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The platinium age of Flamenco

Foto: Photo: Miguel Funi. Feria de Sevilla, circa 1967; © David George

09 / 25 / 2017

Traditionally, the term “the Golden Age of Flamenco” refers to the period running from the birth of the first wax-cylinder recordings in the final years of the 19th century to the appearance of vinyl records half way through the 20th century. Actually, it might have been a golden age because the creative geniuses that gave form to the basic kinds of songs of the present did in fact live and work during that half century: Manuel Torre, La Niña de los Peines, Tomás Pavón, Ramón Montoya, Niño Ricardo, El Gloria, etc.

I say that that period may have been the most important one in the short history of flamenco art, and yet no one can prove such a fact: the audio medium (the only reliable document that can support a criterion) was the slate records, which at the most lasted three minutes on each side. Such duration was clearly insufficient to develop a flamenco song. The singers from the first third of the 20th century were forced to record in Barcelona, Paris or Berlin. They had to undertake long, uncomfortable train trips to sing a soleá or siguiriya that would last ¡three minutes! The result could not be more frustrating for a musical style that is not based on a typical “song” pattern but on singing that is developed according to personal inspiration and complicity with the musicians (guitarists and palm clappers) in an atmosphere that is difficult to create in three minutes of studio recording.

On the other hand, there is the matter of content. The so-called Golden Age also happens to coincide with the most superficial period in flamenco and with the invasion by Andalusian and American folk styles.

The analysis of content percentage during the slate-record period (1900-1950) turns out to be overwhelming. Out of a total of 2,373 recorded themes on file in the Diputación Provincial de Sevilla, 1,181 (50%) belong to Andalusian folklore: fandangos, granaínas, malagueñas, verdiales, jaberas, fandanguillos, rondeñas, tarantas, cartageneras, mineras, murcianas and levantiscas. Another 223 themes (9 %) belong to American folklore: guajiras, rumbas, milongas, colombianas y tangos. On the contrary, in the category of soleares and related singing (alegrías, cantinas, bulerías, jaleos y mirabrás) there are 386 recorded themes (16%). Lastly, as far as the seminal cantes (tonás, deblas, martinets, carceleras, livianas y siguiriyas) are concerned, only 133 themes (6%) were recorded.

Against the evidence provided by such data –especially in reference to that singing which is essentially flamenco—the collection of sound recordings by the North American aficionados during the Sixties fully deserves the name “The Platinum Age”.

A number of foreign aficionados, who had been lured by flamenco and the gypsy world, started arriving in Lower Andalusia at the end of the Nineteen Fifties. Most of them lived in Seville, but the ones who were more sensitive to flamenco art, the true aficionados, soon discovered the Triana neighbourhood gypsy belt: Alcalá de Guadaira, Utrera, Lebrija y Morón. They rented living quarters and contacted the gypsy communities in those villages, which befriended and trusted them.

If I mentioned the Triana gypsy belt it was because for five centuries, the most important gypsy group in Spain –and apparently the one that was most deeply involved in the birth of flamenco art– dwelt in this poor quarter of Seville’s. In 1749, they suffered a bloody persecution and expulsion, and thus new gypsy settlements were started in neighbouring villages. Many gypsy families gradually came back to Triana once the repressive laws against their people became more lenient. However, in 1957 they were definitively expelled, manu militari, in the name of the most cynical kind of town planning.

Diego del Gastor must be placed at the beginning of this story. He was probably the powerful magnet that attracted the Americans first and then, for nearly two decades, scores of other foreign aficionados. In Morón’s Cortijo Espartero, which writer Donn Pohren turned into a real flamenco conservatory, Diego del Gastor taught his lessons. The students contacted the flamenco reality periodically, while sharing wine and joy with a handful of artists of Diego’s circle: Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, Juan Talega, Perrate, Joselero, Fernandillo, Amparo and María Torre, Anzonini, and others. The parties multiplied in other houses, taverns and roadside inns, and the artist roster became longer: La Perrata, Paco Valdepeñas, Miguel Funi, El Chozas, El Borrico, etc.

A group of American aficionados became fully aware of the fact that the experience was worth recording and should as well be documented graphically. The appropriate sort of technology, which in Spain was virtually inexistent, was in fact available to them. They basically used Uher Repport portable tape-recorders (monophonic, two and four tracks) and dynamic Senheisser microphones, like the ones that are shown in Danny Seymour’s photograph (d_seymour_1007-23). The equipment was very professional. It was the size of a laptop and fit in any kind o f handbag. The main protagonists of this documenting activity were Moreen Silver and Christopher Carnes. Moreen Silver, “María la Marrurra” for the gypsies, did most of the recording although she although transferred to her own tape-recorder other people’s recordings. She also did relevant photographic work.

These reporters focused on the northern section of the territory of flamenco (Seville, Morón, Alcalá, Utrera and Lebrija) and paid little attention to the activity that was being developed in the southern half: Jerez, Arcos, Chiclana, San Fernando, Cádiz and the Bay of Algeciras. Nevertheless, the abundance of recorded material and the conductive narrative by Juan Talega (whose father, Agustín Talega, learned El Fillo’s style from Tomás el Nitri during their long time together in Alcalá) make these files the most important set of documents in the recorded history of flamenco. Here one can find, in Juan Talega’s very well documented versions, all the tonás, deblas and martinetes of the Caganchos and Pelaos from Triana. Here are all the variations of the Alcalá soleá, as interpreted by Enrique de la Paula (the son of Joaquín el de la Paula), Manolito el de María or Juan Talega himself. All of La Andonda’s and La Serneta’s singing is present, in Fernanda de Utrera’s and El Perrate’s voices, as well as the Lebrija and Utrera cantes (from Juaniquín to Pinini), which are sung by María la Perrata, Bastián Bacán, El Legaña, El Funi and Juan el Lebrijano. Last but not least, here are the best live recordings of Antonio Mairena, Chocolate, El Borrico and Rosalía de Triana. Furthermore, everything takes place in an atmosphere of endless parties that seem wrapped in magic.

