Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer El Chocolate

Too Much Monkey Business and a Flamenco Lesson from Olympus – Partial Recall by Brook Zern

In an exchange on an early flamenco mailing list, a friend said he heard I was often seen in Seville in the company of a monkey.  I tried to lie my way out of it by accusing him of lying, but he had  photographic confirmation and suggested I was probably exploiting the animalito.  In denying that, I mentioned that the monkey was in the freezer, which only raised more suspicions,  I decided to come clean, or relatively clean, writing this all-in-one-breath confessional:

Bob, your counterslander of me, in which you accuse me of possible mistreatment of a possible monkey, not only fails to match the depravity and viciousness of my original slander of you, but is less inaccurate as well.  But not fully accurate.  In fact, I never had a monkey of my own — that was probably my infant daughter you saw waving the tin cup, trying to dance, and begging for money as I played flamenco guitar in the bus station — but my sister really did.

Actually, the little capuchin monkey that she got in 1965, and that she took to Spain when she took over my apartment in Los Remedios in 1967, and that she carried on her shoulder all over Seville wearing Pampers with a hole cut for the tail, the monkey did, that is, earning me the sobriquet of “the guy with the sister with the monkey with the diaper”, and later, “the monkey’s uncle”, and that was a prime suspect in the mysterious disappearance of pollito, the chicken someone got her that that monkey never liked all that much and that one day fell, jumped or was pushed off the 8th-floor/7th piso terrace after which the monkey evidently felt better, and that flew first class back from Madrid to New York with his own seat at staggering cost, right beside my sister’s, because it turned out you couldn’t take a monkey in coach class on Iberia and they said he probably wouldn’t survive in the baggage compartment so I got to peek through the curtains to watch him sitting on my sister’s head, sharing her lobster, while I was nursing my almonds in steerage, died almost thirty years later, the monkey that is, after virtually setting a new longevity record for monkeys in captivity thanks to my sister’s devoting most of her time and energy to caring for him — she says no one should ever get a monkey or other primate, or any wild animal, as a pet, and she took the monkey only because she knew it was a life-or-death last option for him– anyway, he’s not in my sister’s freezer, because it’s the wrong kind; he’s in the freezer of the woman who studied singing with El Chocolate and is a great individual, as perhaps indicated in part by her willingness to have this ex-monkey, carefully wrapped of course, in her freezer for a long time as my sister comes to grips with the difficult issue of what to do with the body of this little being that she loved so much — no, this is in no way equivalent to losing a beloved dog or cat, as wrenching as that is — which she will probably decide very soon, I hope, is all I can say.



The freezer in question belonged to the late, wonderful aficionada and anthropologist Anita Volland, already a friend in Seville in the mid-sixties.  She could sing a lot like La Niña de los Peines, which is more difficult than singing like Luciano Pavarotti.  She told me she wanted to take a singing lesson from El Chocolate, one of the five greatest singers in the last seventy years, whom I often hung out with.  I told her that was absurd, since he was clearly an instinctive singer who would have no idea how he reached those ungodly heights and unearthly depths that made him the master of his trade.  ”Just set it up,” Anita said.

So in the bar Arenal, I introduced them and eavesdropped unnoticed.  ”Here’s the thing about the siguiriyas,” Chocolate said.  ”The third line is tremendously extended — that’s what makes it so unique — so the only way to get through it is to breathe in midway through the second line, as well as at the end of the second line, like this.”  And he did that — I’d never noticed, of course — and she then did the same thing, and they wound up in a dead heat.  Then there was another hour of technical talk I couldn’t understand at all.

“How’d it go?” I asked later, expecting her to rub it in.

“It wasn’t bad,” she said.

Brook Zern

February 5, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco producer Ricardo Pachón speaks – Interview from El Confidencial – translated with brief comments by Brook Zern

A Spanish publication called El Confidencial recently carried an interview by Victor Lenore with the important producer of flamenco recordings and events, Ricardo Pachón.  Here’s my translation:

Headline (quoting Pachón):  “Spain’s institutions are 100% racist where flamenco is concerned”

He’s known as the producer of “La leyenda del tiempo” (1979), the most modern recording done by Camarón.  He’s also worked with figures like Lole y Manuel, Kiko Veneno and Pata Negra among many others.  Ricardo Pachón (Sevilla, 1937) is now presenting his documentary film “Triana pura y dura” [Triana, pure and hard; less literally, Triana, the real deal], the winner of the 2013 In-Edit Film Festival, where it explains the expulsion of the Gypsies from that emblematic barrio of Seville.

