Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer Camarón de la Isla

Flamenco Singer Manolo Caracol speaks – 1970 Interview by Paco Almazán – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s introduction: This blog’s many interviews with great flamenco artists of the past are important. They can also be surprisingly relevant, shedding new light on contemporary arguments and issues. They let serious English-speaking aficionados understand the thoughts and feelings of those who shaped the history of the art.

As an example: No singer in my lifetime has been greater than Manolo Caracol. None came from a more illustrious artistic lineage, or more completely embodied the entire known history of the art. None were as prodigious — winning a historic contest at about twelve years old. And I think no recording reveals the emotional power of flamenco song as well as Caracol’s double-LP “Una Historia de Cante Flamenco”, on which he is magnificently accompanied by the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.

This interview by Paco Almazán from Triunfo magazine of August 8, 1970, goes to the very heart of the art. It served as a response to an earlier interview in that publication where Antonio Mairena, the leading singer of that time, had challenged the greatness of the other Gypsy giant, Manolo Caracol. Caracol would die not long after this interview appeared.

The interview can be found in the blog of Andrés Raya Saro called Flamenco en mi Memoria, at this url: http://memoriaflamenca.blogspot.com/2017/01/las-entrevistas-de-paco-almazan-ii.html?spref=fb

(My attempted clarifications appear in brackets.)

Sr. Almazán writes: Manolo Caracol started by weighing in on the casas cantaores – [the few crucial families who were immensely important in the early development of the art.] He claims that in reality, his family is the one and only real deal when it comes to bloodlines or heritage:

Manolo Caracol: The house of the Ortegas [Manolo Caracol is the professional name for Manuel Ortega] is actually the only one we know of. In the rest, there were one or two singers, but not a whole branch of them. I know of no other, because the house of Alcalá [a town that produced notable singers] is not a single family. Los Torres [the family of Manuel Torre, who remains the supreme paradigm of male Gypsy artistry] have produced some artists, and so have the the Pavóns [the family of the La Niña de los Peines, the maximum female Gypsy singer, and her brother Tomás Pavón, one of the four or five most revered male singers]. Pastora, Tomás and Arturo – three siblings, and that’s it. My great grandfather, [the legendary singer] Curro Dulce, who was my father’s grandfather; and on my mother’s side, [the legendary singer] El Planeta who was the inventor of the [important early song] polo, and was the world’s first flamenco singer. Or who created the polo, because I believe that flamenco songs are not made. Furniture is made, clothing is made, but flamenco songs are created. El Planeta was older than El Fillo, and from there on, and the Ortegas emanate from them. El Fillo was an Ortega, and was the first “cantaor” [singer] who was “largo”— who had an extensive repertoire. A great cantaor, a grandiose cantaor – that was El Fillo, and he was from Triana. Before me there were several cantaores. Now, in the Twentieth Century the most famous – well, I think that was me, and for that reason I say that even children know me and me biography. But I’d like to talk about today’s problems.

Interviewer’s note by Paco Almazán: Remember Caracol’s beginnings, after being one of the winners of the 1922 Concurso de Cante Jondo of Granada – he says “when I won the prize” [a stunning achievement for a twelve-year-old boy]. He traveled to Madrid and triumphed on the terrace of the Calderón Theater, reaffirming that Madrid plaza’s importance.

Interviewer: But Manolo, everyone accuses you of just that. Of having taken the cante into theaters, degrading the purity of flamenco! Don’t think that everyone thought it was a good idea!

M.C. It’s not a good idea? Well, what’s good? If right now the inventor of penicillin, Doctor Fleming, hadn’t shared it with the world, the sick would not have been cured. If I don’t take flamenco song to the people who might like it, and understand it, or at least welcome it. You can sing with an orchestra, or with a bagpipe – with anything! Bagpipes, violins, flutes…the man who has real art, real personality, and is a creator in cante gitano… You have my zambras [his rendition of sentimental popular songs with a flamenco aire, which had enormous sales], and my cantes [flamenco songs, which had more limited sales], all with roots of pure flamenco song, not fixed in a cosa pasajera!…But if this business of pure song [cante puro] has become popular now, starting about ten years ago, when the flamencologists decided to speak of flamenco and the purity of flamenco! Es un cuento! It’s a story! [A fairy tale]. This business of the purity of flamenco is a story! Singing flamenco and speaking of whether it’s pure flamenco…and they chew on the idea, and they talk, and talk [a clear reference to Antonio Mairena]. That’s not flamenco singing! That’s a guy giving a sermon. Cante flamenco and cante puro – not even the singer knows what’s what. He’s a cantaor who has been born to sing above him. The rest are just copying. That’s why today there is no creation, when before there was creation.

Paco Almazan’s note: How happy Caracol must have been after these statements! He goes on and on, and when Almazán asks him which artists he liked most or influenced him as a youngster, he gives us this gift:

M.C. There were different aspects. Who moved me the most, whose singing reached me most deeply – that was Manuel Torre. Who was most pleasing to listen to – that was Antonio Chacón. Tomás Pavón was pleasing, and also reached me. And another great artist, La Niña de los Peines [Pastora Pavón, sister of Tomás], the greatest cantaora [female singer] that was ever born. She was a singer who had everything, had altos and bajos [high and low registers]. And any singer who doesn’t have a good low register is worthless. There are many singers from that era who sing de cabeza [using headtones? In a studied way?], sing songs that never existed and that they couldn’t have known, and who call them cantes de Alcalá, or cantes del patatero [songs of the potato seller?] or of Juan Perico. [This again refers to Antonio Mairena, who probably invented certain styles of important song forms and attributed them to other, perhaps fictional, artists.] That’s worthless! It’s as if we dijeramos un aperitivo [served an aperitif?] to cante flamenco. Sing – sing and create – take command the way a great torero does, improvising. That’s real singing!

There are fewer real singers today. Today, as far as I know, among the younger singers I like Camarón [who would become a revolutionary and the most important singer of his generation], and among the veterans I like Pepe Marchena, a creator in his own style [the established master of a pleasing style of singing, with clear tone and a strong vibrato]. Juanito Valderrama [another pleasing singer, in the “cante bonito” or “pretty song” style] is an extraordinary artist [both Marchena and Valderrama, like Chacón before them, were non-Gypsy artists who represented a cultural counterbalance to the great Gypsy artists like Caracol; Caracol himself shows appreciation for both camps, when many others were partisans of one side or the other.] Valderrama doesn’t really reach me, but he’s a great artist and I like listening to him nonetheless. Those girls from Utrera [Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera] are true cantaoras, and a lot of admired artists today are copying them. The places with the best singing are Triana, Jerez and Cádiz. In Alcalá what there are is bizcotelas. That’s what you’ll find in Alcalá, bizcotelas and dust for the alberos of bullrings. Among the guitarists, there’s Sabicas and this boy [este muchacho] Paco de Lucía, who plays very well, although not on the level of the maestro [Sabicas]. And Mario Escudero, who has come here from America. And among the Gypsy players [in addition to the Gypsy artists Sabicas and Escudero] we have Melchor de Marchena, Niño Ricardo, and that other guy, Habichuela [presumably the great accompanist Juan Habichuela]. Manolo de Huelva is retired now, but is a phenomenon, although he’s eighty. [Many people who saw this guitarist at work say no one was better, or as good.] And in dance, after Carmen Amaya, from this period I don’t know anyone among the dancers, neither in this era nor before [delante de] Carmen Amaya. I don’t know anyone.

Paco Almazán writes: The interview is long. Almost at the end, the newspaperman asks if flamenco loses something with the new verses that some younger singers are using.

M.C. Hombre, if the verses come from the sentiment of the song and the person who’s singing, and if they’re good… You can’t sing a martinete [a tragic deep song form] and tell about a little birdie singing in its nest. Now, anything that touches on pena [grief, misery], of love, of the blacksmith’s forge – all that is worthwhile.

Then the final question:

Paco Almazán:. Can you put the word “airplane” [modern, unpoetic, unexpected and possibly inappropriate to some] into a cante?

M.C. It’s all according to what’s being sung, and how. You can put it into a bulerías [a lighter form], “Ay! I went in an airplane, I went to Havana…” and there you have it. They can create precious new verses as good as the old ones, with more profundity and more poetry.

Comment by Andrés Raya: Remember that in its day, this interview, as well as the earlier one with Mairena, generated a lot of response among the flamenco aficionados of Madrid, giving rise to long arguments and heated discussions. Even beyond Madrid. In its Letters toe the Editor section, Triunfo published letters from many provinces. I’ve got copies of many, and may rescue them from the telerañas.

A press comment [about the Cordoba contest] confirms what Caracol says here. It’s from ABC of Madrid, dated August 9, 1922, and already the Caracol child is named “the king of cante jondo”.

Translator’s comment: Interesting indeed that Caracol singles out Camarón — who would become the ultimate rule breaker — as the most important young singer.

At the time of this interview, aficionados were choosing sides. Manolo Caracol had incredible emotive power, but he broke certain rules — as evidenced by his insistence that flamenco could be sung to bagpipes or anything else. (Today, that inclusive view dominates flamenco to the extent that a flamenco record featuring just a singer and an accompanying guitarist, once the norm, is almost unheard of.) He owned the genre called zambras [not to be confused with the zambras performed mostly in the caves of Granada, that are rhythmic Arabic-sounding songs and dances.]

The opposing view was embodied by Antonio Mairena, who obeyed (and invented) rules — to the extent that if he created a new approach to a known style, he might attribute it to some shadowy name from history to give it validity. Mairena rarely projected the emotional power of Caracol — he was almost scholarly in his renditions, giving what critics sometimes called “a magisterial lesson” in flamenco singing, rather than jumping in headfirst and just letting it all hang out. (In private, though, he could be pretty damn convincing.)

I tend to believe that early flamenco song had a gestation period, a “hermetic” stage when generations of Gypsy families forged the beginnings of the deep-song forms (tonás/martinetes, siguiriyas and soleares, which deal with Gypsy concerns from a Gypsy perspective) outside of public view due to the intense persecution of Gypsies in that era.

Caracol, who ought to know a lot better than I do, says that his great-grandfathers [Curro Dulce, El Planeta] were not just the first known flamenco singers but the first flamenco singers, period: they invented the whole genre. (It’s hard to defend the idea of this “hidden period”, especially since the “proof” is that it by its very nature it would be completely undocumented anywhere. (I’m not so sure that these alleged hidden sessions would have been reported in the Seville Gazette when they were essentially illegal and dangerous.)

For that matter, Caracol, like most authorities today, views the idea of “pure flamenco” as absurd or meaningless, while I kind of like the notion. I never liked the gifted singers like Pepe Marchena and Juanito Valderrama who specialized in the cante bonito or “pretty song”, now back in vogue, while Caracol always admired them.

Oh, well. It’s still a privilege to hear from the man best qualified to talk about flamenco history, and that’s why these interviews are so valuable.


January 27, 2017   1 Comment

Paco de Lucía Speaks – 1994 El País Interview by Sol Alameda – translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  Ordinary artists give ordinary interviews.  In the case of Paco de Lucía, an interview could become a deep dive into the soul and psyche of towering and revolutionary figure.  Read this astonishing document and, even with the losses inherent in translation, you will know more about Paco de Lucía than all but a few of his countrymen.  (There are many other Paco interviews in this blog, each one a revelation.)

