Category — Flamenco Singer Fernando de la Morena
Flamenco Artists Speak – El País Interview with José Menese, Rancapino and Fernando de la Morena by Iker Seisdedos – Translated by Brook Zern
From El País of June 15, 2014
Three Roads to Purity in Flamenco Song
- Past, present and future of flamenco, according to Jose Menese, Rancapino and Fernando de la Morena
- A unique recital will bring the three together in Madrid at the end of June
Translator’s note: When I insist that there is a ruling flamenco establishment in Spain, the claim is often questioned by people whom I consider to be part of that informal cabal.
If there is such a group, its idol is the late Enrique Morente, that brilliant, courageous and iconoclastic Granada singer who first proved he had total command of a vast part of the great flamenco song tradition and then went on to break old rules with new and daring approaches to the art.
During the recent years I’ve spent mostly in Jerez, I’ve found that bastion of traditional flamenco was not buying Morente’s act. But it has also been clear that the town’s alternative attitude, reasonably termed purity or “purism” before those words became epithets, was falling out of favor nearly everywhere else in Spain.
(A decade ago, I unintentionally antagonized Enrique Morente’s posse during a New York Flamenco Festival by using the word “controversial” in rewriting/translating program notes – it was an urgent last-minute request, as usual, done without any thought of compensation, as always. The idea that his radical and daring new work, ridiculed and parodied in Jerez, was somehow “controversial” outraged his people, and admittedly it was not in the original text. Because I had done the work for someone else, I wrote abject apologies to Morente and several others including a leading “critic” and avid booster who clearly felt that Morente was beyond all criticism. I don’t think my apologies were ever accepted.)
This article puts three traditionalist artists in the spotlight, or on the firing line, as, among other things, they try to explain their resistance to “morentismo” – and the high price they pay for their apostasy.
José Menese, who appeared in the sixties as a hugely gifted (and non-Gypsy) follower of the great Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena, has been very outspoken in attacking Morente and other artists who are trying to change the essential nature of flamenco song. He continues to take real heat and suffer heavy career damage without apologizing.
Rancapino, emerging from Cadiz in that same time-frame, is a greatly admired exponent of traditional flamenco song , now recognized as a national treasure – perhaps it helps that he doesn’t usually seek controversy. He’s a sweet guy, and I was surprised to see him weigh in against the Granada faction.
Fernando de la Morena is an admired figure from Jerez, part of a revered family tradition – an elegant man I’ve been privileged to hear on many public and private occasions. He bears witness to the suffering brought upon Jerez by wealthy bankers and other un-indicted co-conspirators
Oh, yeah — the interview:
The appointment is in one of those corrales de vecinos or modest courtyarded multiple dwellings in Seville’s Triana district, from which the Gypsies were expelled in the 1950’s. The participants come from three magical vertices of flamenco’s dramatic ritual: the Seville countryside, the ports of Cadiz, and Jerez de la Frontera. José Menese (La Puebla de Cazalla, 1942), Alonso Núñez “Rancapino” (Chiclana, 1945) and his contemporary Fernando de la Morena, born in Jerez’s barrio de Santiago, on June 27th will converge on the Teatro Español during Madrid’s Suma Flamenca Festival to celebrate “50 Years of Cante”, though in fact they have between them more than two centuries of art if we start at their birthdates. It will be a sensational gala, supported by the Comunidad de Madrid, where each represents his own: Menese, the torrential song unleashed by Antonio Mairena and that he still follows, affiliated to orthodoxy, immersed in the quarrels between the old and the modern, and also his adherence to the Communist Party. Rancapino, with his aphonic [Note: perhaps "tuneless", a word I'd take issue with] way of honoring beauty. And De la Morena, cantaor de carrera tardía que se bajó del camion de reparto al compás de una bulería perfecta [whose career began late, but was always marked by the rhythm of a his perfect bulerías].
The chat among these legends of flamenco song, well-known elders, begins with the inevitable moments of mourning (for Paco de Lucía, for the writer and critic Felix Grande, for the Jerez singer El Torta and others) and goes on to the woes of aging, noting the effects of their baipá [a Spanish rendition of the English word “bypasses” which is then rendered in parentheses] and other results of a well-lived life, before going on to subjects that are more or less cabales [a word that refers to true understanding in flamenco.]
Q: How have things changed in flamenco song during the past 50 years?
José Menese: Very much. Not just in the song; there have been changed in humanity, in the human, in the essence.
Q: For the worse?
José Menese: Not for the better. Though I’m not saying anything, because when I do, everybody hits me with everything they’ve got. I’m the most beat-up guy in history.
Q: I guess you’re saying that because of your last polemic about Enrique Morente, where you said on TV that “No tiene soniquete el muchacho…” [“The guy doesn’t have the right sound, the character one looks for in a singer, and he knew it, he knew how to sing the soleá as God requires. And then, he turned his back on it [echó mano de esas cosas].”
