Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Brook Zern’s flamenco blog

Flamenco Guitarist Diego del Gastor – A loving, over-the-top 2008 appraisal by Luís Soler Guevara – translated by Brook Zern

This is a translation of a talk given by Luís Soler Guevara in 2008 to mark the centenary of the birth of Diego del Gastor. Señor Soler is a highly respected flamenco expert whom I knew in Málaga. He clearly loved Diego, as did many others who spent time with him in his home town of Morón de la Frontera. Soler wears his heart on his sleeve here, and one might wonder if his adoration has clouded his judgement or his normally sound critical faculties. (Fortunately, I never lost my objectivity in this matter, although for years I assumed the Flamenco Society of San Diego was a religious organization. Still, I have always maintained strict objectivity regarding Diegod.)

It’s nice to see Sr. Soler’s recognition of my dear friends Steve Kahn and Estela Zatania, and queridos amigos Bill Davidson and the late Don Pohren, who was the first and finest of the American flamencologists. Apologies for some likely mistranslations:

Mi Abrazo a Diego del Gastor — My Embrace ot Diego del Gastor

Flamenco aficionados, those of us who dedicate ourselves to investigating, studying, writing – in other words, to inventing a history of the art – fall short with respect to the guitar. We can reflect upon aspects of the guitarist, or sketch his profile as a person, and possibly situate the guitarist’s position in the history of the art, abandoning ourselves to his capacity to generate deep emotions. It’s this latter aspect that is reflected in the title of this article: My embrace for Diego del Gastor.

Diego has evoked so many perceptions among writers, poets and aficionados the I find it very deifficult to say anything new about him; and since I’m not a musician, the task is even more daunting. Still, the evocative aura of this great guitarist is so extraordinarily rich that these times come to consecrate his expressive capacity, even for those who may not know music but feel touched by his magic.

So let these words serve as a prologue to the marvelous sound that Diego, more than anyone else, institutionalized as the toque de Morón – the Morón guitar style. For that reason, I’ll try to say something about a man who, beyond Andalucía, sowed a unique approach to making the guitar make music.

His name was as singular as his playing. Before him, I know of no other guitarist with his name. It’s as if the history of flamenco reserved it especially for him. It’s enough to say those five letters for everyone to know who we’re talking about; even when a guitarist plays his signature variations or falsetas we can’t help noticing who his name, escapes like a sussuro: A whisper that, beyond admiration, conveys adoration of his music.

Diego didn’t seek interviews, but he didn’t avoid them either, in one, done for Spanish National Television, he said that his baptism lasted for five days. Five letters that on that occasion were given to him as a name. Five letters, like the five continents to which his magical sounds eventually expanded. Five letters that can define and describe his artistic personality.

D Duende
I Impresionante
E Especial
G Grande
O Original

Diego had lots of duende, his playing was impressive, his personage was special and his art was grand and original.

Diego was not a virtuos of the guitar; nonetheless he had many virtues. Among them, the one that stands out to me is the virtue of making us fall in love. In love with his profound and majestic toque festero – the lighter styles that were the pulse of so many fiestas or flamenco jam sessions. Diego’s guitar exists in the realm of the sacred.

His art, though born in this world, belongs to the sacred. He created his music as oysters create their own beautiful works: some irritating agent, though barely noticed, slowly, without any hurry, but inexorably. His dream, a living legend from an earlier time that refuses to die with the dawn of a new millennium, remains vital, and stands out in the desert of phantasms that arise in the flamenco galaxy of opportunism and glitz.

For Diego, flamenco was never just a spectacle or a commodity; when this happens, it is actually devalued. For Diego, flamenco is a culture steeped in centuries. It is a way of thinking and feeling while confronting life. A way of expressing one’s totality of life experiences and of communicating them to others through a lyrical art.

I’d like to pursue this intimate concept of flamenco whose greatest power is the most authentic expression of lives and traditions through music. I’d like to keep hauling this cart full of diverse passions that awaken and feed this Andalusian culture. I want to continue embracing Diego del Gastor – his wizardry and his imperishable enchantment. His unique way of feeling flamenco. I want to follow this flag, although I don’t like the abanderados.

I don’t want to become distracted by criticizing the consumerism that devours so many musics that flow from the heart of human beings. Still, I’ll say, paraphrasing a poem by Georges Brassens: “People don’t like it when someone has his own faith.” That’s an issue I don’t want to get into right now, one that generates attitudes and actions with respect to how one also understands flamenco.

Diego is more essence (fondo) than form. I love that essence and the ethic of things, more than their forms and aesthetics. But I can’t ignore the latter. Perhaps for this reason, those words, although situated on the border of passion, do not imply the abandonment of the merely rational.

While other Diego de Gastors may keep arising in this Andalusian landscape, my heart will keep navigating toward the paths that seek the road leading to the majestic in the art of flamenco. His providential figure, more than a song to life, was a song to love, a challenge to the impossible, a challenge to what we call art, and despite the fact that my soul is aflame, I will continue to embrace that sound.

Diego del Gastor was also Diego of Arriate, Diego de Ronda, Diego de Moron, de Utrera – Diego of a thousand different flamenco geographies, because he came from all of them. All those places where in a night of profound emotions we would discover his musical talent and his deeply personal way of caressing the guitar.

Diego, despite the fact that he rarely left his home – when he did, Utrera and the countryside were his preferred pilgrimages – generated afición in hundreds of people who, even if they were born abroad, decided to live their lives enveloped in this culture. In this – more than a task, a devotional sense of a sensibility that was so impressive – I believe he was unsurpassed. For him, it was all just natural. He was a teacher of many who never asked to be his students. Those who would be inculcated and impregnated with the simple maxim: There is no better university than life itself. And in this, Diego had the real doctorate.

Diego has been a great ambassador, especially in the U.S.: Surprisingly, he was almost as well known in California as in Andalucía. People of note in worlds as diverse as Bergamín, García Ulecia, Don Pohren, Steve Kahn, Roger Klein, William Davidson, Estela Zatania, etc., discovered the warmth of a man whose spell would captivate them forever.

It all happened without Diego traveling to the other stages of the world that are so crucial to the reputation and projection of so many other artists. For this reason, the singularity and the figure of Diego del Gastor in the flamenco world can not only be found in his artistic qualities, but also in his role as the ambassador of a unique and very intimate concept of flamenco.

His gigs, almost always marked by restricted appearances and hundreds of encounters in the flamenco world of Morón, were shared with the likes of artists like Juan Talega, Manolito de la Maria, Perrate, Joselero, Fernandillo, Curro Mairena, Bernarda de Utrera, Enrique Mendez and just a few others, but above all his muse, Fernanda de Utrera.

The Morón-born historian Juan J. García López offers us this information: “In Japan, his style is pedagogically systematized in conservatories; in New York, there exists a school of guitar that studies his musical forms and artistic modes. That school carries his name: The School of Diego del Gastor.”

Yes, Diego created a school, albeit limited in terms of repertoire, but very distinctive and intensely real and current. His falsetas and variations, somehow terrifying as well as tremendously demanding, constructed and expressed with an enchantment that is deeply profound, have not passed unnoticed for many, including some who may not acknowledge their source. Those who have questioned not the flamenco essence of his art but his framework and technical prowess.

Moreover, what gives value to an artist’s work, regardless of what he creates, is how he does it. Diego, as well as having enormous talent, had an intuition and a special heart that generated music. He captured the essences of old popular and folk songs and choruses, even from classical pieces, where he incorporated those fragments into his repertoire, giving them a rare flamenco aspect. He did his his way – that is, differently from anyone else.

Perhaps his trademarks created a certain envy in other artists, those who fall of their own weight while Diego never chased a professional career or competed with the famous guitarists of his time. He only tried to express himself within his singular sensibility, and at that he succeeded.

We hear his impressive sting in the flamenco form called the soleares, in his interrupted silences in the realm of the siguiriyas, in his musical resolutions based on the malagueñas that Ramón Montoya recorded in 1910 while accompanying the singer Niño de la Isla. And in the arrangements and combinations that he enployed to give a flamenco flair to one of the most beautiful of all classical pieces, Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

Diego put his soul into everything he played. Without soul, art cannot be sublime. Art is a mixture of the expressive qualities of the artist and the domination and knowledge of technique. For that reason, when some aficionados wish to diminish the importance of the Morón style of guitar, they focus o its technical deficiencies, defending the well executed, placing value almost exclusively on technical perfection, and forgetting the essential quality of the elements of flamenco substance that the artist must generate to create truth.

Diego was very delicate. He had, and felt, a profound respect for flamenco. He liked silence and quietude, not the applause of the public or the voices of those whose shouted encouragements were simply showing off, and revealed no understanding of the art’s rhythmic essence; his performances were preceded with enormous elegance, and his mastery of the crucial quality of saber estar – of “knowing how to be” – were almost religious.

For him, that was the rule of conduct to follow when exercising the ritual of flamenco song and guitar. If a fly bothered him, it wasn’t because he was fussy, though in some measure he was, but because of his high regard for the art.

Diego loved the flamenco song so much that at times, he buscaba arropes in the family tradition to interpret some styles of soleares. Among them were those sung by his father, and those that he, along with his brother, the singer Joselero, called “flamenco songs (cantes) of the Sierra de Grazalema”.

Some will know that Grazalema is a town in the province of Cadiz whose mountains surround Arriate, Ronda and El Gastor, where Diego was born, baptized and spent his early years.

He showed those songs to Joselero, and later they entered the repertoire of the great artist Juan Peña el Lebrijano. Diego, aside from being a guitarist, was thus a transmitter of songs.

We can’t be sure, but it seems that those old variants of the soleares, possibly originating in that area, were incorporated into the soleares of Anilla de Ronda, a singer and guitarist, who was related to Diego. Anilla, also surnamed Amaya, and a Gypsy as was Diego, was widely admired as a singer of soleares.

One possible interpretation of all this leads us to say that the songs brought to light by Diego dated back almost a century and a half, and the family tradition brings it to us today.

This is one revelation among hundreds, among thousands of sounds, that leads me to say with some justification that the evolution of time has conserved and polished through the years the manifest grandeur of this musical culture of southern Spain, unprecedented in the history of civilization. Diego Flores Amaya is one more link in a chain whose reach offers us a perspective of centuries.

Photo caption – Diego, with Curro Vera and neighbors from the Barrio de Santa Maria in Morón

Having said this, it seems proper to note that Diego was a great aficionado of flamenco song, a quality that is not often seen among the new figures that have arisen in flamenco guitar, where technique dominates their approach, but where the heart, that motor of deep emotions, remains firmly in second place.

To this last thread, let me offer some reflections that underline the contrast between the guitar of Diego del Gastor and the new conception of flamenco shared by most of the great flamenco guitarists, whose prestige I won’t question, much less criticize.

To illustrate, I will describe some qualities that apply to guitar playing. First, the tendency to accelerate the rhythm. Then the sheer velocity in the production of notes. Today there are excellent guitarists who, in a common phrase, eat up the guitar – but who may not digest or assimilate it. They can play ten notes per second, but are incapable of generating a silence that captivates the soul.

