Zern

“Cordoba is a Gift of God”, says the Granadan singer Estrella Morente.

The singer returns to the Gran Teatro with her latest disc, “Autorretrato” (“Self Protrait”}, imbued with the presence and heritage of her father.

Estrella Morente offers a self-portrait a 8 p.m. tonight to inaugurate the Twentieth National Contest of Flamenco Art in Córdoba, accompanied by the guitarists Montoyita and El Monti, with percussionists El Popo and  with Antonio Carbonell, Angel Gabarre and Kiki Morente as her chorus.

Q:  How does Autorretrato fit into the trajectory of your career?

A:  Autorretrato is the most sincere creation I could make; I looked deep inside myself, to express what I’ve felt, lived and learned in music and in my life until now.  It’s a work produced by [my father] Enrique Morente – he was the director, and the person who liberated me.  He taught me to be free and honest, and I think those two elements are very much present in this recording, called Autorretrato which means nothing more than that – to reveal oneself and be sincere about it.  I’ve had the luck and the privilege of being able to count on the most marvelous people you could ever find in the music world, and all of this is thanks to the collaboration  and generosity of all of them, and to their friendship and respect for my family.   It’s a dream to share this with others, so they can make it their own.  The acceptance and the appreciative enjoyment of the public is my greatest reward, because in truth this is how my father saw it – he was so touched and enjoyed every step of this musical adventure, and was proud to be able to share with his daughter his own searching and needs, a quest that led him to more poets, more musicians, more friends, which in the final analysis is the most valuable aspect of a work: that it makes you learn, advance, and develop as a professional and as a human being.

Q; In what artistic moment do you find yourself right now?

A:  I’m always surprised when artists give this type of answer:  ”I’m at a stupendous moment, the best of my life, I have finally found what I sought…”  I think it’s much more interesting and natural to leave it up to others to see how they find you at the moment, while you fight to make yourself stronger, to work humbly but with big professional dreams.  You can’t put a price or a value on the sacrifice and the drive behind this, but just realize that the more you learn, the better, and that you when keep moving forward  others will understand.  But it’s hard to define what it means or what phase you’re in; if it’s hard to explain it to yourself, imagine how hard it is to explain it to others.

Q: What has San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross) bring to all this?

A:  San Juan de la Cruz has always been a fount of inspiration for my father.  My relation to his words is something I’ve felt since childhood, when I heard Enrique Morente put some of his most important poems to music.  It is one of the strongest pillars of universal literature.

Q: What is the role of women in flamenco today?

A:  There have always been great women in this art, like La Niña de los Peines and La Perla de Cádiz, who as in other fields have fought and made women be recognized as equally able and important as men.  There is still so much to do, so much work to eradicate the huge problems and discrimination of the female sex, much as we’d hope to the contrary, but those women are our example, our road to follow so we can contribute and help make things better.

Q:  From your perspective, what does Córdoba represent in the history of flamenco?

A;  Córdoba is a gift of God.  Cordoba is one of the most important parts of our culture, through which different civilizations have passed over hundreds of years, and it is part of the essence of flamenco, with its Mezquita mosque, its people, its Jewish quarter, its salmorejo (a version of gazpacho) and all its gastronomy; and its bull ranches where my husband, the superb torero Javier Conde, had the chance to live the art of bullfighting in the house of don Rafael…  And its (triennial) National Flamenco Contest, where the great singer Fosforito triumphed in its first edition in 1956 and which has given us so many other great artists, nothing more nor less than (the great Cádiz singer) my uncle Chano Lobato, (the great Seville dancer) Matilde Coral, (the fine singer and great storyteller) Beni de Cádiz, (the great Jerez belter) La Paquera…  All in all, a beautiful thing, a place where afición (love and affection for the art) is turned into art, and where kids play at bullfighting and at flamenco singing.  Córdoba has given us singers like (the great singer) El Pele, for whom we have special cariño (love and affection), not just for his way of singing, which wounds us (que nos duele) and reaches us so deeply, but because my father always told us that he had great admiration for him as a singer and a friend, and he gave great importance to this sense of friendship.  Cordoba is a place that is adored in the Morente family for having given us so much, and of course we will always be thankful that it has been the mother-earth that gave us the sensibility of soul of (the great guitarist) Vicente Amigo.

