Wednesday, October 1, 2014

BBC documentary: The spirit of flamenco.

Tony Bryant has recently assisted the BBC with a documentary called ‘The Spirit of Flamenco’, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in June and here the Englishman shares his experiences of the recording of the show; which took place in Utrera, Seville and Córdoba.


The show was to be made in two parts and the first section was based around the life and work of the Cordovan guitarist Paco Peña.
The second section was to focus on the gypsy-flamenco way of life and how flamenco assists their daily routines: it was also to focus on the role of flamenco during Semana Santa.
I was to organize a meeting of various singers and a guitarist in order to record them talking about their flamenco, and also capture their art during a spontaneous juerga.
I had to arrange a venue where this could all be achieved, and this location had to be in a town that had some kind of spiritual connections with the gypsies and their music: the one town where I could almost certainly accomplish all of this was Utrera.

The recording was to start on Tuesday the thirteenth of May, which for a superstitious Englishman living in Spain, is not a good day to engage in anything that requires leaving the house, let alone the province.
I was to meet the producer at Malaga airport, after which, we would travel to Seville in a hire car supplied by the BBC.
The producer was a tall, wiry, bespectacled chap who more resembled a university professor, but he turned out to be an interesting fellow who has worked for the BBC for almost thirty years.
A senior producer for the BBC’s religion and ethics department, he had worked a varied sphere of subjects including religious-themed topics in Afghanistan, Iran and China, to hip-hop documentaries in New York.

He was in Spain to record ‘The spirit of flamenco’, an episode of BBC Radio Two’s ‘Guitar Season’; a series of programs based on the role of the guitar in the history of world music.
The documentary was also to focus on the role religion plays in flamenco, or more to the point, if it has any role at all!


There was also a priest to find; not just any priest, but one who was an aficionado of flamenco that would be willing to be questioned about flamenco and spirituality.
This was obviously going to be a little more difficult for me to organize, but I was astonished to be informed of a priest who would be delighted to participate.
The priest lived in Cordoba, and although I arranged the meeting, I did not partake in the interview, because my participation was confined to Seville and Utrera.

We arrived in Utrera in the early afternoon and the temperature had soured to 35º, and so we headed to a small bar opposite the hostel.
The appearance of two lofty Englishman intrigued the four or five undersized locals that were spread along the bar, but once the courteous ‘holas’ had been exchanged, they soon returned to their conversations.
There are numerous small bars tucked away in the side streets of Utrera and they all rely totally on the custom of the local people, and for this reason, you will always be served good traditional local fare at a more than reasonable price.
They are basic cafes and are void of any ornamentation, and yet they are often so cheap to eat and drink in that one feels embarrassed when paying the bill. 

After lunch we retired to the hostel for a short siesta, but there was little time for any shut-eye for me, because no sooner had my head hit the pillow, my phone began to buzz.


I had previously, but unsuccessfully, attempted to contact the people I had lined up for the interviews, but with the exception of Dani de Utrera, I could get no answer from any of the others.

Dani had informed me that his habitual accompanist, Amador Gabarri, would not be able to assist, but I was not to worry, said he, because he had arranged another guitarist from Moron de la Frontera.

Although I assured the producer that everything was going to plan, I had still to find a location, and, of course, track down the absent artistes. Even though I have known these people for many years, I often forget that they are andalusian gypsies, so there is often little chance of them arriving on time; if indeed at all.
But everything eventually went to plan, and so once the other artistes had been located, we set off to the center of the town, where I was to take the BBC on a quick tour of Utrera’s flamenco hot-spots.
We wandered down the Calle Nueva and through the tiny back streets where so many flamencos had been born, or had previously lived. We then went to the beautiful bronze monument of La Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, and on to the small memorial park that honors many of the town’s most celebrated artistes.
Whilst recording various bits and pieces in the park, the bells of the Santa Maria church began to clang, and this interruption gave me the idea of where we should interview the artistes and record the juerga; and what a wonderfully picturesque corner of Utrera this proved to be.

Andalusia is particularly beautiful in the spring, and the streets and plazas of Utrera were saturated with the aroma of differing blossom, and the purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees covered the floor like a carpet of confetti.
The Santa Maria church became the backdrop for our documentary, and the small plaza opposite the church had the most perfect ambience for a little bit of gitanerias.

Luis el Marquesito and Dani de Utrera arrived looking fresh and keen to get started, but we awaited the arrival of the guitarist: he eventually appeared resembling the emblematic flamenco-dude; trilby hat, dark shades, and with his guitar thrown over his shoulder.


