Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Families of Jerez – by Jose Maria Castano

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

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

The DeGypsification of Flamenco
By Ricardo Pachón, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of 2011 article by Ricardo Pachón.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brook Zern

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

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

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


March 28, 2015   7 Comments

17 Complete Programs from the Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco Series – Plus Today’s Most Important Radio Shows – Now At Your Fingertips.

I’ve been lucky to know and learn from two of the most knowledgeable authorities and most important figures in the fight to document great flamenco and disseminate crucial information about the art.

José María Velázquez-Gaztelu has for decades presented a great twice-a-week radio program on Spain’s national radio and television network, RTVE.  It can be heard on podcast recordings at http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/nuestro-flamenco/

But Señor Velázquez-Gaztelu had another trick up his sleeve.  Around 1970, he was the key man and on-camera figurehead in the creation of 100 magnificent black-and-white half-hour TV programs of Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco that ran weekly for two years.

(Before I met him, I’d spent fifteen years trying and failing to get permission to pay RTVE to protect the films and make a first copy for the Ethnomusicology Department at Columbia University ; it was finally granted in 1987, and for about a decade I apparently had a monopoly on the series.  Then a poorly done and poorly documented commercial cassette version of most shows was released by Alga in Spain; and then, happily, Señor Velázquez-Gaztelu created a gorgeously restored DVD version containing 72 of the shows, each 4-program disc also featuring his newly added commentary and recollections with available English subtitles, and each bound into striking small books giving invaluable information about every cut.)

Yes, all flamenco aficionados have seen some random, confusing moments of often brilliant b&w performances from these programs scattered all over YouTube.  But the true greatness of the series derives from the integrity of the total package, including the scripting, interviews, location selections and establishing scenes that make every program an artistic whole – as well as a window into a vanished Spain just feeling the first breezes from what would soon become a hurricane of cultural, sociopolitical and musical change.)

In recent years that I spent largely in the flamenco epicenter of Jerez, I soon realized that José María Castaño, author of the definitive book “De Jerez y Sus Cantes”, was the go-to guy for flamenco info and insight.  His radio program, Los Caminos del Cante, is a treasury of great talk and great music, and his article on Jerez’s crucial Gypsy/flamenco families is translated in this blog.  (He lets me sit in on some panel discussions; my finest contribution, with momentary lapses, has been keeping my mouth shut and listening to a half-dozen genuine experts argue with each other.  Arguing, or listening to heated, rapid-fire arguments in the region’s mystifying Andalusian dialect, is the true key to flamenco knowledge – or it would be, if I could just understand half of what was being shouted.)

This dynamic documentarian duo comes together, at least virtually, in an article  written by Castaño and translated from the Jerez progam website, www.loscaminosdelcante.com  – which also includes his incisive articles and editorials signed with the program name,  Here it is:

The Rito y Geografía del Cante series is online on the website of RTVE

There is no doubt that this series is the most important ever done for television.  It inherited the mantle of the great Archivo del Cante Flamenco 3-record set created by the noted Jerez writer José Manuel Caballero Bonald.

Soon after those field recordings were made featuring a select group of emblematic artists, the decision was made to go out again, this time with TV cameras, to reveal a truly exceptional artistic generation.  From the singers Antonio Mairena to Manolo Caracol, through Terremoto and Fernanda de Utrera and the guitarist Diego del Gastor, plus a huge list of other artists – all were filmed for national television.

Heading the project were two great professionals, Pedro Turbica and José María Velázquez-Gaztelu who covered a large part of Andalusia’s geography to document an array of spoken and sung testimonies that remain an unequalled primary source and reference point.

The RTVE website has decided to let everyone enjoy every episode of the series, restored to an extraordinary audio and visual level of excellence.  It can be accessed by clicking on the following link:


End of article

(Hey, looky the one guitarist named above from a cast that included every major player in Spain — the one we gringos are often unfairly accused of worshipping unduly.  Yes, it’s Diegod el Gastor.)

Again, while the article doesn’t spell it out, there are just 17 of the complete shows on the RTVE website — though they’re among the best.  The artists, in alphabetical order:  Camaron (accompanied by Paco Cepero, not the other Paco), Manolo Caracol (2 shows), Fosforito, Diego del Gastor, Juan el Lebrijano, Paco de Lucia, Antonio Mairena, Jose Menese, Enrique Morente, La Paquera, La Perla de Cadiz, Siguiriyas (2 shows), and Triana.  (An additional show made quite recently features Velázquez-Gaztelu talking about the series with the very knowledgeable José Manuel Gamboa.)

