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La niña de los peines (ENGLISH)

Texto: Manuel Bohórquez Casado // Foto: Archivo Manuel Bohórquez

09 / 14 / 2017

La Niña de los Peines was called Pastora María Pavón Cruz, and was born on February 10th, 1890 at Calle Butrón in Seville’s neighbourhood of Puerta Osorio, according to her birth certificate. However, there is the possibility that she was actually born at Calle Castilla in the neighbourhood of Triana, as she told the guitarist Melchor de Marchena, showing him the house before witnesses who still live there and could confirm it. In any case, what we know for sure is that as a kid, she lived in Triana.

The daughter of Francisco Pavón Cruz from El Viso del Alcor (1853-191?), and of Pastora Cruz Vargas from Arahal (1858-1922), La Niña was lucky to be born in a family of enormous cantaor tradition, although we haven’t found professional precedents from before her brother, who was born in Arahal in 1882. We know that her maternal grandfather, the gypsy Tomás Cruz El Calilo knew how to sing tangos very well, and that her father, known as El Paíti, knew and dominated cante a palo seco. Finally, she once said that she was related to the Pelao de Triana, the great martineteros from the nineteenth century who always lived in the famous Calle Evangelista, in the Cava Gitana of the renowned suburb in Seville.

Pastora sang for the first time on stage at the Feria de Sevilla around 1899. That’s what she told the Catalan journalist, Ernest Guasp, in the magazine Mirador, on July 19th, 1934

“My real name is Pastora Pavón Cruz, I was born in Seville 43 years ago, at Calle Valle,19, and I am a gypsy like all my family. I began, by chance, or even better by delegation, at the Feria de Sevilla, where by brother Arturo, who is here, sang, and I substituted him one day that he had been drinking. This eventuality was so frequent that I started to become renowned. I was 8 years old then, so that was 35 years ago.”


Niña de los Peines


She made her professional debut in 1903 in the capital of Spain, where she had travelled with her mother to visit her aunt Tomasa. Tomasa’s husband, Uncle Antonio Diánez, listened to the girl sing and immediately took her to the Café del Brillante so that the good aficionados of the Villa and the Corte could hear her sing. That same night she established herself as the new queen of Andalusian cante.

Uncle Diánez bragged about this historical event in November 1911, when the writer Alejandro Pérez Lugín, flamenco and bullfighting aficionado, and author of the famous film Currito de la Cruz, of 1921, interviewed him for El Liberal of Madrid:

It was me, myself, and I who took her there. That was eight years ago, and I remember it as if it happened this morning. My little girl was wearing a short dress and her hair in plaits. When she climbed onto the ‘tablao’, Ángel Baeza, the renowned ‘tocaor’, gave her the guitar and said: “Tune it for yourself”. And my girl tunes it and gives it back to him. And Baeza starts staring at her and says: “But,child, do you tune around there?”

Among the many famous people who witnessed the debut of La Niña, there was the Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga. It is said that he was so moved by the city of the Giralda’s little gypsy’s cante, that he decided to take her to Bilbao to introduce her to the reputed Café de las Columnas, where, since minors weren’t allowed to work, Zuloaga had to bribe the guards for her to perform. This shows how dazzled he was with Pastorcita, whom he portrayed when she was only 14. He called the painting Pastorcita la Gitana.

When mother and daughter returned to Seville after spending some time with the painter, the aficionados already knew that there was someone from their town who had driven the Madrilènes and the Basques crazy, and that they had nicknamed her with the artistic expression La Niña de los Peines because of some tiento-tangos she sang, which she had learned from a blind person in the Alameda de Hércules:

Comb your hair with my combs

For my combs are made out of sugar.

The girl who combs herself with my combs

Will even lick her fingers.

The excellent cantaor from Málaga Sebastián Muñoz El Pena, who was also a business-man, took advantage of La Niña’s fame, and made her perform at the Café de la Marina in Málaga, earning three pesetas a day. From Málaga she went to Jerez , where she already made forty pesetas singing every night at La Primera, the most renowned tavern in the land of Chacón and Manuel Torre.

In 1908, Pastorcita was already in the papers, and she got plenty of offers to make her first recordings, which she made with the prestigious record label Zonophone, and were welcomed by the aficionados everywhere in Spain when they came out in the stores in 1910. The young artist was also signed up by the best theatres in Seville, where she shared the stage with artists like Antonio Chacón, with whom she occasionally performed at Calle Sierpes around 1912.

The newspapers spoke of her as the The Queen of the ‘Cante Flamenco’, and that’s how her life went by, from one theatre to another, from one feria to another, as the first voice in cante, and rubbing shoulders with two fantastic cantaores of the time, Chacón and Manuel Torre, who both influenced her in her formation as a cantaora, as we can appreciate when listening to her first recordings.


Around the mid twenties of last century, Alberto Monserrat and his brother-in-law Vedrines, the wealthiest business-men at that time, decided to take flamenco to the big stages, therefore creating the ópera flamenca, and Pastora, who was a great professional, decided to join the adventure and travel around Spain with those famous companies, obtaining resounding successes in many bullrings, and making a lot of money, with which she supported her whole family. At this point she was already the mother of a girl who was also named Pastora, and she was also the guardian of other relatives whom she also maintained. Therefore she didn’t want to debate whether it was more or less ethic to sing in a bullring, as other cantaores had done –her brother Tomás, for example, always refused to sing in a bullring- and it would seem absurd since she had already played in cafés, at ferias, taverns, and at rich peoples’ parties.


