Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Artists Speak – Oral Histories and Personal Testimonies

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.

– BZ





June 16, 2014   2 Comments

Hasta Siempre, Maestro – Paco de Lucía Speaks – Interview in Telva by his daughter Casilda Sánchez Varela – Translated by Brook Zern

Paco de Lucía, the best guitarist of all time, left us this morning.  We honor his memory by reprinting his most personal interview, the one which in the summer of 2010 was conducted by his eldest daughter Casilda Sánchez Varela, a staff member of Telva magazine, when they shared an unforgettable day at his home in Mallorca:

[Casilda writes:]  When I go out to have lunch with him, the people at the next table call him ‘maestro’.  I sit at a bar in Atenas, and soon there’s his music.  I turn on the TV news and there he is, receiving the Principe de Asturias prize or making history as the first Spaniard to receive an Honorary Degree from Berklee, the world’s most important music school.  Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the father with the leather sandals, who revived my hamster by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation using a Bic pen, or taking the bones out of my fish so I wouldn’t choke…”

With those lovely words, Casilda Sánchez Varela began her most personal interview in Telva.  She sat down facing her father, Paco de Lucía, the genius of the flamenco guitar.  She said, “I’m taking advantage of this meeting in your Mallorca refuge to take off your genius suit and bring up some memories.”

Almost four years later, we awoke to the news of Paco de Lucía’s death.  Still reeling from the shock, we have turned again to that interview to pay homage to the artist and the father.

Paco de Lucía chats with his daughter Casilda (Telva, #856)

“Have you seen how well they’ve taken root?” he says, indicating the two locust trees that he transplanted last year and between whose trunks the city of Palma de Mallorca hangs like a hammock bathed in light.  A bit further away, there are lemon trees, moorish cobblestones, fifty-foot high palm trees and a red stone balustrade.   It’s not noon yet; in the kitchen a chicken is boiling, and while the photographer finishes turning the terrace into a Sicilian bodega, we’re offered bread and olive oil, his usual breakfast.  “Try it, it’s very good oil, the make it with olives from the Casa de Campos” – his first address in Mallorca – “You want to take home a carafe?”  He has a very dark tan – from Berklee he went to the French Antilles, escaping the toxic clouds – and relaxed, with his anxieties under control.  “The Berklee degree was a special dream – it’s not an easy thing, to be recognized by the gringos…”

Q:  How did you celebrate?

A:  I went to eat at the house of Berklee’s Vice President, a man of seventy with incredible energy and intelligence.  We spent hours and hours drinking vodka and talking about music.  He was afraid that the tools that they give you could end up killing the music, by smothering its identity.  It’s something I’ve always thought about, but I was impressed that he, coming from the other side of music, had those same doubts.

Q:  Your first-ever voyage was to the U.S.  You were just 12 years old, and were third guitarist in José Greco’s dance company.  What scenes do you remember from that trip?

A:  Because I was alone, I was frightened by the connection I had to make in New York to go on to Chicago, but on the plane I befriended an American couple and spent the whole trip playing guitar for them.  Because they liked it so much, they took me through the exit door and there was my brother Pepe with Mr. Nonenbacher, Greco’s manager, an old drunk with a mafioso’s aspect who never stopped wiping the sweat from his face, even on the street with six feet of snow blowing around.  The best part of the trip was that afternoon in the hotel when I found fifty dollars in a phone book – half of my weekly salary!

Q:  You’ve always told me that over there you cured yourself of your sense of the ridiculous.

A:  America is a country without complexes.  I came from an Andalucía where everyone is involved with everyone else. With neighbors.  When I walked by, the fishermen would say “Look how chubby he is, the son of the Portuguese woman.”  But as soon as I got over there, I saw fat people walking happily down the street with their white shoulders showing and no one was laughing at them, and that liberated me.  It was as if I’d spent a season in the López Ibor [?].”

Q:  But you got tripped up sometimes by their customs, like the time when they all whistled at you after a performance…

A:  That was in Los Angeles, on the second tour.  We had to appear in an open-air theater before seven or eight thousand people, a lot of them actors.  Soon, Greco said he wanted me, the second guitarist, to play a solo.  I went out shaking, and when I finished, everybody stood up and whistled at me.  In Spain, that means “Get outta here, beat it!”  I ran offstage, but Greco pushed me back on and said, “Get back there, man, the whistling means they loved it!”

Q:  What did you miss about home during those first tours?

A:  My mother’s custard – I loved that more than anything in the world.  But most of all, I missed her; I miss her still today.

[Casilda writes:]  At the beginning of the fifties, Algeciras was the nucleus for all of Andalucía’s flamenco artists.  The contraband going through Gibraltar meant there was a lot of money, and there were more flamenco fiestas there than anywhere else in the region.  My grandfather [Paco's father] Antonio, who made his living playing at night, came home in the morning with some of the guitarists and singers and they’d have a fiesta on the patio.

The young Paco, who saw it all from the clean slate that is childhood, filled his memory with those rhythms.  Before he ever touched a guitar, he already knew all those complex rhythms.  And he, who couldn’t remember the name of Uruguay’s ex-president when trying to thank him from the stage, remembers clearly the smell of the lady of the night on that patio, and the voice of a singer he heard while in bed who sent chills up his spine.

Q:  Do you remember the first time you played the guitar.

A:  I must’ve been about seven.  My grandfather was trying to show a falseta (a melodic riff) to my uncle Antonio, who was very whiney.  He was desperate, scratching his head and said, “But my fingers hurt!”  Then I, after having watched it for a while and never having played the guitar, said, “But it’s so easy.”  My father handed me the guitar, and I played it.  From then on, he started teaching me.

Q:  In those days, what was the most a guitarist could hope for?

A:  To be part of a traveling variety show with ballet dancers, jugglers, comedians…  The better alternative was to become an accompanist to a singer who would let me do an occasional guitar solo.

[Casilda writes:]  A few years ago, we were together in a fishing town in Belize and wanted to go to an island called Chinchorro to scuba dive.  A kid took us on a boat and on his T-shirt it said “Paco de Lucía & Sextet” – his former group.  He told my father that Paco was his idol, that he had a cassette and listened to it constantly.  He never knew that his idol was right there in front of him.  What I’m trying to say is that only when you live with him can you understand how long his shadow is, and how he has managed to fulfill the dreams of his childhood.  And even so, he still closes himself up in his studio ten hours a day with his guitar and his ghosts; why?

“Sometimes, there’s a moment onstage when everything comes out effortlessly, naturally, with a kind of control that seems heaven-sent, if there’s a heaven.  Nothing in the world compares to that moment.”

[Casilda writes:]  The afternoon continues in silence.  The click of his lighter and the hum of my recorder mark the rhythm of the scene.  Listening to him speak, I look for new directions to explore…

Q:  Do you believe in geniuses [“genios”]?

A:  Only the kind of genies [“genios”] that come out of magic lamps (he laughs).  I believe more in genialidad, brilliance, and a lot of people have that.  You can have that when you tell an anecdote:  by the rhythm, by the tone because you can have an ingenio – a kind of ingenuity or wit — that is extraordinary.

Q:  Where are the limits?

A:  In harmony, which is like the composer’s toolbox.  I would have been much greater as a musician if I’d had those tools; although on the other hand, I wonder if having them might have taken away the originality.  Like it or not, I’ve had to invent my own patrons; that has taken a lot of effort but the result is that I sound like myself and no one else.

Q:  Today there are other guitarists with your same technical ability, and even more understanding of harmony; nonetheless, they can’t fill a theater.  What is it that they lack?

A:  The guitar has always been an instrument for minorities; to reach a large audience you have to offer something more than just playing well, because if you don’t do that, only the hard-core aficionados will put up with a whole guitar concert.  Part of my success is precisely because every time I go onstgage I think, What will I do so they don’t get bored?  My speed and my technique are emotional. Born from insecurity, from the feat that people will fall asleep or get up and leave.  That gives me a kind of energy that has made me who I am.

Q:  Vamos – even here, the paying public calls the shots…

A:  No, and you have to be careful with that.  I’ve spent so many hours before the public that I know perfectly well what buttons to push to get what reactions, to make people stand and cheer or even cry.  But I have to be faithful to myself, to what I find truly pleasing; although sometimes. I do shoot off some fireworks.

Q:  Who’s the musician you most enjoyed sharing a stage with?

A:  Chick Corea and Camarón – Paco hesitates a few seconds and corrects himself – no, the other way around:  With Camarón and Chick Corea.

Q:  What’s with your obsession about flamenco singing?

A:  It’s because the voice is the purest form of expression.  An instrument never stops being a translator, an intermediary through which you put everything you want to express.

Q:  Is Camarón’s place still vacant?

A:  Today people sing very well, but everything sounds like him.  The Gypsy mimics everything – customs, laws, ways of life – and they have imitated Camarón to such an extent that I can mistake them for him.  For that reason they don’t move me, because they don’t surprise me.  The first time I heard Camarón, he sounded different from everyone I’d ever heard before.  For me, I’ve always tried to play by imitating the voice; I was a sort of Mesías.

