Category — Flamenco in New York
The DeGypsification of Flamenco – 2011 Article by Producer Ricardo Pachón – translated with comments by Brook Zern
The important flamenco authority and record producer Ricardo Pachón– he was behind Camarón’s crucial tradition-breaking late-career releases — describes a major movement which is changing the malleable history of the art and the economic distribution patterns among the artists. Reprinted yesterday on a very interesting Facebook page, Puente Genil con el Flamenco, it drew a furious reception, including the chilling comments of Pachón’s extremely influential now-former friend Faustino Núñez, whose response to this communication might be termed excommunication. My two cents’ worth follow.
The DeGypsification of Flamenco
By Ricardo Pachón, 2011
You could see it coming for a long time: the Gypsy Tsunami. The revolt of angry Gypsy artists against Andalusia’s cultural administration that is marginalizing them ever since the region’s Statute of Autonomy claimed “exclusive competency in the matter of competency in flamenco as a singular element in the cultural patrimony of Andalusia” (Point 1 of Article 68).
The Gypsies have been settled for five centuries in Spain, and have been persecuted from the reign of the Catholic Kings (the Pragmatic of Medina del Campo, of 1492) to the most recent Laws on Wanderers and Malfeasants of the Franco era. A nomadic people who became sedentary in Atlantic Andalusia and created one of the world’s richest musical genres. We are speaking a flamenco territory: the Gypsy sections of Triana, Alcalá, Utrera, Morón, Jerez, Arcos, Los Puertos and Cádiz. (The Gypsy sector of Triana was eradicated and destroyed in 1957 by order of the Civil Governor< Hermenegildo Altozano y Moraled, a distinguished member of the Opus Dei.) We are speaking of certain musical styles that employ an alternating rhythm within a twelve-beat cycle combining binary and ternary rhythms: the tonás, martinetes, livianas, seguiriyas, corridos, cantiñas, soleares and bulerías. And we’re speaking of the large number of Gypsy creators of these styles, from El Fillo to Camarón and passing through Manuel Cagancho, Juan el Pelao, Tío José de Paula, Enrique el Mellizo, Manuel Torre, Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena… Supported by the above-mentioned Statute, the next move by the politicians was the creation of an Agency of Flamenco through which have passed the most diverse ["variopintas“] people, unfamiliar with this musical world but holding the power to decide what is and what is not flamenco. Since the flamenco territory we’ve described is far too small for their electoral ambitions and proposals, they had to seek voters in all eight of Andalusia’s provinces – and thus arose the idea of the “café for everyone”.
The Gypsy movement, that is taking shape and growing stronger with every passing day, doesn’t just focus on economic exclusion; the problem is greater than that. It goes to the Formulario (proposal) presented to UNESCO by the communities of Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura that launches a crusade to deGypsify flamenco. On page 2, they call flamenco a mode of “popular expression”, as if to say the entire populace sings and dances the soleares and the bulerías [two complex flamenco styles that require either extensive study or early immersion in a setting where they are performed frequently and naturally – a situation that is very rare, even unknown, outside of certain Gypsy families in Andalusia.]
On page 3, we find an enumeration of the “musical forms of flamenco” among which are included the sevillanas, the fandangos, the verdiales, etc… all modalities of Andalusian folklore [rather than actual flamenco], in a readily danceable 3/4 rhythm that has nothing whatever to do with the complicated metric of flamenco. And here we have the core of the problem for the indignant Gypsies: The politicians have decided that all Andalusian folklore is flamenco.
UNESCO’s consideration of flamenco to be declared an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity – along with [relatively minor or seemingly inappropriate] things such as the mountain whistlers or the Mediterranean diet only underlines the “danger of extinction” [that is one requirement for inclusion].
What’s lamentable is that flamenco does not exist as a “musical genre” on the servers and portals of the Internet. We are still bunched with Latin Music or World Music. And it’s the Internet where the economic and commercial future of the art will be determined. And it’s here where the professionals in the field of flamenco (artists, critics, investigators, producers, etc.) will have to define, once and for all, what is and what is not flamenco. Now, diverse categories can exist within a musical genre, as is the case with blues or rock. For example, Flamenco (the forms mentioned above), Flamenco-folk (i.e. Andalusian folklore that has been flamenco-ized); Latin-flamenco (styles like the rumba); flamenco fusion (for all the recent blinding with jazz, blues, rock and more). It’s just a matter of getting to work.
It is unacceptable that the Junta de Andalucía should say to UNESCO (page 27 of the Formulario) “At this time, our Cultural Consejería are seeking the inclusion of different manifestations of flamenco such as the sevillanas school of dance, the bolero school of dance, the verdiales [a very folky form and fandangos], the trovos [ballads] of the Alpujarra mountains…”
Now we have the “First International Congress of Flamenco”, November 2011. A strange matter, given the fact that the “First International Congress of Flamenco” was organized by UNESCO in Madrid in June of 1969. The second, also organized by UNESCO, was held in 1971. The records of both were published by the Institute of Hispanic Culture. The Scientific Committee of the 2011 Congress consisted of 81 members, and naturally, not a single Gypsy. While in those earlier UNESCO Congresses, authorities including Fernando Quiñones and Caballero Bonald were joined by three eminent Gypsy experts and artists: the singer and author Antonio Mairena, the singer Juan Talegas, and the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.
And that is the affront that the Junta de Andalucía has thrown at the Gypsy community and that is confronting Gypsy anthropologists and musicologists as well as regional Gypsy associations, which have turned to the Institute of Gypsy Culture within the Ministry of Culture, which has responded with the publication of the manifesto “Somos gitanos, somos flamenco.” (We are Gypsies, We are Flamenco.)
End of 2011 article by Ricardo Pachón.
Translator’s note: Sr. Pachón makes a serious case against what he sees as an organized effort to strip Andalusia’s Gypsies of their claim to a crucial element — maybe the crucial element — in the creation, preservation and interpretation of flamenco.
He has been around the block, as we say in English. I remember seeing him at flamenco sessions in Morón and Seville in the sixties — sometimes singing a bit.
I don’t agree that the term flamenco should only apply to the eight forms he names, beginning with the martinetes. I think it’s more logical to call most so-called flamenco forms “flamenco” – including the various forms of alegrias, the sometimes vapid but often charming Latin-American forms like the flamenco guajiras and flamenco milongas, and the many highly developed variants of fandangos including the malagueñas and tarantas. For me, the only logical candidates for expulsion are the sevillanas and the rhythmic forms of fandangos. All of these styles have a folkloric aspect that others don’t – they are performed by large numbers of ordinary folks, just like the jotas and the sardanas in other regions of Spain.
Also, I know that the alternating rhythmic cycle Sr. Pachón refers to and that underpins most allegedly Gypsy flamenco styles, was a pre-existing musical tradition on the Iberian peninsula and not a gitano invention as may be implied.
But I share his concern over the deGypsification movement — the term seems fair enough — that has come to dominate the field in the last decade. Suffice it to say that Spain’s most important authority on flamenco, Faustino Núñez, begins his educational talks by banning any use of the “G-word” in his presence and no, I am not making that up. The intention may be excusable or even laudable — in an ideal world, no one group should be singled out for alleged special contributions to an Andalusian (or Spanish) art form that incorporates so many influences. The real-world effect, however, is to further marginalize a group that deserves recognition for its indispensable creative role in taking flamenco from the realm of remarkable regional folklore to that of high art.
I was at that 2011 “First International Flamenco Congress” that Pachón mentions — not invited, but I snuck in. I noted one interesting thing right away, when the Mexican architect who represented UNESCO stood up and said that the designation of flamenco as a patrimony of humanity was in danger of being withdrawn because the petitioning authorities had misrepresented their willingness to provide essential support to the art and artists. (I wrote the long American contribution to that petition, at the behest of a noted Spanish authority, José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, who had once been — well, a sort of “gitanista” and “purista”, like so many others, before the pendulum swung away from that position. He knew I wasn’t on board with the revised history, but asked me anyway. I was glad to do it, though I never envisioned the declaration’s complex ramifications, both positive and negative.)
The other thing I noticed — only after the conference was over — was the total lack of Gypsies as speakers (or, it seemed, as attendees).
To bring such matters up today risks one being branded a “racist” — a twisted meaning that, nominally in a noble effort to be fair to all, forbids special recognition of any group. (Note for any Spanish readers: In the U.S., the traditional definition of a racist is one who tries to make things even worse for members of a minority group, especially a distrusted or despised minority group. Those who try to make things better for a minority group are not called racists but “progressives”. For an American, at least, it seems strange to be branded a racist for any pro-minority stance, even including the sin of “gitanismo”.)
Historical note: In the early or mid 1970′s, after I spoke at an event sponsored by the New York Society of the Classical Guitar (I was the Flamenco Editor of their elegant publication Guitar Review), a guy came up to me, smiled, and said in a Spanish accent, “I notice that you hold the racist position regarding flamenco.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that I singled out one race or group as deserving special respect and recognition. He said that he was a classical guitar teacher at the State University of New York (SUNY) and had studied with Segovia. I didn’t argue with him, didn’t think to ask where he was from, and didn’t face the same accusation directly for decades. When I went to Jerez to live, around 2005, I often saw his fliers for lessons — “José Franco, discípulo de Segovia, diplomado en New York.” By that time, the charge had resurfaced again in flamenco circles as more and more authorities — without the smiles — forcefully rejected the notion of a Gypsy-centric perspective on flamenco. Call it the New Anathema.