So much music lacked the evocative power of images. However, once again, the foreign aficionados played the important role of portraying the mythical characters of this Platinum Age. Steve Kahn’s camera masterfully registered Diego del Gastor’s pose of flamenco gentleman leaning against the bar of Casa Pepe –and I cannot resist the idea of using a poem by much-missed Carlos Lencero as a caption:

 

The Morón Sierra.
A heart
of lime and marble!

Diego del Gastor spends his time
in The Tavern of Dreams.
There he speaks to himself,
drinks on his own
and plays alone for love.

Five Japanese men run absurdly
along the bass string.
Diego smiles at them
while eating sunflower seeds.

If you make love in a hurry
you can’t be a guitar player:
the guitar is a girl
who never looks at the clock.

With a smile on his lips,
Diego leaves.
He is carrying his guitar in one hand,
and Morón is inside.

But there are other portraits as well. In Danny Seymour’s invaluable triptic, Joselero’s mocking countenance has been captured and rendered to eternity. Manolito el de la María’s impressive portrait with a hat on (g_krause) will always be a statement about the sadness of starvation. In addition, there is El Chozas’ craftiness, Juan Talega’s inscrutable face, and Anzonini’s undisputable, overwhelming capacity for being centre stage. Besides, one can find Paco Valdepeñas’ dancing jacket and hear Fernanda’s sweet-sour scream as translated by our poet on duty:

 

FERNANDA

She sings for men, just for them.
And the pain in her singing turns into
past pain,
present pain,
and pain no one has ever imagined.
That’s what it turns into
-into that and also into desperate love,
eternal,
radiant.
Fernanda is the future and the past,
dying of love in the present.

 

At those never-ending parties, there was only local wine, olives and white bread. With a bit of luck, perhaps someone would cook something to tone up the bodies. The artists’ motivation was artistic rather than mercantile. Of course, the “Americans of the flamenco fancy” would gather a few pesetas to share among guitarists and singers, but both the photographs and the sound recordings contain a latent charge of truth and authenticity that would be very difficult to find in a commercial flamenco show. The cattle herders in the Venezuelan llanos say: “Paid-for music can’t sound.” There were echoes of that saying in the gatherings where these photos were taken and these tapes recorded.

The graphic documents with the greatest evocative power might be the sequences of parties by the fritter makers’ stalls at the Fair of the Prado de San Sebastián in Seville. That was the way the nights of that Fair were: pure voice and guitar; rhythmic hand clapping and a little unpretentious dancing. The record players hadn’t made their appearance at the fair-stands yet, and the only thing that could interfere with the magic of a flamenco reunion was the sound of a player piano. Not even the rustic rociero drum had invaded that liturgical space.

At dawn, when those of us who were wee-hour revellers had to dodge the cleaning crews’ water hoses, a telluric call summoned from the back wall of the Pavilion of Portugal. In that street were the stalls of the gypsy fritter sellers. You turned a corner and the light of dawn bleached the lace curtains to a bluish milky white that rivalled the colour of the watered-down absinthe on the tables. It was the moment of absolute truth: with foggy eyes Caracol would try to sing seguiriyas. It was the same thing Chocolate was doing a couple of tables inside. So was Antonio Mairena. And María la Borrico. And Pastora. And Lola. Meanwhile, Camarón, still a teenager, waited for his chance to join that liturgy of the truth of flamenco.

After half a century in danger of extinction because of the damage time causes to magnetic media, the recordings from those glorious years have now been digitized for their conservation and study.

I would like to stress the perfect timing on the part of these reporters who came from faraway lands and were fortunate to land in the centre itself of the flamenco territory. They arrived at the exact point at the time of artistic maturity of flamenco and recorded and photographed the nobility of the gypsy community. They mistook neither the place nor the people, and the flamenco families from Lower Andalusia, interested people worldwide and Spanish culture in particular will always be grateful to them for such accuracy. The poet from Jerez José Manuel Caballero Bonald, the most perceptive researcher into flamenco, expresses some of these facts in the following way:

“Obviously, the first great creators of flamenco came from the same limited area of Cadiz and Seville where the initial samples of this gypsy-Andalusian art were born. With regards to this, we can state that there were three basic native centres: Jerez, Triana and Cadiz. It was around these that the other essential creative focuses of flamenco turned , Alcalá, Utrera, Lebrija, Morón, Los Puertos and Arcos –all of them situated, with slight variations, along the royal road that connected Cadiz and Seville. Without any exceptions, all the singers from the final years of the 18th century and from most part of the 19th century who are included in the foundational census of flamenco came from the mentioned towns. All of them, without any exceptions, were of the gypsy race.”

CABALLERO BONALD, José Manuel, Luces y sombras del flamenco,
Algaida Editores S.A., 1988, p. 125. New revised edition.

Finally, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to this group of artists. In the midst of the Franco years, when the official radio stations only broadcasted, as flamenco, the falsetto songs of Valderrama, Molina or Marchena, they saved for posterity the truth and authenticity of a music and lifestyle that were utterly unknown to the Spaniards of the time.

RICARDO PACHÓN

Photo: Miguel Funi. Feria de Sevilla, circa 1967; © David George

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