Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Wars – The Dueling Histories of Flamenco

Flamenco Singer Manolo Caracol speaks – 1970 Interview by Paco Almazán – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s introduction: This blog’s many interviews with great flamenco artists of the past are important. They can also be surprisingly relevant, shedding new light on contemporary arguments and issues. They let serious English-speaking aficionados understand the thoughts and feelings of those who shaped the history of the art.

As an example: No singer in my lifetime has been greater than Manolo Caracol. None came from a more illustrious artistic lineage, or more completely embodied the entire known history of the art. None were as prodigious — winning a historic contest at about twelve years old. And I think no recording reveals the emotional power of flamenco song as well as Caracol’s double-LP “Una Historia de Cante Flamenco”, on which he is magnificently accompanied by the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.

This interview by Paco Almazán from Triunfo magazine of August 8, 1970, goes to the very heart of the art. It served as a response to an earlier interview in that publication where Antonio Mairena, the leading singer of that time, had challenged the greatness of the other Gypsy giant, Manolo Caracol. Caracol would die not long after this interview appeared.

The interview can be found in the blog of Andrés Raya Saro called Flamenco en mi Memoria, at this url: http://memoriaflamenca.blogspot.com/2017/01/las-entrevistas-de-paco-almazan-ii.html?spref=fb

(My attempted clarifications appear in brackets.)

Sr. Almazán writes: Manolo Caracol started by weighing in on the casas cantaores – [the few crucial families who were immensely important in the early development of the art.] He claims that in reality, his family is the one and only real deal when it comes to bloodlines or heritage:

Manolo Caracol: The house of the Ortegas [Manolo Caracol is the professional name for Manuel Ortega] is actually the only one we know of. In the rest, there were one or two singers, but not a whole branch of them. I know of no other, because the house of Alcalá [a town that produced notable singers] is not a single family. Los Torres [the family of Manuel Torre, who remains the supreme paradigm of male Gypsy artistry] have produced some artists, and so have the the Pavóns [the family of the La Niña de los Peines, the maximum female Gypsy singer, and her brother Tomás Pavón, one of the four or five most revered male singers]. Pastora, Tomás and Arturo – three siblings, and that’s it. My great grandfather, [the legendary singer] Curro Dulce, who was my father’s grandfather; and on my mother’s side, [the legendary singer] El Planeta who was the inventor of the [important early song] polo, and was the world’s first flamenco singer. Or who created the polo, because I believe that flamenco songs are not made. Furniture is made, clothing is made, but flamenco songs are created. El Planeta was older than El Fillo, and from there on, and the Ortegas emanate from them. El Fillo was an Ortega, and was the first “cantaor” [singer] who was “largo”— who had an extensive repertoire. A great cantaor, a grandiose cantaor – that was El Fillo, and he was from Triana. Before me there were several cantaores. Now, in the Twentieth Century the most famous – well, I think that was me, and for that reason I say that even children know me and me biography. But I’d like to talk about today’s problems.

Interviewer’s note by Paco Almazán: Remember Caracol’s beginnings, after being one of the winners of the 1922 Concurso de Cante Jondo of Granada – he says “when I won the prize” [a stunning achievement for a twelve-year-old boy]. He traveled to Madrid and triumphed on the terrace of the Calderón Theater, reaffirming that Madrid plaza’s importance.

Interviewer: But Manolo, everyone accuses you of just that. Of having taken the cante into theaters, degrading the purity of flamenco! Don’t think that everyone thought it was a good idea!

M.C. It’s not a good idea? Well, what’s good? If right now the inventor of penicillin, Doctor Fleming, hadn’t shared it with the world, the sick would not have been cured. If I don’t take flamenco song to the people who might like it, and understand it, or at least welcome it. You can sing with an orchestra, or with a bagpipe – with anything! Bagpipes, violins, flutes…the man who has real art, real personality, and is a creator in cante gitano… You have my zambras [his rendition of sentimental popular songs with a flamenco aire, which had enormous sales], and my cantes [flamenco songs, which had more limited sales], all with roots of pure flamenco song, not fixed in a cosa pasajera!…But if this business of pure song [cante puro] has become popular now, starting about ten years ago, when the flamencologists decided to speak of flamenco and the purity of flamenco! Es un cuento! It’s a story! [A fairy tale]. This business of the purity of flamenco is a story! Singing flamenco and speaking of whether it’s pure flamenco…and they chew on the idea, and they talk, and talk [a clear reference to Antonio Mairena]. That’s not flamenco singing! That’s a guy giving a sermon. Cante flamenco and cante puro – not even the singer knows what’s what. He’s a cantaor who has been born to sing above him. The rest are just copying. That’s why today there is no creation, when before there was creation.