Silences are not the negation of music, but the most exquisite of its contrasts. Music is the organization of elements which expresses the combination of sounds and silences, Silences are the space which fills our sense of reflection. Without those silences there are fewer moments for reflection and that therefore one cannot fully relish the sublime moments in guitar playing. Diego took the distance with respect to that conception or current of understanding the marvelous world of music.

Diego felt the necessity of transmitting his art. For that he had to interpret and above all digest what he wished in order to call forth the rest, In every artist’s mind there is something deeply present: the communication of his world, his work and his art.

To digest and absorb is also to meditate very carefully upon something in order to understand it. No one would drink boiling coffee because, aside from burning you, it would not have real flavor. In other words, the act of drinking coffee requires spaces for reflection in order to appreciate what you’re doing. When we speak of harmonic sounds, and although the human ear, as a receiver of sound, is scientifically prepared to instantaneously connect to its production, its storehouse of associations and its understanding demand a temporal space to enjoy the process.

Taking that theory to extremes: If a guitarist could produce all his sounds at once, we would achieve the complete negation of harmony and of music itself. We could only perceive one single noise.

When the rhythm accelerates, the silences become shorter. Almost imperceptible, one might say. And the less silence, the less sosiego and the fewer reflections. I think it’s fair to say that allowing oneself to be captivated by the notes of a flamenco guitar requires a great calmness. Without that predisposition it’s impossible to perceive all its distinctive aroma.

Let’s take as an example a sung soleares. The interpretation of the sound does not rise at the peak, but at the conclusion, in the transit toward the end, when the song is reaching its close. Raising the voice is relatively easy. What’s really difficult is maintaining its descending scale, the sostenido (sharp). In those spaces, in those silences, we find the best flavors, the best moments. The guitar also seeks this catharsis. Sustaining a note is much harder than elevating it. And I believe that here we find the world of Diego.

Another current today is the construction of very extended falsetas (guitar variations) together with the singing action: the tendency toward concertism. In this situation the accompanying guitar per se should not take over the mission of the principal subject in a flamenco oration – that is, of the singer – but should instead complement the work of the singer. That’s done by offering dialogues, and indicating paths so the song can be manifested in its fullest dimension.

Photo caption: Steve Kahn and Diego del Gastor in Morón, 1967. Photo by Chris Carnes

The act of singing, or of playing in the guitarist’s case, is necessarily the product of the register of the artist. This register stores a treasury of dialogues that the singer as much as the guitarist transform in establishing through the principal aspect, the song. I say the song, not the singer.

Remember what Fernanda de Utrera said in an interview: “Diego and I were the pair that most perfectly complemented one another (se ha compenetrado] in flamenco. Each of us in love with the art of the other. I was the strings of his guitar, and he was the urgent lament (queja) of my voice.” And she concluded: “No one knew how to draw out what I carry within myself like Diego del Gastor.”

Francisco Ayala also offered a lucid analysis of the figure of Diego, affirming: “The playing of Diego del Gastor contains more soul, more duende, than the playing of any other flamenco guitarist today. Diego doesn’t adhere to the modern trend for speed and for personal showing off (lucimiento), admittedly necessary for those who must compete in today’s commercial atmosphere of flamenco. On the contrary, he tenaciously retains the simplicity of times gone by, before the flamenco guitar was turned into a virtuoso instrument, when it was still fundamentally a genuine and primitive medium for expressing the depth of flamenco.”

In some way, he exaggerates the great aficionado/artist of Morón. Diego is just that way, neither competing nor feeling like a competitor. He just expresses way of being, a form of feeling, of living, a way of making flamenco; his way, neither better nor worse than another way, but different. And that difference, fundamentally, is located in the soul that he puts into everything he plays.

Perhaps this phrase could increase the level of confusion in some not very initiated aficionados, since they may think that every artist puts his soul into whatever he does. That may be true, as certain as the fact that every athlete wants to win, but it’s just as certain that only one person can actually succeed. Allow me this metaphor: This is Diego. From him we see from the beginning the great virtue of falling in love with his art.

Diego’s playing is like a river,: mysterious and enigmatic, such that we will never be able to verify how its waters flow to so many seas and so many oceans.

Also allow me the following reflection: There are some who approach a flower just to see its colors. Others, however, may also appreciate its smell. There are those who approach the sea to look at it and only see its surface. Then there are others who also want to know its depths. Diego is like the flower that only reveals its true profile and its true aroma when we get to the bottom.

At the root of this consideration I ask this question: Why should we stop with the appearances of things, in their forms; why not penetrate right to the essence? Diego’s guitar is like that deep and warm sea whose flavors and pleasures can only be paladear and felt by submerging oneself in its waters, by abandoning oneself to its notes.

My embrace of Diego del Gastor must necessarily take note of these aspects. Now, from the perspecitive of years gone by, though it’s difficult not to submerge oneself in this well where time gives rise to a nostalgia that idealizes those yesterdays, I feel that my heart remembers – perhaps aided by the many celebrations that are marking the centenary of his birth – with more urgency than ever. Diego left us thirty-five years ago. For me, more than an enormous void, he left a world of magias that I have been discovering, slowly, the same way that oysters perform their beautiful work.

My embrace of Diego del Gastor is just one more. One more embrace among the many shared with hundreds of aficionados, whose sensibilities recognize the singular fact of an artist born asido the belly of a guitar, who knew how to use its six strings to evoke emotions that were as fascinating as they were insolitas unexpected.

My embrace of Diego del Gastor is not a farewell but an encounter. A long-lasting encounter with an artist whose greatest treasure was captivating me. Captivating me forever with that extraordinarily rich music extracted from the people, from the essence of centuries past.

My embrace of Diego del Gastor also signifies my most sincere recognition of this Andalusian culture that you have given me. My embrace of Diego is my embrace of an art that sows passions, that spills emotions, and that is the envy of the whole world.

Thank you for your attention.

Conference for the Pablo Olavide University in Carmona, July 3, 2008 by Luís Soler Guevara

Translator’s note: The many flamenco people who never bought Diego’s act will no doubt find this laughable. Well, maybe it’s a bit overwrought, but I think it sheds light on the character and the genuinely mysterious art of Diego del Gastor. It has been my imagined privilege to carry his music in my fingers for more than half a century, and as I struggle to do it justice and recapture his unique air (aire) and his unmistakeable creations, I sometimes think of a line from a flamenco song, probably a malagueña: “Perlas a millares” which must mean “pearls by the thousands.”

Last week in New York, it was my real privilege to reminisce about Diego with one of the few people who actually did capture his essence, the great aficionado and noted photographer Steve Kahn, who created an important show of photographs by himself and others capturing the essence of those years we squandered at the figurative feet of this giant. The original article appears, with photos of Diego, Steve and others, at this url:


P.S. I like the notion, mentioned above and widely believed in Spain, that in New York there was/is a school devoted to the preservation of the upkeep and preservation of the guitar style of Diego del Gastor. Of course, there never was such a thing. But for decades I was playing his stuff for any willing or unwilling listeners, usually alone but joined for one recent decade by Steve and then by Ian Banks, another fine interpreter of the style, who is still presenting this living tradition at cafés and other venues in the Big Apple.

Come to think of it, I guess maybe it could be called a school. A bit understaffed, admittedly, but yeah, why not?

To see this man at work, go to YouTube, add “flamenco”, “rito”, “Diego del Gastor” and “English”. Yep, that was the first of the 100 programs in this great Rito y Geografia de Flamenco documentary series that I liberated starting in 1972 (I bought it on 16 mm film), and it made my year; fifteen exhausting years later I finally got the rest. And by the way, when it was time to choose the introductory theme music for every damn episode, from a dozen worthy guitarists who are now legndary, who do you think the team of experts chose to give maximum flamenco-ness to the proceedings. You guessed it.

Abrazos a todos, as they say in Spain.

Brook Zern

February 16, 2017   No Comments

PACO DE LUCIA (1947-2014): NEW SPANISH STAMP TO HONOR FLAMENCO GUITAR IMMORTAL (and the story behind it) — by Brook Zern

On April 23rd, Spain will issue a postage stamp bearing the name and image of the visionary genius Paco de Lucía, who transformed the flamenco guitar and the art of flamenco itself forever.

In Spain, and especially in that nation’s emblematic art of flamenco, perhaps the highest compliment is to say that an artist has a “propio sello” — that unique “personal stamp” that defines his or her work.

As I was citing that phrase in an obituary for Paco de Lucía after his sudden and unexpected death on February 25th, I realized it would be most appropriate if this great man and great artist were to be honored with an actual, government-issued personal stamp. I mentioned the idea to Estela Zatania, a friend and noted flamenco authority from Jerez, Spain, who quickly shaped and co-signed the formal petition.

The response was astonishing. Yesterday, March 21st, just days after the request was received, it was granted. And while the issuance would normally have taken about a year — assuming it were to happen at all — it will instead be issued on April 23rd, just a month from tomorrow.

Who says you have to wait on line forever to get anything done at a Post Office?

(As it happened, a stamp had long been planned showing a Spanish guitar; instead, it is being redesigned to honor Paco de Lucía. And that’s fitting indeed. At his 2012 concert at the Boston Opera House, an immense poster showed him beneath a quote from Guitar Review: “The most advanced guitarist in any idiom” — words I wrote in that magazine in 1978.)


I am indebted to Estela Zatania for assuring the success of this initiative, and grateful to those in the Spanish government who acted so quickly and decisively on its behalf.

It’s also gratifying to think that the knighthood bestowed on me in 2008 by King Juan Carlos for the diffusion of Spanish Culture might have helped tilt the scale toward honoring “The Fabulous Guitar of Paco de Lucía”, as his first LP of 1967 was titled. Not that the scale should have required any tilting whatsoever.

Brook Zern (brookzern@gmail.com)


March 22, 2014   2 Comments

Manuela Carrasco: “The Pure Flamenco Dance Is Gone Forever” – Interview by Rosalía Gómez – translated by Brook Zern

From Diario de Sevilla, March 19, 2014

Manuela Carrasco “The Pure Flamenco Dance Is Gone Forever”

Translator’s note:  The countless people and institutions working to change the flamenco dance to something newer, fresher and better have triumphed at last.  All over the world, spectacular productions on themes of Greek tragedy or the seasons or the architecture of Oscar Neimeyer are drawing huge audiences.

But such a total victory can cause collateral damage.  And in this case, according to la diosa, the loss – unlamented by today’s consumers of culture – is pure flamenco.

Here are the words of the greatest “bailaora” [female flamenco dancer ] of our age:  Read it and celebrate if you love everything new, avant-garde and trendy.  Read it and weep if you love flamenco.

“El baile puro se ha ido para siempre”

The artist from Seville, with the National Prize for Dance and the Medalla de Andalucía, returns to the Lope de Vega theater this weekend with “Suspiros Flamencos”, one of her most applauded spectacles

By Rosalía Gómez

Next Friday, along with springtime, there will arrive at Seville’s Lope de Vega Theater Manuela Carrasco, the genuine representative of a dance that is disappearing due to the transformation of the culture that has sustained and nourished it.  A dance of inspiration that this woman from Triana, who holds the Medal of Andalucía, has brought to stages for almost 45 years – she worked at Mariquilla’s tablao in Torremolinos at the age of ten – and through which she has earned endless honors, among them the 2007 National Prize for Dance [Danza – the dance as a whole, not merely flamenco] – as well as the unofficial titles of the ”Goddess” and the “Empress” of flamenco dance.