The astounding irony, of course, was that I had come to Jerez because of my — umm, bias? Preference? Ethnic imbalance? Okay, okay — I had come because my racist taste in flamenco dictated that I should live for years in the town that most powerfully reflected the Gypsy aspect of flamenco, the home of the legendary Gypsy families whose names resonate through two centuries of the art as the most important creators and interpreters of the most important forms of flamenco song.
I was now officially a racist. And it was Señor Franco of Jerez — Jerez! — who first nailed me on that poisonous charge, more than three decades earlier. (Did I mention that Antonio Chacón, by any measure one of the two or three greatest singers in the history of flamenco, high falsetto voice and all, was also from my adopted city and was not a member of the G-word faction? Or that he was a devoted admirer of Manuel Torre, also one of the two or three greatest singers ever, and as G as they come? I even think it was mutual.)
Flamenco is sometimes compared to the blues (an early attempt is my 1972 article reprinted in this blog – search for “Vallecillo”.) I am happy to report that there is no parallel movement to strip African-Americans of their central role in the creation story of that other great cultural masterpiece. Yet.
P.S. Unlike so many of the experts, including my friend Estela Zatania of Jerez, I can’t buy the notion that reference to ethnicity is never, ever, proper or productive.
But for the record, I do not think there is a racial or genetic DNA component that makes one embryo grow up to be a great flamenco artist, or a great cook or criminal or blues guitarist — rather, as Hank Williams Junior once sang, “If I get drunk and sing all night/ it’s a family tradition”. And there are many fine flamenco artists whom I and many others initially assumed to be Gypsy but were not, and vice versa. Any difference is strictly environmental, of course. Though sometimes at the flamenco peñas of Jerez at two a.m., surrounded by loud flamenco music and little kids running around or suckling at their mother’s breasts, I’ll see a pregnant woman leaning back and beating out the complex rhythms of flamenco on her belly. And somehow I can’t help wondering whether such lessons taken in utero in Jerez will give the occupant a special edge that I never quite got before my own birth in Philadelphia while the radio was broadcasting “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”.
P.S. Family tradition? My father started studying and playing flamenco guitar in the mid-1940′s and kept it up for two decades, very possibly the first American to take that challenge seriously. I grew up with that sound in my ears, especially when I just wanted to get some sleep. And predictably enough, I grew up to become a flamenco guitarist. For fifty years I’ve been learning great stuff from great players. But sadly, I tend to play like a guiri — the Spanish word for an outsider who’ll never really get the hang of it. But that’s another family tradition. In fact, guiri was my father’s middle name — literally. Yes, my father was named Edward Geary Zern. And in Spain, there are gitanistas and andalucistas, but there are no guiristas. Thanks a lot, pop.
March 28, 2015 7 Comments
Guitar Review #37 of Fall, 1972, carried my first column, devoted to the flamenco methods available at the time. As usual with new writers, they included an introduction:
BROOK ZERN lived in Andalusia for many years. He has played and talked about flamenco music on many New York radio programs (including his own WBAI series, “Flamenco”), on National Educational Television, at the Society of the Classic Guitar, and at schools and colleges. He is currently teaching a university course in the music and culture of flamenco at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he also teaches guitar privately.
“I was born in 1941, the son a a Pennsylvania Dutch advertising copywriter who had a Mittyesque delusion that he was actually a flamenco guitarist. I don’t know what he did in the offce, but at home he played flamenco guitar incessantly for the first twenty years of my life, He got pretty good, but the music drove me nuts. Maybe it was overexposure — it’s hard to sleep during a thundering zapateado — or maybe I sensed that he wanted me to learn flamenco, and felt honor-bound never to do what my parents wanted.
“Anyway, I finally left home for college and the absence of flamenco music drove me nuts. I snuck back home, took my father’s Velázquez guitar and headed for his teacher’s apartment. I learned a lot from Fidel Zabal — about flamenco and much more. After graduating from Columbia College, I went to Spain with my wife and started studying guitar in Seville and the outlying towns. I studied with all the good guitarists I could find, asked dumb questions, and read the existing literature — mostly worthless — on flamenco.
“Now I am an advertising copywriter with a Mittyesque delusion that I am a flamenco guitarist. I consider this to be a rare form of genetic defect.”
February 9, 2015 2 Comments
On February 26, 2014, soon after the grievous loss of Paco de Lucía, Spain’s official news agency EFE published an article that ran in La Información and many other Spanish-language publications. It focused on Paco’s connection to New York City. I was contacted as a source of information. Here’s my translation of the piece:
New York, a key city in the transformation of Paco de Lucía
New York, Feb 26 (EFE) – The city of New York, with its chrysalis of cultures and the enormous effervescence of the sixties and seventies, was a key factor in the musical evolution of Paco de Lucía from traditional flamenco to the fusion that revolutionized the art.
From his early years, de Lucía repeatedly visited the city starting in the first half of the sixties, and found himself in the confluence of great Spanish guitar masters, as well as the richness of sounds from that era that influenced his evolution, which also became the evolution of flamenco itself.
The late guitarist arrived in the city of skyscrapers at the age of 16 or 17, with a group of musicians and dancers brought by José Greco, a New York dancer of Italian descent who became a flamenco artist and one of the protagonists of flamenco life in the city since the 1940’s.
Greco had appeared in that decade with some great figures like Carmen Amaya, Pilar López and La Argentinita, and for many years brought musicians and promising groups to accompany him in his appearances, among them the dancer El Farruco,
In his second trip to New York with Greco, Paco de Lucía remained extremely promising and he was presented to Agustín Castellón “Sabicas”, a Gypsy guitarist from Pamplona who lived in New York and was considered the world’s greatest flamenco guitarist, according to Brook Zern, the music critic, flamenco expert and former flamenco editor of Guitar Review.
“After Paco played for him, Sabicas realized that he had seen the future,” recalls Zern, and Sabicas told him that he could not keep on playing the way he did, imitating masters like Niño Ricardo. Instead, he had to find his own path. “Create your own flamenco”, Sabicas insisted, according to the critic.
In addition to Sabicas, other Spanish guitar masters like Carlos Montoya and Mario Escudero had settled in New York in the 1940’s and 50’s as flamenco guitar soloists, a form of interpretation that had not found acceptance but in New York was becoming increasingly successful.
“In the U.S. we were ready for it – not for the singers, but for the guitarists, much more than in Spain,” recalls Zern.
Paco de Lucía discovered that format, but he also took advantage of his trips to New York to absorb all the musical styles that were permeating the city, from jazz and bossa nova to rock and salsa.
New York was “a bubbling melange of cultural ideas”, where Paco “soaked up the cultural mix” that is the city. “He realized, to the dismay of the purists, that the future was in fusion,” Zern adds.
In his New York experience, Paco de Lucia “discovered that flamenco’s musical vision was too narrow,” and, for example, lamented that he could not appear accompanied by a flutist or a bassist, in the manner of a jazz ensemble – a vision that would later become reality, Zern says.
Today, a flamenco guitarist can be like the leader of a jazz group.
For example, in 1970 or 1971 – Zern isn’t sure of the precise year – Paco de Lucía appeared in New York’s Spanish Institute, and in the audience was Andy Warhol (accompanied by his courtiers from The Factory), who at the end met with the young flamenco genius – an encounter that evidently left no photographic record since the pictures Zern took did not come out.
The result of this cocktail was that Paco de Lucía “reinvented flamenco in several distinct phases or periods, until he had almost created a new art”, says the critic. To such a point that Sabicas once told him that when he had given his advice to Paco, he had never dreamed that the young man would take flamenco so far, Zern recalls.
Paco de Lucía expressed this evolution in his famous collaboration of 1980 with two non-flamenco guitarists, the Englishman John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, from New Jersey.
If the late guitarist fed off of New York musically, the city returned the favor in the form of affection and applause and filled concert venues like the legendary Carnegie Hall, as well as critical raves for his performances.
“The New York public adored him,” and even followed him to restaurants after his shows just to watch him eat, says Zern, for whom the loss of Paco de Lucía was “utterly devastating,” especially since he was “at the pinnacle of his career, despite the fact that he was no longer young.”
End of article. One example of the original story is seen at: http://noticias.lainformacion.com/arte-cultura-y-espectaculos/musica/nueva-york-una-ciudad-clave-en-la-transformacion-de-paco-de-lucia_WxsG0XhkGfnuw2dUwVX6S6/
December 29, 2014 No Comments
A New World to Conquer:
How The Flamenco Guitar Took Manhattan and America
Note: This was written for inclusion in the elegant catalog that accompanied the Lincoln Center Library Exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York”
Flamenco music, a product of Spain’s southern region of Andalusia, has a mixed pedigree at best. It started with some distinctive songs that packed an emotional wallop – songs that first drew public and press attention in the mid-Nineteenth Century but may have been brewing long before that.
Inevitably, the music reflected the mélange of peoples and cultures that had defined the area – Celts, Vandals, Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, the Moors who occupied the region from 711 until 1492, and the Gypsies who had wandered from India to the western end of the then-known world.
Inevitably, too, Spain’s glorious folk and formal dance traditions meant that a new style of movement would arise, appropriate to the specific rhythms and emotional mysteries of these song forms.