What?  Free is good, but you want more for your money?  Well, if you’re willing to shell out a few bucks per show, you’re in luck.  The excellent commercial version done by Señor Velázquez in 2005 initially had four beautiful slipcases each containing four books-with-DVD’s, each in turn containing four shows — 16 volumes containing 4 shows each equals, um, 64 shows, but two more DVD’s were issued recently — Volumes 17 and 18.  Those 8 additional programs mean a total of 72 of the 100 shows are out there somewhere (just google the series, and you’ll stumble on all of them loose or in groups.  (Hey, if I’ve got unrestored copies of all 100 shows, does that mean I still have a monopoly on the remaining 28 shows?)

Brook Zern

December 29, 2013   1 Comment

Flamenco Singer Samuel Serrano – Article from La Flamenca – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Last year, at four in the morning in a roadside venta called the Templo Flamenco, near the seaport town of Chiclana, I heard a guy sing.  I thought he was one of the finest flamenco singers I’d ever heard.  I also realized that he might still be singing great flamenco sixty years from now, when I was a hundred and thirty-two, which was a great relief.

His name is Samuel Serrano.  He is the real deal.  Important people are working to give him the success he deserves, without pushing too far too fast.  (He was accompanied by the great Paco Cepero, who’s involved in the effort.)

I don’t know this kid, but he just friended me on Facebook.  I was delighted.  His Facebook page included an article from the online publication La Flamenca.  (url is below.)  The English robotranslation left much to be desired, though mine does, too. But here’s a version:

Flamenco Que Viene [Up-and-Coming Flamenco]: Samuel Serrano

Born in the town of Chipiona in 1994, and now singing with a well-aged voice that can never be forgotten, Samuel Pimentel Serrano is one of our great hopes in the realm of the most traditional flamenco song.

His background says it all – the blood the the Agujetas family of Jerez de la Frontera flows in his veins, in his bitter laments, and his ending cadences – Gypsy singing “puro y duro” (pure and hard/straight up) is one of the key identifiers of this young singer who is not yet 20 and already has a bright path ahead.

His throat seems fatigued from suffering, weathered in the Gypsy forges that no longer exist, and in the fields with the now-vanished workers; it is dark and imbued by his lineage (“raza”); there is no better credential for Samuel Serrano.  Close your eyes when he sings, and you recall Juan Talega, El Chocolate, Terremoto and Antonio Mairena [all immortal Gypsy giants of song].  Are we exaggerating?  No more than we’re telling the truth.

His goals are no different than those of other good artists who want to make their mark, stride slowly and firmly, learn from the great professionals, and seek the counsel of wise elders such as his artistic godfather, Paco Cepero, who has discovered other great voices within the tradition of the Cádiz area.

His vocal lament has dramatic shades, and his torn voice seems quite at odds with his youth; rather, it is an ageless voice trapped in an adolescent’s body.  And beyond that, it dares to enter the domain of the most challenging forms of flamenco.  Its supple ease in the [fiendishly difficult] siguiriyas, its purity in the [crucial ] soleá, its flavor in the [storming, driving] bulerías, its wisdom in the [bleak, barren] martinetes, its sheer skill in the [gripping, dramatic] fandangos.   It dominates all the flamenco styles, and despite its broken quality it is agile and flexible.

Inevitably, one is struck by its “agujeteo” – its kinship with the voices of others in his family [notably Manuel Agujetas, the paradigm of emotive Gypsy singing].  Then there’s the trademark aspect of Jerez, the great bastion of the Gypsy tradition; and his love of pure song that is done “por derecho” [“by right”, or expressed from within the tradition and its heritage].   With Samuel Serrano, aficionados have one of the veins that nourish the heart of the singing tradition; vocal command in a voice that already emerges scathed and hurt, that contains the black sounds and the immaculate, well-aged purity of the timeless tradition that is embodied within him.

He has already performed in key sites like the seafront Baluarte [bulwark] of Cádiz, accompanied by the guitarist Niño Pura, on Canal Sur TV, Spanish National Radio, in Madrid and teaching Master Classes alongside his godfather Paco Cepero in the Festival de la Yerbabuena that he recalls with pleasure.

Wherever he goes, he makes is mark.  His listeners seem to be transported through time, returned to an era quite different from our own, imbued with the essence of good song, of a rich heritage and of the bright hope that his youth lets us feel though the magic that he dispenses.  Samuel Serrano: darkness turned to light.

