Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Gypsy Role in Flamenco Creation

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

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

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

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

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

(My attempted clarifications appear in brackets.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the final question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 27, 2017   No Comments

The Musical Genesis of Flamenco – Book by Guillermo Castro Buendía – Comments by Brook Zern

A new book by Guillermo Castro Buendía reflects the new thinking about flamenco’s history, development and perhaps its essential nature. It is titled “Genesis Musical del Flamenco”, and it’s an impressive contribution to the study of flamenco. I’m not on board with much of the new scholarship, or at least of some of its conclusions, (In my day, we didn’t need no stinkin’ scholarship — we drew our rigorous conclusions from, like, the vibe we got, man.) The book is analyzed in a blog entry by one of the defenders of the revised view, Paco Vargas.

In his introductory comments, Sr. Vargas offers the expected ridicule of the traditional view (“Those people obsess over how many fighting cocks the [great Gypsy singer] Manuel Torre had”), and he pays the requisite obeisance to “the great Faustino Núñez”, the diligent researcher and intellectual leader of their merry band. Skipping to the end, one finds a summation of the most important conclusions of Sr. Castro Buendía’s book:

- Flamenco music derives from Spain’s the varied and mixed musical tradition, and the sources are the following folkloric forms: fandangos, jotas, seguidillas, romances [ballads] and work songs. Forms that were widespread across the entire nation, and that during the Nineteenth Century – not before – were transformed by Spanish musicians (singers and guitarists) into the first flamenco songs. That is to say – in contradiction of the [fictitious] “Great Flamenco Novel” these songs did not materialize out of nothing in some mysterious way, but are the product of an artistic mutation of certain folkloric styles – not yet flamenco – that already existed.

- The most remote musical antecedents of flamenco are found in the music of the Sixteenth Century with the pasacalles, romanescas and folías); in the Seventeenth Century with the jácaras; and in the Eighteenth Century with guitar music, the most important being the special finger-strumming technique called rasgueado that would become the most important precedent in the development of flamenco guitar. That is to say, we’re talking about “musical precedents” and not flamenco forms or songs; thus, the beginning of flamenco will not be found in prehistory, antiquity or middle age. We insist instead: The mid-Nineteenth Century,

- The Arab musical heritage is unclear and still to be determined. Though historical logic dictates that it must have had its quota of influence upon the formation of flamenco song, that data we have now would tend to discredit it [discartarla] as the base or seed of flamenco.

- The Gypsy people did not bring any music to Spain, and so we must forget the theory of Indian music as an origin of flamenco. The expressive forms and musical elements traditionally associated with the Gypsies – sometimes as a racial thing – were already, like it or not, found in Spain’s popular and folkloric music before their arrival on the Iberian Peninsula. Those were: The Phrygian mode; hoarse, rough voices [“voces afillás”; the mixed binary/ternary rhythm pattern [hemiola or amalgamated compás]; intense expressive pathos; and melismatic singing.

- A deep relationship is noted between flamenco music and the musical styles that came to Spain from the Americas, most notably the zarabandas, chaconas, carios and, most signiciantly, the FANDANGOS, Attention! Not the singable fandangos we know today, but some instrumental and danceable forms that we’ll now discuss

- The influence of black music that arrived directly from Africa is indisputable, The black slaves brought to Spain rhythns, dances and musical styles that were important to the formation of flamenco music,

- Regarding the relationship between academic/formal music with flamenco, Guillermo believes that the infkuence was from esta hacia aquella, and not the other way around, as current thinking in flamencology. Nonetheless, it’s clear that flamenco guitarists assimilated and adapted many techniques of classical guitar such as arpeggio, tremolo, etc,

Summing up, dear readers, this book knocks down many of the myths of the “Great Flamenco Novel”, opening up an indispensable new horizon for properly understanding this art that we all love.

End of excerpt. The original is found at:


Translator’s note: While I’m on the other side of the fence, I have no trouble with a lot of those conclusions and some other points used by the serial debunkers of the old thinking. Skipping around a bit:

I agree with the idea that it’s dicey to claim Arabic music as the seed of flamenco, though there were certainly traces of that seven-century occupation that remained in Andalusia’s musical substrate.