Paco Almazan’s note: How happy Caracol must have been after these statements! He goes on and on, and when Almazán asks him which artists he liked most or influenced him as a youngster, he gives us this gift:

M.C. There were different aspects. Who moved me the most, whose singing reached me most deeply – that was Manuel Torre. Who was most pleasing to listen to – that was Antonio Chacón. Tomás Pavón was pleasing, and also reached me. And another great artist, La Niña de los Peines [Pastora Pavón, sister of Tomás], the greatest cantaora [female singer] that was ever born. She was a singer who had everything, had altos and bajos [high and low registers]. And any singer who doesn’t have a good low register is worthless. There are many singers from that era who sing de cabeza [using headtones? In a studied way?], sing songs that never existed and that they couldn’t have known, and who call them cantes de Alcalá, or cantes del patatero [songs of the potato seller?] or of Juan Perico. [This again refers to Antonio Mairena, who probably invented certain styles of important song forms and attributed them to other, perhaps fictional, artists.] That’s worthless! It’s as if we dijeramos un aperitivo [served an aperitif?] to cante flamenco. Sing – sing and create – take command the way a great torero does, improvising. That’s real singing!

There are fewer real singers today. Today, as far as I know, among the younger singers I like Camarón [who would become a revolutionary and the most important singer of his generation], and among the veterans I like Pepe Marchena, a creator in his own style [the established master of a pleasing style of singing, with clear tone and a strong vibrato]. Juanito Valderrama [another pleasing singer, in the “cante bonito” or “pretty song” style] is an extraordinary artist [both Marchena and Valderrama, like Chacón before them, were non-Gypsy artists who represented a cultural counterbalance to the great Gypsy artists like Caracol; Caracol himself shows appreciation for both camps, when many others were partisans of one side or the other.] Valderrama doesn’t really reach me, but he’s a great artist and I like listening to him nonetheless. Those girls from Utrera [Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera] are true cantaoras, and a lot of admired artists today are copying them. The places with the best singing are Triana, Jerez and Cádiz. In Alcalá what there are is bizcotelas. That’s what you’ll find in Alcalá, bizcotelas and dust for the alberos of bullrings. Among the guitarists, there’s Sabicas and this boy [este muchacho] Paco de Lucía, who plays very well, although not on the level of the maestro [Sabicas]. And Mario Escudero, who has come here from America. And among the Gypsy players [in addition to the Gypsy artists Sabicas and Escudero] we have Melchor de Marchena, Niño Ricardo, and that other guy, Habichuela [presumably the great accompanist Juan Habichuela]. Manolo de Huelva is retired now, but is a phenomenon, although he’s eighty. [Many people who saw this guitarist at work say no one was better, or as good.] And in dance, after Carmen Amaya, from this period I don’t know anyone among the dancers, neither in this era nor before [delante de] Carmen Amaya. I don’t know anyone.

Paco Almazán writes: The interview is long. Almost at the end, the newspaperman asks if flamenco loses something with the new verses that some younger singers are using.

M.C. Hombre, if the verses come from the sentiment of the song and the person who’s singing, and if they’re good… You can’t sing a martinete [a tragic deep song form] and tell about a little birdie singing in its nest. Now, anything that touches on pena [grief, misery], of love, of the blacksmith’s forge – all that is worthwhile.

Then the final question:

Paco Almazán:. Can you put the word “airplane” [modern, unpoetic, unexpected and possibly inappropriate to some] into a cante?

M.C. It’s all according to what’s being sung, and how. You can put it into a bulerías [a lighter form], “Ay! I went in an airplane, I went to Havana…” and there you have it. They can create precious new verses as good as the old ones, with more profundity and more poetry.

Comment by Andrés Raya: Remember that in its day, this interview, as well as the earlier one with Mairena, generated a lot of response among the flamenco aficionados of Madrid, giving rise to long arguments and heated discussions. Even beyond Madrid. In its Letters toe the Editor section, Triunfo published letters from many provinces. I’ve got copies of many, and may rescue them from the telerañas.

A press comment [about the Cordoba contest] confirms what Caracol says here. It’s from ABC of Madrid, dated August 9, 1922, and already the Caracol child is named “the king of cante jondo”.

Translator’s comment: Interesting indeed that Caracol singles out Camarón — who would become the ultimate rule breaker — as the most important young singer.

