Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer Romerito de Jerez

Flamenco Singer Romerito de Jerez speaks – Interview with Francisco Gonzalez – Translated by Brook Zern

Sevilla Flamenca magazine number 88, from early 1994, featured an interview with the singer Romerito de Jerez, by Francisco González.  Romerito touches on some crucial topics — the relationship between Gypsies and non-Gypsies, and the supposedly representative vocal qualities of each group.  Romerito never made it to the big leagues, but he was always at the center of the great Jerez scene.  His references to being hungry are literal: for years after the Spanish Civil War, there was acute, widespread hunger in Andalucía.  His current professional and practical concerns are described frankly.  (He notes the lack of Social Security for flamenco artists, and says that the ITEAF, an entity set up to support them in their old age, has unfortunately folded.)

Romerito is featured on one of the greatest flamenco recordings ever made, “Canta Jerez”, on the amazing long bulerías “Fiesta en el Barrio de Santiago”.  About two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Romerito’s son, Antonio de Jerez (I think), a real good singer who was working at the famed El Cid in Los Angeles.  Here is a translation — Sevilla Flamenca, publicly supported for educational purposes, is not copyrighted):

“Manuel Romero Pantoja, Romerito de Jerez, was born on May 5, 1932, at Calle Nueva number 28.  Ay — if streets could talk, what tales this one would tell us.  It’s surely one of the most representative spots of the Barrio de Santiago, the most flamenco neighborhood in Seville.  Great artists born there knew how to fill it with jubilation and glory…with genius, art, compás.  How many nights of the fearful lament of the siguiriyas, the insanity of the bulerías.  Wrapped in this mantle of mystery, as if attracted by a call that he could not ignore, Romerito de Jerez always found himself immersed in this atmosphere of escalofrios (chill-inducing art), in a world of sensations that must have been inexplicable to a too-young child whom destiny would draw toward such sacrifice.

On his calle Nueva, with his people, Romerito filled himself with cante, baile and fiesta.  What a beautiful way to satiate hunger, to forget so many humiliations.  There he felt happy and secure, and learned from his elders:  Tío Jose de Paula, Tío Cabezas, Tío Parilla, Tío Borrico — so many to teach him.  He says:

“I’ll never forget the gift that those patriarchs gave me.  Those who didn’t live through those gatherings can’t imagine the degree of respect and admiration that we all felt for them.  What silence and recognition they commanded.  I, as a child, saw them as something strange, from another world.  Many nights, when I tried to sleep, I couldn’t get their voices out of my head.  If only I could hear them again — but today, everything is different, everything has changed.”

– Romerito, when you were so young, did your parents really let you go to these all-night fiestas?

“It was normal then; it was our ambiente.  They never left me alone, though, and my older brother “El Guapo” was usually there.  He was called “Guapo” (handsome) from childhood, with good reason.  They called me “Cipote”…, the nickname Romerito came later.  At first, when I lived in Seville and worked at (Cortijo el) Guajiro as a dancer, they called me Pantoja — my mother’s name — but when I decided on cante, I called myself Romerito de Jerez.”

– Why do most Jerez singers include the city name in their professional names?

“We’re happy to be Jerezanos, and proud of it, though we might have to go elsewhere to live and work.  If we didn’t, we’d have to work in the fields, because in Jerez the Gypsy who doesn’t work does not eat.”

– Were there other artists in the family?

“Yes, indeed.  My uncle Rafael “El Carabinero” was a good cantaor, especially for saetas.  An aunt also sang — in the Pantoja family, we’re all artists.”

– How was your childhood in Jerez?

In my earliest days, I danced on the streets with Terremoto (de Jerez, who would become a legendary singer).  We went to the “tabancos” (stalls for selling foods to the poor)– because in that era we all suffered from a hunger that you cannot imagine — singing and dancing, then putting out our hats for tips, and eating all the tapas we could find.  We’d also go to roadside ventas, and often enter the “casas de las niñas” to sing and dance to the “tío“, while having a few copitas.  And we’d always get a little gift.  Sundays we went to other neighborhoods or the middle of Jerez, because we knew folks would be there and we hoped something would turn up — but we were often out of luck.”