End of translation.

Remember the name, Samuel Serrano.  Despite all his advantages, and something that looked like real charisma to me, he faces one enormous obstacle:  Very few people like this great and rarefied style of flamenco song, in which terms like duele “it hurts”, hiere “it wounds” and no se aguanta “it’s unbearable”, are considered high praise.  The original article is at:


December 28, 2013   No Comments

Jerez Post-Partum – The Mijita Family Keeps Flamenco Coming – Report and Gypsyphile Rant by Brook Zern

Beyond the Jerez Flamenco Festival – Rants and reports from Sherrytown.

The Festival Flamenco de Jerez ended last week.  It had its moments.  Big dance shows in the big Villamarta Theater.  And some good events in the small performance space at the Moorish Alcazar that overlooks the town.

Lots of dance students from around the world, but mostly from Japan.  A few guitar students, too, and a handful of brave people who are determined to learn how to sing flamenco.

They’re all gone now, vanished like smoke.  Okay, time for flamenco as I understand the term.

A few nights ago, after the jerezanos retaken their town, I went to the Peña La Bulería at around eleven, hoping to be unfashionably early and maybe get a seat.  No way.  The joint was already jammed and already jumpin’.  Hundreds of neighborhood people were there to see the Mijita family – Mijita hijo, Mijita padre and Cousin José.  On the six-stringer, the terrific accompanist Domingo Rubichi – brother of the late, lamented singer Diego Rubichi.

Who are these people?  Well, the kid – not literally a kid, but still a young guy – sang a verse that referred to his own family as the Carpios, the Mijitas and the Agujetases (who are related to the Rubichis).   Here in flamencolandia, that genealogy trumps any other calling card you’re likely to see

Anyway, all hell kept breaking loose, in the best possible way.  This was great singing by people who have assiduously neglected to study flamenco recordings, settling instead for living and learning every note of the art in their homes and in the bars and dives of the Plazuela, as this fabled neighborhood is called.

And the event itself differed from those of the official Festival because it was essentially intimate, a happening among friends and an admittedly extended family.

Before the break, the flamenco lover/expert, writer and radio emcee José María Castaño came out and stated that this fantastic vibe could only be felt at a peña – an organized entity that is supported by its members and by ever-dwindling public funding, and that opens its doors to anyone and everyone without charging a centimo.

Hundreds of jerezanos.  Zero foreigners.  Well, one.  (As a typically dissatisfied but unusually alphabetically-oriented woman once told me, “Zern?  Oh, yes.  Always one step short of Zero.”)

It can be awkward, looking in from the outside in a town and a society where everyone is evidently related to everyone else, and where the endless sound of kissing – guys kissing guys, girls kissing girls, everyone kissing babies – is the real soundtrack to every public and private event.

But for us foreigners, being present even at one remove is the price to be paid for experiencing flamenco as a non-commercial non-spectacle.

It’s worth it.

Brook Zern

Racist P.S.:  I am often taken to task for remaining unfashionably fixated on the Gypsy aspect of flamenco – this is now called racism, to my dismay – but I can’t help pointing out the obvious here:  The Mijitas and the other families mentioned above are all among the fabled Gypsy families of Jerez, and the kind of flamenco they do, and the way they do it, bespeaks their Gypsy ancestry in every cracked and croaked note, gripping gesture and perfect pataita (impromptu dance step) that they generate.

Not to belabor the point, but at the Peña Tío José de Paula a few days before, in a terrific event organized by Pedro Carrasco “Niño Jero”, or Periquin, a four-year old girl who may have been named Triana was carried onto the stage and immediately knocked off a drop-dead bulerías with absolute aplomb, great gracia and a better sense of flamenco rhythmics (compás) than I’ve acquired in sixty years of listening and fifty years of diligent guitar study.  Granted, I didn’t check her background and maybe she’s from Texas.  But she smelled of Jerez to me.  Maybe she was born in Texas but switched at birth for a Jerez infant who is already a prodigy of the two-step in the nightspots of Laredo…Yes, the Carrascos are, at latest report, still Gypsies.

Okay — I realize that such aptitudes are entirely environmental and not literally ”carried in the blood.”  But why do I have the nagging feeling that if I’d had the foresight to have switched myself at birth into a Jerez Gypsy family, I would still be struggling to master the local swing or soniquete that defines the guitar sound around here, and oozes from the pores of every fourteen-year-old kid with a Mohawk haircut who picks up an instrument?