Too many of us Western types, including Spaniards, seem to feel that all other non-Western forms sound the same. Jewish people tell me flamenco singing sounds exactly like their music, people from Pakistan and India tell me the same thing. And sometimes they write books allegedly proving their theories.

I agree with many of the non-Arab influences cited above, both Spanish and European. But the crucial element in flamenco song, to my ears and most others, is that it is non-Western.

Okay — wait. Flamenco song is many things. Some of the more than sixty forms sound one way, some sound very different. The sevillanas are catchy, and I could sing them if I could sing. They, and a lot of other flamenco songs, use the “follow the bouncing ball” approach, where each syllable is a beat/note (unless it’s held for two or more beats/notes.)

(Faustino Núñez, the authority cited above, uses the terrific term “cante silábico” or “syllabic singing” for this common approach that we’re all so used to.)

Equally important: the notes that are sung would be found, or implicit, in the chords that musical Westerners (except a few of us ungifted unfortunates) could readily select for proper accompaniment. In other words, our music is harmony-based, whether or not someone is playing the chords.

The other kind, non-Western, derives its direction from melody alone. It uses a line that rises from the tonic or root note, meanders around for a while without being glued to a clunky rhythm and without committing to an exact pitch for each nominal note, and ultimately descends back to the root.

Obvious examples would be the soleares, siguiriyas and martinetes. These are the flamenco songs that drive normal people to distraction or drive them away. (Inevitable intermission talk: “Why is that horrid man shouting and screaming while the pretty lady is trying to dance?”)


January 22, 2017   No Comments

The DeGypsification of Flamenco – 2011 Article by Producer Ricardo Pachón – translated with comments by Brook Zern

The important flamenco authority and record producer Ricardo Pachón– he was behind Camarón’s crucial tradition-breaking late-career releases — describes a major movement which is changing the malleable history of the art and the economic distribution patterns among the artists. Reprinted yesterday on a very interesting Facebook page, Puente Genil con el Flamenco, it drew a furious reception, including the chilling comments of Pachón’s extremely influential now-former friend Faustino Núñez, whose response to this communication might be termed excommunication. My two cents’ worth follow.

The DeGypsification of Flamenco
By Ricardo Pachón, 2011

You could see it coming for a long time: the Gypsy Tsunami. The revolt of angry Gypsy artists against Andalusia’s cultural administration that is marginalizing them ever since the region’s Statute of Autonomy claimed “exclusive competency in the matter of competency in flamenco as a singular element in the cultural patrimony of Andalusia” (Point 1 of Article 68).

The Gypsies have been settled for five centuries in Spain, and have been persecuted from the reign of the Catholic Kings (the Pragmatic of Medina del Campo, of 1492) to the most recent Laws on Wanderers and Malfeasants of the Franco era. A nomadic people who became sedentary in Atlantic Andalusia and created one of the world’s richest musical genres. We are speaking a flamenco territory: the Gypsy sections of Triana, Alcalá, Utrera, Morón, Jerez, Arcos, Los Puertos and Cádiz. (The Gypsy sector of Triana was eradicated and destroyed in 1957 by order of the Civil Governor< Hermenegildo Altozano y Moraled, a distinguished member of the Opus Dei.) We are speaking of certain musical styles that employ an alternating rhythm within a twelve-beat cycle combining binary and ternary rhythms: the tonás, martinetes, livianas, seguiriyas, corridos, cantiñas, soleares and bulerías. And we’re speaking of the large number of Gypsy creators of these styles, from El Fillo to Camarón and passing through Manuel Cagancho, Juan el Pelao, Tío José de Paula, Enrique el Mellizo, Manuel Torre, Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena… Supported by the above-mentioned Statute, the next move by the politicians was the creation of an Agency of Flamenco through which have passed the most diverse ["variopintas“] people, unfamiliar with this musical world but holding the power to decide what is and what is not flamenco. Since the flamenco territory we’ve described is far too small for their electoral ambitions and proposals, they had to seek voters in all eight of Andalusia’s provinces – and thus arose the idea of the “café for everyone”.