– Who did you learn from?

“I never thought of singing, because I was a dancer.  Terremoto, yes.  Tío Parilla took us to fiestas, and we were there with Morao El Grande, and La Paquera.  Much later, I decided to sing.  I had already learned from so many people, in fiestas and tablaos.”

– How was flamenco lived in Jerez?

“The era was something grand.  I don’t know about Triana (in Seville) because I didn’t live there — but in Jerez, on the calle Nueva, everyone sang and danced.  The fiestas were continuous, and when there was a wedding of any gitana, we all went and formed “el talamo” [?].  The young girls (mocitas) sat on one side, and we mocitos on the other, and then the novia (bride) came out and we threw the “torojas” [grapefruits?]; one person would throw a “rosco” (a twisted loaf of bread), another a pedazo de sidra (sidra=cider), peladillas (sugar almonds)… and the fiesta would begin.  In the rooms there were the old Gypsies, and that was where the siguiriyas and soleares were sung.  That’s where I heard all the old ones of Jerez, from Tío José de Paula to Tío Borrico; and a brother of Tío Parilla called Gregorio, who sang very well.”

– Who was the best singer?

“El Serna” era muy buenoY Tio Borrico.  There were stupendous singers who sought their livelihood in the ventas, like El Troncho and El Batato, who were not Gypsies; and El Diamante, a nephew of La Cochinita, an old Gypsy who went to Seville, the same as (the dancer) La Malena did…”

– Could one sing in Jerez without being gitano?

“In Jerez there was never any discrimination, never any racism between Gypies and non-Gypsies.  I have three nieces who are married to non-Gypsies.  My wife, La Lola, is not a Gypsy, nor is the wife of my brother Juan “El Guapo”.  If we were all raised together in Jerez, how could we become racists?

Nor was there any difference in the cante and baile.  I have felt the song of non-Gypsy cantaores, and I’ve seen non-Gypsy dancers who have nothing to envy us Gypies about.”

– Was there a rivalry between the neighborhoods of Santiago and San Miguel?

“Yes, there was.  They never invited us to their weddings, but they’d come to ours, sometimes to “meter la pata” [put their foot in -- make trouble?].  There were two or three Gypsies who were very “esaborios” (offensive?), and were always thrown out, of course.  In Upper Santiago there were always more and better artists, and this didn’t sit well with the folks from la Plazuela because we dominated the fiestas — though San Miguel did have good artists like La Paquera and (the popular-song legend) Lola Flores; oh, and Manuel Torre and Chacón (widely seen as the greatest Gypsy and non-Gypsy singers of all time, respectively) were born there.”

– What were the fiestas like?

“They’d last until morning, and sometimes for several days.  The young people today can’t even imagine it.  Not only would we celebrate in the house, but in the doorway, and sometimes spilling onto the street.  There was a ‘gacho‘ (non-Gypsy) named Dieguichi — still alive — who worked at the newspaper, and when he had a few drinks he’d come to the calle Nueva and in front of a bodega there he’d start to sing; and the Gypsies would all crowd around, because it was unbearable how well (“porque no so podía aguantar“) this ‘gachó‘ sang the siguiriyas…  He knew all the cantes of Tío Jose de Paula, and today lleva a gala haber dormido en la casa de los gitanos (he talks of having slept in the houses of the Gypsies?).  That’s who I can say that Jerez is a place, a tierra, that gives something special to flamencos without taking into account their race.  El Capullo is a non-Gypsy, and you have to hear how he sings.  Living together makes a difference (“La convivencia influye bastante“).  He who grows up amid Gypsies and is an aficionado will find that their things stick to him.  So it was with my “father” (an affectionate term) Chano (Lobato, a non-Gypsy), who grew up with the Gypsies of Cadiz and is more Gypsy than all of us.  Other people came to Jerez like El Beni (de Cadiz), La Perla (de Cadiz), Juanito Mojiganga, Antonini (Ansonini del Puerto)…and all came to the house of Tío Pablera.  His wife put on a pot of beans and the fiesta began…”

– Beside these spontaneous fiestas (fiestas naturales) of Upper Santiago, tell us about the paid fiestas that the well-off señoritos (spoiled, pretentious guys) requested.