José Menese: I know that they were going to give me an homage in Granada, and that’s off because of what I said. That’s the leche [milk, usually mala leche or “bad milk”, nastiness]. The power of that family… [still very important, largely thanks to the beautiful singing of Enrique's stunning daughter Estrella]… The other day on Canal Sur TV I met a singer who confessed to me: “I’m glad you said that – somebody had to say it.” But I’m the guy who does it and takes the blows. If you ask me, “For the better? [A mejor?] Well, that’s what I wanted, and what Rancapino and Fernando wanted, but that’s not the way it is.
Rancapino: I hope you’ll all pardon me for saying this: In Granada, they’ve never sung flamenco well [no se ha cantado nunca bien].
José Menese: I say that the idiomas [ways of speaking? languages] are tremendously important. Córdoba – what has it given to flamenco? Nothing, but let’s not exaggerate [pero no lo exageres tampoco]. Malaga? [Just] the malagueña. Jaén? I don’t know. They say it gave us the taranta de Linares. I don’t know if that’s the case, because the miners were going all over the place. In my 71 years, I’ve realized that flamenco was really developed in Seville, Jerez, and Cádiz and its nearby ports.
Rancapino: And you can stop counting right there.
Menese: Are we lying, primo [cousin] Fernando?
Fernando de la Morena: The expression is totalitarian, my friend. [Note: this seems to indicate agreement.]
Q: How are these various schools differentiated?
Rancapino: The song is the song, it’s born with someone or it isn’t. And that can’t be changed. The fact that some sing with a prettier voice or a hoarser voice, that’s the least of it.
Fernando de la Morena: I’ve always sung, but I didn’t start it seriously until I had three kids and was working at the Bimbo bread bakery. I didn’t record until late, until I was 50; I sing for the public now, but I’ve always sung.
Q: What have you gained, and lost, with the years?
José Menese: Flamenco has arrived where it has arrived, but there it has remained. It needs a renovation [not with novelties and fusions but rather] in the people who sing and transmit it, so that it really reaches deep within the listener.
Q: There’s also the Patrimony of Humanity [a recognition granted to flamenco by UNESCO in 2010] that makes it sound like it belongs among the fossils in a museum.
Fernando de la Morena: Patrimony of Orphanhood, that’s what flamenco really is.
Rancapino: Olé tú! [Hooray for you! You said it!]
José Menese: It’s a tremendous paradox that just when it’s named a Patrimony of Whatever of Humanity, that’s when singers stray away from everything that’s expected. What’s wrong? Well, like with the bullfight where only five or six matadors duelan. That’s the way it is with flamenco song. It has to hurt, and if it doesn’t hurt, well, just go to bed, pal. [Note: Doler means: to cause pain (dolor) or anguish within the witness – this is considered a crucial virtue in the realms of serious flamenco and toreo. It is also a crucial distinction between these great Spanish arts and virtually all great non-Spanish arts that usually seek to evoke pleasure even in their pathos. Go figure.]
Rancapino: It has to hurt, yes! Pero con faltas de ortografía! But with a lack of orthography. [Note: this refers to another requisite quality -- that of being essentially untrained or instinctive; flamenco should not smell of fancy handwriting or high literacy, but should transmit emotion directly.]
José Menese: There’s an anecdote that García Lorca tells in [his conference of 1933 – (a note inserted in the article itself)] titled Juego y teoria del duende [Interplay and theoretic of the duende]. Once, in a flamenco fiesta in El Cuervo with Pastora Pavón [La Niña de los Peines – that name inserted into the article], Ignacio Sánchez Mejías [a legendary torero] and the sursuncorda [?] of that moment, she was singing passively, transmitting nothing, when a man [Note: Lorca termed him “one of those genies who materialize out of brandy bottles”] yelled “Viva París!” And she, always proud, was offended [by the implication of glossy, urbane sophistication rather than raw emotion]. She asked for a pelotazo de machaco [a very stiff drink] and then she got into it. It rips at the vocal cords. One has to fight with the song, and then the people went crazy, tearing at their clothing. Flamenco is just that way, like the bullfight and paintings. And there you have it.
Q: And what will the real aficionados do when, like the King, these artists abdicate?
José Menese: [laughter]. I’m not going to retire, as long as I’m okay here, knock wood [points to his throat], I’ll stick it out. I’m a republicano [opposed to royalty]. I remember this by [the late flamenco expert, poet and author] Fernando Quiñones: “Porque a rey muerto / rey puesto / bien que lo dice el refrán / y es antiguo ya / solo ha conseguido el absurdo criminal / dejar sin padre a esos hijos / y el mundo sigue igual.” Things will keep on as they are.
Q: Although the royals are no longer our fathers?
Fernando Moreno: Let’s trust in the chaval [the kid, the new King, Felipe VI] whom they have prepared for this. Yo tengo 69 tacos pero aún así, de política, natimistrati. [I’m 69, but even so, when it comes to politics, I don’t have a clue [?]
Q: Not even about the economic crisis – how do you see the crisis?
[Laughter] Jose Menese: This crisis has overwhelmed everything. I’m not a pessimist [but...] Culture is flat on the floor. The theater no longer exists, classical music no longer exists. They’re even taking away the bullfight! What happened the other day, when all three toreros were gored and the fight couldn’t continue – that’s not normal.