Racism?  Okay, if you insist.  My own people, on my mother’s side, have a saying.  (No, not “You never know who your father is.”)

I don’t know exactly what it means, or how it‘s used or spelled, but I think I get the gist of it.  It goes like this:  “So call me pischa”.


PPS:  Taking the heat for excessive gitanismo is evidently nothing new for me.  I just found a crumbling 1975 letter to me from a key flamenco authority, Francisco Vallecillo, who founded the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco (CAF) documentation center here in Jerez.

Translating the penultimate paragraph:  “The Flamenco Festivals [annual outdoor all-night events in many Andalusian towns, still happening but less frequently] are in a state of crisis this year, above all in terms of their artistic aspect.  Almost always the same names as ever, but at a very undistinguished (muy discreto) level.

Your idol, El Chocolate, is causing a lot of scandals, just like your other idols, the bullfighters Curro Romero and Rafael de Paula.  In towns like Pegalajar, Montilla, Malaga, etc., El Chocolate has first-half appearances that are splendid, marred in the second half by an excessive intake of wine that causes the scandals.”

There it is already, 37 years ago – I’m rightly accused of excessive devotion to Gypsy artists.

I should be embarrassed by that bias, or my failure to outgrow it.  Instead, I’m embarrassed by the fact that, like many aficionados, I blithely assumed that the magical bullfighter Curro Romero, like the Jerez torero Rafael de Paula and the singer El Chocolate, was a Gypsy, because that’s the feeling I got from his way of bullfighting.

I learned years later that I was wrong, evidently, and this fact shows the downside of my gitanista bias – its foolishness can demonstrated in some cases by actual facts, leaving me looking like a schmuck.  Oh, well.  I say again, “So call me pischa”.


March 20, 2012   No Comments

Jerez and Its Flamenco Families – by José María Castaño – translated by Brook Zern

Note: This is a translation of a 2001 article by Jose Maria Castaño Hervas.  It is probably from Alboreá, the official publication of the Instituto Andaluz del Flamenco, which can be found online.  The article was clearly written to be a read as the introduction to a recital by the singers José Mercé and Vicente Soto, accompanied by the guitar of Diego del Morao.

Jose Maria Castano is renowned as a heroic defender of good flamenco, an outstanding researcher and author of the massive and definitive book “De Jerez y Sus Cantes” (Almuzara, 2007), and the creator of a terrific radio program that has run for many years on Onda Jerez radio.

I met Jose Maria soon after I got an apartment in Jerez in 2006, and soon weaseled my way onto the discussion panel that is a regular feature of his radio show.  Although I know less about flamenco than my fellow panelists and try to keep my trap shut, I provide unintentional comic relief and sometimes say something coherent about aspects of my own experience as an outsider looking in.  (Most recently, I talked about guitar in the U.S., and my experiences with the singers El Chocolate in Seville and Agujetas in New York.)

Jose Maria was asked by the Morao family to officiate at last November’s moving homage to the late Moraito, Jerez’s greatest flamenco guitarist (and, by my personal reckoning, Spain’s most flamenco flamenco guitarist).  Amid a glorious cast of artists all clamoring to donate their services and striving to offer their finest art, it was Jose Mercé — Moraito’s musical soul mate — who proved that when he turns his mind to serious song, he is the leading light in the eternal struggle to carry the flamenco flame forward.  And Moraito’s son Diego del Morao, who was the guitarist for the 2001 event where this speech was given, showed that he is a worthy inheritor of the mantle of the Moraos.

Here’s the article:


By Jose Maria Castaño Hervas

“Let me first underline my determination not to fall into the banal theorizing that is so prevalent these days, where flamenco has been subjected to a facile pastiche of pseudo-intellectualism by those followers of fashion who proudly proclaim fallacies and foolishness, based on an imaginary authority that comes from reading a few books and listening to a few anthologies.  It’s clear that nowadays understanding flamenco is considered trendy, just as a few years ago flamenco was reviled as something marginal, rejected among the higher levels of thought and intellectual achievement.

Having said this, and wishing to place into context our assertions about the flamenco song families of Jerez, I must address some questions.  The Romans – and please pardon this professional breach – said “Ubi societas ubi deretio“, (“Where there is society there is law”) in a desire to show that wherever there was a human presence, there immediately arose a series of norms that structured it.