End of article by Alfredo Asensi.

Some thoughts:  Estrella Morente is one of the glories of Spanish song.  Her flamenco art is astounding in its maturity of expression, its emotional reach and its breathtaking technical perfection and tonal precision.  And when she moves beyond flamenco, she gives brilliant renditions of other genres, notably Argentine tangos.

Her father, Enrique Morente, who died suddenly in his prime about five years ago, is considered by many authorities and artists to be the most important flamenco singer and visionary in our lifetime – and yes, the competition  includes Camarón.  Enrique was utterly fearless in his art, constantly smashing rules and staking out new territory.  Unlike some other innovators, Enrique had already made his bones by displaying uncanny mastery of the entire flamenco tradition – no one could wonder if he was doing new tricks just because it was easier than singing hard-core flamenco.

I wasn’t very interested in Enrique’s daring explorations – I kinda liked flamenco the way it was.   And because I’ve lived mostly in Jerez, I had plenty of company, since that city is the last stronghold of strictly traditional flamenco and Enrique was essentially a persona non grata,

The key flamenco tastemakers in Madrid literally felt that Enrique could do no wrong.  Folks in Jerez, however, thought the whole thing was a joke,  When I used the adjective “controversial” in the program for his Carnegie Hall concert, it set off a firestorm of outrage – Morente’s posse that was traveling with him, including so-called critics, wouldn’t acknowledge that anyone could possibly doubt the genuine flamenco validity of his work with the “trashmetal” rock group Omega, for example.

Random additional points:

This triennial Córdoba flamenco contest that began in 1956 is probably Spain’s most prestigious and important, at least historically.  The other contenders would be the big Seville bienal, with about half the history, and the venerable annual Festival de Cante de las Minas de La Unión, which, remarkably, is not in Andalucía.  Meanwhile, it can be hinted that Córdoba isn’t prime flamenco territory, since it’s way above Seville and other key breeding grounds. When I mentioned a town in the province of Córdoba (but below that city), the great ancient Seville singer Juan Talega sneered, “Esto pa mí es Alemania” (“For me, that’s in Germany”)

My two previous blog entries, the first about the gifted and well-schooled singer Rocío Márquez and the second about the dancer and festero (hell-raiser) Bobote and his group, drew unfashionable distinctions between Rocío’s contained and constrained non-Gypsy ways and the untrained and untrammeled flamenco of the muy gitano Bobote.

In the present fascinating instance, Estrella Morente’s mother is a Gypsy, while her father was not.  And when it comes to formal training versus assimilating the art from birth in the home, well, she was kept awake by many of the greatest artists in living memory.  Her family was from Granada, the city most closely associated with Gypsies and flamenco.

(In self-defense, I’d note that Spanish writers and critics can assume that their readers likely know which artists are gitano and which aren’t – but as an outsider writing for outsiders, I can’t reasonably make the same assumption, nor can I agree that this ethnic distinction is no longer relevant or appropriate.

My non-avoidance of the topic irritates many non-Gypsy commentators, who assure me that modern Spain is now post-racial and there is no issue whatsoever — and correctly add that Spain is probably the country that has done the best job of minimizing the anti-Gypsy hatred that is growing dangerously out of control in so much of Europe.  Meanwhile, my ineffectual attempts to defend the centrality of the Gypsy tradition in flamenco irritates many Gypsies, who say they can stick up for themselves quite well, thanks.)

(When I arrived in Spain in 1961 seeking “authentic” and “pure” flamenco, I immediately headed to Granada, where I spent my days and nights in the Sacromonte cave of María la Canastera talking to people and studying with several fine guitarists.  Only later did I learn that I’d been in the wrong place – that way over on the left side of Andalucía was the real heartland and soulland of flamenco – Seville and Jerez and Cádiz, and several smaller nearby towns.)