The Gypsy movement, that is taking shape and growing stronger with every passing day, doesn’t just focus on economic exclusion; the problem is greater than that. It goes to the Formulario (proposal) presented to UNESCO by the communities of Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura that launches a crusade to deGypsify flamenco. On page 2, they call flamenco a mode of “popular expression”, as if to say the entire populace sings and dances the soleares and the bulerías [two complex flamenco styles that require either extensive study or early immersion in a setting where they are performed frequently and naturally – a situation that is very rare, even unknown, outside of certain Gypsy families in Andalusia.]

On page 3, we find an enumeration of the “musical forms of flamenco” among which are included the sevillanas, the fandangos, the verdiales, etc… all modalities of Andalusian folklore [rather than actual flamenco], in a readily danceable 3/4 rhythm that has nothing whatever to do with the complicated metric of flamenco. And here we have the core of the problem for the indignant Gypsies: The politicians have decided that all Andalusian folklore is flamenco.

UNESCO’s consideration of flamenco to be declared an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity – along with [relatively minor or seemingly inappropriate] things such as the mountain whistlers or the Mediterranean diet only underlines the “danger of extinction” [that is one requirement for inclusion].

What’s lamentable is that flamenco does not exist as a “musical genre” on the servers and portals of the Internet. We are still bunched with Latin Music or World Music. And it’s the Internet where the economic and commercial future of the art will be determined. And it’s here where the professionals in the field of flamenco (artists, critics, investigators, producers, etc.) will have to define, once and for all, what is and what is not flamenco. Now, diverse categories can exist within a musical genre, as is the case with blues or rock. For example, Flamenco (the forms mentioned above), Flamenco-folk (i.e. Andalusian folklore that has been flamenco-ized); Latin-flamenco (styles like the rumba); flamenco fusion (for all the recent blinding with jazz, blues, rock and more). It’s just a matter of getting to work.

It is unacceptable that the Junta de Andalucía should say to UNESCO (page 27 of the Formulario) “At this time, our Cultural Consejería are seeking the inclusion of different manifestations of flamenco such as the sevillanas school of dance, the bolero school of dance, the verdiales [a very folky form and fandangos], the trovos [ballads] of the Alpujarra mountains…”

Now we have the “First International Congress of Flamenco”, November 2011. A strange matter, given the fact that the “First International Congress of Flamenco” was organized by UNESCO in Madrid in June of 1969. The second, also organized by UNESCO, was held in 1971. The records of both were published by the Institute of Hispanic Culture. The Scientific Committee of the 2011 Congress consisted of 81 members, and naturally, not a single Gypsy. While in those earlier UNESCO Congresses, authorities including Fernando Quiñones and Caballero Bonald were joined by three eminent Gypsy experts and artists: the singer and author Antonio Mairena, the singer Juan Talegas, and the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.

And that is the affront that the Junta de Andalucía has thrown at the Gypsy community and that is confronting Gypsy anthropologists and musicologists as well as regional Gypsy associations, which have turned to the Institute of Gypsy Culture within the Ministry of Culture, which has responded with the publication of the manifesto “Somos gitanos, somos flamenco.” (We are Gypsies, We are Flamenco.)

End of 2011 article by Ricardo Pachón.

Translator’s note: Sr. Pachón makes a serious case against what he sees as an organized effort to strip Andalusia’s Gypsies of their claim to a crucial element — maybe the crucial element — in the creation, preservation and interpretation of flamenco.

He has been around the block, as we say in English. I remember seeing him at flamenco sessions in Morón and Seville in the sixties — sometimes singing a bit.

I don’t agree that the term flamenco should only apply to the eight forms he names, beginning with the martinetes. I think it’s more logical to call most so-called flamenco forms “flamenco” – including the various forms of alegrias, the sometimes vapid but often charming Latin-American forms like the flamenco guajiras and flamenco milongas, and the many highly developed variants of fandangos including the malagueñas and tarantas. For me, the only logical candidates for expulsion are the sevillanas and the rhythmic forms of fandangos. All of these styles have a folkloric aspect that others don’t – they are performed by large numbers of ordinary folks, just like the jotas and the sardanas in other regions of Spain.

Also, I know that the alternating rhythmic cycle Sr. Pachón refers to and that underpins most allegedly Gypsy flamenco styles, was a pre-existing musical tradition on the Iberian peninsula and not a gitano invention as may be implied.