In the same sense we can say that where Gypsy families exist in Andalusia, there arose flamenco song.  And this was an indissoluble union, which gave rise to a hugely important artistic heritage, one which took grief and pain as one indelible central focus: the cante gitano andaluz or Gypsy Andalusian Song as it was called by the great singer Antonio Mairena, and which is nothing more than the particular accent that one proud group inserted into the broad gamut of Andalusian music.

Regarding the preliminary question I have raised, rivers of ink have been spilled.  In my radio discussion program, for example, it is a theme that always arises; it’s also a part of any discussion among serious aficionados.  I’ve even attended conferences where participants speak of “historical currents” and other absurdities.

I don’t doubt for a moment that flamenco is above all an Andalusian phenomenon.  However,  I insist that without the contribution made by the Gypsies, it would have remained simply a very rich branch of folklore.  It would never have known the emotional heights – the earthquakes, the blazing sun, the glaring earthiness and salt and all the other special qualities that stem from the half-open wound that characterizes the Gypsy aspect of the art.

I haven’t come here to claim that the Gypsy has sung flamenco ever since becoming Andalusian.  In truth, we can never know exactly when this art first arose.  The first musicological examples of flamenco are reinterpretations, with a specific accent, of the lyric poetry that was part of the collective knowledge of that early time.  Proofs of this are the ancient ballads, called ”Romances” or “Corridos”, many of which were saved from oblivion by my friend and colleague Luis Suarez Avila.

These Romances, generally using eight-syllable lines, bespoke a Castillian heritage.  Singers like Jose El Negro del Puerto, Agujetas el Viejo and a few others conserved in their memories great fragments of these ancient ballads that originally belong to the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Centuries.  And why do the same profiles arise among these informants?  Let me make something clear. It seems that those who conserved these primitive forms belonged to Gypsy families of Lower Andalusia, and all added an element that would differentiate their interpretation from those of the rest of the Andalusian or Castillian collective version: an element of protest, of complaint, of pain.

As always, the reasons for this are not single but rather arise in response to many questions that we will be exploring in the course of this conference.

Generally the Gypsy people firmly identified with certain characters who appear in these old ballads, such as Bernardo el Carpio, and also with those particular stories that told of captivities and rescues.  However, we won’t try to explore this interesting fact here, but rather profile these flamenco-song families and what they represent; specifically, the flamenco-song families of Jerez, from which has arisen one of the most important voices of the present day, namely Jose Merce.

We can begin by citing the fact of sedentary living.  The Gypsy people were always nomadic by nature, as indicated by their flag that represents green fields and an open sky.  Some of those who chronicled the popular customs of long ago describe “a race condemned to a wandering life, seeking shelter beneath the trees, at the foot of lonely castles, or in the bottom of a deep ravine.”  These chroniclers were drawn to strange and picturesque customs.  In Andalusia, this would produce a sort of reverse phenomenon that was one of the first keys to the singular nature of the region’s  Gypsies: The establishment of certain family clans who were settling in and growing in harmony with their surroundings, even integrating themselves into a society that was not fully tolerant of their way of life.  And I repeat the idea put forth at the beginning: Where these families settled, the cante or song surged forth, and vice versa.  For proof, just glance at the names of the artists whom we know to see where they resided, while remembering the many more who never became professionals of note.  In Jerez, we have perhaps a hundred examples of noted artists and families including Tio Jose de Paula, Carapiera, La Bolola, Juan Jambre, El Peste, El Morao Viejo among the longest known, or the case of Luis el Zambo today, capable of putting in the shade many artists who could earn very big money.

This early settling-in was most notable in the Barrio de Santa Maria of Cadiz, on El Carmen Street in Isla de San Fernando, and in the districts of Santiago, La Plazuela and Los Puertos in Jerez.  Also crucial were Lebrija with its saga of the Pena family, Utrera with the Pinini Clan, the Triana district of Sevilla and other Gypsy enclaves in Mairena, Alaca, Moron or the region right beneath Gibraltar.  And in Eastern Andalusia, there is the Sacromonte district of Granada, though this has some distinct differences from the Lower Andalusian enclaves to the west.

There are other such zones, true.  But there these families did not settle in, and when singers arise it is in a very sporadic manner having no artistic forebears or offspring.  They don’t reach the point of having a unified collective, where music is bequeathed to them as a timeless and treasured  inheritance.