“The señoritos of Jerez were very roñosos (mean-spirited; stingy; cheap); they liked to put on airs (presumir), though it’s true that most of them knew how to listen.  The only one who dared to tell them such things to their face was Terremoto; they wouldn’t mess with him.  Such things went on…

Aurelio de Cadiz came often — he had good connections and they called him often.  The old artists were the ones who sang, and they mostly did solea and siguiriyas, cantes that the señoritos of Jerez liked a lot.  There was one who was a “malleto” [?], you know — he had a little ranch, not big fincas (spreads).   He was Don José Cantos Ropero, the best aficionado Jerez ever had, the only one who had recorded (que tenía grabao) Tío Jose de Paula.  He got together with all the old ones — Tío Borrico, Tío Cabeza, El Serna.  He sang the songs of Manuel Torre well.  Each one would show this guy something, and at the end he’d give them all five duros (25 pesetas, a pretty good sum at the time).”

– While we’re talking of fiestas, tell of (Canta Jerez), the historic one recorded (for Hispavox) and dedicated to Tío Parilla; tell us how it happened.

“That fiesta was to have been filmed (se tenía que haber grabado en película).  The idea was (flamencologist) Jose Blas Vega’s.  He proposed it first to the Zafiro label, but they said no.  Then we had to do it in Madrid, in the Hispavox studios.  We sang when we felt like it, just as in a real fiesta, and on the tables — heaven, food and wine galore.  When Tío Borrico warmed up, with that voice of his, he said “Venga — vamos alla“.  He started singing and when he knew we were listening, he started to cry.  What a reunion!  Tío Borrico, El Serna, El Diamante (a/k/a El Diamante Negro), Terremoto, El Sordo, (guitarists) Paco Cepero and Paco Antequera; and me.  Tio Borrico and El Diamante danced — with those huge feet — and how Terremoto danced, in spite of being so drunk; and El Serna (Sernita), how well he sang that day!”

– Have you ever felt humillado (humiliated)?

Many times — but not for being a Gypsy.  I have felt shunted aside (marginado) by other singers; not in Jerez, but afterwards, when I was known as Romerito.  This world has a lot of guasa (unpleasantness), you know.  The main thing is to know this, and know what to say.  When you get that, nobody sings better — each one just sings in his own way, according to what he has learned from good aficionados, which is how we learn; because when a cante has been studied, it won’t have duende — though many seem to think that they were in school with Manuel Torre…”

– It’s said that to sing the songs of Cádiz well, one must be born there.  Is it the same with Jerez?

“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be born somewhere to sing its songs well.  Take the case of Fosforito.  I think what happens is that the cante of some specific places has something special, an aire, a sabor (flavor) of the place, and those who are born there may find it easier to sing with that quality.”

– It’s lamentable that Jerez is only identified with the bulerías, when it has so many songs and styles.  Which are the most significant?

“In Jerez, the siguiriyas and soleá have always been sung well, and we’ve seen stupendous singers in those styles (“en estos palos“).  Also por malagueña — the one by Mellizo — and tangos, fandangos; many, many are the songs that Jerez has sung.  There were the songs of the forge (tonás/martinetes)…and very good interpreters, not all of whom were Gypsies.  I remember El Zopo, who had his hands badly placed (a deformity?), and Terremoto and I went to a tiny tavern near the train station to hear him sing siguiriyas, and “habia que revolcarse con el” (we had to outshine him?) …  That’s the kind of duende that this place gives to artists.”

– What did you learn in the tablaos (flamenco night clubs)?

“A lot.  They did all the cantes, because they had to set dances to them for the girls, and you had to know them to work.  There was a healthy rivalry, there were lots of us and we all learned something.  I sang everything, even “La Ovejita Lucera” — they were fundamental to a singing career.  He who knows how to sing well for dancers — how can he fail to sing well up front, on his own.  Antonio Mairena (the great singer) told me not to sing any longer in cuadros (groups, behind dancers), that my place was up front.  But that’s tough, because flamenco is full of different interests.  Here, sometimes, the one who gets the work is the one who is in the good graces of the promoters, and that’s not right; everyone has to work.  Could anyone think that last year I wouldn’t be invited to a single festival?”