But I share his concern over the deGypsification movement — the term seems fair enough — that has come to dominate the field in the last decade. Suffice it to say that Spain’s most important authority on flamenco, Faustino Núñez, begins his educational talks by banning any use of the “G-word” in his presence and no, I am not making that up. The intention may be excusable or even laudable — in an ideal world, no one group should be singled out for alleged special contributions to an Andalusian (or Spanish) art form that incorporates so many influences. The real-world effect, however, is to further marginalize a group that deserves recognition for its indispensable creative role in taking flamenco from the realm of remarkable regional folklore to that of high art.

I was at that 2011 “First International Flamenco Congress” that Pachón mentions — not invited, but I snuck in. I noted one interesting thing right away, when the Mexican architect who represented UNESCO stood up and said that the designation of flamenco as a patrimony of humanity was in danger of being withdrawn because the petitioning authorities had misrepresented their willingness to provide essential support to the art and artists. (I wrote the long American contribution to that petition, at the behest of a noted Spanish authority, José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, who had once been — well, a sort of “gitanista” and “purista”, like so many others, before the pendulum swung away from that position. He knew I wasn’t on board with the revised history, but asked me anyway. I was glad to do it, though I never envisioned the declaration’s complex ramifications, both positive and negative.)

The other thing I noticed — only after the conference was over — was the total lack of Gypsies as speakers (or, it seemed, as attendees).

To bring such matters up today risks one being branded a “racist” — a twisted meaning that, nominally in a noble effort to be fair to all, forbids special recognition of any group. (Note for any Spanish readers: In the U.S., the traditional definition of a racist is one who tries to make things even worse for members of a minority group, especially a distrusted or despised minority group. Those who try to make things better for a minority group are not called racists but “progressives”. For an American, at least, it seems strange to be branded a racist for any pro-minority stance, even including the sin of “gitanismo”.)

Historical note: In the early or mid 1970′s, after I spoke at an event sponsored by the New York Society of the Classical Guitar (I was the Flamenco Editor of their elegant publication Guitar Review), a guy came up to me, smiled, and said in a Spanish accent, “I notice that you hold the racist position regarding flamenco.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that I singled out one race or group as deserving special respect and recognition. He said that he was a classical guitar teacher at the State University of New York (SUNY) and had studied with Segovia. I didn’t argue with him, didn’t think to ask where he was from, and didn’t face the same accusation directly for decades. When I went to Jerez to live, around 2005, I often saw his fliers for lessons — “José Franco, discípulo de Segovia, diplomado en New York.” By that time, the charge had resurfaced again in flamenco circles as more and more authorities — without the smiles — forcefully rejected the notion of a Gypsy-centric perspective on flamenco. Call it the New Anathema.

The astounding irony, of course, was that I had come to Jerez because of my — umm, bias? Preference? Ethnic imbalance? Okay, okay — I had come because my racist taste in flamenco dictated that I should live for years in the town that most powerfully reflected the Gypsy aspect of flamenco, the home of the legendary Gypsy families whose names resonate through two centuries of the art as the most important creators and interpreters of the most important forms of flamenco song.

I was now officially a racist. And it was Señor Franco of Jerez — Jerez! — who first nailed me on that poisonous charge, more than three decades earlier. (Did I mention that Antonio Chacón, by any measure one of the two or three greatest singers in the history of flamenco, high falsetto voice and all, was also from my adopted city and was not a member of the G-word faction? Or that he was a devoted admirer of Manuel Torre, also one of the two or three greatest singers ever, and as G as they come? I even think it was mutual.)

Flamenco is sometimes compared to the blues (an early attempt is my 1972 article reprinted in this blog – search for “Vallecillo”.) I am happy to report that there is no parallel movement to strip African-Americans of their central role in the creation story of that other great cultural masterpiece. Yet.

Brook Zern

P.S. Unlike so many of the experts, including my friend Estela Zatania of Jerez, I can’t buy the notion that reference to ethnicity is never, ever, proper or productive.