And Spain’s emblematic instrument, the guitar, was on hand to provide the rhythmic underpinning and melodic support to hold it all together.
Flamenco was ready for its close-up. By the 1870’s, it had coalesced into a distinctive style of singing, dancing and guitar accompaniment that would be immediately recognizable today. By the early 1900’s, flamenco consisted of more than fifty forms, each defined by a specific rhythm, key and melodic structure – and each with its own emotional landscape.
But flamenco wasn’t finished creating itself. A few Spanish visionaries shared an impossible dream – a dream of appearing alone in a spotlight in a concert hall, and distilling each flamenco form into nothing more or less than a blaze of music emerging from a single guitar.
One was from Madrid in the center of Spain, one from Alicante on the Eastern coast, and one from Pamplona. All were beginning professional journeys that would lead them to Eighth Avenue and 55th Street in Manhattan, give or take a block or two.
Why was this strange self-exile an intrinsic element in the creation of the concert flamenco guitar? Because Spain wasn’t interested. In Spain, everyone knew that the guitarist was simply a supporting player, hired to enable the nation’s star flamenco singers and dancers to shine.
A flamenco guitarist in the spotlight? On a concert stage? Absurd. Where were the real artists? It was as if – well, in American terms, it was as if a blues musician had decided his instrument was so fine, so complete, so evocative that he didn’t need to sing at all, but instead would give two-hour concerts of incessant guitar. All by itself.
As for flamenco guitar solos, well, Spaniards knew you’d have to be crazy to voluntarily sit through twenty of them. Or – is this so different? – you’d have to be an American.
Americans loved flamenco dance, all right. That art, or its Spanish-dance predecessors including classical and bolero-style dancing, had been packing us in since before the Civil War, and by the 1940’s New York City was infested with the troupes and troopers who would become legends – the incomparable Barcelona-born Carmen Amaya, Pilar Lopez and La Argentinita from guess-where, the young Brooklyn-born José Greco, and dozens of other lesser lights.
On the other hand, Americans hated serious flamenco singing. That may seem like an overstatement, but even today, with our professed love of diversity and tens of thousands of hours of reggae and salsa on the air every year, you will not find serious flamenco singing on American radio, anywhere, ever. And since flamenco song is far too assertive to generate indifference, the remaining response is outright distaste.
(One of the few U.S. records of flamenco singing, from the early LP days of stereo and sound effects, was titled “Music to Speed the Parting Guest”, and it did exactly that.)
Enter the pioneers of the concert flamenco guitar. The most successful figure was a Gypsy from Madrid who had already made a name for himself accompanying many of the greatest dancers of his time. His name was Carlos Montoya, and his uncle thought his playing was inferior. This might not normally be a problem, but in this case it should have been catastrophic.
His uncle was named Ramón Montoya, and he held the patent on flamenco guitar. Starting around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Ramón Montoya had solidified the still amorphous sound of the instrument into dozens of distinctive guitar forms. He had raised the previously lax technical standards of flamenco into the realm of genuine virtuosity, and had also introduced new mechanisms borrowed from the classical guitar, notably arpeggios and tremolos.
Ramón was revered as an accompanist, and was sought out by the greatest divo in the the history of flamenco, Don Antonio Chacón – that “Don” was an unprecedented honorific in an art form, flamenco, that was usually associated with low-lifes, alcoholics and worse.
Ramón was the towering progenitor of this art form, and in 1936 he made the first flamenco guitar album – not in Madrid, but in Paris. There was simply no audience for this in Spain, and he returned to the role of backup man.
Carlos Montoya, born in 1903, had a broader ambition. In Spain, he accompanied many leading dancers and singers. Then, in an unusual career move for a Gypsy, he joined the army – knowing this would entitle him to passport when he got out. Soon he was touring the world with great dancers including La Argentina, La Argentinita, Pilar López, La Malena, La Macarrona, Vicente Escudero, Antonio de Bilbao, Faíco and Carmen Amaya – it is reasonably certain that no other guitarist has ever appeared with such an illustrious array of dance figuras.
He finally settled in New York with his Scottish-American wife Sally, who had a love of flamenco and a gift for promotion. He began building a concert career, and his success was phenomenal. He radiated charisma, connecting with new audiences who simply assumed that a flamenco guitar concert was the most natural thing in the world.
Montoya’s solo career coincided with the advent of the long-play record; in 1950, he made the world’s first flamenco LP for Folkways records in New York, and by the end of the century he had made at least fifty more for many labels. The records were so ubiquitous that nearly every young American who became obsessed with flamenco guitar would say it was a Carlos Montoya record that ignited the passion. The concerts and recordings were a potent combination, mutually reinforcing Montoya’s astounding public impact. At the peak of his fame, he filled entire stadiums – an achievement never equaled by other soloists.
Carlos Montoya was the world’s most successful flamenco concert artist. In 1973, at the Spanish Institute, I had the honor of introducing him on his 25th year as a soloist as he was presented with Spain’s Order of Civil Merit. In 1983, he celebrated his 80th birthday with a Carnegie Hall concert that marked the culmination of his career.
But you can’t have everything, and in the flamenco business there is no necessary correlation between public adulation and insider admiration. For initiates, Carlos’s playing was sometimes interesting but often imprecise and efectista – straining for effect at the expense of substance.
In fact, these people knew the greatest flamenco virtuoso of the era was also living in New York.
It had been a long, strange trip. He was born in the Spanish city least likely to generate a flamenco artist, and indeed there is no sign it ever produced another. Pamplona is the beating heart of the Basque country, where secessionism runs strong and Spanish can feel like a foreign language.
But in 1912, when Agustín Castellón was five, someone gave him a guitar. Since no one played flamenco in Pamplona, he started listening to records and copying the guitarists.
He acquired his nickname from his childhood love of beans – habas, diminutively called habicas. He was playing onstage at eight years old, and accompanying important singers in his teens. In his early twenties he was Sabicas, which is to say he was the most adept flamenco guitarist in the world.
With his beloved brother Diego, he left Spain in 1936 to tour South America and Mexico as part of the company of the fabulous Carmen Amaya – two geniuses at the pinnacle of their art, squandering sheer magic wherever they went.
By the mid-fifties, Sabicas had settled in New York City and begun laying the foundation for a solo career. It was his Town Hall concert of May 22, 1959 that amazed the audience and stunned the critics, who stated that for the first time, we were in the presence of a true flamenco guitar virtuoso.
He went from triumph to triumph, and his records were a revelation. In 1959, his first LP, Flamenco Puro, provided marching orders for hopeful players in America and gradually filtered into Spain to reset the bar for every player who aspired to true virtuosity.
(I had started studying flamenco guitar in 1959, continuing a family tradition started by my Pennsylvania Dutch father in the mid-1940’s. I learned from him and then from his teacher, Fidel Zabal, a fine Spanish player and a good friend of Sabicas whose material he showed to my father and to me. Two years later, I was studying guitar in Spain with a noted professional – hoping to find “real” flamenco material – when he asked what I already knew.
“Nothing special,” I said apologetically. “Just stuff from Sabicas.”
His jaw dropped. “What!? You know the music of Niño Sabicas!? My god, how we have missed him. Don’t move!”
He picked up his phone. A half-hour later, I was surrounded by a half-dozen professional players, laboriously but correctly showing them Sabicas’s great falsetas (melodic variations) – which they immediately and joyously re-rendered in a way I could only envy and never equal.)
Sabicas ruled the realm of solo flamenco guitar for several decades, virtually unchallenged. But he soon had worthy company – a younger compañero and escudero (the Spanish word means squire or shield-bearer, and refers to a knight’s right-hand man) appropriately named Mario Escudero.
Mario was inevitably overshadowed by his idol, but he was a genius in his own right, as demonstrated by his many fine recordings including breathtaking historic duets with the maestro. His approach to guitar had a more classical sensibility, reflecting his prowess in that area. For years, his presence and his personality graced the New York guitar scene.
Sabicas, meanwhile, continued his illustrious concert career, and sometimes played in the intimate Chateau Madrid in midtown. His guitar had an unequalled clarity and sonority, his seemingly effortless technique set new standards, and his mastery of flamenco’s fiendishly difficult metric/rhythmic system called compás was absolute. He created hundreds of superb falsetas, treasured and traded by lesser guitarists everywhere.
He also kept his hand in as an accompanist, making records with singers including Domingo Alvarado, Enrique Montoya and Dolores Vargas. He never learned English – his guitar did the communicating.
But no one reigns forever. And on a Manhattan evening in 1965 some local artists and aficionados took an eighteen-year-old phenomenon to meet the maestro. The new kid on the block had been called Paco de Algeciras before he wisely switched that home-town moniker for his mother’s name and became Paco de Lucía.
The famous New York-based dancer José Greco, who had the wisdom to work surrounded by superb artists (including El Farruco, widely considered the finest male flamenco dancer of the last half-century), had brought Paco to town, as he had a few years before.
Sabicas listened to him play. Like nearly every other Spanish guitarist of the era, Paco was hugely influenced by the brilliant and endlessly inventive Niño Ricardo. Sabicas, possibly with a tinge of jealousy, told Paco to stop copying Ricardo and to find a different response to the challenge.
Paco took that advice to heart, and a few years later he had casually transcended all previous technical limitations, and was devising a new concept of how the instrument should sound. In fact, he was even criticizing his venerable elders, including Sabicas himself, for their failure of nerve in merely polishing instead of reconceiving the flamenco guitar.
