Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Cante Andaluz

Flamenco Authority Juan Vergillos on Flamenco Singer Pepe Marchena, translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s Note: Juan Vergillos is an admirable flamenco authority, and I’ve learned a lot from his writing and critiques. His articles, found at VaivenesFlamencos.com, are a rich resource.

He recently wrote about a massive collection of all the recordings by the famous Pepe Marchena, perhaps the most successful singer in flamenco history. It’s titled “Niño de Marchena: Obra Completa en 78 rpm”, and contains 17 CD’s and a book with text by the noted expert Manuel Martín Martín. [Note: It seems that the only recording Marchena made that wasn’t on 78’s was his impressive 4-LP set “Memorias Antológicas del Flamenco”.]

Although Pepe Marchena recorded many versions of flamenco’s most serious and venerable songs, most of his work centered on lighter styles. His approach to singing gave rise to a category, called cante bonito or “pretty song”.

Juan Vergillos’ piece, titled “Myth and Reality of el Niño de Marchena”, at one point offers a cogent summary of a crucial historical and aesthetic issue. Here’s more or less what he says:

“…El Planeta [a famed early singer of flamenco] once said of El Fillo [another legendary early singer]: “His hoarse voice is crude and no de recibo [?], and in terms of style it is neither fino [fine, elegant] nor is it from la tierra [probably meaning “not representative of how the song is properly rendered in these parts”].

Since the 1940’s or 50’s, flamencology his been built upon the idea that primitive flamenco is crudo [crude, raw], austere, essential [stripped-down, close to the bone], radical and virile. The reality, now accessible thanks to the wax cylinders recorded at the end of the 1800’s, is that flamenco of that era – that is, in its origins – is the flamenco of El Planeta [a refined vocal art]; Planeta, who certainly never sang the siguiriyas [the paradigm of deep and tragic flamenco], and of Silverio Franconetti and Antonio Chacón [also known for their clear, nearly operatic vocal styles.]. It was a flamenco atenorado [of the tenors]. In the bel canto style, fino [fine, with finesse], lyrical, full of vocal resources. And in this sense, Pepe Marchena, with others like Manuel Vallejo and Juanito Valderrama is the legitimate heir of antepasados [the true earlier tradition].

That is not to say that the flamenco of the post-Civil War era [starting in the forties, increasingly focused on rough, funky, hoarse and “primitive” vocal approaches] isn’t a marvelous invention which we can’t do without. Flamenco, as a romantic art, has has created [“encumbered”] a mythical past, an invented past and most of the present-day genealogies are no more real than the fabled, invented Ossian of McPherson.

The idea of another flamenco, crude and rough and raw and oculto [hidden from the view of outsiders] is not now a question of faith, but something that doesn’t conform to the aesthetic reality of the period. The idea reflects contemporary values that, to justify themselves, we situate in an idealized and irreal [unreal] past. Raw flamenco is irreal but that is not to say it is false. It has to do with our essence as human beings, not with our Nineteenth Century past. It has more to do with contemporary history, with the Civil Wars and World Wars of the Twentieth Century, than with our remote past.

In this sense Pepe Marchena [with his beautiful voice and finesse] is, as I’ve said, a legitimate heir of an art that, from its origins, is a mixture of elements – Gypsy, [Latin] Americans, Blacks, Asians, French, Italians and [yes] even Spaniards and Andalusians. Perhaps Marchena didn’t know this in an intellectual way, but he made it part of his living art, in his ability to join local and alien traditions in the chrysalis of his privileged throat.

Translator’s note: Well, there you have it. In the sixties, I was told that the most crucial element in flamenco was the cante jondo or deep song; that its three key forms, the martinetes, siguiriyas and soleares were essentially created by Spain’s Gypsies within the closed environment of their families over multiple generations, and that it was likely sung in the non-pretty voices of Gypsies, mostly men, in a rough way that reflected the anguish of three centuries of persecution within Spain.

This quaint notion has been entirely displaced in the last two or three decades. Now the idea of a closed or “hermetic” period of development has allegedly been disproved by the same evidence that once allegedly proved it – namely, that there is no documentary evidence that it ever happened. (Of course, if there were documentary evidence, the era wouldn’t have been closed or hermetic – remember, Gypsies weren’t big documentarians or enterprising reporters, since they couldn’t write and probably didn’t fit well into the newsroom environment. In fact, they were as distrusted and as suspect then as they are in most of Europe today — fortunately, the situation in Spain is better than in other countries.)