[Casilda writes:]  There are many things people don’t know about Paco de Lucía: that he never misses a Real Madrid soccer game; that when he was young he would console himself by reading Ortega y Gasset and realizing that someone who was officially recognized as intelligent had his same doubts; that sometimes he’ll improvise some salsa dance steps in the kitchen; that he’s been using the same kimono for more than 20 years; that he has a reflective intelligence that gets him what he wants without his noticing; that he likes full-bodied women – when he tells me I’m very pretty, I go on a diet; that during his summers in the Caribbean he has made some very charming films with his friends, La Banda del Tío Pringue; and that what he loves to do most of all is to laugh despite the image of a taciturn hermit that he gives off.

[Paco says:]  “It’s true that every time I read one of my interviews I seem bitter.  It makes me mad!  But I do complain a lot: about the guitar, about what I suffer.  It must be something inevitable in me because, you see, even now I’m complaining about the fact that I complain a lot.

Q:  Does that make things easier, alleviate things?

A:  Yes, I need to vomit out that anguish and anxiety; it’s a form of therapy.  The guitar demands that I live with awareness of limits, and one can’t evolve by being happy, or looking for diversions – at least, I can’t.  Because of that, and I hope people will forgive me, because of that hypersensitive state I can be in.

Q:  How much vanity is there in creation?

A:  Well, art exists before there’s a public for it; the cave paintings of Altamira, for ezample.   Its origin is the need to express something, not vanity.  For that reason, a person who truly loves making music has already triumphed, even with just a camastro and a sandwich to eat.

Q:  Speaking of creators, who is the one who interests you most lately?

A:  Fernando Trueba.  He was having dinner here recently and he seemed intelligent, humble, articulate, an impressive person.

Q:  And who would you most like to have spent time with?

A:  García Lorca, who interests me as a personage; with de Falla, whose music can take away my sadness anytime; with García Márquez, who strikes me as a genius; and with Oscar Wilde, who really appeals to me, especially with that aphorism of his:  “There is nothing greater than art, and nothing more mediocre than artists.”

Q:  No politician at the table?

A:  I don’t like them or, more accurately, I don’t like their profession.  The true vocation of service no longer exists – now it’s just a vocation of power; the engranaje [inner workings, cogwheels] of capitalism has overshadowed its ideals.

[Casilda writes:]  Someone said that in the Franco era Paco was beaten after saying on television, in a word game about hands and the guitar, that the left hand creates and the right hand executes.

Q:  Can solitude become the perfect state?

A:  For me, it always was.  Although  I need to have my people nearby, my ideal state is to be alone; it’s what I’ve been accustomed to since childhood.  I believe that when what you do is so interesting and pleases you so much, the rest becomes secondary.

Q:  Even love?

A:  Man is gregarious by nature, he needs others, and that’s a fact.  But I believe more in brotherly love [amor filial] than romantic love, which is less pure.  When all is said and done, the other person is always less important to you than you are.

Q:  Day by day, what things move you most?

A:  More than human relations, art.  A phrase in a book or an interpretation that says something in a subtle way.  That’s what brings me closest to tears, which for me are the maximum expression of emotion.

Q:  And giving yourself to a buen pargo beneath the sea?

A:  I don’t buceo now.  I’m afraid of being alone at sea.

[Casilda writes:]  Through the window I again see the locust trees and recall the story of the one that was transplanted, and the reason.   Some years ago he asked me, “You know how too tell whether you’re already old?  It’s when you don’t want to plant a tree because you won’t be around to see it grow.”  He didn’t say it with angst, or with fear, but with resignation.  “Death isn’t seen the same from my age as from yours.  Now I just assume it is there.  [“Yo ya lo tengo asumida.”]

Q:  Do you think there is something beyond that?

A:  I’ve always thought not, that everything ends here.  But something happened to me as a kid that makes me wonder.  One night, when I was about five or six, I dreamed that my godfather, who was a smuggler, had been killed on the road by the Guardia Civil.  I told it to my mother, and a week later he died exactly as in my dream.  I don’t know.  It’s one of those things that you can’t explain.

Q:  Whether or not there’s an afterlife, don’t you feel a bit immortal knowing that people will still be talking about you 200 years from now?

A:  Que va!  Are you kidding?  By then, they will all have discovered that I was just bluffing.

End of interview by Paco’s daughter Casilda in Telva.  The original is at:



April 26, 2014   No Comments

La Niña de los Peines (Almost) Speaks – Interview with the young star and her voluble mom – Translation by Brook Zern

Interview with the young La Niña de los Peines

Translator’s Note:  There is plenty of debate about who is the finest cantaor (male singer) in the history of flamenco.  There is no debate whatsoever about who was the finest cantaora.  Her name was Pastora Pavón, and she was called “La Niña de los Peines.”

About ten years ago, I found an old, photocopied article, probably from one of the “Anuarios Flamencos” published annually that compiled articles about flamenco as well as listing the dates of the next year’s flamenco events.  It was titled “Interview with La Niña de los Peines”.  At the end, it says it is from the book “Confesiones de Artistas” by Carmen de Burgos “Colombine”, and that it was submitted by Isaac Lopez Cuadra.

We’re clearly dealing with the young Pastora Pavón, probably still in her teens.  But she was already the greatest cantaora that flamenco would ever see.

The language was problematic for me, but here’s an attempt at translation:

“Like the beauty of the Japanese, where Venus has oblique eyes, a snub nose and prominent cheekbones, there are other standards of beauty beyond the most evident.  La Niña de los Peines is very dark, snub-nosed, with a big mouth and large eyes.  She seems almost impudently youthful [de una juventud desgarrada], an effect deepened by the ardor of her song.  Her eyebrows give her a serious air.  In the tablado [flamenco club], seated on a chair like a reigning queen, letting the guitarist provide the tones for her entry into the song, La Niña de los Peines seems imposing , and the little taps of her feet that accompany the guitar are eloquent and imperious, “tin-tipitín, tipitín”.

She looks deeply into the room, as if staring into a vacuum, crazed with pain or love, thinking of something else, some gravely serious thing that grips the heart.  The introductory solos of the accompanying guitar are long.  And she, realizing her own importance, lets everyone wait, and wait, until at last the first cry of her song erupts into the air.  It’s a shout, a howl [un alarido], lacerating and tearing and wrenching, almost pure rythym, but bearing a profound cadence that gives it order and harmony in a way that no one else can approach.  And so we realize that this savage cry, seemingly unplanned and unguided [desacertado] yet utterly sincere, is a necessary component of the beauty of her singing, giving it the touching emotion of living flesh and blood.

This is the marvel that is revealed when La Niña de los Peines is singing.  This is the true flamenco — a desperate, hopeless call, coarse and unpolished, cut, spontaneous, reaching unheard-of heights; the brusque closing, the stupendous extension, all converted into a song that is like a nail driven home [un canto de clavijas apretadas], precisely measured and admirably enlaced with its own music.

Nothing is more serious than the cante flamenco of La Niña de los Peines, and at the same time nothing is more engaging and charming [gracioso] as when she salts a verse with her vocal “triquitraques” that dance among the words, or wraps up a verse with a seemingly arbitrary flourish, forgetting herself and making fun of her pain and grief – which only serves to make it more bitter.  She is playing with her own sadness, using the astounding juggling [“malabarismo”] of her voice, always full of a bloody sensibility.

I can never forget how I saw La Niña de los Peines sing; like liturgy; straight and proud, blinking her eyes, like stars that twinkle nervously some nights, her mouth open, blackly open, and twisted, to give all of her voice, breathing sharply to inhale the air that her song requires.  La Niña de los Peines represents, in contrast to academic song, the freedom of true song, constantly surprising us with unexpected turns of voice and melody, with unfathomable depths of soul, with mysterious echoes and unsettling combinations of cadences that are both bitter and sweet.

Motivated by curiosity and the urge to see more closely this woman who is the genuine representative of the soul of Andalusia, this elegiac and mournful, passionate soul – consumed in its own passion – I went to speak with La Niña de los Peines, to hear her speak as I heard her sing, as if I wished to see her complete within me.

I found myself in a room in an inn, where two women live in the kind of disorder that is expected in artists; a single large bed, in which La Niña de los Peines and her mother both slept.  It evoked the sadness of most such rooms, where nothing is permanent and everything is strange or unfamiliar to everyone, with the sterile coldness of an asylum, or a side room of a café where everyone is a transient.

The mother received me; typically Gypsy, pretty, motherly, with an insinuating and meddling air.

“My daughter is asleep”, she said.  “The poor thing is tired.  This afternoon, I had to miss a bullfight to wait for you, but you were late.”

She went to the bed and called:  “Pastora, Pastora…”

The young girl was sleeping in her clothes, covered with a big red bedspread; she started to get up.  I stopped her.

“Let’s speak like this,” I said.  “It’s more intimate.  Please speak to me like you speak to your friends.”

