Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer La Niña de la Puebla

Flamenco Singer La Niña de La Puebla Speaks – 1990 Interview by M. Herrera Rodas – Translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco Singer La Niña de La Puebla Speaks – 1990 Interview

Translator’s note:  La Niña de la Puebla, born in 1908 in Puebla de Cazalla (Sevilla province), was a very popular purveyor of light flamenco song who worked with many great artists of this century.  Her wonderful campanilleros is probably known to all in Spain.  She worked in the era of Opera Flamenca, when touring troupes of pop and flamenco “stars” would sing their “hits” in bullrings and stadiums, and she continued to work in the Festival Age, if that connotes the dominant role of local festivals that began in the mid-sixties and has persisted until today.

Blind from birth, this non-Gypsy artist went to a special school in Madrid and then returned to her mother’s home town of Morón de la Frontera.  The family lived well there, thanks to their two beauty shops — one with the remarkable innovation of electricity.   She studied piano with a blind teacher, who was the organist at the church of San Miguel, and started singing in the local fiestas without the intention of becoming a professional.

She was interviewed by M. Herrera Rodas in the June 1990 issue of Sevilla Flamenca, one of several terrific flamenco magazines then published in Spain. Here is her story:

“My first real appearance was when I was asked to sing a fandango of Mazaco. They found a guitarist, but I didn’t even know which number (fret to place the capo upon) was right for me.  But I did some bravura singing, linking lines without taking a breath, and people cheered and yelled.  I knew then that I’d like to go further.

My father disapproved, though.  I never told this story before, but the first time I sang, as a little girl, with the voice I had — well, the neighbors showered me with coins.  I brought the money home, and my father was so furious, he threw it down the toilet (el water).

But I won a contest in Marchena, and others, and always listened to the records by Pepe Marchena with those beautiful melodies he had.  Then one day, he was appearing in his home town (Marchena), and we went there on a burro to hear him and maybe have him hear me.  And I ended up singing for two nights there — singing his songs, which took nerve — and I earned my first ten duros (50 pesetas).

I debuted in Seville, in a sala de variedades, the same day the Republic was established in Spain, April 14, 1931.  I worked with Rosario and (the) Antonio, “Los chavalillos sevillanos”.  And with (dancers) La Macarrona and La Malena, with Nino de Utrera and El Carbonerillo.  We moved to Seville, next to Pepe Pinto, who became a friend of my father.  My father minded Pepe’s bar when Pepe had to go and sing.  I remember the first time I sang with him; I was in the audience, Antonio Moreno was playing guitar, and the public demanded that I sing.  I did the media granaina de Chacón with great success.

Then I moved to Madrid, where instead of a varieties room I worked in a salon de espectáculos flamencos, with lots of artists.  I sang with Canalejas, and Don Ramón Montoya accompanied me.  I met my husband, and sang in all the theatres of Madrid, and the Cafe Chinitas in Malaga.

I started touring after the appearance of the campanilleros, which had caused a real revolution.  Manuel Torre had already done these cantes, but without the success I had.  My father and I composed the verse.  I had a very good voice, though I wasn’t a full-fledged cantaora (no estuviera hecha como cantaora), and it came out phenomenally well.  Yes, it was based on Manuel’s, but that’s the nature of cante.  And when I did it, it was an authentic creation.  It was so successful that bands would play when I came into towns, and people would come to touch my clothing.  There was no need to buy publicity; we’d just put a sign up in the main square, and the halls would be filled.  I sang campanilleros in movies, too.  It was like Manuel’s, but with a verse and the special musicality I could give it.  Not that Manuel Torre’s was badly sung — I’d never dare say that — but it just wasn’t popular.  Mine was different — not better or worse, but distinct.  I recorded it in 1932, along with other songs in Pepe Marchena’s style including the colombianas.

Colombianas?  Yes, Pepe Marchena created the colombianas.  It wasn’t from Colombia.  He could make new creations from whatever melodies he heard.

Flamenco was less known then than it is today.  It’s not so much changing tastes, but the public has learned about (ha ido compenetrandose con) flamenco.  Today, they like the root songs (cantes de raiz), the soleá and siguiriya.  But they still like the other cantes — look at Ana Reverte, how well she sings the colombianas, and it’s constantly on the radio.

The festivales today are too long, too boring.  All you need are three or four artists and some good dance.  Hours of siguiriyas are too much.  One is enough, to make room for variety.  And this idea that drinking is necessary to sing well — not so.

Some evolution of song is okay; if a malagueña tercio isn’t just as Chacón sang it, but is well done and stays in the bounds of the cante, why not?  But the root songs should be sung as they are.  I’ve known so many good singers: Pericón de Cadiz, Manuel Vargas, Caronerillo, José Cepero, Corruco de Algeciras, Manuel Vallejo, Pastora Pavon, Pepe Pinto, Perla de Cadiz, Tomas Pavón, Canalejas, Fosforito, Antonio el Sevillano — and lighter singers, like Angelillo and [La Niña de] Antequera…

Now people say that Pepe Marchena couldn’t sing.  How can they say that?  He was an artist.  He created, created.  He knew the siguiriyas and soleá as well, but those cantes require a “rajo” [rasp, ragged edge].  But in fandangos, he could paint pictures.  In tarantas and granainas, and everything!   People like that

aren’t born every day.