Paco would soon return to the Big Apple, billed as “the Paganini of the guitar”. A few months ago I wrote a blog entry for my website describing that event:
In 1970 or 1971, Paco de Lucia played in the small auditorium of the Spanish Institute in New York. Afterwards, Sabicas went backstage to talk to Paco, alone. Maybe I was reading into it, but I felt I was witnessing the passing of the torch — though that didn’t mean that Sabicas actually liked what Paco was doing, music-wise.
But the true media star of that predominantly brunette evening was the towheaded Andy Warhol, accompanied by some Velvet Undergrounders and other denizens from the Factory. Warhol stood in the back, dressed in black, with that expressionless lizard look of his, but you could tell he was impressed by Paco’s playing, or his persona. (The young Paco could seem almost eerily beautiful, I thought. I took pictures of them both, but they didn’t come out.)
I had been shilling for the concert on Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, playing cuts from Paco’s “Fabulosa Guitarra” and “Fantasia Flamenca” LP’s, but nobody seemed to notice. I was impressed that Warhol had the zeitgeistiness to somehow glom onto to this newest world-class musical genius.
(In the film “I Shot Andy Warhol”, about the woman who did exactly that and almost killed him, there is some flamenco guitar music played by Paco Juanas, a veteran New York player. At a Spanish restaurant many years later, Paco Juanas let me sit in with him for a rendition of Paco de Lucia’s amazing alegrias in E minor when Sabicas walked in. I quickly switched to one of Sabicas’s finest falsetas, entrusted to me by Fidel Zabal in 1960, but it was too late. For the first time, the man we always called maestro seemed disappointed in my taste in flamenco guitar music.)
Not long after that blog post, I received a lovely note from Paco de Lucia’s son, Francisco Sánchez Varela. He said that Paco had in fact been given a picture of himself with Andy Warhol, and that he treasured it and was very upset to have lost it, and that he hoped I might have another such photo. I really wish those pictures had come out.
Indeed, Paco’s new vision quickly prevailed, nearly eradicating the wide and wonderful array of pre-existing approaches to the instrument. Soon his endless search for new answers led him to explore other musical styles – most notably, jazz.
And with that small step, or giant leap, the days of the solo flamenco guitar were numbered. For Paco so loved the idea of jazz ensembles that he hired some talented sidemen – horn players, percussionists, bassists, saxophonists, electric guitarists and anyone else who fit his musical mood of the the moment.
Today an ambitious first-rank flamenco guitarist in New York or anywhere else will not go onto a stage alone – or won’t remain alone after the first number or two. Instead, he will be fronting a sextet or septet, subsuming his personal genius and the sound of his guitar into a musical mélange that, for better or worse, is the new context of instrumental flamenco.
I once spoke to Sabicas about this evolving turn of events. He clearly considered it an unintended consequence of his long-ago intervention, expressing continued admiration for Paco’s genius but reservations about this new aesthetic.
Yet there was an almost palpable paternal pride in his words. He picked up a guitar and showed how some of Paco’s key innovations were firmly based on his own prior revelations.
Sabicas knew that his advice on that fateful New York night had forever determined the future of his chosen art.
February 3, 2014 2 Comments
Variations on a Spanish Theme Steeped in Tradition
By JAMIE JAMES
The New York Times
March 2, 1997
A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC OF modernism in the arts has been a softening of distinctions between ”high” and ”low,” with Picasso’s discovery of African tribal sculpture, the Futurists’ fascination with the machine, and the pervasive influence of jazz on composers as disparate as Ravel, Stravinsky and Copland. In Spain, isolated from the rest of Europe by the impervious wall of the Pyrenees, it was flamenco, the passionate, quasi-mystical idiom of the Gypsies of Andalusia, that exerted its magical influence on the nation’s art.
Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s great poet of this century, was obsessed with flamenco, imitating its forms and echoing its tragic voice in much of his best verse; Manuel de Falla, the country’s great composer, produced many of his finest works under its spell. Although Lorca called flamenco ”the most gigantic creation of the Spanish people,” its origins are complex, and most of its elements came from beyond the Iberian peninsula.
Scholars agree that flamenco originated at the end of the 15th century, when Gypsies, Arabs, Jews and outcast Christians mingled on the fringes of an emerging Spanish culture. Some musicologists discern influences as far-flung as Byzantine chant and classical Indian music. Although nearly static as an art form since that time, flamenco today is undergoing radical changes.
Beginning on Friday, Robert Spano and the Brooklyn Philharmonic will examine the complex interrelationship between traditional flamenco and its manifestations in the work of Falla and other Spanish composers, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Carmen Linares, widely regarded as the outstanding female flamenco singer, or cantaora, in Spain today, will sing Falla’s flamenco-inspired ”Amor Brujo” with the orchestra and perform traditional flamenco numbers, accompanied by guitarists.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of flamenco has been its formal purity. Brook Zern, a guitarist and flamenco historian who will give a film presentation as part of the Brooklyn event, points out that in a handful of villages in Andalusia, the music is still performed today essentially as it was centuries ago.
In recent years, however, a hybrid form has begun to emerge. Ms. Linares, in addition to her performances of traditional flamenco, has been a leading exponent of this ”flamenco fusion.” Six years ago, she released a remarkable disk on Auvidis, ”La Luna en el Rio” (”Moon in the River”), which presented radical reinterpretations of traditional texts using a heavy electric bass and a flute-violin duo, among other innovations.
”Today there are many new influences on flamenco,” Ms. Linares said recently. ”I think it’s a positive thing when the artist understands flamenco profoundly. If it sounds good, why not?”
The principal sources for the new flamenco sound are jazz and classical music. ”That’s only right,” said Ms. Linares, ”since flamenco has influenced classical music so much in the past.” She believes that the changing sound of flamenco is important primarily because it is drawing in a new, younger audience, she added. ”Flamenco is our music, and there’s pride in it.”
FLAMENCO PURISTS, MR. ZERN AMONG THEM, object to these developments.
Flamenco, for all its wide-ranging influence, has never been widely popular in its traditional form, even in Spain. It is a difficult, demanding style of music, which is sometimes harsh and grating on the ear, yet its overwhelming emotional power has always attracted passionate adherents. Lorca was by no means the first, but he was perhaps the most zealous. In 1922 he joined forces with Falla, Andres Segovia, Spain’s foremost guitarist, and others to stage a festival of flamenco in Granada, which was intended to save flamenco as they understood it.
One of Lorca’s continuing concerns was duende, a magical interpretive power the flamenco singer was expected to unleash. ”Duende” literally means evil spirit, demon or poltergeist, though in an artistic context it is closer to the classical Greek concept of ”daimon,” a word signifying a god or divinity but also the genius of a person, particularly that of an artist.
”The appearance of the duende always presupposes a radical change of all forms based on old structures,” Lorca said in a celebrated lecture in 1933, ”The Theory and Function of the Duende.” ”It gives a sensation of freshness wholly unknown, having the quality of a newly created rose, of miracle, and produces in the end an almost religious enthusiasm.”
Yet duende is not the exclusive province of flamenco. ”Whatever has black sounds has duende,” said the legendary flamenco singer Manuel Torre, after hearing Falla play his own ”Nights in the Gardens of Spain” on the piano at the Granada festival.
That 1922 festival was ”noble but misguided,” Mr. Zern said. ”Lorca, Falla and Segovia were concerned about the imminent disappearance of flamenco. They wanted to liberate it from the professionals, to go out into the pueblos and find the true interpreters.”
But flamenco, Mr. Zern argued, should not be regarded as a folk art. Although it is an oral tradition, it was always performed by professional performers before an audience.
Classic flamenco, known to its aficionados in Andalusia as cante jondo, or deep song, is the profoundest expression of the Gypsy soul, refined over centuries of persecution and systematic cruelty. While the anguished cries and furious rhythms of the cante jondo — mostly laments of death, lost love or betrayal — can sometimes strike the ear of the uninitiated as wild outpourings of emotion, this is in fact a complex musical style, which obeys principles as elaborate as those governing the sonata or the symphony. And, some would have it, as unchanging.
Ms. Linares is undaunted in her explorations. ”There are people who don’t want flamenco to evolve,” she said. ”But all art must evolve or die. The soul, the purity of flamenco is carried in the heart. To feel flamenco, you need to have a heart, that’s all.”
Jamie James covers musical events in New York for The Times of London.
January 29, 2014 No Comments
Flamenco Guitarist Mario Escudero Speaks – Interview by Francisco Vallecillo – Translated by Brook Zern
Translator’s note: I’m credited with transcribing and translating this interview that Francisco Vallecillo conducted with Mario Escudero in Seville in 1984, so it must have happened.
Vallecillo published “Flamenco” magazine in the early seventies, out Spain’s North African colony of Ceuta where it seems he’d been ordered or urged or strongly suggested to live because of his dangerous anti-Fascist sentiments. He was very supportive of my early efforts to learn about and pontificate about flamenco, and ran some of my articles. He was the key person in starting the CAF — now the CADF or Centro Andaluz para la Documentación de Flamenco, the main archive for the art, in Jerez.