Following the premiere in the last Bienal de Sevilla, Carrasco returns with one of her most requested spectacles, Suspiros Flamencos (which debuted in 2009), a recital in which she’ll be accompanied by her usual musicians as well as those she calls the niños (kids): the dancers Rafael de Carmen, El Choro and Oscar de los Reyes.

Q:  Paco de Lucía felt panic when he played in Seville because there were always a hundred guitarists in the audience.  What does it mean for you to be dancing in your native turf?

A:  I love dancing in Seville, although it scares me, too.  I know a lot of dancers are coming to see me; I realize that I’m an artist’s artist [artista de artistas].  But like every responsible artist, I respect the public in general, in any venue.  Every time I go onstage is like a premiere for me.

Q:  What do you think of when you’re about to go onstage?

A:  I always ask God to light me up so I can give the public my best – to show them brilliance [genialidad], although when  the lights go down, the truth is that I don’t see anyone at all.  I’m alone.

Q:  How would you define yourself as an artist?

A:  I’m a woman who lives by the flamenco dance (baile) and for the flamenco dance.  Goyo Montero told me that there are two very different women inside me:  One who is above the stage, and the other who’s below it.  In my daily life I’m a very simple person; I cook, I like to be with my family, I ask for people’s opinions about everything I do…Onstage, on the other hand, I am responsible for my art, demanding of myself, and aware of the fact that I am not like the other artists; I am the representative of a flamenco dance that is ending (que se acaba).

Q:  That’s something that has been said for a century or more.  Antonio Mairena, for example, said that authentic song would die with him, and look how many major figures have emerged since then.  Do you really believe that el baile de raíz (dance with roots) is dying?  Don’t you go the the theater to see the young artists?

A:  Pure flamenco dance is gone forever.  I don’t go to the theater often because I always leave angry.  Today the majority of young people want to dance like Israel Galván.  And I took Israel into my troupe and I know well what that boy is capable of.  But who among today’s young people is still dancing pure flamenco?  Farruquito, and very few others.  I don’t deny the merit of today’s dancers.  And more than that, I admire their execution, their speed, their professionalism, their capacity to spend seven hours a day in a studio, to do turns like a spinning top and just eat up the stage; but flamenco puro, the art, is something else.  The art exists, but you have to slow or stop yourself to find it.  The hardest thing is to find your own language without taking away its virtues [sin desvirtuarlo].  In any case, to avoid seeming negative, I’ll say that today I’m noting an upturn [un repunte]; that is to say that there are more people doing true flamenco than there were 8 or 10 years ago.

Q:  In all your biographies, it’s said that you are self-taught.

A:  That’s true.  No one taught me to dance, though of course I saw a lot of artists.  Since I was little, I wanted to be like Carmen Amaya.  I say here movie “Los Tarantos” in a neighborhood theater with my girlfriends and since then she has been a model for me.  When I was 13 or 14, I remember that my father – also a dancer – corrected some of my postures and gave me advice, but my dance has always been my own and no one else’s.  It’s also a fact that from the beginning, I’ve always been at the side of great artists and loved to watch them.  In the tablao La Cochera, for example, I was there with the trio Los Bolecos, and to me, El Farruco seemed to be the greatest; and also Rafael el Negro and Matilde Coral.

Q:  Was it Farruco who showed you how to stop time with your arms.

A:  No, this I learned on my own.  He had a different way of dancing.

Q:  Compared to other artists of your generation, you don’t seem anchored to the past, and you try to adapt yourself to the times.  You’ve even chosen to be directed by people as distinct as Ortíz Nuevo, Jesús Quintero and Pepa Gamboa.  Has your dance also  evolved over the course of your career?

A:  Of course.  I know that I don’t dance now like I did 25 years ago, that I don’t have the potencia (power) I did then, but that what I’ve lost in power I’ve gained in wisdom and in majesty.  And the ilusión (the drive, the dream) is the same as ever.

Q:  You have four grandchildren now, and a lot of turns in your body.  Have you sometimes thought of retiring?

A:  No, not now, because I feel good; I get up each morning and go to practice and I always have some project in my head.  With myself I’m the most sincere person in the world, and the day I no longer see myself with the requisite faculties for being onstage, I’ll leave, without any doubts.

Q:  For many years, you’ve been sharing your life and the stage with the guitarist Joaquín Amador,  your husband and the father of your daughters Samara and Manuela.  What has Joaquín meant to your career?

A:  Joaquín is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.  He’s a great guitarist, a great musician and his music has let me open up my mind.  We argue a lot in rehearsals, but I realize that I don’t often seem old or outmoded thanks to him and his music.

Q:  Has the tremendous economic crisis we’re living through affected figures of the first category like you?  And what do you think must be done to get out of this situation?

A:  Of course it has affected me.  Each time there are fewer galas and everyone pays late and pays badly.  I think we’re living through one of the worst moments in history and to fight it I’d ask the politicians to support artists and, above all, that they make it possible for everyone – artists and the people in the street – to have a job and  a worthwhile (digna) life.  There are poor people who are going through terrible times.

Q:  After your appearance in the Lope de Vega you’ll start preparing the big production that you plan to present in the Maestranza Theater during the next Seville Bianal.  In it, and following in the footsteps of Camarón, El Chocolate, Pansequito and El Pele, it will be Miguel Poveda who sings the soleares [Carrasco's signature dance] for you.

A:  Yes, God willing, although we haven’t been able to start rehearsing because he’s on tour.  I would like to create some new dances and I hope everything comes out marvelously well, the same as the coming 21st  and 22nd at the Lope, because the most satisfying thing for an artist is that the public goes home content.

End of interview by Rosalía Gómez


March 19, 2014   No Comments

Diego del Gastor – An Appreciation by Alberto García Ulecia – translated by Brook Zern

 Translator’s note:  This article was recently added to the website or Facebook page ARCHIVOS FLAMENCOMORON [note the run-together second word], which is amassing information, photos and reports about Morón de la Frontera, its history, its flamenco and its people.  Like many entries, this was added by the extraordinary dancer Pepe Torres [who signs on as Pepe Torres Bailaor Torres].  Here it is:

But… what was Diego del Gastor really like?

In his case, it is hard to separate the man from the artist.  He was, above all, profoundly human, and human contradictions were part of him: cordial and warm, yet shy and reserved; complicated yet elemental; intuitive and rational; introverted and sharing; traditional and progressive; funny and melancholy…all these diverse components that revealed his individuality still seemingly live in our air, in his enchanted hands, his mane of a hallucinatory whiteness, his voice of worn anguish, his vertiginous rage against pretense or egotism.

We still sense his warm presence, his sensitive friendship, his tender silence when thinking about a child or looking at flowers… his venerable air of an exiled archangel, with the forehead of a patriarch and the smile of a good child.

There was something of García Lorca in him, thin and tall, with that natural elegance of an impoverished or dethroned king that is sometimes found in men or women of his race.  He was as old as a mountain and as ingenuous as a little child, strong from the austerity of his life and delicate from the sensibility that lent the image of a lily – but an incorruptible, never-fading lily.  And today we feel that Andalusians like him are in good measure the image of Andalusia itself.

Diego withstood in Morón the difficult years of the 40’s, and then entered the 50’s and 60’s.  He never went abroad or joined the flamenco shows and spectacles, he didn’t make any recordings, thanks to his spiritual wealth, his exoticism, his bohemian romanticism and even his foolishness…He survived in Morón through flamenco fiestas among friends and some well-to-do gentlemen, living only through his guitar.

With the slights and snubs and bitterness that he often bore in those decades, especially for a artist like him after those hard tests, Diego retained his elegance of spirit, his peculiar integrity, his dislike of egotism and strictly materialist values.  He seemed to be a disconcerting mixture of pride and humility…

Some said he was crazy, and in some way it was true – according to the standards of the thoughtless or the bourgeois.

Later in his life, times changed and the circumstances of his life improved, to the point that he was welcomed into relatively expansive circles within and beyond Morón, without being corrupted.  He made trips to Ronda and to El Gastor, his places of origin.  It was a time of recognition and prizes, reported by the newspapers and other media.  This state of affairs contributed on the one hand to increased general prestige for flamenco in more or less intellectual circles, and on the other hand to the arrival of a flow of foreigners from many nations, attracted by flamenco song and by the artistic and personal magnetism of the man from El Gastor.  They went to live in Morón and to study guitar with Diego – classes that were usually as unpredictable and fascinating as the maestro himself.    In this sense, it can be said that before Diego attained nationwide renown in Spain he had already earned an international reputation.  Those exotic students of Diego proliferated, but that doesn’t mean he created a true school of guitar playing among those disciples.  The only school that such a personal artist could leave was the imprint he gave to the excellent local guitarist Manolo Morilla, and that represented by his nephews Paco, Juan, Agustín, and the son of Joselero de Morón, Dieguito.

Each have their own artistic approach and sensibility, carrying in their hands and their blood bits of the musical styles and even the duende of the master himself.

Even the unknowing listener will realize that their guitars sound different from all others.

Nonetheless, his creative vein was developed in melodic variations in the styles of soleá, siguiriyas and bulerías, sometimes borrowed by other players…

And nonetheless, beyond the depth, flavor and Gypsy purity of his playing, perhaps the most outstanding aspect of his art was the most non-transferrable: the singular “aire” that permeated all of his playing.  The chilling duende that deepens, capable of crushing the chests of the listeners with moving beauty, and then suddenly relaxing its grip.

When the trance generated by his guitar suddenly appeared, all fell silent and some who were drawn into the realm of this Gypsy were paralyzed, petrified, their faces frozen into a strange expression of sweet, embracing mysticism.

It was as if they had been bewitched by the light of an ancient moon that left in their features an almost pantheistic heritage of who-knows-what vanished race or civilization, an extract of tears from past woes running down their cheeks,

Diego del Gastor resembled no one.

And those who heard him will never forget.

Today, years after his death, the memory of his presence and the magic of his music still light our way and ennoble us, inspiring us, wounding us; it does to our hearts what the wind does to the flowers.

Alberto García Ulecia.

End of translation, made from a problematic handmade Spanish transcription (corrections welcome) seen at:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1440972206139022/1452363348333241/?notif_t=group_activity


March 18, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Guitar Immortal Paco de Lucía Speaks – A remarkable interview from Interviú, January 6, 1977 – by J.M. Amilibia – translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  The link to this story’s original URL is at the end.  Don’t miss the picture of the buff Paco (buff for a guitarist, anyway) in the buff  (well, almost; actually in the shower, looking just fine in his Speedo.)

This is yet another amazing interview, painfully honest and deeply reflective, revealing Paco de Lucía’s personal, political and professional situation in (presumably) late 1976.  He had recently been publicly assaulted by a group of  young right-wing thugs for his liberal politics.

