Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Women In Flamenco

1999 Flamenco Vivo Production of Hombres y Mujeres – Review by Brook Zern

Date:  Fri, Mar 19, 1999 11:35 AM EDT
From:  Brook Zern
Subj:  Carmen’s Sisters and more — Mujeres y Hombres on B’way

Last night was the premiere of “Mujeres y Hombres”, presented by the Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana company, of which Carlota is the Artistic Director.

By my lights, the event was a resounding success.  The evening as a whole worked very well, and the audience loved it.  And it was a tough audience, since the New Victory — a smallish (400-odd seats) beautifully-renovated theater right off Times Square — features productions aimed at families and at children, who can be the toughest critics.

The show was in three not-long parts.  One, waving the flag for hombres, was “Bailaor”, choreographed by Antonio Hidalgo with music by Roberto Castellón, a longtime guitarist on the New York scene who played very well and is clearly coming into his own.

“Bailaor” is based on a fascinating premise:  Showing the evolution of male flamenco dance over the last century or so.  In maybe forty minutes, it seamlessly reveals the essence of the changes that have transformed the art.  Starting with a zapateado done in a constricted and rigidly formal style (think El Estampío or Vicente Escudero), it slides into a farruca with the freer moves and postures of subsequent bailaores (think Joé Greco and Antonio Gades), and wraps up with a full-tilt bulerías highlighting all the unorthodoxies and freedom of today’s unbuttoned generation of hot male bailaores (think Joaquin Grilo or Joaquin Cortés or whoever’s dating supermodels right now).

The dancers who made it work were Antonio Hidalgo, Rodrigo Alonso and Pedro Blasquez.  Flutist Terence Butler, an American who lives in Barcelona, joined in as things got up-to-date.

I thought it was interesting and effective — for me, it underlined major changes to make them evident.  (In other words, it was probably designed to be obvious even to kids, so I didn’t have my usual dance-blind trouble grasping the message.)

Another segment was “Ask For Me”, choreographed by Antonio Hidalgo and danced by Antonio and Carlota.  They make a good pair; the dance was dramatic and certainly came off quite well.

The “Mujeres” segment is “Carmen’s Sisters”, conceived, choreographed, danced and sung by Clara Mora.  (Well, she has plenty of expert help, but the impressive aspect was her crucial role in making everything work.)

This is a terrific production.  It’s really a song-based rather than a dance-based flamenco work, though both are happening all the time.

It focuses on the somehow dramatic story of the ordinary life of women, specifically Andalusian Gypsy women, and the songs are the key to understanding their lives.  Amazingly, Clara Mora — an American woman who fully grasps the essence of flamenco — has solved the daunting problem of explaining the song and stating the words in English without damaging the high drama of the cante.

She often joins the others in chorus parts — and she also manages to recite the verses so intensely yet self-effacingly that the audience knows what is being said almost without knowing how.  It’s a real tour de force — especially because her dancing is obviously superb.

Elena Andúar, Esperanza Montes and Tania García are the other dancer/singers.  Elena does the heavy-duty cante extremely well, and the others are a pleasure to hear and watch.  The loose story line works as high drama, because it values the ordinary lives of women in the Andalusian and Gypsy cultures.

David Serva plays guitar throughout.  This brilliant musician does everything exactly right, as usual.  It is always a privilege to experience his unique artistry.

The good and bad news is that the six or eight remaining performances of “Mujeres y Hombres” are practically sold out.  I hope there will be additional opportunities to see the production, and would be particularly enthused if the “Carmen’s Sisters” segment took on a life of its own, perhaps in a somewhat expanded version.

All in all, a memorable evening.  Once again, Carlota Santana has done an outstanding job of bringing notable flamenco to the boards.

Brook Zern

February 11, 2014   No Comments

Important 1883 Description of Flamenco From U.S. Book “Spanish Vistas” (with exact dance description) – Comments by Brook Zern


I found an 1883 book that describes flamenco as seen by an American traveler in Spain.  Passages touch on the song, and also describe in detail a dance performance in Malaga some time prior to the publication date.  The book is called “Spanish Vistas”, by George Parsons Lathrop, published by Harper & Brothers, Frankln Square (Philadelphia?), 1883.  It’s nicely illustrated by Charles S. Reinhart.

While suited to armchair travelers, the book is also aimed squarely at potential American tourists, with sections in the back on safe travel (bandits had recently been subdued by the Guardia Civil) and other handy hints.  It’s also gracefully written and sharply observed.  The intro (which mentions a book by John Hay from a few years earlier, called “Castillian Days”) describes a meeting with a Spaniard who, learning the author was not an Englishman but a North American, exclaimed happily “You are for the Spanish Republic (a Republican), then!”  The author says he then asked the Spaniard: “How many Spaniards are in that party?”

“Party,” the Spaniard cried.  “Listen: in Spain there is a separate political party for every man.”  After a slight pause he added, bitterly, “Sometimes, two!”