– Do you think you’ve received the recognition you deserve?

“No, I haven’t.  I think it’s unfair.  My artistic career is long; since I was a kid, I’ve been in this world of flamenco, and I’ve endured a lot of calamities, things that others haven’t, and I have a lot of experience and knowledge.  I think I deserved a better reward.”

– It’s said that your voice is like the sweet wine of Jerez.  Do you try to conform to the prototype of the voice that typifies the cantes of your region?

“Although I don’t have a hoarse voice (voz rajá), I think it’s very Gypsy, because I am gitano on all four sides (por los cuatro costaos).  It’s very bonito (pretty, attractive), and, thanks be to God, I still have force and power.  Not all the singers of Jerez have had a ronca (hoarse) voice.  One can name a mountain of singers who, without having that kind of voice, were stupendous singers.  This business of the voices in flamenco is really just the taste of the aficionados; the important thing is to know the cantes, and render (decir=say) them well.”

– You haven’t done much at the concursos (contests) — why is that?

“I don’t like them because I don’t think you can take the real measure (talla) of any singer by a single performance. I only went to the Cordoba contest at the urging of friends there.  Afterwards I felt bad, and left with a bad taste in my mouth.  I sang the bulerías of my city well, and left without a prize because it was pre-arranged (preparado) for another, and when that person didn’t show up, they declared that no prize would be awarded (lo dejaron desierto).  I was upset and pained (dolido), not with Cordoba, but with the jury, because they weren’t fair.  As I understand it they continued in this same vein, and that’s why the Cordoba contest has lost the prestige it once had.  When it’s done like that, no singer of a certain fame will want to enter.”

– How do you view concursos today?

“I’ll tell you the truth:  They are always the same.  I know many people who sing well, who are good aficionados, and they appear only in the concursos, to such a point that one could call then “concurso singers”.  This has its points, because they can’t earn money in other settings, so they have to do what they can.  Today the Peñas Flamenas (Clubs) find the concursos offer a good system to have lots of activities covered at low cost.  I’m not against it, but they should seek other solutions that are more positive for flamenco, and that would let new talents come through (salieran nuevos valores).  Sometimes the entrants are really quite old, and nothing new can be discovered.”

– What do you think of the (municipal) festivales?

“It’s better not to touch that.  At first, they filled a role that I’d consider positive, generating afición and giving life and prestige to many pueblos, but now they are in a totally decadent phase.  Some artists have a “caché” (cachet) that’s very valued, and their representatives want to put them onto lineups (carteles) with lots of other people so they’ll earn more.  But the peñas can’t deal with this business (este tirón), and even less so when they face economic losses — that’s what peñas are for!  Also the aficion is tired of seeing the same people always repeating the same songs.”

– Are their awards or prizes you are proud of?

“I don’t have prizes from concursos, for reasons I’ve explained.  I am proud to possess the Onda de Oro of Radio Cadena Española and of having the Copa de Jerez, given to me by the Cátedra de Flamencología although, in truth, what I value most is the affection (cariño) and recognition that some good aficionados have for me.”

– What are the positive aspects of the Cátedra de Flamencología de Jerez?

“I think there are enough.  It did important things, being interested in the flamenco culture of Jerez and in promoting all of the town’s artists.  It organized many activities, and brought to the fore a lot of people who were linked to the art.  I think that a large measure of the prestige that Jerez and its artists have today is due to the work of the Cátedra.  It had much merit because, among other things, it didn’t have the funding that other organizations have today, and yet it arranged many fiestas that provided income for artists.  In this sense, one can’t forget Juan de la Plata.  It was he to whom the Cátedra owed most of its success and many of the important flamenco events — like the Fiesta de la Bulería.  Lately, Juan has received many bitter disappointments (disgustos) — but we flamencos are accustomed to such things.”

– By your criteria, how do you see the work of the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco — until recently called the Fundacion Andaluza de Flamenco?