At the end is the accompanying “sidebar” that attempted to situate Paco in the art he revolutionized.  Here’s the story:

Civilized Duende

[Recent Introduction]:  He can’t read music, but that’s okay.  He’s the world’s best flamenco guitarist.  An unquestioned myth.  A legitimate inheritor of two cultures, the paya [non-Gypsy] and the Gypsy, he knows how to extract the best essences of each without betraying either.  His latest recording, Live in America, from his shows in the US, is an new homage to the eternal duende of an ancestral art of which the genius of Paco de Lucía has taken out of the ghetto.

In his living room, in the new Madrid development of Mirasierra, there’s a big chair facing a TV set with a cover on the back.  That’s where Paco de Lucía sits when he returns exhausted from a three-month tour.  In that position he spends hours and hours staring at the television. It’s when, finally, he asks himself, “Why am I watching this garbage?” that he’s back in shape.  Then the laziness disappears and is replaced by a man who can work tirelessly.  In this duality, going from one extreme to the other, from savage to civilized, embracing his responsibility to his music or fleeing from it, lives Paco de Lucía (Francisco Sánchez. Algeciras, Cádiz, 1947), the world’s best flamenco guitarist.

Q:  “You admit to being the most neurotic person in the world.  That simplifies things – at least you know it.”

A:  Well, the consumption of art is dangerous.  A successful musician is obliged to make a record each year, and one just doesn’t have that capacity.  Especially if he’s also the composer of the works.  It’s different for a singer who wants to make a new record; they send him forty composers with many more songs to choose from, and then an arranger to make the arrangements.  But for the creator, each record is a birth, and the demand doesn’t allow enough time to feel and to live enough to renew himself and make a new work.  Yes, I’m neurotic, like everyone who spends many hours alone.  Composing is neurotic, and appearing live onstage, extroverted and communicative, is a cure for that.  But those who only live by composing, well, it’s scary to talk to them.  They look at you with the face of a crazy man.

Q:  You, in your exalted position, must be pretty sure about what you’re doing – or maybe not?

A:  That knowledge opens things up, but sometimes it’s preferable not to have any such awareness, and just to count on emotion, to be a savage.  A savage is much braver and more intrepid than an intellectual, more daring, and so there is the possibility of finding madness.

Q:  And when you work, is it more savage or more intellectual?

A:  I’ve lived my whole life abusing, you could say, my savage aspect, using it.  Using sensibility and intuition, but there comes a moment when you miss the thought process, the ratiocination.  Academic knowledge, for example: having gone to school to learn harmony and music theory.  There you get a batch of resources that, using only intuition, can make things pretty heavy and boring.  Because it makes you always be sensible, hyper-rational, to be able to do something, to compose.  And if you have formal knowledge, well, it’s easier.

Q:  Have you always regretted greater preparation, or is that just recently?

A:  It’s always been that way, but even more so with the passage of time; because with age you have less energy, less stimulus, less desire to close yourself up somewhere for eight hours to discover a melody.  In those moments you miss being able to manipulate the music, without having to work hard to find things that have already been discovered.

Q:  Are you still unable to read music?

A:  When I’ve had to learn the music of de Falla or Albéniz, or Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, I thought of working with another musician, but I wasn’t comfortable with that.  I soon saw that I had a printed method about reading music  and thought that maybe I could decipher written music.  And I did it, though it took forever to drag up a phrase or a chord.

Q:  Haven’t you ever decided to learn to read music once and for all?

A:  I’ve started many times, but my life is very irregular.  When I’m freed up for months, with all the time in the world, I want to get organized, to master this discipline.  But I’m soon off on tour again, and the craziness resumes.  My good intentions are shipwrecked.  Then I muster good intentions again, and that’s how my life goes.

Q:  Maybe at bottom you want to continue with your own particular way of getting what you want.

A:  Yes.  But it’s also indolence, laziness.  More than vague, I am incredulous, I don’t much believe in things and I’m afraid of being pretentions, of knowing a great deal.  I tell myself, “And what more is there?!?”  I’ve always lived this way, and so far it hasn’t done me any harm.

Q:  You were disciplined as a child, studying guitar for hours without regret.

A:  Yes, when I was starting out, from the age of 8 to maybe 12 or 15.  I was born into a family with economic problems.  My father was badly treated, having to find money for food each day, and as a little kid I had the idea that I must learn quickly to help out at home.

Q:  Is that the only real effort you’ve made?

A:  Yes, but I wasn’t sorry about it.  My father asked me, “How much time have you studied?” and when I said 10 or 12 hours I could see his happiness, and that was my reward.  And in fact, by the age of 12 I was earning money.

Q:  Was that when you went to the U.S., bringing your frying pans?

A:  I bought them over there, but travelled with them.  For me, going to the U.S. was as exciting as going to the moon.  I made $100 a week, and if I’d had to buy meals in restaurants I wouldn’t have had any money left.  And so my brother and I went from hotel to hotel with our post and frying pans.  And all the hotels threw us out because the smell inundated the whole building and the walls were covered with stewed tomato stains.  But all the members of the troupe cooked in our rooms.  I was very happy then.  Instead of going to school, I was traveling and making money at the age of 12.  At that age nobody suffers; one suffers when one starts growing old.

Q:  Did you read books at that time?

A:  Yes. From the time I was 17 I read a lot.  Now I don’t read at all, I’m so full of things that when I return home I just sit down and try to get my thoughts in order.  It seems to me that reading is like trying to live someone else’s life, and what I want to do is mull over my own concerns.

Q:  When you started reading, what kind of books were they?

A:  Books on philosophy, until I realized I was becoming very serious.  I come from a place where there’s a real sense of humor, and I soon saw that I’d been flying; when they told me something absurd, which today I’d find quite charming, I’d say, “But that’s not logical.”  I tried to reason everything out, and I began to become boring.  So I left the philosophy behind; this business of seeking truth is a vain pretention. The clearer you try to make things, the more complex they become.

Q:  Have you arrived at a definition of flamenco?

A:  That…Beside being a very rich music, with emotion, it is a philosophy, a way of life, a scale of values, something different.

Q:  Are you in agreement with those rules?

A:  There are things in flamenco that serve a purpose; respect for the elders, for example, strikes me as very positive; today’s society casts old people into elephant graveyards.  In our culture, in that culture, the old person is the patriarch until the end.  There are other norms that one lives by quite naturally, without realizing it.

Q:  Do you live according to those laws more than the laws of the [non-Gypsies]?

A:  With a mixture of both.

Q:  Does that create conflicts?

A:  At certain times and in certain situations I haven’t known which road to follow – that of the coherent logic of an evolving society, or that of a traditional society, marked by incoherence but very attractive and poetic.  What I’ve done is to extract the positive aspects from each culture and try to apply them.

Q:  Did a moment arrive when the flamenco culture seemed to be suffocating, and you wanted to get away from it?

A:  Yes, I left; definitely, I left.  I lived the flamenco life and world intensely, and then I decided to place myself in the world of the payos because it seemed to have interesting things.  That’s when I want to play with other musicians, American and English; I needed fresh air, I’d been living in a vicious circle; the same topics, the same values, the same gracias [attractive, charming aspects].  And the new flamenco people emerged, and they were like their fathers and their grandfathers, everyone equal.  I began to feel suffocated, and I left to seek another type of music.

Q:  It was an evolution, you never broke with that other world.

A:  I never claimed it was a revolution, but an evolution.  That’s what gave me the identity I have, and that identity is what gives you force or power as an artist.

Q:  When you went to the U.S. and began to play with John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell, how did you feel?

A:  Like a primitive.  For the flamenco people I was an evolved being; for the Americans I was a savage.  This was disconcerting, unnerving.  I knew that I didn’t know how to improvise, and they did.  I told them, “I’m going crazy.  How do you do that?”  And they laughed like mad, as if to say, don’t sweat it, don’t worry.  And they didn’t tell me anything.  I guess they saw something in me that I couldn’t see, and they thought it was beautiful to see me suffering onstage.  But for me the effort to avoid ridicule was just terrible.  I went out trembling, fearful, with terrible pain in my shoulders.  It was pure improvisation, in the jazz style, and I had never played that way.  I was at the point of throwing in the towel and going back home.  But something told me to get something positive out of this.  And that’s what happened.  I found a different way of playing.  I discovered the attractiveness of improvisation – something every musician should do, including classical musicians.

Q:  And now, is it easier to improvise?

A:  Now, at least my head doesn’t hurt.  If you suddenly happen to have one of those magical days onstage and you pull out an improvisation that even you can’t believe, and at the same time you have absolute certainty that you won’t lose the harmony and that you are in possession of the truth, that day will stay with you forever.  Now you’re always waiting for it to come again.  And it does, but only now and then.  Although when you’ve discovered it,  you’ll never stop seeking it.

Q:  At that moment, indolence didn’t drag you down.

A:  No.  I had an English manager and we got the idea of making a trio with three different guitarists: one classical, one jazz, and me.  But the classical player didn’t want to do it, because he couldn’t improvise, and so we sought out Larry Coryell.  And we went out onstage.  When I see it clearly, I threw myself into it without thinking twice.  It was tough to decide, but there was no one to stop me.  It’s my way of life: launch into nothing or the abyss, and let’s see if it flies.  And until today, I’m still airborne.  You have to take risks in life, but if you’re afraid of looking ridiculous it will stop you.  You only learn by making mistakes.

Q:  Your immersion in jazz – was that a risk?

A:  Jazz people are tolerant.  The ones who are sealed off and intolerant are the classical people.  If you aren’t classical and if you weren’t born into that environment, they automatically reject you.  I doesn’t matter how you play – they don’t stop to listen; they reject you right off the bat.

Q:  Is flamenco still disdained, disrespected?

A:  All my life.  Even as a kid I’ve had an inferiority complex fed by the classical people.  And that’s not just a feeling, something invented.  They made me feel it.  I thought I had come up with a way to play the Concierto de Aranjuez: from a flamenco perspective, and playing it the way I felt it.  Almost all the classical guitarists liked it.  But one day I saw in ABC an interview with the classical player Narciso Yepes who made me feel like a child molester.  He said horrible things:  How could I play in this shameful way?  He didn’t give reasons why he didn’t like it.  And what happened when I was little – I felt that same bad feeling.

Q:  You are indisputably a major artist; no one denies that; it must make you feel secure.

A:  Don’t believe that.  I know what I am.  Everything they give me beyond that is extra; what they may take away, I’ll lose.  I try to be a good professional, I’m on the raod, I try to arrive at a place where I like something I’m doing.

Q:  To be a sort of Pope, as you are for so many people – how does that sit with you?

A:  Sometimes I’ve done things I regret, and yet there are people who follow that path.  Knowing that there are people who look to lme gives me a responsibility.  But on the other hand, if I’ve had success in life it has been for that – for having  respected my tradition and my culture as I pass through here, that pleases me.

Q:  Are you sometimes afraid that good flamenco will disappear?

A:  No.  You could cut out the Gypsies’ tongues, but they would keep singing even then.

Q:  You are not a Gypsy.