Today, the role of the Gypsy in flamenco is no longer seen as crucial. Admiration for Gypsy artists is often seen as the result of a mystical romantic notion that casts these outcasts as central actors rather than as bit players in the big story of flamenco, which in fact consists of dozens and dozens of forms, most of which owe little or nothing to its Gypsy population.

As for the original or “true” flamenco voices, I found it easier to believe that the typical Gypsy singers of that early era did not have bel canto voices. I have been in far too many Andalusian bars and dives amid rumbling Gypsy men to think that pretty voices were the default aesthetic. I can guarantee that they were the exception – though it’s quite possible that those few singers who had that rare quality were the most apt to sing for public audiences, and to be recorded. (As for the fancy diction that many of the cante bonito singers use – well, it’s easy to understand, but I’d rather struggle with the quasi-Spanish dialect that marks deep-south people, and especially the Gypsies of the region. To me, it’s worth it.)

So who ya gonna believe – me, or the diligent researchers and musical experts who are dictating the new rules? Well, it seems that not all great Gypsy singers fit my personal notion of how they “should” sound, and I’ll reluctantly admit than when I first heard a recording of the great Gypsy singer Tomás Pavón, I thought he was his sister, the great Pastora Pavón, “La Niña de los Peines”. For that matter, Manuel Torre, the greatest Gypsy singer of all time, didn’t sound funky and raspy enough to fit my preconceived notion the way Agujetas does, for example. (For that matter, the fabulous Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singer, also failed my “Match My Preconceptions or Else” test – his voice was too clear, not like the ragged but right Bukka White’s or Lonnie Johnson’s.)

Yes, I bring a lot of romantic baggage to flamenco, including a predilection for what García Lorca called the “sonidos negros” or “black sounds”. Sometimes it leads me into some silly-sounding stances. But I recognize my limitations and my biases – unlike the venerable opposition, that is determined to ban the word “Gypsy” from all flamenco discussion, and brooks no opposition to what they pick and choose as their own Holy Writ. (One of the new favorite singers is Juan Valderrama, son of the extraordinary Juanito Valderrama who was only overshadowed in cante bonito by Pepe Marchena himself. Juan’s latest recording is called “sonidos blancos” — as in “say it loud, I’m white and I’m proud…”)

By the way, it ain’t just us Gypsyphiles who have reservations about Pepe Marchena’s art. In the mid-sixties, our neighbor in Seville was a retired movie star and admired singer of Spanish cuplé [charming popular songs] named Antoñita Colomé, non-Gypsy but born in the Gypsy barrio of Triana where a plaque marks her birthplace and praises her fine artistry. I asked her about Marchena, whom she had worked with on many occasions, and she launched into a devastating parody of his style, violently wiggling her throat with her hand to perfectly mimic Marchena’s trademark exaggerated vibrato.

And in a 1962 interview elsewhere in this blog, the cranky and chauvinistic non-Gypsy genius Aurelio Sellés opined, “People go to flamenco concursos [contests] because it’s fashionable. And what’s worse — they dare to give opinions! I mean, people who still stink of singers like Pepe Marchena — giving opinions!”

Welcome to the minefield.

Brook Zern

March 6, 2015   2 Comments

Cante Flamenco? Cante Andaluz? Cante Jondo? 1888 Birth of a Continuing Semantic Argument

April 13, 2013:   Today’s Diario de Cádiz newspaper, in its section “125 Years Ago Today”, reruns an article from that era under the title “1888: Cante Andaluz, Flamenco, o Jondo?” [Andalusian Song, Flamenco Song, or Deep Song?]  That old article said:

“A curious controversy has embroiled the Café del Correo. The owner of this venerable café-theater has gone to the civil governor of the province to file a complaint against the impresario who rented the venue. The owner alleges that in his contract with the impresario, it is forbidden to present spectacles of cante flamenco and that the impresario nevertheless has done that. The impresario alleges that the show did not present cante flamenco, but cante andaluz. The governor has declared himself incompetent to adjudge such an arduous question and urged the interested parties to go to court to resolve the matter.”

“Meanwhile, in the Teatro Principal, a new system using electrical illumination has again been tested for installation.”

End of article.A  mazing that the designated decider, the governor, “declared himself incompetent to adjudge such an arduous question”.  Flamenco debates could use more people who know their limitations.  (Hey, don’t look at me.)

To avoid future confusion in matters of nomenclature, I suggest we just call everything cante gitano and let it go at that.

No, huh?


Brook Zern


January 23, 2014   No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Brook Zern   brookzern@gmail.com

October 30, 2011   1 Comment