“I have no relation at all with this institution; it’s not something that concerns the singers of Jerez, and it does nothing imporant for flamenco.  (“Con esta institucion no guardo ninguna relación; tampoco se preocupa de los cantaores de Jerez, ni viene haciendo nada importante por el flamenco.“)  It will never equal the prestige of the Cátedra.  Often, imagination and good will of individuals is worth more than a big budget.”

– What do you think of artists who make public their sympathy for one political party or another?

“I think they’re smart, because they take advantage of the situation to earn money — a situation that won’t last long for them, and at they end they will be found out; though some — and some who are important — have the ability to change their party sympathies toward whoever is in charge (el partido que mande)… I think the true politics of an artist is his art, and one should live by that alone.  It’s the best way to avoid enmities, and always have the support of the public.”

– What kind of future economic security will today’s artists have when they stop working?

“Today we artists are unprotected.  The day I retire (El dia que me jubile), if God lets me live so long, I don’t know how I will live.  We don’t have Social Security, and the ITEAF (a group set up to support aged flamenco artists), which wasn’t too healthy when it was created, unfortunately has died…  It’s a shame, our situation…  Then they’ll give me, like they gave my “pare” Chano Lobato, a special pass to ride the buses free.”

– Were you in any troupes?

“You bet!  There were troupes in Jerez.  What a scene!  Often, they kicked us out of places because there was no money to pay.  What could people today understand of such calamities!”

– Why did you come to Seville?

“Well, there were various reasons why I came and decided to stay.  Before I was contracted by El Guajiro, I came in a company that had Imperio de Triana as the dancer.  Then I was in the academies of Realito, of Pinto, of Albéñiz, as part of the companies (or: setting up companies).  I remember when the guitarist was El Peana, and the dancer was a sevillana named Carmen Mora.  We did several tours of Andalucia.  Then in El Guajiro with as a dancer, with Terremoto singing.  I had the luck of having to do my military service in Seville, and meeting Lola here, and I remained.”

– Is Jerez different from the other flamenco sites (zonas cantaoras)?

“I think so.  Not just the songs, as you’d think, but its musical structure, and also that fact that its artists possess a special stamp that differentiates them from the rest.  Jerez is also distinguished by the completeness of its flamenco: from the first, it has been the birthplace of great figures of song, of guitar toque, and of dance (baile), and that’s rarely found in other places.”

– Do the songs of Jerez sound better with a Jerez guitar?

Hombre, a good singer must work well (acoplarse) with any guitarist who knows how the song goes; but if the guitarist if from Jerez, you can figure that he knows the secrets of the cante of his region, and will give the singer everything in its time, carrying the singer better, more “arropao” [better covered?]; and, of course, the singer feels more secure, more “a gusto“.

– Of all the guitarists you’ve known, which one knew best how to accompany the cantes of Jerez?

“I think it’s Manuel, El Morao Grande (Manuel Morao).  He learned from Javier Molina, and then taught the rest of the Moraos.  He’s played all his life, and the cante of Jerez holds no secrets for him; many people “no apañaban cantar ” (didn’t grasp how to sing) without his guitar.  We also have the Parillas, and Tío Parilla not only danced, but played guitar as well.  His son Parillita, Manolo, [Manuel Parilla] knows the toque well and is a good guitarist.  Here, in that dynasty, there are also good players.”

– Who was the Jerez singer whose art reached you the most (que mas te llegó)?

“Tío Borrico.  It was very personal — and what a voice!  Today there are very few singers with personality; that’s something fundamental, that the public doesn’t recognize (que los públicos no saben distinguir).  To have personality, that is also an art.  Then, the singer of my time, the one who most “ganafones me tiraba” [grabbed me by the throat], was Terremoto.  It will be a long time before another one like Fernando el Terremoto is born in Jerez.”

– You said you don’t get the recognition you deserve.

“I am very pained by that, because I am forgotten without any real reason.  I’m pained by certain peñas where sometimes I have sung for free — always with genuine good will — and then, at the time of their big festival, they didn’t call me.  Also with some representatives (agents) because they’d forget me when there was a real contract, but remember me when somebody needed a favor.”

– A lot of obstacles in your career?