He was engaged to Casilda Varela, who, perhaps ironically, was the daughter of one of the insurgent generals who had joined with the Fascist Francisco Franco to overthrow Spain’s democratic government in 1936. Her aristocratic family, with a fortune from Banco de Bilbao, had fought that love match for years, and the next month the couple would marry in Amsterdam with no one present from her family (though the family came to accept the love match.  Spoiler alert:  Paco would ultimately remarry.)

Paco was already fed up with purists and “immobilists” who were giving him flak for violating Flamenco Statute Number One, “Don’t Mess With Perfection”.  (I was still in his corner, struggling to assimilate his every brilliant new note and strum on the magnificent mentioned album “Fuente y Caudal” and all the others, including his great concert album “En Vivo Desde el Teatro Real” that’s also referenced – but soon afterwards his brave detour into jazz aesthetics had left me and some other slow-witted devotees in the dust, and by 1980 I was one of the idiotic obstructionists he bitterly resented.)

The interview reflects the seismic changes rocking Spain at the time.  The new magazine Interviú, not coincidentally, was a sensationalist publication with bare-breasted beauties on the cover each week.  In 1975, Spain was still in lockdown under the dying Franco.  By 1976, the lid had figuratively been blown off, after Franco’s hand-picked successor, General Carrero Blanco, was literally blown up by a bomb that threw his car onto a roof, clearing the way for real progress.  (Maybe that included porn, unimagined for two generations and suddenly ubiquitous.)

Paco’s love of creative freedom and his declared leftist leanings were surely linked.  But his expressed desire to live in the U.S. with its legendary freedom never came to pass.  And sadly, a few years ago Paco de Lucía said he did not like being in the U.S. because of its restrictive immigration policies and its regressive political situation.

Enough context.  Here’s the story:

Paco de Lucía – Putting Aside the Music

His body still hurts from the beating he got from ten or twelve young extreme right-wing men in the midst of Madrid’s Gran Vía, with no one doing anything to stop it, with no one raising a protective hand or calling out for help.

Paco de Lucía, the guitar genius, was brutally assaulted before hundreds of indifferent onlookers, just as reporters say is a common occurrence in New York City.

Now, after all that, when Paco seems serene and his words are relaxed, when he has just received a gold record for the recording “Fuente y Caudal”, we chatted for a while.

“They put out a story,” Paco tells me, “that I was hit by a car.  Look, these are fanatics, crazies.  And I can’t even feel hatred toward them, because they are crazy.”

He orders a whisky.  He speaks con las manos cogidas [with hands clasped together].  The long fair hair, the clear eyes, the smooth and soft (comedido) voice…Some time ago, I read an interview in which it was stated that Paco was closer to the left than to other political positions…

Paco:  “I try to stay away from extremes, from fanaticism.  I agree with the left in their opposition to the political right, a right that is now just ridiculous…I want a socialism that equalizes the people of this country, not just economically but culturally as well – that’s the most important thing, I think, culture, because without that we aren’t going anywhere.”

Q:  “Have any parties contacted you?”

A:  “None.  I don’t want to separate myself from any party.  I am a liberal.  I’m a liberal above all else, and I think that socialism is very good.   If I don’t separate myself from any party, it’s because I don’t want to call “comrade” anyone who is with me ideologically but not in human terms.”

Q:  “They denied you the [use of] the Teatro Real for a concert.  Do you think that resulted from your political position?”

A:  “I don’t know…I think so.  I think that there remains in the Teatro Real a part of the reducto [last bastion] or the extreme right that ended up with just over two percent of the vote in recent elections.  Yes, it’s a low percentage, but they will put up a big fight [van a dar mucha guerra].  I felt terrible that they denied me the theater.  It seemed that we had achieved something, and in fact we are equal, despite democracy and all that…The Teatro Real is in the hands of dinosaurs.  No, I didn’t expect a refusal, especially because when I appeared there last [in the concert that was recorded] they applauded me for twenty minutes, and I filled the theater with young, lively people.


He touches a finger, the one that was hurt in the attack.  And he looks at me, saying, “What do you want me to say?  I don’t understand anything.”  The fact is that Paco de Lucía is headed for the United States.  While some remain, one – Paco – is leaving.

Q:  “Did what’s happened influence your decision to leave?”

A:  “Yes, it was a factor.  I’m going for an atmosphere where I can breathe freely; for me it’s hard to breathe here.  There are the prejudices, the orthodox people of flamenco, the tradition, the topics [issues]…  It all bothers me [todo eso choca conmigo].  I need fresh air.  I need to work without trabas (obstacles, hindrances), without the aesthetic purism and the “inmovilistas” who fight change.  The orthodox faction has never stopped messing with me since I came up…  I’ve gone to the U.S. a lot, with the idea of remaining there.  During the first weeks you suffer a sort of culture shock; then you feel a lot better:  I know I can say and do what I want, and nothing will happen,  Here, I’m always crispado (on edge, nervous), wondering what people will think, if I’m doing things well or badly, if I’ll bother people, if I’ll have to ask permission to triumph.  I want to fill myself up [meterme de lleno] in jazz, which seems to be a decisive musical movement and one that interests me a lot.  No one is going to take away my flamenco roots, but I have so much to see and so much to learn in techniques, in sounds, in rhythms…”

A little more whiskey and his gaze gets lost in the air…He tells me that he has been offered a chance to join the group Santana for concerts, and that this is interesting because one has to learn, to see, to airearse [let in fresh air]….

Q:  “And won’t it be painful to leave [Y no te da pena irte], Paco?

A:  “When I’m away, I like Spain more.  But the truth is that the country seems small to me [se me ha quedado pequeño este país].  No, it’s not that I’m sick of it on every level.  I’m referring to artistic evolution.  As you know, the purists want you to keep playing the same as always, that you make music for the archives, without experimenting or improvising…   The public has been with me. But the intellectuals are somewhat dehumanized in general.  Anyway, I plan to return from time to time…  Look, I want to learn, I want to give some concerts and then live, see Brazil, see India, live, live…  Here I always have to be demonstrating what I am.  My real need is to learn what to show.  Moreover, there comes a moment when te muestras mucho, when you’re showing off, when you come to believe [the hype] and that is negative for an artist.  I only want to divertirme, to pass my time with my music, without having the feeling that I have to work at it, be a slave to it.  I am against the life of a star.  Lately I’ve had a sad realization: that with so many prior engagements, I haven’t had time to play the guitar…And even when I may have been playing for myself alone, it seemed I was playing for the public.  I need to play without feeling obligated to do it, not every day and not thinking about the public.  I like the pino [the countryside? bowling?], the tavern, the guitar, four friends.  The commercial side kills me.  In the U.S. they’ve surmounted this.  Bob Dylan, for example, gives a number of concerts each year and then disappears…that’s how you create.”

He will go there for February.  And he will like being married to his fiancée, Casilda Varela.  “Maybe that will happen this month, or next, I don’t know…”  The whisky is gone, and Paco concludes:  I want to give concerts and live, not live to give concerts.”

End of interview in Interviú.

What an incredible man, artist and career.

Here’s the reveal — the original article with photos:


March 12, 2014   No Comments

1974 Magazine Article on Diego del Gastor – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

Pueblo y cante: Diego del Gastor

Translator’s note:  This article is from the magazine Triunfo of September, 1974, commemorating the first anniversary of the death of the flamenco guitarist Diego del Gastor.  It is complicated and was sometimes hard to decode, and will be difficult to understand, but it offers some insights and information of general flamenco interest as well as intense focus on the man who fascinated so many of us so long ago.

(Case in point: I’ve spent all this January 2014 day trying to capture the “aire” of a few of his guitar falsetas that I’ve known since 1961.  With some other guitarists, it’s enough to play the right notes at the right moments with a modicum of expressivity.  Not with this stuff.  I don’t expect to succeed, but I hope to die trying.)

The article:

Popular art – people’s art — can only be created, developed and directed by the pueblo – the people.  A peoples’ art, directed by the pueblo, has to begin with a basis of popular feelings, signs and keys.  Diego knew this, because that was exactly what he did.

He was the flamenco guitar’s equivalent of the flamenco singer called “El Bizco Amaya”.  If El Bizco sang in taverns at evening red wine time [la hora del tinto], Diego would play at dawn for the olive pickers.  A popular art doesn’t make gratuitous or arbitrary concessions.  It’s not whether the beans are soft but what seasonings are added to the pot.  Not whether the mix is easily digested, or whether it puts you to sleep or keeps you up all night.  And Diego was an integral part of it – a tireless creator, a musical activist making art for everyone.

Only in its own milieu can a people’s art develop freely.  Only within the pueblo can the pueblo create its art.  The rest is insomnia or sleep.

On July 13, 1973, Diego Amaya Flores, in Morón de la Frontera, remained a great unknown [un gran olvidado].  An unknown guitar player.  A cadaver who was part of a living music

Diego del Gastor was born on March 15th, 1908, in Arriate, a town in the province of Malaga. But at an early age he moved to the El Gastor, a little town situated between Ronda, Jerez and Seville.    The son of Juan and Bárbara, he was the sixth of ten children: Pepe, Dolores, Agustín, Carmen, Antonio “el mellizo”, Diego, Amparo, Teresa, Paco and Salvador.  His baptism, celebrated at 120 Sevilla Street in Ronda, lasted for five days; he was godfathered (apadrinado) by some Gypsies (as he himself was) who gave him the nickname “Pitito”.

Because his father was a horse trader [tratante de bestias], from a young age he went between Ronda, Jerez and Morón, helping him do the accounts, but always with a clear conscience of the difference between that and his guitar.  He never mixed music and money.

“…in those years, twenty or twenty five years ago, seventy or eighty thousand duros [400,000 pesetas - a lot of money], a big herd of work horses, and five or six houses.” (According to Andrés Cabrera, an intimate friend of Diego.)

His infancy was spent between Arroyo and Molino streets.  Between the stairways of the church and the haylofts.  Between popular songs and flamenco bulerías.  Diego’s first musical creations were based on pasodobles, as well as flamenco sung by his friend Manuel Roldán – always quietly, con verguenza – in the Café de Miguelito.

Those were the years of la Andonda and El Fillo.  The yeaars of Tenaza and the Gallardos, Paquirri and Ramón el Ollero, of Silverio Franconetti and Tomás el Nitri.  Years of strong aguardiente.

Manuel Torre, Aurelio Selles, El Cojo de Malaga, El Macaca, El Herrrero, La Sarneta, Carito…Voices of strong aguardiente.

In the haylofts [el pajar] were born the pasodobles [Spanish popular songs] of Mari Cruz and Rocío, set to the bulerías rhythm.  The first flamenco tangos and the first important decisions.  The creative genius who would become the most legendary living player was beginning to create himself [desarrollarse].

“Diego, when he was ten years old, sat on the doorstep of his house and spent hours and  hours with a stick, as if it were a guitar, and with his lips he imitated that sound…” (Carmen,  great granddaughter of José María “El Tempranillo”, Diego’s friend since their infancy.)

His father was a keen aficionado of flamenco; people of his age who worked with him remember some of his songs with nostalgia, above all an old popular ballad called “Ballad of the ten dogs”, and a special way of singing soleares.  Soleares that today, according to Diego, are only known by [his brother-in-law] Luís Torres “Joselero”.