A:  No, but I grew up with them, I know them well.  These people have deep roots in their culture.  I think flamenco is Andalusian, but the Gypsy, when he arrived in our country 500 years ago, integrated himself into flamenco and gave it his personality, his way of expressing the music; he evolved it, he perfected it.  The Gypsy always looks for an excuse for having a fiesta, a party, a jam session: it could be a wedding, a baptism, a birthday – any reason is good enough to spend three days singing.

Q:  In that culture, what do you like besides the music?

A:  Well, I like a lot of the Gypsy things.  Their capacity for happiness, there way of looking at life, every day, without  pretender to enrich themselves.

Q:  And their inability [incapacidad] to evolve?

A:  They are afraid of evolution… [rest of sentence omitted, a typographical glitch].  But there are young Gypsies who are more open.  They’ve been afraid of losing their past.  But a race must protect its culture, its customs; it must e careful not to become contaminated.

Q:  It’s curious that it is you, a non-Gypsy, who has evolved flamenco.

A:  Maybe I have less sense of tradition.  I’ve lived with them, but at the same time, I have the head of a non-Gypsy, without that force of tradition, of immobility.  It was easier for me; I have more of a sense of freedom.  Although I’ve lived with them, and wasn’t really aware that I was not a Gypsy until I’d reached a certain age.

Q:  To know you weren’t Gypsy – did that make you do things in another way?

A;  I began to look at the culture of other people, of other musicians.  I was basically a flamenco, I’ll always be a flamenco and I always want to be one; but I discovered that there was other music.  My father told me that anything that wasn’t flamenco was stupid [tonterías], it wasn’t music.  He had marginalized himself to such an extent that hew was ashamed to listen to a jazz player or a classical musician.  They said you were a flake, if they didn’t just think you were crazy.  But I discovered that there was also music beyond flamenco.  I was 20 years old at the time.

Q:  You functioned as a creole, someone who belongs to two cultures and who finally brings forth something new.

A:  I was born in flamenco territory; my father is a guitarist, my brother, my house was full of flamenco, of fiestas.  Maybe what happened is that I was born in a time of change.  The Gypsies were no longer closed off, living apart – and that was also true of the Andalusians, and of Spaniards in general.

Q:  You lived for a long time among Gypsies, but you didn’t marry a woman of that raza [literally: race; also ethnicity].

A:  The Gypsy women are very pretty. I’ve always respected their culture, in which marrying a payo isn’t looked on very well.  You don’t normally ligar [hook up] with a Gypsy woman, you marry her.  To hook up to get into bed [ligar para acostarse] is ugly.  I never tried anything with a Gypsy woman.

Q:  Is love an inspiration for your music?

A:  Yes, especially when I was an adolescent.  It was an incredible stimulus.  I fell in love with my wife [Casilda Varela] and never fell in love again.  You see a woman across a room and you like her, and all that, but…

Q:  Do you make a decision, or does it just happen?

A:  A bit of both.  Unconsciously, you make a decision; you have a family and some kids.  How are you going to play at love then?  The most you can hope for is echar una canita al aire.

Q:  Your wife is an aristocrat [daughter of a Fascist general, who may have been an aristocrat even before Franco’s victory.]  How was the adjustment process between two people from such different worlds?

A:  There are always different value scales, but she is intelligent.  She isn’t what they taught her to be, and I’m not what my education made me.  We try to be coherent.  [They separated not long after this interview, and Paco started a new family.]

Q:  Have you gotten over the depression caused by the death of Camarón?

A:  The pain will remain with me.  He was the most important singer in the history of flamenco.  I take consolation in knowing that he left some recordings that are a cátedra [a seat of higher learning].  From the moment I discovered him [desde que lo descubrí], I realized that he was ahead of the best.  To be precise, I knew it the second day I saw him.  We were at a fiesta, all night long and the next morning and until four or five in the afternoon.  That day I knew that Camarón was the best artist ever born into flamenco.  It was an inspiration for me.  I was making a living giving concerts, but I always had to come back and make another recording with him.  Now I’m bereft, without that record that we made together every year and a half or every two years, and that gave me such pleasure.  We finished our last recording [Potro de Rabia y Miel] two months before he died.  He was physically in bad shape, but we didn’t know what was wrong.  The next week, when he couldn’t go on, he went to Barcelona and discovered the disease [lung cancer].   I could see he looked bad, but he lived so fully, I thought it was a consecuencia de lo mal que se estaba tratando [a result of the bad way he was treating himself – an apparent reference to Camarón’s drug abuse].

Q:  Did you discuss this with him?

A:  For years it was an everyday subject of conversation.  He always me daba la razón [said I was right]  and said “I’m not going to do it any more.”  I insisted, although I knew it didn’t do any good.  He respected me a lot and always lo hacía detrás mío [did it behind my back,] so I wouldn’t see; it made him a bit ashamed.

Q:  Why do you think he chose to live like that?

A:  Exactly, it was a lesson.  And I justified everything he did because he was such a great artist; someone who’s not an artist can’t understand this.  At times you get apathetic, you don’t want to do anything, and soon you have to stimulate yourself to get a special sensibility.  I think that was his motive, and that in some way it dignified the matter.  I want to say that I justify what Camarón did because he did it for a noble reason – it wasn’t pure vice.  He did it to close himself up within himself, to hear music and to sing.  He has been a victim of his own sensibilidad [sensibility/sensitivity], or of his profession.  He was humilde [humble/simple], he never spoke ill of anyone, he had afición [passion for his art], he lived for his art alone.  And for me, that justifies a lot of things.

Q:  And you, what are you afraid of?

A:  Of old age, of being 80 and needing someone to wipe my ass; of something happening to my kids; of my wife dying.  And also, I’m afraid of people’s lack of sensibility.

Q:  What do you mean by that?

A:  People only thing of their own comfort.  I think a man should be just, fair, honest, and I believe in equal opportunity, so people can live better all the time.  But on the other hand, as I see it, having nothing is a stimulus to action; if you don’t have money, you fight harder.  I remember that when I was playing to help my father, I had more fuerza – more force, more power – than I do now.  What gives sense to a life is to have to go out every day to hunt for food.  That justifies a human being, and makes each day different.  Civilized life makes a man become weak and live discontented and depressed.

Q:  Are you telling us your own experience?

A:  Exactly.  It’s not necessary to be poor to do something valid in art.  I think man must progress, but perhaps civilization no es todo lo buena que creemos [isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be].

Q:  From your Gypsy part, do you have some superstitions?

A:  I have no superstitions, except one – a flamenco form that makes me afraid even to speak its name: the peteneras.  I’ve had bad experiences with it.  For example, I was in Chile, in a doctor’s house listing to a flamenco record and my brother Pepe [the noted singer] said, “Turn it off, turn it off!”  And as it began, the earth began to shake:  It was an earthquake.  And another instance: the dancer who had come with me had never danced the peteneras, and didn’t ever want to.  But one day they insisted on it, and although he fought the idea, the pressure was so strong that he had to dance it.  And just then the phone rang: his father had died.  There are many cases like these, many people have had things like this happen.  I told you the name only because you have to write this; otherwise, I never say the word, because just the word makes me afraid.  But that’s the case with all the flamencos.  All of them respect this,  I believe it all began about sixty years ago, when a dancer called Maripaz died while dancing that dance.

End of interview

Here’s the accompanying sidebar:

The Contemporary Tradition
by Nacho Sáenz de Tejada

The flamenco guitar is an art of emotion.  From its origin in the world of black sounds and fundamentals, with the base strings as the basis of playing, to the extraordinary moment it is living today with such prodigious technique and unbridled imagination, it has traveled a long road, paved with shivers and chills.

From past players whose style still seems near and familiar – Sabicas, Niño Ricardo, Diego el del Gastor, Perico el del Lunar, Melchor de Marchena, the Habichuelas – to the excellent artists of today – Gerardo Núñez, Rafaael Riqueni, Vicente Amigo, Raimundo Amador, Tomatito, Agustín Carbonell… — the evolution of flamenco guitar runs through one name:  Paco de Lucía.

The man from Algeciras has not only popularized the flamenco guitar, situating it “Between Two Seas” [Entre Dos Aguas — the title of Paco del Lucía’s breakthrough hit instrumental], linking it to new realms.

His musical intuition has been so rich that we can call it a revolution.  He destroyed the closed schematics of different forms without losing sight of its jondura or depth, situating the guitar at a crossroads with a thousand possibilities and revolutionized its harmonic possibilities.  With his innate ability and his great sense of rhythm and timing, he transformed the elemental technique into a fine and precise array of picados, arpeggios, rasgueados and tremolos, revolutionizing the way it was played.

With his restless spirit, he brought in classical music (de Falla, Joaquin Rodrigo…_) and in fusing it with jazz (Johm McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola…) he revolutionizes the borders that had confined flamenco.  With his inspiration, he didn’t really revolutionize anything:  He maintained the ancestral duende that links the purest tradition with a contemporary aliento.

End of sidebar.

Translator’s note:  This is the first Paco interview I’ve done since he died on March 25th.  It feels very different.  But somehow it seems that his words and his specific observations and attitudes are more important than ever.  The poignancy is palpable.

When I was writing an obituary for Paco de Lucía the day after his death, I fell back on the Spanish phrase “propio sello”.  It refers to the fact that a great artist will always have his or her “own stamp”, a way of imprinting their work with their own unique personal sensibility.

It then occurred to me that Paco de Lucía should have exactly that – literally.  I contacted my Jerez-based friend, the flamenco critic and author Estela Zatania, we drafted a proposal, and lo and behold, it was promptly approved.  On April 23rd, 2014, Spain will issue a postage stamp honoring flamenco’s greatest musician.  (Who says it takes forever to get anything done at the post office.) 

Further ruminations:  I play flamenco guitar a lot, and have for more than fifty years.  I’ve hardly ever played in public, since most people get bored pretty quick.  I’d like to think it’s the music’s fault, but maybe I contribute to the overall effect.  I don’t exactly play for fun, since it is so difficult and frustrating; but somehow it is rewarding beyond measure. I know lots of music by the great past guitarists mentioned in the sidebar, and I’ve studied with most of them.  I also play a lot of Paco de Lucía’s early music, from his first half-dozen albums. 

(Yes, it’s even harder to play than those other artists’ stuff, but it’s the pinnacle of flamenco guitar as a solo instrument, before Paco subsumed the guitar into a group situation by surrounding himself with other musicians as in his beloved jazz tradition.  At that point, I could no longer really understand, much less try to mimic, his genius.) 

For me, It’s always an honor to run Paco’s early ideas and compositional genius through my vastly lesser mind and fingers – I hope even a feeble imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.

I always hope to find something that he and I had in common.  For obvious reasons, there ain’t much.  But it was interesting to see that Paco, a rational man virtually free of superstitions, has one.  And like him, I never play the accursed flamenco style called the peteneras, at least not since 1960 when I learned that it was too dangerous to mess with.  I don’t even listen to it. 

Hey, you can’t be too careful.

Brook Zern  brookzern@gmail.com

April 11, 2014   4 Comments

When Flamenco Is Not Andalusian – Singer El Lebrijano on Camarón — translated with comments by Brook Zern

In a recent interview, the outstanding flamenco singer El Lebrijano spoke of the key influences on Camarón, and Camarón’s influence on everything since:

“[Much of today's flamenco song] is not gitano-andaluz [Gypsy-Andalusian].  It is gitano-extremeño [Gypsy-Extremaduran].  That’s something I’ve never said before and we should reflect on this.  All of the flamenquito [flamenco lite, little flamenco, easy-listening flamenco] comes from the singers la Marelu and Ramón el Portugues.  Afterwards, Camarón made it greater [lo engrandeció] with his sweet voice.  Today everybody sings in the manner of tangos, as picked up from the Portuguese Gypsies who live near the border with Spain.”

