Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Forms (“Palos”)

Flamenco Guitarist Juan Carmona of Ketama Talks About Flamenco – EFE Article – translated by Brook Zern

The Story of Flamenco, Told by “A Normal Guy From Andalucía”,  Juan Carmona

From El Confidencial  — by Jorge Fuentelsaz

Translator’s Note:   It’s rare for a certified flamenco artist to give a formal talk about where the art comes from and how it should be seen.  Here’s the story from EFE, Spain’s national news agency:

Algiers, November 15 – The Spanish guitarist Juan Carmona, a former member of the [very famous pop/salsa/flamenco group] Ketama, taught a Master Class in Algiers between flamenco songs, explaining the origin and evolution of flamenco and its varied form and branches.

“I’m speaking as what I am, as a normal Andalusian guy who has lived flamenco since I was five and who has had in his house all the key figures of flamenco, like Camarón de la Isla and Enrique Morente,” said Carmona (born in Granada in 1933 [sic – that’s actually the birthdate of the great Juan Carmona “Habichuela”, who may be his father] speaking at the Instituto Cervantes of Algiers.

Carmona offered a quick review of the “uncertain” theories about the origins of the Gypsies and of flamenco, as well as both of those words.

Afterwards, accompanied by the singer María del Carmen Segura Fuentes and with “Piripi” on guitar, he gave a brief review of the three principal groups into which flamenco forms are divided.

He explained, without choosing a favorite, three theories about the supposed origin of the Gypsies: that the came from India, or Egypt, or are one of the twelve lost tribes of Israel.

He also looked at the many suggested theories about the word “flamenco”.  Because the artists wore tight, high-waisted pants and a short jacket, it made them look like the bird of the same name [flamenco is the word for flamingo in Spanish].    Or because “flamencos” was the word for the people who were “engreidos” [conceited, self-centered, smug, arrogant, vain].  Or because it was the word for a kind of knives, or one of the words applied to Spain’s gitanos.

But beyond the linguistics and ethnic origins, flamenco “was born from the mixing/crossing of the Muslim cultures with the Gypsies of lower Andalucia.

For him, flamenco “is not the music of the Gypsies, because flamenco isn’t always found wherever Gypsies live.”

Regarding its historical evolution, the maestro [teacher/master] cited several key moments such as the emergence of the first known figures in the art, “El Fillo” and “El Planeta”, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century; and flamenco’s move out of the bars and taverns into the cafés cantantes [“singing cafés, with scheduled performances] in the [late] Nineteenth Century; and to the “opera flamenca” period [traveling shows combining noted flamenco artists with other entertainers] in the early Twentieth Century.

“With the advent of the Opera Flamenca phase, flamenco became commercialized and began to lose its pure and orthodox aspects, something that the flamenco people didn’t like at all,” Carmona said, referring to these shows held in big venues like theaters and town bullrings.

He also cited key points in flamenco history such as the 1922 Granada Concurso de Cante Jondo, orgained by Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca to promote “orthodox flamenco” which was decaying in the wake of the Opera Flamenca movement.

Lastly, he singled out Camarón de la Isla’s 1979 recording titled “La Leyenda del Tiempo”, with singer Enrique Morente and guitarist Paco de Lucía, saying it was “a revolution” in the art.

Aterwards, with the help of “Piripi” on guitar (and in translating the talk into French for the Algerian public), and with the warm voice of María del Carmen , he proposed dividing flamenco forms into three groups, “as soon as possible.”

The first group derives from the “toná”, Carmona said, explaining that he would put songs into that group such as the martinete, the debla, the carcelera and the soleá, which he described as “a song that is very much of the Gypsies”.

Por las vivencias” [Because of their social situation, the way they lived], the Gypsies agarraban [caught hold of, grasped, picked up] a series of palos [flamenco forms], and the payos [non-Gypsies] picked up others,” Carmona added, before remarking that “we cannot have racism in flamenco.”

The second group, which the guitarist considers “more payo”, than the first and “musically more open”, derives from the fandango and covers wide regions of Andalusia.

The third and last group, which would include the sevillanas, the cantes de ida y vuelta [“round trip songs” with strong Latin-American influences, like the Argentine-inluenced milonga and the Cuban-influenced guajira], and the campanilleros [Christmas songs], has a more folkloric origin than the other flamenco groups.

As he explained to EFE, the former member of Ketama combined his artistic aspect with teaching about the art three years ago, because he had always heard people talking about flmaenc “with very technical word and in a way that was hard for people to understand,”  Now he tries to tell the story in a way that’s “mas de andar por casa” [simpler, more homespun].

In the Instituto Cervantes auditorium songs rang out – a debla, a soleá and two fandangos, one from Granada and another from Malaga, a vidalita from Argentina and a final homage to the singer Enrique Morente, who died two years ago and who Carmona called “the last of the Mohicans of flamenco”.

“Those of us who remain don’t play flamenco with the same roots that it had before”, in Enrique Morente’s generation,” the guitarist concluded before joining María for one last song.

End of story.

Translator’s note: Mu worldwide RSS feed for flamenco spits out a dozen Spanish press articles a day.  Most are about flamenco-flanenco.  Some are about Flemish politics or painters (and some theories derive Spain’s flamenco to Flemish people, back when the two countries were royally linked.  The word for those weird visiting foreigners may have been applied to all non-conforming, misbehaving bohemians).  Still others are about the flamingos in the Coto de Doñana nature reserve.

The cover of one of the early American flamenco LP’s showed a male dancer wearing a short pink jacket with long black pants, with one skinny leg straight and the other raised and bent sharply at the knee.  Hs arms were bent to grasp the bottom of his short jacket, just like little wings,  He looked as much like a flamingo (they do that raised-leg thing) as a human possibly could. No wonder I’ve always loved that admittedly dubious explanation of the word flamenco.

Juan Carmona’s classification of forms is interesting.  He attributes Gypsy-ness to all the forms of the non-rhythmic unaccompanied tonás, and then adds the soleá — not clearly derived from the tona, but often given a Gypsy origin.  The siguiriyas isn’t mentioned, but I suspect he might have put it into the same box, making a clean sweep for all three deep song or cante jondo forms as Gypsy art.

I liked Carmona’s homespun efforts to make sense out of flamenco.  I suspect that the more advanced analysts wouldn’t take his theories as seriously.

Brook Zern

January 11, 2014   1 Comment

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

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


The Myth of the Taranto

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

By Juan Vergillos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of story.

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2013   10 Comments

Flamenco Guitar: Transposition Question and Traditional Keys Used

An actual musician interrupts these incoherent ramblings to ask why anyone would worry about a key change or transposition in flamenco guitar playing.  He identifies himself as a professional pianist/educator, and notes that if he transposed Mozart’s minuet in C to the key of D, few would know and its emotional impact would remain intact.

I don’t play the piano but take his word that a key transposition on a keyboard would indeed have little importance (except to raise or lower the basic pitch of the piece, which few might notice overtly though it could subtly change the mood.)

But with flamenco guitar, the situation is quite different.  The forms we play really have no basic or “proper” pitch at all — we usually change their absolute pitch arbitrarily by putting a capo or cejilla on the guitar neck, and we often do this either to match the vocal range preferred by a particular singer, or just for the hell of it when soloing (higher pitch sounds more edgy, more cutting and ”flamenco”, but also limits the tonal range and makes playing in higher positions uncomfortable or even undoable.)

So on guitar, we think not in terms of actual pitch but in terms of chord shapes for respective “keys” — and each key implies different chord shapes and resulting sound or color.

For example, the flamenco malagueña (not the famous Lecuona composition) is traditionally played using the rich chords of E phrygian (A minor, G major, F major and the tonic E, plus a C and other related chords).  The flamenco tarantas, with similar origins and structure, is played using the chords of F-sharp phrygian:  B minor, A major, G major and the tonic F-sharp major, plus a D-seventh and other related chords.  (Note that in both cases we are describing a four-chord fall toward the tonic — this is an essential element of the music of southern Spain, and is usually described as the Andalusian Cadence.)

On a piano, the instrumental parts would sound very much alike.  But on the guitar, these two keys (and those forms) don’t sound alike at all, because the different chord shapes involve different root notes and top notes, different inversions, and whatnot (I obviously don’t speak music).

In addition, some keys traditionally imply that guitar chords are played in unorthodox ways.  For example, the tonic F-sharp major chord of the tarantas is usually played by barring an E-major chord on the second fret — but not completely.  In fact, the first and second strings are not barred, but left open as B and E notes.  That dissonance defines the essence of the tarantas on guitar — and by simply playing that one chord, it becomes evident to any aficionado that the subject at hand is the tarantas.  (Especially if the strings played are arpeggiated as 4,3,2,1 and then the ring finger that has just played the first string is dragged upward to upward to sound the 2,3,4,5 and 6 strings)

(Same idea for the granainas — the tonic is B major, but instead of just barring an A major chord, the first string is played as an open E, immediately identifying the piece as a granainas.)

But on flamenco guitar, it can be a really radical move to play a flamenco form that has traditionally been done using, say, the chords and voicings of A phrygian, in a very different-sounding key such as E flat phrygian.  (Some players even invent exotic new tunings, further changing the sound.)  In either case, the whole piece suddenly loses its established identifiers – and if there’s no dead-giveaway rhythm, it can be hard for some (e.g., me) to even figure out what the hell it’s supposed to be (assuming it matters, as it does to me.)

That’s why some conservatives fret, so to speak, about the relatively recent trend to play flamenco guitar’s established canon of pieces in novel, alien key-fingerings that might be well-known to jazz guitarists but that never crossed the mind of the great flamenco players of the past (for good reasons, I think; some others just assume those fuddy-duddies were simply too ignorant, benighted or unimaginative to invent such gloriously hip improvements.)

Here, lest the new brave new flamenco guitar world forget by next Friday,  are the traditional and therefore best chord shapes of most flamenco forms:  (The scale of the natural or Phrygian key uses intervals of 1/2, 1, 1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1; so starting on E, it uses the white keys of the piano, going to F, G, A, B, C, D and E.)

Alegrías: A major, E major, C major, G major (rare)

Bulerias: A major, A minor, A natural; E major, E minor, E natural (but when Spanish popular songs are rendered within the bulerías rhythmic structure, virtually any chords might be required.)

Fandangos: E natural, A natural

Farruca: A minor

Granainas: B natural

Malagueñas: E natural

Minera: The solo guitar version invented by Ramón Montoya uses the chord shape ideas of the F# tarantas (above) raised two frets to become E flat.  That tonic chord is now often rejiggered as a first-position chord.

Rondeña: The guitar piece invented by Ramón Montoya derives its color by using a unique version of C#: the low E is retuned down to D; the tonic C# is played on the fourth fret of the A string; the F note is played on the third fret of the D string; the third string is dropped from  G to F# and the second-fret note (now G#) is sounded; the second string remains B and the first string remains E.