While his first sporadic visits to Morón were to  see his sister Dolores, in 1928 he moved there for good.  Morón was the home of the singer Diego Bermúdez “Tenazas”.  And the home of La Andonda, who was married to a mule driver [arriero] called El Oleganillo, whom she would leave to go with El Fillo.  Might the so-called Soleares de Triana actually have their origin in Morón?  Of course there are those who defend that view, among them Paco Ayala, an eminent flamenco song expert.

Morón is a southern town.  A town of immigrants and a coarse [bravío] town, agricultural but with some industry and, with few exceptions, artisanal.  A town of sharp contrasts, the light and the whitewashed buildings are simply the reflections of past tragedies.  About seventy kilometers from Seville, and in that province, it has been a focal point of attraction for foreigners and others, who go there to hear Diego’s guitar.  To have Diego teach them.  Once in Morón, it was the town that kept them, just as it was Morón that had once led its inhabitants to join the ranks of emigrants.  For years, Morón was being stripped, losing almost half of its people.  The towns of Andalucia know well the roads that lead to Barcelona.  The trains that go to Germany and Switzerland.  Morón is no exception, it’s another drop in the bucket.  It was the town seen through a train window.  That glance and the smile that Diego’s guitar knew how to translate.  The same voices that were being caught on tape recorders from Frankfurt or Stuttgart, the same tremor, the same noises heard on those big transistor radios  that the emigrants returned with.  They were part of the sound of the guitar; Diego was a part of Morón, and its humble people were his most fervent admirers.

Silverio Franconetti lived in Morón – the  non-Gypsy [payo] who after his return from Argentina was one of the most important figures in the diffusion of flamenco.  In Morón, and only in Morón, was the sole hope that Diego’s art would not be lost.

If the guitarist’s thumb is the hammer at the forge, or the equivalent of the “ayy” of El Loco Mateo, in Diego’s art the thumb marked the silences, those silences that the guitarist Perico del Lunar also used, silences charged with sound, that made the mouth taste of blood, as the beautiful old singer called “La Piriñaca” once said.

The influences on Diego’s playing [toque] were his brother Pepe, Pepe Mesa, and Pepe Naranjo.  Niño Ricardo, always important, wasn’t an iron strap that would impede the development of his imagination and creativity.  Poetry, the reflection of popular intuition, that at some level reaches the realm of knowledge.  With his enormous capacity for borrowing [captación], the guitar held no secrets.  He had arrived at such a fusion with its sounds that the two were mutually inciting one another.

“The guitar tells me to play it here or to strum it in another place.  All I do is what it tells me to.”

At the end of his public performances, which Diego was afraid of, and after the applause, he didn’t nod his head as a sign of thanks; he just showed his guitar, and with a special glance he seemed to remind us  that it was the guitar that told him how to do it.  In those festivals, Diego was different from the man in the intimate “reuniones” with friends.  In those, he was all courage and total delivery of himself as an artist, while in public one saw fear and respect.  He didn’t like applause and noise; he belonged to silence, and in the end, the noise was more than he could take.  The silence with which he wanted to surround himself was broken by merchants and sellers of music.  Tape recordings of his art crossed frontiers and were sold at exorbitant prices.  While Americans could hear his music, in many parts of Spain he remained completely unknown.  The more contracts he rejected, the more arrived.  The more he hid, the more he was sought.  The years of red wine and whiskey were trampling the strong aguardiente.  Diego knew that an arena hemmed him in.  For all those reasons, he never wanted to leave Morón.  Morón was the fortress of his fear.  Morón was his freedom and his domain.  Morón was silence.  To leave Morón was to enter the world of supply and demand.  To abandon the value of everyday usage [valores del uso] of  his guitar and convert it into coins or traveller’s checks.  Diego knew that the flower came from the root, though it might seem to come from the branch.

There were times – so old voices tell us – when the song, upon abandoning its minoritoy origin, lost none of its force or purity.  The song and the pueblo were one and the same.

The song was a weapon [arma]/ the pueblo was a flower/ a flower charged/ with gunpowder [pólvora] and love.

(“Canción de la serranía”)

Pueblo and song continue to be the same thing.  What the pueblo creates does not kill the pueblo.  But what is the same can be separated, and then there emerge the Perets: the Raphaels [a noted singer] of the landholders and the Lolas [Lola Flores] of the oligarchs.  In any political system, popular art exists.  But it’s not in every political system that the art of the pueblo can be developed, can be sung in chorus and made their own by the masses at the light of day.  Diego liked the idea of an art of the masses, but he knew that his art could never be that, since being that it could never be developed without some minimal and indispensable premises.  Diego, like any professional artist, needed a specific climate.  Since that climate didn’t exist – nor does it exist – he had to close the windows, brick up the walls, turn on the lights and return to the dark caves of the origin.  To return to the belly, in the hope – or in the task – of giving birth.

“One night we were with Anzonini and Rosa “la Americana”, and two cars came from Algodonales with a noisy group of either or nine people; when he saw that they were coming to greet us, he was unnerved, because he thought they would want to take him off to play for a fiesta…he moved to another table.  We were talking of old times, since it had been twenty years since we’d seen one another, but I looked for his guitar and couldn’t see it.  That was the big night!  Diego really wanted to play, but because he knew those people and knew they were rich, he thought “Uh oh, they’ve come for me”.  When he saw they weren’t leaving, he asked me if there was another place we could go because it was too noisy here.  When we got there, he closed the door with the bolt and, looking at them, said, “Ea! So much greeting and saludos – enough with all that “Great to see you!”  Then he asked for a guitar, and when he had it in his hands, he only wanted to caress it, and he embraced it for a while.  Then he asked me if my father had died.”

On the 13th of July of 1973, Diego Amaya Flores died of a coronary infarction.  His mother, “Barbarita”, had died a few months before.  Diego died in silence, not saying a word.  Now, a year after his death, there is a bust of him with his name on it.  A posthumous homage, a festival honoring his playing.

His music today remains a great unknown.  His music continues in silence.  The television program [Rito y Geografía del Cante], so fortuitously made by José María Velázquez and Pedro Turbica for Televisión Española, uses his playing as its introductory signature.  But despite that, Diego is one of many Spaniards lost in a cultural shipwreck and in an ocean of silences.  The only valid homage is his own music.  One must return to the belly to construct the birth.

End of article by Julio Vélez.

I’ve mentioned in this blog my basic discomfort with public socializing in Spain, where the mere act of entering a bar sets off a torrent of hugging and kissing.  (I don’t hang around in bars in the U.S., but in Spain bars are the unavoidable center of social life because nobody invites strangers — meaning all non-relatives — into their homes.)

I may be an egotist, but I’m not an extrovert, to say the least.  I guess I’m sort of shy.  (All together now: “Aww..”)

And since I don’t drink really drink — they nicknamed me “El Coca-cola” amid general merriment — well, it could be awkward when everyone else went off carousing with Diego in a general haze.

But there was an upside, because Diego — minus the alcohol, as was often the case — was “timid” “quiet” “shy”, to use descriptive terms from elsewhere in this blog.

I think he noticed that a lot of extranjeros were just acting, or overacting.  They’d get to Morón and, as if changing costumes in a phone booth, would suddenly become uniformly boisterous, gregarious, loud — to me, it looked like a pantomime, a show themed “who can be the socialest?”  Maybe those visitors were like that in Oslo or Ohio or San Francisco, but I had my doubts.

Well, I was the guy who didn’t mind getting voted off the island.  And from the moment he saw me not hugging anyone, Diego del Gastor noticed that I had this grave asocial flaw, because he had the same one.

As the above article spells out so clearly, he not only avoided fame: he was uncomfortable among all non-intimates — never mind the obnoxious “señoritos” or ill-mannered, rich junior would-be gentlemen like those mentioned above, that he avoided because they wanted to give him money that he didn’t want.

So we had an arms-length, handshaky, blissfully hug-free relationship.  He knew I knew a lot about science for a non-scientist, and he would ask me how things worked — the solar system, lightning, volcanoes, satellites, whatever.  I would ask him where certain guitar falsetas came from — was that Paco Lucena or Pepe Naranjo — hey, it reminds me of this one from Pepe Tranca; and he’d ask me to show that one to him — and why not, since it’s lesson time on the clock when he doesn’t have to show me anything.  And the next day, he’d show me his version of it, markedly improved.

A few of the finest falsetas were composed — if that’s the word for arranging, say, twenty notes that in ten beats, plus the obligatory two-beat close, sum up the entire immense concept that is the soleares — by his brother called “El Mellizo”, who was evidently named Antonio.

(Unlike most students there, I already knew lots of stuff from lots of other excellent styles — that may be why it’s always been hard for me to “acoplar” or hook up with the singular Morón “soniquete”.)

Diego was an old man — though always at least a decade younger than I am now — and I revered him, so I didn’t want to be his buddy, and he already had friends his age who spoke his language properly and had shared histories.

(Paco de Lucía, the magnificent colossus who will ultimately determine truth or falsity in all flamenco guitar matters, thinks we were all taken in by slick marketing for a flawed and overrated artist, orchestrated by a PR con man named Don Pohren.  Lucky us.)

I didn’t go to Morón to find a family, as many others seemed to.  I was married when I first got there in 1963, and had two daughters ten years later when he left.  And my family was small — I didn’t know from nieces and son-in-laws, while other foreigners could diagram the family trees of La Chica’s uncles’ cousins.  (Everyone is evidently everyone else’s cousin there.)

I sometimes listen to crumbling cassettes of lessons, and we talk politics and whatnot.  When I’m asking for too much music at once — I’ve been working on the style for many years — Diego slips me a mickey — he gives me a seemingly simple falseta that I somehow just can’t get wired (as he expected, knowing my weaknesses all too well.)

Diego loved some of the people who studied with him — the brilliant artist David Serva clearly deserved that distinction.  As for me, according to the gossip grapevine, he occasionally said I was “listo”.

It ain’t warm and fuzzy, I thought, but I’ll take it.

* (Guitarists, try this:  Thumb doublets, accenting underlined notes:  F on 4th (string), D on 4, E on 4, C on 5, G on 3, B on 5, D on 4, C on 5, B on 5, A on 5, E on 4, E on 6, F on 6, F on 4, E on 4, F (hammered on) on 4, G# on 3, B on 2; E on 6, E on 1, E on 4, G# on 3, B on 2, E on 1.  Okay, now try to make it sound like music.)

Brook Zern

Note:  The URL of the original magazine story is: http://morondelafrhistoriaflamencodeportes.blogspot.com/search/label/Diego%20del%20Gastor

February 3, 2014   4 Comments

Capital Offense – 1992 Letter to The New York Times

April 16, 1992

The New York Times
229 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY

Dear Sir/Madame:

I am writing to question a New York Times rule of style which unwittingly manages to denigrate an entire ethnic group.

Because others share this concern and have expressed it in earlier and more eloquent letters to the Times, I felt it was pointless to pursue the matter.  I assumed that there was some internal rationale that provided a basis for the continuing insult.