The unifying thread of the film is a 1983 concert that took place in the Lope de Vega Theater, and that served as a swan song for that kind of real-life flamenco as it happened in the streets (among the guitarists we see a young Raimundo Amador).  In the following interview, Pachón denounces the institutional racism with respect to the Gypsies (from the Channel Four television chain to the Junta de Andalucía that controls the entire region), and he points out the real threat of extinction that menaces flamenco today.

Q:  Would you say that flamenco is disappearing?

A:  Well, yes.  The issue is increasingly difficult.  Now you don’t know what to say when foreigners come to Seville, on the recommendation of friends, seeking flamenco that isn’t in the setting of theaters or tablaos [flamenco night clubs that usually serve dinner].   They want to see the old style of flamenco as an intimate gathering or celebration, and that’s harder to find every day.  The old ways of life have changed, and now there are no coherent Gypsy barrios like the former cava de Triana or compact Gypsy groups in pueblos like Utrera or Lebrija.  It’s very difficult to find that kind of intimate, real fiesta.

The whole subject is “peliagudo” [tricky, thorny]  because today everything is called flamenco.  We’re seeing huge paradoxes like the Statute of Andalusian Autonomy that claims exclusive rights to all aspects of flamenco for the province.  The key article 68 then defines as flamenco the work songs of the Alpujarra region, the verdiales of Malaga and the sevillanas.  Those aren’t musical forms that many of us consider to be flamenco.

Q:  In 2011 you denounced the fact that not a single Gypsy was invited to an International Flamenco Congress [in Seville].  Is this kind of problem being resolved?

A.  No.  That Congress had 81 official assessors, some of them foreigners, but no Gypsies.  Now that game has been repeated in the Second Congress, held in Cordoba.  It’s full of anthropologists, politicians and commercial agents, but again they have completely disrespected and insulted the Gypsies who created this culture.  They should have invited the Peña family from Lebrija that includes singers like El Lebrijano and scholars like Pedro Peña.  They also slighted the people of Jerez.  It seems that traditional flamenco is going to disappear, and we’re going toward flamenco as theatrical spectacle.

I’m speaking of the difference between “frontal” communication (between the artist and a spectator who has paid for a seat) and “circular” communication (as in those “horizontal” private fiestas that I had the privilege of attending, thanks to my age.)   I’m talking about the intimate “reunions” or fiestas with the guitarist Diego del Gastor in Morón, or the singers Perrate in Lebrija and Fernanda de Utrera.  I’ve been at baptisms, weddings and gatherings where there aren’t spectators or artists, but simply a bunch of participants.  They could last hours or even days, and there was no economic motivation at all.  That’s when the duende might arrive, the catharsis that’s a key reason for the event.  Those fiestas had little to do with organized productions.

Today the artists arrive at the theater in a Mercedes. Just hoping to get it over with and leave.  I remember festivals like the Potajes of Utrera or the Gazpachos of Morón where people were waiting for the official public event to end so they could go over to the club Peña El Gallo or to find the restaurant where you might find singers like Antonio Mairena or Fernanda de Utrera singing “a gusto” [at their best, comfortable in their element, among good aficionados] until dawn.  That kind of flamenco is on the point of vanishing, if it hasn’t disappeared already.

Q:  What do you think of the current institutionalization of flamenco?

A:  The way things are going these days, it would be better if they got rid of those institutions.  I don’t regret saying that they have a perspective [“enfoque”] that is one hundred percent racist.  There’s an intellectual climate in flamenco where anthropologists are growing like mushrooms.  They get masters degrees in flamenco and go forth knowing a lot of history, but they don’t know how to do the palmas (rhythmic handclapping technique) for the bulerías, they don’t know the metric system, they can’t even tell the difference between [crucial major forms like] a siguiriya and a soleá.  Flamenco has a complicated metric system [the complex rhythmic structure called compás] that combines binary and ternary rhythms [e.g.. 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-1-2-1-2].  It’s not a music for the masses, because it’s difficult to listen to.  It has remained an art for minorities precisely for that reason.   These difficult aspects of flamenco are being sidestepped to make room for the “flamenquitos” [who create an easy-listening “lite” music they call flamenco] trying to fit the formulas for radio hits.  It’s more complicated and difficult to find good flamenco every year.