Pastora smiled, a somewhat ingenuous smile, rather sad; and she leaned back, her hair spilling over her face, with a distant gaze that is characteristic of her.

At each question, she smiled and said little or nothing, answering only in monosyllables; her mother, on the other hand, came over and told me everything.

“Are you Andalusian?”

She nodded yes, while her eyes seemed to look out at Andalusia.

“From Seville itself”, said her mother, “And raised in one of the most typically Andalusian [castizos] neighborhoods of all until she was eleven years old, when we came to Madrid to see one of her aunts.”

“When did you start to sing?” I said, hoping that the girl would answer.

“From the beginning”, said the mother.  “Everyone told me, ‘you have a treasure in this voice’, but I said, ‘Jesus and Mary, have my daughter sing for a living?’ But necessity dictates, and now you see.  She started then, in that trip to Madrid, at eleven years old.”


“In the Café del Brillante, on Montera Street, and then everywhere.”

“Have you been to other countries?”

She nodded yes.

“You bet!”, said her mother.  “To Paris and Berlin, and to Santander and San Sebastian in the north.”

Pastora spoke: “I went to cut gramophone records, but I’ve never worked outside of Spain”, she said.

Her voice is full, musical, agreeable, with that charming Andalusian accent that can’t be represented in writing, where words elongate or shrink or smooth out on the lips.

“We’re always traveling”, says the mother.  “And thanks be to God, nothing bad has happened to us.  We’re afraid to go to America, because coming back across the Straits of Gibraltar from [the Spanish colony of] Melilla we almost drowned, and I’m afraid of the sea.”

“Tell me some stories about your life,” I asked with the hope of making Pastora speak.

“Nothing, nothing about that”, the mother jumped in.  You want to know the artists she likes best.  Among singers, Antonio Chacón; guitarists, Ramon Montoya and Habichuela…”

“That’s not necessary,” I said.

“You can say that she is very good, very generous.  She could become very rich, and she supports the whole family: sisters, aunts, cousins.  She doesn’t know how much she makes, and it’s her mother who arranges everything.”

I look at the poor creature with a certain sadness.  Submissive, nearly speechless, such a good daughter, virtually erasing herself [que se anula], deferring to her mother in everything.

“What songs do you like most?”

“The songs that she arranges and improvises.”

“Tell me about them”

“Tell her about them”

“Well, there’s the tango:

Diez céntimos le dí a un pobre
Y me bendijo mi madre;
!Que limosna tan chiquita
Pa recompensa tan grande!”

(I gave a dime to a poor man
and he blessed my mother;
What a tiny price
For such a great reward.)

And a malagueña:

Los pícaros tartaneros
Un lunes por la mañana
Los pícaros tartaneros
Les robaron las manzanas
A los pobres arrieros
Que venían de Totana.

(Those sneaky wagoneers,
one Monday morning
those sneaky wagoneers
robbed all the apples
from the poor mule drivers
who were coming from Totana)

A petenera:

Niño que encuero y descalzo,
Vas llorando por la calle;
Ven aca y llora conmigo
Que tampoco tengo madre,
Que la perdí cuando niño.

(Child of the streets
naked and barefoot,
come here and cry with me;
I don’t have a mother either;
I lost her when I was your age.)


Yo se lo pedi llorando
Al de la Puerta Real
que me quite esta fatiga
tan grande que tengo
que no la puedo aguantar.
Que pena es quererte tanto
y tenerlo que ocultar.
estos si que son quebrantos!

(Weeping, I asked
the Virgin of Puerta Real
to take a way this great weariness I have,
that I cannot endure.
What grief to love you so,
And have to hide it –
What pitiful sorrow.)


Padre mio Jesús de Santa María:
Estos pesares que mi cuerpo tiene,
yo le pido a Jesús de Santa María
que estos pezares que mi cuerpo tiene
sean alegría.

(My Father, Jesus of Saint Mary,
these woes that my body has,
I ask Jesus of Saint Mary
to change these sorrows
into joys.)


Corre, ve y dile a mi Gabriela
que voy a las herrerías,
que duerma y not tenga pena,
que vuelva mañana e día
que voy a fabricar canela”

(Run and tell my Gabriela
that I’ve gone to the ironworks,
tell her to sleep and not be fearful,
I’ll be back tomorrow morning,
I’m going to make cinnamon)

Such moving prose.  And one must see how in the delivery and pronunciation there is the measure for elongating the lines to form the song.

“Don’t you sing anything other than flamenco?”

“Nothing else”, says Pastora.   “If I wanted to be a singer of popular songs and cuplé it would be easy, but I don’t want to.  There are no flamenco cantaoras (female singers); there are plenty of pop cupletistas.”

“Don’t you sing in a picaresque – roguish and naughty – way?

“No.  My daughter is very moral,” says the mother.  “When she enters a theater, women are in the audience, and everyone wears nice clothes and hats [todo el publico se ve lleno de sombreretes].”

“Why is she called ‘La Niña de los Peines’”?

“Because of a song she sang when she started.”  [A tango:  “Comb yourself with my combs [peines]; they’re made of sugar; those who comb themselves with my combs will lick their fingers afterwards.]

“And now I don’t even remember it”, says Pastora, adding:  “There’s nothing I like as much as the “castizo”, the typically Andalusian style; I’ll never lose my accent, ever; I like to put on those skirts with polka dots, and a shawl, and that’s it.”

“And that from someone who has nice suits [?] (trajes casi regios), says the mother, “and who in the street looks as elegant as anyone.”

“Every year,” says Pastora, who has now acquired some confidence, “I sing saetas [religious flamenco songs sung as floats of Jesus and Mary pass by during Holy Week] in Seville or Málaga; those two towns and Madrid are my favorites.”

“More than Paris?”

“You bet!”

“Her sweetheart is from Málaga,” says a newcomer to the conversation, a white-haired woman who seems to be Gypsy.”

“Now we’re sad,” says Pastora, “and I’m upset.”

“He’s an Andalusian gentleman [señorito] who wants to marry her,” says the woman.

“Are you going to be married?”

“Whoa!” says the mother.  “What would I do then?”

“Raise your grandchildren, madam”, I say with a laugh.

Then, as if to change the direction of the conversation, La Nina de los Peines recites for me her favorite saeta:

Se enturbieron los cielos,
hubo eclipse extraordinario
le da un desmaya a María
al pie del Monte Calvario
viendo a Jesús en l’agonia.

(The skies grew dark,
the strange eclipse came
only adding to Mary’s grief
at the foot of Calvary
seeing Jesus in agony.)

“All of your coplas [verses] are almost mystical.  Are you devout.”

“Very much so.  I adore the Jesus of the Great Power, and our Father Jesus, and…”

“Are you also superstitious?”

“Yes.  I get scared if I spill ink, or travel on a Tuesday, or…everything…I’m very fearful, but as you see, at the same time, I actually enjoy it when people tell me scary stories, of death and ghosts.”

“And she’s no coward,” says the mother.  “She’ll belt anyone who pushes her too far.  She’s done that often.”

“I find her sad.”

“She’s always like that.”

“Look at this picture,” says the old woman.

I’ve scarcely taken it (a religious picture?) when La Niña de los Peines snatches it away and holds it closely to her, covering it with kisses.  Her look and her attitude have impregnated all the voluptuousness  of her soul, magnified by the song.

It seems that this woman would drown herself in passion if it didn’t come out in her songs; it crushes her, having so much raw soul.

After this, she falls back into silence.  Silent, she has a look of ecstasy, as if she waits to sing during the hours when she can’t.  It’s as if she takes inspiration form the time that passes silently around her.  In that silence and the solitude of those hours, she saves the voice that will later be bestowed on listeners.  She cultivates her savage wildness, she draws inspiration for her instinct, in that soul in which no disturbance, no lesson can intervene; but which must be left to propagate in solitude, responding to that Spanish, Gypsy and flamenco name Pastora, which has also been attached to the name “Imperio” [Pastora Imperio was a great figure in Spanish dance and reciting], because it has something imperial about it, something perfect, rotund, like a miracle of expression and passion, shattering and profound.”

End of article.

Brook Zern

January 10, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – 2001 Interview by M. Rodríguez – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

In Diario La Rioja of November 7, 2001m M. Rodriguez interviewed Jose Mercé.  A translation:

José Mercé: “We Must Make the Flamenco of the 21st Century” — The Singer Has Sold More Than 200,000 Copies of His Album ‘Aire’

Madrid — They say it’s the best, the flamenco voice that rings out today with the most authority, gathering up the music’s roots and adapting the art to his own time.  He is the first Spanish artist to appear (last July 28th) in Britain’s famous “Woman Festival” [?], moving an audience that was brought to its feet.  This artist insists that flamenco is universal.  An anthology of José Mercé has appeared this fall to satisfy those who follow the career of this singer, whose album “Aire” sold more than 200,000 copies, a new mark in the history of flamenco.

This Gypsy from Jerez, age 45, born on Merced street, has been a singer since he was 13; he married at 27 and has several children.

Int: “Has flamenco ceased to be strictly for a minority?”