So when I read the latest example of egregious misuse the day before yesterday, I decided to ignore it.  But an unrelated (and non-insulting) usage by the Times today prompts this letter.

That usage appears in the article on Leona Helmsley.  It referred to “the Spartan, 32-inmate dormitory to which she was initially assigned.”

Spartan here does not mean “from Sparta”.  It is used as an adjective, meaning “stark”.  In my view, then, although it’s hardly an important issue, the lower-case spelling seems more appropriate.  Nonetheless, you used the capitalized version.

Now, the word that concerns me is the word “gypsy”.  And when it is used as an adjective to mean “wandering” (e.g. “gypsy cab” or “show-business gypsies”) it would indeed seem to call for a lower-case “g”.

But when you use it to refer to a highly coherent group of people who share a common ethnic and geographic origin, it is certainly appropriate to use the capital letter.

For some reason, the Times insists on denying these people this most elementary recognition.  The perversity of this practice is all the more ironic in context, since your articles are usually documenting the latest state pogroms or individual persecutions directed against them.

Whether it is in Europe, where recent upheavals have exposed them to a new wave of terrorism, or here in the U.S., where Tuesday’s article documented an apparent misuse of the legal system to seize a family’s property (“Police Raid and Suit Open Window Into Gypsy Life”, 4/14, p. 16) the theme is always the same; the variations, though, are endlessly inventive and vicious.

By denying them the capital letter that is given to all other people who share a common background, the newspaper of record unintentionally fuels the syndrome of “otherness” that sets this group apart and is used to justify prejudicial attitudes and actions.

If your authorities on style had decided, albeit incorrectly, that the word was always fundamentally adjectival, it might have offered some sort of basis for your ongoing misuse of the lower case.  But hey — if you can capitalize Spartan even when it’s used as an adjective, then certainly it won’t cost you anything to capitalize Gypsy when it is clearly the right thing to do.

Please note that I am avoiding a separate issue: whether you should move away from the term Gypsy entirely, and start using “Rom” or another term of their own choosing.  That is not a matter on which I am qualified to comment.  But if this group had the same kind of political and socioeconomic clout as others, I am sure you would make a point of asking someone who speaks for them (such as Ian Hancock, mentioned in the article of 4/14) which term is preferred.

As a matter of common courtesy or common decency, I hope you will consider a permanent style change.  As in the case with the Times recent recognition of “Ms.”:  Better late than never.

Yours truly,

Brook Zern

Note:  I think this is the second letter I wrote to the Times.  Some years earlier, I had directed the first one to the Style Editor — the feared, crusty dictator of proper language usage that was reverently called Timesstyle.  I soon received a reply that said, if I may paraphrase, that she thought their polka dots were absolutely cunning, but she didn’t understand my ravings about their human rights.

It seems I’d sent it on the same week that the Times, in a desperate effort to lighten up, had launched its new Style section, covering new fashions and trends.  The old Style Editor was suddenly out of fashion.)

Incidentally, I think this second one took — at least, I believe the Times started capitalizing Gypsy from then on…


January 28, 2014   4 Comments

Is Flamenco Song Protest Music? On Pete Seeger, cante jondo and whatnot

In the New Deal town of Roosevelt, New Jersey, built at FDR’s behest to make work for the jobless, in the home of a once-important American artist, far-left-winger and family friend named Ben Shahn, I asked a fellow traveler named Pete Seeger about flamenco song.

Pete said, as I recall, “You know, it’s strange, but there are just two great musical styles that I don’t really like.  One is Spanish flamenco, and the other is our own blues.”

Well, the newly late Pete might’ve thought it was strange, but I thought it was practically inevitable.  In his immense heart, Pete was an optimist.  He sang to bring people together in harmony, to raise their voices in protest against injustice, and to use that collective energy to make profound social change.  He loved everybody except exploiters,and every kind of music — except the profoundly sad, essentially hopeless, even death-focused deep blues and deep flamenco song.

The great corpus of flamenco song verses are not expressions of protest, though they reflect  the desperate situation and the feelings of a deprived underclass which spent centuries without power and often on the verge of starvation.

The verses can “quejar” — can complain, lament, express grief and misery, often in the context of desperate poverty.  But they are personal and individual, not political and collective.  They are not “protest music”.  I think the reason is simple enough.  When the desperate miners of Kentucky or the strikers supporting the assassinated union organizer Joe Hill joined their voices together in song — in protest — they did so with a reasonable expectation.

They say in Harlan county
there are no neutrals there,
you’ll either be a union man
or a thug for J.H. Blair.

They expected that someone would care.  Not the bosses, of course, but an amorphous but powerful “public” whose indignation, if properly aroused, could materially change a bad situation for the better.

And it worked.  Unions triumphed for decades, until they were outthought and obliterated by smarter and meaner people.

I recall those embarrassing sixties afternoons when I was marching up and down Broadway singing — embarrassing for me, at least, because I am vaguely squeamish about singing loudly in public even while running from the mounted police, and downright excruciating because of the dimwitted words that this mass of English and Comparative Literature majors had come up with for  these historic occasions, namely:

Hey, Hey, LBJ,
How many kids did you kill today?

Or, employing another subtly crafted AA rhyme scheme in iambic duometer:

One, two, three, four,
we don’t want your stinkin’ war.

Hey, it’s got a good beat.  You can march to it.  Well, we didn’t stop their stinkin’ war, though we fooled ourselves that we had done so when it finally ran out of gas; but we knew that we were being heard, and that our voices were important, and that we were important, even when the cops from the Tactical Patrol Force dragged our sit-down-strike asses down the steps of Butler Library.

(I suggested to Mark Rudd, our designated official non-leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a protest song that better reflected our privileged social status and exalted educational level, using a free-rhyme scheme and a Joycean stream-of-consciousness sensibility that reflected the approach of Columbia’s greatest poet/dropout Alan Ginsberg, who actually visited the campus during the uprising and recited along with the Grateful Dead and other rock groups:  It began, (freely): “a way a long a lost the riverrun I’m with you in Rockland…”, and as is my wont, rambled on for eleven more pages.)

(Remember, we-types were not in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, called Rotsey – in fact, we would end up throwing that military organization off our campus forever, at least until late last year, when we were outthought and outlasted by smarter and meaner people — and we hadn’t joined the Boy Scouts either, because were were Junior Jewish Undisciplined Intellectuals and afraid of uniforms, so we just didn’t know how to march at all, even with the help of those dumbheaded 4/4-time protest/march songs.  Yes, we were products of the mean suburban streets of Westchester and Long Island…)

Protest music reflects a tacit assumption that the protester can make a difference.

Early flamenco songs had no one to protest at, or to.  A carcelera (a form of the early tonás, from the jails or cárcels):

They put me in a cell so dark
I could not see my hands.

Where’s the moral?  Where’s the lesson?  What were the charges?  Were they trumped up?  What did the lawyer say?  What about appeals, motions for a mistrial?

They put me in a cell so dark
I could not see my hands.

Can we march to this?  Does it have to have such long, draggy lines that don’t seem to have any rhythm at all, or worse yet, to sometimes seem to be in vaguely waltz time?

Look at the shame
you have made me bear;
trying to sell my clothes from door to door
to buy your freedom.

Okay, I know what you’re all thinking:

Who cares?

And that’s exactly my point.  Nobody.

However, there’s an exception.  Certain particular songs, which originated in the mining area of the Levante very far to the East of the birthplace of the art, and not even in Andalucía, are not truly flamenco in their sensibility.  Some verses of tarantas or mineras or cartageneras even have a whiff of protest and even union-ish solidarity to them (hey, maybe the mining town of La Unión is named for a workers’ union, eh?)

But again, I don’t hear real political thinking in Andalusian flamenco verses; but then again, what do you expect from a province where the main political stance was, apparently, Anarchy.

(Suggested anarcho-syndicalist slogan:  ”Next week we’ve got to get organized.”)

Blues songs rarely complained about the ghastly social situation of the protagonist.  They expressed feelings of sadness or longing, just as serious flamenco verses do.  In each case, the low caste of the singers meant there was no logical reason to expect any sympathy, attention or, least of all, any change in status whatsoever.

Up this morning
turning from side to side.  (repeat)
I could not sleep
I was just dissatisfied.

Conclusive Proof:  Yes, there is Protest Flamenco — acknowledged by that name, and considered a separate genre from other flamenco styles..  It appeared in the mid-seventies, during the prolonged death agonies of Franco and his Fascist apparatus, and using slightly coded language, it requested or even demanded freedom.  The chief proponent was a radical leftist, possibly an avowed communist, named Manuel Gerena.

José Menese, under the influence of his poet/artist friend Francisco Moreno Galván,  also sang progressive verses — one album was called “Se Hace el Camino al Andar”, or “You (can only) make a new path by walking it”.  [Welcome correction from the expert John Moore:  That album was by Enrique Morente, one of his first experimental works.  One of Menese's political albums was "Cantes para el Hombre Nuevo".]  A lot of aficionados, including some of us who supported leftist agendas, thought the combo of private pathos and public politics just didn’t work.  But it took guts, and Gerena spent a lot of time in the juzgado.  (In Castilian Spanish the word means “judged”, I assume, and is pronounced “hooth-gado”, it becomes juzgao in the country’s lazy, lovely Andaluz southern dialect [pronounced "hoos-gow"] , which equals hoosegow in our own southwest cowboy slang.

I’ve been in lots of private flamenco sessions, and also a few public singing events in New York.

One was very early in the Vietnam era, before public objections were common.  It was in Madison Square Garden, and I think it was organized by Women Strike for Peace — highly educated and yet somehow very dissatisfied suburban housewives, as I recall, who were way ahead of Students and Men when it came to sensing a rotten situation.

Pete was there, of course, as the Cheerleader-in-Chief.  And because it was the Garden, where the Rangers played, there were pennants and such.  And as it began — this may have been a sort of counter-protest by workers at the Garden — a huge American flag was unfurled from the ceiling.  There were some outright boos — many of us were pretty furious at the American Empire.  And Pete said. and I quote:  ”You know, that’s your flag up there.  And a bunch of bastards in Washington are making you hate it.”

The feeling I had then might’ve been the closest I ever came to patriotism.

(That insane war went on for years and years and years, of course, though it was a quickie compared to our latest endeavor.  And the best, angriest anti-war speech I ever heard was by Martin Luther King, who had infuriated many of his followers by changing his focus from racial equality to the war — he said he could not keep silent when black men were going to Vietnam to fight and die in disproportionate numbers for the freedom they did not have when they came back home.  You will not hear that speech on Martin Luther King Day, or any other day, for that matter.)

Anyway, there we were, Pete smiling and making everybody sing out.

(Sing Out.  That was the name of Irwin Silber’s folk song magazine, which followed a very doctrinaire red line.  Silber and his gang were thrilled when a young folk singer came along who toed the usual leftist line but had more talent than everyone else put together.  And they were furious when that same singer courageously turned on them, refusing to parrot their preferred polemic, and strayed from the political to the personal.  His self-critical parting shot:  ”In a solder’s stance, I aimed my hand/ at the mongrel dogs who teach/ fearing not that I’d become my enemy/ in the instant that I preach.”  Dylan would never preach again — well, except for the years when he became a born-again absolutist, and also wrote the only magnificent new hymn, “In the fury of the moment/ I can see the master’s hand/ in every leaf that trembles/ in Every Grain of Sand.”)