Anyway, the section on Seville shows that the author is conversant with music.  A description of the Thursday-morning fair still rings true.  He writes:

“With very early morning begins the deep clank of bells, under the chins of asses that go the rounds to deliver domestic milk from their own udders.  There is no end of noise.  Even in the elegant dining-room where we ate, lottery-dealers would howl at us through the barred windows, or a donkey outside would rasp our ears with his intolerable braying.  Then the street cries are incessant.  At night the crowds chafe and jabber till the latest hours, and after eleven the watchmen begin their drawl of unearthly sadness…until, somewhere about dawn, you drop perspiring into an oppressively tropical dream-land, with the sereno’s last cry ringing in your ears:  “Hail, Mary, most pure!  Three o’clock has struck.”  This is the weird tune to which he chants it.  (Then the book shows a well-rendered melodic line, done in common time, revealing an aptitude for writing relatively straightforward if unusual music; but, predictably, the author never attempts to render flamenco song in notation.)

The text continues:

“An Enlish lady, conversing with a Sevillan gentleman who had been making some rather tall statements, asked him:  “Are you telling me the truth?”

“Madam,” he replied gravely, but with a twinkle in his eye, “I am an Andalusian!”  At which the surrounding listeners, his fellow-countryment, broke into an appreciative laugh.

So proverbial is the want of veracity, or, to put it more genially, the imagination, of these Southerners.  Their imagination will explain also the vogue of their brief, sometimes pathetic, yet never more than half-expressed, scraps of song, which are sung with so much feeling throughout the kingdom to crude barbaric airs, and loved alike by gentle and simple.  I mean the Peteneras and the Malaguenas.  There are others of the same general kind — usually pitched in a minor key, and interspersed with passionate trills, long quavers, unexpected ups and downs, which it requires no little skill to render.  I have seen gypsy singers grow apoplectic with the long breath and volume of sound which they threw into these eccentric melodies amid thunders of applause.  It is not a high nor a cultivated order of music, but there lurks in it something consonant with the broad, stimulating shine of the sun, the deep red earth, the thick, strange-flavored wine of the Peninsula; its constellated nights, and clear daylight gleamed with flying gold from the winnowing field.  The quirks of the melody are not unlike those of very old English ballads, and some native composer with originality should be able to expand their deep, bold, primitive ululations into richer, lasting forms.  The fantastic picking of the mandurra accompaniment reminds me of Chinese music with which I have been familiar.  Endless preludes and interminable windings-up enclose the minute kernel of actual song; but to both words and music is lent a repressed touching power and suggestiveness by repeating, as is always done, the opening bars and first words at the end, and then breaking off in mid-strain.  For instance:

“All the day I am happy,
but at evening orison
like a millstone grows my heart.
All the day I am happy.”

[Limitless Guitar Solo.]  [sic]

It is like the never-ended strain of Schumann’s “Warum?”  The words are always simple and few — often bald [sic].  One of the most popular pieces amounts simply to this:

“Both Lagartijo and Frascuelo
swordsmen are of quality,
since when the bulls they are slaying –
O damsel of my heart –
they do it with serenity.
Both Lagartijo and Frascuelo
swordsmen are of quality.

But such evident ardor of feeling and such wealth of voice are breathed into these fragments that they become sufficient.  The people supply from their imagination what is barely hinted in the lines.  Under their impassive exteriors they preserve memories, associations, emotions of burning intensity, which throng to aid their enjoyment, as soon as the muffled strings begin to vibrate and syllables of love or sorrow are chanted.  I recalled to a young and pretty Spanish lady one line,

“Pajarito, que te vuelas”.

She flushed, fire came to her eyes, and with clasped hands she murmured, “Oh, what a beautiful song it is!”  Yet it contains only four lines.  Here is a translation:

Bird, little bird that wheelest
through God’s fair worlds in the sky,
say if thou anywhere seest
a being more sad than I.
Bird, little bird that wheelest.

Some of these little compositions are roughly humorous, and others very grotesque, appearing to foreigners empty and ridiculous.

The following one has some of the odd imagery and clever inconsequence of some of our negro improvisations:

“As I was gathering pine-cones
in the sweet pine woods of love,
my heart was cracked by a splinter
that flew from the tree above,
I’m dead: pray for me, sweethearts.”

There was one evening in Granada when we sat in a company of two dozen people, and one after another of the ladies took her turn in singing to the guitar of a little girl, a musical prodigy.  But they were all outdone by Candida, the brisk, naive, handsome serving-girl, who was invited in, but preferred to stand outside the grated window, near the lemon-trees and pomegranates, looking in, with a flower in her hair, and pouring into the room her warm contralto — that voice so common among Spanish peasant-women — which seemed to have absorbed the clear dark of Andalusian nights when the stars glitter like lance-points aimed at the earth.  Through the twanging of the strings we could hear the rush of water that gurgles all about the Alhambra; and, just above the trees that stirred in the perfumed air without, we knew the unsentinelled walls of the ancient fortress were frowning.  The most elaborate piece was one meant to accompany a dance called the Zapateado, or “kick-dance.”  It begins:

“Tie me, with my fiery charger,
to your window’s iron lattice.
Though he break loose, my fiery charger,
me he cannot tear away.”

and then passes into rhyme:

“Much I ask of San Francisco,
much St. Thomas I implore;
but of thee, my little brown girl,
ah, of thee I ask much more!”

The singing went on:

“In Triana there are rogues,
and there are stars in heaven.
Four and one rods away
there lives, there lives a woman.
Flowers there are in gardens,
and beautiful girls in Sevilla.”