JM: “I’m absolutely convinced that flamenco is international, universal.  In England, the auditorium was packed.  Those who insist that flamenco is for the few or for minorities have simply failed to change with the times, and remain stuck in the seventies.  They think of flamenco as hidden, and I want to make a little room for it where others cannot enter.  My family recalls this well, because in my parents’ time one could only sing or play for the rich señoritos who paid, when flamenco is really a music of the people and for the people.”

Int: “Back then, the whole atmosphere of flamenco and its people was looked down upon…”

JM:  “Yes, that was when the bailarín [male dancer — can connote a more formal style than ‘bailaor‘] had to be homosexual and the bailaora had to be ‘of the life’ [of ill repute; a prostitute].  They treated us badly, we were held in very low esteem.  I had the great luck to miss that period.  My parents didn’t become flamenco artists but passed their lives in the countryside.”

Int:  “Flamenco is now being compared to and mixed with jazz or blues.  How do you view these combinations?”

JM:  “It’s true that jazz, like the blues or flamenco, was made by and for the people, for folks on the streets.  I’m one of those who says that the blues and jazz are to America are what flamenco is to Spain.”

Int: “But there are flamenco artists who don’t like such fusions.”

JM: “We must respect the roots and the bases, but nowadays [a partir de ahi] one can make such fusion.  If the purists say otherwise, let them follow their own chosen path, and see how it would be to live today the way we lived in the seventies.”

Int: “José Menese is no fan of fusion.”

JM:  “Well, I’d say to Menese that I have done what he does now, and I’ll keep doing it, but I’d also ask that he and others let the younger ones live, let us do what we do, because it is also good to take risks and make mistakes.  I will always sing [pure] siguiriyas, but I’d also say to other singers that they should make an album like “Aire”.  I’ve shown that I can sing like they can.  Now let them show that they know how to do what I did.  We must make a flamenco for the 21st Century, in which people share the music and participate with you.  But in my concerts I also sing a martinete, the most primitive flamenco form there is, and the young people in the audience respect this song and then get into the other songs.  I have the satisfaction of having furthered the involvement of young people.  But that is not my triumph; it is the triumph of flamenco in general.”

Int: “What do you think of Estopa?”

JM: “I don’t see Estopa as flamenco, it’s more pop.  But, without doubt, it is one current.  Groups like Ketama or Pata Negra, without being flamenco at the base or the root, have introduced many new touches.”

Int: “Flamenco is finding new horizons.  Is the life of the Gypsy in Spain also evolving?”

JM:  “I have never experienced any ugly incidents in terms of conflicts or differences between payos [non-Gypsies] and Gypsies.  But I’d like to think that Gypsies are making progress for the better.”

End of interview.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014:  Mercé is the finest living singer of flamenco’s deepest forms; (the other contender, Manuel Agujetas, is past his prime.)  He’s also an advocate of doing his own thing on the side — or maybe it’s flamenco that’s the sideline, since that 200,000-copy sales record is about a hundred times higher than any all-flamenco, all the time recording.

He says “I’m one of those who says that the blues and jazz are to America are what flamenco is to Spain.”  Yo, José — so is yo, I mean, that’d be me.  Check out Juan José Tellez’s definitive bio of Paco de Lucía, the second half that begins “The first one to point out the close relationship between America’s blues/jazz and Spain’s flamenco traditions was the estudioso Brook Zern…”  The interviewer then says that there are those who don’t like such fusions.  Yo, interviewer, that’d also be me.  Go figure.

Seriously, Mercé says “we must respect the roots and the bases”, and he always will.  Meanwhile, those who think they’re following in his great and giant footsteps wouldn’t really know those roots if they tripped on them.

Brook Zern

January 10, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Guitarist Vicente Amigo Speaks – Interview by V.M.Niño – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

Vicente Amigo:  “I don’t like to call something flamenco when it isn’t”

The musician will perform with the Sinfónica de Castilla y León in a program based on “Marinero en tierra”

From El Norte de Castilla, by V.M. Niño

A Cordoban born in Seville and formed in the school of Paco de Lucía, Vicente Amigo (1967) speaks through his guitar of voyages, of the fields, of emotions and of poetry.  And with that last element, he’ll be coming to the Miguel Delibes Auditorium to play the verses of [the great Spanish poet] Rafael Albertí in a concert directed by Joan Albert Amargós with the collaboration of Gustavo Martín Garzo.  It will be the writer from Valledolid (vallisoletano) who gives voice to the words of “Marinero en tierra.”

“De mi corazón al aire” [“From my heart to the wind”] was the guitarist’s first record,  which was met with a deluge of prizes.  A year later he debuted with the Sinfonica de Cuba the program we will hear in Valladolid.

Q:  You first played this concert 21 years ago,  What does Albertí have for you that makes you return periodically to him and the music that inspired you.

A:  I’ve always thought that music and poetry have a close relationship.  Giving order to the notes, and to the verses, are much the same thing.  And a identify closely with the poets, with all the artists who seek beauty.

Q:  Did you orchestrate this, and how does one go from composing for the guitar to envisioning the musical parts for each member of an orchestra?

A:  No, it was orchestrated by [the Cuban composer, conductor and guitarist] Leo Brouwer and he created a magnificent work..  An instrumental disc is more complicated, precisely because you don’t want to be boring and it’s a way of avoiding that problem.  I think that when making a recording, when making art, you are looking within yourself to give something to the listener, so it will be understood.  And if it’s not understood…you’ll find out pretty quickly (laughs).  This is the mystic aspect, but playing  and composing is a matter of hard work.  It’s work.  But I give a lot of weight to that mystical aspect, at the moment of perceiving the art.

Q.  Have your worked often with Joan Albert Amargós, the arrange who seems to work especially well with flamenco musicians?

A:  Yes.  In 2005, in the record “Un momento en el sonido”  I think that in his very manner of being, Joan Albert works well with everyone.  He’s a truly great person and of course a great musician.  I always want to work with him.

Q:  When a musician expressed himself through the greatness and the limitations of a single instrument, what about the rest of the group – are the there to complement the soloist, traveling companions, scenery?

A:  For all of us guitarists, it’s a favorite torment.  The guitar gives huge satisfaction to those who love it, but you also have some very good ataduras [connections beyond it?]  I’m  not a man who’s glued to the guitar, I like to enjoy a lot of things and then capture it all on my guitar, which the medium through which I express myself best, but…look, I try to create art, not just guitar music.

Q:  An alumnus of Paco de :Lucía, you’ve worked with Camarón, José Mercé, Enrique Morente…How do you view the generation that has followed these masters?

A:  The guitar is in a great phase.  There are a lot of terrific talents out there today.  They have interesting things to say; we can’t say that they all have the best technique, but each of them has something special.  “En la viña de señor hay de todo” [In the vineyard of the Lord, there is everything] There are great instrumentalists, great artists, it’s a brilliant moment for guitar.  Today’s players are prepared to hit the heights in all circumstances.  Flamenco today has lot of music, it’s bringing a lot of music, and it’s letting people from all musical cultures come together.  And that’s not because it’s an exotic style of music but because it sounds like true, real music to people.

Q:  In flamenco, what does the word fusion tell you”

A:  My music is a sort of fusion without labels… because that’s my way of being, of living.  I go outside and find interesting thing from different places, in different styles and in very different people.  That’s the way my music is.  What’s very true is that I don’t like to call something flamenco when it isn’t.  But it’s also true that there are things in my music that are very flamenco and other things that aren’t.  And I don’t have to put any barriers on my imagination.

Q:  Records, Grammys, other prizes – can you rest on those laurels or does the road beckon?

A:  The stage is where I find my inspiration, it’s where I connect with the public and receive the most important criticism in the form of applause, or its absence.

Q:  You’ve been in South America, Japan, Cordoba, Seville – how is your art received outside of Spain?  Do they experience it as flamenco?

A:  Flamenco – I don’t know.  But my music – it would be unfair if I didn’t give the same importance to every town where I play.  I think music is something that can connect with the hearts of everyone.  The guitar is a universal instrument and flamenco is a style that is becoming universal right now.  I’m fighting to have my music, which is flamenco, recognized as exactly that: as universal…Although there’s a part of my music that I don’t know ho to define, nor do I want to put labels on everything.  What I’m doing is fighting and carrying my music with dignity; and what I see is my music , whether it’s played in France or Japan, transmits what I’m doing.

Q:  Is poetry what inspires you, and what are you reading today?

A:  Everything interests me.  But I don’t have time to read as much as I’d like, or to listen to everything I’d want to, or see all the films, or play all the guitar I’d like to.  As for reading, I just finished a book called “La Cara Oculta” [“The Hidden Face”].

End of interview.  The article is found at:  http://www.elnortedecastilla.es/20131226/cultura/vicente-amigo-gusta-llamar-201312262053.html

Translator’s comments:  An eloquent call for artistic freedom from an always-brilliant musician and a sometimes-flamenco guitarist — but with the welcome caveat that it’s incorrect to call things flamenco when they just plain aren’t.

