I seldom write about music since this is a literary blog primarily, but there are times when a musician’s importance cannot be ignored, and Enrique Morente was just such a figure. He was a legendary flamenco singer, one of the most important of the last 40 years, perhaps the most important since the death of Cameron. He was also the most controversial flamenco singer since Cameron. What makes him such an important figure is the breadth of his singing and his experimentation. His early work is marked by a respectful and confident knowledge of traditional flamenco. His album Homage to Don Antonio Chacon tradition flamenco at its best with just a guitar and a voice capturing the essence of flamenco, the rich complexity of styles, the profound passion, but also the light and joyous elements of flamenco that sometimes is forgotten when talking about flamenco. He, too, delved into the older palos (rhythms) that you often do not find in recordings and was a testament to his reverence for flamenco. At the same time, and what made him so controversial, was his willingness to experiment. Sure there was the traditional album recorded with Sabicas in 1990 (which is one of his better albums) and some other efforts, but he also sought out different approaches. Albums like Sacramonte and Negra, si tú supieras fused a mix of rock and Latin rhythms that moved into a more pop sound, but always kept to its flamenco roots, often reworking traditional words. And unlike many of the pop experiments with flamenco, he seemed to make records that didn’t sound like a dozen other pop flamenco albums, which often bring flamenco to pop and loose the fundamental nature of flamenco.
When he recorded Omega in 1996 he took flamenco even farther from its roots, joining forces to record with the Gypsy metal band Lagartija Nick. True to his constant shifting, the album is a mix of hard rock or even metal blends with flamenco, and more traditionally sounding works. It was a brave choice and could have been a disaster, but like Cameron’s La leyenda del tiempo, the other ground breaking fusion of rock and flamenco, it works because it is true to each musical form. The rock isn’t watered down and playing around at the edges, and the flamenco holds its own. Although, it is in the pieces that are less metal where the flamenco is at its most powerful.
Like many flamencos, he had a reverence for the works of Frederico Garcia Lorca and Omega, fashioned as a tribute on the 100th anniversary of his birth, uses the poems from Poet in New York and a few Songs of Leonard Cohen to create a sometimes dark, sometimes joyous picture of New York, and urban life. The music is a perfect match to those elements in Lorca’s work, whether it is the enchanting Dawn in New York (La aurora de Nueva York), or the dark and heavy Sleepless City (Ciudad sin sueño). For me it was one of the best introductions to Lorca and for a time I even had the text of Dawn in New York memorized in Spanish. I still return to the Poet in New York from time to time. It was one of those perfect confluences of literature and music that seldom happen let alone work. Even when I didn’t like what he did on some of the albums later, for example, Lorca, I will always love that album.
In some ways, too, he and Cameron helped push my imagination to Spain and I remember my first trip to Spain searching out flamenco I brought along a tape of him and Cameron and saw as much as I could, but for some reason never could swing it to see him. Fortunately, I’ll always have the great albums and my memories of that time, with the discovery of all the palos, the traditions, and the pueblos. IT was an exciting time and I’m glad he produce such good albums.
If you would like to listen to him or watch him in action RTVE has created a whole page with videos and audio. Definitely worth a check. I recommend the video “Romería de Yerma” y otras (1990), and if Omega sounds interesting try ‘Omega’ vuelve con Lagartija Nick y Morente en el FIB (2008).
El Pais has a list of his best albums with a write up. I think Homage a Don Antonio Chacon, Nueva York /Granda, and Omega are the best. I don’t know Despegando and would like to hear it some day.
A biography of Morente at El Pais.
An early and traditional fandango.
Morente and the great Raï singer Khaled .
A Caña, a traditional form.
Something from Omega