On Friday 1 July, the La Mina Romani Cultural Centre organised a talk about Camarón de la Isla at the Font de la Mina library featuring music producer Ricardo Pachón.
Throughout history, flamenco has probably been the vehicle of self-expression through which Spanish Roma have shared the most aspects of their culture with the rest of society. For many, the true story of Roma as told by Roma themselves is the one expressed through flamenco. The lyrics of its archaic cantas and the emotions emanating from these songs have provided an easily discernible portrait of the experiences and emotions of Spanish Roma for three centuries.
One of the most distinguished interpreters of this musical style was Camarón de la Isla. In the 1970s and 1980s, he managed to extend the influence of flamenco to places it had never before reached and win both Roma and gachés (non-Roma) fans the world over. From an early age, José Monge Cruz, better known as Camarón de la Isla, became the Romani population’s most beloved artist. Taking the reins from other artists such as Manolo Caracol and Antonio Mairena, he reinvented flamenco alongside guitarist Paco de Lucía. Almost 25 years after his untimely death, Camarón is still a standard-bearer for young artists and remains the most revered flamenco artist both within and outside the Romani community.
Camarón marked a “before and after” for flamenco, and has become an indelible part of Romani history. And in order to learn a bit more about Camarón de la Isla, the La Mina Romani Cultural Centre, as part of its celebration of the 600th anniversary of the arrival of Roma to Catalonia, organised the talk “Our Camarón” by Ricardo Pachón, a personal friend of Camarón de la Isla and the producer of his best-selling album “La Leyenda del tiempo”.
During the introduction to the event, Rafael Perona, president of the La Mina Romani Cultural Centre, emphasised the importance of Camarón to the Romani people: “Just when we were starting to lose our language is when flamenco singing was born. We lost our language but sought out another form of communication, which turned out to be flamenco. It can be said today that our great communicator is José Monge Cruz”.
During his talk, Ricardo Pachón presented the artist’s biography and played a few of his performances and recordings, some of which had not been released. He described Camarón’s personal and professional trajectory, emphasising that “José was even a better person than he was a cantaor (flamenco singer).” In regards to his artistic career, Ricardo stressed that Camarón revolutionised and transformed bulerías and tangos, which are the most popular and festive flamenco song styles.
After playing a soleá by Camarón de la Isla recorded when he was only 16 years old, Ricardo Pachón took the opportunity to explain that one of the main contributions that Roma have made to the world of music is the breathing technique by which one forces the voice with one’s diaphragm and sings lyrics without breathing.
Pachón also briefly spoke about the history of flamenco and explained how in its initial phases it was a form of family and community art. The time when flamenco was mainly used for celebrations and gatherings exclusive to the Romani community is known as its “hermetic” phase. “Flamenco remained within the bosom of Romani communities for a long time. Roma never sang it in the presence of gachés”. He went on to tell the story of General Miera, a “great flamenco fan who went to a bar in Triana where Los Caganchos and Los Pelaos gathered, the people who sang either siguiriyas or martinet music, and he was not allowed to enter. Of course, he listened from the outside and was so excited that he gave a waiter an envelope with 500 or 1,000 pesetas of that time be given to Juan el Pelao. The next morning Juan el Pelao gave him the money back, saying that music performed for pay had no sound”.
In regards to the future of flamenco, Ricardo Pachón said that “flamenco is an art of circular communication. Flamenco is made for gatherings where there are no spectators, only participants. I have had the good fortune to attend these wonderful celebrations of Utrera, Jerez and Morón, and I believe that this kind of flamenco is disappearing and being replaced by a showy style, an art form of frontal communication. You pay for your seat and you watch, which is how classical music and rock works. The audience is a paying public who do not interact amongst themselves. The exciting and pure brand of flamenco, the ‘rip off your shirt’ flamenco, is gradually disappearing”.