As pointed out by Pedro Pena, the son of La Perrata and brother of El Lebrijano: “The Gypsies of Lower Andalusia became sedentary, living closely with non-Gypsies.  The generally peaceful coexistence generated a different style of life based on the indisputable fact of ethnic differences.  And given that they had lived this way, it is not hard to explain why in a relatively short time they attained a consistently elevated level which is still evident today.”  This Gypsy guitarist and scholar from Lebrija notes the importance of becoming established in stable, sedentary situations, as was the case with the many Gypsy ironworkers and blacksmiths who lived in Triana, Alcala, Lebrija, Jerez, Los Puertos and Cadiz, since ”according to the census taken in 1794, in Triana alone there were 126 blocksmiths.”

Perhaps these people came from a branch of Gypsies called “Grecians”, who arrived via the Mediterranean as proven by their existence on the island of Corfu by 1346.

The arrival of these Gypsy or “flamenco” families is also a complex and thorny question.  There are two main theories.  The first cites the documented entrance into Spain of a certain “Juan the Egyptian” and his people from Aragon in the north in 1425.  The second proposes access via the Straits of Gibraltar many centuries previously.  This is the view of some authors such as Clebert and Jose Carlos de Luna with his well-known theory of “gitanos de la Betica” or Gypsies of the Guadalquivir River region.

Whatever the true story, these communities grouped into families would soon become distinct from other Gypsy communities of the world, although still preserving some common attributes and customs.  They developed their own way of being – being by nature (ser), and being by circumstance (estar) – and of confronting life.  In some ways, they were “permeable” and involved in the life of a wider community, while in other ways they were not – they remained within themselves, proud of their heritage, enamored of themselves, with a great sense of collective solidarity, jealously  guarding their traditions and celebrations.

I recall an interview with Abuela Tota, an octogenarian from the Casa Nueva, one of the most glorious houses on the street of the same name, where she told me that for the flamencos of the Santiago district there was only one door, while for all others there were many.  There are other testimonials to this sense of brotherhood, when they worked the fields from sunrise to sunset.  These are the families who lend a special accent to Andalusia’s music, giving it a particular vocal roughness or “rajo“, and a sixth sense for rhythmic dynamics that we call “compas“, a vital element that is at the heart of Gypsy expression to such an extent that they may seem to eat, drink and even fight bulls to this internal metronome of compas.

This is demonstrated clearly when we note the coexistence of two distinct schools of flamenco: one represented by [non-Gypsy singers] Silverio, Salvaorillo, La Trini, Don Antonio Chacon, Manuel Vallejo, Pepe Marchena, Jose Cepero, Fosforito, Carmen Linares or Enrique Morente — more artistic if we wish to use that term, or perhaps more conventional in contrast to that represented by [Gypsy singers] El Fillo, El Nitri, El Loco Mateo, Curro Durse, La Serneta, Manuel Torre, Tomas Pavón, his sister La Niña de los Peines, Juanito Mojama, Juan Talega, Terremoto, La Paquera, Fernanda de Utrera, Camaron or Agujetas, all impregnated with the traditions of their life circumstances and their family traditions.

These are clearly two radically distinct concepts, though they deal with the same thing.  We are perfectly free to choose whichever one pleases us most, or the best of the two, since both certainly have their own special beauty, and it is better to add than to divide, since one could never really understand the phenomenon of the cante without the vital aspect that comes from the non-Gypsy Andalusian current.  But we cannot deny the very different manner of interpretation that characterizes each of the schools – which, I repeat, should not be viewed as antagonistic to one another but as complementary.  Indeed, the truly beautiful aspect of flamenco is its complex diversity in terms of structures, rhythms, vocal qualities, etc.

Personages such as Garcia Lorca with his poetic way of understanding things may be hobbled by this disjunction, even after experiencing conventional singers like Silverio or Juan Breva.  (There have arisen so many fallacies about Lorca and his work that sometimes it seems wiser not to mention him at all, to avoid becoming immersed in these topics.)  Don’t worry, I won’t launch into an analysis of his “Paso de la Siguiriya“, or develop a new hypotheses about his “Teoria y Juego del Duende” or his “Poema del Cante Jondo“.

The important thing is to listen more, and go beyond the ambiguities.  No, in this case I will use the figure of Lorca to focus on his description of concepts like “the culture of blood”., which he derived while listening to the “black sounds” of Manuel Soto Leyton [sic – name is usually given as Loreto], better known as Manuel Torre.

There he summed up in a single phrase a question that we focus upon.  It was near the end of his life when, having studied and redefined the Gypsy element and the cante itself, he said by way of vital conclusion: “The truth of the cante jondo resides in ten or twelve Gypsy families living between Seville and Cadiz”.