Translator’s note:  Okay, let’s reflect on this.  Lebrijano is a veteran Gypsy singer, from Lebrija deep in the province of Seville.  He was always an outstanding master of traditional flamenco.  But he was also one of the first noted singers to do fusion — an album with the Arab-Andalusi Orchestra, and concept albums like Tierra, about Spain’s discovery of America, and others.

The sentiment he expresses isn’t new.  I remember the influential early albums by La Marelu and Ramón el Portugues.  Both those artists are not from the region of Andalusia, but from the region of Extremadura, where Spain meets  Portugal.  (Lebrijano calls them “Portuguese Gypsies” but I don’t think they are actually from Portugal.  I remember an interview in which Ramón el Portugués complained that this unwanted professional name had cost him dearly, because people thought he wasn’t even Spanish and probably couldn’t sing flamenco.)

A lot of people really liked those artists and others like El Indio Gitano from Extremadura.  Among those admirers was the young Camarón de la Isla, from the Andalusian seaport town of San Fernando.  And as El Lebrijano says, Camarón aggrandized this distinctive way of singing.  When I first asked what it was that made Camarón so different, and why it was so easy for so many people to enjoy his unusual way of vocalizing, the usual answer was that he borrowed key aspects of his art from Extremaduran singers.

(Ramón el Portugués has said that Camarón was obviously interested in his way of singing, but “was clearly a genius who always improved what I did.”)

The tangos, Camarón’s specialty along with the bulerías, make the connection very obvious and are often called the tangos extremeños.  The other key form is the jaleos extremeños, related to bulerías.  One of the first singers I ever heard on records in the fifties was the very famous Porrina de Badajoz, an exceptional Gypsy artist from that Extremaduran city.  (On at least one American LP, he was accompanied quite well by the immensely famous Carlos Montoya.)

Today, the influence of Camarón is everywhere.  It’s interesting, as Lebrijano says, to think that this influence is not Andalusian, but from the very different region of Extremadura.  Of course, it’s clear that Lebrijano thinks it’s an unwelcome influence — one that led to the lightening-up of flamenco, giving it new popularity at the expense of the darkness or depth that was so important in the area of Seville.

(Note that another important component of flamenco, the many forms of cante minero from the mining districts including tarantas, mineras, cartageneras and others, are also non-Andalusian, from the eastern area toward the Mediterranean.)

Of course, Lebrijano’s basic term “gitano-andaluz” to describe flamenco music in general can also be controversial.  It was used often by the great Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena to give equal weight to the Gypsy and the Andalusian aspects of the art.

Here’s the original text — I don’t have the original source:

“Lo que se está haciendo hoy no es gitano-andaluz. Es gitano-extremeño. Es algo que no he dicho nunca y debemos reflexionar sobre ello. Todo el flamenquito viene de la Marelu y de Ramón El Portugués. Eso después lo engrandeció Camarón con su dulce voz. Hoy se canta solamente por tangos, cogidos de los gitanos portugueses cercanos a la frontera”.

March 26, 2014   No Comments

1979 Guitar Review Column on Paco de Lucía – with 2014 comments

The following column appeared in Guitar Review #45, dated Spring, 1979.  Devoted primarily to the work of Paco de Lucía, then 32, it described him as “the most advanced and inventive guitarist in any idiom” – a quote that, to my delight, has been used for many of  his American concerts ever since, most recently for the 2012 Boston Opera House concert described elsewhere in this blog.  My second thoughts follow the column.

by Brook Zern

Among the available items of interest to flamenco aficionados:


Paco de Lucía, whose unbelievable technique and unfettered imagination have revolutionized flamenco guitar, can be heard on records now being sold over here.  The artist, flamenco’s reigning virtuoso, may well be the most advanced and inventive guitarist in any idiom.  Many people, especially those who love the pre-existing tradition, have serious reservations or grave trepidations about de Lucía’s direction and artistic evolution.  They sense that flamenco guitar may lose the raw emotional power which made it so distinctive.  Still, they are likely to realize that de Lucía’s genius is genuine and consistent with his internal vision.  He is a legitimate phenomenon.  A selective discography:

LA FABULOSA GUITARRA DE PACO DE LUCÍA (Philips 58 43 198).  A stunning solo debut album released over ten years ago.  “Most of the Lucía trademarks are there: the dramatic musical ideas, the lush harmonies, the counterpoint and countertime, and the use of suspended tones and elays in the endings of falsetas.   One hears many of the melodies that will be developed in later recordings, but what is not yet obvious is the influence of jazz and Latin music that eventually becomes so dominant.  The overall effect is a traditional-sounding flamenco that is full of original and powerful ideas.” – Paco Sevilla, Jaleo, June, 1978

EL DUENDE FLAMENCO DE PACO DE LUCÍA (Philips 63 28 061).  Brilliant bulerías, fine tientos and rondeña, interesting soleares and siguiriyas; some other numbers made less effective by a saccharine orchestral accompaniment.

FUENTE Y CAUDAL (Philips 63 28 109) (also released in Britain and U.S.A. as Island ILPS 9354).  Uniformly fascinating, profoundly influential.  Entre Dos Aguas, based on the flamenco rumba, became the genre’s first crossover hit – it was a best-selling record in Spain and gave de Lucía the aura of a rock star.

PACO DE LUCÍA EN VIVO DESDE EL TEATRO REAL (Philips 91 31 001).  A live performance album, made in early 1975.  Excellent.

ALMORAIMA (Philips 63 28 199).  A radical album, which stretches the definition of flamenco to (or beyond) its limits.  It uses electric bass, oud, vocal choruses and other special effects.  The result is mixed at best, dubious and even silly at worst.  But while a lesser artist might be accused of “selling out”, de Lucía’s integrity is not in doubt.

Also available are several records in which Paco de Lucía accompanies the flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla, who is as revolutionary a force in the song as de Lucía is in flamenco guitar.  And jazz guitarist Al DiMeola does one interesting number (Mediterranean Sundance) with Paco de Lucía on his album ELEGANT GYPSY (Columbia PC 34461).

On his most recent recording, not yet seen on our shores, the artist enters the alien realm of classical music.  It’s called PACO DE LUCIA INTERPRETA A MANUEL DE FALLA  — and interpret he does.  De Falla borrowed many of his themes from the folk and flamenco traditions, and de Lucía borrows them right back.  The frequent use of odd supporting instrumentation may disturb some listeners, but others will welcome the vitality of these surprising renditions.  (It’s also nice to hear the rasgueado or strumming performed competently for a change,)  The album number is Philips 91 13 008 GT 146

In Spain today, Paco de Lucía’s influence is not just pervasive but downright inescapable.  Many of his followers are gifted and creative, but they are working in his shadow.  Among the few guitarists who have managed to make their own stylistic statements are Manolo Sanlúcar (whose Columbia recording, M 33365  is still available here) and Paco Cepero, who has a following of his own among young guitarists.

Meanwhile:  The playing of the late and ever-more-legendary Diego del Gastor, creator of a unique and fascination school of flamenco guitar, was inexplicably and fortuitously included on a record released the the National Geographic Society.  THE MUSIC OF SPAIN (LP 077704, $6.95) features two bands of Diego’s incomparable bulerías, compulsory listening for anyone who professes an interest in the art.  Order it from the National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Carlos Lomas, an American guitarist whose progressive and original approach unites several musical styles in an interesting flamenco fusion, can be heard on SMC ProArte SMC 1141.  On the same label, a forthcoming record features the extraordinary guitarist Guillermo Ríos.  This talented artist manages to use his superb technique to further the expressive power of his music, and the resulting impact makes his flamenco exceptionally intense and moving.

An extremely important anthology of flamenco singing remains available by mail.  Titled HISTORY OF CANTE FLAMENCO and reviewed in this column in GR #38, it presents the greatest singers and accompanists of our time.   It’s catalog number is Murray Hill S-43601, and the five-record set costs $9.99 plus $1.60 handling charge.  It was released in Spain on Vergara as the ARCHIVO DEL FLAMENCO.

Methods and Music

Chuck Keyser, whose comprehensive and excellent flamenco method was described here in GR #37, has produced four collections of guitar falsetas or variations.  They are carefully noted in tablature, along with attributions and comments, and accompanied by audio cassettes that show how they should be played.  Collections, costing $25 apiece, cover alegrías, bulerías, soleares and siguiriyas. The bulerías material, incidentally, is largely in the style of Diego del Gastor.

End of 1979 article from Guitar Review

Note from March, 2014:

When I wrote the above, I had loved the fabulous flamenco of Paco de Lucía for a full decade.  I had learned my first Paco gems from Agustín Ríos, one of the four wildly talented nephews of Diego del Gastor, while he was staying with me and my wife Kristin in New York City.   They joined my existing repertoire – the best riffs stolen from Niño Ricardo (Paco’s initial inspiration), Sabicas, Mario Escudero, Pepe Martínez and a dozen other noted artists.

By 1979  I had laboriously decoded and learned most of the cuts on all of Paco’s guitar records, and scores of  the great falsetas that illuminated his collaborations with Camarón.  I still love and play that music – it is all thrilling and glorious flamenco, fresh as a daisy yet close to the bone.

(No, I never had the hypertalent or the hubris to play it in actual performance or even in public – I just played it for the sheer pleasure of running Paco’s genius through my own mind and fingers.  And on rare occasions, after weeks of extra effort and a six-hour day of pressing my luck, I could play almost as fast as Paco – only for a half a minute, of course, and minus the musicality and the sensitivity and the vision and the creativity and the five other elements that separated Paco not just from me, but from all but a few breathtakingly adept and creative sub-geniuses of his new genre of flamenco.)

I am not proud, but not ashamed, to say that afterwards, Paco continued his incredible journey into musical landscapes that he simply willed into existence – and I could no longer manage to badly imitate or understand his music.

I loved flamenco guitar as it was – the guitar I’d heard my father play night after night while trying to sleep since I was four or five.  It was so unique – so Spanish, so un-American.  It didn’t care that there was a glorious world of Western music, firmly rooted in centuries of harmony.  Instead, it had melody – just sheer self-guided melody, not melody that arose from a nimbus of implied harmony.  And it had its own rhythm – not just march-time 4/4 or waltz-time 3/4, but amalgamated rhythms that alternated the two to create a whole world of twelve-beat measures with five accented notes.

Paco de Lucía might have liked the flamenco guitar as it was, but he also felt it was a deficient and defective instrument and art form.  First, because it lacked harmony.  And second, because it was so insular, so intensely and locally Andalusian, devoid of any sense of the vast world of music that lay beyond all borders.   He was determined to free flamenco from the grip of traditionalists or purists, and his  magnificent recordings with Carmarón had exactly that effect.