Paco de Amparo, the great-nephew of the late Diego del Gastor, is part of one of the most important guitar dynasties in the history of flamenco, and he certainly possessed the same quality that his celebrated great-uncle once had.
Spirits were high, and the producer was anxious to get things started, and so he began giving instructions as to what it was he wanted them to do; which proved harder than the he had obviously expected.
One of the things the director had trouble coping with was the natural ambient of flamenco and he seemed concerned that he could not get silence when he thought he needed it.
He asked on several occasions for El Marquesito and Dani to refrain from interrupting with the jaleo whilst Paco was performing a solo piece on the guitar, but he eventually realized that this was not going to happen.
During a break in recording I informed him that if it was the ‘authentic’ form of this art that he was seeking, then he would find no better opportunity to capture it with his microphones.
He obviously wanted a crystal clear recording of the guitar, but what he actually canned was something far more astounding than he could have ever imagined.
The flamencos were relaxed and happy, which is a fine combination for a juerga, and after the initial interviews, they began to perform in the manner that I had hoped for.

The small plaza was soon reverberating with the wonderful voices of El Marquesito and Dani, and Paco’s guitar sounded at its most beautiful during the recording of a buleria, when he incorporated the tolling of the church bells with the rhythm of his song.
Dani demonstrated why he is considered one of Utrera’s most talented young flamenco singers, when he effortlessly recited a chilling saeta on the steps of the church: the sorrowful tone of his ghostly voice seemed to hover like a mist, which was then blasted away by the fury that rose from the soles of his feet, and out of his mouth with the wrath of a demon.

El Marquesito was on fine form singing the cantes of his birthplace, and his face beamed with pride as he sang of his great-grandfather, the legendary ‘Fernando El Pinini’.
As I stood in the wings watching these gypsies simply doing what comes so naturally to them, I felt content that we had indeed captured, for all prosperity, a little bit of andalusian gypsy magic.

As the sun set down behind the glowing Santa Maria church, and the microphones and equipment was neatly packed away in their chrome-cornered boxes, a sense of camaraderie prevailed.
These people are, without doubt, the most welcoming community I have ever encountered, and as we chatted and joked under the oranges trees in this attractive corner of the town, I was overcome with sentiment: I had set out to promote Utrera, and on this occasion, the andalusian gypsies demonstrated the reason why I had taken the documentary to Utrera.

After the final photographs had been taken, and promises had been made, we all strolled down the hill to sample the delights of the bodega Doña Juana; all at the expense of the BBC of course!  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Gitanerias; the essence of flamenco



Gitanerias; the essence of flamenco is the third book in a trilogy of flamenco books by English writer Tony Bryant.

Gitanerias; the essence of flamenco, is based largely on a period time that the author spent in a town called Utrera in Andalusia; a small gypsy enclave in the southernmost part of this splendidly romantic area of Spain.
Although the larger towns of Spain have become merged in the life of the modern world and left behind the village orbit that allowed them to be self-sufficing, Utrera has kept much of its idiosyncrasy.

The author spent many years in this town in order to work a previous project, and during this time he became acquainted with some of flamencos most celebrated performers; many of whom have become close and trusted friends.
During his stay in Utrera, the author was invited into the homes and personal lives of these gypsies and he was confronted with a way of life that far exceeded anything he had ever witnessed before.
He gained the trust and friendship of this family in such a way that he was invited to personal family celebrations like communions, birthdays, funerals, and fiestas of all kinds, and it was during these intimate fiestas that he witnessed a flamenco way of life that few will ever get the chance to experience.
This book is full of these experiences and it focuses on every aspect of their calendar: the fair, Easter, the bullfight, the flamenco festivals and the traditions and customs that make the art of flamenco so fascinating.
The book is also packed with anecdotes and legends, and scrutinizes the andalusians attitude towards piety, death and superstition.
The author takes the reader on journey around the small back-streets of a town that has adhered to an antiquated way of life that disappeared from most towns after the demise of Franco.
The reader is introduced to the died-in-the-wool locals whose lives have altered little in the last fifty years, and he explains many of the legends and myths that fuel their daily lives.
Gitanerias describes the everyday lives of these people and how flamenco affects just about every part of it: of course there are numerous recollections of high-wired fiestas and drunken nights at the fair, but this is only a small part of what makes Gitanerias; the essence of flamenco, so pictorial: although there is an underlining flamenco theme to this book, it is principally a look at the andalusian gypsy’s way of celebrating life.         