Fernando de la Morena: Y a las pruebas nos remitiéramos en el pretérito que le perteneciere…Olé, que gitano más fino! [?]
Q: Do you see hope in Podemos [a new political movement/party, [Yes] We Can]?
José Menese: I was pleased because the kid [party leader Pablo Iglesias] strikes me as marvelous, but we’ll see. I began as a militant in the Communist Party in 1968 [when the party was banned under the Franco dictatorship]. I’m still affiliated, though the party doesn’t exist today. The problem is that we’ve lost our ideals. A ti te cogen fumándote un canuto, como me pasó a mi el otro día no a mí, sino a una persona que iba conmigo, y se arma la de dios es Cristo. Nonetheless, they rob millions and millions and absolutely nothing happens.
Fernando de la Morena: And nothing appears – nothing here, nothing there.
Q: The case of your hometown of Jerez is one of the worst.
Fernando: What my father taught me is that you have to work. And now you have to be glad to have a job. But my kids… and everyone’s kids…
Q: Do your kids have jobs?
Rancapino: Fat chance! [?]
Fernando de la Morena: It’s the same in flamenco. We’re like El Brene who sang for tapas at restaurants long ago. They’d say “Brene, sing a little song.” “Yeah,” he’d say, “As soon as you give me a little tapa of potatoes.” And here we are again, we’ve returned to the old days [of begging for food]”.
Rancapino: There’s no afición for flamenco these days. Before, a singer would start to sing and forty people would stop and crowd around. Now, if the greatest singer ever, the Monster Number One who for me was Juan Talega, arose from his grave and started to sing – well, no one would care and he’d just have to go back home. [Note: One of Rancapino's uncanny gifts is that he could always evoke the spirit of the great and ancient-sounding Juan Talega, even when he was young.]
José Menese: It’s like what Don Quixote said to Sancho Panza. With your belly full you don’t create much. Today they learn flamenco in schools, but singers have to be born. This business of giving singing classes seems horroroso to me.
Q: How did you learn about the death of Paco de Lucía?
José Menese: In La Puebla. And I thought of a photo where I’m singing with him. Testimony of a time of incredible natural richness.
Rancapino: Afterwards I went to his funeral. Because Paco liked me a lot, ever since the years when I went with Camarón to Algeciras and then to Madrid with Paco’s father, who made him study so hard. And I said to his father [Francisco], “Paco, when will you make a record of my singing?” And he said, “You? Tú vas a grabar en un queso!” [You’d record on a wheel of cheese!” [?] [Laughter] Camarón and I went everywhere together. Hasta lo casé con La Chispa. [I even married him to La Chispa [his wife]. I went to la Linea because I liked one of La Chispa’s sisters. The whole family really liked me – except the sister. Ya que no casé yo, casé a Camarón. Since I didn’t get married, he did. [?]
Q: You didn’t stay a bachelor. Is it true, Rancapino, that Felipe González [Spain’s first Socialist leader, after Franco's death] is the godfather of one of your children?
Rancapino: Fortunately or unfortunately, yes. Look, we were at a fiesta in [with?] El Chato in Cadiz. And in conversation it came out that I had a lot of kids. And I said, “I’ve got so many kids that one hasn’t even been baptized. And he said, “I’ll baptize that one.” I said, “look, the only thing I can give you in exchange is the kid, because I don’t have anything else.” [Laughter].
Q: Is flamenco still more appreciated outside of Spain than here at home?
José Menese: Yes: They treat us differently than they do here in Andalucía.
Rancapino: Just yesterday a young Japanese woman came to Chiclana to be with me. She had to be pretty brave, because I’m no Robert Redford. [Laughter]. And she started to sing. And I said, “How can this be?” Fernando, how she sang the soleá!
Q: And is it the same?
Rancapino: “How could it be the same! Never! Once I spent six months in Sapporo singing to a young Japanese woman. Since I couldn’t remember her name, I called her Maruja. Then she came to Madrid. And in six months she learned to cook and to dance. For me to learn that would’ve taken me six years!
Q: You must have learned some Japanese…
Rancapino: Sayonara and arigató. And chotto matte. That was to ask them to wait a while longer for me.
Fernando de la Morena: Musho tomate.
Rancapino: With potatoes! [Laughter].
End of interview by Iker Seisdedos. Corrections are always welcome and will be added. The original is found at: http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2014/06/14/actualidad/1402757369_102448.html
Translator’s coda: Why do I devote so much time and effort to translating artist interviews, when just being a flamenco aficionado is masochistic enough? It’s because I like the art and the artists so much that I need to understand what they are saying to outsiders and to each other. And while I understand Spanish reasonably well, that’s not the same thing as understanding the Andalú dialect of five a.m. as spoken in the darkest bar in deepest Jerez, rendered by a bunch of gravel-voiced, aguardiente-seared, life-long black-tobacco smokers who have just sung their guts out (amid the inevitable excuses of “mu refriao” — I can’t sing, I have a terrible cold), and who are constantly interrupting or shouting at each other. It’s a luxury to have someone else do all the work of putting that conversation into recognizable Spanish, and just having to fabricate an English approximation.
June 16, 2014 2 Comments