When the civil war of 1936 broke out, Pastora Pavón was already married to the great cantaor from Seville, Pepe Pinto, who had his own flamenco company. They were in Jaén when this happened, and instead of returning to Seville, they decided to go to Madrid for security reasons. The capital of Spain had not fallen yet in the hands of the nationalists, and it was the safest place to stay alive. But Pastora couldn’t imagine spending the whole war in Madrid without being able to see her daughter nor her brothers, Arturo and Tomás. She stayed away from the stages while at the Villa and the Corte, although she always sang when she was invited somewhere. On August 19th, 1937 she participated in a homage to Federico García Lorca, who had been executed by a firing squad a month after the fascist military uprising.

Pastora met Lorca at the contest of Cante Jondo in Granada, in 1922, in which she was invited to perform, and she was shocked to find out in Madrid that such a great poet had been executed, and above all, that it was a best friend, and that he was a big lover of her cante. That’s why she had no doubts in singing at the Cine Salamanca in his memory, along with

Con su marido, Pepe Pinto20

another great cantaor from Seville, Manolo Caracol, who had also met the poet at the same contest, which he won with the septuagenarian Tenazas de Morón.

When Franco signed his last dispatch in Burgos, the first day of April in 1939, Pastora and her husband returned to Seville to reunite with the family and continue work. Pepe Pinto tried to set up his company again, but it wasn’t easy so they both joined Concha Piquer’s one, the great lady of the copla, who had made an updated version of Las calles de Cádiz, a play by the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías which made its debut successfully with La Argentinita in October 1933, because, besides the quality and charisma of Encarnación López Júlvez, there were also artists of the class of La Macarrona, El Gloria, La Malena, and Pilar López.

In the version of Concha Piquer there were, besides Pastora and El Pinto, the above mentioned Macarrona and La Malena, as well as La Ignacia, María Albaicín, Mari Paz, Pepe el Limpio, Rafael Ortega and Pericón de Cádiz, and the guitarist Melchor de Marchena. She travelled to several cities with this show, but the great artist from Seville was a little tired, so she decided to quit the stage permanently to devote herself to her daughter and husband.


After a few years of only performing at private parties and in parties in honour of her partners, Pepe Pinto decided to create a great show to make his wife return on stage. He called it Spain and her cantaora, but it was a financial failure. With lyrics of the author Molina Moles, and music by the composers Maestro Naranjo and Arturo Pavón, Pastora’s nephew, the investment was important but the public was not interested in the return of La Niña de los Peines as Pepe had hoped. The show made its debut successfully at the Teatro San Fernando in Seville on January 19th 1949. But after travelling to several cities in Spain, with success in some places and failures in others, Pepe pinto cancelled the tour in Alcázar de san Juan (Ciudad Real) to avoid bankruptcy. For Pastora it was hard to realise that the public wanted other things, more commercial cantes. “I cried that night”, she said years later remembering the failure. “I was so upset that the public didn’t understand my cante, that I cried!”.


The last years of Pastora’s life were very hard, because she saw how her loved ones passed away: her mother, her brother Arturo, and her younger brother, Tomás, and this left her in a deep sadness. Pepe Pinto, whom she loved extremely, and her daughter Tolita, who got married, and started to live her own life, were the only ones she had left. And the affection of many aficionados, because they didn’t all change to the side of Antonio Molina and El Malagueño…

Córdoba paid homage to her in May 1961 with the participation of many flamenco figures, and quite a few intellectuals. And Seville, with the initiative of Tertulia Flamenca de Radio Sevilla, built her a monument in the Alameda de Hércules, a work by the sculptor Antonio Illanes. The statue was first shown in Seville in December 1968, and Pastora wasn’t able to attend because she was already very sick, and was starting to become insane.

On October 6th, 1969, Pepe Pinto died. Pastora never knew it, although she sensed it. “Did Pepe die, maybe?”, it is said she asked when she felt so much agitation in the house the morning before. They didn’t tell her, but she knew. Pepe used to take care of her and pampered her, and even when you’re insane, one misses those kind of things.

On November 26th of that same year, Pastora Pavón Cruz, the famous Niña de los Peines, died, at her home at Calle Calatrava. Both gypsies and non-gypsies wept, and accompanied her on her last trip. Her remains are now in the cemetery of San Fernando de Sevilla, in the same tomb as her husband, and next to another one with no name with the remains of her parents, and her brother Tomás. The Junta de Andalucía declared her recordings Bien de Interés Cultural in 1999, and has created a prize with her name, that so far has been awarded to Fosforito, and to Paco de Lucía. But the most important thing is that thirty four years after her death, her aficionados still remember her. Pastora is still La Reina del cante flamenco, La voz de estaño fundido, La Emperadora del cante grande. Her records are continually being reissued, and young cantaores, such as Esperanza Martín, Estrella Morente and Arcángel, among others, are drinking from that inexhaustible fountain.

Translated by Patrick Kerrigan

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