Sunday, December 1, 2013

EMILIO EL MORO - The singer of seven voices




There have been many notable artistes with-in the history of flamenco and some of these extraordinary characters stood out, not only for their mastery of the flamenco, but because of their wild antics or strange life-styles. There has also been a few whose dress-sense made them instantly distinguishable because they deviated from the traditional gypsy attire of polka-dotted shirts, neck-scarves and the tight-fitting traje corto.
El Cabrero (the goat-herder) has often been labeled the ‘Clint Eastwood’ of flamenco because of his practice of wearing a cow-boy hat and boots, whilst El Carrete de Málaga often performs in top-hat and tails, complete with walking-cane and white gloves, and for this he has become known as the ‘Fred Astaire Gitano’
There have also been numerous singers who have used flamenco as an underlying theme for their act and yet some of these performers were frowned upon by died- in-the-wool aficionados who accepted nothing less than pure, unadulterated cante jondo.
One singer, who tried desperately, yet unsuccessfully, to break into the serious flamenco scene in Spain, was Emilio Jiménez Gallego – Emilio El Moro – one of the most unusual flamenco singers of the last century. Emilio was an admirer the Marchenismo School of singing and could sing the fandangos as good as any, but he was advised, by the famed guitarist Niño Ricardo, to shed this aspect and find a direction of his own: this he would do by peppering his performance with complements of Arabic song, which enriched his already unique voice, and also by mixing his music with an element of stand-up comedy. 
His act would include playing the guitar behind his head or singing with a cigarette in his mouth, or playing a fandango on the guitar with just one hand: one of the pranks that would earn him resounding recognition was his ‘guitar solo’. For this he would place his guitar on the floor in the middle of the stage and then disappear into the wings for a few minutes; effecting at first confusion, followed by unconstrained laughter as the joke became evident.
He would also (in a similar way to the great British prop-comedian Tommy Cooper) appear on the stage and not utter or sing a word; instead he would sit in a chair, light a cigarette and behave in a manner that would have his audience rolling in their seats.  

Pep Pinto, La Niña de los Peines & Emilio El Moro
Born in Melilla in 1923, Emilio became one of the most entertaining singers of his era and his style was so distinctive because he was the first, and certainly the only, notable flamenco singer to hail from North Africa: his ability to sing a single syllable whilst moving between several different notes in succession earned him the nickname of the ‘singer of seven voices.
Emilio was one of twelve children and although he was raised in Melilla, both of his parents were natives of Málaga.
A keen fisherman who spoke five languages, Emilio was a flamenco aficionado from an early age and entered many competitions on radio Melilla singing fandangos, soleares and tientos. In fact, flamenco had no boundaries as far as his knowledge of song styles was concerned. Although he won several singing competitions in his youth, he was never able to break into the andalusian world of flamenco, and so spent his early years working as a painter and decoratorfor his father’s business.
After finishing his military service in 1946, Emilio went to Madrid where he was looked after by relatives and family friends. He arrived in the capital with just“a battered old guitar and a bar of chocolate”- and an unreserved determination to succeed on the flamenco scene. He was contracted to perform at various venues in Madrid but he failed to make an impact on his audience and after numerous endeavors to attain acknowledgement as a serious flamenco singer, he eventually decided to play on his Moroccan roots and started to dress with an artistic personality that would eventually gain him success in Madrid.
The people of Madrid were intrigued by his bizarre false beard and eccentric Moroccan attire, but it was the peculiar Arabic tone of his flamenco that quickly made him the talking point of the flamenco scene in the capital. 
He was hired to sing in the show ‘Sol de España, but before he undertook the contract, he wanted desperately to wed his childhood sweet heart – Pilar Saugar Moral. The service was held in the church of San Miguel in Madrid but unfortunately there was no time for a honeymoon as Emilio had to leave directly after the reception to begin the tour.
Emilio was to begin a run of great success and he was soon demanding a whopping 250 pesetas for a single performance – a considerable amount of money for a flamenco singer in that time!
At first he would be billed under numerous names including Emilio de Melilla and El Moro de Melilla, but he would eventually adopt the artistic name of Enrique El Moro and shed his fake beard and turban (a look that often likened him to the zany master of disguise played by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies) in favor of a more debonair look of tuxedo and fez.
Clowning around wit Laurel & Hardy
What really catapulted him to fame in Spain, and eventually the rest of the world, was his ability to take a popular song and masterfully change the lyrics whilst giving them a uniquely personal touch. His ability to adapt the works of Juanito Valderrama, Conchita Piquer and Juanita Reina, and his comical imitations of Lola Flores and Manolo Caracol, would eventually lead to him gaining a reputation as the humorous prankster of flamenco.
However, the secret of Emilio’s success was his ability to sing wonderfully well and his repertoire of flamenco songs, coupled with his parodies of popular Spanish songs, was to ensure him great fame and recognition. He recorded his first LP record in 1952and he would record more than forty albums during his career and he would also appear in several movies.
His style was original and there has certainly been no other of his kind; he was a singer who could take such diverse songs as ‘Yellow Submarine’ or the hits of Julio Inglesias and make them slap-stickily flamenco.
Even though his popularity waned in the late seventies, he continued working in tablaos and night-clubs until his death in 1987; although he spent most of his later years living at his country retreat in Alicante.
Emilio had undergone an operation for cataracts and was staying in the house of his sister at the time of his death. He had attempted to light a cigarette on a small gas oven (used by his nephew who worked as a dental technician) and because he had not fully recovered from his operation, he misjudged the distance and the flame caught onto his clothes; rendering him with 60º burns to the arms and chest. Despite the gravity of his injuries, Emilio is said to have joked with the medics in the ambulance en route to the hospital, however, he suffered a stroke and died a few weeks later. Emilio was interred in a family plot in the town of Monforte del Cid in Alicante.

