Flamenco Singer Agujetas Speaks – 1998 Radio Interview – Translated by Brook Zern
This is my translation of a radio interview with the great flamenco singer Manuel Agujetas broadcast on April 25th, 1998 on Radio 3, on the program “Duendeando”. The interviewer was Teo Sanchez. Thanks to Rafael Moreno, who posted the Spanish transcription.
Agujetas is a difficult – okay, impossible – person, a living legend, and is seen in the flamenco world as a true monstruo (the word can be a compliment in Spanish, though in this case it could also indicate the usual English-language meaning.) I knew him well in the 1970’s, and still see him often. I feel privileged to have witnessed his singing up close and even face-to-face on many occasions.
I feel that Agujetas, and other artists who come out of the flamenco tradition, are extremely important sources of information and fact, and should be taken as seriously as any given anthropologist, sociologist, flamencologist or self-styled flamenco authority. Yes, artists have axes to grind, and like to tell stories or cite facts or incidents that fit their interests. So do I, of course, and more importantly, so do the actual authorities including those I know and respect. (Agujetas, unlike most other people, freely admits here that he doesn’t feel compelled to tell the truth about certain parts of his life — but he tells the truth about his art.)
Here’s the interview:
Teo Sanchez: Here with us this afternoon is Manuel Agujetas, or Manuel de los Santos. How are you, Manuel?
T: Why is that?
A: Well, it was a long trip and I haven’t slept well.
T: That’s just today — but in general you’re pretty good, and content, I think. With a new CD on sale, no?
A: It must be on sale, according to the paper.
T: Yes, it’s already on sale. It’s called “Agujetas in La Solea”. Quite a while since your last CD, no?
A: Four years, at least.
T: And the last one?
A: “Agujetas in Paris”.
T: I’ve got that one here. And what a cover photo — you look handsome indeed, and the Eiffel Tower right behind you. The French arranged this, right?
A: Radio France — the government.
T: Very good. And how did they treat you there?
A: Pretty well. They treat me well wherever I go.
T: And in La Solea, they treated you marvellously as well.
A: Well, okay, because the owner is a friend.
T: And when there’s a friend….
A: There are very few friends; but anyway….
T: When did the idea of doing this CD emerge: How long since you started looking at the project?
A: I think that Francis and the other guy had considered it for a long time. They told me about a year ago that they’d record me in La Solea “whenever you want to do something”.
T: And it was done in a special way, because it’s not a studio recording. It’s a CD that was recorded during three of your performances, no?
A: They wanted to do it over three days, to select things, but I don’t think they really selected anything. They put in everything, because the disc runs to about an hour.
T: I wonder about your name: Is it Agujeta or Agujetas? [Translator's note: The interviewer here is asking whether it is singular or plural -- but in deepest Andalucia the "s" would be omitted regardless. Agujetas focuses instead on whether there is or is not a "h" sound -- indicated by a "j" in Spanish.]
A: Well, in Andalucia they say “Aguheta” [Agu-eta], the same as they say ”naranha” [naran-a] for orange; up here they say “naranja” [naran-ha], or patata…
T: I mean about the “s”, Manuel.
A: I don’t know. I’m illiterate. Down there they say “Aguheta” [Agu-eta].
T: The name seems to come from your father.
A: Yes, he worked on the RENFE national railroads, and my mother would call out “Manuel, Manuel”, and he didn’t hear; but then there were the spikes, the agujas, and that’s where the name “agujetas” came from.
T: So your father worked on the railroad.
A: Yes, changing the spikes.
T: But he also had a forge.
A: Hombre, that was his real job.
T: And you’re from Rota….