At the time of this interview, aficionados were choosing sides. Manolo Caracol had incredible emotive power, but he broke certain rules — as evidenced by his insistence that flamenco could be sung to bagpipes or anything else. (Today, that inclusive view dominates flamenco to the extent that a flamenco record featuring just a singer and an accompanying guitarist, once the norm, is almost unheard of.) He owned the genre called zambras [not to be confused with the zambras performed mostly in the caves of Granada, that are rhythmic Arabic-sounding songs and dances.]

The opposing view was embodied by Antonio Mairena, who obeyed (and invented) rules — to the extent that if he created a new approach to a known style, he might attribute it to some shadowy name from history to give it validity. Mairena rarely projected the emotional power of Caracol — he was almost scholarly in his renditions, giving what critics sometimes called “a magisterial lesson” in flamenco singing, rather than jumping in headfirst and just letting it all hang out. (In private, though, he could be pretty damn convincing.)

I tend to believe that early flamenco song had a gestation period, a “hermetic” stage when generations of Gypsy families forged the beginnings of the deep-song forms (tonás/martinetes, siguiriyas and soleares, which deal with Gypsy concerns from a Gypsy perspective) outside of public view due to the intense persecution of Gypsies in that era.

Caracol, who ought to know a lot better than I do, says that his great-grandfathers [Curro Dulce, El Planeta] were not just the first known flamenco singers but the first flamenco singers, period: they invented the whole genre. (It’s hard to defend the idea of this “hidden period”, especially since the “proof” is that it by its very nature it would be completely undocumented anywhere. (I’m not so sure that these alleged hidden sessions would have been reported in the Seville Gazette when they were essentially illegal and dangerous.)

For that matter, Caracol, like most authorities today, views the idea of “pure flamenco” as absurd or meaningless, while I kind of like the notion. I never liked the gifted singers like Pepe Marchena and Juanito Valderrama who specialized in the cante bonito or “pretty song”, now back in vogue, while Caracol always admired them.

Oh, well. It’s still a privilege to hear from the man best qualified to talk about flamenco history, and that’s why these interviews are so valuable.


January 27, 2017   1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the minefield.

Brook Zern

March 6, 2015   2 Comments

Flamenco Wars, Part 56 – In which we are termed unscientific, dishonest, absurd and ignorant fantasists.

As I’ve been reporting for the past decade or so, the history and backstory that prevailed in the 1960’s has been under intense pressure from revisionists.  Here’s something posted today by one of them, Alvaro de la Fuente Espejo, after he listened to a talk by another, Manuel Bohorquez:

“When you’ve spent 20 years reading and listening to the same romantic fantasies regarding the origins of flamenco, it’s hard to describe the feeling of liberation after hearing a talk by the investigator Manuel Bohórquez Casado.

Yesterday, more than 20 aficionados from Puente Genil in Cordoba province had the pleasure of his generous company as he told us of the need for new research and investigation.  A scientific and honest investigation that only aims to show us the facts as they occurred.  That means dethroning legends and absurd myths, and bringing to light the facts – as is being done by Bohórquez, Guillermo Castro, Faustino Núñez, Antonio Barberán…

Yes, they will be misunderstood by those who prefer to remain in their comfortable and ignorance, but the truth, little by little, will open up a story that had been constructed on a foundation of lies, personal interests and, yes, good intentions as well.   I’m convinced that now, more and more of us will value this immense (ingente) work.

Thank you, Manuel.  Hope to see you soon.”

End of post by Señor Espejo.

A reply asked him for details., and he answered:  “Whew, that’s complicated.  He gave us a general vision of his investigative research.  He told us about dozens of artists he’d been tracing including El Planeta, El Fillo, El Marrurro, Frasco el Colorao…Arriving at an important conclusion:  The importance of Triana as the generator of nominally Triana singers in history will have to be revised.”

Okay.  In this blog, I recently posted two reports about Bohórquez’s research, which strongly indicated that El Planeta was not from Triana but was born in Cadiz and spent many years of his life in Malaga, a town not associated with the kind of profound flamenco song that El Planeta probably played a key role in creating.

I won’t try to restate my doubts about this newer view of flamenco’s origins – I admire the arduous research but think some conclusions are overstated or incorrect.  I simply think that this issue, so significant and divisive in flamenco circles in Spain, should be presented here in English, for current or future reference.  The impetus has shifted toward the revisionist stance, so it can get pretty uncomfortable for us ineducables.

(In my only conversation with Antonio Barberán, a diligent researcher, I was surprised to realize that he didn’t understand a fundamental musical aspect of the emblematic alegrías of his town of Cadiz.   I had been forewarned that some historical researchers didn’t seem to know how flamenco music worked, and perhaps that casts doubt on their other work.  But other revisionists certainly know their musical stuff.)

February 2, 2014   No Comments