Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco/Jazz Parallels – The First Analysis – by Brook Zern (1973)

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – 2001 Interview by M. Rodríguez – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

In Diario La Rioja of November 7, 2001m M. Rodriguez interviewed Jose Mercé.  A translation:

José Mercé: “We Must Make the Flamenco of the 21st Century” — The Singer Has Sold More Than 200,000 Copies of His Album ‘Aire’

Madrid — They say it’s the best, the flamenco voice that rings out today with the most authority, gathering up the music’s roots and adapting the art to his own time.  He is the first Spanish artist to appear (last July 28th) in Britain’s famous “Woman Festival” [?], moving an audience that was brought to its feet.  This artist insists that flamenco is universal.  An anthology of José Mercé has appeared this fall to satisfy those who follow the career of this singer, whose album “Aire” sold more than 200,000 copies, a new mark in the history of flamenco.

This Gypsy from Jerez, age 45, born on Merced street, has been a singer since he was 13; he married at 27 and has several children.

Int: “Has flamenco ceased to be strictly for a minority?”

JM: “I’m absolutely convinced that flamenco is international, universal.  In England, the auditorium was packed.  Those who insist that flamenco is for the few or for minorities have simply failed to change with the times, and remain stuck in the seventies.  They think of flamenco as hidden, and I want to make a little room for it where others cannot enter.  My family recalls this well, because in my parents’ time one could only sing or play for the rich señoritos who paid, when flamenco is really a music of the people and for the people.”

Int: “Back then, the whole atmosphere of flamenco and its people was looked down upon…”

JM:  “Yes, that was when the bailarín [male dancer — can connote a more formal style than ‘bailaor‘] had to be homosexual and the bailaora had to be ‘of the life’ [of ill repute; a prostitute].  They treated us badly, we were held in very low esteem.  I had the great luck to miss that period.  My parents didn’t become flamenco artists but passed their lives in the countryside.”

Int:  “Flamenco is now being compared to and mixed with jazz or blues.  How do you view these combinations?”

JM:  “It’s true that jazz, like the blues or flamenco, was made by and for the people, for folks on the streets.  I’m one of those who says that the blues and jazz are to America are what flamenco is to Spain.”

Int: “But there are flamenco artists who don’t like such fusions.”

JM: “We must respect the roots and the bases, but nowadays [a partir de ahi] one can make such fusion.  If the purists say otherwise, let them follow their own chosen path, and see how it would be to live today the way we lived in the seventies.”

Int: “José Menese is no fan of fusion.”

JM:  “Well, I’d say to Menese that I have done what he does now, and I’ll keep doing it, but I’d also ask that he and others let the younger ones live, let us do what we do, because it is also good to take risks and make mistakes.  I will always sing [pure] siguiriyas, but I’d also say to other singers that they should make an album like “Aire”.  I’ve shown that I can sing like they can.  Now let them show that they know how to do what I did.  We must make a flamenco for the 21st Century, in which people share the music and participate with you.  But in my concerts I also sing a martinete, the most primitive flamenco form there is, and the young people in the audience respect this song and then get into the other songs.  I have the satisfaction of having furthered the involvement of young people.  But that is not my triumph; it is the triumph of flamenco in general.”

Int: “What do you think of Estopa?”

JM: “I don’t see Estopa as flamenco, it’s more pop.  But, without doubt, it is one current.  Groups like Ketama or Pata Negra, without being flamenco at the base or the root, have introduced many new touches.”

Int: “Flamenco is finding new horizons.  Is the life of the Gypsy in Spain also evolving?”

JM:  “I have never experienced any ugly incidents in terms of conflicts or differences between payos [non-Gypsies] and Gypsies.  But I’d like to think that Gypsies are making progress for the better.”