In my opinion, and without wishing to reenter the topics of expulsion, unjust persecution, or cruel royal decrees promulgated by people who called themselves Catholics, it was these families living in the Guadalquivir River basin, by the Royal Road that joined Cadiz and Seville, who carried within themselves a historical memory like salt in a wound, as writer Felix Grande would say: “The history of the cante is the history of a lasting tear which, at the end of the Eighteenth Century, by way of the prodigious and ancient tradition of Andalusian music, transformed itself into one of the most beautiful and moving musical styles on earth; one of the musical styles most overflowing with consolation and joy, with grief and tragedy, that was ever invented by the genius, the pain and the memory of a people.  A choice that tells us of the grief and the arrogance of a persecution and ends up converting itself into a true work of art.  Everything that is born of pain becomes true and authentic.  Flamenco music, in short, is the melding of the ancient musical tradition of Spain with the suffering of the Gypsies.”

And with respect for our search for knowledge, I am partial to listening to oral testimonies from these flamenco-song families, who represent an authentic patrimony of mankind.  It is enough to cite the words of Manolito de Maria, who along with Juan Talega was one of the most valid carriers of the songs of Joaquin el de la Paula:  “I sing this way because I remember what I have lived.”

But now let’s go to Jerez de la Frontera, about which Federico said “Oh, city of the Gypsies!  Who could see you and not remember you?”

If at the beginning I referred to the focal points where Gypsies took root in Lower Andalusia, and where the cante surged forth in quantity and quality, as part of a genetic heritage, it’s only logical that Jerez should be one of the cities that has given the most artists to the genre.  Jerez is a strategic intermediate enclave on the Royal Road between Cadiz and Sevilla, thanks to its fertile soil and its bull-breeding regions that were already admired by the Romans who gave it the name of the goddess of fertility, Ceret.  We learn of the early presence of Gypsy families there, specifically clustered around two main churches, Santiago and San Miguel.  These parishes were respectively dedicated to agricultural work in the first case, and to work in slaughterhouses and blacksmiths in the second. (One must also note the existence of another Jerez Gypsy enclave, now virtually vanished, in San Pedro, where artists such as Merced La Serneta were born.)

As time passed, a great number of flamenco-song families would arise in these two still-vital neighborhoods.  Indeed, the history of Jerez cannot be understood without considering the Gypsy element.  To such an extent, in fact, that studies today confirm that a quarter of all the natives of Jerez have Gypsy blood in their veins.

Fellow investigators like Luis Clemente say that among these families there is a “web of bloodlines” whose threads extend up to Lebrija, largely from the families of the Santiago district, and over to Los Puertos on the coast, by way of the families of La Plazuela.  What this underlines is that the cante has always had vast significance for these people, as a form of spiritual nourishment, as a metaphysical link, and as an indivisible aspect of their lives.  Call them people who exist in the realm of the duende, living to the irresistible pulse of flamenco’s compas.

In the many interviews I have conducted with the elders among them, I’ve often been told that they are always singing: in the open fields, while working at the forges, on the bull ranches, always as a manifestation of their particular “modus vivendi”.  The cante serves as an oral testament from their elders, passed along from generation to generation over the centuries.

One must have experienced some of their celebrations and rituals to really understand this.  You see it everywhere, from that eighty-something grandmother to the little kid who can barely walk and yet can feel the rhythm, having known no teacher or academy other than his own blood heritage.  It is impressive to realize that from  the great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother of a Jose Merce, for example, was already singing.  We can only evaluate this phenomenon in its proper measure, without fear of error.  As Tia Anica la Pirinaca said in her testimony to flamencologist Ortiz Nuevo:  “It was very unusual to find a house where they didn’t know how to sing or dance.”

Thus we have a catalogue or list made up of an interminable galaxy of families where the cante has been, and remains, the true reflection of their lives – to the point of dying while singing a Siguiriyas as did Tio Juanichi el Manijero.