During his forty-years as an entertainer he was to work and befriend numerous world-renowned artistes, musicians and Hollywood stars and he obviously had a resounding effect on many of them: Emilio was unique and there has never been another who could recreate his extremely personal style of comedy-infused flamenco.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

El Potaje Gitano

During spring and early summer, the southern-most part of Andalusia transforms into a kaleidoscope of colour and illumination, and any ‘normal’ routine is constantly interrupted by local fiestas and colourful celebrations. 



It is also the season of the time-honoured flamenco festivals that are staged in most towns and villages, and it is at these festivals that one occasionally witlessness’s a little of that ‘something’ which makes this art so special.   Unfortunately, many of these festivals have transformed into two and three day events and in doing so they have lost much of the nostalgic festival ambience.
One festival which has adhered to the more orthodox style event is the Potaje Gitano in Utrera; the first ever flamenco festival to be held in Spain – in the world!
The potaje gitano started in nineteen fifty-seven and was organized by the brotherhood of the gypsies of Utrera. They arranged a small get-together in a make-shift marquee and one of the members of the brotherhood cooked and served a humble stew to the relatively small audience; hence the ‘gypsy stew’ was born and it is a tradition has since been continued: at around 1:30 am each table is presented with a huge earthenware casserole of beans, vegetables and chorizo. You are also handed a small wooden spoon (of which I now have many) on entry to the festival, supposedly with which to eat the stew. Thankfully, they also supply a more conventional plastic spoon to devour this hearty feast.

Every year the festival is dedicated to the honour of an individual flamenco performer or bullfighter, and occasionally to someone who is simply deemed worthy of honouring.
This year was the turn of one of the town’s most celebrated artistes - Pepa de Utrera.
Josefa Loreto Peña (1926-2009) was one of Utrera’s most formidable singers and during the 1960s and ‘70s she was one of the most popular singers in the flamenco tablaos of Madrid: as well she was one of the top festival performers in Andaluica.

The potaje is held in the grounds of the Salisiano School and large round tables covered with linen cloths are spaced out across the school yard. Each table is adorned with two bottles of wine that have specially printed potaje gitano labels, and this is to accompany the stew that habitually arrives halfway through the proceedings.
I will inevitably arrange to meet with numerous people during the festival and the first hour is always spent strolling from table to table in order to catch-up with friends and associates.

This year was the 57th festival, an achievement to say the least, and yet there was sadness in the air because tonight’s festivities were overshadowed by the untimely passing of Tate Montoya.
Tate, son of the late Enrique Montoya, had passed away after a long illness just a few weeks before the festival, and his memory and contribution to the town’s flamenco history were duly honoured from the outset.  
We were also reminded that this year’s festival coincided with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Fernando El Pinini.
El Pinini was patriarch to one of the grandest gypsy clans in the history of flamenco, and many of them were scheduled to perform at the festival tonight.
The patio was beginning to fill with some of the most glamorous characters of Utrera; most of whom had a look that suggested that they are the ancestors of what we are all here to witness.
It would have been worth paying the twenty-two euro entrance fee just to be absorbed in this atmosphere and observe the lyrical characters that were in attendance.
Indeed they were an artist’s impression of everything that is truly andalusian and many of these people looked as though they had leapt from the pages of a Garcia Lorca book.

The cast for tonight’s show came from the more commercial flamenco scene and included Pitingo, Antonio El Pipa and Marina Heredia; but as is usual, there was also a good crop of Utreran artistes mingling in the wings.
The potaje festival is renowned for the ‘fiesta’ that takes place half way through the night, and tonight it would be the legendary Miguel El Funi that would lead members of the Pinini clan in the habitual fiesta gitana.
Tomás de Perrate, son of the great Perrate de Utrera, opened the festival with solea, buleria, and a cantiña de Lebrija that induced some riotous jaleo from the audience. 