Note Estrella Morente’s praise for El Pele’s flamenco singing “que nos duele“, that wounds us.  One reason for the unpopularity of the three deepest flamenco forms, notably the soleares, siguiriyas and martinetes or tonás, is that they wound, they hurt, they cause a kind of pain in listeners who understand their essential nature, which, like it or not, is intertwined with death.  (It’s fair to say that these songs are not Ms. Morente’s specialty, which helps explain why so many people love her art.)

And note, too, her fearless embrace of the bullfight, now banned in Catalonia but not in Spain, not to mention her bullfighter husband Javier Conde.  Many of her ardent admirers and fans find the bullfight disgusting or criminal.  Like it or not, I consider the bullfight crucial to understanding Spain, Andalucía and, of course, flamenco.

Brook Zern

November 11, 2013   No Comments

1996 article/interview with El Chocolate – translated with comments by Brook Zern

1996 article/interview with El Chocolate – translated with comments by Brook Zern

This article/interview by Teresa Sesé about the fabulous flamenco singer El Chocolate appeared in La Vanguardia of May 16, 1996.  (As usual, parentheses were in the original articles; anything in brackets is explanatory.)  My comments appear below.

Chocolate:  “I’m not a strange singer, I’m a delicate singer [or: a sensitive singer].”

It is said of Antonio Núñez “Chocolate” (born in Jerez de la Frontera in 1931) that he is “un raro genial” [a strange, peculiar or eccentric genius].   But he says that people shouldn’t confuse eccentricity with delicateness and that he, like some singers from the past, is “un cantaor delicao” [a delicate singer; possibly a sensitive singer].  And he says, for example, that to sing well one must like “the faces of the public” and that, sometimes, an inopportune movement in the audience can eradicate inspiration.  “But does this make me raro?  No, this is the mystery of an ancient way of communicating [una communicación milenaria] – the delicacy or sensitivity of the flamenco singer.”

Revered by aficionados and possessing one of the most singular personalities in the world of flamenco song of the Twentieth Century.  Chocolate will sing tonight at he Pati de les Dones del Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona.  The second half of the recital will feature the singer Miguel Poveda and the guitarist Chicuelo.

For Chocolate, flamenco song, like the bullfight [toreo] is an art of inspiration.  And to round out a good bullfight [cuajar una buena faena] one must be a gusto [feeling good – or perhaps, “in the zone”].  “It’s important to note that the public welcomes me and inspires me [me anima].  I like it when they shout encouragement [me jaleen] at the end of each song, that they clap for me, because si se aplatanan, I get the feeling that they don’t understand me, and it brings me down.”

Born in the province of Cádiz [i.e. Jerez] and raised in Seville from childhood, Chocolate got his name from his loved of cacao.  He learned to sing at the same time he learned to walk and talk, and he sang on the trains going to Huelva or Alcalá de Guadaira, in the city streetcars or for the wives of the Guardia Civil military police at at a barracks near his house in exchange for a hot meal.  “Buenooo, if I arrived to sing in the middle of a fight…” he jokes.  But for him, the real game was soccer.  “I was better than anyone with both feet, but I earned money first from singing.  One night they gave me five duros [25 pesetas, about a quarter] in the Alameda de Hercules [a legendary center of Seville song] and I immediately gave up football.”

Chocolate has shared stages with Juanito Mojama, el Niño Gloria, La Moreno, Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol…; he sang for the dancer Manuela Vargas and for Carmen Amaya in the film “Los Tarantos”; and he owns the most important prizes and awards in the realm of flamenco.

