Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Song Forms – Siguiriyas

Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About El Planeta, The First Great Singer in Flamenco History – by Manuel Bohórquez – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s Note:  Don’t even try to read this.  Admit that you didn’t even know that you didn’t want to know about El Planeta, because you probably never heard of him.  I just thought this should be translated and hung up on the internet for all eternity, or until I forget to pay the bill for my hosting service.

It’s a monument to the divine addiction that flamenco becomes for some aficionados.  A superb writer, author, researcher and flamenco critic, Manuel Bohórquez, subsumed himself into a daunting quest to determine once and for all the identity and the life details of the singer called El Planeta.  El Planeta, along with a singer known as Tío Luís el de la Juliana, was perhaps the earliest noted figure in flamenco song.

And at that dawn of flamenco time, being a singer didn’t mean changing a note of a siguiriyas or a soleares or a caña.  It meant inventing new and distinctive ways to sing those recently crafted forms, or even creating crucial new forms out of whole cloth, or bitter experience.

How hard was that?  Put it this way:  It’s fair to say that no important flamenco forms have been invented in the past century – not even in recent decades when every innovative artist would give his eye teeth to go down in history as the progenitor of such a monumental creation.

This article is a labor of love devoted to history’s first noted – even “high-profile” for his epoch – flamenco singer, and an homage to flamenco itself.  It is remarkable not because people care, but precisely because hardly anyone cares.

I came to flamenco thinking of El Planeta as a ghost in the fog of time, an unreal being, existing only in passed-down stories.  (The impression was only reinforced by hearing his eerie signature siguiriyas as recorded by Pepe Torre, son of the immortal Gypsy genius Manuel Torre – it seems to come from beyond the grave.)

Imagine my consternation when one of my flamenco friends who takes a less romantic view of the art called me one day.  “Hey,” he said, “guess what I just found in a crumbling newspaper in the Madrid archives.”

“I give up,” I said.

“It’s an ad,” he said, “an ad for a throat gargling product.  It’s an endorsement by a singer, who says he uses it twice a day to keep his voice in great shape.”

I didn’t like where this was going.

“And guess who the product endorser is,” he said gleefully.

“I give up,” I said.

“Well, who is the earliest great flamenco singer, so mysterious his real name is unknown, a guy you assume sang in dank cellars for three initiates after finishing his day job as a galley slave or being a condemned prisoner – the guy who wrote that kvetchy verse asking the moon to free his father from prison, which you imagine him singing outside the jail hoping his father might hear him before being executed…”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “We seem to have a bad connection.”

I hung up.

Here’s the full-on dose of reality-check:

In Search of the Lost “Planeta”

Article from the blog of the noted flamenco expert Manuel Bohórquez [the url is below -- and it also includes more than a hundred comments from dozens of other obviously obsessive-compulsive Spanish flamenco nuts].

The legendary singer and guitarist called El Planeta is considered to be the first great maestro of cante andaluz [Andalusian song, in this case flamenco song], but until now we have only known him by his artistic nickname.  The costumbrista writer [focusing on ethnic and folkloric customs] Serafín Estébanez Calderón (1799-1867) made him known in his celebrated account “Un baile en Triana” (published in El Heraldo in 1842), but gave no biographical information.  Antonio Machado y Álvarez “Demófilo”, in his book “Colección de Cantes Flamencos” (1881) said El Planeta came from Cádiz without providing enough useful data to try to learn more from parish records and crumbling municipal records.  Without knowing his first and last names it was practically impossible to determine where he came from, when he was born, whether he had married and had children, and above all, where and when this historic artist had died.  In an article from a Madrid publication, La Iberia, from May, 1856, about a book by a barber from Seville named Joselito Pantoja, it was reported that he was from Malaga  and that he had composed for Señor Pantoja “a caña and a soleá” [two important flamenco forms].  The words? The music?  It’s quite revealing that El Planeta in that time period should already have had this recognition as a creator.  In another article, this one by the Malaga writer and politician José Carlos de Luna, in the newspaper ABC of April 27, 1962, el Planeta was also identified as being from Malaga and it was claimed that he had paid for the Silver Key of Flamenco Song  [“llave de plata del cante”], given to Tomás “El Nitri” in Malaga’s Café Sin Techo [Open Air Café].  Finally, Rafael Benítez Caballero, author of the work titled “El Barquero de Cantillana” – edited in 1894 – referred to him also as “el Tío Antonio “El Planeta”:  “I passed by a store of montañesas where there was a juelga [usually “juerga” – a flamenco gathering that is comparable to a “jam session”], and among others, I heard Tío Antonio El Planeta sing, and it couldn’t have been better or more charged with feeling [que no cabía más de bien y de sentimiento.]