Paco would voice his disappointment with guitarists he had always admired – notably Sabicas, the great virtuoso he dethroned – for their failure of nerve: for just trying to tweak, or to perfect, the guitar tradition as created by the great Ramón Montoya.  Paco felt the musical concept of flamenco instrumentation had to be rebuilt, starting from scratch, unfettered by blind obeisance to the past.

By 1980, he had started to master the key concepts of other musical styles, including rock but above all, jazz.

It was his dream, and it went over very well.  In fact, as the above article foreshadowed, other guitarists almost unanimously followed his musical direction.   That often meant abandoning the distinctive styles they had originally learned and enriched, and working only within the new aesthetic that Paco de Lucía had forged on his own.

Today, flamenco guitarists with talent and clout round up other musicians, and model their performances on jazz groups.  They work as part of an ensemble.  There is, in a sense, no such thing as a flamenco guitar concert, at least as a solo flamenco guitar concert.

They are proud to say they are, one and all, disciples of Paco de Lucía.  And flamenco guitar, once a garden where many flowers bloomed, has become a monoculture – a world where excellence is measured by how well one follows the basic path carved by one man: the greatest genius the art has ever seen.  Paco de Lucía.

And this week, in the wake of his sudden absence, their most frequent response is to call themselves orphans.

For the first time in the history of the instrument, no one is in charge.

Brook Zern

P.S.  The two outstanding American guitarists mentioned in the article, Carlos Lomas and Guillermo Ríos, remain excellent players and teachers.

Chuck Keyser’s flamenco falseta collections and his massive method are available at no cost on his website:  http://www.flamencochuck.com/


March 3, 2014   No Comments

Madonna Will Open a Flamenco Academy in Los Angeles – Article from Spain’s El Mundo – translated with comments by Brook Zern

From the December 30, 2013 edition of El Mundo, one of Spain’s most respected newspapers

The Least Known Facet of the Pop Star

Madonna Will Open a Flamenco Academy in Los Angeles


• A trusted person is now choosing the future professors of flamenco dance and song

• The artist has expressed admiration for Sara Baras’s dance and Ketama’s music

• She also showed off a frilly red flamenco dress in a video and attended a performance of El Farruco

By José de Santiago

The least known facet of Madonna is her afición (passion) for flamenco.  Her admiration of the art is so strong that she wants to open a school in Los Angeles, and a person she trusts [una persona de su confianza] is now selecting those who will become the future teachers [profesores] in the California city.

Her afición dates to the end of the nineties, when she spent several days in Madrid and combined pleasure with work.  At that time, accompanied by Miguel Bosé [the hugely popular singer, Latin Grammy winner, and son of Spanish actress Lucia Bosé and the legendary bullfighter Luís Miguel Dominguín]; Pedro Almodóvar [the acclaimed filmmaker]; Rosario Flores [the Latin Grammy winning singer and actress, and daughter of Spain’s most famous singer-actress, Lola Flores]; and a group of friends, she went to a flamenco fiesta at the home of Piedad Aguirre [sister of Esperanza Aguirre [titled the Countess of Bornos; once President of Madrid, now President of Madrid’s Partido Popular, Spain’s ruling rightist party, and the first woman to be appointed Honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.]

The next day, the singer said she was ecstatic about the dancing of [the terrific flamenco dancer] Sara Baras and the magic of the songs of La Barbería del Sur and Ketama [two then-hot flamenco fusion groups doing pop songs with a flamenco feel].  It’s said that the americana then went to a juerga [a free-form flamenco jam session] until after 4 a.m.. and that she struck up a close friendship [entabló una buena amistad] with Antonio Carmona [a member of Ketama along with others from his famed Gypsy family from Granada; son of the great flamenco guitarist Juan Habichuela, perhaps the best living accompanist for flamenco singers; and nephew of the brilliant guitarist Pepe Habichuela, a noted flamenco virtuoso and pioneer in working with jazz artists like bassist Dave Holland to create new musical blends].

Also, in the eighties she gave a wink to flamenco when she chose a red frilly dress  for the video of her pop song “La isla bonita”.  And last year, during her world tour dubbed MDNA, she was accompanied by a flamenco dancer.

During another Spanish visit, she was determined to see a flamenco dance production starring Antonio Fernandez Montoya “Farruco”, [a great flamenco dancer and namesake of his grandfather, revered as possibly the finest dancer in living memory] at which she ended up dancing in the middle of a road to the astonishment of the group.  “Farruco”, who is now 25, confessed that if Madonna had fallen in love with his dancing, he felt the same about her generosity and humility.

End of article.  The original is at http://www.elmundo.es/loc/2013/12/30/52bdea7422601d747c8b4583.html

Translator’s notes and comments:

1)  I have added the information in brackets.

2)  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and in hard-core flamenco circles, no quarter is asked and none is given.  (When I dared to challenge an opinion voiced by the great guitarist Pepe Habichuela who’s mentioned above, he said, “You know what’s wrong with you?”  I said no.  He said, “Your mouth is too big and your ears are too small.”)

Madonna certainly knows what and who she likes at any given moment, but her fragmentary inklings about flamenco do not bode well for a potentially important cultural institution like a well-funded, high-profile flamenco academy.

Instant history:  For a long time, flamenco was in the clutches of an ingrown group of traditionalist tastemakers who revered the existing art and respected its inflexible rules and regulations.  In the early seventies, flamenco was shaken by a revolution led by the great guitarist Paco de Lucía and his friend and collaborator, the great singer Camarón de la Isla.  At first, the changes were subtle — guitar harmonies taken from Western music, or freer vocal lines; soon, however, their shared vision began to transform the art.

New instruments and entire orchestras supplanted the singer’s traditional lone-guitar accompaniment, while the fifty or so song forms were augmented by mixing, mashing, blending and fusing flamenco with many other musical styles.  Meanwhile, the paradigm of the lone guitar soloist — think Carlos Montoya or the great virtuoso Sabicas — was eradicated by Paco’s decision to instead front jazz-style instrumental groups with bass, percussion, horns, flutes and harmonicas.  Not to be outmoderned, flamenco dancers, too, began begging and borrowing elements from ballet, jazz, hip-hop and yes, modern.

So purism is passé, and traditionalists are termed the Taliban.  Fusion rules, so there are no rules.  But flamenco can only be stretched so far before it distorts or fractures.  If anything goes, flamenco will inevitably become something else.  And when you’re negotiating this minefield, you gotta know your stuff.

Assuming this alleged news story didn’t spring full-blown from the forehead of a flak looking for a daily press mention, I hope and expect that Madonna’s designated deputy understands these realities.  Ketama doesn’t do flamenco, though its members certainly could if they want to.  La Barberia del Sur didn’t do flamenco either, and probably couldn’t [correction -- my friend Arturo Martínez points out that members of this fusion group, too, have impeccable real-flamenco credentials from the Extremadura region -- the guitarist Juan José Suarez is the son of the fine singer Ramón el Portugues -- and they even linked up with the Carmona/Habichuela family of Ketama fame  at certain points].

Farruco and his whole family are glorious flamenco artists, but this clan vehemently rejects the current fusion trends that in their estimation dilute or pollute this incredible cultural creation (see/seek nearby Farruco entries in this blog.)

Madonna, like virtually all Americans, won’t like real flamenco song, which is the antithesis of pop; it’s a high compliment to say that a certain singer “hiere” (wounds) the prepared listener.  She also won’t enjoy listening to actual flamenco guitar, as opposed to that lone flamenco-ish lick she used to spice up “La Isla Bonita”.  And, like many Americans, she might like good flamenco dancing, whether traditional or transgressive.

A hypothetical wealthy flamenco artist who suddenly got a crush on certain American rock or jazz artists and decided to open an Academy of Rock in Spain’s flamenco capital of Seville would only succeed by admitting he or she didn’t know Richie Havens from Richard Penniman (Little Richard, to you), and hiring qualified help.

And vice versa, natch.  Be sure your “trusted person” knows the difference between the soleá de Joaquin el de la Paula and the malagueña doble de Enrique el Mellizo, and then hand over all the money and decisions to them.

(For a shockingly negligible price by your standards, I’m instantly available to head your brilliant project– my bio is in here somewhere, and yes, it casually drops the name of  King Juan Carlos the First of Spain who knighted me for the dissemination of Spanish culture in America — does that outrank your gal-pal, Ms.Aguirre?

And for a few dollars more, I will abjectly recant my prissy purism and my arch-traditionalist, obviously obsolete obstructionist false ideologies and get with the program.

Thank you for your kind consideration, Ms. Ciccone, and I love those coney things you wear in front, the ones you copied from Lady Gaga, and think they would add an interesting and dangerous new dimension to those boring, unpointy flamenco costumes we see all too often these days.

(Free hint: In the singing classes at your new Academy — I hear the architect Renzo Piano needs work — do not apply that electronic sonic retouching machine you use to correct your wavering pitch for recordings and concerts.  In flamenco singing, so-called microtonal intervals are an intrinsic element of this non-Western art, indebted to Arab and other distant vocal traditions.  That’s just one of the many qualities that make serious flamenco singing so wildly unpopular in this country — suffice it to say that my father, who taught me my first flamenco guitar music, had an early hi-fi record that featured great flamenco singing.  It was called “Music to Speed the Parting Guest.”

It always worked.

(Don’t go away, Mad.  Just go away.  Trust me, in this one single area you aren’t merely like a virgin; you are a virgin,)

Hope to see all my flamenco friends at the open auditions at the L.A. Coliseum on…

Brook Zern


December 30, 2013   15 Comments

Camarón’s historic record “La leyenda del tiempo” reissued in 35th Anniversary edition – article by Javier Herrero – translated with comments by Brook Zern

An article by Javier Herrero in today’s edition of the online publication lainformacion.com tells the story of the reissuing of Camarón de la Isla’s historic flamenco-fusion recording “La leyenda del tiempo” on its 35th anniversary.  It’s at this endless url:   http://noticias.lainformacion.com/arte-cultura-y-espectaculos/musica-rock-and-roll/ricardo-pachon-dice-que-nunca-vi-a-camaron-mas-feliz-que-con-la-leyenda-del-tiempo_fWhBE2hcPVP9LOVPydudT1/

Here’s my translation, followed by some snarky comments:

Headline:  Ricardo Pachón says he “never saw Camarón happier than when he recorded ‘La leyenda del tiempo’”

Ricardo Pachón, the producer of  “La leyenda del tiempo”, never saw [the great flamenco singer] Camarón de la Isla as happy as he was during the creation of that emblematic record, which is being reissued 35 years after it broadened the horizon of flamenco worldwide with its look towards rock that anticipated [another crucial innovative recording], Enrique Morente’s “Omega”.

“What we did had never been done before, because 35 years ago I had no idea how to mix a recording and I was totally confused,” Pachón said to [Spain’s national news agency] EFE in which he emphasized the “reconstruction” techniques used for this album, Camarón’s most important along with “Soy gitano” of 1989, including the removal of the excess of “reverb” so characteristic of that era.

The person charged with “cleaning the painting” without changing its face, with “restoring it and doing justice to this keystone of Spanish music”, was Juan de Dios Martín, the producer of famous Spanish rock artists including Amaral and Rubén Pozo, which is especially evident in his work with the drum and bass parts.

He worked under the supervision of Pachón, who was responsible for many of the singer’s recordings including the original version of “La leyenda del tiempo”, and he said of the album’s cover, the removal of “de la Isla” from the singer’s name leaving just “Camarón” in a typographic logo that, he confesses, was inspired by the American group Chicago.