Singing that wounds [Un cante doliente]

Even so, his fame has not spread much beyond the limited circle of aficionados (though his appearance in Carlos Saura’s film “Flamenco” left a number of spectators nailed to their seats.)  “The pure flamencos, the basic ones – we don’t work every day; what I do isn’t flamenco pop or whatever they call that stuff nowadays.  It is still an art for a minority,” he argues, and then adds, “You know what’s happening?  I like myself a lot [me gusto mucho] – only when you get to that point do you learn to sing – I’m enamored of myself.  And because I like myself so much, there are times when I say, why should I go somewhere when I won’t be good.  It’s better to just sing for myself, no?”

Because the song, he reflects, has to hurt [tiene que doler].  And he laments the fact that today we are not seeing new “cantaores de pellizco [singers who give you chills, give you goosebumps.]  I wouldn’t want to die without continuadores [who will carry on that way of singing].  I’m sad to see youngsters who do not transmit the grief and lament in the songs.  Today everyone wants to create.  And the song is a very old art that is already fully formed [que ya está hecho], an art that has its seasons, its stops and starts, its temperament… Those of us who live this way are disappearing.  And then, what will happen?”

End of article.

Well, El Chocolate did indeed disappear, though he lived long enough to win a Grammy [his refreshing response:  ”Que es un Grammy?‘] and to tolerate my backstage harangue about how great he was and how lucky I was to have known him in Seville in the mid-sixties.  And we know what happened after he left us: The once-dominant notion that someone like him [did I mention that he happened to be a Gypsy?] may occasionally have something that certain other people don’t have, has gone from unfashionable to anathema.

In fact, today’s in-step aficionados would sincerely lament missing this concert — but only because the second half showcased an up-and-coming Barcelona singer named Miguel Poveda who has become the most important singer of our time.  [Did I mention that Poveda happens to be a) not a Gypsy; b) not raro; and c) a true genius and a master of virtually all significant flamenco song forms, as well as a wonderful guy?]

I was astonished to learn that El Chocolate got his name from his childhood love of cacao [c.f. Sabicas, who loved habicas or garbanzo beans].  I had casually misreported or fabricated the “fact” (I hope I’d heard somewhere) that he got his name from the color of his unusually dark skin.

I recall that he sang all the time — not flamenco, but Spanish songs and advertising jingles and whatever — though he didn’t like the Beatles songs (apparently because of intervals that were bigger than he was comfortable with).

I also recall that to my utter surprise, he gave a very technical and detailed singing lesson to my friend Anita Volland, who had already learned a lot of the songs of the immortal Niña de los Peines.  I had warned her that El Chocolate was obviously an instinctive genius who had no idea how he did what he did. Fortunately, Anita knew better.

Times change, tastes change.  El Chocolate’s notion that change in flamenco is not just unnecessary but inappropriate now seems not just unfashionable but absurd.

A lot of successful singers insist that Gypsy artists were overvalued until the world recently wised up; some seem to be dancing on their graves, or they would if they could dance.

But some discerning people still have a soft spot for the old perspective.  Among the artists who make clear their respect and admiration for the Gypsy contribution to flamenco, I’d say the massively popular Miguel Poveda — who will soon appear in Madrid’s huge bullring — is the main man.

June 2, 2013   No Comments

Flamenco and the bullfight: Soulmates? Or a match made in Hell? – Article in ABC.es – translated (with comments) by Brook Zern

Flamenco and the bullfight:  Soulmates? Or a match made in Hell?

I think José Mercé is the greatest flamenco singer working today.  Not coincidentally, no other flamenco artist has such a rich family heritage.  The charming Mercé is also the best-selling serious flamenco singer, with total sales of more than 600,000.  (It may not seem like much, but in this unpopular art, that is a spectacular figure.)

Funny thing, though,  The vast majority of foreign flamenco aficionados – and a whole lot of Spanish aficionados as well – profoundly disagree with him.  Or they would, if they knew how he views the bullfight and its relationship to flamenco.

Most will find his opinions – and possibly the man himself – disgusting and repulsive, or worse.  Or more charitably, they may conclude that he simply doesn’t understand his own culture as well as they do.