A: No, no, I’m not from Rota. I was born in Jerez de la Frontera, and that’s why I’m called Agujetas de Jerez. But my mother was from Rota and that’s where my father went…the usual thing…then…there were two of us born in Jerez. One died, who was older than me; so we’re from Jerez, understand? Whatever happens, happens. People want to know about this stuff more than the artist himself. “He’s from Rota”. Agujetas de Rota… My father wasn’t from Rota. He spent 40 years there, and there’s an Agujetas Street in Rota, but my father is from Jerez and I was born in Jerez. But the falsehood remained. I was born…now people want to know how old I am and I wasn’t even baptized or officially noted. How can people know how old I am? Were they all by my mother’s side at the time I was born? Gypsies never tell the truth to anyone. I, specifically, never tell the truth to anyone. I tell the truth about flamenco, and what’s good and not good, yes. But the truth about my life, I never tell to anyone. I’m not like those who go on TV and blather that “I fought with my brother four years ago” or “I don’t speak to my mother”. That’s not what one does. That’s shameful behavior.
T: Your father sang…
A: He was one of the very best, the purest. And there was Manuel Torre, and now there’s me.
T: What did Manuel Torre represent in flamenco
A: I didn’t know him, but when my father was 13 he sang the cante of Manuel Torre; but it was my grandmother who sang just like Manuel Torre — and my grandfather, and my uncles. So my song is like an amnistia — a pardon, an amnesty, see? And my father did four cantes of Manuel because he liked Manuel, but my father is a born artist. What happened was that I did the recordings, and I brought the music to light, because at that time there were no artists. The four Gypsies that there were, well they sang for the señoritos — for rich folks, in private sessions. Then I came along and made the recordings. Just as Borrico and other old singers of Jerez did. But none were artists.
T: There is a romance, a flamenco-style ballad, recorded by your father.
A: There is one, done in his style.
T: It’s believed that those old romances are part of the origin of flamenco song.
A: Well, no. That stuff had nothing to do with flamenco. A romance is a story. A story that lasted perhaps two hours. The Romance del Bernardo el Carpio or of all those Counts they had, you know? But no sung corrido or romance existed. It was a story that lasted for two hours, but then, much later, some flamenco artists dedicated themselves to doing romances as song. The first to do it was Juan Paterna, a man from El Puerto who was the father of el Negro el de la Pipa, of Tio Jose de los Reyes, who is my cousin, part of my family. He was the first. In a communal house in Puerto de Santa Maria, in some rooms on the side where some women lived in the summer, nursing their children, this guy came along who wasn’t even a Gypsy — at least I think he wasn’t, though I was just a kid of about 14 — he came out doing this corrido, but it wasn’t sung. At first he just spoke or recited the words, it was a story that lasted one or two hours, and the women fell asleep. And he was the first who sang these little songs in Puerto de Santa Maria; but before that it was just a recited story, understand?
T: Yes, yes. It was a story first, and wasn’t sung till later.
A: I did it as song. I had never heard it, ever. Now, in books, you won’t find that. I have a book about the cante that’s from a hundred years ago and there they wrote down all the corridos that were done back then, like the one I recorded called “Cuatrocientos sois los mios”. I did that on an early CBS recording I made with flamencologist Manuel Rios Ruiz, both speaking and singing it.
T: Is it true that your father did little song contests with his children? That he would have you sing to see who did it best?
A: No, no. My father worked at his forge. The big box was in the middle, and there was an anvil for my brother. I was little, and would straighten the irons…and my father was working and singing while the iron heated up. That business about the Gypsies singing while they worked is a lie, understand? Working and singing martinetes is impossible. I guess you could hit something with a hammer, but doing the real work would not be possible. I told that to Rios Ruiz, and on my first record there’s a “Martinetes of the prison”, which is an old cante jondo. The Gypsies picked that up from those who were in the society. Flamenco is not something created by the “canastero” Gypies like Camaron, and all those making up all these modern things. This has nothing to do with flamenco. Flamenco is from those Gypsies who functioned within the society, but who’d end up in jail because they misrepresented the mules they were selling, understand? And they’d be sentenced to five or six years, and they’d sing to family members and end up crying. But if you’re working at a forge, why would you be singing with such intense emotion? You toss the hammer down and go to a bar for a glass of wine. No, the martinetes come from the prisons. You were stuck inside, and you sang. If you were at the forge, hauling coal and throwing water around, well, you could sing, but only if you weren’t working. You can’t sing at the forge — why do they want to fool people like that?