End of interview.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014:  Mercé is the finest living singer of flamenco’s deepest forms; (the other contender, Manuel Agujetas, is past his prime.)  He’s also an advocate of doing his own thing on the side — or maybe it’s flamenco that’s the sideline, since that 200,000-copy sales record is about a hundred times higher than any all-flamenco, all the time recording.

He says “I’m one of those who says that the blues and jazz are to America are what flamenco is to Spain.”  Yo, José — so is yo, I mean, that’d be me.  Check out Juan José Tellez’s definitive bio of Paco de Lucía, the second half that begins “The first one to point out the close relationship between America’s blues/jazz and Spain’s flamenco traditions was the estudioso Brook Zern…”  The interviewer then says that there are those who don’t like such fusions.  Yo, interviewer, that’d also be me.  Go figure.

Seriously, Mercé says “we must respect the roots and the bases”, and he always will.  Meanwhile, those who think they’re following in his great and giant footsteps wouldn’t really know those roots if they tripped on them.

Brook Zern

January 10, 2014   No Comments

Parallels Between Flamenco and Blues/Jazz – “First” Analysis, 1973 – article by Brook Zern

Parallels Between the Blues/Jazz of American Blacks

And the Deep Song/Flamenco of Spanish Gypsies

1973 Article by Brook Zern

This article was first published in Spanish in the February 1973 issue of “Flamenco”, Spain’s major flamenco magazine of that era; it has been widely cited and reprinted in many Spanish publications and also in France’s journal of Gypsy Studies, “Etudes Tsiganes”.

In recent years, with the growing torrent of musical fusions between flamenco and our jazz/blues, it has become fashionable to cite the parallels between the flamenco tradition and the American blues/jazz tradition.  I don’t know who did it first, but when I was reading “Paco de Lucia en Vivo”, Juan Jose Tellez’s definitive 2003 biography of that gigantic artist, I was pleased to see the following passage:

“The first academic researcher to analyze the similarities in the cultural derivation of flamenco and jazz, and between the Gypsies of Spain and the blacks in America, was Brook Zern in 1973, who said: “It seems obvious that flamenco’s deep song styles owe their existence to the Gypsies, just as the country blues were the creation of America’s southern blacks. Both of these alien and dark-skinned races constructed a new music of its own, though of course they employed in the task the musical ideas that the found in their adoptive country.”  A parallelism that, in Zern’s judgment, extended even to the commercial adulteration of both of these musical conceptions.”

For that matter, already in 1995, the eminent flamenco authority and critic for Spain’s El Pais newspaper, Angel Alvarez Caballero, had written in his book “Discoteca Ideal de Flamenco” (Planeta, Barcelona):

“Already in 1973, Brook Zern established a revealing and disturbing connection between the peoples who created the musical styles called jazz and flamenco; the Spanish Gypsies are the descendents of those Gypsies who more than half a millenium ago settled in the south of Spain, a dark-skinned race from a distant land – similar in some ways to what happened with the blacks who were shipped from Africa to the United States in chains. The similarities don’t end there. Zern writes that Gypsies and blacks found themselves “in the south of a new and alien land”, where they were the targets of cruel laws, repression and persecution on the part of the lighter-skinned majority. The dense and pessimistic music that both groups created “served as a living testament to the anguish and grief they endured.”

Admittedly, I did not anticipate that in 2010, the best-selling recording by any flamenco artist would be Pitingo’s “Soulerias” featuring his feeble version of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”.

Here’s the translated article, which was actually written in 1972:

Centuries ago, a dark-skinned people arrived from another continent.  They found themselves in the deep south of a new and unfamiliar country, and they faced a long period of persecution and misery.  They had none of the rights of the citizens, and they suffered under a cruel series of laws specifically directed at them.  They learned to always fear and never trust the lighter-skinned people who despised them.

In response to this overwhelmingly traumatic experience, they forged a style of music that was dense, pessimistic and enormously powerful.  This music, initially sung only for and among themselves, gave voice and response to the enormous racial tragedy that had befallen them.  It also served to document their experience, for their children and for history.  The music became a living testament to their anguish.