Q.  Watching your documentary from 1983, it seems that the authorities in Seville have always been hostile to the Gypsies.

A.  Of course, but not just in Seville.  Since the era of the Catholic Kings [Ferdinand and Isabella] in the late Fifteenth Century, it has always been the case, at least until the Law of Vagrants and Malefactors of 1933 [?], that was in effect until two days ago [?].  I think there are forty or fifty Spanish laws against the Gypsies.  In Triana there’s a Gypsy prison from 1949, created by Ferdinand the Sixth.  All the men and all boys over seven years old were taken to Cádiz as galley slaves.  The women were kept separate from them, in walled cities, so they could not reproduce.  Carlos the Third was the first king to give them rights as Spanish citizens.  But hey, there’s still a latent racism that continues to exist, and that we must consider to be mutual, because the Gypsies “tampoco les hacemos gracia nosotros” [didn’t make us laugh either?].  The thing is, without institutions, the Gypsies were incapable of doing such damage to others.

Q:  How did the arrival of democracy make things better for the Gypsies?

A:  At the least, they can vote in elections.  Unfortunately there is no political party or strong association that brings them together politically, but formally, things are better.  There is more Gypsy participation in social welfare programs, for example, pensions, from which they were formerly excluded.  It’s also necessary to point out that they turned away from all that:  To avoid military service, they registered all their sons with girls’ names.  But you also found Gypsies with eight or ten kids that never received any state funds.  Now there is an Institute of Gypsy Culture within the Ministry of Culture.  Civic associations have grown, and they are treated with more dignity.

Q:  The documentary is very critical of the official handling of the barrio called Tres Mil Viviendas.  What problems has that caused?

A:  The exodus from Triana to that barrio began toward the end of the sixties.  After the expulsion, four families remained in El Tardón, that’s very nearby, while the rest went to the Poligono de San Pablo or to La Corchuela.  They were forced out of Triana to be stuck in houses “de uralita” [made with asbestos], without sanitary facilities, that were only improved little by little until running water was provided.   The Tres Mil Viviendas is a disastrous urban experiment where they threw together the [well established and long-settled] Gypsies of Triana with [less rooted, sometimes wandering] canastero Gypsies with whom they had nothing in common, as well as other marginal Gypsies.  The economic solution was drug dealing, and that led to a series of family disasters that would have been previously unthinkable.

In Triana there was a kind of Senate of Elders, all coming from the blacksmith clans [a prestigious occupation of established Gypsy families] who mediated in cases of conflict.  The Triana Gypsies all had trades: they were butchers, or matarifes [worked in slaughterhouses]  or they worked at the docks.  The ironworkers/blacksmiths were the essence of the barrio, but with the coming of foundries the trade disappeared, just as the horse-trading clans lost out when field work was mechanized.  Those who fared best in the exodus were the artists: bullfighters, singers, dancers…  For the rest it was either dealing in drugs or being a street peddler.  Flamenco fiestas weren’t like they used to be because there were no longer houses built around central courtyards [“corrales de vecinos”] , but mud streets and rickety houses where only a few people could gather.

Q:  You recently said the the Gypsies are living their “particular 15M” [referring to the nationwide protests against Spain's austerity programs on May 15th of a few years ago].  What does it consist of?

A:  There’s a generalized “cabreo” [anger] against the Andalusian Autonomy Statute because it tries to monopolize flamenco.  I also see growing resistance to the idea of flamenco congresses and also against TV shows like “Palabra de Gitano”, broadcast on the Channel Four network.  In fact, there is active protest against that program because it presents such a bad image of the Gypsy people.  I believe there will also be a move to have the Statute declared unconstitutional.

Q:  What are the interesting things going on now in flamenco?

A:  Well, look.  Last night I felt very happy to see the new production by [the great Gypsy dancer] Farruquito called “Improvised”.  He teamed up with four stupendous singers and two good guitarists, giving the sensation of being at an old-style gathering of aficionados.  They gathered in a semicircle and Farruquito went in and out of the central hot spot.  The songs and the guitar playing were respected for their key role, and the dancing was just some solo work, or interjected segments.  The production had enormous maturity.  It brought back that essence that we’ve been talking about…but Farruquito realizes that the inspiration for it was our dociumentary,“Triana pura y dura”, which he saw a year ago when we were filming it.  His grandfather [the immortal dancer El Farruco] appears at the end of the film.