T: We’re going to listen to a solea por bulerias from your CD.
A: A bulerias para escuchar. [Note: This is an alternative word for the bulerias por solea, which is neither a bulerias nor a solea but a distinct form that has a clear relationship to both. The form can also be called solea por bulerias, or a bulerias al golpe. "Proper" usage varies according to locality, so some people will get irritated no matter which term is used.]
T: So the bulerias por solea is one that’s meant to be listened to, rather than danced to… and what’s the difference between the compas of the bulerias and that of the solea?
A: The solea is more parada — braked, slower.
T: But the compas is basically the same.
A: No, no. It’s a miajica, a little crumb, that’s lighter than the solea, and more for listening. The folks who don’t know call it bulerias por solea, but it is not bulerias por solea. It’s proper name is bulerias para escuchar. And now we’re into that book that you mention. The Gypsies don’t tell the truth to anyone. How are you going to write a book, then? If someone wants to write a book, let them make a record. But through good luck or bad luck, flamenco ended up in the hands of illiterates. Chocolate, Terremoto, Agujetas… How could a writer create a book about flamenco? They can’t, because they don’t know the real truth. The Gypsy walks off with your money and tells you lies. Understand? I tell no one the truth. Because my father never told me, “Do you hear this song as it should be?” Never. “”Well, and because you’ve sung it that way here at the forge, as we’re talking”. “Whatever you say. Manuel sings it this way, but now it will go that way because no one knows.” And the day came, “Let’s go listen to Manuel”. “Yes, Manuel knows everything.” “Of course, if you say that it wasn’t like that, it was like that; and now it’s going to be like this.” I sing in 70 different ways, but without ever losing the rhythm of the cante gitano.
T: When did you first decide to become a professional?
A: I was working at the forge. I was fifteen, and had my own workshop. I had a girl. And at seventeen, with the father of [the great guitarist Manuel] Parrilla called Parrilla el Viejo and with Manuel Rios Ruiz, who was a mailman in Jerez. Then he worked for CBS records. And with the friendships of Parrilla el Veijo we made a few records with Manolo Sanlucar accompanying, the first for CBS. And I went up to Cafe Chinitas for a few months. And when I got back I was an important artist. I gave 16 recitals in the Ateneo theatre.
T: Manolo Sanlucar was on your first record.
A: And the second and third. I have 11 LP’s with Manolo Sanlucar. The first two were on CBS. Then five years on an exclusive contract with Compania Fonografica (CFE?), making 10 records — one every six months. I was in America and would come and record two at a time.
T: What are you doing now? Still working?
A: Yes, I live through the cante. This year I go to Japan. But I don’t want to leave. They call me at home and I go where I please. I don’t have to call anyone, or hope I’ll get work. I sit at home. They call and say “Agujeta, come to such-and-such…” And if I like the idea, I go; if not, I say “Nah, I’m retired”. That’s my way, and I’m not about to change.
T: Where do you get the words for your cantes?
A: I make them up. Some are from my father, and those of Manuel Torre are in the tradition. But I make up verses, according to what is happening in my life.
T: There’s a song on the CD called Soleares al cambio.
A: That doesn’t exist. If they’d only asked me, they wouldn’t have put down all that nonsense. I said, “I’ll make the recording and you have to do it as I tell you.” It should begin here, and be in a certain order. Don’t put the Solea after the “fuerte” (strongest part, macho); there are those who put the “fuerte” before the solea itself, and the whole piece becomes worthless. Because properly, you sing the solea, and then the macho that follows is stronger than the solea, to wrap it up. Understand? And if you put that macho section first, and then follow it with the solea, that’s worthless.
T: What is the macho?
A: It’s the stronger part. When you sing the siguiriyas, there’s a macho that’s stronger than the siguiriya. When you sing a solea, there’s a macho that’s stronger than two soleares. You end with them. Do you think just anyone can sing? People listen to four howling dogs and say they know how to sing. Well, they don’t know how to sing. Singing flamenco is very difficult. Not just anyone can do it. But that fact is not appreciated, so you get people who do all kinds of foolishness.
