Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Extremadura’s Influence on Flamenco

When Flamenco Is Not Andalusian – Singer El Lebrijano on Camarón — translated with comments by Brook Zern

In a recent interview, the outstanding flamenco singer El Lebrijano spoke of the key influences on Camarón, and Camarón’s influence on everything since:

“[Much of today's flamenco song] is not gitano-andaluz [Gypsy-Andalusian].  It is gitano-extremeño [Gypsy-Extremaduran].  That’s something I’ve never said before and we should reflect on this.  All of the flamenquito [flamenco lite, little flamenco, easy-listening flamenco] comes from the singers la Marelu and Ramón el Portugues.  Afterwards, Camarón made it greater [lo engrandeció] with his sweet voice.  Today everybody sings in the manner of tangos, as picked up from the Portuguese Gypsies who live near the border with Spain.”

Translator’s note:  Okay, let’s reflect on this.  Lebrijano is a veteran Gypsy singer, from Lebrija deep in the province of Seville.  He was always an outstanding master of traditional flamenco.  But he was also one of the first noted singers to do fusion — an album with the Arab-Andalusi Orchestra, and concept albums like Tierra, about Spain’s discovery of America, and others.

The sentiment he expresses isn’t new.  I remember the influential early albums by La Marelu and Ramón el Portugues.  Both those artists are not from the region of Andalusia, but from the region of Extremadura, where Spain meets  Portugal.  (Lebrijano calls them “Portuguese Gypsies” but I don’t think they are actually from Portugal.  I remember an interview in which Ramón el Portugués complained that this unwanted professional name had cost him dearly, because people thought he wasn’t even Spanish and probably couldn’t sing flamenco.)

A lot of people really liked those artists and others like El Indio Gitano from Extremadura.  Among those admirers was the young Camarón de la Isla, from the Andalusian seaport town of San Fernando.  And as El Lebrijano says, Camarón aggrandized this distinctive way of singing.  When I first asked what it was that made Camarón so different, and why it was so easy for so many people to enjoy his unusual way of vocalizing, the usual answer was that he borrowed key aspects of his art from Extremaduran singers.

(Ramón el Portugués has said that Camarón was obviously interested in his way of singing, but “was clearly a genius who always improved what I did.”)

The tangos, Camarón’s specialty along with the bulerías, make the connection very obvious and are often called the tangos extremeños.  The other key form is the jaleos extremeños, related to bulerías.  One of the first singers I ever heard on records in the fifties was the very famous Porrina de Badajoz, an exceptional Gypsy artist from that Extremaduran city.  (On at least one American LP, he was accompanied quite well by the immensely famous Carlos Montoya.)

Today, the influence of Camarón is everywhere.  It’s interesting, as Lebrijano says, to think that this influence is not Andalusian, but from the very different region of Extremadura.  Of course, it’s clear that Lebrijano thinks it’s an unwelcome influence — one that led to the lightening-up of flamenco, giving it new popularity at the expense of the darkness or depth that was so important in the area of Seville.

(Note that another important component of flamenco, the many forms of cante minero from the mining districts including tarantas, mineras, cartageneras and others, are also non-Andalusian, from the eastern area toward the Mediterranean.)

Of course, Lebrijano’s basic term “gitano-andaluz” to describe flamenco music in general can also be controversial.  It was used often by the great Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena to give equal weight to the Gypsy and the Andalusian aspects of the art.

Here’s the original text — I don’t have the original source:

“Lo que se está haciendo hoy no es gitano-andaluz. Es gitano-extremeño. Es algo que no he dicho nunca y debemos reflexionar sobre ello. Todo el flamenquito viene de la Marelu y de Ramón El Portugués. Eso después lo engrandeció Camarón con su dulce voz. Hoy se canta solamente por tangos, cogidos de los gitanos portugueses cercanos a la frontera”.

March 26, 2014   No Comments