How could we discover his personal data without knowing his [apellidos – his father’s name and mother’s name]?  There was only one way: by analyzing the birth information of [the great flamenco singer] Manolo Caracol, his great-great grandson, despite the fact that wise and well-informed investigators have always doubted that this genius from Seville’s Lumbreras Street was in fact the great-great grandson of the man called “the King of the Polos” [another important flamenco song form].  The task was not easy, but at some point it would be necessary to embark on the impassioned and burdensome venture of localizing the first documented, influential singer of cante jondo [deep song, the most serious and demanding branch of flamenco song].  If we sought information about the maternal great-great grandfather of Manolo Caracol and found that he was named Antonio and that he was from Cádiz, it was clear that we would be arriving at a good place [buen puerto], and this is indeed what happened.  In the birth records of Manuel Ortega Juárez, Manolo Caracol, I found the names of his grandparents, both from Malaga as would be expected: Gregorio Juárez Monge and Francisca Soto Ramírez.  Localizing them was complicated, but after an arduous investigation in the census or registry [padrón] of Malaga the hoped-for miracle came to pass, and there appeared the records a presumed grandfather of El Planeta, the above-mentioned Gregorio Juárez Monge.

[copy of document captioned “Birth certificate of Gregorio Juárez Monge, grandson of El Planeta and grandfather of Manolo Caracol, Malaga, October 6, 1854,]

On discovering his birth certificate in Malaga I confirmed beyond a doubt that his maternal grandfather was named Antonio and that he was from Cádiz.  We already knew that El Planeta was named Antonio Monge.  The next step was to find details about the mother of Gregorio Juárez, who turned out to be named Dolores Monge Bara – that is, a daughter of El Planeta whom I discovered to have married José Juárez García, 32, of Malaga, in the Parish of San Juan de Malaga  Since they lived on 1 San Juan Street in Malaga, the records from 1852 gave me the second apellido of El Planeta, which was Rivero, and the name and the two apellidos of his wife, María Bara Gallardo, also from Cádiz.  Demófilo was right when he stated the the mythic singer was from the 3000-year-old city of Cádiz.  Joselito Pantoja and José Carlos de Luna weren’t far off, because El Planeta soon left the city of Cádiz after marrying and having his last child, Tomás, to move to Malaga around 1836, where he married off some of his descendants and where he died, quite old for that epoch.

Antonio Monge Rivero “El Planeta” was from Cadiz, where he was born about 1789.  He may have been born on Marzal Street – known today as Vea Murguía – in the old Barrio de San Antonio.  The son of Gregorio Monge and Francisca Rivera, also from Cadiz, he married María Bara Gallardo of Cádiz when both were young.  He had at least seven children in Cádiz between 1810 and 1834 – in birth order, Antonia, Tomasa, Francisco, Dolores, María Dolores, María Magdalena and Tomás.  It’s likely that there were more, and that they died.  In fact, in the Census List of Cádiz the names of the first two children do not appear.

It wouldn’t be very absurd to think that El Planeta was the son of Tío Gregorio who was described in a countryside fiesta by the Cádiz writer José Cadalso in his Cartas Marruecas [Moroccan Letters], in the last third of the Eighteenth Century.  Those letters were first published in the Correo de Madrid in February of 1793 and four years later they appeared in a book published by Sancha.  The military man never saw them published because Cadalso, who was born in Cádiz in 1741, died in 1782.  That writer tells us that this Gregorio was a Gypsy butcher from Cádiz who, moreover, was in jail for stabbing someone during the city’s Fair, which might explain the verse of siguiriyas [a key form of cante jondo or deep song], “para que saque a mi pare, que verlo camelo”  [To take out (set free) my father, whom I wish to see.  [Camelar is a verb in caló, the language of Spain’s gypsies; the Spanish verb would be querer.]  Of course, it’s very difficult to prove that Tío Gregorio would be the father of our singer, although that’s quite possibly the case, because at that time there weren’t many butchers with that name, according to the census of Gypsies of the era.  This matter remains pending for a possible biography of  the artist.