But for the record, I do not think there is a racial or genetic DNA component that makes one embryo grow up to be a great flamenco artist, or a great cook or criminal or blues guitarist — rather, as Hank Williams Junior once sang, “If I get drunk and sing all night/ it’s a family tradition”. And there are many fine flamenco artists whom I and many others initially assumed to be Gypsy but were not, and vice versa. Any difference is strictly environmental, of course. Though sometimes at the flamenco peñas of Jerez at two a.m., surrounded by loud flamenco music and little kids running around or suckling at their mother’s breasts, I’ll see a pregnant woman leaning back and beating out the complex rhythms of flamenco on her belly. And somehow I can’t help wondering whether such lessons taken in utero in Jerez will give the occupant a special edge that I never quite got before my own birth in Philadelphia while the radio was broadcasting “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”.

P.S. Family tradition? My father started studying and playing flamenco guitar in the mid-1940′s and kept it up for two decades, very possibly the first American to take that challenge seriously. I grew up with that sound in my ears, especially when I just wanted to get some sleep. And predictably enough, I grew up to become a flamenco guitarist. For fifty years I’ve been learning great stuff from great players. But sadly, I tend to play like a guiri — the Spanish word for an outsider who’ll never really get the hang of it. But that’s another family tradition. In fact, guiri was my father’s middle name — literally. Yes, my father was named Edward Geary Zern. And in Spain, there are gitanistas and andalucistas, but there are no guiristas. Thanks a lot, pop.


March 28, 2015   7 Comments

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

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

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

Civilized Duende

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  Are you still unable to read music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  Did you read books at that time?

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

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

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

Q:  Have you arrived at a definition of flamenco?

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

Q:  Are you in agreement with those rules?

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

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

A:  With a mixture of both.

Q:  Does that create conflicts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  And now, is it easier to improvise?

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  Is flamenco still disdained, disrespected?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  You are not a Gypsy.

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

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

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

Q:  And their inability [incapacidad] to evolve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  Is love an inspiration for your music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  Did you discuss this with him?

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

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

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

Q:  And you, what are you afraid of?

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

Q:  What do you mean by that?

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

Q:  Are you telling us your own experience?

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

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

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

End of interview

Here’s the accompanying sidebar:

The Contemporary Tradition
by Nacho Sáenz de Tejada

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

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

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

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

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

End of sidebar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, you can’t be too careful.

Brook Zern  brookzern@gmail.com

April 11, 2014   4 Comments

Flamenco Guitarist Manuel Morao Speaks – A Heated Exchange on the Gypsy Role in Flamencogenesis – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Some folks have been demanding to know why I harp on the apparent gulf between pro-gitano and non-pro-gitano factions about who should be credited with the key creative roles in flamenco’s history.

Hey, why not just call flamenco an Andalusian creation, and add that the Gypsies were part of the region so they shouldn’t feel slighted?

Would that cultural ownership issues were that simple.  I once translated a 1989 argument on this very topic.  On one side, the great gitano guitarist Manuel Morao; on the other, an indignant Andalusian commentator.

(Frankly, I think their fight is even better than our fights on the same topic, but maybe that’s because they carry it in the blood.  And while we foreign gitanophiliacs have been accused of being more Catholic than the Pope in our fanaticism, we aren’t more extremist than the Patriarch Morao, uncle of the late and adored guitarist Moraíto, whose intensity helps compensate for his complete lack of documentary support.)

Here’s that translation (plus my own comments in the final paragraphs):

“In Candil 64 of 1989, the noted guitarist Manuel Morao weighed in with his views on the perennial controversy over the Gypsy contribution to the creation of flamenco.  Specifically, the issue is whether some legendary early figures in flamenco were Gypsy (as frequently assumed) or not.  He wrote:

“As a Gypsy, and as one dedicated exclusively to flamenco for more than fifty years, I feel obligated to respond to certain statements appearing in books and in public lectures.

I refer to the gitano-flamenco relationship.  When people try to separate these two elements, I feel they are trying to confuse matters; sometimes, I see actual lies masquerading as suppositions or facts.

Examples:  Saying that [early flamenco singers] Loco Mateo, or Diego el Marrurro, or Manuel Molina were not Gypsies.  Or emphasizing that Silverio [Franconetti] was not a Gypsy while ignoring the fact that he lived his early years among Gypsies and learned their cante from them.  Or doubting that Tío Luís de la Juliana was a Gypsy.