After almost half an hour of Marina Heredia’s light fandango styles, it was time for one of the legends from Lebrija: Miguel El Funi took to the stage wearing the customary white silk scarf that is a facet he has supported for more than fifty years.
He was accompanied by the few remaining siblings of Pepa de Utrera, all of whom looked quite aged, but one knew that they would suddenly ignite a little of that mysterious sparkle that lays dormant until awakened by the rhythm. This was especially true with Juana la Feonga, because she has gained the reputation in this area as being one of the greatest ever dancers of buleria. Although she is looking a little frail of late, when she rises to the dance, she does so with the grace and personality of youth.
El Pitin Hijo, nephew of Pepa de Utrera, held the performance together with sharp, cutting guitar work and this young guitarist is one of the most favoured accompanists among the artistes in this area. He is also the great-great grandson of El Pinini, and to experience three generations of this large clan performing in such a time-honoured manner was almost dreamlike.   
El Funi and La Feonga performed the kind of flamenco that one rarely sees today, and it is this traditional family style that is so prevailing here in Utrera. El Funi’s voice is now old and broken, but he still has that wonderful duende evoking tone that makes ones stomach ache.
If one was searching for the true ‘meaning of flamenco’ then one need look no further than Utrera tonight because what was witnessed on this occasion was pure spontaneous art. Even though the event is organized, what took place on the stage was not. For sure we were witnessing a little piece of history and one knows that this kind of happening will probably never been experienced again.

After El Funi and the descendants of Pinini had finished their captivating performance, we were treated to twenty minutes of waggish parodies of flamenco by two of Spain’s most celebrated gossip-humour comedians; Los Moranjos.
The night for me though had reached its climax, but there was no leaving early because there was still the soul-man of flamenco, El Pitingo, and Antonio el Pipa to come.
Pitingo is something of a legend in Utrera and although he has a somewhat unique voice; his rendition of the Beatles ‘Yesterday’ seemed a little out of place here tonight. He did however, treat us to a little of his genius with the cante flamenco, and the cutting guitar accompaniment of Juan Carmona was the ‘gold broach’, as they say.

Antonio El Pipa had to wait until 4 am before he could dazzle us with his fairy tale-like dance routines and if anyone was starting to doze off before he appeared, they were certainly brought around by his rattling zapateado.

This coveted old stage has ingrained memories of some of the greatest flamenco performer’s that ever lived, and during its long existence the potaje has presented Manolo Caracol, Antonio Mairena, Camaron de la Isla and of course La Fernanda de Utrera, to name but a few. It certainly is one of the most favoured festivals among the performers because many of them seem to want to return continually. None of this year’s performers were strangers to this stage and yet I feel that it was most certainly the art of El Funi and La Feonga that prevailed here tonight.
It was nearly five in the morning before the dancing stopped and the music disappeared, yet the ambience was still so joyfully relaxed and the bar area was still busily engaged.

Tony Bryant: Utrera 2013

A note from the author

One may think that I have shown too much interest in Miguel El Funi and the clan of El Pinini and maybe not sufficient enough attention to the other artistes. You would of course be right, and this is because the likes of Pitingo and El Pipa, however great they may be, have become the pop stars of flamenco and are accordingly treated; whereas the true masters of this art are so often ignored.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Mercedes La Serneta: Part 2

Mercedes Fernández Vargas – La Serneta 1840-1912

Part 2

The Utrera Connection


During my research for a recent book concerning the family of El Pinini, I became acquainted with many of his living descendants, a privilege also bequeathed by the family of El Perrate de Utrera. Although these people could offer no concrete evidence as to her presence in the town, some of my theories concerning La Serneta have been based on information I obtained from them.
Many of these highly regarded people have become personal friends and I have often been in their company when the conversation has turned to La Serneta. These people are not liars or conspirers and I have no reason to doubt what they say and believe about this matter.
They are simply retelling stories that have been passed from their fathers by word of mouth and I fail to see why these virtuous people would continue a farce, if they believed it not to be true. 

In order to try and ascertain whether La Serneta had lived in Utrera for more than just a few years, it will be of much interest to discuss her genealogical line. The three crucial names in this debate are those of Torres, Fernández and Vargas.

But we must first look at a few conceptions in order to make a judgment based on the minimal evidence that is available to us.

One thing of interest is the fact that Luis El Marquesito and his brother Diego are convinced that La Serneta acted as god-mother to their grandmother Mercedes.

Mercedes Peña Vargas was one of Pinini’s daughters, but her exact date of birth is unknown: Pinini had married Josefa Vargas Torres in Utrera in 1881, and Mercedes was their seventh child, so on a ratio of one child every two years, this would put Mercedes date of birth at around 1895.
After searching the archives of the churches of Santiago el Mayor and Santa Maria de la Mesa, and with the help of many people connected with these two churches, I was unable to obtain a copy of the relevant baptism certificate to endorse this claim.
El Marquesito believed that his grandmother was baptized in the Santiago church, but there was no record of this having taken place there. The priest of the Santiago church (Cura Manuel Cuna) directed me to the sister church, Santa Maria de la Mesa, as this was the only other church in Utrera that would have performed baptisms during this period, but a search of this register also failed.