As I’ve indicated, Dolores Monge, one of the daughters of El Planeta, married a man from Malaga named José Juárez García on October 31, 1852.  El Planeta lived then at 1 San Juan Street with his wife and two of their childrend.  His daughter Dolores had one daughter, Antonia Juárez Monge, on August 6, 1853, at 19 Santos Street in Malaga, who was baptized in the Parish of San Juan on August 12 of that same year.  In 1854 he had Gregorio, also at Santos Street, who was married in Malaga to Francisca Soto Ramírez of that same city.  One of their daughters, Dolores Juárez Soto, also of Malaga, first married a man from that city who died from a knife wound  in the city, mediating during a street brawl.  The young widow started a laundry and ironing business in Malaga and there she met Manuel Ortega Fernández “Caracol Viejo” [Caracol the Elder]; with him she gave birth to Manolo Caracol on Lumbreras Street in Seville, on the Alameda [a famed flamenco neighborhood], in July of 1909.  From this we see that Antonio Monge “El Planeta”  was the maternal great grandfather of the Seville singer, as the artist always said, and as he sang to the four winds in this poem of Antonio Murciano of Arcos:

Great-great grandson of El Planeta,

Great grandson de Curro Durse…

Manolo Caracol led me to his great-great grandfather El Planeta, and Planeta, when we followed his descendants in Malaga in an impassioned voyage through time, led us back to the genius from Seville.  It was an investigation that someone had to make someday to clarify something fundamental for the history of flamenco song, although there are those who don’t give any importance to putting flamenco genealogies in order – something that for us is fundamental.

According to the Padrón of Malaga, Antonio El Planeta lived for twenty years in the city of [the great flamenco singer] La Trini, with most of that time spent on the central street of San Juan where the shops were – silversmiths, antique dealers, artisans, printers, etc.  By profession he was a cortador, that is, a butcher or talajero, as they say in Cádiz, surely with his own butcher shop where he employed two of his children, Francisco and Tomás, though the former was also a printer by occupation according to the census of the period.  The artist had to have reached an acceptable economic position, because during some of his years there he had servants, something almost impsosible for a Gypsy family in those times – the mid-Nineteenth Century.  One of those servants was Catalina Liñán of Malaga.

San Juan Street is today one of the most animated in Malaga, ever since it was made a pedestrian way and filled with businesses.  When Planeta lived there with his whole family – wife, children and a few others such as his nephew, the Cadiz singer Lázaro Quitana Monge – it was also an animated street.  In the same house where El Planeta lives was the posada La Corona, where merchants and people of the bohemia of that era lived.  There was also a shop that sold colored glass items for wall-niches, as well as a tavern or two and food stores. It was a centrally-located street, very well situated, near the Alameda and the [principal street] calle Larios, where there were cafés like Don Andrés Ruiz’s Café de la Loba, on the Plaza de la Constitución, one of Malaga’s oldest establishments with the richest flamenco history until it closed on March 31, 1902.

[picture of page:  Padrón [official record] of Malaga of 1852.  El Planeta lived on San Juan Street.  He’s the first listed and appears with two of his children.  It’s interesting [curioso] that he is given the honorific of “don”, something quite extraordinary in that era where a Gypsy was concerned.]

According to my data, the artist must have lived in Malaga in the mid-1830’s, after the birth of his last child, Tomás, in Cadiz on September 8, 1834.  He would have taken advantage of the fact that in those years that city became one of the major exporters of iron [hierro] – the singer was an ironworker [herrero], it seems, as well as a butcher – and the fact that the textile business of the Larios family and of the meat markets offered employment opportunities in Malaga.  That was in addition to the seaport, a source of riches, with significant exports of wine and olive oil.  In 1856 the Bank of Malaga was created, which shows that money was flowing in the city and the entire province, something important in the Cadiz singer’s reaching a solid economic status and deciding not to ever return to Cadiz or to emigrate to other cities of Andalusia.    The fact that he lived for so long at the same domicile, 1 San Juan Street, is significant considering that most families changed residences often to recover the deposit money that was required to rent a home.

[picture:  El Planeta (guitar in hand) with [the singer] El Fillo in the famous Fiesta in Triana as described by Serafín Estébanez Calderón.]

