Writings and essays about flamenco

“Rito y Geografía del Flamenco” — Notes on the 1996 first commercial release

The following describes the great flamenco documentary series “Rito y Geografía de Flamenco” when most of the films were released in a commercial videocassette version by Alga Editores in Spain in 1996. It was a poor version — the images were often fuzzy, and an accompanying hardcover book used many of those images with weak text. A quarter of the original 100 programs were not included. A later release on DVD’s was far superior, with exellent images and excellent booklets of additional commentary by the key man on the project, José María Velásquez and English subtitles — though that version, too, omitted a batch of programs, most relatively weak but some quite good. (Five years earlier, I had managed to rescue and purchase the first copies of these and other films from the series; I had hoped this first commercial version from Alga would add valuable documentation and sharper images, but no such luck.

Here’s that earlier description, headlined “A Collection of Incunables” — while it logically means “indispensables” or somesuch, I can’t find a fitting translation — maybe the word exists in English as well, but I’ve never heard it:

“A collection of ‘incunables’ in images that depict unforgettable scenes of flamenco song, showing the greatest artists of the past and the present. 26 videocassettes (VHS) with more than 38 hours of material and a sumptuous book of 272 pages containing more than 100 photographs of the people and places appearing in the series, with text by eminent present-day flamencologists, historians, anthropologists and musicians.

Enjoy the experience of these unrepeatable images of the great masters, many of them now gone, both professional and aficionados, who knew how to maintain the purest essences of flamenco cante: See Antonio Mairena, Caracol, Beni de Cadiz, Pericon de Cadiz, Pepe de la Matrona, Joselero de Moron, El Gallina (Rafael Romero), El Perrate, La Piriñaca, El Borrico, Pepe Marchena, Camarón, etc.

“Rito y Geografia del Cante” was created between March of 1971 and October of 1973. 100 programs were made and shown. The team visited 28 locales in Andalucia, Salamanca, Barcelona, Extremadura, Toledo, Murcia and Portugal. They filmed 186 singers, 13 folklore groups, 47 guitarists, 313 palmeros (supporting hand-clappers), dancers and aficionados. There are 117 interviews and get-togethers with flamencologists, musicians, historians, anthropologists and noted aficionados. We are pleased to present the fruit of this search and investigation.”

This was followed by two brief descriptive essays which I’m translating (from a crummy fax, so my general ignorance is occasionally compounded by illegibility):

1. “Criteria for this Edition of Rito y Geografia del Cante.”

“Today, 25 years after the initial broadcasts by Television Espanola of the ‘Rito y Geografia del Cante’ series, some things remain the same in the world of flamenco while others have changed. The best of the new developments is perhaps the wide promulgation of flamenco — a notion touched upon in the programs, and now confirmed to an astonishing degree. The worst, at least from the orthodox point of view, and from the standpoint of the splendid “oldness” (vejez) that distinguishes the series, may be certain present-day mixings and fusions (mestizajes) that don’t make much sense.

Since the films were made, we have seen the disappearance of Camarón, who in the series represented a new and unorthodox approach to the cante; and we’ve seen Enrique Morente — who is asked where he thinks the modernizing movement might take flamenco — do a recent recording of poems by Leonard Cohen while joined by a rock group, without abandoning flamenco. José Menese, another young renovationist of that earlier time, has remained faithful to the roots (“Firme me mantengo” — “I stand firm”, as one of his songs says), and it is through him that we know the political verses of his mentor José Moreno Galván, with their strong social content, which were so avidly listened to during Spain’s transition to democracy.

This documentary series, despite the subsequent appearance of new interpreters and the loss of a large part of those who are shown, or despite the evolution of some of these depicted artists to enter the realm of “new flamenco”, has not aged a bit. On the contrary, like fine wine, it has turned into something special, almost venerable — a relic, an “incunable” (priceless document? Unique object? The word “incunabula” refers to manuscripts created before the age of moveable type…)

Nonetheless, in the intervening time, some of the interpreters originally included, either because they were valued more highly than warranted or because they played a particular role in the original criteria for selection, have been eliminated, since their art would not say very much to a young aficionado today. Those eliminated are not mythical singers of the past, nor have they confirmed themselves as myths of today as did Morente, Camarón or Menese. Nor are they fundamental representatives of a particular geographic or family school of flamenco. Their inclusion would only have expanded this edition unneccessarily, and perhaps disoriented the new aficionado.

2. “A Collection of ‘Incunables’”

“Rito y Geografia del Cante”, broadcast by TVE between 1971 and 1973, is considered by all specialists, and is recognized in the histories of flamenco, as the finest program ever produced for television. In a run covering approximately two years, under the direction of Mario Gómez and with the collaboration and evaluative judgments of the most prestigious flamencologists, the weekly series travelled all of flamenco territory, including the very guts of Andalucia where, over the years, this art — local and universal at the same time — was developed.

The series offered testimony from old singers, many of them anonymous, others celebrated. It was a true blessing, because it was launched at a time when the great flamenco neighborhoods or breeding areas (Triana, Cadiz, Jerez and its Barrio de Santiago) were starting to lose their traditional and Gypsy ways of life due to the changes Spain had started to see in the 1960′s, and due to the influence of new communcations media, changing customs, etc. These documentaries, then, arrived in time to miraculously save the memory of a life already in large part irrevocably lost.

The filming, always guided by intelligent curiosity and by the commentary of José María Velásquez, or through the introduction of expert specialists, traversed all the last locales in which flamenco was being “made”: taverns, family homes, colmaos, and ventas. And it collected the final artistic testimonies of many singers who would be dead shortly afterward — in some cases, even before their particular programs were aired. That was the case with Juan Talega and Manolo Caracol, among others.

But today, 25 years after their broadcast, a large number of those protagonists are no longer with us. We can no longer capture the image of Tia Anica La Piriñaca, El Beni de Cadiz, Diego el del Gastor, Antonio Piñana (padre), Eleuterio — to name just some of those who are gone, but leave their myths behind, and whose images return to us now in these videos, as they sing or speak of their cante.

Thus it is possible today to see Antonio Mairena dancing por bulerias; or Tía Anica giving her advice to some youngsters (who were none other than Manuel Sordera and “that ‘Camirón’, or whatever he’s called…”); or to see Juan Talega in a fight to the death with the form called the toná, perhaps the last one he would sing in his lifetime; or Tomás Torre, speaking about his father Manuel; or Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera in a fiesta at home, or praying to the Virgin; or the Perrates, uncle and mother of Juan El Lebrijano.

And, also, a young and “parlanchin” (?) Camarón de la Isla; young José Menese in his home town of La Puebla de Cazalla or getting his professional start in Madrid; and a five-year-old La Macanita, singing and dancing for Paula; and Remedios Amaya, barely an adolescent at the time. And, too, monographic (single-topic) episodes dedicated to major thematic issues, such as the relation of Falla and Lorca to flamenco; or the festivales; or women in the realm of cante; or the guitar; or the role of the Gypsies within the art; etc.

With this series, you are presented with a true collection of “incunables” — a true history of images of the old and pure (rancia) mystery of flamenco. The films reveal a history that can never be repeated, and that today is lost forever.

Paco González
Editor

End of material on the series.

I think the general descriptions are pretty good, and while I’d argue about the omission of any material, I think the Alga folks made a defensible choice — some of the omitted programs were very weak, and seemed like filler.

(As for the alleged artist called Eleuterio — never heard of the guy, and would bet he never existed, at least by that name.)

Brook Zern

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