Flamenco has been graced by performers of great talent since its earliest days. The oldest account of a flamenco performance mentions two masters of flamenco song, El Planeta and his young follower, El Fillo. Already in 1842, the dawn of professional flamenco, performers were famous for their singing style and repertory, as is the case today. Because of its intense history, flamenco is replete with performers past and present, a bewildering maze of names and nicknames. There exist numerous accounts of the history of flamenco song that detail the basic events and figures in the history of cante. This is not such an accountrather, what you have here is an initial introduction to some of the most important artists currently available on CD. This is intended to be a guide to orient those new to flamenco cante. It represents a personal selection of some of the best in flamenco from the present and recent past, together with the historical figures that form the foundation of flamenco today. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good place to begin exploring flamenco cante. At the end, there is also a listing of several seminal anthologies and some of the best compilations and reissue series currently on the market.
The Three Pillars of Twentieth Century Cante
The twentieth century produced three pillars of flamenco cante: Antonio Mairena, Manolo Caracol and Camarón de la Isla. These three are without a doubt the most influential artists of this century and are constant points of reference for performers today.
Antonio Mairena possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of flamenco and dedicated his life to rescuing from oblivion and corruption what he deemed to be the truest expression of the Andalusian Gypsy soul—flamenco song. Antonio Mairena was one of the most knowledgeable flamenco performers who ever lived and he promoted his vision of flamenco through a vigorous recording career. He inspired many with his vision of flamenco’s roots and he helped to popularize a Gypsy-style cante at a time when it had little favor with the general public. Mairena’s recordings are always correct, tasteful and measured, and often revealed the fruit of his research into earlier cante: his is a Classic Flamenco.
Manolo Caracol was a contemporary of Antonio Mairena and a very different type of performer. Caracol was at the forefront of combining the flamenco of his day with popular musical forms. He was one of the stars of the opera flamenca era when large flamenco productions were presented in theaters all over Spain and Europe and in films. These were spectacles featuring singers, dancers and musicians, and typically included piano accompaniment and full orchestra. These productions were the antithesis of the type of intimate traditional Gypsy flamenco that Antonio Mairena was championing. Caracol’s singing style was also quite different from Mairena’s. In place of the correct and measured singing of Mairena, Caracol gave primacy to the emotional impact of a song and was willing to sacrifice a great deal to achieve a heightened emotional effect. But Caracol also had a deep and intimate knowledge of Gypsy cante, coming from an incomparable flamenco Gypsy clan in Seville. Some of Caracol’s finest recordings chronicle this traditional flamenco, sung only to guitar accompaniment, though sung in Caracol’s own heightened emotion-laden style. Until recently, flamenco artists chose their champion: they were either a Mairenista or a Caracolista. On many counts, the two styles were perceived to be the antithesis of one another.
The last of the three pillars of twentieth century flamenco song, and the only one born in the second half of the twentieth century, was a Gypsy by the name of Camarón de la Isla. In his short career of some twenty odd years, Camarón revolutionized cante. With his partner, guitarist Paco de Lucía, Camarón set flamenco on a new path, one it continues to follow today. Camarón began as a traditional flamenco singer influenced by the emotional style of Caracol, though also respectful of the encyclopedic approach of Mairena. (Camarón’s first nine recordings present an impressive array of flamenco song styles.) But it was the early and mid-1970s, both Camarón and Paco de Lucía were in their twenties and were part of the youth revolution that was sweeping even Franco’s Spain.
Camarón and Paco had a vision of flamenco that was broader and more expansive than that of traditionalists like Antonio Mairena. They wanted flamenco to appeal to young people and to people who had never cared about flamenco before. They were hip young men sporting the latest fashions and wanted to break the stereotype of flamenco as something of interest only to their parents’ generation. So Camarón began to sing lighter material—especially bulerías and tangos—but imbued with a deep emotional undercurrent communicated through his extraordinary voice. This is music that has profoundly effected every performer under the age of 40 (and more than a few over 40)but no one has ever equaled the audacious vision of flamenco, the ability to communicate with any and all audiences no matter how distant from traditional flamenco, nor the charisma and genius of Camarón. Even the way traditional flamenco palos are sung has been noticeably affected by Camarón’s legacy down to the very vocal technique employed by artists today. Truly Camarón revolutionized every aspect of flamenco cante, and his influence continues to dominate flamenco even today, six years after his untimely death in 1992 at the age of 41.
There are other immortals of twentieth century cante, though they belong to an older generation and were the masters that Mairena and Caracol looked to. All of these artists were born in the nineteenth century and represent a direct link to the flamenco of that century. They were also the first generation of flamenco artists able to leave a recorded testimony of their art. These were the titans of flamenco cante, and they still influence artists today.