The astonishing breadth of Vicente Amigo’s interests and talent made him one of the few great flamenco guitarists of the first post-Paco generation.  And made it inevitable that he would do what virtually no pre-Paco guitarist could have done, as he leaned into the new realms of  jazz and poetry, and saw new possibilities in music theory and the guitar.

His innovative guitar tunings were a second revolution in flamenco, and a huge frustration for us confused, feeble, amateur would-be imitators until some savant finally took pity on us and taught us how to retune as Vicente did.

We diligently tracked down a Japanese videotape of Vicente Amigo, because it apparently had his baffling newfangled alegrías on it.

But we weren’t prepared for the new world of flamenco marketing for the music video generation.  The music faded in, and there he was — Vicente Amigo, naked to the waist, barefoot, looking just stunning on an alabaster steed, riding bareback on a golden shore, his own beautiful black mane and the horse’s white one undulating in unison in the wind as he rode effortlessly through the breaking ocean waves.

Well, maybe that was what a gazillion women and numerous men had been hoping to see, but we just wanted to watch his sexy fingers play the goddam notes…

At least that’s the way I remember it, but then I only watched it once before selling it to a lady who made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.  As for those fingers, no wonder he could play rings around everyone up till then:  They were four times as long and three times as slender as mine, never mind the stubby bratwursts that that classical guy, Andrés Whatsisname, and that flamenco guy Sabicas, called fingers.

Some guys have all the luck.  (Woddya mean, “skill”?)

Brook Zern

January 3, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Guitarist Paco de Lucía speaks – 2013 interview in Clarín (Buenos Aires) by César Pradines – translated by Brook Zern

This is my translation of an interview with Paco de Lucía from the online version of Clarín of November 11, 2013.  It can be found at http://www.clarin.com/espectaculos/musica/dudas-flamenco-necesita-corazon_0_1027697294.html

“There’s no doubt about it: Flamenco needs heart.”  The guitar genius will present his disc “Live” in Buenos Aires.  But first, he spoke with “Clarín” about the importance of his time with his family.  And he emphasized the importance of sentiment over technique in music.

“I realized that purity comes from the heart; the purity of flamenco is within each of us; purity is freedom,” said Francisco Sánchez Gómez, known as Paco de Lucía, referring to his music.

His manner is warm and friendly, and he’d say that with so much travel he’s losing his Spanish accent.   A musical virtuoso with no pedantry and with a clear conscience about where life has taken him.  “Music is my life, but so is my family,” he said to Clarín during a telephone conversation.

He sees himself as very close to his family, to the extent that his children accompany him on the tour

“I spend as much time as a can with them.  It happens that specialists, those of us who live in some way obsessed with something, crazed by our vocation or need, neglect our families and live at a distance from them because we are seeking something that takes us by surprise, and surprises the world, and we lose our time to be with them, to enjoy those moments, to travel somewhere where we can feel good as part of a family.

At the age of twelve I left Algeciras for Madrid and lived there for many years; then I began making a lot of trips to Mexico, where I have a house on a Caribbean beach.  I like the diving and it was a beautiful and comfortable place, and that’s where that I met my second wife, Gabriela, with whom I have two children: Antonia, who’s twelve, and Diego, seven, who were born in Mexico and who accompany me on tour.  We live in Mexico and it was truly happy, but the situation became more and more complicated, with kidnappings and violence, so we moved to Mallorca where we live now.  I learned to enjoy time with my family; the experience enabled me to see more clearly how important it is for those I live”, says the musician whose double album “Live” was recorded during his 2010 tour, with a handful of magnificently interpreted original compositions.

For his two concerts here in Buenos Aires he’ll present his octet with Antonio Sanchez, his nephew, on guitar; Antonio Serrano on harmonica and teclados; Alain Pérez on electric bass; “El Piraña” (Israel Suárez) on percussion; Antonio “Farru” Fernandez as dancer; and the singers David Maldonado and Antonio Flores.

Today, Paco’s guitar has more weight to its sound, and it accelerates more prudently.  It could be said that his technique and his flamenconess (flamencura) go hand in hand.

How do you view technique in music?

There’s a very fine line between technique and the heart.  To study harmony exhaustively, to intellectualize music, is a bad idea.  Yes, you need to know this, but you also have to consider the overall matrix, to be with the the instrument, enjoy it, and challenge yourself.  I’ve come from Cuba (he began his tour on October 2nd in Havana) and, to give an example, the young pianists there eat the instrument alive, but when you ask them for a “tumbaito” like those that are heard in the streets, they don’t play it well, they don’t know it, and their intuition is buried by theory.  I’m in Brazil and the same thing is happening here with the percussionists. They play like they do in New York.  Cuba and Brazil have a huge folklore and little by little, they are losing their own essence.  As Machado said, to be truly universal you have to reflect your origin, and speak of your own place.  To play with so much technique and so much studied harmony makes everyone sound the same in the end, and artists want to leave our own mark; when you listen to something and say it’s this or that, and someone who has studied long and hard tells you this.  I’m speaking of music that is firmly rooted, of understanding the underlying emotion and knowing how to transmit it – this must always be present.  Technique helps, but it can never be placed ahead of the music.

For the artist, technique can cause you to lose the matrix, the core of the music.  “If you overthink it, spontaneity will fall to the side and with it the surprise, the joy, because if everything is known and planned beforehand it all becomes routine, not creation.  When you don’t know what to do next, it’s intuition that takes the reins, and that is the moment you hope for and dream of,” says this living example of unique artistry and profound feeling.

It all comes from the man who, in May of 2010, was named Doctor Honoris Causa by the Berklee School of Music in Boston.  Heresy!

Is tradition alone enough to ignite the imagination?

I’d need two lifetimes to express everything that flamenco transmits to me.  Its spirit, its endless emotion.  It’s not a music that a conservatory can explain by saying “This is good and this is the way to play it.”  My experience tells me that it’s not like that, tells me that you can’t always know how to proceed and that you then have to invent it; to play without being certain about the road.  There’s no doubt about it: flamenco needs the heart.

This business of inventing a new road – has that brought you criticism?

“Yes, in the beginning I was criticized by the purists of the genre, but more important was the heart and the very future of flamenco.  Purists?  I’d call them the Taliban – they didn’t let us move forward and that attitude goes against life itself.  The flamenco tradition is strong, and its emotions are, too.

Are you still a frustrated singer?

(He smiles.)  Well, what can I say?  I’ve already admitted that fact.  I was a shy kid, but very shy.  I wanted to sing, that was what I wanted, but to sing was to put your face right up front, while playing the guitar let me hide behind it.  My timidity chose the guitar for me.

Has what you’ve told me about your family made you do less traveling?

“I no longer have such desire to make long trips.  I don’t know, it’s all those years and before I get older  I decided to make this tour.”

Paco was certainly an innovator, a musical revolutionary who came to feel afraid when he realized that he changed his way of playing relatively frequently — until he convinced himself that whatever he did,  his sound would always remain flamenco.  Since that time, his guitar has sounded spontaneous, with that liberty integrated with purity, and solos like suns that seem to be born in the center of the Earth to rise up to the sky, and all of it learned through the force of intuition.

End of article.

As always, the living legend reaches into himself and speaks his own truth.  For decades, he has been the most important figure in flamenco, and we are privileged to witness the constant recasting of his genius.  (Yes, I’m among those he’d call the Taliban, though my endless attempts to imitate his magnificent early material have given me pleasure that outweighs even the miserable frustration.)  I have translated many of Paco’s fascinating interviews in this blog.  I also described the Boston edition of this same tour, based on his album “Live”, along with a lot of backtalk, quibbling and questioning of Paco’s trailblazing career.  As the saying goes, you could look it up.

Paco rightly laments the way young musicians around the world are becoming technical wizards but losing the local essence that should give their music its indispensable character.  (Of course, there used to be many wonderful and distinctive local styles of flamenco guitar within Spain — but today, virtually all flamenco players share the stylistic core that comes from Paco himself, and that he sometimes refers to as “the Paco virus.”)

Brook Zern

November 11, 2013   2 Comments

Flamenco Singer Estrella Morente Speaks – 2013 Interview in eldiadecordoba.es by Alfredo Asensi – translated with comments by Brook Zern

“Cordoba is a Gift of God”, says the Granadan singer Estrella Morente.

The singer returns to the Gran Teatro with her latest disc, “Autorretrato” (“Self Protrait”}, imbued with the presence and heritage of her father.

Estrella Morente offers a self-portrait a 8 p.m. tonight to inaugurate the Twentieth National Contest of Flamenco Art in Córdoba, accompanied by the guitarists Montoyita and El Monti, with percussionists El Popo and  with Antonio Carbonell, Angel Gabarre and Kiki Morente as her chorus.

Q:  How does Autorretrato fit into the trajectory of your career?