Serranas: E natural

Sevillanas: This folky form is played in almost all keys.  For example, I’ve learned guitar coplas or verses in A major, minor and natural; C major; D major and minor; E natural, major and minor; and G natural.

Siguiriyas: A natural; (E natural when required to accommodate some singers, often   older, with   low vocal register, since A natural won’t work.)

Soleá: E natural; sometimes A natural is required for singers with high voices.

Solea por Bulerías (a distinct form, sometimes called Bulerias por Solea or Bulerías al      Golpe): A natural; rarely E natural if required.

Tangos: A natural; sometimes A minor or A major; sometimes E is required.

Tanguillos: A major, A minor

Tientos: A natural

Zambra: As a guitar piece with a Moorish aura, it seems to be in a phrygian or natural mood but with certain note substitutions that sound especially oriental.  It is usually played in A, or E, or D.

Zapateado: A dance piece with no associated song, it is in C major; Niño Ricardo plays a brilliant introduction in C minor; Sabicas played his famous zapateado in D major.

February 23, 2013   1 Comment

Flamenco Guitarist Manolo de Huelva on Flamenco – article in Guitar Review by Virginia de Zayas – Part 3

Note by Brook Zern:  In the mid-1970′s in Seville, I contacted Virginia de Zayas, in whose large house the legendary and secretive flamenco guitarist Manolo de Huelva was living.  I knew that her husband Marius had arranged for the historic 1936 Paris recording session that documented the solo art of the great Ramón Montoya, and hoped to somehow obtain recordings or written versions of Manolo de Huelva’s playing.

I was the Flamenco Editor of Guitar Review magazine, an elegant and authoritative publication dedicated primarily to the classical guitar — Andrés Segovia was the Chairman of the Advisory Board and was a regular visitor to the offices, and I arranged for his only interview about flamenco to run in the magazine.

Ms. [somehow, "Madame" seems more appropriate] de Zayas was interested in explaining Manolo de Huelva’s views and telling his stories, and offered to write an article for the magazine.  I agreed, and the long article appeared in three parts spread over time.  This is the third and final part, from issue 47 dated Spring 1980.  The others will appear soon in this blog.

At one point in our conversations, I reluctantly corrected Ms. de Zayas on a point of fact, despite her vastly greater knowledge.  She may have known that I was right, but she said something interesting.  ”Mr. Zern, please do not correct me on flamenco matters.  When I talk to you, I am speaking as Manolo de Huelva — that is, I am repeating what he has told me over the years.  That is my value — that I can speak for him.  It really doesn’t matter so much whether what I say is correct or incorrect; what matters is that it is what Manolo de Huelva thinks.”

Well, she had me there.  I actually had to agree — because I desperately wanted to know what he thought, and not what Ms. de Zayas felt at the moment.

And for that same reason, this is an important article and I want to bring it to the attention of the few people — mostly Spanish authorities — who will be interested in these old stories and arcane information, assuming someone is motivated to translate this.

Everyone else is excused — but hey, if you’re serious about flamenco, you just might find something illuminating here.

Remember — this article takes us into the heart of flamenco creation, as witnessed by one of the greatest guitarists in the history of the art.  It comes from a now distant past, where seventh chords were considered far-out and radical innovations.  It is source material for any advanced course in flamenco history and aesthetics.  And while many authorities today cast aspersions on the worth of unprovable and malleable recollections, and while the exact words may not be Manolo’s, it is yet another example of the value of oral history in understanding flamenco, or any subject that involves human beings.

But I never got to hear Manolo de Huelva, or obtain recordings of his playing at its best. Shortly before he died, Mrs. de Zayas invited me to visit in hopes that he might give me something, but it was too late.  He was determined to keep his music from being learned by other players, and regrettably, he succeeded.  He is heard as the accompanist to some noted singers on numerous old 78′s, often reissued in new formats; but as he said, he never revealed the amazing abilities that made him the favorite player of countless great artists and knowledgeable aficionados of his era.  Ms. de Zayas later released a double LP which contained, in addition to excellent material by Ramón Montoya, some cuts that once again failed to reveal Manolo de Huelva’s true genius.

Foiled again.  Here’s the article — I’ll add some comments later on.


by Virginia de Zayas


Formerly, there were no solo guitar players: the only name which is still remembered and mentioned (and this, before the Spanish Civil War) is that of Paco de Lucena (not to be confused with the modern Paco de Lucía).  Paco de Lucena lived at the end of the 19th Century and he was not considered to be an outstanding player.  The following story told about him illustrates one of the rules of flamenco.

Once, while he was accompanying a song for the great singer Silverio [Franconetti], Paco suddenly introduced some fast notes, thus calling attention to himself.  Because of this, he broke the spell cast by the singer, who refused to be accompanied by him after that.  From this, we can see that traditional flamenco is a conversation.  First, the guitar plays, laying the foundation of the rhythm, and doing everything he can to display his talent.  Then the singer has the audience to himself and should not be interrupted or distracted, if he is to convey his song and its meaning.  Then the guitarist is given another chance to show what he can do, in the falsetas, which are played between each song while the singer is resting.  Then the singer is heard again.  They continue to alternate until the singer has exhausted his repertoire, or chooses to stop.

This idea of “conversation” is carried right into the guitar playing, in which the falsetas (variations) are divided into “questions” and “answers”.  The questions are played on the treble strings and the answers on the bass strings; the conversation finally ends on the lower strings.  The songs, too, are divided into a first section, which is sometimes called the question, and the second part, with or without repetition, which is called the answer.  Most modern guitarists do not know about these subtleties of flamenco as they would have before the war.


The oldest flamenco guitarist remembered, whose falsetas and accompaniments were played until recently, is Paquirri, “El Guanté” from Cádiz.  The meaning of his nickname is not known.  He was born around 1780 and he died young, in Madrid.  A woman fell in love with him, but he did not love her, so she avenged herself by poisoning him.  To save the woman, the doctor said that it was an embolism (blood clot).  Paquirri sang, played and danced with equal perfection.  His school of guitar playing was continued faithfully in Cádiz by his followers, notably by Patiño, who was too young to have known Paquirri himself.  At least a generation separated them.  These falsetas are much admired by Andrés Segovia and Antonio Chacón, the famous flamenco singer,  They are beautiful in their simplicity and “llaman al cante”, call for the song, for the singer to start.

About 1870-1880 Sevillian guitarists, with an inferior tradition, went to Cádiz to learn this school by listening to Patiño.  They were Juan el Jorobao (The Hunchback) and Maestro Pérez.  This is why the school is called the “school of Patiño”, although Patiño never composed a note.  Patiño also came to play in the new cafés cantantes in Seville, where they had flamenco song and dance.  Manolo [de Huelva, the source for Virginia de Zayas’s information in these articles] often talked with the old men in Cádiz, including “El Pollo” (The Chicken), a contemporary of Patiño’s, whom he was just in time to hear.  Flamencos used to have long conversations about these things, because almost none of them were professionals in the old days and because they had plenty of time to talk.  Afterward, when more flamencos became professionals, they would have to wait in the cafés and taverns until a client came, and during these waits there was much time to talk.  A flamenco’s hours would last until seven or later in the morning, and sometimes for three nights and two days, without sleep.  Formerly they would only drink wine and a little aguardiente (brandy); there is something about flamenco which sustains the participants

The famous Café del Burrero was the first to be remembered in Seville.  El Burrero sold donkeys (burros)  Silverio, the great singer, was associated width this café, both financially and as artistic director.  Here they established the flamenco program, beginning with the lighter malagueñas, sung by La Rubia de Málaga and La Africa, then proceeding to soleares, which are real flamenco and more serious.  Then, after several singers of soleares, the curtain fell and then rose to reveal Salvadorillo, the singer of siguiriyas.  The date of this café, I suppose, might have been around 1875,  Our information about the period comes from the writer, Demófilo [Antonio Machado y Álvarez] who was a friend of Silverio Franconetti’s.  He speaks a lot about Silverio’s desire to make flamenco better known, to bring it out of its hiding places in taverns and at family festivals.  Demófilo was opposed to this, saying that the demands of the public would make flamenco lose its quality.  He was a prophet.  In 1880 Silverio had just closed his café and was opening another.  He used to bring Patiño and the singer [Enrique] El Mellizo (The Twin) from Cádiz and, at times, he himself would sing.  He was called “el rey to los cantaores” (the king of singers).  Of Italian parentage, born in Seville, his family were tailors.  Silverio left this occupation so as to dedicate himself to flamenco.  When flamencos say that this or that song was “of [de] Silverio”, they mean that it was sung by him.  This is a great distinction.

This habit of taking the singer of a song to be its composer has caused great confusion in attributions.  The reason for it is that singers and guitarists, who used to perform above all in private gatherings, would be asked who was the composer of this song or that falseta.  They wanted to give an answer comprehensible to their public, so they would supply names of performers not long dead.  For example, I would ask Manolo de Huelva who composed a falseta, and he would reply “Patiño.”  It took me quite a while to discover that Patiño was not a composer and that he faithfully played the compositions of Paquirri.


Miguel Borrull (father), a Gypsy from the province of Valencia, was the first to introduce dissonances into flamenco music; these were particularly dissonances of the seventh.  However, I must point out that Andalusians had their own type of dissonance which consists of incomplete chords, which are not sevenths, also reversals and repetitions of the same noted at different octaves, the note which is repeated being part of an incomplete chord which sounds clashing, and other such devices.  Alonso (a town in the province of Huelva) has a fandango which is characterized by the incomplete, dissonant sounding chords.  What Borrull introduced, then, were the simplest chords of the seventh from classical music.

The origin of this was a blind Gypsy from either Valencia or Barcelona, named El Sisqué.  He knew a little music.  This was at the end of the 19th century: he had a donkey cart with a pianillo (harmonium) in it and a small boy to lead the donkey.  He would stop before bars and cafés in Barcelona and ply the songs of the eastern coast of Spain, especially tarantas, introducing chords of the seventh.  His also is the innovation of playing the tarantas in F# (previously it was played in G#).  Borrull had opened a café in Barcelona, after a very successful career in Madrid.  El Sisqué would stop before Borrull’s café  and Borrull listened and introduced these two innovations into the flamenco guitar.  He returned at times to Madrid and Seville where the other guitarists copied him.

Borrull was the first Gypsy guitarist of whom we have name and music.  He played in a very authentic flamenco style, and he also composed, with original ideas, but always following the traditional method of playing. He had a fine flamenco thumb, and played with much alma (soul).  Borrull in the north of Spain and Patiño in the south of Spain were the two outstanding guitarists of whom we have record who either introduced innovations or, in Patiño’s case, preserved Paquirri’s school for us.  Flamenco history begins with these three names.


When Manolo was a boy his dream was to go to Seville to hear the two most famous guitarists in Andalusia: Juan Gandulla, “Habichuela” (Stringbean) of Cádiz, and Javier Molina of Jerez.  When Manolo got to Seville, he immediately listened to Gandulla every night, and within a short time had memorized all he played.  Gandulla had learned Paquirri’s falsetas from his master Patiño of Cádiz, whose personal pupil he was.  Paquirri was born about 1780.  Gandulla is thus an important link in the transmission to us of Paquirri’s guitar school, the traditional 19th century school, preserved by the masters of Cádiz.