That’s the end of flamenco references in the Seville section.  The author then moves to Granada.  He writes:

“The gypsies of Granada are disappointing, apart from their peculiar quivering dance, performed by gitanas in all Spanish cities under the name of flamenco.*

[* Footnote:  Fleming, a name commonly applied to Spanish gypsies; whence it has been inferred that the first of them came from the Netherlands.]

Their hill-caves, so operative with one’s curiosity when regarded from across the valley, gape open in such dingy, sour, degraded foulness on a nearer view, that I found no amount of theory would avail to restore their interest.  Yet some of the fortune-telling women are spirited enough, and the inextinguishable Romany spark smoulders in their black eyes.  Perhaps it was an interloping drop of Celtic blood that made one of them say to me, “Señorito, listen.  I will tell you your fortune.  But I speak French — I come from Africa!” And to clinch the matter she added, “You needn’t pay me if every word of the prediction isn’t true!”  Much as I had heard of the Spanish bull, I never knew until then how closely it resembles the Irish breed.

[The famed Spanish artist] Fortuny’s model, Marinero, who lives in a burrow on the Alhambra side, occasionally starts up out of the earth in a superb and expensive costume, due to the dignity of his having been painted by Fortuny.  Dark as a negro, with a degree of luminous brown in his skin, and very handsome, he plants himself immovably in one spot to sell photographs of himself.  His nostrils visibly dilate with pride, but he makes no other bid for custom.  He expands his haughty nose, and you immediately buy a picture.  Velveteen [the author's fellow traveller] chanced upon Marinero’s daughter, and got her to pose.  When he engaged her she was so delighted that she took a rose from her hair and presented it to him, with a charming, unaffected air of gratitude, came an hour before the time, and waited impatiently.  She wore a wine-colored skirt, if I remember, a violet jacked braided with black, and a silk neckerchief of dull purple-pink silk.  But that was not enough: a blue silk kerchief also was wound about her waist, and in among her smooth jet locks she had tucked a vivid scarlet flower.  The result was perfect, for the rich pale-brown of her complexion could harmonize anything; and in Spain, moreover, combinations of color that appear too harsh elsewhere are paled and softened by the overpowering light.”

That’s the end of descriptions of flamenco and Gypsies in Granada.  From there, the author and Velveteen go to Malaga — via Bobadilla, a railhead I remember from the 1960′s.  The next chapter begins:

“A gypsy dance!  What does one naturally imagine it to be like?  For my part, I had expected something wild, free and fantastic; something in harmony with moonlight, the ragged shadows of trees, and the flicker of a rude camp-fire.  Nothing could have been wider of the mark.  The flamenco — that dance of the gypies, in its way as peculiarly Spanish as the church and the bull-ring, and hardly less important — is of Oriental origin, and preserves the impassive quality, the suppressed, tantalized sensuousness belonging to Eastern performances in the saltatory line.  It forms a popular entertainment in the cafés of the lower order throughout the southern provinces, from Madrid all the way around to Valencia, in Sevilla and Malaga, and is gotten up as a select and expensive treat for travellers at Granada.  But we saw it at its best in Malaga.

We were conducted, about eleven o’clock in the evening, to a roomy, rambling, dingy apartment in the crook of an obscure and dirty street, where we found a large number of sailors, peasants and chulos seated drinking at small tables, with a very occasional well-dressed citizen or two here and there.  In one corner was a stage rising to the level of our chins when we were seated, which had two fronts, like the Shakspearian stage in pictures, so that spectators on the side might have a fair chance, and be danced to from time to time.  On this sat about a dozen men and women, the latter quite as much Spanish as gypsy, and some of them dressed partially in tights, with an affectation of sailors or pages’ costume in addition  At Madrid and Sevilla their sisters in the craft wore ordinary feminine dresses, and looked the possessors of more genuine Romany blood.

But here, too, the star danseuse, the chief mistress of the art of flamenco, was habited in the voluminous calico skirt which Peninsular propriety prescribes for this particular exhibition, thereby doing all it can to conceal and detract from the amazing skill of muscular movement involved.  A variety of songs and dances with guitar accompaniments, some effecive and others tedious, preceded the gypsy performance.  I think we listened nearly half an hour to certain disconsolate barytone wailings, which were supposed to interpret the loves, anxieties, and other emotions of a contrabandista, or smuggler, hiding from pursuit in the mountains.  Judging from the time at his disposal for this lament, the smuggling business must be sadly on the decline.  The whole entertainment was supervised by a man precisely like all the chiefs of these troupes in Spain.  Ther similarity is astounding; even their features seem even identical: when you have seen one, you have seen all his fellows, and know exactly what they will do.  He may be a little older or younger, a little more gross or less so, but he is always clean-shaven like the other two sacred types — the bull-fighter and the priest — and his face is in every case weakly but good-humoredly sensual.  But what does he do?  Well, nothing.  He is the most important personage on the platform, but he does not contribute to the programme beyond an exclamation of encouragement to the performers at intervals.  He is a Turveydrop in deportment at moments, and always a Crummies in self-esteem [the meaning of these references is unknown to me].  A few highly favored individuals as they come from the café salute him, and receive a condescending nod in return.  Then some friend in the audience sends him up a glass of chamomile wine, or comes close and offers it with his own hand.  The leader invariably makes excuses, and without exception ends by taking the wine, swallowing a portion, and gracefully spitting out the rest at the side of the platform.  He smokes the cigars of admiring acquaintances, and throws the stumps on the stage.  All the while he carries in his hand a smooth, plain walking-stick, with which he thumps time to the music when inclined.