This new musical form was the creation of this persecuted group, although it undoubtedly owed aspects of its particular form to the existing music they heard in their new country.  They constructed it using the musical materials they found there, materials previously brought by various other cultures, now filtered through their own experience.

Nonetheless, this music was completely distinct – the unique patrimony of this persecuted group.  All of its original interpreters were members of this minority group, and all of the musical centers were also the places where these dark people were concentrated.  A key characteristic was its extreme difficulty, which was due to the enormous demands it placed on the singer – difficulties that were physical, vocal and above all emotional.  Because only a few members of this group possessed the faculties to interpret it properly, this “minority of a minority” was tacitly chosen to give voice to the feelings of the entire group..

While other folkloric musical forms were traditionally sung by virtually all members of the groups that had created them, this music was sung only by a few exceptionally gifted individuals.  It was always marked by this singular aspect, and among the group, everyone knew the names of those few who could sing it properly.

The ideal voice for this music – a music that recounted a bitter and agonizing experience – was not the “bel canto” so admired in other complex musical styles.  It was neither clear nor pure nor even agreeable.  On the contrary, it was hoarse, disconcerting, unsettling, even cutting; and of course it incorporated the particular vocal inflections of these dark-skinned people.

This music was not narrative; it did not tell an unfolding story in the manner of the ancient ballads that were still sung in the new land.  Instead, there appeared a corpus of individual verses, which the singers could draw upon according to their feelings at any given moment.  They could also improvise new verses, and the best of these entered the new tradition.

These verses were never marked by the poetic artifice of high culture, of course, since their creators could not read, and were completely excluded from the larger social structure.  Instead, the songs were marked by a powerful directness and gripping simplicity that elevated them into an astounding realm of emotive grandeur and majesty.

It is interesting to note that this music could never be properly termed “protest music” of the type that is popular today.  To sing that kind of music, one must believe that there are people who care about one’s plight; who are prepared to listen, and to correct their behavior when, ashamed, they realize the error of their ways.  Within this group, however, no one had these illusions.  Instead of protesting abuse and conditions, the music underlined the mental state, described specific social situations, and revealed the underlying sorrow of the singer.

The music was originally unaccompanied, but it gradually acquired the support of the only instrument that could possibly express this profundity without competing with the human voice: the guitar.

Gradually, and at long last, the epoch of the most intense persecution drew to a close.  New laws gave the darker-skinned group the same legal stature as other citizens, at least theoretically, and the musical style began to reverberate outside its intimate, sealed-off circle, to be presented for the first time in public.

Although must people didn’t like it, there were others who understood its power and became aficionados of this newly-revealed music.  They even dared to love it, despite the fact that it was the creation of an alien, despised and – according to popular opinion – morally dubious subculture.  They sought it out, and heard it sung and played in settings where alcohol and prostitution were commonplace

Nonetheless, the music continued to gather devotees.  And it also began a stage of rapid and dramatic evolution, as it began to mix with the popular music of the region.  Some white people even dedicated themselves to learning its secrets, and this further contributed to the broadening and expansion of the form.  Within a short time, the original name of the music was no longer sufficient to describe a new musical style with many variants.  There appeared – with origins disputed – another name that was less restricted and more descriptive.

In this form – much more accessible to broad popular tastes – the music was destined to reach fabulous success.  Within a short time, there arose the phenomenon of the star who became rich on the popularity of his or her interpretations.

The music spilled out of its southern birthplace, heading up the river to the big cities.

But within this success there was hidden the seed of a future failure.  The very phenomenon of mass acceptance was opposed to the minoritory origins of the primitive music itself.  Acclaimed novelties quickly became tired.

Although it continued to gain aficionados in other countries, the music was losing interest in its own land.  A period of decadence sapped the strength of the art.    By the middle of the Twentieth Century, these excesses had cost the music almost all of its original support.