T: Do you think the siguiriyas is the most moving flamenco song?
A: The siguiriyas is the greatest flamenco song. Siguiriya, solea and martinete. And to know how to do them, one must endure a lot of suffering and troubles. Those who haven’t suffered can’t sing flamenco. One must suffer, and often go hungry, and have lice. If you’ve been well brought up, in good circumstances, then you can’t sing worth a damn. Understand? You must have a cause, a reason, within yourself. One must have something.
T: I find myself doubtful about flamenco, because the times have changed so much. There is not the same kind of misery and suffering that there was years ago.
A: But I still carry that suffering with me. That’s from the way I was raised. I was raised badly. The lice I had — they carried national identity cards. I slept on a heap of straw, not a bed. My father raised nine kids, but on a heap of hay with one blanket on top. Understand? That’s what made me what I am. Should I pretend I was never hungry? I’m the same as I was.
T: But couldn’t you know yourself and sing flamenco if you hadn’t suffered such deprivations?
A: No — you could know, but you wouldn’t feel the same. To express this, you have to have undergone something.
T: So there are really two flamencos?
A: No, hombre, no. There is only one flamenco. The other is just a bad copy. All this modern stuff is a bad copy of flamenco. Flamenco is this: Juan Talega, Chocolate, Mairena.
T: Something must save it.
A: If you want it to, sure. You’re asking. But actually, flamenco is what I’ve told you it is. The modern stuff is a bad copy. Does everyone have a right to eat? Sure. Get it?
T: But in the beginning, the song — as you said before — was only in families, in homes.
A: And don’t you think these homes each held miseries of their own? Men in prison, men working the forges with heavy hammers, lice-infested, kids raised sleeping on hay.
T: But when flamenco leaves these homes, does it remain flamenco?
A: The purity remains, if it was there in the first place. Who carried flamenco within themselves? El Chocolate did. I did. Terremoto did, with those four sings he did so well. Antonio Mairena did. And who carries flamenco today? Just one person: Agujetas — and a son of mine who, if he weren’t involved with drugs, would be an important figure. I’m talking of Antonio Agujetas, who made a record at the age of 14, and sang the other day in Casa Patas in Madrid. This kid could’ve been a figure today. But he isn’t, because he’s a drug addict. And then there’s the fact that young singers are doing modern stuff. So if one comes along who could actually sing flamenco, he doesn’t know how. Who could sing like that son of mine? Nobody. But he’s been in jail for 15 years, because of drugs. Who has suffered as much as he has? When you remember what flamenco is…but he is ignorant about life, because he thinks that modern flamenco is what’s best. The other day, when he sang in Casa Patas, in the first part he did nothing, but then he remembered his father, and he did two fine cantes in the last part. That’s what the newspaper wrote. The only one left who can do it, and he doesn’t do it.
T: So you think it’s all over?
A: Hombre, who is going to do it? There’s no one. Everybody is doing modern stuff only. They don’t do flamenco right… I say to them, “Tell the truth, man.” But they don’t. Artists today don’t tell the truth because they know doors would close, and no one would call them. I tell the truth about flamenco because it’s all the same to me, and I don’t care what people say. Of course flamenco is dying. It’s over. Who do you go to when you want to hear cante flamenco? I taught my son to sing the right way. The moment that young artists want to do the four modern-flamenco things, flamenco is lost…There’s a moment when you feel right, you feel a gusto, whether you’re sad or happy, you know? Because I’ve cried in America with my pockets bulging with dollars — and my boots full of money, too. When I had no place to put money, I’d fill my boots with it. I have a sister who’s there in America, and she’d ask me for money because she didn’t want to go to the bank and I was carrying $10,000 in my boots. Well, I cried with full pockets, but now I don’t know if it was from grief or happiness, you know? And that must be what people call inspiration. But reading and stuff like that, I don’t understand.”
End of radio interview with Agujetas.