A:  Autorretrato is the most sincere creation I could make; I looked deep inside myself, to express what I’ve felt, lived and learned in music and in my life until now.  It’s a work produced by [my father] Enrique Morente – he was the director, and the person who liberated me.  He taught me to be free and honest, and I think those two elements are very much present in this recording, called Autorretrato which means nothing more than that – to reveal oneself and be sincere about it.  I’ve had the luck and the privilege of being able to count on the most marvelous people you could ever find in the music world, and all of this is thanks to the collaboration  and generosity of all of them, and to their friendship and respect for my family.   It’s a dream to share this with others, so they can make it their own.  The acceptance and the appreciative enjoyment of the public is my greatest reward, because in truth this is how my father saw it – he was so touched and enjoyed every step of this musical adventure, and was proud to be able to share with his daughter his own searching and needs, a quest that led him to more poets, more musicians, more friends, which in the final analysis is the most valuable aspect of a work: that it makes you learn, advance, and develop as a professional and as a human being.

Q; In what artistic moment do you find yourself right now?

A:  I’m always surprised when artists give this type of answer:  ”I’m at a stupendous moment, the best of my life, I have finally found what I sought…”  I think it’s much more interesting and natural to leave it up to others to see how they find you at the moment, while you fight to make yourself stronger, to work humbly but with big professional dreams.  You can’t put a price or a value on the sacrifice and the drive behind this, but just realize that the more you learn, the better, and that you when keep moving forward  others will understand.  But it’s hard to define what it means or what phase you’re in; if it’s hard to explain it to yourself, imagine how hard it is to explain it to others.

Q: What has San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross) bring to all this?

A:  San Juan de la Cruz has always been a fount of inspiration for my father.  My relation to his words is something I’ve felt since childhood, when I heard Enrique Morente put some of his most important poems to music.  It is one of the strongest pillars of universal literature.

Q: What is the role of women in flamenco today?

A:  There have always been great women in this art, like La Niña de los Peines and La Perla de Cádiz, who as in other fields have fought and made women be recognized as equally able and important as men.  There is still so much to do, so much work to eradicate the huge problems and discrimination of the female sex, much as we’d hope to the contrary, but those women are our example, our road to follow so we can contribute and help make things better.

Q:  From your perspective, what does Córdoba represent in the history of flamenco?

A;  Córdoba is a gift of God.  Cordoba is one of the most important parts of our culture, through which different civilizations have passed over hundreds of years, and it is part of the essence of flamenco, with its Mezquita mosque, its people, its Jewish quarter, its salmorejo (a version of gazpacho) and all its gastronomy; and its bull ranches where my husband, the superb torero Javier Conde, had the chance to live the art of bullfighting in the house of don Rafael…  And its (triennial) National Flamenco Contest, where the great singer Fosforito triumphed in its first edition in 1956 and which has given us so many other great artists, nothing more nor less than (the great Cádiz singer) my uncle Chano Lobato, (the great Seville dancer) Matilde Coral, (the fine singer and great storyteller) Beni de Cádiz, (the great Jerez belter) La Paquera…  All in all, a beautiful thing, a place where afición (love and affection for the art) is turned into art, and where kids play at bullfighting and at flamenco singing.  Córdoba has given us singers like (the great singer) El Pele, for whom we have special cariño (love and affection), not just for his way of singing, which wounds us (que nos duele) and reaches us so deeply, but because my father always told us that he had great admiration for him as a singer and a friend, and he gave great importance to this sense of friendship.  Cordoba is a place that is adored in the Morente family for having given us so much, and of course we will always be thankful that it has been the mother-earth that gave us the sensibility of soul of (the great guitarist) Vicente Amigo.

End of article by Alfredo Asensi.

Some thoughts:  Estrella Morente is one of the glories of Spanish song.  Her flamenco art is astounding in its maturity of expression, its emotional reach and its breathtaking technical perfection and tonal precision.  And when she moves beyond flamenco, she gives brilliant renditions of other genres, notably Argentine tangos.

Her father, Enrique Morente, who died suddenly in his prime about five years ago, is considered by many authorities and artists to be the most important flamenco singer and visionary in our lifetime – and yes, the competition  includes Camarón.  Enrique was utterly fearless in his art, constantly smashing rules and staking out new territory.  Unlike some other innovators, Enrique had already made his bones by displaying uncanny mastery of the entire flamenco tradition – no one could wonder if he was doing new tricks just because it was easier than singing hard-core flamenco.

I wasn’t very interested in Enrique’s daring explorations – I kinda liked flamenco the way it was.   And because I’ve lived mostly in Jerez, I had plenty of company, since that city is the last stronghold of strictly traditional flamenco and Enrique was essentially a persona non grata,

The key flamenco tastemakers in Madrid literally felt that Enrique could do no wrong.  Folks in Jerez, however, thought the whole thing was a joke,  When I used the adjective “controversial” in the program for his Carnegie Hall concert, it set off a firestorm of outrage – Morente’s posse that was traveling with him, including so-called critics, wouldn’t acknowledge that anyone could possibly doubt the genuine flamenco validity of his work with the “trashmetal” rock group Omega, for example.

Random additional points:

This triennial Córdoba flamenco contest that began in 1956 is probably Spain’s most prestigious and important, at least historically.  The other contenders would be the big Seville bienal, with about half the history, and the venerable annual Festival de Cante de las Minas de La Unión, which, remarkably, is not in Andalucía.  Meanwhile, it can be hinted that Córdoba isn’t prime flamenco territory, since it’s way above Seville and other key breeding grounds. When I mentioned a town in the province of Córdoba (but below that city), the great ancient Seville singer Juan Talega sneered, “Esto pa mí es Alemania” (“For me, that’s in Germany”)

My two previous blog entries, the first about the gifted and well-schooled singer Rocío Márquez and the second about the dancer and festero (hell-raiser) Bobote and his group, drew unfashionable distinctions between Rocío’s contained and constrained non-Gypsy ways and the untrained and untrammeled flamenco of the muy gitano Bobote.

In the present fascinating instance, Estrella Morente’s mother is a Gypsy, while her father was not.  And when it comes to formal training versus assimilating the art from birth in the home, well, she was kept awake by many of the greatest artists in living memory.  Her family was from Granada, the city most closely associated with Gypsies and flamenco.

(In self-defense, I’d note that Spanish writers and critics can assume that their readers likely know which artists are gitano and which aren’t – but as an outsider writing for outsiders, I can’t reasonably make the same assumption, nor can I agree that this ethnic distinction is no longer relevant or appropriate.

My non-avoidance of the topic irritates many non-Gypsy commentators, who assure me that modern Spain is now post-racial and there is no issue whatsoever — and correctly add that Spain is probably the country that has done the best job of minimizing the anti-Gypsy hatred that is growing dangerously out of control in so much of Europe.  Meanwhile, my ineffectual attempts to defend the centrality of the Gypsy tradition in flamenco irritates many Gypsies, who say they can stick up for themselves quite well, thanks.)

(When I arrived in Spain in 1961 seeking “authentic” and “pure” flamenco, I immediately headed to Granada, where I spent my days and nights in the Sacromonte cave of María la Canastera talking to people and studying with several fine guitarists.  Only later did I learn that I’d been in the wrong place – that way over on the left side of Andalucía was the real heartland and soulland of flamenco – Seville and Jerez and Cádiz, and several smaller nearby towns.)

Note Estrella Morente’s praise for El Pele’s flamenco singing “que nos duele“, that wounds us.  One reason for the unpopularity of the three deepest flamenco forms, notably the soleares, siguiriyas and martinetes or tonás, is that they wound, they hurt, they cause a kind of pain in listeners who understand their essential nature, which, like it or not, is intertwined with death.  (It’s fair to say that these songs are not Ms. Morente’s specialty, which helps explain why so many people love her art.)

And note, too, her fearless embrace of the bullfight, now banned in Catalonia but not in Spain, not to mention her bullfighter husband Javier Conde.  Many of her ardent admirers and fans find the bullfight disgusting or criminal.  Like it or not, I consider the bullfight crucial to understanding Spain, Andalucía and, of course, flamenco.

Brook Zern

November 11, 2013   No Comments

1996 article/interview with El Chocolate – translated with comments by Brook Zern

1996 article/interview with El Chocolate – translated with comments by Brook Zern

This article/interview by Teresa Sesé about the fabulous flamenco singer El Chocolate appeared in La Vanguardia of May 16, 1996.  (As usual, parentheses were in the original articles; anything in brackets is explanatory.)  My comments appear below.

Chocolate:  “I’m not a strange singer, I’m a delicate singer [or: a sensitive singer].”

It is said of Antonio Núñez “Chocolate” (born in Jerez de la Frontera in 1931) that he is “un raro genial” [a strange, peculiar or eccentric genius].   But he says that people shouldn’t confuse eccentricity with delicateness and that he, like some singers from the past, is “un cantaor delicao” [a delicate singer; possibly a sensitive singer].  And he says, for example, that to sing well one must like “the faces of the public” and that, sometimes, an inopportune movement in the audience can eradicate inspiration.  “But does this make me raro?  No, this is the mystery of an ancient way of communicating [una communicación milenaria] – the delicacy or sensitivity of the flamenco singer.”