At last the moment for flamenco arrives.  The leader begins to beat monotonously on the boards, just as our Indians do with their tomahawks [sic -- shouldn't it be tom-toms?] to set the rhythm; the guitars strike into their rising and falling melancholy strain.  Two or three women chant a weird song, and all clap their hands in a peculiar measure, now louder, now fainter, and with pauses of varying lengths between the emphatic reports.  The dancer has not yet risen from her seat; she seems to demand encouragement.  The others call out, “Ollé” — a gypsy word for “bravo!” — and smile and nod their heads at her to draw her on.  All this excites in you a livelier curiosity, a sort of suspense.  “What can be coming now?” you ask.  Finally she gets up, smiling half scornfully; a light comes into her eyes; she throws her head back, and her face is suffused with an expression of daring, of energy, and of strange pride.  Perhaps it is only my fancy, but there seems to creep over the woman at that instant a reminiscence of far-off and mysterious things; her face, partially lifted, seems to catch the light of old traditions, and to be imbued with the spirit of something belonging to the past, which she is about to revive.  Her arms are thrown upward, she snaps her fingers, and draws them down slowly close before her face as far as the waist, when, with an easy waving sideward, the “pass” is ended, and the arms go up again to repeat the movement.  Her body too is in motion now, only slightly, with a kind of vibration; and her feet, unseen beneath the flowing skirt, begin an easy, quiet, repressed rhythmical figure.  So she advances, her face always forward, and goes swiftly around a circle, coming back to the point where she began, without appearing to step.  The music goes on steadily, the cries of her companions become more animated, and she continues to execute that queer, aimless, yet dimly beckoning gesture with both arms — never remitting it nor the snapping of her fingers, in fact, until she has finished the whole affair.  Her feet go a little faster; you can hear them tapping the floor as they weave upon it some more complicated measure.  but there is not the slightest approach to a springing tendency.  Her progress is sinuous; she glides and shuffles, her soles quitting the boards as little as possible — something between a clog dance and a walk, perfect in time, with a complexity in the exercise of the feet demanding much skill.  She treats the performance with great dignity; the intensity of her absorbtion invests it with a something [sic] almost solemn.

Forward again!  She gazes intently in front as she proceeds, and again as she floats backward, looking triumphant, perhaps with a spark of latent mischief in her eyes.  She stamps harder upon the floor; the sounds follow like pistol reports.  The regular clack, clack-clack of the smitten hands goes on about her, and the cries of the rest increase in zest and loudness.

“Ollé! ollé!”

“Bravo, my gracious one!”

“Muy bien! muy bien!”

“Hurrah!  Live the queen of the ants [sic]!” shouts the leader.  And the audience roars at his eccentric phrase.

The dancer becomes more impassioned, but in no way more violent.  Her body does not move above the hips.  It is only the legs that twist and turn and bend and stamp, as if one electric shock after another were being sent downward through them.  Every few minutes her activity passes by some scarcely noted gradation into a subtly new phase, but all these phases are bound together by a certain uniformity of restraint and fixed law.  Now she almost comes to a stand-still, and then we notice a quivering, snaky, shuddering motion, beginning at the shoulders and flowing down through her whole body, wave upon wave, the dress drawn tighter with one hand showing that this continues downward to her feet.  Is she a Lamia in the act of undergoing metamorphosis, a serpent, or a woman?  The next moment she is dancing, receding — this time with smiles, and with an indescribable air of invitation in the tossing of her arms.  But the crowning achievement is when the hips begin to sway too, and, while she is going back and forward, execute a rotary movement like that of the bent part of an auger.  In fact, you expect her to bore herself into the floor and disappear.  Than all at once the stamping and clapping and the twanging strings are stopped, as she ceases her formal gyrations: she walks back to her seat like one liberated from a spell, and the whole thing is over.”

Well, that’s all I can find about flamenco and Gypsies in the book “Spanish Vistas”.  The illustration for the last section, incidentally, looks like an engraving, and is signed “G.S. Reinhart — Paris, 82″.  (The author implies that the artist worked from sketches, done by Velveteen.)  It shows five seated people — three women, a male guitarist, and the cane-wielding character described as doing nothing; I wonder if he’s the agent/manager, or could he have been a big-deal singer who didn’t happen to sing that night?  The women, including the one shown dancing, are all in very full dresses with shawls.  The guitarist leans forward, clearly paying attention to the dancer.  The instrument has the pre-Torres shape, the head is scalloped on the sides and the pegs are of wood.  There’s an atmospheric painting behind the stage, and what looks like a footlight up front.

I’m certainly impressed with this author’s descriptive powers.  I think I saw that same dance last month at Symphony Space on Broadway, at the flamenco show.

I won’t start evaluating any historical insights all this might or might not offer.  I’d just note that when I thought everyone agreed flamenco was really pretty old, I remember looking at these passages without much wonderment.  After all, they were — well, hardly contemporary, but written in what I viewed as the latter stage of flamenco development.  Seen in that light, everything seemed logical.