Gandulla had a marvelous left hand, Manolo tells me, and he played with authentic style and gracia (wit), and much alma (soul).  His right thumbnail was very macho (male) and hard.  He played the authentic pieces of Paquirri in all their beautiful simplicity, serving the music and not trying to put himself forward, or trying to show off on his own account,  Later on he came to play a few chords of the seventh from hearing Javier so much; they often played in the same café.

Javier’s thumb was more precise than Gandulla’s, but he never had his guitar well tuned.  Gandulla’s guitar was perfectly tuned after an instant’s testing.  The four fingernails in both of them were soft and almost inaudible in nail taps, so Javier resorted to many palpis (see above [a prior installment]), in bulerías to compensate.  (A thumbnail can be hard and the four fingernails soft.)

Javier could read music and wrote a book of his life.  After some years in Seville he returned to stay in Jerez.  He extended the use of the seventh chord and a few other dissonances in soleares, siguiriyas, bulerías and alegrías.

Manolo learned these dissonances from listening to Javier, Javier having learned the seventh from Borrull during the last years of the century.  Javier played brilliantly and was a fine composer, with many new ideas and a personal style, but always within the traditional rules.  His falsetas of soleares had a slightly different character from his siguiriyas, whereas Paquirri’s were all fitted to the different rhythms and played in both keys, E and A [Phrygian or Natural].

There is a long guitar introduction with a three note tremolo by Paquirri, but it is exceptional.  It is called Las Cuarenta (The Forty).  But Javier was really the first to play falsetas of more than two vueltas (cycles) [compases].  These long falsetas are properly played only as introductions.  Javier played falsetas of one or two vueltas only, between songs, and this is still the correct way to do it so as not to cool down the singer’s inspiration.  This was an acceptable innovation of Javier’s giving more scope to the guitar.  The point is that although revolutionary from the guitarist’s view, it did not take away from the singer and so obeyed the traditional rule.  It is a good example of a fine innovation.  Would that all innovations were as good and reasonable.


Rafael Marín, born in El Pedroso (Seville province), began the great revolution which made the flamenco guitar the hybrid that it is today.  He first learned flamenco, then the classical guitar and how to write it.  He wrote a method of flamenco guitar music (Madrid, 1902).   Instead of observing the ancient rules, especially those of playing with the thumb and ligados, he introduced arpeggios, scales and four-note tremolos [i.e., thumb note on a low string, followed by index, ring, middle and index on a higher string, or piami – the initial index finger stroke is the innovation], none of which are pure flamenco.  Rafael Marín went to Madrid and it is there that Ramón Montoya [widely seen as the progenitor of the virtuoso flamenco guitar] listened to him.

Ramón Montoya was born near Toledo and belonged to the musical tradition of the Gypsies of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.  This is not Andalusian flamenco.  Montoya went to Seville and there learned the traditional school correctly.  He began to study with Pepe “el Rojo” (the Red).  Then he listened to Marín and to Miguel Borrull (father) in Madrid.  He introduced Marín’s effects, and also the four-note tremolo.  But his heart was in the taranta and the rondeña, in which he could lengthen the tercios for more and more notes.  The taranta is originally from Cartagena and is sung by the miners of the hills above, at La Unión.  Montoya learned these songs from his first cousin, Basilio, and he would call them either taranta or minera.  Basilio and Ramón were cattle and horse dealers, an old Gypsy occupation, near Toledo.  The rondeñas he played were simple songs, apparently from the Gypsies of Barcelona.  He gave me two which he used in his compositions.

Montoya’s playing was perfectly even, no part being louder than the other.  He practiced at least four or five hours a day.  He was not interested in rhythm, and because of his weak fingernails he would play delicately but sonorously.  He preferred an arpeggio to a ligado.  Montoya’s mineras record contains the oldest taranta melody, played in G#, the old murcianas key.  His tarantas are in F#.  (* See editor’s note at end of article).}

Montoya had very excellent small hands.  He overflowed with notes, so much so that in the traditional toques (guitar parts), he sometimes played too many notes, and even too many beats.  In Paris in 1936-38 he stayed in the boarding house of another flamenco guitarist, Amalio Cuenca.  When Montoya composed a new falseta he would have to ask Cuenca to beat out the time, and then cut out the extra beats from the rhythm.  They would both laughingly tell us about this, illustrating the process, when they came to stay with us.  Ramón Montoya made some solo records at this time (in 1936), which are known to all guitarists.  They were initiated and financed by my husband Marius de Zayas, the caricaturist and painter, a lifetime lover of flamenco, which he played on the guitar  He was the father of Rodrigo de Zayas, whose writings have appeared in Guitar Review issues 36 and 38.

This is the origin of the modern school of flamenco guitar playing, beginning with Borrull.  Solo playing came into style, and today the flamenco player must rival the classical  guitarist and practice for hours because, now, speed is essential.  Ramón Montoya was ten years older than Manolo de Huelva (born 1892) and Borrull was older than Montoya.


We now turn to two traditions: the spoken, among the flamencos themselves, in which Paquirri and Frasco el Colorado, a Gypsy, are outstanding, and the literary, beginning with Richard Ford essentially.  Ford wrote his guide book for Spain in 1845.  Next comes S. Estéban Calderón, a journalist who happened to attend a flamenco festival in Triana sometime before 1847, at which he heard the singers El Planeta and El Fillo.  Then comes Demófilo (1881).  Since then small books by “flamencologists” have gradually proliferated.  These experts are chiefly interested in poetry and personalities.

[Editor’s note:  Richard Ford (1796-1858) write his Handbook for Travellers in Spain in 18445, and Gatherings from Spain in 1846.  Demófilo was the pseudonym of Antonio Machado y Álvarez (1846-1893) who published his collected and annotated Cantes Flamencos in 1881.  Long out of print, this book has seen two new editions in the 1970’s.]

El Fillo gave his name to a type of voice called afillá. This is a low falsetto voice used by baritones and basses.  For example, our usual falsetto is high, and when the singer goes too low and out of his falsetto range, he will sing with a natural voice.  This was the voice of Antonio Chacón, inappropriate for true flamenco.  Chacón sang malagueñas instead of soleares and siguiriyas.  In the low falsetto the singer, instead of singing in his chest voice, sings with falsetto in his chest range.  When he gets up out of this range, he will sing with a natural voice.  Conversely, when a singer sings with a natural voice and enters his chest range, he or she can sing in falsetto.  The medium range and low voices can have a few low afillá notes.  Pastora Pabón “La Niña de los Peines” (The Girl With the Combs), the great Gypsy singer of the period 1910-1940 who has made many records, is one example.  She made 78 rpm records, some of which have been re-recorded from 78 rpm to LP.  The late Aurelio de Cádiz had these low notes (his last records are not so representative of him), as did the late Perla de Cádiz (the Pearl of Cadiz).  Aurelio’s low notes sounded like a bassoon.  He was half Gypsy and La Perla was Gypsy and was especially good in bulerías.  Manolo says that no women have afillá voices.

The full low falsetto was possessed by many singers of the middle of the last century, among whom Silverio Franconetti was outstanding.  Manolo is a minute observer of voices, and he tells me that the last such singer was Diego Antúnez, a Gypsy from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a great artist whom Manolo often accompanied.  He was old when Manolo was young.

This low falsetto voice must be an old tradition in Spain because the Pope had such Spanish singers brought to Rome to sing polyphonic music in the Sistine Capel.  This is described in an early edition of Grove [Music Dictionary].  When the Pope could no longer obtain singers with low falsetto voices, then began the reign of the castrati, in the 17th century.

In addition to the afillá voice, there are often found hoarse or bad voices.  People who have never heard an afillá voice call hoarse or bad voices afillá, for example the late [Manolo] Caracol.  I have often discussed this with Manolo [de Huelva], and it would seem that the uninitiated call afillá any voice with “mucho alma” (much soul), one which transmits [emotion], as did Caracol.

El Fillo himself was called “pollo ronco” (hoarse chicken) by his girl friend and this may have helped to begin the confusion.  Afillá and hoarse are not synonymous.  Hoarse or bad voices are not an obstacle to flamenco fame provided the singer sings “con alma” (with soul).  But the same singer would acquire far more fame if he had a good voice.

There is also the voice called rajá (rajada in correct Spanish).  Manolo tells me that the old Gypsies in Triana spoke of rajá voices, but he says that the correct word is desgarrada, or desgarrá in Andaluz.  Desgarrada means ripped, torn, broken, while rajá means cracked or rent.  Manolo describes this to me as if he were speaking of a cloth.  The only singer he has known with this kind of voice was Aurelio de Cádiz, who had a very flamenco, sonorous voice with an occasional fluttering, not a vibrato.  However, rajá is another word which seems to be used indiscriminately in describing a voice, often that of a singer with much alma, who transmits.

A touch of rajá was a characteristic of flamenco singing since ancient times and, among the Arabs, something similar was much appreciated.  The clear bel canto voice can be used only in malagueñas, provided it is sung with expression and flamenco style (i.e. martelé).

Since the middle of the 19th century the first to be remembered as singing with a natural voice is Manuel Molina, a Gypsy of Jerez.  He has also left two fine siguiriyas.  The low falsetto voice was thought to be very flamenco and manly, for of course all such singers were men with low voices.  It is very difficult to learn.  Very flamenco effects can be made with the low falsetto part of a voice because it is very flexible, even in women.  For example, the records of La Perla, in bulerías.  The voice also has much fuelle (breath) and is louder than the singers natural voice.

These effects are made with a play with the larynx, high or low.  This brings us to the “lloros de la voz” (sobs in the voice) which a singer will employ when his voice allows him to do so.  The throat must not be tight and the larynx must be lowered suddenly and then immediately raised, much as in yodeling, although less exaggerated.  I have tapes of a very excellent, pure flamenco singer Luisa La Pompi (The Behind), a Gypsy from Jerez.  By playing a 7½ at 3¾ speed, one can hear every detail.  One can also transfer the record to a tape at 7½ speed  and play it at 3¾.  La Pompi introduced many of these lloros, throughout her range, especially on descending conjunct or disjunct notes,  They do not stand out, but are a discrete ornament.  She also uses many slurs, especially in rising pairs of notes.  The slurs appear in fandangos de Huelva as well.


These are the two oldest singers of whom we know something.  The oldest is Paquirri “El Guanté”.  In addition to creating the traditional guitar school he also left three soleares which were still sung by Aurelio de Cádiz.  One is quite exceptional:  “Metío entre cañaberales / lo pájaro son clarine / que cantan al sol que sale.” (Among the canes, the birds are clarions, who sing to the sun which rises.)  This is one of the lovely nature pictures characteristic of the zejel in 9th century Andalusia.