Revered by aficionados and possessing one of the most singular personalities in the world of flamenco song of the Twentieth Century.  Chocolate will sing tonight at he Pati de les Dones del Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona.  The second half of the recital will feature the singer Miguel Poveda and the guitarist Chicuelo.

For Chocolate, flamenco song, like the bullfight [toreo] is an art of inspiration.  And to round out a good bullfight [cuajar una buena faena] one must be a gusto [feeling good – or perhaps, “in the zone”].  “It’s important to note that the public welcomes me and inspires me [me anima].  I like it when they shout encouragement [me jaleen] at the end of each song, that they clap for me, because si se aplatanan, I get the feeling that they don’t understand me, and it brings me down.”

Born in the province of Cádiz [i.e. Jerez] and raised in Seville from childhood, Chocolate got his name from his loved of cacao.  He learned to sing at the same time he learned to walk and talk, and he sang on the trains going to Huelva or Alcalá de Guadaira, in the city streetcars or for the wives of the Guardia Civil military police at at a barracks near his house in exchange for a hot meal.  “Buenooo, if I arrived to sing in the middle of a fight…” he jokes.  But for him, the real game was soccer.  “I was better than anyone with both feet, but I earned money first from singing.  One night they gave me five duros [25 pesetas, about a quarter] in the Alameda de Hercules [a legendary center of Seville song] and I immediately gave up football.”

Chocolate has shared stages with Juanito Mojama, el Niño Gloria, La Moreno, Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol…; he sang for the dancer Manuela Vargas and for Carmen Amaya in the film “Los Tarantos”; and he owns the most important prizes and awards in the realm of flamenco.

Singing that wounds [Un cante doliente]

Even so, his fame has not spread much beyond the limited circle of aficionados (though his appearance in Carlos Saura’s film “Flamenco” left a number of spectators nailed to their seats.)  “The pure flamencos, the basic ones – we don’t work every day; what I do isn’t flamenco pop or whatever they call that stuff nowadays.  It is still an art for a minority,” he argues, and then adds, “You know what’s happening?  I like myself a lot [me gusto mucho] – only when you get to that point do you learn to sing – I’m enamored of myself.  And because I like myself so much, there are times when I say, why should I go somewhere when I won’t be good.  It’s better to just sing for myself, no?”

Because the song, he reflects, has to hurt [tiene que doler].  And he laments the fact that today we are not seeing new “cantaores de pellizco [singers who give you chills, give you goosebumps.]  I wouldn’t want to die without continuadores [who will carry on that way of singing].  I’m sad to see youngsters who do not transmit the grief and lament in the songs.  Today everyone wants to create.  And the song is a very old art that is already fully formed [que ya está hecho], an art that has its seasons, its stops and starts, its temperament… Those of us who live this way are disappearing.  And then, what will happen?”

End of article.

Well, El Chocolate did indeed disappear, though he lived long enough to win a Grammy [his refreshing response:  ”Que es un Grammy?‘] and to tolerate my backstage harangue about how great he was and how lucky I was to have known him in Seville in the mid-sixties.  And we know what happened after he left us: The once-dominant notion that someone like him [did I mention that he happened to be a Gypsy?] may occasionally have something that certain other people don’t have, has gone from unfashionable to anathema.

In fact, today’s in-step aficionados would sincerely lament missing this concert — but only because the second half showcased an up-and-coming Barcelona singer named Miguel Poveda who has become the most important singer of our time.  [Did I mention that Poveda happens to be a) not a Gypsy; b) not raro; and c) a true genius and a master of virtually all significant flamenco song forms, as well as a wonderful guy?]

I was astonished to learn that El Chocolate got his name from his childhood love of cacao [c.f. Sabicas, who loved habicas or garbanzo beans].  I had casually misreported or fabricated the “fact” (I hope I’d heard somewhere) that he got his name from the color of his unusually dark skin.

I recall that he sang all the time — not flamenco, but Spanish songs and advertising jingles and whatever — though he didn’t like the Beatles songs (apparently because of intervals that were bigger than he was comfortable with).

I also recall that to my utter surprise, he gave a very technical and detailed singing lesson to my friend Anita Volland, who had already learned a lot of the songs of the immortal Niña de los Peines.  I had warned her that El Chocolate was obviously an instinctive genius who had no idea how he did what he did. Fortunately, Anita knew better.

Times change, tastes change.  El Chocolate’s notion that change in flamenco is not just unnecessary but inappropriate now seems not just unfashionable but absurd.

A lot of successful singers insist that Gypsy artists were overvalued until the world recently wised up; some seem to be dancing on their graves, or they would if they could dance.

But some discerning people still have a soft spot for the old perspective.  Among the artists who make clear their respect and admiration for the Gypsy contribution to flamenco, I’d say the massively popular Miguel Poveda — who will soon appear in Madrid’s huge bullring — is the main man.

June 2, 2013   No Comments

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – Interview from El Correo de Andalucía – translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco Singer José Mercé Speaks – Interview from El Correo de Andalucía – translated by Brook Zern

In the mid-sixties, when it was hard to find any information at all about flamenco, the newspaper El Correo de Andalucía carried a weekly column that we would avidly seek out and share.  Now it’s just another drop in the flood, but here’s an especially interesting interview by Alejandro Luque from the January 30th, 2013, edition.  In it, José Mercé, the greatest living flamenco singer who is in his prime, tells why today’s other important figures are not as good as he is and also addresses other issues.  (Mercé, incidentally, was recently nominated for Spain’s most prestigious cultural award, The Prince of Asturias Prize, though he didn’t make the short list of finalists.)

Headline:  José Mercé:  “The Seville Biennal should feature the best flamenco artists, but this year there weren’t any.”

Subhead:  Tonight the singer will fill the Fibes Auditorium with flamenco song from the deepest tradition [cante de siempre = the song of always] and with his new repertoire.

Twenty-four hours before filling the Fibes Auditorium tonignt at 9:00, the Jerez singer José Mercé opened up with the heavy artillery.  Yes, he did it with a smile, and without apparent rancor, but he was making a contentious argument.  “Fortunately, they didn’t ask me to participate in last fall’s Seville Biennal de Flamenco, which I think didn’t have much of what a Biennal should have.  The Biennal should have the best artists, and I feel that this past edition had none of them.”

“I don’t know if it’s a financial problem [problema de caché].  I think it’s more the programmers,” Mercé continued.  “I’m saying that for some time we in lower Andalucía [“Bajo Guadalquivir” = Seville, Jerez, Cádiz – the heartland of flamenco] have believed that we know more than anyone, and one has to be careful about that.  It’s hurting our music.  We fought hard to have flamenco recognized [by UNESCO in 2010] as an Intangible Patrimony of Mankind, and that’s very good, and it gives us prestige as artists, but it’s useless if the “mandamases” [people in control?] keep doing so little, and doing it badly.  Nobody fights for what is ours – we seem to be considered second rate [“segunda división”, second division in soccer leagues].

The artist, who repeatedly stressed his belief that “true flamenco song, maybe because of the ozone layer or the stuff we eat these days – I’m afraid it just doesn’t interest people nowadays”, was very critical of today’s flamenco song.  “I just wish [“Ojalá” = a survival of the Arabic word Inshallah or May God grant] that a flamenco singer would come along with that millennial echo that shatters, that wounds, that hurts; but I don’t find it,” says the artist from Jerez’s Barrio de Santiago, who is marking 45 years of his artistic career and is at the peak of his faculties.

And in a clear reference to the young artists who triumphed in the 2012 Biennal, such as José Valencia and Jesús Méndez, whose art is characterized by their extraordinary vocal qualities, he says, “It seems we’re back in the era of opera [probably referring to the “opera flamenco” of the forties and fities, when audiences valued pretty-sounding, ornamented flamenco song above serious, cutting, difficult stuff].  Flamenco is full of fine voices, with lots of power and command [poderío] but hardly anyone sings in the natural style.  Today everything is studied, mechanized.  I remember when the maestro Enrique Morente said “Olé to those who sing in the natural style”, — all my life songs have been done in the natural manner, lovely things that no longer exist today.  Today “cojo la tarjeta, ficho y hasta luego, Lucas” [? possibly a deprecatory reference to just going through the motions?]

Mercé feels privileged to have come from an illustrious flamenco background [una estirpe] “I am the great-grandson of [the legendary] Paco la Luz, and a descendant of [the great flamenco family] the Sorderas”, he believed that the notion of “great songs” (cante grande) and “little songs” (cante chico) is being overcome:  “Sometimes I go with a fandango of La Calza [a light style] instead of a siguiriya [a venerated “great song” style] because what makes a song great is the interpreter.

The singer, who promises a first part featuring “the classical and traditional song of always” and a second part with the repertoire from his latest CD “Mi Unica Llave”, will be accompanied by invited artists like [the flamenco pianist] Dorantes and [the great flamenco guitarist] Pepe Habichuela as well as his usual accompanists, the bassist Manolo Nieto and the guitarist Diego del Morao.

