Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Cante Bonito [“Pretty Flamenco Song”

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