Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Singer Pepe Marchena

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.

BZ

January 27, 2017   No 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