Nonetheless, the Jerez artist has special memories of his compadre, the late guitarist Moraíto Chico [the father of Diego del Morao], saying, “I will never find another guitar like that, the guitar that had the most “soniquete” [unmistakable style, swing and pulse, especially characteristic of Jerez] in the history of Spain.  That “solera” [ripeness, aged perfection, a term borrowed from the maturing process of the great sherry wines of Jerez] that Moraíto had was a gift from God.  Diego [his son] is a marvel, with more “diapason” [literally fingerboard – musical command of the full range of the guitar] than even his father had, but Manuel’s guitar sang.  It is “irrepitible”, unrepeatable,” he says.

Finally, when he is asked about the way he has opened his music beyond traditional flamenco to reach a huge public ever since 1998, he says, “I’m not sorry at all.  Fortunately I took this step to make flamenco more open, and thanks to that I often hear from people who say that they never heard flamenco until they started listening to me.  That’s a wonderful present.”

End of interview.

Sometimes I think there’s a sort of dissonance in attitudes about flamenco these days.  José Mercé brags of his bloodline here, as the inheritor of the great art of several crucial Gypsy families who shaped and continued the art of flamenco – most notably in the area of cante jondo or deep song.  At the same time, he parrots a view I’ve often heard – but usually not from Gypsies who are masters of those songs:  “There is no great song and little song – just great singers and little singers.”

Well, maybe, but the fact that there are hundreds of artists who can do a great job on a fandango and maybe two dozen singers who can do a good job on a deep siguiriyas must mean something; those who can do a great job can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Mercé also brags of his career move in creating a new sort of music that is essentially pop, with a certain air of flamenco.  At his press conferences, he insists on giving this fluff/stuff equal importance to his monumental and magnificent serious flamenco singing.  It seems that he’s walking a strange line:  Is he doing the pop to attract new audiences to the great flamenco that often shares space on the same CDs?  Is he doing great flamenco to call attention to his pop?  Hey, he’s a genius; he can do whatever he wants.

Mercé doesn’t share the Gypsy-centric attitudes of many of his devotees, referring with obvious admiration to “the maestro Enrique Morente,” the late genius from Granada who was not a Gypsy, and criticizing the vocal approaches of Jesús Méndez, inheritor of the wildly wise and Gypsy art of La Paquera de Jerez, and also the sound of José Valencia, a serious singer who may also be a gitano.

The term “natural” voice, as applied to flamenco vocals, often describes the voice of Manuel Torre, the paradigm of Gypsy masters of deep song.  But other great Gypsy artists, notably Manuel Agujetas who in his prime was as astounding as Mercé is today, had a different quality – rougher, more hoarse, possibly “afillá”.

A final point:  Mercé reveals an unpleasant truth about flamenco, and one that tells us why serious flamenco song is so unpopular.  Yes, unpopular, as in “Not coming soon to a theater near you”, and “not ever played on any American radio programs, ever.”

Mercé laments the many “fine” voices in flamenco, and wishes instead that there would arise “un eco flamenco que rompa, que hiera, que duele” (that shatters, that wounds, that hurts and aches).

He all but spells it out:  It takes a certain masochism to love deep flamenco, because it actually hurts those who know what is being expressed – tragedy that is both personal and historic, rooted in an ethnic disaster that befell a certain group in Spain long ago.

I once referred, half in jest, to deep flamenco song as “an acquired taste that no one wants to acquire.” Mercé says, again seemingly half in jest, that “maybe it’s the collapse of the ozone layer, or all the junk food we’re living on these days, but real song [cante de verdad] doesn’t interest people these days.”

Today, that’s the real tragedy of deep flamenco song.

May 11, 2013   No Comments

Flamenco Guitarist Pepe Habichuela speaks – Interview with María Valdovín – translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco Guitarist Pepe Habichuela speaks – Interview with María Valdovín – translated by Brook Zern

El Periódico de Aragón of May 1, 2013 has an interview with the great flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela by María Valdovín.  Here’s a translation:

Headline:  “I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years and every day I have bigger hopes and dreams [estoy más ilusionado]” – Pepe Habichuela appears in concert with Tamara Escudero and Bandolero

Pepe Habichuela was born José Antonio Carmona Carmona in Granada in 1944,.  As a kid he thought he was destined to be a baker, but he carried the art of flamenco in his veins and he knew how to express it so well that he became the king of the Gypsy guitar, as he is known today.  “I’ve had this instrument in my hands for fifty years, and every day I have bigger hopes and dreams.  What’s more, right now I am at a brilliant point in my career and thank God, I have offers of work”, says the artist.

Tonight he visits Aragón’s capital to play in the Teatro Arbolé, and says “I’m very excited about going to Zaragoza.  It’s a place with a lot of art, with its jotas and its bullfighting tradition.”  Onstage, he’ll be accompanied by the singer Tamara Escudero and the percussionist Bandolero.  “We’re going to offer a classic flamenco concert, with chirivillas [?], soleares, tarantas, bulerías and rumbitas.”

In the concert, he says he’ll be drawing on material from his three recordings, A Mandeli, Habuichuela en Rama and YerbaGüena, with his guitar revealing the ancestral echoes of the Arab, Jewish, Andalusian and above all the Gypsy cultures, with the rhythmic pulse [templanza] and deep knowledge [sabiduría].   Pepe Habichuela has been fusing his genuine flamenco styles “with other styles of world music,” as he puts it.  I have been able to share flamenco with artists from many different realms, like Chandru and Nothin Sawnhey who come from the Indian {“Hindu”] tradition, and with jazzmen like Don Cherry and Dave Holland, “ says the maestro.  “It gives me pride and pleasure to know that artists from other cultures want to fuse and blend [fusionar] their music with mine.  I like to “tirar por otros lares” [?] of the hand of flamenco, which is what I carry in my blood.”  With good reason, he sums up his long career with special pride in having shared prestigious stages with great  flamenco artists.  “I’ve accompanied the singers Juanito Valderrama, Pepe Marchena, Enrique Morente and Carmarón, and I learned a lot from all of them.  The work of these maestros was very important and magical.  From all those collaborations, I keep in my heart a very special tour of Spain in the seventies with Valderrama and Pepe Marchena,” he says.

According to Habichuela, flamenco “is at a very special moment; it has wide acceptance and tremendous [“bárbaro”] success, and the world’s great musicians want to fuse their music with flamenco and learn from it.”   He adds that  beyond the passion for flamenco beyond and within our borders, the continuity of flamenco is assured thanks to this new musical savvy [sabia].  Right now, in addition to working on his second recording with jazzman Dave Holland, he’s immersed in a project with four young flamenco artists who, he says, “may become great figures in the art.”

End of article.

Pepe Habichuela is nearly seventy, and his art can be cutting-edge.  Like his older brother Juan Habichuela, perhaps the finest accompanist in the business,  Pepe has total command of the flamenco guitar tradition.   Unlike Juan, his musical intelligence extends far beyond flamenco’s usual borders.  While countless young players are straying or rushing into fusion’s green pastures with often unconvincing results, Pepe’s work with jazz people is taken seriously in very discriminating circles.  But sometimes it seems to me that such fusions can be a one-way street – the flamenco artist learning new rules and striving to capture the essence of jazz or other musics, while the other artists don’t even bother to learn flamenco’s rhythmic system or compás, or use its fascinating Phrygian scale in any sensible way.

For me, it was interesting to confirm that Pepe’s taste in flamenco runs to the pleasant, easy-listening art of Juanito Valderrama and Pepe Marchena, the two greatest exponents of the so-called “cante bonito” or “pretty song” genre.  While those artists were wildly popular in mid-century, it’s safe to say that they aren’t often singled out by Gypsy artists as personal favorites.  Valerrama’s son Juan recently released a record called “Sonidos Blancos” or “White Sounds”, challenging the once-prevalent preference for what García Lorca called the “sonidos negros” or “black sounds” that characterize the typically deep and unpretty Gypsy song.

I first stumbled into that minefield while talking to Sr. Habichuela after one of the stupendous shows during the 1988 New York run of Flamenco Puro, when I made a disparaging remark about Marchena as affected and efectista (striving for easy sentimental effects rather than digging for deep and intense expression].  He gave me a dismissive stare and said, “You know what your problem is?”  I said no.  He said, “Your mouth is too big, and your ears are too small.”

Hoping for backup, I turned to Sabicas who was sitting to my left – yes, those were heady times in the big city.  He smiled, looked up toward the ceiling, and whistled a little tune, as if to say, “Schmuck, you’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Okay.  Point taken.  When two out of two geniuses agree on something, I reset my flamenco opinions accordingly.  And so it was that on the following night, at a Brazilian restaurant, I shared my brilliant new insight with the immortal Fernanda de Utrera, the greatest singer of soleares in the history of the art.  “You know,” I pontificated, “I used to think Pepe Marchena was a crummy singer, but lately I have realized that his art must be respected and taken very seriously.”

Fernanda de Utrera looked at me with a disappointed stare and said, “You know, until now I thought you knew something about this art.”


May 1, 2013   No Comments