As a consequence, it’s more than likely that our protagonist never lived in Triana [Seville’s Gypsy neighborhood], at least in a fixed residence, but went where his services as a singer were requested, as in the instance of the famous fiesta described by Estébanez Calderón on Castilla de Triana Street, as published for the first time in El Heraldo of December 1, 1842.  Five years later, in 1847, the Malaga writer’s famous book appeared.  El Planeta still lived on the central San Juan Street in Malaga.  A year later, in 1848, the Semanario PIntoresco Español published a lovely story about a dance in San Juan de Aznalfarache [a town near Seville] in which El Planeta was called “The King of the Brave [Bravura] Singers”.  That same year he lived in Malaga, in that same house.  Nonetheless, the fiesta described by Estébanez Calderón took place in 1838, when the Malagan author, who used the pseudonym El Solitario, was the governor of Seville.  It’s possible that El Planeta was living in Triana at that time, though this is not documented.  It’s even hinted that he had a son with a woman from Triana, without any basis.  Surely, since he was a moneyed Gypsy of the time with his own lucrative butcher business, he would have moved around a lot in Andalucía and the rest of the country.  Indeed, his arrival in Madrid was announced with a certain interest when he got there with the flamenco singer María La Borrica, the celebrated sister of El Viejo de la Isla [another legendary early singer].  He must have had a certain renown and prestige as a singer, recognized as the maestro [teacher/master] of artists as important as Francisco Ortega El Fillo and the no less celebrated Lázaro Quintana Monge, whom we find living with him in his house in Malaga in 1850, and who was also a cortador by trade.  In summarized accounts, it can now be stated without fear of contradiction that Antonio Monge Rivero El Planeta was the maternal tatarabuelo [great-great-grandfather] of Manolo Caracol and the bisabuelo [great-grandfather] of Caracol’s mother, Dolores Juárez Soto, although this has been put in doubt many times.

In his first years as an artist, he was known simply as Antonio Monge, or Señor Monge.  The use of El Planeta as his artistic surname, would have come much later, and it seems he got the nickname in Malaga for being an aficionado of the stars, according to the conclusions of some flamencologists, although I have another theory that I’ll reveal at the right time.  In fact, one of the his few verses that have survived until now is among the most primitive and beautiful siguiriyas gitanas [Gypsy siguiriyas] that one can hear today:

A la luna le pío,

la del alto cielo,

Como le pío, le pío,

que me saque a mi pare

de donde está metío.

I ask [or beg] the moon,

She [or it] of the high skies.

How I ask, how I ask

that she takes out [frees] my father

from where he’s been put [jailed?].

This beautiful cante has come to us through Pepe Torre, the brother of [the supreme Gypsy singer] Manuel Torre and the grandfather of the present-day singer José el de la Tomasa, who [Pepe Torre] recorded it in the Antología del Cante Flamenco (Columbia, 1960), through the initiative of the [late, great Gypsy singer] Antonio Mairena, who also recorded it as the sigiruiyas of El Planeta, as did the [late, important Gypsy singer] Rafael Romero “El Gallina”.  Notwithstanding, it’s a siguiriyas that has vanished from the repertoire of today’s singers, becoming a relic of extraordinary beauty and enormous musical rarity.

Despite everything that has been uncovered about Antonio Monge Rivero and his family, and being absolutely sure that this man is in fact [the legendary] El Planeta, it’s a bit unnervering, daba cierto miedo [“it gave a certain fear”] to close this investigation without having found anywhere the irrefutable proof that we are dealing with the historical Cádiz artist.  As far as can be known, his name never appears in any periodical along with the nickname.  Following the trail of his son Francisco in the records of Malaga, once the artist himself had died I found the necessary proof,  His son appeared as Francisco Monge Planeta instead of as Francisco Monge Bara, his actual family name.   Since his father had died, the records from 1859 used the father’s nickname instead of his second apellido [family name], perhaps as an homage to his progenitor or because whoever had the task of filling in the page didn’t know his family name but knew the nickname [el apodo familiar].  Or because he simply confused the apodo with the apellido.  After months of work, I was able to state with certainty that the Antonio Monge Rivero who was so intensely scrutinized in records was the celebrated El Planeta, the great Gypsy singer of Cadiz.  Nonetheless, to assure myself even further, in following the records of all his children I found one of his grandchildren [nietos] in Malaga, Tomás, who in the end turned out to be Tomás Monge (a) Planeta as he was often called in the newspapers of 1872 when he worked as a banderillero [one who places barbed sticks into a bull’s back during a bullfight] with the grandchildren of his paisano El Lavi.