(Pete was not thrilled when Dylan “went electric” musically — and went unpolitical, lyrically — allegedly trying to cut the wire to Dylan’s electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival during “Maggie’s Farm”, which still had some leftover over- or undertones of protestation.)

The political is polemical — and the polar opposite of a flamenco gathering is Pete onstage, hollering “Up there in the balcony, let’s hear you…Now everyone, all together, ‘We shall live in peace…’”

If only.

Brook Zern

January 24, 2014   10 Comments

Important 1883 Description of Flamenco From U.S. Book “Spanish Vistas” (with exact dance description) – Comments by Brook Zern

I found an 1883 book that describes flamenco as seen by an American traveler in Spain.  Passages touch on the song, and also describe in detail a dance performance in Malaga some time prior to the publication date.  The book is called “Spanish Vistas”, by George Parsons Lathrop, published by Harper & Brothers, Frankln Square (Philadelphia?), 1883.  It’s nicely illustrated by Charles S. Reinhart.

While suited to armchair travelers, the book is also aimed squarely at potential American tourists, with sections in the back on safe travel (bandits had recently been subdued by the Guardia Civil) and other handy hints.  It’s also gracefully written and sharply observed.  The intro (which mentions a book by John Hay from a few years earlier, called “Castillian Days”) describes a meeting with a Spaniard who, learning the author was not an Englishman but a North American, exclaimed happily “You are for the Spanish Republic (a Republican), then!”  The author says he then asked the Spaniard: “How many Spaniards are in that party?”

“Party,” the Spaniard cried.  “Listen: in Spain there is a separate political party for every man.”  After a slight pause he added, bitterly, “Sometimes, two!”

Anyway, the section on Seville shows that the author is conversant with music.  A description of the Thursday-morning fair still rings true.  He writes:

“With very early morning begins the deep clank of bells, under the chins of asses that go the rounds to deliver domestic milk from their own udders.  There is no end of noise.  Even in the elegant dining-room where we ate, lottery-dealers would howl at us through the barred windows, or a donkey outside would rasp our ears with his intolerable braying.  Then the street cries are incessant.  At night the crowds chafe and jabber till the latest hours, and after eleven the watchmen begin their drawl of unearthly sadness…until, somewhere about dawn, you drop perspiring into an oppressively tropical dream-land, with the sereno’s last cry ringing in your ears:  “Hail, Mary, most pure!  Three o’clock has struck.”  This is the weird tune to which he chants it.  (Then the book shows a well-rendered melodic line, done in common time, revealing an aptitude for writing relatively straightforward if unusual music; but, predictably, the author never attempts to render flamenco song in notation.)

The text continues:

“An Enlish lady, conversing with a Sevillan gentleman who had been making some rather tall statements, asked him:  “Are you telling me the truth?”

“Madam,” he replied gravely, but with a twinkle in his eye, “I am an Andalusian!”  At which the surrounding listeners, his fellow-countryment, broke into an appreciative laugh.

So proverbial is the want of veracity, or, to put it more genially, the imagination, of these Southerners.  Their imagination will explain also the vogue of their brief, sometimes pathetic, yet never more than half-expressed, scraps of song, which are sung with so much feeling throughout the kingdom to crude barbaric airs, and loved alike by gentle and simple.  I mean the Peteneras and the Malaguenas.  There are others of the same general kind — usually pitched in a minor key, and interspersed with passionate trills, long quavers, unexpected ups and downs, which it requires no little skill to render.  I have seen gypsy singers grow apoplectic with the long breath and volume of sound which they threw into these eccentric melodies amid thunders of applause.  It is not a high nor a cultivated order of music, but there lurks in it something consonant with the broad, stimulating shine of the sun, the deep red earth, the thick, strange-flavored wine of the Peninsula; its constellated nights, and clear daylight gleamed with flying gold from the winnowing field.  The quirks of the melody are not unlike those of very old English ballads, and some native composer with originality should be able to expand their deep, bold, primitive ululations into richer, lasting forms.  The fantastic picking of the mandurra accompaniment reminds me of Chinese music with which I have been familiar.  Endless preludes and interminable windings-up enclose the minute kernel of actual song; but to both words and music is lent a repressed touching power and suggestiveness by repeating, as is always done, the opening bars and first words at the end, and then breaking off in mid-strain.  For instance:

“All the day I am happy,
but at evening orison
like a millstone grows my heart.
All the day I am happy.”

[Limitless Guitar Solo.]  [sic]

It is like the never-ended strain of Schumann’s “Warum?”  The words are always simple and few — often bald [sic].  One of the most popular pieces amounts simply to this:

“Both Lagartijo and Frascuelo
swordsmen are of quality,
since when the bulls they are slaying –
O damsel of my heart –
they do it with serenity.
Both Lagartijo and Frascuelo
swordsmen are of quality.

But such evident ardor of feeling and such wealth of voice are breathed into these fragments that they become sufficient.  The people supply from their imagination what is barely hinted in the lines.  Under their impassive exteriors they preserve memories, associations, emotions of burning intensity, which throng to aid their enjoyment, as soon as the muffled strings begin to vibrate and syllables of love or sorrow are chanted.  I recalled to a young and pretty Spanish lady one line,

“Pajarito, que te vuelas”.

She flushed, fire came to her eyes, and with clasped hands she murmured, “Oh, what a beautiful song it is!”  Yet it contains only four lines.  Here is a translation:

Bird, little bird that wheelest
through God’s fair worlds in the sky,
say if thou anywhere seest
a being more sad than I.
Bird, little bird that wheelest.

Some of these little compositions are roughly humorous, and others very grotesque, appearing to foreigners empty and ridiculous.

The following one has some of the odd imagery and clever inconsequence of some of our negro improvisations:

“As I was gathering pine-cones
in the sweet pine woods of love,
my heart was cracked by a splinter
that flew from the tree above,
I’m dead: pray for me, sweethearts.”

There was one evening in Granada when we sat in a company of two dozen people, and one after another of the ladies took her turn in singing to the guitar of a little girl, a musical prodigy.  But they were all outdone by Candida, the brisk, naive, handsome serving-girl, who was invited in, but preferred to stand outside the grated window, near the lemon-trees and pomegranates, looking in, with a flower in her hair, and pouring into the room her warm contralto — that voice so common among Spanish peasant-women — which seemed to have absorbed the clear dark of Andalusian nights when the stars glitter like lance-points aimed at the earth.  Through the twanging of the strings we could hear the rush of water that gurgles all about the Alhambra; and, just above the trees that stirred in the perfumed air without, we knew the unsentinelled walls of the ancient fortress were frowning.  The most elaborate piece was one meant to accompany a dance called the Zapateado, or “kick-dance.”  It begins:

“Tie me, with my fiery charger,
to your window’s iron lattice.
Though he break loose, my fiery charger,
me he cannot tear away.”

and then passes into rhyme:

“Much I ask of San Francisco,
much St. Thomas I implore;
but of thee, my little brown girl,
ah, of thee I ask much more!”

The singing went on:

“In Triana there are rogues,
and there are stars in heaven.
Four and one rods away
there lives, there lives a woman.
Flowers there are in gardens,
and beautiful girls in Sevilla.”

That’s the end of flamenco references in the Seville section.  The author then moves to Granada.  He writes:

“The gypsies of Granada are disappointing, apart from their peculiar quivering dance, performed by gitanas in all Spanish cities under the name of flamenco.*

[* Footnote:  Fleming, a name commonly applied to Spanish gypsies; whence it has been inferred that the first of them came from the Netherlands.]

Their hill-caves, so operative with one’s curiosity when regarded from across the valley, gape open in such dingy, sour, degraded foulness on a nearer view, that I found no amount of theory would avail to restore their interest.  Yet some of the fortune-telling women are spirited enough, and the inextinguishable Romany spark smoulders in their black eyes.  Perhaps it was an interloping drop of Celtic blood that made one of them say to me, “Señorito, listen.  I will tell you your fortune.  But I speak French — I come from Africa!” And to clinch the matter she added, “You needn’t pay me if every word of the prediction isn’t true!”  Much as I had heard of the Spanish bull, I never knew until then how closely it resembles the Irish breed.

[The famed Spanish artist] Fortuny’s model, Marinero, who lives in a burrow on the Alhambra side, occasionally starts up out of the earth in a superb and expensive costume, due to the dignity of his having been painted by Fortuny.  Dark as a negro, with a degree of luminous brown in his skin, and very handsome, he plants himself immovably in one spot to sell photographs of himself.  His nostrils visibly dilate with pride, but he makes no other bid for custom.  He expands his haughty nose, and you immediately buy a picture.  Velveteen [the author's fellow traveller] chanced upon Marinero’s daughter, and got her to pose.  When he engaged her she was so delighted that she took a rose from her hair and presented it to him, with a charming, unaffected air of gratitude, came an hour before the time, and waited impatiently.  She wore a wine-colored skirt, if I remember, a violet jacked braided with black, and a silk neckerchief of dull purple-pink silk.  But that was not enough: a blue silk kerchief also was wound about her waist, and in among her smooth jet locks she had tucked a vivid scarlet flower.  The result was perfect, for the rich pale-brown of her complexion could harmonize anything; and in Spain, moreover, combinations of color that appear too harsh elsewhere are paled and softened by the overpowering light.”

That’s the end of descriptions of flamenco and Gypsies in Granada.  From there, the author and Velveteen go to Malaga — via Bobadilla, a railhead I remember from the 1960′s.  The next chapter begins:

“A gypsy dance!  What does one naturally imagine it to be like?  For my part, I had expected something wild, free and fantastic; something in harmony with moonlight, the ragged shadows of trees, and the flicker of a rude camp-fire.  Nothing could have been wider of the mark.  The flamenco — that dance of the gypies, in its way as peculiarly Spanish as the church and the bull-ring, and hardly less important — is of Oriental origin, and preserves the impassive quality, the suppressed, tantalized sensuousness belonging to Eastern performances in the saltatory line.  It forms a popular entertainment in the cafés of the lower order throughout the southern provinces, from Madrid all the way around to Valencia, in Sevilla and Malaga, and is gotten up as a select and expensive treat for travellers at Granada.  But we saw it at its best in Malaga.

We were conducted, about eleven o’clock in the evening, to a roomy, rambling, dingy apartment in the crook of an obscure and dirty street, where we found a large number of sailors, peasants and chulos seated drinking at small tables, with a very occasional well-dressed citizen or two here and there.  In one corner was a stage rising to the level of our chins when we were seated, which had two fronts, like the Shakspearian stage in pictures, so that spectators on the side might have a fair chance, and be danced to from time to time.  On this sat about a dozen men and women, the latter quite as much Spanish as gypsy, and some of them dressed partially in tights, with an affectation of sailors or pages’ costume in addition  At Madrid and Sevilla their sisters in the craft wore ordinary feminine dresses, and looked the possessors of more genuine Romany blood.

