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.


Enrique Morente, Flamenco Legend, RIP

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.

Memoriams from Jose Merce (probably the only other flamenco with his stature), Carmen Linares (flamenco singer), M Mora.

An early and traditional fandango.

Morente and the great Raï singer Khaled .

A Caña, a traditional form.

Something from Omega

New Novel About Cameron – Pistola y cuchillo – to Be Published

You might be asking who is Cameron? He was one of the greatest flamenco singers of all time. A tragic legend who died before his time, but who left twenty albums of amazing material. I have all 20 albums, so I should know. Now, whether a novel about him is needed I don’t know, but it shows the power of his legacy that 20 years after his passing someone would publish a novel about him. I wish the author luck, but will be passing on it. An English language equivalent would be a novel about John Lennon or Curt Cobain. At least it gives me an excuse to put a few Cameron videos on the blog.

From El Pais

Camarón“Al rico camarón de la Bahía, al rico camarón de la Bahía, lo pesco de noche, lo vendo de día”, vocean con mucho soniquete en los aledaños a la venta de Vargas. En la puerta del local de San Fernando donde empezó a cantar José Monge cuando sólo era un niño rubio han colocado una estuta a la que le roban pedazos por la noche para venderlos después a los turistas. La historia tiene su guasa y encaja divinamente en el universo Camarón pero, en este caso, forma parte del arranque de la nueva novela deMontero Glez (Madrid, 1965), Pistola y cuchillo que El Aleph publica en noviembre. A Camarón, que ya cuenta con una ruta turística que atraviesa el pueblo donde nació y la fragua de su padre, sólo le faltaba convertirse en personaje literario. Con saltos al pasado, la acción transcurre a lo largo de una noche en la popular venta de María Picardo, considerado por los aficionados como una templo flamenco, con un Camarón ya tocado por la enfermedad que lo mató y fumando sin parar. En la vida real se fumaba tres paquetes de Winston yCarlos Lencero solía decir que “no dormía para seguir fumando”