Now, when I am forced to wonder whether flamenco might not have coalesced into a coherent art until the 1850′s or so — I hope that’s a fair paraphrase of the thinking of the postmodernist scholars and some others — I must consider the notion that all this describes an art that was really quite new at the time of writing.

And that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.  Reading the book, I got the feeling that this art — which the author had seen in so many cities, always with great similarities, and involving so many recognizable forms (the pine-cone verse is associated with the jabera, a sort of proto-malagueña) — had certainly been around for more than one measly generation.  Not as a public spectacle, necessarily — but done in some context where flamenco could develop the many canons and rules that the author refers to here.  If folks really think all that happened in half of a single creative life-span — less than 30 years — then I can hardly apologize for calling the idea “insta-genesis” with all the doubt the term implies.

In any event, I hope others will get something out of these excerpts.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014:  It’s remarkable to think that this chatty and familiar description of touristy flamenco was contemporaneous with Spain’s first serious flamenco book, the crucial 1881 “Cantes Flamencos” by Antonio Machado y Álvarez, which makes the art seem so old and so deadly serious.

Please call this blog entry to the attention of dance scholars, and other researchers or interested people.  I don’t think it’s well known, and I think it’s important.  (Also, please suggest that they read another significant blog entry — this one on the singing —  by seeking the author’s name “Sneeuw”.)

And I hope someone will choreograph a flamenco dance based on the exact description of the one the author saw in Malaga. Thanks.

BZ

January 19, 2014   No Comments

1996 Potaje Flamenco de Utrera (an homage to female singers) – Report by L.G. Caviedes – Translated by Brook Zern

The Madrid paper, El Mundo, reviewed the 1996 Potaje de Utrera — perhaps the original annual flamenco festival from which all others took their inspiration.  The article by Luís García Caviedes was headlined “All the Essences of Cante Gitano: The ‘Girls’ (Niñas) of Utrera Triumphed in the 40th Edition of the Potaje.”  It said in part (I had trouble with many of his stylish words):

“The brejes (what’s a breje? a wrinkle?) do not erode the cante when it is true.  They may diminish the faculties, but not the worth of the song.  That’s the way it is with Fernanda and Bernarda.  The eternal “Niñas de Utrera” remain a touchstone in the cante gitano andaluz.

The 40th Potaje Gitano de Utrera was conceived as an homage to women singers.  And for the second time — the 18th edition, in 1968, was an homage to the Fernanda and Bernarda — it centered on these geniuses from Utrera.  It was a time to find out just who carries the sceptre, and just what the cante really is.

Bernarda is the compás made into woman.  She can sing the Official Government Regulations on Housing por bulerías.  She interpreted bulerías of every stripe: bulerías cortas, bulerías al golpe, romances por bulerías, fandangos por bulerías, and tarantos por bulerías.

But her genius isn’t limited to this.  She dominates like no one the technique of cante, she knows the secrets of breathing and the exact points to pause.  Moreover, when she knows there’s a problem ahead, she is capable of lowering her cante a full octave (una escala entera) and continuing to sing with full harmony, tone and compás.

Fernanda is the empress of the queen of the cantes: the soleá.  She is the inheritor of the musical conception of Mercedes “La Serneta” and Rosario “La del Colorao”.  She follows their guidelines (pautas) but recreates them as well.  Her cante is now the solea de Fernanda.  Her way of teasing the lines (burlar los tercios), the flavor and insight (sabor y tino) with which she sings, form a majestic, torn (desgarrado) and vital whole.  She is the essence of the cante.

Angelita Vargas opened the event.  She danced por soleá as the Gypsies dance: moving (meciendo — swinging, swaying) her whole body to the compás and with primary emphasis (predominio) on the waistline and above (“de cintura para arriba“), without abusing the legs and feet.  Force and bodily expression are her primary powers.  She put a face on the evening (Puso cara la noche).

In this line continued Inés and Pepa de Utrera.  Inés knows every inch of Utrera, which is something indeed.  The niece of Fernanda and Bernarda, with her own very personal style (sello), she displays elegance (galanura) and knowledge to spare.  In this day of bait-and-switch, of substituting inferior goods for the real thing (“En calendas de tanto gato por liebre” (passing off cats as hares), she does not enjoy the recognition she deserves.  The flavor and prestancia (elegance, prestige, taste, style, grace) of Inés should have more resonance with the public (debería tener otra resonancia para el público).

Pepa de Utrera is the flamenco fiesta itself.  In the opinion of maestro Miguel Acal, she is the finest festera (festive-style performer) in Spain.  She has a clear voice and the force to knock out (sacar) seven or eight other cantaoras.  Manuel Romero “El Divino”, the singer from Las Cabezas, walked out and said that Pepa is cabable of playing dominoes with the bulería.  And she must be quite an artist, to have commanded the stage for twenty minutes with a single palo (the bulerías) without wearing out her welcome (y no hacerse jartible).