And Mario was Mario — our own beloved and accessible generous genius who made us all feel special and happy; if only we’d been able to do the same for him…
Historic interview: “Mario Escudero – With the Bienal as Backdrop”
by Francisco de la Brecha [Francisco Vallecillo's nom de plume], originally published in Sevilla Flamenca No.8 [1984?] — evidently rerun in 1992
“I want flamenco fans to know who I am, starting with Andalusia”
Mario Escudero was born in Alicante in 1928. As a child he was taken to Madrid where he spent most of his youth. He was presented in public for the first time in France by Maurice Chevalier at the age of nine. Then dancer Vicente Escudero presented him in the Teatro Español in 1944 together with Ramón Montoya in a program of traditional flamenco that included singer Jacinto Almadén. For a long time, he studied with Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. His career started out in intimate juergas and on the “Opera Flamenca” stages, traveling throughout Spain with artists such as Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, José Cepero, Antonio Mairena, Juanito Mojama, El Sevillano, Canalejas, Pepe de la Matrona, Pericón de Cádiz and an endless list of other major singers of the era. He has also recorded duo guitar arrangements with Sabicas.
Before he was 25, he had traveled widely as first guitarist with Vicente Escudero, Carmen Amaya and Rosario and Antonio. After his trip to the U.S. with Vicente Escudero, he found a lot of interest in the flamenco guitar in that country and decided to emancipate himself from flamenco troupes and try to establish the flamenco guitar as a solo instrument in concert halls.
In 1956 he began his career as a concert player after long musical study in New York, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Los Angeles, continuing the studies he had begun with Daniel Fortea in Madrid. When he gave his first concert in Carnegie Hall it was a complete success. Since that auspicious beginning he has recorded more than 30 LPs and played in many Hollywood movies including “Cafe Cantante” with Imperio Argentina, “Brindis a Manolete” and “Jalisco Canta en Sevilla” with Jorge Negrete and Carmen Sevilla. He continues to give concerts around the world, and has just enojoyed another success in New York’s Town Hall.
That’s a brief biography of Mario Escudero, with whom we spent some time listening to his opinions, refreshing some old memories and exploring his profound artistic sensibility. This last item is not difficult, for Mario is an open person, expressive and sincere, even brave in his judgments although he seems rather shy. In our extensive chat one April morning we touched upon some topics that might interest the readers of Sevilla Flamenca in relation to the personality of this maestro of the flamenco guitar…
Mario, we’d like to follow the course of your professional life through the key people you’ve accompanied in your long and brilliant career. We remember meeting you many years ago in Madrid, when you were a kid who had already earned fame as a revolutionary player, in the area of the Plaza Santa Ana and Plaza del Angel, near that legendary flamenco “university” that was called Villa Rosa, around Calle Principe, Echegaray, and Victoria. One afternoon you introduced us to an unforgettable master of Gypsy dance, Francisco Ruíz, whose artistic name was Paco Laberinto. You were accompanying the [flamenco and popular singer] El Principe Gitano, who aspired to be a bullfighter, no less. Going back to that era, let’s talk about Vicente Escudero. Don’t you think his fame was greater than was warranted by the reality of his dancing, in which there were some marked deficiencies?
The passage of time and my good memories of Vicente prevent me from openly pursuing the thread you’ve started here. Yes, in fact, perhaps you’re not far from the truth here. But he had a distinctive line and a very personal style, and he was enthralled by the dance and by gypsies. Vicente Escudero was the first to dance siguiriyas. I started out calling him “Señor Escudero” and he vehemently corrected me. “No, I’m not Señor Escudero to you — I’m Tio Vicente [Uncle Vicente]”, and that’s what I ended up calling him.
Your opinion of Carmen?
What can I tell you about Carmen Amaya that hasn’t already been said? She was the greatest living genius of dance, the eternal and inextinguishable flame, she represented the glory of pure inspiration, because she never danced anything the same way twice. Her successes were enormous and knew no frontiers. She danced for Toscanini and for Franklin Roosevelt.”
You played with Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. To what extent were these men the roots of flamenco playing. And can you compare them?
Ramón was a great innovator of the flamenco guitar; Ricardo, who followed this same line, came later. With Ramón one must also talk of Jerez guitarist Javier Molina, another innovator. And with Ricardo, one must think along the different lines, but always innovative, of Manolo el de Huelva. The very personal style – and so clearly Andalusian, if one can say that – of Ricardo was extremely important. That was also true of the man from Huelva. But Ramón and Javier were the real pioneers in the innovation and perfection of flamenco guitar playing. All of them brought a great deal to the huge process of seeking new forms and to the evolution of the guitar: the evolution of playing toward what I call the three A’s: Aggressive, Accelerated, Arrogant.
You’ve accompanied such exalted singers as Pastora Pavón “La Niña de los Peines”, her brother Tomás Pavón, Antonio Mairena, Juanito Mojama. Who had the most meaning to you when you get right down to it?
All of them. To make a comparison between these colossi would be sheer vanity on my part. There is no way to select a favorite. But the deepest and most indelible memories I have are of Tía Pastora [Pavón]: sweet and not cloying…a thousand years could pass, and there will never appear another singer like her.”
What about your compadre, “El Nino de las Habicas” [the Kid of the Beans, Sabicas, who loved his "habas" as a child], Agustín Castellón, do you think he has influenced your playing?”
Of course! He had a great influence on me, and in fact the guitar in general owes this genius from Navarre a wealth of contributions and new ideas.”
Do you think there’s room in Spain for the concert flamenco guitar, for this spruced-up style whose rise you have contributed to?
I have no doubt that there is. This concert guitar, whatever clothes it may wear, today represents a kind of music that is unique in the world, and people are enthusiastic in their admiration of flamenco guitar.
Why shouldn’t concert guitar have a place in Spain? One thing is certain: Outside Spain it’s valued more highly than in, and followed by multitudes of fans. But it’s gaining ground here, gaining strength, and with good reason, because it’s a genuinely Spanish art, just as Spanish as the instrument upon which it is played.
You were in New York in February, and in April you’ll go back to play concerts in many states of the union. Are you thinking of establishing yourself definitively in Seville?
I sure am! What happens is that sometimes man proposes, and circumstance disposes. I have many obligations that must be met. But my decision to reside in Seville is definitive. I want flamenco fans to know who I am, starting with Andalusia. I’d like to do some teaching here, and I wish to live, be and work in Spain, because one’s homeland, that homing instinct, it’s very strong…
Our mutual friend, Brook Zern, said in The New York Times of February 3rd that you are not only a guitar virtuoso, but also one of the players who has most significantly extended the style and range of flamenco music, and who had great influence on the most popular of Spain’s younger guitarists, Paco de Lucía, who included your composition “Impetu” on his first album. What do you think of the fabulous Paco de Lucía?
For me, he is a remarkably complete artist, with enormous personality and individuality, who follows the path laid out by Niño Ricardo better than anyone else and who has discovered a way to create an inimitable and unmatched personal style or “aire”; fabulous; imitated by many, equaled by no one.
Sincere thanks to Brook Zern for the transcription and translation of this interview.
End of interview by Francisco Vallecillo.
Translator’s note: You’re welcome, Paco. Thanks. And thank you, Mario, for everything you gave to your admirers and your art.
January 28, 2014 2 Comments
I write excessively about flamenco but rarely review actual events. This may be my self-preservation instinct, since flamenco artists often think that “critic” should be another name for “supporter” or “avid fan”, or ideally, “ardent admirer”. But mostly it’s because I can either experience an event, or I can watch it critically while taking notes (or worse yet, photographs) and as a result miss the whole point or at least the intended spectator experience. But here’s something I wrote about an interesting 1997 event – a reconstructed Flamenco Christmas celebration in midtown Manhattan, put on by the then-still-marvelous World Music Institute. I like the intro, you may skip the rest):
What’s the opposite of an Armimom?
Yes, a Navidad.
And I liked the Navidad Flamenca show in New York. At first I was miffed because there wasn’t much in the way of heavyweight flamenco — just a soleá por bulerías by Pansequito and a tarantas/taranto by Aurora Vargas. But I was looking for the wrong thing, as is often the case.
(I spent my first few Ferias of Seville complaining because nobody sang the tragic siguiriyas, until some kind person — actually, it was El Chocolate — took me aside and said “It’s the Feria, stupid. You know, the Feria. Good times, happy music, celebration — the Feria. Bulerías. Sevillanas. Tangos. Happy music. Don’t you have Feria where you’re from?”).
Anyway, this was Navidad, so I tried to relax and enjoy it and it was pretty good. Pansequito continues to use remarkably extended lines in the cante to good effect — I remember being astounded when I first heard him in the early 70′s, wowing the crowd at a Ronda festival; it seemed few had heard this kind of stretched singing line.
I’d seen a lot of Aurora Vargas at the Seville Feria about ten years ago, where along with Juana la del Revuelo she was the hot new number. I’m not crazy about her singing, but when she’s doing the whole shtick — festive cantes and catchy pop-style cuplé plus powerhouse dancing — it’s a gas.
I was delighted that there was only one guitarist, since this helps me understand what’s going on. Niño de Pura, whose early recording was technically amazing but chilly, may not have been the ideal person for the job at hand. He didn’t get carried away and trample the singers — indeed, he often seemed to hang back — but something was amiss. Maybe he couldn’t find the right balance between propelling the artists and overshadowing them, so he didn’t give them quite the support they needed. I wasn’t amazed by any freshness in his musicianship; the tendency to use sort of wimpy, arpeggiated intros that gradually turn into recognizable forms like bulerías wears thin after the fourth time. (I was standing in back next to guitarist Arturo Martínez, who noted a creative similarity between Niño de Pura’s approach and that of Chuscales, who might’ve done better.)