The soleá is unusual today because it covers an extension of nearly two octaves: on octave and a sixth, attacking the upper C on the repetition, falling to establish itself on the lower E.  For this reason, not everyone can sing it. When he sang it for our tape recorder, Aurelio used some of his low falsetto notes to obtain this extension (incidentally, twenty-year-old tapes often spoil and are scarcely “for posterity” unless re-recorded often: the guitar comes out badly, sometimes sounding like a continuous organ tone).

Paquirri composed his grand soleá before leaving Cádiz, where it is traditional.  On his long journey to Madrid he would have passed through Seville and would have heard the singers there, especially Frasco el Colorao (Frank the Redhead).  This may have been about 1820-1830.  My thought is that after hearing Paquirri sing, Frasco composed his soleáCorreo de Vélez, Se cayeron cuatro gota / se mojaron los papele / Te tengo comparaíta / con el correo de Vélez.”  (“The mail from Vélez, four drops fell, and wet the papers.  I compare you to the mail from Vélez”).  It covers an octave and a seventh, and has other similarities.

We can also imagine that Frasco learned from Paquirri something of the condition of flamenco in the south.  Before the introduction of railways, towns had their own songs, as mountain villages still have their own fandango,  There was little interchange until travel became easier in the 19th century.  In Paquirri’s time only Cádiz had any real flamenco tradition, so far as we know, among the towns to the south of Seville.  So Frasco proceeded to action.  He went south to teach flamenco.  The old men of Triana told Manolo that the Gypsies of Jerez, of Puerto de Santa María, and Isla de San Fernando only knew the bulerías.  Frasco taught the Gypsies in those places to sing siguriyas.  So far as we know, the soleares did not catch up with them.  Since Frasco’s trip, a number of very fine siguiriyas have been composed in the south.  The names of the composers are remembered.  The songs of Triana are said to be so old that the composers are forgotten, and the songs are attributed to their singers.  Silverio’s trip in the south would have taken place well after Frasco’s.

I asked Manolo when he had first heard of Frasco.  He said, “As soon as I arrived in Seville I went to the home of the great Gypsy singer Tomás Pabón [Tomás Pavón] and his sister Pastora.  I had met her two years before in Huelva.  They immediately told me about Frasco, and so did other flamencos.  He was the greatest composer and singer they knew of.”


The Gypsies arrived in Spain before 1447, at which time an edict was published against them in Barcelona, where they arrived from France.  Recently Carlos Almendros (in the magazine Flamenco, July 1975, p. 39) discovered another document showing that there were Gypsies already there in 1425.  It has always seemed to me possible that some Gypsies arrived from Egypt (whence their name) through north Africa.  But if any did come from Egypt, they seemingly brought no Egyptian or north African music with them.

Did the Gypsies invent flamenco?  This has been a much-discussed question.  Undoubtedly they contributed greatly to preserving this music: they are composers and have a special genius for performing it.  They are especially gifted for the rhythms, in the way that Blacks are in the New World.  Today they and their admirers often seem to think that they are the almost exclusive progenitors of flamenco.

It is possible that Gypsies did not distort flamenco as much as they did ancient Hungarian melodies, about which Béla Bartok wrote so emphatically, rejecting the unforgettably enchanting Gypsy style with its excessive rubato, strong accentuation and variations on the violin (similar to the variation by Corelli, published by Walsh).

One might hazard the the flamenco Gypsy laments prefer a small extension, such as a fifth or sixth.  The polos, El Cante de la Caña, the serrana and some other old songs do not seem to have as much Gypsy influence as some others.

We have already answered the question of whether the Gypsies or the Arabs originated flamenco by showing that it existed before their arrival in Spain.  The structure of the polo goes back at least to the 8th century, if not earlier, particularly in its simplest form, that is the triple time accentuated on the third beat, which is probably indigenous to Spain, as well as the percussive guitar effects combined with harmony, and the rhetorical rasgueado rhythm.

[*Editor’s note:  The striking effect of Ramón Montoya’s use of the key of C# here is due in part to the intriguing sound of the tonic chord with the first and second strings played open,  Reading upward from the sixth string, the notes of the chord are G#, D#, G#, C, B (open), E (open).  Montoya’s tarantas, played in F#, derive their unique tonal signature in the same way.  The chord (from the sixth string upward) is F#, C#, F#, A#, B (open), E (open).]

End of article.

[The two prior parts of this Guitar Review article by Virginia de Zayas will appear in this blog soon.]

January 12, 2013   1 Comment

Flamenco Song Forms – The Tientos

A correspondent asks about the flamenco form called the tientos.

I tend to think of the singers Rafael Romero and Jacinto Almaden for tientos, a form which seems quite  serious (sometimes deadly serious) but doesn’t seem “jondo” or deep.  That’s not just because I reserve the term i for the big 3 — the siguiriyas, solea and the unaccompanied tonas/martinetes  group — but t because tientos and other serious cantes don’t seem to have the same approach or the same aesthetic objective.  For me, even the best tientos (or peteneras, or cana, or serrana) just sort of lies there — it may be done well, or badly, or brilliantly, but it doesn’t have the potential to reveal vast layers of deep meaning to me.  I wish I appreciated those forms more.

It’s also worth noting that while there may be several sort-of-different melodic approaches choose from in the tientos, it seems there’s really only one tientos; of course, this is quite different from the case of siguiriyas and solea, which have literally dozens of different manifestations, often bearing the names of individuals or places.  (The tonas/martinetes may have had many distinct variants as well, though most have been lost.)

The big 1988 Cinterco Diccionario Enciclopedico Ilustrado de Flamenco says the tiento (it insists on the singular, though it says it’s a plural noun) “is a song with three or four 8-syllable lines, usually followed by one or several 3-line estribillos, whose measure is uniform.  It’s a recent song, dating from the beginning of this century — derived from the earlier tango, which has the same compas, though the tientos is slower, more solemn and complex.

It was in Cadiz where it began to be called the “tango tiento”, which means “tango lento” (slow tango); later, in Seville, this term was forgotten, so only the adjective “tiento” remained and the form became a new cante in itself, due to the further slowing of its pace, and evidencing a certain influence from matrixes (matices) of the siguirya and the solea.  It’s a danceable cante, with verses that are customarily sentimental (patetica) and sententious.

As a dance, some say it was created by Joaquin El Feo.  It is majestic, sober and dramatic, with a decidedly ritual air.  Oral tradition says the singer El Marrurro was one of the first to cut the tientos to this style, after which El Mellizo fixed it in its present form.  Molina and Mairena write: “It was Enrique el Mellizo who aggrandized the tango until it became the tientos.  Quinones seconds this, and agrees that (the incomparable Gypsy singer) Manuel Torre was the first “divulgador” (to give it a public profile), since he was billed in his 1902 presentation in Seville as a singer of tangos (i.e., tientos).

But José Blas Vega (one of the dictionary’s two authors) affirms that its first popularizer (difusor) was don Antonio Chacón, writing: ‘The tango-tiento de Cadiz, of El Mellizo, is the musical “equilibrio” from which Chacón pulled forth the tientos; he knew the Cadiz school of song, and brought to it his great creative and musical sense, so the tientos of Chacón are impregnated with enormous melodic value.  Chacón may also have heard tientos in Jerez, by Marrurro, whom he knew and admired in his youth.  Those tientos, of Marrurro, have been lost, though the guitarist and cante expert Perico del Lunar referred to them.

The first reference to tientos appears in 1901, but the name didn’t gain currency until years later.  And although Chacón in his recording of 1909 and 1913 kept using the name tangos, he is credited with spreading the name tientos simply because the public, and aficionados and artists, identified the new modality of tangos lentos or tientos with the style that Chacón – not Manuel Torre and not Pastora Pavón — gave to it in recasting it.  Later, there were written references like this one from 1914: ‘How often I’ve heard people sing the famous tango popularized by Chacón, the Gayarre -[a Spanish opera star -- see below] of flamenco, as in “Que pajaro sera aquel“‘, thus alluding to the famous tientos verse.  Paco Percheles wrote: “Don Antonio Chacón was, contemporaneously with Manuel Torre, the other artificer of the tientos, which he popularized in Madrid, elevating them, as with everything to which he applied his art and his faculties, to a higher level.”  Augusto Butler wrote “Undoubtedly, it was Chacon who gave the form vigor and strength upon adding it to his exhaustive repertoire — and evidently gave it the name tientos.”

But José Blas Vega clarifies “These comments don’t stop us from affirming, in the spirit of truthfulness, that Manuel Torre with this version of tango lento, much more accented by him due to his interpretive tendencies, met with great success in Seville.  From him and from Chacón, Pastora Pavón (Niña de los Peines) got her main influences for tientos.  It’s enough to hear the tientos of Chacón and analyze them through extensive recordings, to appreciate that he has been the modern fundamental fount of this style, in which the tracks of the maestro are perceived directly or indirectly in some 70% of recordings, though time has unfairly obscured his creative and diffusionary labor.”

For some years now, not just in public but in recordings, most interpreters have linked the tientos to the tangos, usually beginning with tientos, given its greater expressivity and possibilities for timing (temple), and ending with tangos, which is easy, since the guitar simply has to lighten/brighten (aligerar) the rhythm.  Other important past interpreters were Tomas Pavón, Aurelio de Cadiz (Selles), Manolo Vargas, Antonio Mairena, Pepe de la Matrona, Bernardo de los Lobitos, Manolo Caracol and Terremoto.  Today its a common (prodigado) cante with evidences of its Cadiz and Triana sources, as well as the personal touches of its early specialists, which makes it fair to say that in the last 50 years it scarcely shows any evolution (por lo que puede decirse que en los ultimos 50 anos apenas si se aprecia en los tientos alguna evolucion).

End of translated excerpts from the out-of-print big dictionary (which puts the whole entry in a single paragraph).

I disagree with the idea that the tangos and the tientos have essentially the same rhythm.  Speed aside, I know that the tientos has a “dotted” rhythm, which I hear as “and-a-ONE,-and-a-two,-and-a-THREE,-and a four,…” — the same “trick” rhythm that identifies the faster, and major-key, tanguillos and zapateado; the tango, on the other hand, has a flat-footed, 4/4 or even rhythm, “ONE-and-two-and-THREE-and-four-and…”, just as boring as, say, the farruca rhythm, and so easy and obvious that even an American (me, anyway) can play it right.  (Lately, modern guitarists have jazzed up the tango rhythm a bit by using neat triplet rasgueo — but the basic pulse remains simple.)

Note:  The comparison of Gayarre to Don Antonio Chacon, still revered as the greatest master of the non-Gypsy approach to flamenco song, can be revealing.