If La Serneta had been the godmother to Mercedes, (and we have no reason to doubt that she was) it does not necessarily prove that she was actually residing in Utrera at that time, but it could possibly have indicated that she was intimately associated with Utrera around 1895. It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion, although without substantiation, that Pinini and Josefa had in fact named their daughter Mercedes, in recognition of La Serneta.

If however, as is often claimed, La Serneta’s only association with Utrera was to fulfil occasional singing contracts; why would she have been chosen as godmother to El Pinini’s daughter?

It could have been because, as the family of El Pinini claim, Josefa Vargas Torres, (the wife of El Pinini) descended from the same family as La Serneta.

Josefa was born in the Calle Nueva in Utrera in 1864, and she was the daughter of Diego Vargas Vargas (Sanlucár de Barrameda C1840) and Luisa Torres Bohorquez[1] (Utrera C 1840).
Little is known of Josefa’s parents and so it has been virtually impossible to confirm her association with La Serneta; especially as the records of the Civil Registry in Utrera go back no further than 1870.
The name of Borhorquez is associated with nobility in Utrera and it caused some confusion amongst the Pinini family when I discovered that Josefa’s mother had this surname. [2]

An obvious link would come with her father’s surname of Vargas, because Vargas was also the surname of La Serneta’s maternal grandfather (Juan Vargas), but this families connections are entangled and twisted in every direction and the link may well lie within another of the numerous branches of this humungous tree.
When one considers that we are bequeathed four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great great-grandparents, it makes the possibility of making any connection virtually impossible, without the relevant certificates[3]. It is somewhat difficult to obtain birth, death, or marriage certificates for Andalusian gypsies when you go back this far, and so one is often left stabbing in the dark.

Josefa Vargas Torres was said to have also been the first cousin of Antonia Torres Vargas – La Gamba (Jerez 1860), the first wife of Manuel Torre. The connection here would appear to be obvious if this were true because of the surnames of Vargas and Torres, which would indicate that either of their parents could have been siblings. It is not clear as to how many brothers or sisters La Gamba had but she did have a niece called Fernanda ‘La Gamba’ Vargas. Fernanda’s son, Antonio Vargas, married Pepa de Benito[4] (Utrera 1937).

It is also claimed that La Gamba was a cousin of Rosario Torres Vargas[5]– Rosario la del Colorao, who in turn was declared to have been part of the same family as El Perrate’s mother.
These connections, if correct, are almost definitely via the name of Torres, which we find in El Perrate’s maternal and paternal lines.
It is interesting to note that there were many people that shared the surnames of Torres and Vargas during this period and this gives no end of possible connections between La Serneta, Josefa de Pinini, La Gamba, Rosario la del Colorao and the family of the Perrates.
The following includes some of the names that could link together this huge puzzle.

Frasca Torres Vargas, Utrera c1855 – Great-grandmother of El Perrate
Diego Torres Vargas, Utrera 1857 – Brother-in-law of La Serneta
Antonia Torres Vargas, Jerez 1860 – La Gamba
Josefa Vargas Torres, Utrera 1864 - Wife of El Pinini
Rosario Torres Vargas, Utrera 1869 – Rosario la del Colorao

The Perrate dynasty claim that La Serneta was almost definitely related to El Perrate’s paternal grandfather, although Tomás de Perrate informed me that there was no one alive today with in his family who could pinpoint La Serneta’s connection with his family; but they do believe that she is of the same cloth.
In an interview recorded in 1973[6], Maria La Perrata declared that La Serneta was “familiar de mi padre” (Fernández), although she offered no explanation as to how they were related.
I had previously thought that La Serneta’s brother Salvador was the link, but I have recently discovered this to be incorrect. It would also seem unlikely that the link can be found with any of La Serneta’s siblings. 

La Serneta had three other sisters. Mª Rosario, who had died at the age of eight-months, Micaela, who never married, and Tomasa: little is remembered of Tomasa other than that she was adopted. The story claims that she was abandoned on the steps of a church in Jerez and La Serneta’s parents took her in, although the names of her natural parents are unknown.

La Serneta’s eldest brother was Juan, who was born in 1838, although he married Maria Vargas Monje Valencia in 1861.
Her youngest brother was Adolfo, although he never married and therefore probably had no children.
Salvador Fernández Vargas was born in Jerez in 1851 and I believed that he may have married into the Perrrate family.
El Perrate’s paternal grand parents were José Fernandez Chaves and Luisa Jiménez Torres and I presumed that José was the son of Salvador: If this were correct, then La Serneta would have been El Perrate’s great-aunt.