I think “Improvised” will be a major triumph, the proof that flamenco dancing doesn’t consist of leaping about, nor in machine-gun heelwork solos.  Twenty years ago [actually 25 years ago or more] there was a flamenco show that triumphed on Broadway.  It was called “Flamenco Vivo” if I remember correctly [it was actually called “Flamenco Puro”, and it was fabulous indeed].  It was produced and staged by two Argentinians who had made a lot of money with a show featuring the tango, and they wanted to do the same with flamenco.  So the producers went to Andalucía and signed up the very best:  Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, Farruco, Manuela Carrasco, El Chocolate…  The folks from Seville said it would be a disaster, that the artists would fight among themselves, but in the end it was a real triumph.

It finally ended only because Christmas was coming and the artists had earned so many dollars that they decided to go back and spend it all in Seville or Jerez or their home towns with their families.  They could have kept performing in New York for five years, but they settled for just one.  It was in a theater with 1700 seats and the moments that got the most enthusiastic applause were Chocolate’s siguiriyas and Fernanda de Utrera’s soleares.  These are cantes duros [demanding, hard-core songs], but flamenco has so much “entidad” that it was unnecessary to do what Joaquin Cortés did, which was to dance with a skirt, or dance shirtless.  You don’t have to “rizar el rizo” [make things overcomplicated]; it’s enough to just learn to play guitar, dance and sing well.

End of article.

Some notes:

I’ve translated this interview because it makes a lot of points I’ve tried to make in these blog pages, but it’s from a respected and authoritative source.  Hey, borrowed credibility is better than none at all.

First, it’s interesting for a change to see Ricardo Pachón apply the term racism to people who exclude Spain’s Gypsies from official flamenco activities and who downplay the importance of the role of Gypsies in the creation and interpretation of flamenco.

Today in Spain’s flamenco circles, it is much more common to see the charge of racism leveled against those who lament the exclusion of Gypsies from official activities and who stress the importance of the Gypsy role in the art itself.  (I’m among those who are freely being called racist for allegedly giving undue credit or importance to the Gypsy aspect of flamenco.  Denying the importance of any special group  is now considered progressively color-blind, and the very mention of the word Gypsy — “the G-word”, it’s called — is often banned in public presentations about flamenco.)

As for the changes in the way flamenco itself is situated in Spain — well, those of us who fail to embrace the tendencies toward breaking all of flamenco’s traditional rules while calling the results flamenco are often called the Taliban for our undue intolerance of modernity.

Pachón’s stance can seem rather paradoxical here.  Nearby in this blog you’ll find my translation of another interview with Pachón, wherein he stakes a solid claim to be the key man in radically changing flamenco from the way it used to be (specifically, the intimate nonprofit traditional flamenco gatherings that he pines for in this article) into something else entirely (i.e., a hot commercial product such as the glossy, highly-produced musical blending and fusion that is exemplified by Pachón’s trailblazing production of Camarón’s brilliant 1979 album “La leyenda del tiempo”.)

Pachón is right about the stunning artistic success of the U.S. Flamenco Puro show but not its financial impact.  I saw it many many times in New York, noted the generally high attendance, and assumed it was a commercial hit.  I was later reliably told that unlike same producers’ show about Argentine tangos, Flamenco Puro was not really profitable – the crowded house was “papered” by offering low-cost discount tickets to groups and school classes.

Incidentally, I was at the 2011 Flamenco Congress in Seville, and I completely failed to notice what Pachón so rightly criticizes — the failure to invite any Gypsies to the proceedings.  (Come to think of it, I wasn’t invited either — I sort of snuck in with a bunch of invited sociologists and critics, and tried to look invisible with excellent results.)

I lived in Seville from 1965 to 1967 — I’m pretty sure that most of Triana’s Gypsies had already been relocated to the Poligono San Pablo and/or Tres Mil Viviendas.  And I wish it had been easy in that distant era to find intimate flamenco sessions anywhere in Seville/Triana, but it wasn’t.  It was much easier in smaller towns like Lebrija and Utrera and Morón.

Brook Zern – brookzern@gmail.com

December 13, 2013   3 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