“I’ve gotten more ‘zancadillas’ (setbacks — impediments) at the end than at the beginning.  When I started out, maybe it was the hunger that hurt me most, but since we hungry people were in the majority, it was some consolation.  I was young, a bachelor, with fewer responsibilities.  Things went better then, there was more companionship, and we even laughed at hunger…  Now everything is different, there are other interests, and there is more egotism.  Today the difficulties hurt more than before, because you see the badness (la maldad) in them.  People have often done me dirt (“Me han hecho muchas suciedades“), and there have been many times when I went to my house crying.  It hurts a lot to see how you don’t get a contract because you don’t have a good recommendation, or how they abandon you because you have fallen from grace… There have been so many times…. These are things I wouldn’t want to remember.”

– The happiest moment of your life?

“The time I spent in the tablaos.  It was another world, another  ambiente.  There was more tranquility, more security.  What a shame those years won’t come back!”

– What is harder — singing up front, or singing behind a dancer (cantar alante o atras)?

“It’s harder to sing behind (atrás).  Before, this was not recognized.  Today the afición is more prepared, and will soon realize when a singer is good for dance and will appreciate it, because the qualilty of a cuadro (group) depends on the success of the dancer.  You don’t have that responsibility when you sing up front, alone; “aqui esta desarropado y se sufre mas“.  Before I goeout, my hands are freezing and my mouth is dry, until I sit down and do the first cantecito.  It’s the sense of responsibility, of respect that I feel for the public.  It isn’t fear that makes you sing badly; if that happens, it’s bad luck.  It’s respect for a public that deserves the best.

– Name a good dancer.

Today, Manuela Carrasco.  Before, and for many years, it was Matilde Coral.  She danced with enough knowledge and had a lot of “empaque” (appeal?) and majesty.  I sang for her many times, and it was always satisfying.  I have great respect for her today, and we like each other a lot.”

– Beyond Matilde, what great dancers did you sing for?

“Enough.  I sang often for Antonio — with Chano Lobato singing; for Enrique el Cojo, Mario Maya, Guito in Madrid…what good dancers!”

– Today, how do you see the panorama of flamenco in Jerez?

“It isn’t very hopeful (No es muy esperanzador), the artists don’t make a living (no tienen vida) and have to leave Jerez if they want to triumph.  Unfortunately, the artists who remain there have very little work: they hope someone will call them for a fiesta, for one of the Jueves Flamencos (Thursday public performances) done by the city administration (Ayuntamiento), or some peña will call them, or maybe the summer festival… I go there often to see my family, and I feel sorry (siento pena).  With all that Jerez used to be!”

– What do you miss in Jerez?

“Everything.  The flamencos who have changed, the atmosphere.  Now people don’t get together in the tabancos — there aren’t any left! — not just to sing, but to celebrate the discussions (tertulias) among aficionados where so much could be learned.”

– Of your generation, who remains?

El Sordera, though he is somewhat older than I; El Diamante, who can’t sing anymore; Fernandito (Fernando) Gálvez, who had a heart operation and is in Madrid — and no more that I know of.  Of the guitarists, Manuel Morao, a bit older than I, and Juan Morao “Moraito”, a bit younger.  And there’s Manolito (Manuel) Parilla.  Ya vamos quedando pocos — we’re getting pretty scarce.”

– What are your present preoccupations?

“That the young should respect flamenco, and follow its serious line without forgetting their roots.  That the only ones to bring new ideas and renovation should be those capable of doing so — a very difficult challenge.  Today we’re seeing a lot of foolish nonsense (barbaridades).  There are cantes that can be enriched because they admit certain innovations, but others… How can one “renovate” a siguiriyas without doing it harm?…  And we can’t even speak of an entirely new style of siguiriya — where would we find that kind of genius today?”

– How do you see the future of flamenco?

“I have the concerns I’ve mentioned — like innovations without any basis, that bring nothing to the art but, quite the contrary, actually impoverish the cante, leaving it with less “garra” (ability to grip the listener?).  What does prettiness have to do with pellizcos — (the chill that traditional flamenco can produce in listeners)?