But here, too, the star danseuse, the chief mistress of the art of flamenco, was habited in the voluminous calico skirt which Peninsular propriety prescribes for this particular exhibition, thereby doing all it can to conceal and detract from the amazing skill of muscular movement involved.  A variety of songs and dances with guitar accompaniments, some effecive and others tedious, preceded the gypsy performance.  I think we listened nearly half an hour to certain disconsolate barytone wailings, which were supposed to interpret the loves, anxieties, and other emotions of a contrabandista, or smuggler, hiding from pursuit in the mountains.  Judging from the time at his disposal for this lament, the smuggling business must be sadly on the decline.  The whole entertainment was supervised by a man precisely like all the chiefs of these troupes in Spain.  Ther similarity is astounding; even their features seem even identical: when you have seen one, you have seen all his fellows, and know exactly what they will do.  He may be a little older or younger, a little more gross or less so, but he is always clean-shaven like the other two sacred types — the bull-fighter and the priest — and his face is in every case weakly but good-humoredly sensual.  But what does he do?  Well, nothing.  He is the most important personage on the platform, but he does not contribute to the programme beyond an exclamation of encouragement to the performers at intervals.  He is a Turveydrop in deportment at moments, and always a Crummies in self-esteem [the meaning of these references is unknown to me].  A few highly favored individuals as they come from the café salute him, and receive a condescending nod in return.  Then some friend in the audience sends him up a glass of chamomile wine, or comes close and offers it with his own hand.  The leader invariably makes excuses, and without exception ends by taking the wine, swallowing a portion, and gracefully spitting out the rest at the side of the platform.  He smokes the cigars of admiring acquaintances, and throws the stumps on the stage.  All the while he carries in his hand a smooth, plain walking-stick, with which he thumps time to the music when inclined.

At last the moment for flamenco arrives.  The leader begins to beat monotonously on the boards, just as our Indians do with their tomahawks [sic -- shouldn't it be tom-toms?] to set the rhythm; the guitars strike into their rising and falling melancholy strain.  Two or three women chant a weird song, and all clap their hands in a peculiar measure, now louder, now fainter, and with pauses of varying lengths between the emphatic reports.  The dancer has not yet risen from her seat; she seems to demand encouragement.  The others call out, “Ollé” — a gypsy word for “bravo!” — and smile and nod their heads at her to draw her on.  All this excites in you a livelier curiosity, a sort of suspense.  “What can be coming now?” you ask.  Finally she gets up, smiling half scornfully; a light comes into her eyes; she throws her head back, and her face is suffused with an expression of daring, of energy, and of strange pride.  Perhaps it is only my fancy, but there seems to creep over the woman at that instant a reminiscence of far-off and mysterious things; her face, partially lifted, seems to catch the light of old traditions, and to be imbued with the spirit of something belonging to the past, which she is about to revive.  Her arms are thrown upward, she snaps her fingers, and draws them down slowly close before her face as far as the waist, when, with an easy waving sideward, the “pass” is ended, and the arms go up again to repeat the movement.  Her body too is in motion now, only slightly, with a kind of vibration; and her feet, unseen beneath the flowing skirt, begin an easy, quiet, repressed rhythmical figure.  So she advances, her face always forward, and goes swiftly around a circle, coming back to the point where she began, without appearing to step.  The music goes on steadily, the cries of her companions become more animated, and she continues to execute that queer, aimless, yet dimly beckoning gesture with both arms — never remitting it nor the snapping of her fingers, in fact, until she has finished the whole affair.  Her feet go a little faster; you can hear them tapping the floor as they weave upon it some more complicated measure.  but there is not the slightest approach to a springing tendency.  Her progress is sinuous; she glides and shuffles, her soles quitting the boards as little as possible — something between a clog dance and a walk, perfect in time, with a complexity in the exercise of the feet demanding much skill.  She treats the performance with great dignity; the intensity of her absorbtion invests it with a something [sic] almost solemn.

Forward again!  She gazes intently in front as she proceeds, and again as she floats backward, looking triumphant, perhaps with a spark of latent mischief in her eyes.  She stamps harder upon the floor; the sounds follow like pistol reports.  The regular clack, clack-clack of the smitten hands goes on about her, and the cries of the rest increase in zest and loudness.

“Ollé! ollé!”

“Bravo, my gracious one!”

“Muy bien! muy bien!”

“Hurrah!  Live the queen of the ants [sic]!” shouts the leader.  And the audience roars at his eccentric phrase.

The dancer becomes more impassioned, but in no way more violent.  Her body does not move above the hips.  It is only the legs that twist and turn and bend and stamp, as if one electric shock after another were being sent downward through them.  Every few minutes her activity passes by some scarcely noted gradation into a subtly new phase, but all these phases are bound together by a certain uniformity of restraint and fixed law.  Now she almost comes to a stand-still, and then we notice a quivering, snaky, shuddering motion, beginning at the shoulders and flowing down through her whole body, wave upon wave, the dress drawn tighter with one hand showing that this continues downward to her feet.  Is she a Lamia in the act of undergoing metamorphosis, a serpent, or a woman?  The next moment she is dancing, receding — this time with smiles, and with an indescribable air of invitation in the tossing of her arms.  But the crowning achievement is when the hips begin to sway too, and, while she is going back and forward, execute a rotary movement like that of the bent part of an auger.  In fact, you expect her to bore herself into the floor and disappear.  Than all at once the stamping and clapping and the twanging strings are stopped, as she ceases her formal gyrations: she walks back to her seat like one liberated from a spell, and the whole thing is over.”

Well, that’s all I can find about flamenco and Gypsies in the book “Spanish Vistas”.  The illustration for the last section, incidentally, looks like an engraving, and is signed “G.S. Reinhart — Paris, 82″.  (The author implies that the artist worked from sketches, done by Velveteen.)  It shows five seated people — three women, a male guitarist, and the cane-wielding character described as doing nothing; I wonder if he’s the agent/manager, or could he have been a big-deal singer who didn’t happen to sing that night?  The women, including the one shown dancing, are all in very full dresses with shawls.  The guitarist leans forward, clearly paying attention to the dancer.  The instrument has the pre-Torres shape, the head is scalloped on the sides and the pegs are of wood.  There’s an atmospheric painting behind the stage, and what looks like a footlight up front.

I’m certainly impressed with this author’s descriptive powers.  I think I saw that same dance last month at Symphony Space on Broadway, at the flamenco show.

I won’t start evaluating any historical insights all this might or might not offer.  I’d just note that when I thought everyone agreed flamenco was really pretty old, I remember looking at these passages without much wonderment.  After all, they were — well, hardly contemporary, but written in what I viewed as the latter stage of flamenco development.  Seen in that light, everything seemed logical.

Now, when I am forced to wonder whether flamenco might not have coalesced into a coherent art until the 1850′s or so — I hope that’s a fair paraphrase of the thinking of the postmodernist scholars and some others — I must consider the notion that all this describes an art that was really quite new at the time of writing.

And that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.  Reading the book, I got the feeling that this art — which the author had seen in so many cities, always with great similarities, and involving so many recognizable forms (the pine-cone verse is associated with the jabera, a sort of proto-malagueña) — had certainly been around for more than one measly generation.  Not as a public spectacle, necessarily — but done in some context where flamenco could develop the many canons and rules that the author refers to here.  If folks really think all that happened in half of a single creative life-span — less than 30 years — then I can hardly apologize for calling the idea “insta-genesis” with all the doubt the term implies.

In any event, I hope others will get something out of these excerpts.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014:  It’s remarkable to think that this chatty and familiar description of touristy flamenco was contemporaneous with Spain’s first serious flamenco book, the crucial 1881 “Cantes Flamencos” by Antonio Machado y Álvarez, which makes the art seem so old and so deadly serious.

Please call this blog entry to the attention of dance scholars, and other researchers or interested people.  I don’t think it’s well known, and I think it’s important.  (Also, please suggest that they read another significant blog entry — this one on the singing —  by seeking the author’s name “Sneeuw”.)

And I hope someone will choreograph a flamenco dance based on the exact description of the one the author saw in Malaga. Thanks.


January 19, 2014   No Comments

Hey, if they like flamenco so much…A Bloodless Bullfight in Tokyo -1999 Story from El País, translated by Brook Zern

In Madrid’s great El Pais newspaper of April 2, 1999, which is not April Fool’s day, there appeared this report:


The matadors in the first bullfight in Japan’s history, which took place last Thursday in the center of Tokyo, entered for the kill only symbolically, and won the support of a surprised local public.  In the portable bullring sent from Spain, the Spanish toreros Sergio Sánchez and Roberto Antolín “El Millonario”, fought bulls from the Mexican breeders Real de Saltillo and Martínez within the covered stadium of Yoyogi.  The banderillas used by the two bullfighters — usually barbed sticks placed in the animal’s shoulders — on this occasion were tipped with Velcro, and were stuck to another sheet of Velcro that had been appropriately placed on the bull.

Before the beginning of the fight, which was part of a reception ceremony for new employees of Safenet Ventures, a presenter taught the audience of nearly six thousand the proper way to shout “olé“.

The president of the company, who addressed his new employees while wearing a matador’s traditional suit of lights in gold and white, urged his new employees to assume the responsibilities of work with the same passion that motivates a matador in the ring.  A printed program offered a glossary of taurine terms in Japanese, and urged the audience to wave white handkerchiefs to simulate the request for official pardon that on very rare occasions may be granted to outstanding bulls and which, if granted, means they are sent back to their ranches to live out their lives.

Despite the lack of a picador on horseback, and despite the bright floodlights that replaced the sun in order to facilitate big-screen televising of the event, the bulls showed bravery and their composure allowed the matadors to take real risks, generating shouts that weren’t in the program.  After the end of the action, as a few dozen office workers in ties and jackets were given an honorary “round of the ring” on the shoulders of their co-workers, the matadors said that even though a corrida in this distant land would not be a major career move for them, at least they had the honor of being the first to fight bulls in Japan.  Outside of the ring, animal rights activists picketed the proceedings.”

End of story from El País.

Translator’s note: I don’t like transplanted bullfights, and bloodless bullfights seem like mere animal harassment, so this event seems peculiar to me.  Though in 1972 I did attend a direct-broadcast large-screen transmission of a Spanish bullfight in, yes, New York’s Madison Square Garden.  El Cordobés, often disdained for his superficial and show-offy manner that violated classical canons of the art – call him the Manitas de Plata of the corrida — did surprisingly well against six serious bulls.  And, yes, there were animal-rights protesters outside.  But back then, believe it or not, the bullfight had an appreciable profile in the states.  Life magazine and Sports Illustrated would do something on it every year, as would the Times and other media.

Today, I think the balance in this debate, if any, has swung so far in favor of the animal-rights view that it would be inconceivable to even think of such a thing.  Bullfighting, except on its native turf, has become beyond the pale, whatever or wherever a pale is — it may not be literally indefensible, but defending it would be pointless at best and foolhardy or risky at worst.)

Finally, and apropos of nothing, I wonder how long it took to teach all those Tokyo executives how to shout “Olé!”

Brook Zern

January 18, 2014   No Comments