We can cite: The Marruros, Charamuscos, Chicharrones, Mondejas, Piponos (from which the Pantoja family came), Torritos (descendants of Manuel Torre), the Morenos or Moraos (with an ongoing saga of impressive guitarists), the Paulas (the people of Tio Jose, from whom descend an archangel of the bullfight [Rafael de Paula] and some Olympic riders) and Pauleras, Vargas, Terremotos, Jimenez, the Ramos (from whom descend the Pompis and their brother El Gloria), Valencias (with Juanito Mojama and Diamante Negro at the head), the Antunez, the Sotos (the gamut of Sorderas), Romeros, Galvez, Heredias, Mendez (La Paquera and her people), Zarzanas, Penas (on the road halfway between Jerez and Lebrija), the Guizas, Monjes (linked to the family of Camaron de la Isla), Fernandez (an innumerable branch including people as important as el Juanichi, el Manijero, El Tati, Tio Borrico, Terremoto, El Serna), the Reinas, Torranes, Junqueras, Pipas, Realos, Montoyas, Gallardos or Zambos (where the dynasties of Paco La Luz, the Sorderas and the Rincones cross), the Carrascos or Jeros, the Moneos, the Rubichis, the Carpios, the Agujetas [de los Santos].

These, which are by no means all the names and nicknames of the flamenco-song families of Jerez, continued to multiply and to elevate their ways of expressing themselves before life into the category of high art.  From them, we can extract more than 200 noted artists and many others who never became professional.  Here I must point out the reluctance that flamenco has had until recently to leaving the breast of the family, and also the relation of flamenco to the state of women in this society.

Curiously, and again paying heed to heritage, in an art that is well acquainted with styles or genomes, each branch has been characterized by a type of voice and by singular aspects.  As one example, note the characteristic “echo” or vocal quality of the Agujetas family as compared to that of the clearer but more rhythmic voices of the Sorderas.  Or consider the “aire” or particular sound of the guitars of all the Moraos, from Manuel to his brother Juan to Moraito or his son Diego.  There are other famous instances, but the story is the same: a shared sound.

This can only be understood through the racial grafting of these ”cayos reales“.  As for those who don’t wish to understand and acknowledge that this all constitutes a separate universe, let them continue talking about “historicism” and about ways to measure metrics.

To sum up, because I believe it’s imperative on this occasion dedicated to Jose Merce, and where we find Vicente Soto representing his family of the Sorderas which is the same family as that of his first cousin Jose Merce, to not go into too much detail when we’re all here waiting to hear singing ”until the milkman comes”, as Vicente’s father Manuel Soto “El Sordera” always said upon beginning his recitals:

We often find allusions to the fact that Jose Merce and Vicente Soto both descend from the mythical master of Siguiriyas Paco la Luz, whose full name was Francisco Monje Valencia Vargas Soto and who was born in the Santiago district of Jerez on June 14, 1854.  While that’s true, this descent is a bit collateral since the direct line is that represented by El Sordo la Luz who was the son of one of the sisters who were: the well-known singer of siguiriyas known as La Serrana; the dancer called La Sordita; and another daughter, less known, called La Costurera.  From this we can say that El Sordo La Luz was the first cousin of la Serrana, in the line that has brought us to Jose.

So today we can continue to appreciate and enjoy the art of the descendants of those families who ensconced themselves in Andalusia, carrying a secret of the centuries, the most beautiful and varied expression of ancient must and ancient pain elevated to the realm of art.

We don’t know if modernity, which seems to swallow everything as Saturn swallowed his children, will devour the ways of life of these flamenco-song families.  What we do know with certainty is that tonight we will continue to experience the continuity of the miracle of jondo, of the deep song of flamenco.  This living fountain of grief or joy, as the poet might say, will be here in the voice of Vicente Soto, a member of one of the purest branches in the flamenco genealogy, and in the intensely flamenco guitar of a young man of 20, Diego del Morao, whose playing represents the best possible proof of the authenticity which I have tried to elucidate, building on the base and the privilege of having lived daily among these singing families of Jerez – the glory and honor of Cante with a capital “C”.

Thank you.”

End of translation of an article by Jose Maria Castaño Hervas, titled “Jerez and its Flamenco-Song Families” ["Jerez y Sus Familias Cantaoras"]

Brook Zern

(A final comment.  It’s possible that today, Jose Maria Castano would be more circumspect in using terminology that might imply that flamenco artistry is somehow carried in the blood, or passed on genetically in certain families.  He has rightly challenged me when I gave that impression, stating that of course there is no actual genetic aspect, and that the inheritance is strictly environmental –the result of some people being raised from birth as part of a group where flamenco is a constantly pulsing reality of daily life.)

(The theory mentioned above, suggesting a possible a Gypsy migration into Spain from North Africa prior to their documented entry from France around 1400, has not withstood scrutiny and is not taken seriously today — though I and other unqualified observers sometimes wonder why the Gypsy families of Andalucia seem so different from other Gypsies in Spain, not to mention the rest of Europe.)

Brook Zern

February 15, 2012   No Comments