Antonia “La Negra” and her daughter Angelita Montoya marked another climactic moment of the night.  “La Negra” is already known for her strength (garra) and expressive force.  She is a maestra in the tangos; terrific (desgarrada) in bulerías, and impressive por soleá.  Working with Angelita Montoya, she had a great success (una noche redonda).  Angelita Montoya was the surprise. She integrates all the wealth (caudal) of her family, which is no small thing.  Loaded with faculties, and with a cannon of a voice, she almost reached the level of her mother.  There are differences between those who assimilate musical experiences and concepts in the true school of flamenco – the family — and those who decide to study recordings and recreate the music by calculation.  The former artists evolve and create; the others never get beyond merely reheating the meal.  (Aquellos evolucionan y crean, estos no pasan del refrito.)

Tomasa “La Macanita” is one of the bright hopes of aficionados.  This Gypsy from Jerez, with the surprising and interesting guitar of Moraíto Chico (hijo), drew the cante (dibujo el cante).  The flavor of Jerez was in her tientos, while her tangos were reminiscent of the Plaza Alta of Badajoz.  Por soleá she scraped (rozo) perfection, and por bulerías, there was the pure aura of the [Jerez] barrio de Santiago and of la Perla de Cadiz.  “La Macanita” and Moraíto Chico almost decided (casi sentenciaron) the night.

End of report.

Translator’s note from 1996:   That’s the poop from the Potaje.  Quite an event.

I’ll close by noting that the female bullfighter Cristina Sánchez is off to an excellent start.  She just started fighting full-sized bulls, and has already proved herself capable.  She did very well in Burgos, cutting an ear (awarded after a good performance, and much harder to earn in major rings like this than in small provincial rings) from a bull that weighed nearly 600 kilos.  No easy task for any 60-kilo person.  Lots of devoted fans and publicity for this revolutionary figure, the first to successfully penetrate this macho domain.  I may disapprove in theory, but she walks it like she talks it.  Olé, torera.

Brook Zern

January 17, 2014   No Comments

Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern

http://www.diariodesevilla.es/article/ocio/1676529/mito/taranto.html

The Myth of the Taranto

Montse Madridejos and David Perez Merinero close this Centennial Year of Carmen Amaya with the publication of a biography in images of the dancer, and a defense of the thesis that she was actually born in 1918

By Juan Vergillos

Carmen Amaya. Montse Madridejos y David Pérez Merinero.  Prologue by Juan Marsé.  Edicions Bellaterra, Barcelona, 295 pp.

The present-day image of flamenco has been built in part upon myths.  Above all, those which originated, and from which current myths are based, in the period when there were no investigators with adequate tools to understand (conocer) the past, or even the approximate realities.

Many of these myths have been undermined thanks to the investigative research of José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, Faustino Nuñéz, José Manuel Gamboa, José Luís Navarro, Gerhard Steingress, Antonio Barberán, Manuel Bohórquez, Rafael Chávez and many others, among whom we can now include the authors of this new work.  Of course, one should not forget the work of pioneers like Anselmo González Climent or Luís Lavour.

Nonetheless, the myths of flamenco, including the most tendentious and those most lacking a factual basis, remain with us despite their faults.   In flamenco historiography, more than in any other discipline, the old journalistic saying still reigns:  “Never let reality ruin a great story.”  What do they say about Carmen Amaya frying sardines in her room at the Waldorf Astoria?  Well, someday it will become clear that this fraudulent (“supercheria”) notion was perhaps an astute commercial move by Sol Hurok, the impresario who led Carmen Amaya through the entresijos [ins and outs] of “show business norteamericano”.  It’s all rather curious:  Carmen Amaya went from being crowned Miss Morena of 1935 in Spain to being The Queen of the Gypsies in 1942 in the U.S.  Of course, the Spaniards, delighted to buy into any American product, ate up that Carmen Amaya was dubbed Queen of the Gypsies – the image that is still sold both within and beyond our borders – forgetting, for example, not just Miss Morena of 1935 but also the artist who made cine social (socially conscious cinema?) with [the great avant-garde filmmaker] Luís Buñuel.  And so we see that Carmen Amaya, viewed logically, is many Carmen Amayas.

This book by Montse Madridejos and David Pérez Merinero analyzes these and other myths that comprise the larger myth of flamenco.  The publication, nonetheless, is basically a book of photographs: it reconstructs the life trajectory and artistic arc of the dancer through the authors’ well-stocked visual archives.   Despite the various myths that, in my view, the work disproves in its brief text: that she was born in 1913, that it was Sabicas who presented her in Madrid in 1935…and of course that business of the fish fry.  The best of the sardine myth-building is the 1988 portrait by Eduardo Arroyo titled “Carmen Amaya frying sardines in the Waldorf Astoria”.  But curiously, the authors never address one of the major Carmen Amaya myths: that in New York in 1942 she invented a new dance called the taranto.  The fact is that in 1942 there was no flamenco style called the taranto, although there was a form called the taranta and also the minera, the latter form being what we now call taranto.

My impression, once I checked it against the program for that event, thanks to my friend La Meira, is that Carmen Amaya danced an instrumental number composed and interpreted by Sabicas and titled El Taranto, probably, as the title indicates, based on an estilo minero [one of the song forms from the mining districts of southeastern Spain, notably the cities of Almería or La Unión] . The word taranto alludes to the miners of Almería but in 1942 it didn’t refer to a flamenco style.  For that, we have to wait until 1957, the year in which [the great singer] Fosforito, applied the term to one of his mineras, according to Rafael Chaves and José Manuel Gamboa.  The reason for this nomenclature change is known only to Fosforito himself.   But the way Carmen Amaya danced that form – using a binary rhythm [2/4 or 4/4, relatively uncommon in traditional flamenco] – gave us a new formula that would stay with us, though there were precedents in the dance of La Malagueñita and in the great Encarnación López Júlvez, “La Argentinita”; so says José Luís Navarro.