The broad public abandoned the art form, and only a few serious and knowledgeable aficionados continued to care and support it.

But that was not the end of the story.

In the 1960’s, a new wave of interest arose – one that valued the true form without any musical mixing and adulteration.  The renaissance began with a few recordings, but it was soon realized that many of the forgotten masters of the art were still alive, and even able to bring the art to life again.  Thus the music in its pure form – one that a few years ago had seemed to be dead and gone, or at least doomed – lives today, and continues to gain new devotees with every passing year.

And that’s the story of  Blues/Jazz music in the U.S. – and of Cante Jondo/Flamenco in Spain.

Okay – of course there are significant differences between these two distinct musical traditions – that of Blues/Jazz in America, and that of Cante Jondo/Flamenco in Spain.  They certainly don’t sound alike, and from a musical standpoint they are completely distinct.  But the observations made so far are, in my view, applicable to both of these musical cultures..

And it is also possible to note parallels between important artists in both arts.  As is the case with Spain’s cante jondo or deep song, the blues also has its giant interpreters.  For each great Gypsy singer like Manuel Torre or Tomas el Nitri, the Country Blues offers a legendary Black artist like Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson.  For each pure female singer like Merced la Serneta or La Fernanda de Utrera, the American tradition has its Ma Rainey or its Billie Holliday.

Manolo Caracol knew how to render the deepest forms of real flamenco, but he earned his living singing adulterated popular songs that conformed to the tastes of a broad public.  In much the same way, Louis Armstrong was a titan of pure Jazz, but he made his real money offering absurd self-parodies to a public that simply did not know how to listen to great art.

Up to this point, we have been speaking about America’s Blacks and Spain’s Gypsies.  But whites have a key role in the blues, and “payos” or non-Gypies have an important role in the flamenco tradition.  And just as a non-Gypsy like Silverio Franconetti learned the Gypsy forms of flamenco and interpreted these styles very well, we Americans have our legendary white Jazzmen like Bix Beiderbecke.  Spain has its Antonio Chacon and Juan Breva, interpreting the sweeter side of flamenco that fit their personal and artistic vision, while America has its Artie Shaw or Tommy Dorsey.  In the place of Pepe Marchena and his highly commercial flamenco falsifications, we have Paul Whiteman.

Readers will note this article attributes to Spain’s Gypsies the central role in the formation of cante jondo, the deep song that is seen as the core of flamenco.  I am well aware that there are many noted Spanish authorities who do not agree with this view.

There are even some who say that Gypsies always steal, and could never contribute anything of their own creation.  To support this thesis, they cite the indisputable fact that among Gypsies outside of Spain, nothing remotely similar to cante jondo exists.

Nonetheless, it seems obvious to me that cante jondo owes its existence to the Gypsies of Spain’s deep South, just as the country blues is the creation of the Blacks of the southern U.S.   And it also seems that neither the Africans nor the Black people of Latin America have originated anything like the country blues. Instead, each dark-skinned alien group constructed its own new musical style, although of course they employed the musical ideas that they encountered in their adoptive country.

For me, it is sufficient to state that Spain’s folkore is one of the richest and most varied in the entire world and that the non-Gypsies there have created not just the jotas, the sardanas, the seguidillas and many other rich folkloric forms, but have also given birth to the great majority of the roughly fifty forms that are today called “flamenco”.  Thus not just the famed sevillanas and the simple rural songs like bamberas and trilleras are purely Spanish; I also believe that all the many styles of fandango – from the simple Huelva version and the charming verdiales to the elaborately evolved tarantas and granainas and the exquisitely artistic malaguenas are essentially a product of the Spanish people, although they may have Moorish roots and the most complex forms may reflect some influence of Gypsy song.