All these are attempts to deny what has been demonstrated beyond doubt.

It seems there are some who, due to racist feelings, prefer to confuse matters rather than acknowledge facts and move toward positive understanding.

The reasons for the entwining of Gypsies and flamenco I do not know, though I share the belief that due to their wanderings through many countries and cultures, having to survive in adverse circumstances and assimilate the milieu in which they found themselves, they developed their own style of musical art to show the deepest aspects of their lives — a musical compendium of centuries of their history.

In the last two centuries, thanks to a certain stability the Gypsies found in Andalucía, these people created a fusion between the ancestral culture which they had brought with them and the popular music of this land.  This would be the origin of flamenco.

The fact that Andalucía’s music had also been impregnated with other cultural influences, such as Arabic or Jewish, may have facilitated the creation of flamenco.

The protagonist role of the Gypsies is indisputable, despite twisted and mediocre minds which try to usurp the role which history has given to us – just as every people have their own such role.  I wonder what their objective must be, when they try to take away from us our most evident sign of identity and a defining part of our race.

Nobody today will dispute that the origin of jazz is African music, and that the black race is its genuine representative, although today jazz is also made by white musicians and is arriving at innovations which would make anyone doubt its true origin.

I am pleased to know payos who are true flamenco artists; they are people who must love the Gypsies to identify with their art, and who must have shared profound experiences with them; and that is very positive for the development of a traditionally marginalized culture.  The payo artist, with his song, dance or guitar playing, is showing solidarity in collaborating in the diffusion of Arte Gitano.

So please, let’s have more studies done by people of a healthy mindset, who bring new knowledge about the past and who help us to evolve, respecting our origins and history, understanding and loving this cultural treasure which we Gypsies have brought (aportado) and conserved.”

End of Morao’s piece.  It soon generated the following furious response from someone named José Ramón Zapata Chacón. [Chacón happens to be the last name of the greatest non-Gypsy singer in flamenco history, and a fervent admirer of the Gypsy style of flamenco.]

“Sr. Morao: I have read your letter, as insulting and absurd as life itself. You lament the writers and speakers who lie — but aren’t you doing just that?

You have the effrontery to term “twisted and mediocre minds” those whom you accuse of usurping the role history has given the Gypsy.  What history are you referring to?  As far as I know — please correct me if I’m wrong — the history known to all good aficionados lacks evidence to tip the balance toward the Gypsy side.  And yes, there are people who try to confuse the issue — but isn’t it you, the Gypsies, who put the most emphasis on ”demonstrating” that which can’t be demonstrated?

Let me try to do the same thing:  I cite the writing of a Gypsyphile, Rafael Lafuente (in the book “Los Gitanos, el Flamenco y los Flamencos”):  “The strange thing is that the Gypsies have never created anything which has been attributed to them.  Cante flamenco is not their creation, nor is the “ángel“ which we attribute to them…”

You say you’re sure Tío Luís el de la Juliana is of Gypsy origin.  Why do you say that so confidently, Sr. Morao?  Is it because of the [affectionate honorific, meaning Uncle] Tío?  You know better than I that La Piriñaca was not of Gypsy origin — yet she was called Tía.

And how dare you condescendingly “thank” those flamenco artists of non-Gypsy origin for their collaboration in what you call the Gypsy Art of flamenco.  Is it your malicious ignorance that blinds you to the fact that the best artists in the flamenco genre are, and have always been, of non-Gypsy origin?

The theory about jazz that you use to defend your thesis is as insipid as your own defense.  You wonder what motivates some to take away flamenco as a mark of Gypsy identity.  I’ll answer that with another question:  Why don’t you prove to us, once and for all, that Gypsies gave birth to flamenco?  Do that, and I’ll be the first to believe you.  But right now, you are in no condition to prove anything.  I fear you never will be.

And since you’re so interested in uncovering the true origins of flamenco, and probably too busy to listen to an insignificant aficionado like me, let me simply request that when you do undertake all your in-depth studies, you do so with a healthy mind that sheds light on the past and helps us to evolve while respecting our origins — not just yours, Sr. Morao, but those of all Andalucians — understanding and loving this cultural treasure.