And in fact, reality is always more interesting, rich, complex and marvelous than the blinkers [anteojeras] through which we sometimes look at people.  Reality is so fascinating that by comparison myths are just child’s play.  Doesn’t it seem miraculous, for example, that the first woman ever to appear in a moving image was a dancer from Almería named Carmencita Dauset?  And it’s equally marvelous that the most famous and influential dancer in flamenco’s history was born in the Somorrostro district of Barcelona [despite the persistent story that she was born in the Sacromonte, the Gypsy district of Granada].  And that the date, despite the current centennial celebrations, was not 1913 but 1918, which is the hypothesis of the authors of this book.  And which I agree with, backed by data, of course, above all that of the padrón [census record] of Barcelona in 1930.

And so we will again return to Carmen Amaya’s centennial year in 2018.  And you’ll see it happen.  As [the early flamenco historian] Anselmo González Climent said in the 1960’s, in his essay titled “Toward a Historiography of Flamenco” – a truly visionary text – “deep archaeology must have an objective character, y no gendarme [the word refers to a police officer, as in France.]”  And that’s true because myths are tendentious and partisan.  So is history, of course, but it demands of itself a minimum standard of objectivity.  And that minimum is what gives us life, what this marvelous work provides to help us enjoy even more the myth and the reality called Carmen Amaya, the flamenco dancer of the Twentieth Century, and the most famous ever.

Carmen Amaya (1918-1963) was the most popular flamenco artist of her time and remains the best-known in her chosen realm.  And all that as a result of the Spanish Civil War, from which she fled in 1936 to head for Buenos Aires via Lisbon.  In her voyage form the Argentine capital to New York, the city que recala [where she made landfall]  in 1941, she toured all of Latin America, including Brazil, and appeared in several films and on several recordings made in Argentina, Mexico and Cuba.  In 1947 she returned to Spain as the world’s most famous flamenco dancer, thanks to her work in New York and Hollywood – although in Spain, she was not well known at that time.  She had to rebuild her national career, combining her international tours with appearances in Spain.  She settled in Begur [near Barcelona] at the end of the fifties, and died there in 1963 of kidney failure.  She didn’t live to see her last film, Los Tarantos, directed by Rovira-Beleta.

End of story.

Juan Vergillos, a well-known expert, gives an informative review of the book at hand, and also gives a mini-history of the fundamental change in flamenco studies over the past few decades.

I’ll comment on those changes in a separate entry.  For now — glad to have a chance to spell co-author David Pérez Merinero’s name correctly; Estela Zatania, an admirer of his work, recently set me straight on that.  Also glad to see the eminent dance scholar and Carmen Amaya authority La Meira cited in this review; it was a pleasure to learn about flamenco’s long history in New York when I helped her and Nina Bennahum set up their very successful exhibit and conference series at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center last summer.

About the taranto that’s discussed in this article: the word was applied to a song form long ago, and appeared on Manuel Torre’s amazing rendition of the song.  Still, I used to define it as a sung “cante minero” that had a steady, binary rhythm (which Torre’s version didn’t have.)  But Fosforito may have invented that sung version to accompany a dancer who wanted to use the form’s darkling, dramatic guitar-chord shapes (make a barred F-sharp chord on the second fret, then lift the bar enough to free up the first and second strings — presto, that haunting tonic chord alone is the infallible identifier of the tarantas, or the taranto.

Who first danced the form?  Carmen Amaya way back when, with Sabicas?  La Malagueñita or La Argentinita, before that?  Another bailaora in the fifties, GloriaRomero?  I’ve heard stories, but of course, stories are the same as myths — except when they are true, of course, as they often are…

(Note that Carmen Amaya cooked up a phenomenal piece with Sabicas for their “Queen of the Gypsies” record.  It was called a rondeña, — yet another song tied to the tarantas/taranto/minera family — but instead of it being just Sabicas’s restatement of Ramón Montoya’s great guitar-solo-only original, it was a gripping duet face-off between two giants at the top of their game.

December 31, 2013   10 Comments

The Amazing American Odyssey of the Sensational Spanish Dancer Carmencita and the Legendary Flamenco Singer Rojo el Alpargatero – by Brook Zern, indebted to Professor Kiko Mora and others

The Amazing American Odyssey of the Sensational Spanish Dancer Carmencita and the Legendary Flamenco Singer Rojo el Alpargatero  – by Brook Zern, indebted to Professor Kiko Mora and others

A few months ago, my Google RSS feed for the word “flamenco” turned up a tantalizing reference to the possibility that the legendary flamenco singer Antonio Grau, professionally known as Rojo el Alpargatero, had performed in New York City in 1892.

I thought this was absurd.  Very few people in Spain like serious flamenco singing, and in this country the percentage becomes utterly negligible.  The idea that Rojo el Alpargatero was singing in New York at that time – well, it made no sense.