[picture:  “Records page in which El Planeta’s son Francisco gives his father’s nickname as his second apellido.  The singer Lázaro Quntana appears as “agregado” [added to the family?].

Nor was it easy for me to find El Planeta’s death certificate.  I followed the Malaga records until his house on San Juan Street was listed as vacant, in 1857.  When he didn’t appear as living with his daughter Dolores, on Santos Street, or with his other daughter, María Magdalena, on Lagunillas Street or Granada Street, it was clear that he had died in 1856.  In fact, Antonio Monge El Planeta died in his same house in Malaga, on San Juan Street, on September 30, 1856, as a result of “cerebral congestion”.  According to the death certificate, the singer was 65 years old and was a “merchante” by trade – that is, a seller/vendor of goods without a fixed store.  Although it’s possible that the word is “marchante”, a synonym for “commerciante” [dealer, businessman].  After reposing in the Parish of San Juan, right beside his house, his body was buried the same day, probably in the Cemetery of San Miguel, where he received a Christian sepulcher, because the certificate of burial found in the Municipal Archives of Malaga, lacks that data.  As he was a person of some importance in Malaga, his burial would have been noted, but the local press of the time made no note of this news that I’ve found.  I suppose that El Planeta, at the age of 70, had been forgotten as a singer, and was dedicated to his business and to enjoying his grandchildren, those of Francisco, Dolores and María Magdalena, because Tomás, who was a “cómico” [comedian] by trade, was still a bachelor in 1863.

[picture:  Original document concerning the burial of el Planeta in the Municipal Archive of Malaga, dated September 30, 1856.  You can’t imagine the emotion I felt when I had this in my hands.]

His children continued as butchers, being cortadores or tablajeros.  This was the business of Manolo Caracol’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother, José Juárez García and Dolores Monge, who lived on Santos Street.  Also Planeta’s daughter Magdelena, who married a man from the town of Jijona in Alicante, Manuel Bretón, soon becoming widowed and alone managing a prosperous butcher shop at 128 Granada Street.  Francisco Monge was also a butcher, and had a number of children, among them Tomás Monge Planeta, a well-known Malagan banderillero, and Francisco Monge El Guarrirro, who married the dancer Rita Ortega Feria, a butcher of jurdó [with money]and lots of gracia [style, flair].  Tomás, the youngest son of El Planeta, remained a bachelor and dedicated himself to comicidad (comedy) as a trade, though he never got very far.

Up to this point, these are the most interesting personal details of Planeta’s agitada [rough, unsettled] and impassioned  life that I’ve been able to find – a man who is so often cited in books and specialized flamenco publications but of whom so little was known.  Now we know who he was and what was involved in his initiation into the flamenco art, in creating and making known his songs and in molding the art of other interpreters who spread his musical legacy when he died, notably El Fillo, Frasco el Colorao, Lázaro Quintana, Paquirri el de Cádiz, Silverio Fanconetti, Tomas El Nitri and many more, making an almost interminable list.

Wherever you may be, Tío Planeta, thanks for everything.  [Tío is a term of respect and affection for an elder – but quite different from the rare honorific “don”, which was applied to El Planeta at least once above; it has only been commonly applied to the immortal and very dignified non-Gypsy singer Antonio Chacón, and more rarely to the great and very dignified Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena.]

I hope you may forgive us for all those forgotten years, that lamentable historic abandonment that I have tried to remedy with humility and much love.  As the saying goes, nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena [better late than never].

[picture:  The Cemetery of San Miguel at the time of Antonio Monge “El Planeta”.  He was buried in niche number 370 of the First Patio, with no more honors than the tears of his own people.]

This investigation has reached its goal thanks to the inestimable help of my wife, María de los Ángeles Ojeda.  Thank you for your many hours of sacrifice at my side, codo con codo [shoulder to shoulder], and putting up with my long and continued absence from home, because I almost had to go and live alone in Malaga to do this research.

Translator’s note:  And thank you, Don Manuel.

Note:  the original is found at:  http://blogs.elcorreoweb.es/lagazapera/2011/02/20/en-busca-de-el-planeta-perdido-2/

January 24, 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