Julian Gayarre (1884-1890) was a basque opera star.  George Bernard Shaw criticized him for excessive vibrato and excessive vocal mannerisms, but many Spanish and Italian critics admired his voice and style.  The 1963 Ricordi Enciclopedia della Musica says: “Gayarre’s voice was slightly guttural and at times could show hardness in the very high notes and an uncertain attack. Nevertheless, it was full, resonant and extraordinarily fascinating. He was distinguished for his breath control, extremely clear diction, vibrant and passionate tone and for his ability to both soften and strengthen that tone. The way he produced contrasts of color and intensity was incomparable.”

Brook Zern

April 10, 2012   No Comments

Program Notes for a 1972 Guitar Concert by Serranito in Carnegie Recital Hall – With observations and recollections by Brook Zern

Program Notes for a 1972 Guitar Concert by Serranito in Carnegie Recital Hall – With observations and recollections by Brook Zern

In 1972, Juan Orozco – owner of a midtown guitar store and the Aranjuez Guitar Strings Company – was presenting a fine bunch of classical and flamenco guitarists in the New York.  I helped him in various ways, writing ads and radio spots for his strings and events and often writing the program notes for flamenco concerts.  Sometimes I’d also go onstage – Juan bought me a nice tuxedo but it seems to have shrunk – to tell people about the artists and explain whatever they wanted their American listeners to understand.

One of the flamenco guitar figures of the day was guitarist Victor Monge “Serranito”, who appeared on three consecutive October nights in Carnegie Recital Hall.  That’s the Recital Hall, not the huge Carnegie Hall itself, but three nights in a row was an ambitious gamble, and it worked.

Backstory:  When I was living in Seville in the mid-sixties, the guitarists were all waiting around for Paco de Lucía.  We didn’t know that, of course – all we knew was that there was something in the air, something that would soon change flamenco guitar forever, for better or worse.  Paco would reveal himself and the new True Path a few years later, by 1967 or 1968.

But in the meantime, there was Serranito.  His picture was on the wall in most of Spain’s guitar shops, where players gathered to talk and trade material.  He was clearly a genius, and clearly a master technician and musician.  And – or should I say but – he would soon earn the blessing of Andrés Segovia, the progenitor and godfather of the classical guitar.  In fact, anyone who pleased that master’s keen ear would automatically be suspect in the world of flamenco.  Serranito had a love for the classical sound.  Listen to his wonderful tarantas and you’ll hear a rich, sonorous, bell-curve-shaped sound that is wrong for flamenco, where “tinny” (okay, sharp and bright and quick-to-rise-and-decay) is a compliment.  That piece is remarkable, and everyone copped the chords.  But while it held up as music, it didn’t hold up as flamenco.  And Serranito was not as well suited to the punchy forms of flamenco, or the Gypsy forms in general.

In a way, it didn’t matter.  Serranito was destined to be buried in the Pacoslide along with nearly everyone else, including the great Manolo Sanlucar whom Juan also presented that season.

Even amid the Pacomania, it was Serranito who won Spain’s 1971 National Prize for Concert Flamenco Guitar.  He was, and is, a very fine guitarist.  He’s still working occasionally in Spain, and has a lot of retrospective respect.

Here, from my mass of flamencobilia,  are the liner notes from that long-ago season.  The general observations about the forms stand up pretty well even today, despite the seismic shift in the sound, scales, chords, techniques, technologies, tastes and definitions of the art:

Part 1:

  1. LAMENTO MINERO is based upon the taranta, a flamenco song from the mining district of Almeria in southeastern Spain.  The bitterness and cynicism of the miners is echoed in the unsettled and discordant quality of the guitar.  The song is in a free rhythm, and the scale used is neither major nor minor, but the Phrygian mode which is typical of serious flamenco.  Here the tonic or root chord is F sharp.
  2. LLORA LA FARRUCA is a farruca, a driving dance form which originated in northern Spain and was converted into flamenco when it reached the southern city of Cadiz.  It is played in A minor and has a straightforward 4/4 rhythm.
  3. RECUERDO A RAMON is dedicated to Ramón Montoya, the genius who is primarily responsible for the concert guitar which is popular around the world.  Ramón Montoya’s technique and creativity greatly expanded the scope of the flamenco guitar, and all of today’s soloists acknowledge their debt to the maestro.  This rondeña is based upon the original, which Ramón conceived as a guitar piece.  It derives part of its haunting effect from an unusual guitar tuning – D A D F# B E.
  4. AIRES DE ALMERIA is an example of the fandango, part of the Moorish legacy in Spain.  There are almost as many fandango styles as there are districts in southern Spain, and they run the expressive gamut from the absurdly trivial to the frighteningly intense.  This version, based on the fandango from Almería on the eastern coast, is among the more serious.
  5. PASEANDO POR LA HABANA is a form of guajira, which originated in Cuba as a cross between native and Spanish music and was then re-exported to Spain and flamenco-ized.  It’s a bright and optimistic song, played in A major.  While the rhythm pattern may seem irregular, it is actually fixed.  It may be thought of as a recurring cycle in which five beats are emphasized as follows:  1++2++3+4+5+…
  6. ROMANCE A LA SERRANA derives from the serrana, a traditional song of the bandits and smugglers who lived in the mountains along Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast.  It is played in the Phrygian-modal (or “natural”) scale, with E as the traditional tonic chord.  Like the guajira, it has a peculiar rhythmic cycle or compás, but in this instance the pattern is felt as 1+2+3++4++5+.
  7. LLEGANDO AL PUERTO is an alegrías from Cadiz, and it mirrors the infectious spirit, gaiety and gracia of this lively port.  The rhythm pattern is like that of the soleares (see below), but the major key (usually A or E) and the much faster tempo give it a completely different effect.
  8. SUENO EN LA ALHAMBRA is an example of the granaina, the great flamenco form linked to Granada.  That city was the last Moorish stronghold to be reconquered by the Christian army (it fell in 1492), and the Arabic influence still permeates the city and the song.
  9. ALBORADA TRIANERA is Serranito’s unique version of the soleares, one of the fundamental styles in the flamenco repertoire.  The name comes from soledad, or solitude, and it is the form through which the Andalusian Gypsy speaks about destiny and about live.  The soleares works with a distinctive compás of twelve beats with accents on the third, sixth, eighth, tenth and twelfth as follows:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12.
  10. NOCHE FLAMENCA, a bulerias, captures all the excitement of a wild Gypsy juerga, or flamenco jam session.  It’s bubbling, bouncing rhythm is perhaps the trickiest in all of flamenco, combining the soleares/alegrias 12-count pattern with an internal accent on the first two of every three:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12.  Guitarists also recognize an emphasis on every other beat, starting on two. If all of these patterns are combined on paper, the result is…well, on second thought, maybe it’s better to just relax and enjoy it.

Part 2

The second part of this concert consists of selections arranged by the artist for three guitars.  Appearing with Sr. Monge are Luís Pastor and Ian Davies.

  1. GITANA is Sr. Monge’s own composition, dedicated to the memory of the magnificent Carmen Amaya.  Drawing upon the vast resources of the flamenco guitar and the musical vision of the artist, this haunting piece is a fitting tribute to the greatest bailaora of our era.
  2. MI GUITARRA EN LA MADRUGA is inspired by the campanilleros, which are sung by members of religious processions as they leave their churches at dawn.  The songs are accompanied by little bells (campanillas) and sometimes by guitars.
  3. PRESAGIO, a taranto, differes from the above-mentioned taranta primarily in that it carries a distinctive, even rhythm.
  4. PLANTA Y TACON is a zapateado, an ancient Spanish dance described by Cervantes which has evolved into a striking virtuoso display of heelwork.  Even as a guitar solo it retains different sections that are keyed to traditional dance steps.
  5. EL VITO is another traditional Spanish folk song that has been arranged for guitar by Sr. Monge.
  6. LLEGANDO A MALAGA, a verdiales, is a lighter and more rhythmic style of the fandango described above.  The catchy, rolling triple-time beat of this particular fandango helps to explain the forms five centuries of popularity in Spain.

End of program notes.

I spent some time with the two guitarists who accompanied Serranito.  Luís Pastor was very impressive – one of those players who got huge sound and terrific edginess from traditional, often thumb-driven material.  The notes said he was from Madrid, and that “his strong sense of rhythm provides a firm base for the melodic variations of Victor Monge.”

Ian Davies, the notes said, “was born in England, but like many non-Spaniards he never let that stand in the way of his deep afición for flamenco.  At 18, he appears regularly with Victor Monge.”  I think they both worked at a high-grade Madrid tablao, maybe the Cafe de Chinitas or Corral de la Moreria.  I have a solo album Davies made later, titled “Por los Cuatro Costados” – By the Four Ribs, or more clearly, on all four sides – a self-descriptive phrase usually used by gitanos to emphasize their pedigree.  He plays quite well, and is one of the few foreign guitarists to have made a career in Spain.

And lastly and leastly the program says, “Notes and occasional narrations are by Brook Zern, who describes himself as a ‘flamenco guitar teacher and freelance flamencologist’.  He is presently teaching a course on ‘Flamenco – The Art and the Life’ at the New School University in New York City.”

Yes, that actually happened.  I wonder if it was the first university-level course taught about flamenco anywhere, since I can’t find mention of earlier examples.  Just sayin…

– Brook Zern

March 15, 2012   No Comments

Our Oriental Problem: Why We Can’t Sing (or Even Hum) Serious Flamenco Songs

A demanding correspondent has called my bluff, asking me to further define what I casually termed the “basically oriental” nature of the most serious flamenco song forms.

Whenever I try to explain this, I get hammered into the ground, just because I don’t know anything at all about music or music theory.  But to me, “oriental” or non-Western music is based on melody; it derives its character from melody alone, wandering up a bit from the “home-base” tone, winding around for a while, and then gravitationally falling back, exhausted.

Western music, on the other hand, has for many centuries been defined by harmony.  Granted, the melody-over-the-harmony is what we hear and remember first — but that melody derives from the harmony, (so we can sing nice ”harmonies” by just substituting another note from the implied chord at whatever point of the song we’re in; heck, we can even create a new song, using the same chords/harmonies, by simply choosing a whole batch of different but agreeable notes from the respective chords/harmonies.)

This Western approach gives us a whole bunch of goodies that those poor orientals can only envy — polyphony, Bach, Phil Spector, Metallica, the Shirelles, Hank Williams, Bob Marley, Edith Piaf, the Beach Boys and Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

Easterners are still stuck with that simple-minded, one-trick-pony of always trying to find another really fine melody that cuts right to your heart, or liver.  Ah, but when they succeed — when Bismillah Khan or Ravi Shankar or El Chocolate or Agujetas do what they’re trying to do — well, it may look simple and one-dimensional on paper, but what’s happening is very, very complex…

(I don’t mind that we’re lacking musicologists around here, since I rarely understand what they’re talking about.  Do I recall some writing by Manuel de Falla about flamenco song using “enharmonic modulation” and “apogiatura from above and below”?)