After obtaining the birth certificate of El Perrate’s father from the civil registry in Utrera, I discovered that El Perrate’s great grandfather was Manuel Fernández Fernández: his great grandmother was Francisca Chaves Vargas, and they were both from Utrera. This obviously destroyed my previous theory and if the connection is to be found with El Perrate’s paternal lineage of Fernández, then it would appear to be as far back as La Serneta’s father or grandfather.
It seems more probable though, that the connection could come from La Serneta’s maternal line with the name of Vargas.
La Serneta’s mother was Mª Rosario Vargas Jiménez, and the surnames of Vargas and Jiménez are evident with the ancestors of El Perrate. His great grandparents were Gaspar Jiménez Santana, and Frasca Torres Vargas.[7]   

We must also consider the possibility that Frasca Torres Vargas was related to Rosario Torres Vargas: both were born in Utrera during the 1850s and `60s and this may endorse the theory that Rosario la del Colorao was from the same family as El Perrate. This however would be a paternal link and not, as Maria La Perrata claimed, a maternal one, although this small slipup would be just one more in a narration of discrepancies. 

In his book Gitanos de Utrera y otras temas afine, Manuel Morales Alvarez claims that Rosario la del Colorao was related to La Serneta, although he offers no explanation as to how.
He also states that it was La Serneta, El Pinini and Rosario la del Colorao who formed the triangle that was responsible for the Utrera school of cante.[8]
However, we must not forget Juaniquí de Lebrija.  Even though experts often disagree, they always attribute the bulk of La Fernanda de Utrera’s most characteristic repertoire to Juaniquí.
Fernanda de Utrera is said to have been the best interpreter of the soleares of La Serneta, yet it is obvious that her knowledge of them came from Joaniquin and La del Coloarao. La Fernanda would never have heard La Serneta sing because she had died eleven years before Fernanda was born.
Juaniqui is said to have heard La Serneta’s soleares in Utrera in approximately 1881 whilst serving his military service, but as with much of this history, this is yet another unconfirmed anecdote in this overwhelmingly complex debate[9].
Juaniqui was born in 1862, and although he was not from Utrera, he spent most of his life living in a hut close to the town: he is said to have become close friends with El Pinini and his family, and he lived with Pinini’s son Benito for a short period[10].

Although we must also consider the name of Acosta, which can be found in Utrera at the end of the 18th century, this seems to be the name that might have connected La Serneta to many of the great flamenco families of Jerez de la Frontera.

Rosa Acosta de Vargas (Utrera 1776) and Antonio Fernández Heredia (Utrera 1770) married in Utrera in 1796; the fruits from this union includes Tio Borrico, Tio Parrila, Sernita and El Terromoto de Jerez.

There is a strong possibility that Rosa Acosta de Vargas was the sister, or cousin, of La Serneta’s grandmother, Ana de Acosta.
If, as is often cited, La Serneta was related to Tio Borrico and Sernita, then it must surely be though this link.
Tio Borrico’s great-grandfather and La Serneta’s father were both born in Jerez de la Frontera in approximately 1810 and they shared an identical surname; suggesting that they were most probably cousins, because they could not have been brothers; a theory that has been previously suggested.
La Serneta’s father, Salvador Fernández Acosta was the son of Juan Fernández and of Ana de Acosta.
Tio Borrico’s great-grandfather was Fernando Fernández Acosta; the son of Antonio Fernández Heredia (Utrera 1770) and Rosa Acosta de Vargas (Utrera 1776).
Once again though, these are merely theories, and they have as many detractors as advocates   
One could be forgiven for believing that the pseudonyms Serneta and Sernita were too similar to be ignored; and one may believe that the difference was simply a misspelling. However, this is not the case.
The origins of the nickname La Serneta has caused some confusion, although La Serneta declared in an interview published in 1901, that she had received the nickname of Serneta from her mother when she was young because she had the physique of a nimble bird.
The Royal Academy of Spanish Language offers no explanation of either Serneta or Sernita and so it would appear that they were pet names based on andalusian or gypsy jargon.
Manuel Fernández Moreno – Sernita de Jerez, was the son of Tio Serna, and his pseudonym of Sernita comes from that of his father. 

Antonio Vargas Fernández – Frijones; (Jerez 1846) was purportedly the first-cousin of La Serneta, but again I could find no conclusive evidence to authenticate this[11]. Once again we can only guess how, or if, this was correct.
Frijones surname would indicate two possibilities to confirm this assumption. The first is that Frijones father (Vargas) was the brother of La Serneta’s mother. The second option is that Frijones mother (Fernández) was the sister of La Serneta’s father.
If La Serneta and Frijones were primo-hermanos - first-cousins, then it has to be because of one of these routes. If they were primos, a word that is used somewhat freely among gypsies to describe relatives; then the possibilities are innumerable.