Juanito Valderrama was in the same school (cante bonito, or pretty song), and got a lot from Marchena.  He did canción [popular songs] too, but remember that he knew cante flamenco very well.  His anthology, recorded with Pepe Martínez on guitar, is extraordinary.  Each singer has his sensibility and his vocal qualities. Some are better for one kind of song, others for other songs, because every song requires a voice and a musical approach.  Some are more popular than others, but that’s another story.  Rafael Farina sings some extraordinary fandangos, and he doesn’t get mixed up in other songs.  You won’t hear him sing siguiriyas or soleares in in public.  Fine.  He does what he does best, and that’s to his credit.

Antonio Mairena?  He had duende, lots of it.  He sang very well.  I liked some of his songs, and not others.  But now they say that only Gypsies sing well, and only if they’re from Jerez.  But that’s silly.  A singer should have feeling, and voice, and knowledge.  With that, they can be worthy.

Look, the Gypsies have a certain vocal quality — not all of them, but some – that is very suitable for cante jondo.  But of course not all of them can do it.  Some are bad singers.  And there are non-Gypsy singers who have ”rajo” and can sing those songs well.  Look, passions are never good in this debate.  Those who sing well, sing well, whether payo or gitano.  And if a Gypsy sings well, then “hay que doblegarse” (it should be acknowledged – you have to bow to therm). Same with a payo.  But the Gypsies — they won’t admit it [when a non-Gypsy sings well] (no se doblegan!). And that’s the problem.

[Manolo] Caracol sang well — in soleá, siguiriya, fandangos, what a singer.  But of course, not for milonga or media granaina.

Camarón?  You’re asking me?  What do you want me to say?  Look, what he’s done lately I just don’t like.  I know he sings well — but that’s when he sings what he has to sing and what he knows how to sing.  But the latest stuff is “el colmo” (?).  And I feel the same about Lebrijano.  I know he sings well, but — how did he end up singing with those Moors (on his fusion recording with El Orquesta Andalusi)?

You ask if Marchena was the most complete of the payo singers.  He was sensational in his own style, a true creator as I’ve said.  But I really like a singer who, for me, is truly complete.  And non-Gypsy!:  Fosforito.

And another — not just because he’s from my pueblo — is José Menese, who knows every song there is, and who’s a great singer.

I like Jose Mercé, and Carmen Linares.  And you have to mention Fernanda and Bernarda, who have that special Gypsy “rajo” when singing por soleá.  I know people like that quality for those songs — but look, if you have a pretty voice, and know how to do the cante, and you feel it, then why shouldn’t you be able to sing the soleá?  Without fancy vocal decorations, of course!  (Claro, sin florituras!)  And knowing how.

Which of my many records would I save for posterity?  The latest.  Because the cante is one continuous apprenticeship.  Especially the jondo [deep] songs.  And from every singer you can learn something.  That’s why my latest recordings are my best.

It’s possible to sing better when you’ve lost some of your faculties.  Because then you have to fight with the cante, and that can lead to new creative paths.

The cante is the soul of Andalucía.  To sing it, you have to feel it. Otherwise, it’s worthless.  And you have to sing it, moreover, with compás. The cante reveals the soul.  I express myself, even my grief, through it. I’m no crybaby (llorona), but sometimes I’ll be singing and I’ll start to cry.  And that gets transmitted in the song.  You reveal your heart, and it reaches the public.  That’s what flamenco has to do.

The songs that reach me, affect me most deeply, are the soleares and the siguiriyas.  Also the peteneras, and well-sung fandangos, and tight (cortoalegrías with firm compás — all those cantes. And among the melodious songs (cantes de melodia) the one I like best is the guajira.  [Note this distinction between most flamenco from the Spanish tradition, evidently not seen as melodious or melody-based, and the Latin-American-inspired forms, defined by their seductive and accessible melodic appeal.]

I love La Puebla, but I plan to spend my last days in Malaga, where I have lived for 50 years.  I miss my late husband (singer Luquitas de Marchena), but I am happy here.  Do I envy those who are sighted?  No.  I recognize my loss, but I have learned to live with it.  I read a lot, often going to Madrid to buy books in Braille.  I do my work.  I play with my grandchildren.  I am honored that the Junta de Andalucía named me Citizen of the Year.  I’m happy.”

End of interview.

Opinions from a long-term superstar who was not vocally or temperamentally attuned to Gypsy-style cante and who doesn’t buy the Gypsy-supremacist view, but who seems to have admired the cante jondo even as she focused her beautiful voice where it belonged, on the malagueñasgranainas, fandangos, verdiales, melodic Latin-American cantes, and her signature campanilleros.

Brook Zern

October 24, 2011   No Comments