But golly, he sure had some great technical resources. He did long picado passages in flat-out bulerías, lasting several compases, all in triplets. I’m sure Paco de Lucía could do it, and maybe better (after all, he does quadruplets in alegrías and sextuplets in soleá, which may be the equivalent; but Paco only uses triplets in short bursts for bulerías, or so it seems to me.)
Anyway, it was good to see real flamenco without any big production effects or extraneous themes. (Well, Christmas — though, grinchily, I thought that the villancicos — traditional Spanish Christmas songs, done here in flamenco style — were mostly a waste of time and talent.) And if last month’s Calixto Sánchez presentation (which I also liked) was distinctly non-gitano, this one struck me as Gypsy indeed.
Peter Watrous reviewed the next night’s presentation in the Times (and talked a bit about the song and the verses, undermining my claim that the papers always neglect this aspect.) His review, though intelligent, still seemed as off-center as most others. (I had mentioned to one of the organizers from the World Music Institute that the Times often does “stingy” reviews, as if the reviewer is reluctant to provide a snappy quote which would really help everyone in the future. She didn’t know what I was talking about, but the ungenerous Watrous review seemed like a perfect example; he obviously liked it, but I couldn’t see a single phrase that was usable.)
“Brilliant!” “Amazing!” “Socko!” “Well, pretty darn good, considering!” Now, be sure to put this critic’s name up in lights!!
– Brook Zern/The Flamenco Mailing List
Comment from 2014: Flamenco promoters are always looking for an angle to hang a show on. And sometimes, great minds seem to think alike. A few years ago, I strolled from our apartment in Jerez to a big Christmastime flamenco event organized by a local flamenco organizer, emcee and maven, Pepe Marín. It was called “Navidad Flamenca en Nueva York”, and it supposedly showed a celebration by a group of flamenco artists, mostly from Jerez’s noted gitano families, who were inexplicably stranded in or transported to Manhattan. A few weeks before the show, I ran into Señor Marín. ”Hi,” I said, “you don’t know me but I’m from Manhattan, and maybe I could tell you what it’s like there during the holidays so your show would…”
He looked at me — need I add that I knew this would happen? — as if I were out of my mind, and said, “No, we don’t need anything,” and kept walking. And the show, title notwithstanding, had nothing whatever to do with New York or the U.S. — it was just the funky regular artists from the Peña Flamenca Tío José de Paula doing their zambomba schtick (zambombas are a local Jerez style of folky Christmas songs) and winding up with the Jerez National Anthem, which is bulerías until the cows wake up.
Give him an A for Ambition. But no O for Originality.
January 19, 2014 No Comments
Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern
Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern
The Myth of the Taranto
Montse Madridejos and David Perez Merinero close this Centennial Year of Carmen Amaya with the publication of a biography in images of the dancer, and a defense of the thesis that she was actually born in 1918
By Juan Vergillos
Carmen Amaya. Montse Madridejos y David Pérez Merinero. Prologue by Juan Marsé. Edicions Bellaterra, Barcelona, 295 pp.
The present-day image of flamenco has been built in part upon myths. Above all, those which originated, and from which current myths are based, in the period when there were no investigators with adequate tools to understand (conocer) the past, or even the approximate realities.
Many of these myths have been undermined thanks to the investigative research of José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, Faustino Nuñéz, José Manuel Gamboa, José Luís Navarro, Gerhard Steingress, Antonio Barberán, Manuel Bohórquez, Rafael Chávez and many others, among whom we can now include the authors of this new work. Of course, one should not forget the work of pioneers like Anselmo González Climent or Luís Lavour.
Nonetheless, the myths of flamenco, including the most tendentious and those most lacking a factual basis, remain with us despite their faults. In flamenco historiography, more than in any other discipline, the old journalistic saying still reigns: “Never let reality ruin a great story.” What do they say about Carmen Amaya frying sardines in her room at the Waldorf Astoria? Well, someday it will become clear that this fraudulent (“supercheria”) notion was perhaps an astute commercial move by Sol Hurok, the impresario who led Carmen Amaya through the entresijos [ins and outs] of “show business norteamericano”. It’s all rather curious: Carmen Amaya went from being crowned Miss Morena of 1935 in Spain to being The Queen of the Gypsies in 1942 in the U.S. Of course, the Spaniards, delighted to buy into any American product, ate up that Carmen Amaya was dubbed Queen of the Gypsies – the image that is still sold both within and beyond our borders – forgetting, for example, not just Miss Morena of 1935 but also the artist who made cine social (socially conscious cinema?) with [the great avant-garde filmmaker] Luís Buñuel. And so we see that Carmen Amaya, viewed logically, is many Carmen Amayas.
This book by Montse Madridejos and David Pérez Merinero analyzes these and other myths that comprise the larger myth of flamenco. The publication, nonetheless, is basically a book of photographs: it reconstructs the life trajectory and artistic arc of the dancer through the authors’ well-stocked visual archives. Despite the various myths that, in my view, the work disproves in its brief text: that she was born in 1913, that it was Sabicas who presented her in Madrid in 1935…and of course that business of the fish fry. The best of the sardine myth-building is the 1988 portrait by Eduardo Arroyo titled “Carmen Amaya frying sardines in the Waldorf Astoria”. But curiously, the authors never address one of the major Carmen Amaya myths: that in New York in 1942 she invented a new dance called the taranto. The fact is that in 1942 there was no flamenco style called the taranto, although there was a form called the taranta and also the minera, the latter form being what we now call taranto.
My impression, once I checked it against the program for that event, thanks to my friend La Meira, is that Carmen Amaya danced an instrumental number composed and interpreted by Sabicas and titled El Taranto, probably, as the title indicates, based on an estilo minero [one of the song forms from the mining districts of southeastern Spain, notably the cities of Almería or La Unión] . The word taranto alludes to the miners of Almería but in 1942 it didn’t refer to a flamenco style. For that, we have to wait until 1957, the year in which [the great singer] Fosforito, applied the term to one of his mineras, according to Rafael Chaves and José Manuel Gamboa. The reason for this nomenclature change is known only to Fosforito himself. But the way Carmen Amaya danced that form – using a binary rhythm [2/4 or 4/4, relatively uncommon in traditional flamenco] – gave us a new formula that would stay with us, though there were precedents in the dance of La Malagueñita and in the great Encarnación López Júlvez, “La Argentinita”; so says José Luís Navarro.
And in fact, reality is always more interesting, rich, complex and marvelous than the blinkers [anteojeras] through which we sometimes look at people. Reality is so fascinating that by comparison myths are just child’s play. Doesn’t it seem miraculous, for example, that the first woman ever to appear in a moving image was a dancer from Almería named Carmencita Dauset? And it’s equally marvelous that the most famous and influential dancer in flamenco’s history was born in the Somorrostro district of Barcelona [despite the persistent story that she was born in the Sacromonte, the Gypsy district of Granada]. And that the date, despite the current centennial celebrations, was not 1913 but 1918, which is the hypothesis of the authors of this book. And which I agree with, backed by data, of course, above all that of the padrón [census record] of Barcelona in 1930.
And so we will again return to Carmen Amaya’s centennial year in 2018. And you’ll see it happen. As [the early flamenco historian] Anselmo González Climent said in the 1960’s, in his essay titled “Toward a Historiography of Flamenco” – a truly visionary text – “deep archaeology must have an objective character, y no gendarme [the word refers to a police officer, as in France.]” And that’s true because myths are tendentious and partisan. So is history, of course, but it demands of itself a minimum standard of objectivity. And that minimum is what gives us life, what this marvelous work provides to help us enjoy even more the myth and the reality called Carmen Amaya, the flamenco dancer of the Twentieth Century, and the most famous ever.
Carmen Amaya (1918-1963) was the most popular flamenco artist of her time and remains the best-known in her chosen realm. And all that as a result of the Spanish Civil War, from which she fled in 1936 to head for Buenos Aires via Lisbon. In her voyage form the Argentine capital to New York, the city que recala [where she made landfall] in 1941, she toured all of Latin America, including Brazil, and appeared in several films and on several recordings made in Argentina, Mexico and Cuba. In 1947 she returned to Spain as the world’s most famous flamenco dancer, thanks to her work in New York and Hollywood – although in Spain, she was not well known at that time. She had to rebuild her national career, combining her international tours with appearances in Spain. She settled in Begur [near Barcelona] at the end of the fifties, and died there in 1963 of kidney failure. She didn’t live to see her last film, Los Tarantos, directed by Rovira-Beleta.
End of story.
Juan Vergillos, a well-known expert, gives an informative review of the book at hand, and also gives a mini-history of the fundamental change in flamenco studies over the past few decades.
I’ll comment on those changes in a separate entry. For now — glad to have a chance to spell co-author David Pérez Merinero’s name correctly; Estela Zatania, an admirer of his work, recently set me straight on that. Also glad to see the eminent dance scholar and Carmen Amaya authority La Meira cited in this review; it was a pleasure to learn about flamenco’s long history in New York when I helped her and Nina Bennahum set up their very successful exhibit and conference series at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center last summer.