Incidentally, I try to play the flamenco guitar, which clearly uses chords by the carload — though until recently the chordal grab-bag was pretty restricted.  But when I’m trying to explain to some lunkhead how flamenco works musically, I simplify/illustrate the point by playing the characteristic chordal pattern called the Andalusian Cadence — the fall from (in the key of E phrygian) A minor to G to F to E.  While that’s chordal, it dramatizes the falling-resolution toward the home base that’s so important to the song.

Maybe I should instead learn to play the vocal line of a serious flamenco song like the siguiriyas or soleares on the guitar — but for various reasons, that’s a huge challenge, even though it’s a snap to play the melody of the fandango de Huelva and a few other flamenco songs on the guitar.

In other words, some flamenco songs work in a western manner, while others which are associated with the Gypsy tradition have that elusive-to-us Oriental sound.

But here’s where the distinction gets tricky.  Some important flamenco songs are use complex melodic lines without seeming oriental at their cores.  I’m referring to the “aggrandized” fandango forms, which begin with the structure of a simple fandango, but which are highly ornamented with extended melismatic decorations.  These are the malaguenas, the granainas and the tarantas/cartageneras/mineras forms.  It seems that these were created by great singers more than a century ago — most notably the fabulous Antonio Chacon, the greatest of all non-Gypsy singers.

To my untrained and insensitive ear, that kind of fancy added “melodicism” (if that’s a word)  is not the same as the core or fundamental melodicism of the siguiriyas, the soleares and the unaccompanied martinetes/tonas/carceleras/deblas forms that I call Gypsy.

The painful truth is that I’ve heard gazillions of renditions of those Gypsy styles, and in some strange way, I still don’t know how they go.  I can’t hum them, and if I could sing, I couldn’t sing them.

And that’s my personal barometer of where songs come from.  I can understand, know and even sing any pop song after hearing it a few times, because it has an inevitability and because “it goes like that” — just one way.

Hard core flamenco songs don’t go just one way.  In fact, you can’t ever have a duet version of solea or siguiriyas or martinetes, because they “go” in any number of possible ways, and never seem to go the same way twice.

Worse yet, serious flamenco cantes from the Gypsy tradition don’t go bumpty-bumpty-bump-bump-bump — “Hap-py Birth-day-to-you” with one syllable per beat, or an obvious stretching of one note over several beats.  And even if you hire Whitney Houston or the diva-of-the-week to put more wiggle in the melody — listen to a superstar toying with the Star-Spangled Banner, for example — it’s still just a fancification of a basically simple melody.

My conclusion:  If you can hear a song a lot and still can’t get it through your thick skull, that song is fundamentally eastern or oriental.  And if you decide to force the issue, you can actually learn the song, or one way to sing the song, but it will always be difficult and will not become second-nature — as a western song becomes overnight — for years or decades, if ever.

Yes, I know many non-Spaniards who sing flamenco, including the hard-core stuff, and some of them do it fairly well.  But those who do it so well that one might confuse them with a mediocre native-Spanish, or Spanish Gypsy singer — well, there are two or three I can think of, and they have paid dearly for that distinction.

To make a long story short, serious flamenco song is the opposite of catchy — it is always elusive, always difficult to internalize, and, well, unhummable.  That’s why American audiences won’t go to hear good flamenco singers (I’m often told that the only way to get people to go hear a singer is to give at least half the program to a dancer).  That’s why even in the flamenco heartland, only a small percentage of the local townsfolk know or care about flamenco song.

Hey, what can you do?

Brook Zern

February 16, 2012   1 Comment

Rumba Flamenca – Information

Here is a loose translation of the entry for rumba that’s in the marvelous two-volume Diccionario Enciclopedico Ilustrado del Flamenco (Editorial Cinterco), which has long been out of print. It is followed by personal observations:

“…In Cuba, rumba signifies a popular and provocative dance of black origin and the music that accompanies it.  From there, it spread to other American and European countries.

[In Spain], the rumba is a flamenco-ized folkloric song with a copla of four six-syllable lines.  It is of Hispano-American origin, popularized in Spain through the theater and variety shows, from whence flamenco interpreters took it and lent it a festive aire between the tango and the buleria.  Prior to 1935, the only recordings in this style are by Nina de los Peines, Bernardo el de los Lobitos and Manuel Vallejo, though there were other interpreters including Jose Ortega, Diego Antunez and Pepe de la Matrona.

In the fifties, the Catalan Gypies made it fashionable, and El Pescailla was a notable interpreter.  Since then it has been quite popular in tablaos both as a song and a dance, the latter interpreted with many convulsive movements and twists.  After [the singer] Peret’s personal version appeared, many more have arisen, some created by folkloric groups, always very rhythmical and with plenty of room for improvisation.”

That’s all the encyclopedia says — a pointedly short entry, with no musical examples, indicating the form should not be taken seriously.  I’ve always considered the terms rumba flamenca and rumba gitana pretty much equivalent, both denoting the Spanish or flamenco-ized version described above.  Rumba catalana, though seemingly more specific, seems to refer to the exact same thing.

When I first got to Spain in 1961, the rumba flamenca was hugely popular, but over the next decade or two it became much less so.  The bulerias took its place as the good-timey piece in tablaos (flamenco night clubs) and the local one-night festivals that became common in Andalusia.

But the U.S. and the rest of the world would soon face a new rumba invasion.  For many years in the ’90s and beyond, I’d hear rumba flamenca records several times a week, playing in stores and restaurants of New York City.  This was not a coincidence.  There was something in the hypnotic rhythm that seemed to cause people to keep buying more stuff.

Those rumbas were always by the Gipsy Kings, who may still be the best-selling of all World Music acts and who sell out multiple shows at Radio City Music Hall every year.  They’re from the Camargue region of France — which is a lot closer to Barcelona than Andalusia is — and they were initially hyped by Brigitte Bardot and the French glitterati, but they sure do a great job of appealing to big audiences.   Their rumbas are instantly identifiable because of their trademark vocal harmony, the lead singer’s distinctive voice, and perhaps the group’s particular swing.

The Gipsy Kings evolved directly from the Manitas de Plata phenomenon of the 1960′s.  Its members were the sons of the French flamenco-style musicians who toured the world with the French Gypsy guitarist Manitas de Plata — a charismatic figure who didn’t know the basic rules of actual flamenco (especially its compas, or rhythmic structure), but sold out Carnegie Hall and countless other venues because audiences didn’t know, or didn’t care, about any such rules.

(Unlike most flamenco forms, the rumba has an instantly understood rhythm, a swaying Latin-American syncopation of our simple 4/4 time.  It’s sung or played melodies are catchy and the verses can be quite funny.)

Brook Zern

November 20, 2011   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Aurelio Sellés (Aurelio de Cadiz) speaks – 1962 interview by Anselmo Gonzalez Climent – Translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  Aurelio Sellés was the great master of flamenco song from Cádiz — the seaport town renowned for a brighter and happier style of song than Seville or Jerez.  But Aurelio was also a notoriously crusty and cranky guy.   The flamenco magazine Candil reprinted an old interview with him, conducted in 1962 by the pioneering Argentinian flamencologist Anselmo González Climent (who coined the word flamencology as the title of a seminal book, “Flamencologia”).

Here are excerpts from the interview, with comments from Climent and some interjections or clarifications of mine [in brackets]:

Aurelio Sellés: “Juan Talega [the revered deacon of serious flamenco song and a key source for the singer Antonio Mairena] only knows the monotonous song of his uncle Joaquín [el de la Paula, a legendary master and creator of a key soleá form, the soleá de Alcalá].  He’s shameless, sloppy, boring and corto [short, i.e., limited in repertoire].  He’s a hindu [evidently a deprecatory word for Gypsy] whom I can’t stand.  A bad person, a liar, incompetent. I’m tired of the “geniality” [alleged genius] of Gypsies.  It’s Manuel Torre this, and Manuel Torre that, and on and on. [Manuel Torre is universally admired as the greatest Gypsy master of cante jondo, or flamenco deep song, which is attributed to the Gypsies of Andalucía].  In fact, Torre was only good for siguiriyas [the most difficult form of the so-called "deep songs"], and only when he could do it.  In the rest, he just danced around something that he fundamentally didn’t know.

I’ve seen Juan Talega booed by Gypsies.  [Talega's reponse: "Aurelio and all the cante of Cádiz are worthless.  There's no variety, and no personal styles.  It's all a lie."]

Climent, the interviewer, says:  “Aurelio told me to stay away from the Gypsyphiles headed by Ricardo Molina.  So I did, out of respect and docility.  But it put me in a bind.  Ricardo counterattacked, warning me that if I maintained fidelity to the payo [non-Gypsy] faction, our ethnic-preference differences would deepen, and we wouldn’t be able to make common plans for the future.  And in fact, we never again could deal peacefully with the matters that had united us so amiably before…”

Aurelio:  “Don Antonio Chacón [considered the greatest non-Gypsy singer of all time] was the divo mas largo de todos los tiempos — the most complete, masterful singer of all time.  But he adulterated all the songs, to fit them to the tastes of the señoritos (posturing would-be gentlemen).  Because of his voice [in a high register] he couldn’t really do the siguiriyas and soleá.  He got his best songs from Curro Dulce.”

“In Granada, the flamencos are demanding and violent.  They didn’t just boo La Paquera and Terremoto [two gigantic figures of the flamenco song of Jerez] — Terremoto couldn’t vocalize well — they actually threw them out.

Seville?  I don’t know anyplace where the people are more fickle.  I’m outraged that Mairena and Talega dare to talk of a Seville school of singing.  How can you compare that with the roots of Cádiz.  And the Gypsies — if there were more of them, they’d get rid of the payos and all of Andalucia.  The Gypsies are blind about flamenco.  They don’t know a lot of the styles.

Okay, Antonio Mairena knows the song. But he has no gracia [charm, appeal], and doesn’t reach your heart.  His brother Manolo [who unlike Antonio is half non-Gypsy] is better.  Antonio invited me to be on an anthology he directed [Antología del Cante Gitano y Cante Flamenco].  He took away jaleo and palmas, and put the guitarist where we couldn’t hear each other.  I think he did it out of malice.  It hurt my reputation a lot  .

My mother disliked Enrique el Mellizo [the greatest interpreter of Cádiz flamenco song of all time] — said he was dirty and uneducated.  But when he sang, Gypsies would hurl themselves out of windows.  In a way, I admire him more than Chacón.  The first time Manuel Torre heard Mellizo, they had to stop him from jumping out of the window.  [Interviewer's note: It seems that the true measure of the glory of a singer was measured by the quantity of listeners who, possessed, leaped from balconies -- at least during fiestas on the lower floors.  Aurelio assigned this honor to Chacón, Torre, Mellizo, Tomas el Nitri and once to Antonio Mairena.]…

Aurelio:  I put the true cante por alegrías [the most important flamenco song form from Cadiz] in circulation in 1921.  Before that, the best singer of alegrias was Paquirri el Viejo, a disciple of Enrique el Mellizo…

Socially, Pastora Pavón [La Niña de los Peines, the greatest female flamenco singer of all time] was a beast — she deserved no honor for her comportment…

People go to flamenco concursos [contests] because it’s fashionable.  And what’s worse — they dare to give opinions!  I mean, people who still stink of singers like Pepe Marchena [a wildly popular singer of cante bonito, or “pretty” flamenco song] or Antonio Molina [another cante bonito singer] — giving opinions!…

In Córdoba, they think they have good cantes — what a lie!  The songs are twisted, unimportant, and desangelados [de-angelized, lacking in magic].  I only sang there to show them the real cante.

