Flamenco guardians preserve memory of a maestro of artform
MADRID LETTER:Flamenco struggles in the recession. The artistry of one dead star is a shining light, writes GUY HEDGECOE
Antorrin Heredia stands on one side of the stage, leaning on a walking stick. In his other hand, he has a metal bar which he starts to beat against a large anvil by his side, in a strange, apparently irregular rhythm. This is the only accompaniment as he starts to sing in a wild, lilting voice that fills the small room.
We are in La Quimera, a flamenco venue near Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring.
It is well-known among the cognoscenti, but, unlike so many other flamenco venues in big Spanish cities, it is not a tourist trap. As well as being a singer, or cantaor, Heredia is the owner of La Quimera and for him it is a bastion of pure flamenco, at a time when the genre is under siege.
“Flamenco should make you look into yourself, to see the good and the bad, to create a conflict in your soul,” he says. “But the essence of flamenco is in danger of extinction.” This year marks 20 years since the death of the genre’s most revered modern voice: Camarón de la Isla. And as the world of flamenco celebrates the anniversary, it is also battling to maintain its integrity in the face of cultural and economic forces.
Born José Monge in the Andalusian town of San Fernando, Camarón started performing as a child. An intense shyness added to his mystique and his proud face and bouffant hair adorned the covers of a string of hugely successful albums throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The demands of the music business, a heroin habit and three packets of cigarettes a day burned Camarón out and he died of lung cancer in 1992, at the age of 41. But the legend lives on and a string of events have been organised across Andalusia to remember him. The recent Flamenco Biennial in Seville dedicated part of its programme to the singer and he is still worshipped by other artists. “Since Camarón left us, we haven’t seen anyone like him,” says Juan Andrés Maya, a dancer. “We gypsies say that when Camarón sang, flowers came out of his mouth. But it wasn’t being a gypsy that made him such a great singer, it was because he was touched by a magic wand.”
Maya (40) is from a family of flamenco artists and in 2010 he performed for Michelle Obama during her visit to Spain.