La Niña de los Peines was one of the most prodigious and inventive flamenco singer who ever lived. She popularized several flamenco song forms, most notably the petenera and bambera. She revolutionized the tangos of her day, transformed the soleá, was noted for her seguiriyas and saetas, and generally sang everything well. She also recorded prolifically, her discography extending from the 1910s to the 1950s. She is undoubtedly the greatest female flamenco artist who ever lived, and she has influenced every generation of flamenco singers from her contemporaries right down to the 20-something daughter of Enrique Morente, one of the brightest young lights on today’s flamenco scene.
A contemporary of La Niña de los Peines was Manuel Torre. He was a masterful singer from Jerez de la Frontera, a cradle of Gypsy cante, and was particularly known for his seguiriyas that have inspired all succeeding generations of flamenco singers, as well as for saetas, soleares, cantes de Levante and fandangos. He was especially famous for his powerful delivery and his ability, sadly not captured on his surviving recordings, to inspire intense emotional states in his listeners. His influence extends far beyond Gypsy singers and continues to influence the flamenco singers of today, and his recordings are a touchstone of cante jondo.
Another important figure whose career spanned the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century was Antonio Chacón. He was the major non-Gypsy singer of his age and a pupil of the greatest non-Gypsy singer of the nineteenth century, Silverio Franconetti. In many ways Franconetti was responsible for first shaping the flamenco tradition that has come down to us today. Chacón took the work of Silverio Franconetti and other singers of that era as his starting point and created a very personal flamenco that was intensely popular in his day. His singing style, a high falsetto, was the antithesis of the styles of Manuel Torre or La Niña de los Peines, with an emphasis on sweetness and flights of vocal virtuosity.
Chacón inspired a legion of followers who created the vogue for personal fandangos that characterized the opera flamenca era. Although some of his followers may have displayed less than good taste and a want of musical judgment, Chacón himself was an extraordinary performer and creator. The particular style of singing favored by Chacón fell out of favor with the revaluation of Gypsy-style cante championed by Mairena that triumphed in the 1960s and 70s, but there are still singers today who carry on the legacy of Chacón. One of the most notable is Enrique Morente, who received Chacón’s legacy directly from singers like Pepe el de la Matrona and Bernardo de los Lobitos, who in turn learned from and emulated Chacón in their early years.
Although Morente sings very differently from Chacón, favoring a Gypsy-style delivery even though Morente is not a Gypsy, yet the particular song forms created by Chacón and the lyrics associated with them survive in the repertory of this contemporary singer. Indeed, with the death of Camarón, Morente is the single most influential flamenco singer today. His work is widely hailed by critics and, though he is not the most popular artist on the scene today in terms of record sales, his work is a touchstone for younger performers. Morente is continually searching for new modes of expression for flamenco in the contemporary world. His recordings range from highly orthodox renditions of traditional cante to bold experiments that mix flamenco with rock music, the lyrics of major Spanish poets, popular musical styles from the New World, world music and even classical music. Yet despite the diversity of his musical output, it all bears the distinctive personality of Morente.
Other Noteworthy Artists
In addition to these universally acknowledged artists, there are dozens of important contemporary flamenco singers whose recordings are well worth seeking out.
José de la Tomasa
La Paquera de Jerez
There are also many older artists, now retired or deceased, who transmit the flamenco tradition ably and masterfully in their currently available recordings:
Bernarda de Utrera
Fernanda de Utrera
Pepe el de la Matrona
Pericón de Cádiz
La Perla de Cádiz
Manuel Soto, El Sordera
Tío Gregorio el Borrico
Anthologies and Reissue Series
In the 1950s, interest in the flamenco of an earlier era, before the opera flamenca period, found expression. This is when the first of the flamenco anthologies of cante was recorded. The 1954 Hispavox Antología del Cante Flamenco was a watershed in flamenco history. An attempt was made on that anthology to record a wide range of flamenco song forms, including some that were in danger of being forgotten. Currently there are several other important anthologies on the market in addition to the Hispavox Anthology, which is now available on CD.
Antología de Cantaores Flamencos (15 CDs), EMI, 1991
Duende (3 CDs), Ellipsis Arts, 1994
El Cante Flamenco. Antología histórica (3 vols), Philips, 1987
Flamencología (7 CDs)
Magna Antología del Cante Flamenco (10 vols.), Hispavox, 1992
Medio Siglo de Cante Flamenco (4 CDs), Arioloa, 1988.
Historia del Flamenco (5 hardback books, 40 CDs), 1996
In addition to these anthologies, there are assorted compilation and reissue series currently available that are noteworthy for the wide variety of performers and styles and the quality of their performances.
Cultura Jonda (22 CDs)
Figuras del Flamenco (10 CDs)
Flamenco Viejo (14 CDs)
Grandes Cantaores del Flamenco
Grandes Figures du Flamenco (Chant du Monde) (20 CDs)
Universal, Grabaciones Históricas 2×1 (50 CDs)