“Today, nobody knows how to sing tonas, deblas, martinetes, [three similar forms of unaccompanied deep song sung in a free rhythm], cañas, polos, etc.  The only one with an idea is Manolo Caracol [the fabulous Gypsy singer] despite his famous anthology where he sang bad stuff that was not the true cante.  [The anthology is considered Caracol's masterpiece.]  He has hounded me to show him the key to some styles.  He wanted to record everything I know.  Once he beseiged me, to repeat the tangos de Cádiz as done by my older brother, el “Chele Fateta”  I don’t want to help others rob me; I’m going to write my memoirs, and record an anthology that’s all mine [sadly, Aurelio never recorded a true anthology].  Caracol keeps after me to show him the Cádiz cante, but though I consider him a true phenomenon, I fear him as a person.  With that kind of desperation, he’d take what’s mine and pass it off as his.  I know his caste [i.e., Gypsies, or Caracol's kind of Gypsies].  They’re capable of anything.  The branch that lives in Cádiz have customs to scare anyone.  I heard one, once, singing siguiriyas to someone who had just died….

No aficionado of flamenco can be a bad person.  They’re all good people.  But the flamencos themselves  — they’re crápulas [this is not a compliment, to sat the least]…

The best flamenco guitarist of all time was Rafael de Jerez.  [Could he mean Javier Molina?  Or Rafael de Aguila, a noted disciple of Javier but a lesser artist?]  Others are Manolo de Huelva, who’s still alive but drunk and worn out, and Melchor de Marchena, the greatest one right now.  Perico del Lunar [the revered Jerez guitarist who was behind the monumental 1954 Antologia del Cante Flamenco] is a veteran with too much prestige.  He’s one of the biggest sinverguenzas [shameless frauds] in the business…

When Fosforito [the admired non-Gypsy master who won the important 1956 Cordoba contest] tries to sing the Malagueñas del Mellizo, it’s pathetic.  His bad malagueñas are on a par with Mairena’s bad tanguillos [another Cádiz form].  Fosforito sings with his head.  He’s a good aficionado, but he pontificates a lot and learns little…

Juan el Ollero was a cantaor from Triana who invented the soleá of Córdoba about a century ago.  [This story may be true.  It would mean that the so-called soleá de Córdoba was not the invention of a Cordoban singer, but was imported by a noted non-Gypsy singer from Seville’s Triana district who knew that version.  The two soleares certainly sound similar to one another.]

My older brother lived in Argentina around 1878, and brought back a lot of songs that he expertly crossed with our songs.  He specialized in milongas [an Argentine song borrowed by some flamenco artists, and sometimes even considered a light flamenco song], rematados [ended] por alegrías…”

[Climent begins the second part of this interview by noting Aurelio’s reservations about the material on Antonio Mairena’s very important first LP.  Aurelio says that Mairena’s siguiriyas are barely interesting, particularly the “cambio” of Silverio — the part that changes from the Phrygian mode to the major key – and adds that the soleá of Enrique el Mellizo has merit, but is far from the mark of Enrique.  Regarding the corrido or romance — old Spanish ballads which were conserved only in a few Gypsy families — he allows it to be called authentic.  Aurelio sings “a bajini” (in a whisper) a version that is not as close to the compás of soleá as is Mairena’s.  He recalls hearing in Seville a romance sung to the style of martinete.  He deduces that the traditional form called the romance acquires a distinct flamenco base according to the preferences of each region where it’s sung.

Climent notes that Antonio Mairena often said he didn’t know know how to sing polos, cañas or — with more reason — fandangos.

Aurelio says: “I’ve never in my life heard a complete polo or caña.  And what I do remember of those cantes has nothing at all to do with what is circulating today.  I know and sing some fragments, above all the remate of the soleá apolá [accent on the final “a” of “apolá” — so it would be a soleá that was influenced by the polo, or “apola(da)“, “poloized”.   There’s talk of cañas of Seville, Triana, Cádiz and Los Puertos, and of a singer called Tobalo.  If he was a singer, he wasn’t the only one to give it shape.  There must have been many types or variants of polos.  Today, we hear one that was made fashionable by the dancer Pilar López, who knows how to experiment and invent.  But the blame for the monotony of the form goes to Perico del Lunar [the Jerez guitarist who arranged the influential and venerable and original 1954 Anthology of Cante Flamenco, and who allegedly clued the singers in on the more obscure forms].  Perico, with good or bad faith, has adulterated almost all the old cantes…His anthology is neither authentic nor correct.

Aurelio speaks of the cantiñas [a key Cádiz form, linked to the alegrías] of Fosforito and Mairena:  “This is my turf.  The entendidos [knowledgeable folks] discuss whether or not the cantiñas are independent of the alegrías.  Some say that’s not really the question: They say the cantiñas are not a special cante, but a light way of singing, of “cantiñeando” [singing out], or whatnot.  I assure you that the cantiñas are in fact a special type of alegrías, with a tonal change that isn’t too distinct [poco solido] and that gives the singer a lot of leeway and freedom.

It’s a form that is even lighter [todavia mas aligerada] than the alegrías.  The cantiñas of Fosforito are  loaded with ornamentation [adornos].  Those of Mairena are a mixture of cantes, with the unique trait of ending por romeras, which are also alegrías.  Mairena’s are more from Seville than from Cádiz.  He makes them monotonous, and they seen as repetitive as the sevillanas de baile.

The soleá de Alcalá is a slow, cold, short cante, without the bravura lines [tercios valientes] they give it in my region.  It has art, and balance.  It’s even agreeable.  But it lacks pauses, variety, high lines.  It’s very low-key [muy apagada].  The soleá de Utrera is more defined, it has more content and it even has some similarities with some variants of the soleá de Cádiz.

Climent notes that the Gypsyphile/Mairenista Ricardo Molina gained increasing respect for the non-Gypsy cante of Aurelio.  Climent wondered what had happened to cause the change.  Then one day, Molina said to him “Doesn’t Aurelio seem not quite castellano [payo or gache — i.e., not really non-Gypsy] to you — doesn’t he seem a little Gypsy?  Do you think he could really be a cuarterón [quatroon, in this case a quarter-Gypsy]?.

Aurelio:  “I don’t tolerate crossing the cante [styles].  You should start and end with the same style — of this person or that person.  You have to sing the malagueñas de Mellizo as a single entity, complete.  The same with those of Chacón or la Trini.  I can’t stand singers who start with a verse from Enrique, go to one by Fosforo el Viejo, and rematan [wind up] with La Trini’s.  It’s not right.  I sometimes need four or five coplas in order to get myself properly into the line of, say, Enrique.  Nowadays, nobody takes the trouble.  Let’s not fool ourselves — there’s a lot of ignorance out there.”

Climent:  Another key tenet for Aurelio is the almost sacred obedience to compás — flamenco’s often complex rhythmic system.  Aurelio says “The compás is the fundamental element of the cante.  I can exceed my limits, go crazy at the high point of a remate — but without ever leaving the axis of compás.  Caracol, when he gets carried away [se desordena], also loses [desordena] the compás.  It’s his worst defect, for all the high esteem I have for him.  [This is a common criticism of Caracol, acknowledged even by some admirers].  A singer who doesn’t stick to compás shouldn’t even qualify for a contest.  And certainly the cradle of compás is in Cádiz, above all in the soleá and the bulería.

I can’t sing with just any guitarist.  The tocaor who marks his own compás is a bad player.  He needs to support himself in a mathematical calculation.  And that’s not what it’s about.  The compás is something more subtle and fine than that.  You have to have it by right [de casta].   The best maestros are Manolo de Badajoz, Melchor de Marchena, Sabicas and Paco Aguilera.  Niño Ricardo [a revered and hugely influential guitarist] is incomplete, disordered, abusively personal.  He gets away from the cante and the compás.  With me, at least, we just can’t get it together.  [Again, there is some justification for this claim. Ricardo sometimes went out of compás, considered a sin in other guitarists, possibly because he was attempting very difficult material without correspondingly awesome technique, or maybe because sometimes his imagination just ran away with him.]

Fosforito has good and bad traits.  He interests me, and I voted for him in the 1956 Cordoba contest.  But his soleares are disordered, his siguiriyas indecisive, his alegrías debatable, his cantiñas absurd.  Still, his voice is appropriate to cante grande, and he’ll become one of the greats if he can capitalize on his strengths.

La Fernanda, La Bernarda, La Pepa, all those from Utrera, are Gypsies like you can find in any corner of Andalucía.  [La Fernanda de Utrera is acknowledged as the greatest female singer of soleá of all time, and the greatest cantaora of recent decades.  Her sister Bernarda is a fine singer].  They’ve done well in contests due to lack of competition.  Under the circumstances, they can be good.  The one who impresses me most is Fernanda.  She knows how to fight against her weak vocal faculties.  Among the young people, she was the one who was best in the whole Cordoba contest.”

Climent writes: La Perla de Cadiz [a great cantaora, and an inspiration for Camarón de la Isla] was the only contestant who excited Aurelio.  He convinced two judges, but failed to convince me or Molina.  Aurelio said “Perla as better than any other cantaora in the contest — at least in the cante chico.  As she is from Cádiz, she is a Gypsy with quality.  She’s a professional, born and bred [hecha y derecha].  It was ridiculous not to give her the first prize in the cante chico [lighter flamenco styles].”

Climent: “To Aurelio’s disgust, we only gave La Perla the second and third prizes.   I believe Aurelio was influenced by factors other than the cante itself.  But we all agreed that it was too bad la Perla’s husband didn’t compete, since he showed us privately that he was a magnificent singer and a fine dancer, too.  He was a “gitano fino“, prudent, modest, in his place [sic: “en su lugar“].

Aurelio: “Manolo [Manuel] Torre is the singer I admired most.  For me there have been two principal epochs of cante:  The first, of Paquirri el Guante, Enrique el Mellizo and Tomas el Nitri.  The second, exclusively of Manolo.  As a professional, he was a genius [genial], unique.  As a person, he was simple, “tirado“.  A humble Jerez fisherman, de cortas luces [uneducated, not bright], lacking character.  He was a low Gypsy [gitano barato].  But a friend of mine…”

[Translator's note:  With friends like Aurelio, who needs enemies?]

Aurelio:  The singer called Medina el Viejo was the maestro [teacher] of Niña de los Peines.  He was the best interpreter of peteneras — exactly the one that would make Pastora famous.  He also showed the way with his bulerías, tangos, tanguillos and alegrías.  Pastora specialized in tangos, taking cante chico to the heights.  But in the rest of the styles, her singing was weepy, overly quejado (lamenting), exaggeratedly abultado [inflated], as if to compensate for her lack of domination in songs as costly [demanding] as the [great and crucial] siguiriyas and soleares.”

