Las mil y una historias de Pericón de Cádiz (The Thousand and One Stories of Pericón de Cádiz)

Las mil y una historias de Pericón de Cádiz
(A Thousand and One Stories of Pericón de Cádiz)
José Luis Ortiz Nuevo
Barataria, 2008, pg 270

Pericón de Cádiz (1901-1980) was a flamenco singer from Cadiz. He was one of the better known singers of the era and although not considered one of the greats, is still well respected. He was known for his association with the family of Enrique el Mellizo one of critical artists at the end of the 19th century. Pericón was also known as a story teller and spinner of tall tales. In the early 70’s José Luis Ortiz Nuevo, a young flamenco oficinado (super fan who understands not only the music but the traditions is probably the best translation) recently discharged from the military, collected the oral history of Pericón and published the book in 1975. Although the book is divided up into five sections, they all take place in or around Cadiz and follow Pericón as he makes his life as a flamenco singer. What makes him funny and a teller of tall tales is he tells many stories about the strange people and events he has seen. Many seem impossible and have the flavor of some one pulling your leg.

The first part of the book, perhaps of the most interest to non flamenco fans, covers his youth, marriage at the age of 22 and his early career. What a reader is most likely to take away is the poverty in Cadiz. Leaving school at a young age because he didn’t like it, he became a kind of street tough around the age of ten. Eventually it turned out he could sing and he began going form cafe to cafe where flamencos would hang out and either perform or wait for men who wanted music for a juerga (an all night party that might last for a few days). This was the most interesting aspect of the book, showing what life was like for flamencos before the advent of the peñas (clubs that support flamenco) and the festival circuit that is common place now. It was a very haphazard way to make a living as a singer would have to wait for a patron, often having to move between cafes until something came up. Once they found someone who wanted to pay, though, they would earn a little money, eat and drink wine all night. Often they just got in a patron’s car and sang in the car. It must have been a hard life and no wonder man of the greats who made their lives from flamenco died early.

Despite his ability to earn money, he never had much money. During the civil war, in 1936, when Cadiz fell to the fascists, he enrolled his son in a young fascist organization, not for political reasons, but so he would be given food and clothing and at least his boy would have something to eat. In one of his funnier stories, he relates how after enrolling the boy in the group, the flange came to his door. It was a terrifying thing to have happen. He didn’t know what to do. He  wasn’t political. He had his wife open the door for him. When she comes back she has the little uniform for the fascist youth. The flange only wanted to drop it off. Eventually, he went to Madrid to sing in the tablos (restaurants with flamenco shows) and gained a bit more financial stability and fame.

After the historical portion, he describes the people of Cadiz and all their strange behaviors. More than a few stories take place during carnival, something Cadiz is well known for, and are indicative of the kind of humor and stories he likes to tell. In one he describes a man dressed as a magician who says he going to show every one the most famous element in the world. He stands in the street under his robes, makes a few gestures, then walks away. Where he was standing is his excrement. In another he describes María Bastón who walks around Cadiz calling strangers to her as if she is in need. They approach and she asks them for tram fair. After the person leaves, she does it to the next. In another, an oficianado would ask him every night after singing, to sing a few fandangos for his cat. Since the man had not paid he had no option. After doing this a few times he realized that when the dawn came if he said I’m ready to sing for the cat he could finish the evening earlier. In another he describes a man who would put turkeys in cages and heat the bottom and call them dancing turkeys. Naturally, the turkeys wouldn’t last long and every two weeks he had to get a new one.

Interspersed between this kind of slapstick comedy he has brief and fascinating descriptions of flamencos who never became famous but who were great performers. In one a construction worker who apparently was very good refused to sing at fiestas for for any one and would just get together with other construction workers and sing. In another he mentions Rosa La Papera who, again, didn’t like to sing for money and did not go to fiestas. Instead, one had to go to her house to listen to her. It is when he describes the music and what it was like to be a singer is he the most interesting. His description of Tomas Pavon, one of my favorites, was great and gave some insight into his rather slender recording output.

Las mil y una historias de Pericón de Cádiz is for two kinds of readers: the flamenco fan, which I am, or some one interested in the history of Cadiz and Andalusia. At times the humor wasn’t that funny. I don’t do slap stick so well and often I didn’t see the point of the joke. When he talks of the people he knew and the life he lived, though, the book really comes alive. Fortunately for English readers the book has also been translated by John Moore, a professor of Spanish and a flamenco oficianado. I haven’t ready it, but would be curious to see if he tried to emulate Pericón’s  Andalusian accent which lends a flavor to the book that is quite distinct.