After all, this man was the mysterious key figure in the creation of an entire branch of flamenco song – the so-called “cante de Levante” or “cante minero”, the styles from the mining districts of the eastern region of Almeria.  The tarantas, the murcianas, the cartageneras and more– all were transmuted from simple folkloric songs into the exquisite and complex melodic masterpieces they are today, and Rojo el Alpargatero is given much of the creative credit.  Fine — but flamenco singers weren’t hanging around Times Square in the Gay Nineties.

Ah, but there was more to the story.  Because a few months ago, some flamenco dance people in New York had made a tantalizing discovery of their own.  They had learned that a pioneering Spanish dancer called Carmencita had spent years performing in the U.S. during that same epoch, reaching triumphant heights – and that, amazingly, you can view her art today.

That’s right.  The first dancer ever filmed was a Spanish dancer, whose repertoire included flamenco styles like the peteneras. fandangos and sevillanas.  She was filmed in the studios of Thomas Edison, who had recently invented the motion picture camera.  And this was no fluke – Carmencita was enormously famous in America, and her image lent prestige to the new medium of moving pictures.

Carmencita’s real name was Carmen Dauset Moreno.

Funny thing – the bio of Rojo el Alpargatero in Angel Alvarez Caballero’s authoritative book “El Cante Flamenco” says that in Almeria he met his future wife, “with whom he did not delay in establishing a sentimental relationship so intimate that, according to one text, ‘vanquished by human fragility they knew one another carnally, with the result that she soon found herself embarazada’”.  (No, not embarrassed, though that’s also a possibility; the Spanish word means pregnant.)

And the vixen in question?  Her name was Maria del Mar Dauset Moreno.

The plot thickens – and yes, it turns out that Rojo el Alpargatero was indeed the brother-in-law of Carmencita.

And that confluence of events led to Rojo singing in the vaudeville spectacle that starred Carmencita.  The New York Herald of June 10, 1892 carried an ad for the show, part of a series commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America:

CARMENCITA IN CHICKERING HALL – GREAT SPANISH CONCERTS.  The return of the famous Carmencita, accompanied by the renowned Spanish artists Sr. A. Antón, the famous tenor; Señora Bianchi di Fiorio; Señor García; and the great novelty of the day: the genuine Andalusian songs, presented for the first time in New York by the famous Andalusian cantaor Antonio Grau, in “Las Ventas de Cárdenas” – THE SPECTACLE WILL BE COMPLETELY SPANISH.”

And so it happened that New Yorkers saw the enigmatic and never-recorded flamenco song giant Rojo el Alpargatero, presumably invited by his sister-in-law to present real flamenco song – a genre that had only surfaced publicly in Spain a few decades earlier (and that some confused scholars think was nonexistent before then).

The ad uses the Spanish word cantaor – an Andalucianized term that may have been fairly new, and refers specifically to a singer of flamenco.  (At the time, in Spain, I suspect that the more awkward but formal version “cantador” was still more common.)

The ad also uses the word “genuine” to describe flamenco.  It’s interesting to note that this attribute, still used along with the near-synonymous “authentic”, was already considered indispensable even 120 years ago in promoting the very first flamenco show in the Big Apple.  Plus ça change, as they say in Spain.

There is much more to the astonishing saga of Carmencita, of course, as revealed by Professor Kiko Mora’s superb and meticulously documented 2011 “Carmencita on the road: Baile español y vaudeville en los Estados Unidos de America (1889-1895).

Professor Mora obtained his Ph.D in Philosophy and Letters at Ohio State University and is Professor of Semiotics of Publicidad [Advertising] and Semiotics of Mass Communication at Spain’s University of Alicante.

In his conclusion, Professor Mora points out that Carmencita, who was primarily an exponent of the escuela bolera, was probably the most famous Spaniard in America, since Cervantes was not widely known at the time.  And he raises provocative questions – what does film owe to Carmencita?  What is the significance of her appearance in this first-ever dance film?  What does Spanish dance owe to her contact with American music and dance like ragtime and the cakewalk?  What does Spanish dance owe to her and others that followed in her footsteps – and, does American dance itself owe something to Carmencita?

All in all, a truly remarkable story.

(And yet another debt flamenco owes to Thomas Edison, who also insisted that his other invention, the phonograph, was used to record flamenco singers in Spain at exactly the same time – there are many recordings from the 1890’s, possibly predating all other ethnic music recordings and all priceless documents in themselves.  Edison felt that the recording of traditional world music was an especially important use of his device, because unlike classical music, such art could not be adequately notated on paper.)

Note:  It seems that Professor Mora has spoken of his findings at some universities in England, so there may also be an English-language version of his paper; I apologize for any dubious or disastrous translation…

Finally:  For those interested in the history of flamenco and Spanish dance, New York’s Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts will see a five-month exhibit called “100 Years of Flamenco in New York”, planned by Carlota Santana of Duke University who heads the Carlota Santana Flamenco Vivo ensemble that has introduced countless Americans to the art.  The exhibit will feature, among many other elements, the historic Edison film of Carmencita.  I’m involved with the effort, along with the scholar and dancer La Meira and the author and critic Ninotchka Benahum among others.  A report on the project will appear in this blog soon.

Brook Zern

flamencoexperience.com/blog

November 18, 2012   2 Comments