I also know that there are some young people who are focused on learning, to conserve that which is pure (lo puro), and who have the qualities and who, by thinking and acting in this way, can assure that flamenco will never be lost.  The important thing is that they have patience, and learn to wait until their day finally arrives, because that triumph will be very beautiful.”

– And what would you say to aficionados?

“Don’t lose confidence, continue to nourish your aficion, and go to see performances (espectáculos), because it would be very painful to see flamenco again in the backrooms and little ventas.  There were too many woes we had to endure.”

End of interview of Romerito de Jerez by Francisco Gonzalez in Sevilla Flamenca number 88 from early 1994.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014: I spend serious time thinking about flamenco in terms of whether a given artist or artistic creation is Gypsy or non-Gypsy.

I do not think it is wise.

And it is always especially humbling when that attitude is challenged, albeit unwittingly, by the thinking of my superiors.  As a Gypsy from Jerez, Romerito knows who is, who is not, or who is somewhere in between — but he fails to see its relevance.  He says first that even in those presumably less enlightened times long ago, there was simply no discrimination against the gitanos of Jerez.

And why should it matter at all?  Romerito says:  ”I have three nieces who are married to non-Gypsies.  My wife, La Lola, is not a Gypsy, nor is the wife of my brother Juan “El Guapo”.  If we were all raised together in Jerez, how could we become racists?”

He then makes a powerful statement about the flamenco culture in Jerez, saying, “Nor was there any difference in the cante and baile.  I have felt the song of non-Gypsy cantaores, and I’ve seen non-Gypsy dancers who have nothing to envy us Gypies about.”

Romerito seems truly ethnicity-blind — for me, a lesson to be pondered, maybe even taken to heart.

But just as I think warm and fuzzy thoughts about post-racial harmony, and start to hum “Kumbaya” to myself, there’s an unexpected glitch:

– Was there a rivalry between the neighborhoods of Santiago and San Miguel?

“Yes, there was.  They never invited us to their weddings, but they’d come to ours, sometimes to “meter la pata” [put their foot in -- make trouble?].  There were two or three Gypsies who were very “esaborios” (offensive?), and were always thrown out, of course.  In Upper Santiago there were always more and better artists, and this didn’t sit well with the folks from la Plazuela because we dominated the fiestas — though San Miguel did have good artists like La Paquera and (the popular-song legend) Lola Flores; oh, and Manuel Torre and Antonio Chacón (widely seen as the greatest Gypsy and non-Gypsy singers of all time, respectively) were born there.”

Remarkably, it seems that after casually finessing the tragic problem of racial and ethnic differences that are tearing many groups apart worldwide, Romerito indicates that the differences between the adjoining neighborhoods of San Miguel and Santiago — those respective churches are five minutes apart on foot — are still pretty much intractable and insurmountable.

I don’t know whether to find that heartwarming or heartbreaking.  I mean, really — there’s a big problem with neighbors you know well, but no problem with people you don’t personally know who want you gone from the planet?  All politics is literally local?

In Art History classes, I learned that those wacky Renaissance Italians had an institution called campanilismo — the conviction that anyone born within earshot of their own locale’s bell-tower or campanile was better than any two bums born in the shade of the alien bell-tower that was visible just over the clotheslines on their own roofs.  I thought it was a riot.

I’ve managed to spend several years in Jerez over the past decade.  I never quite grasped the roiling conflict between Santiago, apparently the designated homeland of my apartment on calle Francos, and San Miguel, which I think was actually few dozen steps closer.

Also:  While I think that Spain in general and Jerez in particular stand tall in contrast with other countries and cities regarding the status and respect for the Gypsy population, I know there are numerous non-Gypsy jerezanos who do not think well of Gypsies.  (In the scheme of things, and considering the rising tide of demagogic hatred, brutal attacks and governmental viciousness toward Europe’s Roma, I’d call that pretty damn good.)

Should I be optimistic?  Pessimistic?  How about my default state: Confused.

Final note:  I spent many nights in the Peña Tío José de Paula, my local flamenco club.  Romerito says that there is, or was, an actual recording of that legendary artist, and gives the name of the rich guy (he’s called Don) who made it.  C’mon, Jerez people, get on the case and check that out.


October 29, 2011   No Comments