As you can see, Sr. Morao, I have brought nothing new to this matter.  But neither have you — except for increasing the discord and resentment between flamencos.  So I ask that the next time you want to help flamenco, you bring something — may I suggest your excellent guitar playing.  But as for your bringing positive literary data, I don’t hope for too much.

I suppose you’ll answer this, but I won’t respond unless it’s absolutely necessary.  As you said at the beginning of your article, I felt compelled to offer my opinion about statements such as yours which are not helpful to our art — an art that belongs to all Andalucians, whatever their origin.”

End of indignant reply letter (but hardly the end of the debate).

Translator’s note:  The Lafuente book, from the mid-fifties, was the first Spanish book I ever read, or tried to read, on flamenco.  [There was a near-total dearth of flamenco books published in Spain between the 1930's and 1963; and it was a rare exception.]  Lafuente was indeed very sympathetic to the Gypsies, in the common paternalistic and condescending way, romanticizing them (“Where are you from?”  “From the river.”  “From which river?”  “From all rivers.”) while denying them any creative role in flamenco.

That andalucista book was one reason why I got a kick out of the later Antonio Mairena/Ricardo Molina book, Mundo y Formas del Flamenco, which took the extreme opposite or “gitanista” position.

Later note from 2014:  The non-gitanista side has all but won this debate.  But they cheated, digging up old documents and newspapers that fortified their position (oh, that’s called research?)

I won’t rekindle the fire, honest, but:

1)  I tend to mistrust documents about Gypsy culture which are perforce written by people from outside that culture — some no doubt biased against them, others no doubt romantically infatuated with them.  That even extends to allegedly neutral documents like birth or death certificates — if only because the Gypsies were probably more prone to concealing information or providing misinformation to the authorities than were others in Spain.

The only incontrovertible documents would seem to be the royal edicts legalizing the murder or enslavement of Gypsies and the banning of their trades, language and customs prior to about 1783.  My Andalusianist friends confidently reassure me that those documents don’t count — nobody took them seriously.  Of course, any gitano who made that blithe assumption would have been literally betting his life on it.

2) Who created flamenco?  I think it’s indisputable that among the fifty or sixty distinct forms that constitute flamenco, there are very different geneses.  I happen to think (and most might agree on both sides) that the vast majority are essentially Andalusian (i.e. non-Gypsy for our purpose here) — including the sprawling fandango family, the major-key alegrias-cantiñas family, the half-dozen Latin-American-influenced “cantes de ida y vuelta“, and most of the miscellaneous styles like the farruca, garrotín, petenera

Just gimme five:  the three deep song forms (the soleá, the siguiriyas and the tonás group that includes the martinete, debla and carcelera); plus two more — the tangos; and the bulerías.  A measly ten percent — plus the folky Gypsy wedding song called the alboreá and maybe the zambra that they dance and sing in Granada.  In round numbers, 55 to 7 for a clear payo [non-Gypsy] victory.   So we’ll call it even, and everyone goes home happy.

(Heh, heh — because those few weigh more than all the others combined.)

I spoke with Manuel Morao in 2012; his position was unchanged.

Brook Zern

January 19, 2014   No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Int:  What were the cantes of Triana?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Int:  “What is the cante, Manuel?”

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

Int:  “Why do you sing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Int: “Who’s adulterating it?”

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

Int:  “To Camarón, for example!”

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

Int:  “Manuel Torre?”

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

Int:  “El Gloria?”

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

Int:  “Carbonerillo?”

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

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

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

Int:  “Vallejo?”

Oliver:  “The best in bulerías, and in granainas

Int:  “Pepe Marchena?”

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

Int:  “Jose Rebollo?”

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

Int:  “Pastora?”

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

Int:  “Tomás Pavón?”

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

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

Int:  “Tell us about the dance…”

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

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

Int:  “And the guitar?”

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

Int:  “Manolo de Huelva?”

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

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

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

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

Int:  “Ramon Montoya?”

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

Int:  “Others?”

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

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

One of the soleá verses he sings seems to fit:

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

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

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

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

Brook Zern

October 25, 2011   No Comments