Climent writes:  “Juan Talega’s countertheory denies any influence of Medina on Pastora.  Talega says “Pastora never suckled from that teta.  Anyone who says different is an ignoramus.  Medina had his style on some cantes, but never had the gracia and essence of Pastora.  He was a lightweight, a divo, a Pepe Marchena [pretty singer] of his era.  He was lucky, and got famous, but he’s worthless next to Pastora.  She got her cante chico, from tangos to bulerías, from Manuel Torre, her only maestro, before developing her own personality.  Manolo Caracol doesn’t agree on this, but he’s wrong.  He’s just jealous and envious of the Pavón family.  Tying Pastora to Medina is a way of taking credit away from her.  Caracol’s a bald-faced liar.  She was a disciple of Arturo Pavón, her older brother.  She is an unequalled singer of festive cante, although she does lament [queja] too much in the cante grande.  She’ll go down in history for her inimitable tangos.”

[Translator's note:  Folks, please forgive the length of this and related posts (which actually omit most of the original material).  For all we can learn by talking among ourselves, the real deal is found in the music and the words of the verses, and in the oral testimony of the artists, whose disagreements and vituperation, like their music, make us all look like amateurs.]

Climent writes:  Aurelio says he admires the singing of Manolo Caracol, and pardons his sins of theatricality, applauding his traditionalist spirit.  “I can’t deny the enchantment of his virile, rajo [rough, raspy] voice.  But I don’t like his anthology.  I don’t know why he elongates the soleá corta [“short soleá“] of Joaquin [de la Paula].  Or why he misses the purity and valentía [boldness, courage] of Enrique el Mellizo’s cante.  And his way of losing the compás when he’s emotional or distracted.

There’s no single mold for the martinetes [early, unaccompanied deep flamenco songs].  Those of Triana are classical, valiente [brave, gutsy], varied.  Those of Cagancho el viejo have no competition.  Those of Seville are more measured, more conservative, with more adornos than pellizcos [chillingly emotional touches].  Those of Los Puertos are the best of all.  They demand flexibility, courage and great depth.  Those of Cádiz are quebrados [uneven, rough] and gracioso, if that’s the word for such a serious cante.  The martinete of Tio Juan Cantoral is the most legendary.  But I prefer those of Los Puertos.

Chacon revived the caracoles [a song sharing the rhythm and major key of the alegrías], from the Goyesca period.  But even with his greatness, I don’t like the song.  The music seems defective, and nobody can stand the words.  ”Curro Cuchares and el Tato together in the Café de la Union” — why, they weren’t even contemporaries.

Juan Talega wants to show that he can sing a lot of siguiriyas.   Some are passable.  But in general, what he’s done is make variations on one siguiriya style — Loco Mateo’s.

There’s a pretty song that’s not given much weight, and is rarely sung well.  It’s a Gypsified style, with the sound of a slow bulería: the alborea [a ceremonial Gypsy wedding song, traditionally reserved for intimate gatherings].  In my youth, it was part of my repertoire.  It’s not easy.  It deserves to return to circulation.

Bulerías is not Juan Talega’s forte.  What he does is a rythmic trick, so he can keep singing soleares though it appears to be bulerias.  I don’t like those absurd and senseless combinations called the solea por bulerias or bulerias por solea.  The two songs [bulerías and soleares] are similar, but the purity of each one should be conserved.

My soleares are a mixture of Los Puertos, Jerez and Cadiz.  I don’t forget those of Frijones — nor does Caracol in his anthology.

I agree (me hago solidario) with (flamencologist) Jose Carlos de Luna when he says that the cante begins in Morón.

[Translator’s note:  This may be an odd geographic theory, or may be an attempt to attribute several great Gypsy song forms like the siguiriyas and soleares to Silverio Franconetti of the town of Morón de la Frontera.  Silverio, a non-Gypsy with an Italian father and a great singer and creator, was the key figure in first commercializing flamenco by creating “cafés cantantes” where a paying public could witness flamenco.]

Aurelio:  I’ll grant that this or that came from Seville, but Seville, in general, is very presumptuous and can’t compare with the solera [this refers to the sun-driven distillation or aging of sherry] of Cádiz.

The jabera is nothing more than a light malagueña.  It’s a malagueña for dancing.

Despite the unjust neglect [olvido] that surrounds her, Carmen Amaya is the most serious [exemplar] of baile flamenco.  With all her extraneous trappings, she never strays from flamenco.  There’s no other bailaora who’s similar to her.  The only other one who’s worthwhile is Pilar López, although at times, as Ricardo Molina correctly says, she is too “intellectual”.

Antonio Chacón was the first singer who tried to sing in Castillian (clear Spanish, rather than the loose and sometimes incomprehensible Andalucian dialect).  He did it to increase his popularity.  He thought that this way his singing would be more “formal”.  The bad thing was that his imitators carried this idea to ridiculous extremes.  Not even Pepe Marchena escaped this influence.

I have sung for the public just three times in my life.  First, with [the great dancer] Pastora Imperio at the beginning of my career.  Then at a public homage for me in Cádiz.  And finally this year in a festival dedicated to Parrilla de Jerez.”   [This would be the father of Manuel Parrilla.]

Climent writes: “Juan Talega thinks that the soleá dance is older than the song itself.  He doesn’t know the origin of the danced soleá — but he insists that the soleá as a song was invented by his uncle, Joaquín el de la Paula.  He goes on to say that the song was born in a little area encompassing Utrera, Alcalá de los Panaderos [Alcalá de Guadaíra], Seville and Triana.

Climent writes:  Ricardo Molina [the flamencologist and acolyte of the great Gypsy singer and gitanista Antonio Mairena], increasingly caught up in his gitanophilia, insists on ascribing Gypsy traits to Aurelio.  He’s sure Aurelio can’t be absolutely payo.  He tries dialectical approaches.  He professes surprise at the idea that Aurelio and his 21 siblings could really have the same father.   And it’s strange, but as if that same suspicion somehow reached his ears, Aurelio tells me that after four years absence in the war of Santo Domingo, his father returned to Cádiz and the first thing he did was go directly to his wife to assure himself of her fidelity.  “From that moment on,” Aurelio says, “that’s when my parents started to have kids one after another.”

Meanwhile, Ricardo Molina is really interested in helping Aurelio record his “flamenco testament”, in Cádiz, away from the intolerable friction with Talega and Mairena, who had made him record for their anthology unrehearsed and who chose the songs for him to sing — many eliminated in the final commercial release.  Ricardo Molina admires and really likes Aurelio — a complete change from his first response at an earlier concurso.  He calls him the most capable and genuine singer of his generation. [i.e., prior to Antonio Mairena's generation].

Aurelio speaks of the non-Gypsy giant Silverio Franconetti: “He was an incomparable siguiriyero, giving that form hierarchy and variety.  His variants and cambios are still done.  Ricardo Molina blathers about his being a disciple or imitator of El Fillo, but he was just as masterful.  I can’t stand Ricardo’s pro-Gypsy enthusiasm.  I admire lots of Gypsy singers.  Manuel Torre was a king, apart.   But all my life, the real singers have been payos [non-Gypsies].  Cante flamenco is a backbone with three names:  Silverio Franconetti, Antonio Chacón and Aurelio Sellés Nondedeu.”

Climent:  “Aurelio’s guasa [difficult attitude, wise-ass or mocking behavior] deserves an article of its own…  He’s a true friend, incorruptible, faithful to the point of partiality..”

Climent writes that the 1962 Cordoba contest was dominated by artists provided by Pulpón, the manager/promoter who had firm control of many flamenco artists.  This upset the Cordobans, and infuriated Aurelio de Cadiz, because Pulpón favored artists from near his Seville power base — including Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera and Juan Talega.  But, Climent says, things worked out pretty well “when La Fernanda, herself alone, justified the entire event.”

Aurelio: “I’m fascinated by the obsessive belief that there exist good soleares de Cordoba.  They have gracia, thanks to their simplicity.  They start without a warm-up temple, and go to the high parts (alturas) like an elevator.  I’m also intrigued by the alegrias de Cordoba.  Very castillian, cansinas [boring, tiring], of little compás, and with poor textual repertoire.  I think they came from a variant of Paquirri’s that were popular here.  I showed this to Ricardo Molina, and he agreed.”

“[Singer] Juanito Varea, from Castellón de la Plana [far north of Andalucia], was the disciple of a Gypsy guitarist called Castellón [probably not a reference to Agustin Castellón, called Sabicas].  He’s got his act together (es muy consolidada) now.  He has a classical flavor, and lots of courage.  There’s a certain leaning toward theatrical cante, above all when he does his famous fandango.  I’d advise him to lose that, and stick to the cante grande [great song, big song — a term that includes the three cante jondo or deep song forms and may go beyond that to include some other serious flamenco songs, e.g., the tarantas or granainas] where he belongs.”

Climent writes: “I noticed that Aurelio stayed near me, and seemed to sing to me.  I asked him about this, and he said “Sure, I do that in every reunion.  I sing for just one person, and forget the rest.  It’s more heartfelt, and comes out a gusto [just right].  The true singer draws inspiration from a friend, and grows.  Even in public, you have to imagine another person — just one person.”

Climent:  “We talked of the silences in the cante.  Aurelio’s are forged with “radicalidad jasperiana (¡dicho a cuenta de sus inefables jitanjaforas!“) [?].  They are more frequent and more believable than those of — we won’t name names.  They are more credible, in general, than those of the Gypsies, which are more aesthetic than metaphysical.  In Aurelio, they conform to a vital imperative.  He is clearly conscious of when this silent break is necessary.  It’s as a culmination of that which is impossible to express.  He says “Even in the alegrías or bulerías, sometimes the mood produces a kind of paralysis.  It must be the emotion.  Who knows?  But I know it when it happens.”

Climent says Aurelio wanted to visit Lucena [near Cordoba].  He didn’t say why.  But there, he sought out the baptismal font where his wife was baptised.  When he found it, he cried like a baby.

Climent:  “Ricardo Molina and Aurelio were devastated when Pepe Pinto kept impeding the efforts to have La Niña de los Peines (his wife) record her discographic testimony.  Ricardo wondered if Pinto was professionally jealous of Pastora.  He even suspected that Pastora “se ha aflojado” (perhaps meaning losing her mental faculties, which may have been the case, though around that time she did one final and fabulous star turn at a festival).  Aurelio, on the other hand, thinks she’s in excellent shape, and thinks Pinto is committing a grave error.”

End of translation.  A lot is being written about flamenco today.  I hope people will give due attention to the actual words of the flamencos themselves, including giants of the art like the irritating and irascible Aurelio Selles.

– Brook Zern   brookzern@gmail.com

October 30, 2011   1 Comment