The story, from the May 27th issue of the major publication ABC.es, is at http://www.abc.es/agencias/noticia.asp?noticia=1425018.  My translation:

Juan José Padilla and José Mercé Fuse the Bullfight and Flamenco

Flamenco and the bullfight are two artistic expressions that have always been united, and it’s not possible to understand either one without understanding the other, say the torero Juan José Padilla and the flamenco singer José Mercé.

These respective masters of the art of the bulls and the art of flamenco, who are close personal friends, took part in the First Velada of Art and Tauromachy celebrated in Cáceres, where they spoke extensively, interacting with the public, about the aspects that these two arts have in common.

“Flamenco without the bullfight, and the bullfight without flamenco, cannot be understood,” José Mercé told EFE, Spain’s national news agency, adding that the two disciplines are “las mayores culturas” [the major cultural expressions; or, possibly, the oldest cultural expressions] of the nation, with numerous points of encounter.

In the same vein, the torero Juan José Padilla assured the audience that one cannot understand a good bullfight without the “flamenco foundation” [fondo flamenco] that accompanies it, and stated that a siguiriya or a soleá sung by Mercé serves as an inspiration for a bullfighter.

“The maestro has within his voice the capacity to render all the flamenco forms, and any bullfighter would choose him to round out a corrida,” Padilla said of Mercé.

The evening event, with flamenco and the bullfight as its central theme, took place on the bulwark of Los Pozos, in the heart of the Jewish quarter of Cáceres, where the two maestros shared their “hearts and souls”, in Mercé’s words.

The singer, in a gesture to the public, said he felt like a citizen of Cáceres, noting its flamenco peña [association] and the many friends he had made during numerous personal and artistic visits to the city,

Padilla, for his part, noted that he would be appearing in the ring the next Sunday, adding that the public in the province of Extremadura had always shown its support and affection, and it was time to return to the plaza de toros.

The mayor of Cáceres, Elena Nevado, who also participated in the event, thanked the two artists for their presence in the city and mentioned the effort of Juan Bazaga, a journalist who is an aficionado of the bulls and flamenco, for making it possible and for conducting the discussion.

End of article.

It may seem strange, but a long, long time ago — so long ago that gay did not exist in American media — you would find articles about Spain’s bullfight season every summer in Life, and Newsweek, and Holiday, and the Saturday Evening post and dozens of other American magazines and newspapers.

Today, the bullfight does not exist in American media.  (Neither do Life, Newsweek, Holiday and most other magazines and newspapers, but that’s another story.)  And any reporter who attempted to cover bullfighting dispassionately today would receive hate mail from nice people, and subscriptions would be enthusiastically cancelled and boycotts arranged.

But for better or worse, José Mercé and Sr. Padilla are not wrong.  The bullfight illuminates flamenco, and vice versa, to such an extent that neither can be fully understood independently.  I won’t try to elaborate on this mysterious fact (beyond hinting that death, an unfashionable and un-American concept that Spain still understands, lurks at the core of both.)

It is not necessary to love or like bullfighting to comprehend an essential aspect of flamenco.  It may even be okay to hate the bullfight.  But first, it is necessary to pay some attention to the bullfight, Spain’s other emblematic phenomenon, and try to understand it within its original cultural context.

(It won’t be easy to find this kind of information, of course.  It seems that our kinder and gentler era, afición for the bullfight has become the love that dare not speak its name.)

Two final notes:  First, José Mercé’s strong total record sales are primarily due to his inclusion of his own personal non-flamenco musical melange on all of his later recordings.

And second: Before anyone expresses the remarkably common American wish that Señor Padilla should be killed or be horribly gored by a bull for his sin, please note that he was horribly gored by a bull not long ago, his face disfigured and his left eye lost.  He is back in the ring.  (Some nice folks earnestly wish it would happen to him again.)

Those who hate the bullfight have effectively carried the day.  Banned in Catalonia, which resents everything Spanish, it still exists in Spain.  But for better or worse, in the larger sense bullfighting is now beyond the pale.  Hooray?

May 31, 2013   3 Comments