Thanks to his work in cleaning up the original tapes with the voice of Camarón and the guitar of Tomatito, it is now possible to hear details that had been lost in that “ball of sound”, such as the flamenco dance footwork in the alegrías titled “Bahia de Cádiz” or “the way Camarón swallows saliva and clears his throat”.

“La leyenda del tiempo”, published in 1979, became a “disco bisagra” [a "door hinge recording" opening up music to broader horizons], like the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper””, Pachón has said.

“We lived in a divine unawareness [“inconciencia”]; we were having a wonderful time ["disfrutando"] with ideas for new songs, and I never saw Camarón happier and more “entregado” [delivering everything he had].  We didn’t know that this record would be transcendent, and perhaps because of this we made it happen,” he recalls.

The album stood out on one hand for its literary aspect, with verses by Kiko Veneno (author of the album’s mythical “Volando voy”) and by [the great poet from Morón de la Frontera] Fernando Villalon as well as Omar Khayyam, and with surrealist texts by Federico García Lorca at a time which almost no one had set that poets words to music, including the title song/poem, suggested, curiously, by a Danish cathedral.

It also stood out musically, featuring the participation of Tomatito [who had taken over the role of Camarón’s main accompanist from the supreme modern flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía when Paco committed to frequent world tours], Jorge Pardo [on bass], the guitarists Rafael and Ramón Amador [pioneers of rock/flamenco guitar fusion], and, most curious of all, the progressive rock musicians from the group Alameda.

“With the arrival of Camarón, who was the prince of the Gypsies, the model to be followed, it was clear that the doors had been thrown open, and from that point on, flamenco artists began to experiment with other instruments without any complexes [a reference to previous self-doubts due to the negative responses of many traditionalists to such profound changes in the essential nature of flamenco music.]

It was not the first of the records in which Pachón tested this marriage, an obsession born with the record “Rock Encounter” of Sabicas and Joe Beck, and which led to his work with the groups Smash, Lole y Manuel, and Pata Negra.

“I recently read that “Omega”, from 2006, more or less created flamenco rock, according to the writer; but historically and in fairness, one must point out that “Rock Gitano” by Pata Negra and Camarón’s “La leyenda del tiempo” came first,” Pachón says.

The re-release appears in several formats, with a “superdeluxe” limited edition including the CD and a 180-gram vinyl version as well as a DVD with the documentary “Tiempo de leyenda”, a 60-page book with previously unseen photos and comments from the press of the era.

“La leyenda del tiempo” had a small initial run at first; the Gypsies “lo aceptaron fatal” [hated it] and the camaroneros [Camarón fans] thought that their idol had gone nuts, but he just laughed at all that,” Pachón recalls about this extremely shy and humble artist who, in spite of this, became “a Gypsy myth” – noting that in his opinion, “this would become one of the elements responsible for his later ruin.”

End of article

A pretty interesting piece about a monumental recording.  Of course, when all is said and done, the URL given above shows that the article appears in the Rock and Roll Music section of this online publication.

When I was living in Seville in the mid-sixties, I knew more about rock and roll than anyone else in town, though that wasn’t saying a whole lot.

(Before I left the U.S., I had the weird fantasy of becoming, well, sort of, well, a music critic, but writing about rock music – yeah, that’s it, a “rock critic”.  But since there was no such thing, I decided not pursue that line of employment.)

Anyway, I was in Seville for the flamenco.  But the day after I arrived, the members of the future above-mentioned pioneering rock group Smash showed up at my door, noted that I was an American with a guitar, and asked me to show them how to rock and roll.

I said I didn’t actually know how to rock and roll, and my guitar was just a flamenco guitar.  They were pretty disappointed, of course, but accepted my offer to rehearse on the big top-floor terrace surrounding my small apartment.

(They were all good singers and instrumentalists, but they sounded awful because each of them was singing his own garbled version of imitation English.  So I wrote out a big phonetic-Spanish version of the actual words – AY JUANA JOLD EUR JAND…, and suddenly they were all in vocal sync and sounded terrific.  The group morphed into Los Murcielagos and then to Smash, and the rest is history.  And I was recently delighted when their lead man, the fabled musical genius Gualberto García, invited me to come see him in Seville.)

The article mentions Sabicas’s record “Flamenco Rock Encounter”, which Pachón wasn’t involved in.  It was a nervy idea, far ahead of its time, but it was a musical failure — not a real collaboration but just a mishmash of Joe Beck’s rock guitar with Sabicas’s great flamenco music.  Sabicas,who had no grasp or interest in rock, told me was embarrassed by it.  The two artists never even met, much less jammed, or so he said.

Pachón takes issue with the notion that Enrique Morente’s “Omega” was the first flamenco rock record.  In some elite flamenco circles, the late Morente is held in greater esteem than Camarón.  It’s not an argument I care about, because I prefer actual flamenco.

(For any Spaniards trying to read this – please note that “actual flamenco” in English means “real flamenco or “authentic flamenco”, whatever that may be; but “actual flamenco” or “flamenco actual” in Spanish means present-day or up-to-the-minute flamenco, which has the opposite connotation – it will probably feature lots of drums and horns and choruses and whatever.)  And yes, both Camarón and Morente made their bones in the discriminating and rigid realm of traditional flamenco before they transcended or violated its boundaries.

One of Pachon’s pet projects, Pata Negra, with the hip guitarslinging Amadors, had a cut called “Blues de la Frontera”, indebted to the soniquete or groove of Morón de la Frontera, which quotes a characteristic bulerías guitar falseta by Diego del Gastor.

That’s nice.  But Pachón also ended up with a fabulous treasure trove of private tape recordings made by the late American guitarist Chris Carnes and his wife, the singer Moreen Carnes – the only American woman to make a real flamenco record (and  accompanied by the magnificent player Melchor de Marchena, yet.)

It would be really, really nice if Señor Pachón saw fit to release a good chunk of the hundreds of hours of that great collection of legendary singers (Juan Talega, Manolito de la María, Antonio Mairena, Fernanda de Utrera…) backed by Morón guitarists including Diego and Paco del Gastor as well as many fine out-of-towners.

If anyone can pull enough strings to make that happen, it would be Ricardo Pachón.  And if an official release is impossible as well as presumably unprofitable, it would be good to accidentally leak a well-mastered bunch of stuff into the flamenco community, or at least the dwindling subset of people who love such antiquated caterwauling from the era before allegedly flamenco records appeared in the Rock and Roll section of newspapers.

Such an release would not please everyone.  But it would be a victory for posterity.

Brook Zern - brookzern@gmail.com

December 10, 2013   2 Comments

Flamenco Singer Manuel Oliver speaks – Interview by M. Herrera Rodas – Translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note: Here is another translation of an interview with a flamenco artist.  In this case, the artist was an important representative of the Triana school of singing — but not the Gypsy side of it.  Instead, he represents the non-Gypsy aspect of flamenco song.  His name is Manuel Oliver, and he was interviewed in a 1986 issue of Sevilla Flamenca by M. Herrera Rodas.

Triana, of course, is just across the Guadalquivir river from Seville.  It’s noted primarily for the Gypsy singers who were there in the early years of flamenco (the Gypsies in particular were largely forced out, relocated to the Poligonos by the 1960′s).  But Triana was also the home base for an interesting nucleus of non-Gypsy singers.  Here’s the story:

[The interviewer writes]:  “If Triana is just a memory, it’s because of a lack of sensibility on the part of many in the government; their thoughtlessness caused an exodus, as we know, and one that cannot be remedied.  But there was one saving grace.  The Hotel de Triana — not an actual  hotel, but a “casa de vecinos” or house for neighbors, built in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century and slated for demolition, was rescued by Mayor Uruñuela.  He in turn was influenced by José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, the key figure behind the Bienal Flamenco de Sevilla, who fought to preserve the place.  Now the Hotel de Triana is a key part of the Bienal — Ortiz Nuevo was married there to Ana María, and Seville has retained a part of itself.

And in the Hotel de Triana, on the second floor, there’s a man who is a living example of the Triana that resisted demolition, and kept singing, and holds a thousand anecdotes.  He is Manuel Oliver Dorado, and he has lived here for 16 years, sharing with his wife Dolores Sánchez a little two-room apartment that holds many memories, and many sorrows.  A grave illness left him very wasted away (mermado), but he has recovered perfectly.  But there was no real recovery from the loss of the couple’s son Antonio five years ago.  They had five children, and now only Felix survives.  But the absence of Antonio still brings tears to the tired eyes of these venerable elders.

A simple homage, rendered on the part of the friends of the Mesón “Las Cigarreras” at exactly the place where (the singer) Antonio el Arenero had his “rincón” or special spot, let us share the memories of Manuel Oliver about Triana from the beginning of our century.  But because his afición for the cante and his love for Triana were so strong, his knowledge of Triana (Seville is right across the river) go back to the last decades of the previous century, because Manuel can also reveal the memories of his late father, of Malino, of all the old folks who were in Triana and who taught Manuel the cante and the life of the pueblo.

Despite his eighty years, Manuel is in fine shape, short and straight, solid and elegantly dressed.  But his lively eyes leave a sense of permanent sadness, of pain not overcome.  There seems to be a grasping of the cante as a means to express his anguish and his sorrows.

We’ve arrived at his hous and are seated at a table for a long chat.  It’s mid-afternoon, and the sun is behind some dark clouds, leaving a chill in the air.

– “I was born on Castilla Street, in a “corral de vecinos“, on October 14, 1906.  I was baptized in Santa Ana, the church where all of Triana’s great artists were baptized — not just singers, but dancers, and the best bullfighters.

One of my best friends was Antonio Ballesteros, may he rest in peace, who sang soleares and siguiriyas that could make you lose your mind.  Then there was the brother Joaquinito, younger, who also sang.  I heard the father of Arenero…but above all, I listened to my father, who sang very well, and with him and his friends — such as Pepe el de la Matrona, Paco Reyes, el Cartujano and Moralito — I learned my first cantes.  I knew when I’d find them singing, and the ‘bronca‘ — the juerga — lasted until the early morning.  It ended when they’d spent the all the money they had won at cards. This was when I was eight or ten.

I never went to school.  Well, my father got a private teacher who’d teach kids at their homes.  I didn’t go to colegio (primary school) because my father didn’t want us to.  He had goats and a milk stand on Mateos Gago street.  At mid-day, he’d go there.  There was a big colegio there, with a first and second floor.  And one day it collapsed, killing more than two hundred kids.

Incredible!  More than 90 years ago.  And after that, my father said “My kids aren’t going to colegio“.

I was one of seven kids, and my father Manuel was from Castilleja, right beside Triana, but my mother was Trianera, though her father came from Cantillana.  My maternal grandfather was a picador, and worked with famous toreros like Espartero, the Bombitas, Pasadas, El Guerra and others.  My father worked in La Cartuja (presumably the ceramic works at the monastery site that would become Expo ’92) from childhood.  He met my mother there when she was fourteen, and they left to get married when my father became 27.”