All of this, however, does not affix la Serneta in Utrera at any specific time and we still cannot be sure of which year she had first arrived in Utrera and so the debate about the origins of her soleares is far from complete.
It would be relatively safe to agree with José Manuel Martin Barbadillo’s observation that the biography of La Serneta has been misleading and inconsistent.
However, he goes as far as to say that the soleares of La Serneta that have, for many years, been attributed to Utrera are in fact the soleares de Jerez.

There are many theories surrounding La Serneta and her association with Utrera; many of which have no real substantiation.
We must look at the meagre facts available, and balance them alongside the word of mouth beliefs in order to try to evaluate the truth, because there is little chance of anyone producing anything legitimate in order to prove further premises.
Researchers have been investigating the life of La Serneta for many decades and if any relevant documents existed that would finally put this matter to rest; I believe they would have been discovered by now.

There seems to be little testimony concerning La Serneta’s life in Jerez de la Frontera between 1863 – 1882; if, as is argued, she was living there at this time.
There is though, plenty of declaration concerning her association with Utrera; although the likes of Fernando el de Triana and many others of his era confused us with erroneous birth dates and inaccurate birthplace.           
Nobody can doubt that she was born in Jerez de la Frontera in 1840, but it does seem improbable that all of the testimony concerning her life in Utrera is utter fabrication.
  

I lean towards the theory that La Serneta first arrived in the Utrera during the 1860s: whether she did spend some time living there may never be confirmed, but I believe that she had some considerable contact with Utrera at this time. I believe that after a long period in Madrid, La Serneta returned to Utrera around 1895 and this is where she resided until she died in 1912.
This theory is also believed by many people in Utrera whose parents and grandparents have adhered to the version that says that La Serneta first went to Utrera in the 1860s.
Why on earth would the people of Utrera continue to adhere to the belief that La Serneta had in fact lived in their town for some considerably amount of years if she had only arrived in Utrera in the last stages of her life?

The people of Utrera have plenty to be proud of where the history of flamenco is concerned, as do the people of Jerez de la Frontera, yet they seem unperturbed by all the fuss and the denial; whilst the latter seem intent on continuing it.

This debate will continue for eternity because the details surrounding the life of La Serneta, and the location of her soleares, is an issue that raises considerable passion; albeit mainly outside of Utrera.
It would appear that any evidence of her existence in Utrera before 1910 has long since vanished, or never existed in the first place, but in the eyes of most people who have an interest in this wonderful art, La Serneta and her soleares will always be synonymous with Utrera; as the following copla may demonstrate.





Dos Virgens tiene Utrera
santas de mi devocion
son Mercedes La Serneta
y la de la Consolacion




[1] Certificado de nacimiento de Antonia Peña Vargas: folio 332/tomo 22 Registro civil de Utrera.
[2] The name Borhorquez can be found in Utrera as far back as the 16th century and appears to be associated with an illustious and noble family. Francisco Alvárez de Bohorquez founded the convent that once stood on the site of the present Convent de La Immaculate Conception. Fernando Alvárez de Borhorquez was a celebrated rejoneo who earned considerable fame for fighting bulls on horse-back.
[3] The amount of ancestors is doubled with each generation and so the further back you go, the more forefathers you will have.
[4] Pepa de Benito is one of the only surviving grandchildren of El Pinini

[5] Some confusion has been created concerning the surname of Rosario la del Colorao. There are certain publications that have stated her name to be Rosario Torres Vidal, but it is commonly believed that her surname was that of Torres Vargas.
[6] Rito y geografía del cante flamenco Vol IX – In this same interview La Perrata also claimed Rosario la del Colorao was from the same family as her mother.
[7] La Serneta’s brother-in-law, Diego Torres Vargas, shared the same surname as El Perrates great grandmother, and as they were both born in Utrera, and of similar age; it is feasable that they were of the same family. However, the names of Torres/Vargas are widespread in Utrera and there may of course be no connection at all. Even if Diego and Frasca were siblings,  this cannot be considered as a direct link between La Serneta and the family of El Perrate. (Frasca Torres Vargas was also the great-grandmother to La Fernanda de Utrera and  to Bambino) 
[8] Antonio Mairena (whose grandfather, Antonio Cruz Reyes, was from Utrera) claimed it was Rosario who transmitted La Serneta’s soleares to La Fernanda de Utrera.

[9] El Candil Flamenco  18/12/2006
[10] Benito Peña Vargas was born in Utrera towards the end of the 1880s and so if Joaniquin lived in Benito’s house, it would probably have been in the first quater of the 20th century;, the latter part of Juaniqiun’s life: he died in Sanlucár de Barremeda in 1946.
[11] De Jerez y sus cantes - José Ma. Castaño,