About the taranto that’s discussed in this article: the word was applied to a song form long ago, and appeared on Manuel Torre’s amazing rendition of the song. Still, I used to define it as a sung “cante minero” that had a steady, binary rhythm (which Torre’s version didn’t have.) But Fosforito may have invented that sung version to accompany a dancer who wanted to use the form’s darkling, dramatic guitar-chord shapes (make a barred F-sharp chord on the second fret, then lift the bar enough to free up the first and second strings — presto, that haunting tonic chord alone is the infallible identifier of the tarantas, or the taranto.
Who first danced the form? Carmen Amaya way back when, with Sabicas? La Malagueñita or La Argentinita, before that? Another bailaora in the fifties, GloriaRomero? I’ve heard stories, but of course, stories are the same as myths — except when they are true, of course, as they often are…
(Note that Carmen Amaya cooked up a phenomenal piece with Sabicas for their “Queen of the Gypsies” record. It was called a rondeña, — yet another song tied to the tarantas/taranto/minera family — but instead of it being just Sabicas’s restatement of Ramón Montoya’s great guitar-solo-only original, it was a gripping duet face-off between two giants at the top of their game.
December 31, 2013 10 Comments
Flamenco dancer La Farruca speaks – a truncated interview from Spain’s ABC – translated with free scolding by Brook Zern
“Today you can count on the fingers of one hand the flamenco that’s made with sweat and soul,” insists the dancer Rosario Montoya “La Farruca”, daughter of the mythical Farruco. She asks for “respect” for flamenco, amid all the “paparruchas” we see that are not worthy of the name.
“Someone should put a stop to this,” says “La Farruca” in an interview…
Subscribe to read the complete story.”
Well, I’m too cheap or too ideological to buy an online subscription to ABC – in the Spain of the mid-sixties, it seemed more Catholic than the Pope and more fascist than Franco and even worse than the other national sources of disinformation.
Anyway, this twitter-sized December 25th excerpt tells you everything you need to know. It’s La Farruca’s Christmas present to the dwindling Taliband, and her ton of coal for the swelling chorus who chant that hey, it’s all good, and it’s all flamenco, as long as we call it that.
So far, so good. What puzzles me is the army of professionals who insist they adore La Farruca and respect her, and who then spice up their acts with so much sax and violins that they should get an X rating from my new Flamenco Review Board. (You heard the lady: “Someone should put a stop to this.”)
Now, I don’t know what “paparruchas” means. Maybe it means “noble attempts”. More likely, though, she is directly insulting everyone who has ever said, “What the heck, a little jazzification will pep things up and bring more folks in, and if we do it just right, it won’t make it less flamenco. Hey, maybe it’ll make it more flamenco. Yeah, that’s it, so call the timbale guy and that flamenco cellist, what was her name again?”
It’s time to choose sides. If you think La Farruca is nuts and should be shoved aside for stubbornly obstructing the improvements flamenco desperately needs, feel free to continue carving your brave path to progress.
But if you suspect she might be talking sense, you have several choices. You can proceed as usual, but stop using the word flamenco for your art; or label any actual flamenco segments of your program as such, and label the rest as non-flamenco or as something else.
I wouldn’t advise confronting La Farruca directly, though. During her recent stint with some of the family in New York, I saw her nearly incinerate the hard-bitten hotel staffers who tried to explain logically why they couldn’t provide three additional rooms in their full hotel at five a.m. on no notice. (Oh, yeah, and the petite prodigy Carpeta danced up a bigger storm than usual, onstage and off. Oh yeah – and they’d brought over some terrific Jerez artists I knew who, to my astonishment, dropped their localist chauvinism and threw a protective cordon around the young sevillano Carpeta that was truly touching.)
Long ago, I first heard a young flamenco guitarist in Spain who was somehow mixing or blending other musical styles into his playing. I asked him why he did it. He said he liked it, and that the more different styles he added, the more other people liked it.
“Where is this going?” I asked with unfeigned innocence.
“I don’t know,” he said. ”You know, if I added everything to it, maybe everyone would like it.”
“Not everyone,” I said, and I walked away.
Today, an art called flamenco is triumphing around the world. Flamenco itself is an endangered species.
Okay, okay, I’m being a crank again. You can respect La Farruca and understand her attitude and still decide to do non-traditional stuff — stuff that reflects a broader worldview, and reflects contemporary tastes and trends. In fact, just a rare few of us types could even begin to attempt what those Farruco-family types can do every day and long into the night.
When I was a slip of a lad, we tried to mimic, or more daringly to reshuffle, what the great flamenco artists were doing. With rare and gifted exceptions, we settled for creating a pale-pink imitation, a sort of homage to those other people.
As junior flamenco guitarists, we figuratively fell on our knees, waddled up to our potential masters, and begged them to give us their priceless music and advice for a few measly bucks. But not much later, when a hipper bunch of Americans showed up in Andalusia, the great native guitarists figuratively fell on their knees, and said, O young masters, please show us the great suspensions, sustains and flatted-fifths of your jazz giants and fusion pioneers.
I was shocked, shocked, but those Spanish artists were just following their leader, Paco de Lucía. He had decided that flamenco needed fresh ideas and new rhythmic pulses and, above all, a rich new harmonic pallet that used our Western approach instead of the very limited traditional harmonies.
I was also jealous, since I didn’t understand anything about jazz or harmony; in fact, I hardly understand music at all, and envy everyone who does. If only I had the musical aptitude to join the merry bands of my countrymen creating salable new mashups with a subtle hint of flamenco, I’d be out having fun every night instead of sitting here in my dark, lonely, freezing room and…
Come to think of it, though, I’d rather keep running this one-man Complaint Department. It’s an easy job, and no one has to do it.
December 25, 2013 4 Comments
Flamenco Singer Manuel Agujetas – Information from YouTube commentary posted by “elmojama4″ – Translated by Brook Zern
Flamenco Singer Manuel Agujetas – Information – Translated by Brook Zern
Translator’s Note and Introduction
Moraíto on Agujetas: “For me, his singing is always surprising, there is always something new. This is singing in its savage state, the pure song.”
Translator’s note: For many years, I have been fascinated by Manuel Agujetas, recently described in the New York Times as a great flamenco singer. Elsewhere in this blog, you’ll find my 1976 Village Voice article about him as well as other translated interviews and that New York Times article.
Even when he emerged as a new figure in song in the early 1970’s, he was a throwback to an earlier age. I tried to find him in Spain back then, but it wasn’t until he showed up working at a small restaurant in New York in ’76 that I met him. He was married to a remarkable international New York woman and a fine flamenco dancer, Henriette Lubart, known as Tibu or Tibulina and as “La Tormenta”, and I helped organize and publicize some of their appearances. (I also tried to reassure Tibu’s protective and understandably apprehensive Jewish parents that this menacing-looking and illiterate Gypsy was, like it or not, one of the world’s great artists.)
In recent years, living in Jerez, I have again managed to witness his art face to face.
Flamenco is an art of many dimensions. A new wave of beautiful singers with beautiful voices is upon us now, and we have Estrella Morente and Argentina and Arcangel and Juan Valderrama among others. Miguel Poveda is the new master of the art as a whole, commanding every great branch of song from the immense trunk of flamenco. Carmen Linares is the other great figure overseeing the proceedings. And José Mercé, who among singers in their prime may be the greatest master of the crucial deep song forms and and terrific in many other styles, is the best-selling flamenco singer of all, thanks in large measure to the rock and pop songs that take up about half the space on his CD’s.
And then there is Agujetas – not just a difficult but an impossible man, thoughtless, inconsiderate, outrageous, doing what he wants to do and often leaving serious damage in his wake. The resentment is so strong that a leading critic I admire has urged people to boycott his appearances, despite the fact that he is a magnificent singer. (Agujetas has always behaved impeccably with me, and remembers times we shared better than I do – go figure.)
For me and some others, he is a living connection to the aspect of flamenco we see as essential in grasping the tragic essence of the art, a link to a vanished world of disease, hunger, poverty and ignorance.
(Or maybe not vanished after all, at least in terms of economic misery: Last month, the Bloomberg Misery Index placed Spain among the world’s ten unhappiest nations – not exactly surprising, given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were demonstrating against the leaders who have led it into its desperate economic situation. Somehow, though, I doubt if a 1950’s national poll would have revealed such feelings of misery despite far worse poverty. Perhaps ignorance was bliss, or perhaps, as it seemed to me, the people somehow managed to find happiness – or at least believe they were happy –when terrible deprivation was shared equally among a virtually universal underclass.)
This is a translation with a soundtrack. The article was posted on YouTube by “elmojama4”, one of the leading contributors to YouTube’s immense flamenco section with 733 videos (and 1,858 subscribers). It was published on March 6, 2012. One interviewer was Pepe Marín, a frequent “emcee” at the countless free recitals and events at the many wonderful peñas or flamenco associations of Jerez. Here’s the URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjSCLRNOC7o
It’s posted in small segments, with viewer comments interpolated.
Please note that it is incomplete – actually fragmentary: It includes a segment headed 1 of 8 and another headed 2 of 8. I hope to find the remaining six, if they exist.
(Also note that today’s preferred flamenco authorities frown on the concept of “pure” flamenco, and the idea that certain Gypsy artists can offer art in a “savage” state that few other artists ever approach. That’s why I began this with a quote from the late, great Jerez guitarist Moraito – because in my book he, too, was an authority, and because he understood flamenco evenbetter than those other people.) The translation:
AGUJETA DE JEREZ – GENIO Y DUENDE DEL CANTE GITANO
In the sociology of the world of flamenco deep song, the Gypsy family has great importance as the conserver and transmitter of the styles, creating the most propitious ambiente so that the song, guitar and dance in their maximum purity are not lost. We have as examples the house of the Torre family, of the Mairenas, the Paulas, the Perrates.