The Interviewer writes:  “In its socio-cultural aspect as well, Triana has continued to lose the privileged status it had in the first decade of this century.  Today in Triana, which was the cradle of ceramic-working (alfarería=pottery) there are no longer establishments that make unglazed  (sin vidriar) pieces.  There are, though, a few workshops that survived the crisis that hit the sector after the Seville Exposition of 1929 (and what an opportunity, as 1992 approaches, to support one of the most beautiful crafts in Andalusia’s rich culture), and survived the hardships of the postwar era and the years of emigration and the material decay of Triana.  These workshops that still exist, and other that appear, are starting to dust off ancient models, designs, colors and forms that flourished in the Eighteenth Century and that have their roots in the Arab ceramic workshops that were found in much of Andalusia during the occupation.

We speak of these things with Manuel Oliver, and he notes that it was an Englishman, Don Carlos Pickman, who built the Cartujan monastery of Santa María de las Cuevas, on the banks of the Guadalquivir just north of Triana, in 1841, to make English-style China in Seville.  We ask if La Cartuja has changed much.

–”Ojú! Todo! I went to La Cartuja, to the new factory, with Rafael Belmonte, brother of (the great bullfighter) Juan Belmonte, who was born here on Castilla street.  And it’s almost totally different.  Do you know what it was like to see those women who came to work at La Cartuja, with their mantones (shawls) de Manila and their little handbaskets…Those lovely women, with that grace that they had in Triana… It was the same thing as at the big Tobacco Factory (where the fictional Carmen worked)…  What a time!

Five or six hundred women, working at La Cartuja — it was really somethingto see them go in!

But there was alfarería and cerámica all over Triana.  There was Corbato, now Santa Ana.  And Montalban, who died.  And the workshop of Ramos, Rejano who painted best of all, and Manolito Pestana…

I wasn’t an alfarero, though.  But I had a brick factory on Tejares Street, where I grew up and have lived most of my life.  I’ve worked many jobs, everything I could.  With the goats of my father.  I’d go from here to the Vega de Triana and El Barrero, to the fields of Castilleja to let them graze.

But when I was twelve, my mother got me a job in a carpentry shop, working the saws.  And I stayed there till the war (1936), when they called me up for the cavalry.  And I was so fed up with being shut up in a room and working eight to ten hours every day filing saws and cutting wood without seeing the light or the sky or the fields, that I went off to a tile-works that my  father had.  I’d go for the clay, and do all kinds of work.

Near Cartuja was the venta (roadside inn) called El Vela, and (the legendary Gypsy singers) Manuel Torre and La Niña de los Peines would often go there to sing.  Because Pastora (Pavón — La Niña de los Peines), when she came back from tours, came here to Triana.  My father and mother told me that she came here when she was a little girl, wearing lots of peines (combs) in her hair, which is how she got her name.  She came to the house of Baldomera.  There’d be lots of people from Extremadura and some small towns there, and an uncle of Pastora’s lived at 130 Castilla street, in the Corral de la Higuerita.  She’d come here with her mother.  And at night, she’d go there and sing four tanguitos (a diminutive word for the flamenco tangos) and four (other) things, to earn two pesetas!   Pastora sang the tangos de Triana.  She was the only one left who did the tangos de Triana, because today everybody says ”tangos-tientos” –that’s  a lie!  The tientos never existed — it’s just that the tango has a difficult rhythm (un ritmo difícil); and the singers didn’t know how to enter (start) into it.  The rhythm of Cádiz has never been lost!  The tangos of Cádiz are distinct in their rhythm from those of Triana.  Triana has a rhythm that nobody knows how to get into; Naranjo (Naranjito de Triana?) does an aire de Triana in this…

My early contacts with cante?  I remember hearing cante in public the first time,  when my father took me to the chapel of the Marineros, where the Esperanza is now.  There was a salon de cante there, and someone called El Chato de Madrid was singing a malagueña that drove people wild.  I started singing when I listened to my father.  And the first time I sang in public was when my cousing Antonio “El Penitente” got married in the Corral of Valladares Street.  Everybody sang there.  I sang the fandangos that were so popular in Triana then:

Aunque el rio llegue a Palmay
s’ahoguen los palmeros,
en no ahogandote tu
que s’ahogue el mundo entero.

I also remember that in the baptism of a cousin (prima mia), I heard Currito el de la Geroma sing a soleá that stripped your senses, but he didn’t sing the soleá de Triana — be careful, now! — to sing por Triana, (in the true Triana style), well, there’s a crack in the bridge and you have to cross over it…  Currito sang the Gypsy soleá instead (“el cante gitano por soleá, mas bien!”)

Currito was a singer, but then he got tuberculosis and to earn a living he took up the guitar.  He went to Charco la Pava, on the road to San Juan (de Aznalfarche?) and sought his livelihood.  And my uncle and father let me sing after him, and I did the soleares in my own way, those of Triana, naturally.  And Currito hugged me, and there was a big outburst and hubbub (alboroto).

When I was young I sang with lots of artists.  El Sordillo, Emilio Abadia. I’ll tell you something.  El Sordillo sang very well, but the cante wasn’t his — it was Emilio’s.  Because El Sordillo was from Velez-Malaga, and since he sang very well, he picked up the cantes de Triana here — but he learned them from Emilio Abadia.  And Emilio was a phenomenal singer.  He did the verse that El Zapatero does now:

Coge, Maria, a este niña
y llevatelo a la muralla,
dale un sorbito de teta
veras como te se calle.

Although El Sordillo, because he didn’t have Emilio’s power, did it lower and lo mesia (?) more.  Emilio was the nephew of Fernando el de Triana (a noted Triana singer who wrote one of the first books about flamenco).  Fernando died in Camas (near Triana) because when he retired he started a little tavern there, where I heard him sing a few times.  He sang so well.  I also often heard Pepe el de la Matrona — another genius, though he wasn’t from Triana but from Seville.  His mother came to live in the Corral de los Judiíos, the house here Rafael (Rafael el Negro) and Matilde (Matilde Coral) now have their dance academy.  Pepe Matrona’s mother was contracted by the Ayuntamiento (Municipal hall) to sell food in the Patrocinio…and so she came to live in Triana and Pepe, who was a good aficionado, made himself a singer here, with Fernando, and Vigil, and Ramón el Ollero.

My father said that Ramón el Ollero was the best in Spain for singing the soleá.  His work was making excavations (hoyos=holes; “ollero“=holemaker) in Alfarería Street.  He had phenomenal force as a singer, a very potent voice.  And he’d do the cante ligandolo — singing the lines in one sweep (ligado=tied), de un tirón (all at once).  My father said he would do this entire soleá without drawing a breath:

Capilla del Carmen.
Aunque vayas tu y te metas
en la Capilla del Caren,
tu de mis unas no te escapas.
M’has hecho un agravio mu grande,
aunque tu vayas y te metas
en la Capilla del Carmen.

But just as he’d do that long cante for you, he’d also do a short one (un cantecito corto):

Que me s’importara a mi
qu’haya tan buenos doctores
si me tengo que morir.

(What does it matter to me/ that there are such good doctors/ if I have to die.)

It was from this fountain, and from Enrique Vigil, that Pepe el de la Matrona would drink when he came to Triana.

Ramón also sang siguiriyas to drive you mad (pa rabiar), and for this reason my father said that Ramón had a grandeur (grandeza) in the cante.  And there was El Pancho, and Moralito.  Moralito had a short little cante, that I often sing.  Like this:

(Do you remember back when/ you’d come running to see me/ and now you don’t even know me.)

In this cante, like all those of Triana, the good part (lo bueno) is in the low parts (los bajos).  And those low parts are what El Pancho had.  He would say:

No te compro mas camisas,
yo no visto mas altares
pa que otro diga misa

(I’m not buying you any more shirts;/ I won’t cover any more altars/ so that others can say mass on them.)

Well, although the good part is in the low tones, the truth is that everyone does the cantes in their own way.  El Sordillo did the cantes one way, and Joaquín Castillares, who was the best in Triana for singing El Pancho’s songs, did them another way.  And Emilio Abadia, well I sometimes do the same verses (letras) as Emilio and yet I adapt them to my music, and el Pili did it another way.  And Miguelillo el de la Cerveza…

No, I never knew the Caganchos (a famous Gypsy family of flamencos and bullfighters, of Triana).  Well, I know the father of the bullfighter, who was also named Manuel Cagancho, and was the son of the famous singer Cagancho.  He was the best at singing the Gypsy cantes of Triana.  That’s what my father told me, and so did Vigil, Moralito, Fernando and El Malino.

Malino told me:  “Look, Manuel, everyone is just wrong when it comes to the martinetes.”  El Malino was an old man, and I was just fourteen, but I hung around with all the old folks.  And I went to the house of Quilino, on Calle Pureza, and Malino drank two negros and I had coffee — I’ll soon be eighty-one and I have never taken a drink — well, Malino said that Cagancho’s martinetes were very short, and very pure.  Nowadays, some martinetes are done very long and without flourishes (mu largos y sin florituras).  El Malino said:

Ay, ay, cuando llegó la justicia
y mi casa arregistro
Mi compañero llorando
y yo metío en el colchón.

Then there was Garfias, who sang serranas better than anyone.  He was a night watchman, and he’d sing softly (cantiñeaba), and people would listen at their balconies, because he sang so well.  He did this verse:

De mi serrana
que vale mas la peineta
de mi serrana
que la recua de mulas
de Cantillana.

You have to keep going lower at the end, going lower — and not shouting. And there was the father of Arenero, also called Antonio, who sang mu gracioso por malagueñas, por soleá, por siguiriyas…An extraordinary man.

We went to fiesta and he sang for six days.  And didn’t want anyone else getting into it.  He started out as a sand-carrier for Manolito Malaarma, in el Barranco, with a team of burros. And Domingo el Afarero — the strangest man in the world.  He had an extraordinary voice.  He’s two years older than me, and sings very purely and very well, but he’s very odd (raro) and so it’s hard to hear him sing.

[The interviewer writes:  “Manuel tells more stories of singers, and we gather that Gypsies and payos (non-Gypsies) lived in close contact in a unique and exemplary way (en una convivencia única y exemplar)“]

Oliver:  “There were two “cavas” (areas) in Triana, that of the “civiles“ (non-Gypsies) and that of the Gypsies.  The Cava de los Civiles ran from San Jacinto (bridge) to here, up to Coheteria Street and San Vicente de Padua. That of the gitanos ended at the Camaronero Bridge, at the Calle Betis, where there was a factory.”

Int:  “How was the convivencia (relationship) in Triana among payos and gitanos?”

“Superior!  Here we were all equals.  Now my father told me that two verses he knew in the soleá referred to the fact that on one occasion there were also problems.  Like these letras:

En la capilla del Carmen
mataron a Taravita
!Como lloraba su madre!

“In the Chapel of Carmen
they killed Tavarita;
How his mother wept!”

That’s the little story of a very “apañao” (resourceful) young man, who gave orders to everybody and who was killed by a Gypsy who came over the bridge, drunk.  The Chapel of Carmen wasn’t where it is now, but where the big bank is today.  Well, that event made the public rise up.  And that’s seen in this other verse from soleá:

En el barrio de Triana
unos se tiran al rio
y otros llaman la guardia.

(In the barrio of Triana,
some threw themselves in the river,
and others called for the police.)