But when it comes to the very few forms that can be strictly called cante jondo – the tonas/martinetes, the siguiriyas, and the soleares – there is little doubt that they are fundamentally Gypsy in origin.  In the case of cante jondo, all of the earliest interpreters that we know of are Gypsies, and the Gypsies constitute an important part of all the geographical centers of song.  Like the country blues, cante jondo always views life from the point of view of the victim – the person who is at the bottom of the social structure.  Cante jondo, like the country blues, uses phrases, words and dialect that didn’t exist within the majority race – including many words that reflect the Sanskrit roots of the Gypsy language.

However, it is possible to state that these two musical styles are the products of a complex interaction between a persecuted race and the new land in which it finds itself; thus, all the gamut of flamenco can be called “Spanish” and all the gamut of Jazz is “American”, although they are not entirely the creation of the white people in each country.

A persecuted group doesn’t have to limit itself to producing tragic music, as is obvious in the U.S.  Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, was a magnificent Black singer whose specialty was not the blues (although he sang them very well) but rather the songs that were often happy and optimistic – the “reels” and “play party songs” created or elaborated by American Blacks.

Likewise, there are Gypsies in Spain who specialize in the lighter flamenco styles that have arisen among their people.  Pastora Pavon “La Nina de los Peines” was the supreme interpreter of the tangos and the bulerias of her people and, like Leadbelly, enjoyed in her country an extraordinary popularity even among many who were not aficionados of her genre of music.

If there are so many parallels among these two great traditions, surely they should produce similar effects among those who listen to them.  Here, admittedly, we are dealing with something subjective and partially dependent on the attitudes of the listener.  However, it is interesting to note that Alan Lomax, the most important American folklorist, describes Gypsy flamenco as the most important folk music style of Europe.  And he, like most researchers who write about American folklore, gives primary emphasis to the Blues music of Southern Blacks.

And America’s best-known folk singer, Pete Seeger, speaks of both these analogous arts in his new book, “The Compleat Folksinger”, in a way that is negative but interesting.

He says there are two styles among the world’s folk musics – just two – which he deeply respects and admires but simply doesn’t like to listen to.  One is the country blues, as sung by masters like Robert Johnson.  The other is flamenco.  I suppose that the pain and anguish that resonates within these two traditions is simply too hard to bear for this peaceful and optimistic artist.

When we Americans try to define the so-called “duende” – the mysterious, sometimes frightening power and intensity that is the defining attribute of Gypsy deep song, we often cite the American word “soul” that signifies the mysterious God-knows-what that seems to be exclusively the property of Black music.

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca, speaking of this attribute in Gypsy deep song, called it the “sonido negro”.  And it is this – this “black sound” that lives within the Spanish Gypsy’s cante jondo, as well as the blues of America’s Blacks – that truly and unmistakably links these two musical styles.

Brook Zern

Update, March 21, 2012 — This topic continues to resonate 40 years later.  Today’s issue of the Diario de Sevilla newspaper has an article/interview with the gifted flamenco/jazz fusion pianist Chano Dominguez by José Antonio López under the headline, “Jazz and Flamenco Stem From The Expression of Oppressed People.”

Chano has just released a record titled “Kind of Blue”, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original by Miles Davis that remains the best-selling record in the history of jazz.  Asked why flamenco and jazz seem so right together, he says, “While they may seem on the surface to have nothing in common, if you look at the matter in depth you realize that both flamenco and jazz are musical forms that have as their starting point the expressive needs of a people who have been oppressed, who find themselves far from their homeland — call it whatever you want.  And that produces a sentiment that reveals itself in artistic expression.  I believe that the blues of America has a lot to do with the solea and the siguiriyas [the two key forms of flamenco deep song, closely linked to Gypsy artists although Chano does not specifically mention this] — and that they are closely related in that there are forms that express death, and birth, and are done at weddings, and parties, and express love and the end of love…”

Right on, Chano.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.


www.flamencoexperience.com    brookzern@gmail.com

November 20, 2011   No Comments