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.

Intense shyness

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.

He is delighted at how flamenco has reached out to an international audience in recent years. But he has reservations about the direction the music is taking.

“Flamenco’s changed a lot,” he says. “And I don’t know whether it’s changed for the better or for the worse. With all the new techniques and fusions, it’s worrying.”

He specifically points to the use of flamenco’s rhythmic variants, the palos. There are dozens of them, and to the uninitiated they add to the genre’s bewilderingly complex lore. But Maya believes contemporary performers are mixing and matching the palos with too much abandon.

Flamenco’s influence has also spread into pop. Ballad-singing heart-throb Alejandro Sanz has borrowed from flamenco, as has streetwise female rapper Mala Rodríguez. Elsewhere, the lightweight semi-pop songs of flamenquito – literally “little flamenco” – can often be heard on the radio.

“If I could ban people from watering down flamenco, I would do that,” says Joaquín San Juan, the director of Madrid’s legendary Amor de Dios flamenco school. “These things pull flamenco down, they trivialise it and drag it towards its death.”

Flamenco recession

Attendance at the school is strong. But Spain’s deep economic crisis is being felt in the flamenco world, with less funding for festivals, which struggle to draw top artists.

However, proving that flamenco can move with the times while staying true to its roots, a collective in Seville called Flo 6x8 have reacted to Spain’s financial crisis. They storm into banks, guerrilla-fashion, and stun queuing punters by singing songs about the evils of money.

This chimes with Joaquín San Juan’s view of flamenco culture. “Today everything’s about making money, about being successful,” he says.

“And flamenco is the opposite – it’s the point of view of the loser, not the winner.”

Although many of those in the flamenco world fret about the music’s purity and future, there are plenty of younger performers with outstanding talent. None of them, though, has yet managed to pick up where Camarón left off.

“Fifteen, 20 or 25 more years might pass, but I have no doubts that another great flamenco singer will appear and do something truly special,” says San Juan.

“But to do that, time has to pass. The memory of Camarón has to fade, and it hasn’t yet.”