From Jerez de la Frontera comes the house of the Agujetas, whose most important professional exponent we have with us here, for those who do not already know in depth the dark metal of his voice. He is also here for the growing number of aficionados who are left speechless by the black sounds that reside in an unknown dimension, and that this Gypsy has the duende to invoke with his song.
The Forge of the Agujetas
The saga of the Agujetas comes from Puerto de Santa Maria and is descended from the Rubichis, the Fedeitos, the Moneos and the Chaquetas. Focusing on the provable, we find that Manuel Agujeta comes from an exceptional line of singers residing on Acebuche Street in Jerez. His uncle, Tomás de los Santos Navarro, a compadre of Manuel Torre [widely considered the greatest Gypsy singer of the last century, or of all time], was sought out by aficionados and wealthy men of the locality who hoped to immerse themselves in the depths of his song; his grandmother María Gallardo was evidently an extraordinary singer of siguiriyas [flamencos central deep song form], his grandfather was Juntito Pastor, also touched by the lance of the deep song; his father Manuel de los Santos Gallardo “Agujetas el Viejo”, an impressive non-professional singer, a living encyclopedia of the archaic song styles of El Marrurro, Manuel Molina, Manuel Torre, Frijones, Juan Jambre, Tío José de Paula, Carapiera, Ramírez and the crippled Farrabú. Like many other singers from this deepest vortex, this Gypsy blacksmith did not receive the recognition he deserved for the jewels that poured from his throat and his way of rendering the song. Many aficionados and professionals made the pilgrimage to his forge in Rota to take pleasure in his song, including such emblematic figures as Antonio Mairena and Manolo Caracol [the two most important figures in mid-twentieth century deep song]. Unfortunately in this world of flamenco the acclaimed artist is not the one who creates and makes true art, but the one who sells best and fills theaters, at the cost of distancing himself from the greatest depths of the art. A nephew of the essential figure “Mingo [Domingo] Rubichi” and of Diego de los Santos, from whom aficionados bought things just to hear him sing, and a grandnephew of José Gallardo Suarez “El Chalao Viejo”; a brother of the singers Juan “El Gordo Agujeta”, Paco Agujeta, Diego Agujeta and Luís Agujeta; father of Antonio Agujeta and Dolores Agujeta who continue the tradition; grandfather of Antonio Agujeta “Niño Agujeta” who at just 11 years old created a sensation in the homage dedicated to his relative El Negro del Puerto, singing the songs of his grandfather and then continuing as a flamenco guitar accompanist. Cousin of the singers El Gitano de Bronce and the surprising Diego Rubichi, who left an extraordinary legacy of deep song.
Manuel de los Santos Pastor “Manuel Agujeta” [or, as your translator prefers to pluralize him, Manuel Agujetas] was born in Acebuche Street in Jerez in 1935. [Other stories give different later dates, often 1941] Agujeta el Viejo and his wife Ana Pastor Monje moved to Rota in 1936 after the birth of their fourth child María, where he opened a small forge, bringing to it the best of Jerez ironworking and flamenco song. Manuel, besides apprenticing as a blacksmith, went into the realm of his deep legacy as learned from his father, and with time became his legitimate artistic heir. Manuel returned to the San Miguel neighborhood of Jerez at 15, and at 17 entered a course in aviation, after receiving a recommendation from Álvaro Domecq [the sherry magnate, probably the richest and most important man in Jerez or all of Andalucía], perhaps through the man who would become his key promoter, the poet, writer and director of the Institute [Cátedra] of Flamencology of Jerez, Juan de la Plata.
Manuel, aside from blacksmithing, was a sheep-shearer serving the ranches of the area, where he heard old non-professional singers who knew the deep roots of the song.
He supplemented that with local appearances after winning the [very prestigious] Concurso de Cante Flamenco of Mairena del Alcor in 1966, together with Camarón and Fosforito. Beyond the usual private gatherings of cabales [savvy aficionados], he started some sporadic appearances on stages and thereby sang in 1968 in Jerez and Cadiz in the show called “Festival Flamenco” organized by Juan de la Plata and the Cátedra as part of the “Festivales de España” together with his father, El Tío Borrico and El Chozas…simulating onstage the singing in taverns, he also appeared at that time in the “Jueves Flamencos” and the “Fiesta de la Bulería of his hometown, both under the direction of [the great Jerez guitarist and entrepreneur] Manuel Morao.
PART TWO OF EIGHT
Here It All Began
In 1970, Manuel Agujeta put aside the hammer and the shearing scissors after the performances of his other two valedores, El Tío Parrilla who gave him a letter of introduction to [the noted flamenco expert, poet and writer] Manuel Ríos Ruiz, and his compadre Antonio “El Platero” [the silversmith, currently completing an important book about Agujetas] who put up enough money to send him to Madrid. Once there, Ríos Ruiz quickly arranged for him to record for the [prestigious] CBS label, the producer of his stupendous first album.
That was the beginning of his promotion as an artist, appearing at the Ateneo de Madrid at a gathering of people who had heard of him and were inclined to be severe judges rather than simply listening to him. But Agujeta convinced them, demonstrating that for him, the world of serious flamenco song had no secrets.
After that initial success he appeared in the Villa & Corte, the [prestigious tablao] Café de Chinitas, the Club Urbis and the Colegios Mayores such as San Juan Evangelista where Alejandro Reyes, a member of the Music Club, told us: “From that period I have to recall the recitals of the singer Manuel Agujetas, which went on until all hours of the morning.” He also sang at the peñas [flamenco clubs] and municipal festivals, and also at fiestas [private gatherings] organized by circles of friends.
He signed a notarized contract with Juan de la Plata as his manager, just as good bullfighters would do. He returned to Madrid in 1972 to record his second LP and appeared in the Teatro Español as part of the II Festival of Flamencology organized by his manager to get funding for the Museum of Flamenco, with huge success.
At that time, says [the flamenco expert and great documentary filmmaker] José María Velásquez, “Manuel Agujeta and I went to a bullfight and met [the great Jerez singer then living in Madrid] Manuel Soto “Sordera” and [the great Granada-born singer] Enrique Morente. I live near the Las Ventas bullring, so when the corrida was over I suggested that we continue the gathering at my house. They accepted. The encounter was going very well when Agujeta, in a spontaneous outburst, began to sing. It seems strange, but after that, neither Sordera nor Morente even thought of opening their mouths. They remained in uncomfortable silence.”
Manuel, learning from friends about the increasing importance of concursos de cante (song contests), entered the Ceuta contest in 1974. He insulted Antonio Mairena, who was assigned to deliver the prizes, when the jury did not give him the prize for singing the siguiriyas. [That’s my translator’s guess: In Spanish it says Agujetas “montado el pollo contra Antonio Mairena, encargado por la organización de la entrega de los galardones, cuando se le ningunea por parte del jurado el premio por siguiriyas.”
In the Seville newspaper ABC, the flamenco critic Juan Luís Manfredi wrote: The first contest, intended to identify important new artists, had [three prizes]. They were given to Calixto Sánchez, Curro Malena and Antonio Suarez. I won’t go into the fine points, but the fact is that the first night was a yawn and the audience only came awake on a few occasions: Pepe Sanlúcar was sensational, Alfredo Arrebolo generated enthusiasm; Agujetas delivered a siguiriya that was one for the anthologies; and Calixto delivered. So two of the winners didn’t awaken the public, although they must have impressed the jury, whose qualifications were not clear.”
In the mid-seventies, Agujeta married the American dancer Tibu “La Tormenta”, forming an artistic partnership that lasted more than a decade, appearing at festivals, theaters and universities. Although nothing went wrong with his association with his manager, Manuel decided to fly solo, after Juan de la Plata made the contacts to get him a passport despite problems due to his birth not being registered anywhere.
In 1975, the couple settled in New York and appeared in Carnegie Hall [it was the small Carnegie Recital Hall], at the New School and at Columbia University. They were contracted to appear for a season, from Wednesdays through Sundays, at the New York restaurant La Sangría. In 1976 they represented Spain in the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival, where their were filmed in an NBC-TV documentary. They went to the western U.S., appearing in theaters and universities including the Colorado Dance Festival, the Nairopa Institute for Buddhism and the San Francisco Bay area.
End of available written commentary accompanying elmojama4’s YouTube films of Agujetas. It seems remarkable that elmojama4 had such solid information about their stateside activities. I arranged the Columbia gig while I was using my alma mater to help extract the Rito y Geografía films from Spanish TV. I also helped Ana Lomax — who, along with her father the great folklorist Alan Lomax was associated with Columbia — set up the Smithsonian gig and never heard about any NBC-TV documentary; I hope someone can help find it. I also helped with the “little Carnegie” event — when Agujetas saw the posters, he said I’d spelled his name wrong. I pointed out that I was literate and he was not, but he pointed out that it was his name and he was the decider; he then pointed to the “g” and said it should be a “b” (the sounds can get a bit conflated way down south). I changed it. Maybe he wasn’t bigger than me, but somehow he looked a tiny bit tougher.
I hope to add further material soon.
December 23, 2013 No Comments