But we ourselves got along very well.  Like brothers.  The best gitanos in all of Spain are those of Triana.  And the hardest working.  They work mostly in their forges, though they are also butchers (almost all the butchers in the plaza are gitanos), or they were mule-skinners (o pelaban borricos) like Rufino, the father of La Concepción…”

[The interviewer writes]:  We find ourselves lost in a labyrinth of names and dates that Manuel Oliver gives us.  He is a bank of details for a history of his barrio, a Triana that remains to be studied in many of its aspects.  We have to get back to the realm of cante.

Int:  What were the cantes of Triana?

Oliver:  These:  The soleá; the siguiriya of Sr. Manuel Cagancho, which is a short siguiriya; the martinetes and the toná.  The toná almost ties itself to one another (is sung in a run-on way?)  (La toná casi se liga una con la otra).  And the tangos.  And on the stones of Triana a mountain of artists have walked, like Loco Mateo, Manuel Torre, La Rubia, El Canario — they’ve all passed through here.”

Int:  “What’s the right term (for the non-Gypsy soleá of Triana): the soleá alfarera or the soleá del Zurraque?”

Oliver:  “It’s the soleá de Triana.  Because the soleá was sung by alfareros, and also by carpenters and masons — so it should be called the soleá de Triana.”

Int:  “But it’s not the same soleá de Triana as the one the Gypsies do, is it?”

Oliver:  “Of course, the Gypsies do a soleá with more compás (rhythm), but they don’t have the sweet voice (voz dulce) to be able to do the soleá de Triana that we do on this side, because their ecos (sound qualities) are different (distintos).  Look, not even Antonio Mairena could do the songs of this crazy thing that is our soleá!”

Int:  “Hombre!  [Do you know what you're saying??]  Antonio Mairena!”

Oliver:  “No, not even Antonio.  It was because of the eco, the voice, because the soleá de Triana that we do demands a sweeter voice.  Because the voice of the gitano is not like that of the payo.”

Int:  “Let’s leave the abstract for the concrete — you yourself.  What is your cante?”

Oliver:  “I sing a little cante (cantecito) por solea de Ramón (el Ollero) that I heard my father sing.  I also do a cante of La Gómez de Triana, called La Niña de la Gómez, who sang so you lost your senses.  I do six or seven variations of cante por soleá.  Of course, I do them in my own manner, with my music.  The same as Emilio Abadia, for example, who put his thing into his music, well, I’ve put mine.  It’s my music, and my way of vocalizing it.  I adopt it to what I’ve heard.”

Int:  “What is the cante, Manuel?”

Oliver:  Ojú — a poison (un veneno).  And those whom it enters “se vuelve majara“, (are driven mad, go crazy — majara is the caló word for crazy) like me.”

Int:  “Why do you sing?”

Oliver:  “To express feelings.  To express happiness, or sorrow.  Because one can sing from grief.  That’s why the letra says:

!Que culpita tengo yo
que los ojos no me lloren
si me llora el corazon!

“You cannot fault me
if my eyes don’t cry,
if my heart does.”

Int:  “Manuel, is there a special form of being from Triana.  Is there a different philosophy of life?  A feeling of freedom, the fruit of its age and the wisdom of the people, as reflected in the verse of Antonio el Arenero…

Los serenos de Triana
van diciendo por la calle
que duerma el que tenga sueno
que yo no despierto a nadie”.

(The night watchmen of Triana
say in the street,
let anyone who’s tired go to sleep;
I won’t awaken anyone.)

Oliver:  “Yes, it was like that — that’s what the night watchman Garfia sang, the one I mentioned before.  He sang in the streets and everyone listened…”

Int:  “What’s the best place to perform or listen to cante?”

Oliver:  “The best place is a little room with eight or ten friends who know the cante and know how to listen.  That’s where I’m at my best and happiest.”

Int:  “Where do you think the cante is headed?”

Oliver:  “I see it as becoming adulterated and so it seems to be going badly.”

Int: “Who’s adulterating it?”

Oliver:  “Well, almost everyone (Pues, casi tos).  Eighty percent of the artists today, instead of learning to sing, just “pegar voces” (shout).  For that reason, I don’t want to hear anyone sing these days.  Who would I listen to?”

Int:  “To Camarón, for example!”

Oliver:  “A phenomenon, but he still doesn’t know how to sing beside the people I’ve heard.  Because I’ve had the “misfortune” to hear La Moreno, La Cochinita, Piripi, Vallejo, Nino Gloria, his sisters, La Pompi.  All those people who could sing bulerías to drive you wild (pa rabiar).  And La Moreno was better than all of them put together!  In the bulerías por soleá, she was unique.  El Almendro learned from her, the primo hermano (first cousin?) of (the great Gypsy torero) Rafael el Gallo and a banderillero; and when he got drunk, he’d call La Moreno to the fiestas, and then El Caracol (Manolo Caracol) learned from Almendro.  Once, I remember that we went to La Europa, to the (famous flamenco cafe) Siete Puertas, with El Monge, Antoñito Ballesteros, Fernando Bellido…and La Moreno, who lived here, said “Now my children are here.”  There was Tomás (Pavón); Rebollo, Gloria, La Cochinita — Antonio Ballesteros managed the money to invite all those people.”

Int:  “Manuel Torre?”

Oliver:  “A genius.  He sang only when he wanted to.  He was a monster in siguiriyas.”

Int:  “El Gloria?”

Oliver:  “Mucho fuelle (fuelle=bellows) — lots of lung power.  He sang very well por bulerías, and bulerías por soleá.  And he left his mark on the fandango, and por saetas.”

Int:  “Carbonerillo?”

Oliver:  “El Carbonero sang por soleá, very tranquil, very well.  Soleá gitana.”

Int:  “We’ve already spoken of La Moreno.”

Oliver:  “Por fiesta (bulerías), a genius.  And her bulerías por soleá was better than anyone’s.”

Int:  “Vallejo?”

Oliver:  “The best in bulerías, and in granainas

Int:  “Pepe Marchena?”

Oliver:  “Very sweet — exquisite.  And as an artist, the best.  The most decent of all, in the tablaos.”

Int:  “Jose Rebollo?”

Oliver:  “He specialized in the fandangos de Huelva, and I liked him more than anyone in that style. Rangel (Antonio Rengel) did some very valientes (bravura) fandangos.  But Rebollo had an eco that worked perfectly.”

Int:  “Pastora?”

Oliver:  “Another genius.  I already said that she was the only one who could do the tangos de Triana.  Because she grew up here, and like all the girls of that time, like my mother as well, they danced and sang por tangos.  And Pastora was a genius in this.  And in everything she did.  She also did the cantes de columpío that are now called bamberas (swing songs, from the countryside).”

Int:  “Tomás Pavón?”

Oliver:  “Tomás did all the cantes de Triana, very well.  A phenomenon.  The siguiriyas and the soleares gitanas.  He often listened to Ramon el Ollero, and everyone from here.  And his martinetes…  Here people also sang the carceleras, that Colchero sang for me in the days of the first Republic, the martinete por carceleras.  Because the carcelera is a cante like the martinete, but shorter (más corto)…

Me sacaron de la carcel
a caritas destemplas
me llevan de conducción
a bayoneta cala.”

Int:  “Tell us about the dance…”

Oliver.  I had the luck to know Ramírez.  He danced in the Novedades that was in La Campana, by Vallasis.  I went there to see Ramírez, La Malena, La Sorda, La Macarrona…  Ramírez was the dancer who had the finest postura (posture, stance) of all.  From the waist up, his stance was enormous.  His feet (patas) were just right.  Then Niño Bilbao came in, who could smash the boards with his footwork but had no art at all.  To dance properly, you have to do what Rafael el Negro does.  What a stance (Que planta de bailaor!).  And what art in his dancing!  For me, Rafael el Negro is the best dancer that Triana has seen in all its history.

Oh, and I also saw Carmen Amaya.  I’d go see her during a two-month stay when she danced in the Novedades on Trajano street, when she came with her father and her brother.”

Int:  “And the guitar?”

Oliver:  “For guitar, I remember Niño Ricardo who was really a special case (que era un fuera de serie), a phenomenon.  I also knew Borrull, and had the good fortune of having him play for me one night in Triana.  Miguel Borrull was Catalan, but a Gypsy, and he played in such a way…”

Int:  “Manolo de Huelva?”

Oliver:  “Him, too, of course.  The last thing that Manuel recorded, he recorded with me here in Los Remedios, in the house of a woman who was a millionaire [this would be Virginia de Zayas, whose husband Marius recorded Ramón Montoya's solos in Paris in the late 1930's.  Articles by Mrs. de Zayas appear elsewhere in this blog].  And Manuel came to play there every day.  He told me that all the singers had already passed through there.  And he called me, and I sang por soleá.  I remember that I was singing and he stopped me to say “That’s the soleá of La Serneta; where did you learn it?”.  And I said, “Well, right here in Triana”.  I had sung this letra:

Sale el sol cuando es de día
para me sale de noche.
Hasta el sol esta en contra mia.

(The sun comes out in the daytime;
for me, it comes out at night.
Even the sun is against me.)

Anyway, I sang por siguiriyas, por soleá, por martinetes, and then I told him:  “Now I’m going to sing something from your pueblo”.  He told me that to sing (the fandangos de Huelva) properly it had to be properly squared off (cuadrao).  I said I’d do what I could.  And I did the fandangos of Rangel that I loved, and when I finished he said to my cousin, the priest, “Father, this guy even sings the fandangos of my pueblo squared away perfectly.”

Int:  “Ramon Montoya?”

Oliver:  “Another genius.  I heard him several times here in Seville.”

Int:  “Others?”

Oliver:  “Yes, there was another guitarist called Antonio el Correor who had 22 guitars.  He lived on San Eloy, and he was visited by Ricardo, Borrull, Sabicas — and he was the best player!” And on La Alameda there was Eduardo el de la Malena who has the school of Niño Ricardo.  And a player of my age, Manuel Carmona, of Los Palacios, who accompanied me when I made that program for television.  And he’s a very good player. What I like is smoothness (el suavito) in playing, because the cante of Triana is very ligao (linked together) and there can’t be a lot of fanciness (florituras) on the guitar.  Nowadays, all the guitarists want to do is run their hands… and that’s not it!”

[The interviewer writes:]  It is nighttime.  We’ve spent many hours talking, while the recorder has consumed many reels of tape, and we — Paco Celaya and I — have made good use of the coffee that Dolores made for us.  Seated at this table, we have followed Manuel through all of Triana, and many years of experience and living, of people and songs.  We had asked little, but we knew much more about Triana because Manuel Oliver is an experience that never ceases to relate stories.  He is a fount that satiates our thirst to know.

One of the soleá verses he sings seems to fit:

No te mates por saber
que el tiempo te lo dira
que no hay cosa mas bonita
que el saber sin preguntar.

(Don’t kill yourself trying to know –
time will tell you;
there is nothing lovelier
than knowing without asking.)

Thank you, Manuel, for the things we now know about Triana and for the time – the time of your eighty years, and the time of your father’s years before that, and that of all the old people of Triana, reunited in your experience.  Here around this little table you have shown us so much, and your coffee is delicious — your drink of choice for a lifetime.”

End of interview by M. Oliver by M. Herrera Rodas, in Sevilla Flamenca number 46 of December, 1986.

Brook Zern

October 25, 2011   No Comments