Thursday, February 9, 2012

El Carrete; The Gypsy Fred Astaire


I have known José Losada Santiago – El Carrete de Málaga for many years and during this time I have become intrigued by his charisma, his magnetism and the knack he has for telling amusing stories.
His dance style is erratic, to say the least, and he is probably at his finest when performing cantiñas and alegrias, yet he is an all rounder, a fiestero who can make the most sombre flamenco styles come alive with his energetic, rattling footwork.
His life started under the strangest of circumstances, as a new book about this fascinating flamenco dancer reveals.
The books is called Carrete: Al compás de la vida, and it is the result of endless hours of taped interviews where Carrete talked about his life on the flamenco scene: Unfortunately I feel the book does not do full justice to a man who obviously has such an interesting life story to tell.
The name of Carrete, which means spool or reel, came about because when young he would dance continuously for hours on end; a trait that he obviously acquired from his mother.
Born in an era when gypsies lived under the stars - their life on the road and their homes under bridges - El Carrete has become a self-made legend in his own time.
His mother, also a dancer who was known as La Carreta, was a biznagera and made her living selling potent smelling flowers (biznagas) in the streets of Antequera; whilst his father earned a living as a donkey shearer.
José was born in the campo, or the country-side, and, according to the book, his father was forced to cut the child’s umbilical cord with the shears of his trade after his mother unexpectedly went into labour. Under the most bizarre circumstances his father was consequently arrested for this and spent seven years in prison.

Born in Antequera, Malaga; José revels in the fact that he has no idea of his age due to the lack of a birth certificate. He was however, baptized in the Church of San Pablo and his certification de bautismo shows his date of birth to be 28th March 1940.
José started his dancing career like most flamencos (if we are to believe them all) - at four years old, dancing for tossed coins in order to survive; even though he declares  that although they were poor and had little, they were always happy.
He claims that his need to escape the long, cold days of his childhood, often led to him sneaking into the cinema and it was here that a young José developed his love of the movies and Hollywood.
Dubbed the ‘Fred Astaire’ of flamenco, José’s fascination with dance began after watching numerous Fred Astaire movies in the old Rialto cinema in Malaga and he says that he would be mesmerized by this “phenomenal dancers” foot work; a trait still evident in Carrete’s own dance today.
By the age of fourteen, Carretillo, as he was known in his youth, began living with his grandparents and it was at this time that his artistic career started to take shape.
One of his first professional engagements was at the Tablao El Refugio in Málaga and it was the owner of this establishment that bequest him his first suit and dancing shoes. It was also a place that would become his temporary home because he was allowed to sleep in the store room; which had the luxury of a paraffin lamp for heat.
He also danced in the Taberna Gitana and it was here that Carmen Amaya apparently went to see him. She had been appearing in Malaga and after her performance requested to be taken to see the young dancer that she had heard so much about.
From here José went to the popular Bodegas El Pimpi, where he became part of the flamenco group known as Los Vargas.  This group included many of Málaga’s young up-and-coming flamenco artistes of the time like La Repompa, Pepito Vargas, La Cañeta and El Niño de Almeria.
It was during this period that José would begin a life of shoulder-rubbing with the rich and famous including Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra and Anthony Quinn; as well as “some of the most beautiful women in the world”; although this is one of the aspects of El Carrete’s life that the book does not cover sufficiently.

José has fond memories of 1950s, especially his days performing at El Pimpi; which at the time had English owners who also took care of him when he was in need of food or somewhere to sleep.
Málaga was a hive of activity during the 1950s and the city centre would be swarming with tourists and US servicemen whose ships would be docked in the port. During the day he would work as a shoe shiner, although this work was also a means of supplying contraband cigarettes, which he would sell from a concealed compartment in his polish box.
However, José was soon drawn away from the capital by the glitzy new scene that was taking place in a small town just 12 kilometres along the Costa del Sol

Torremolinos was still a fishing town when José first arrived there, but it soon became the first in a coast full of tourist havens and it was one of the liveliest and most exciting places of the time. In the book, he describes it as the ‘Little Hollywood’ - a playground of musicians, artistes, movie stars and millionaires.
One of his first jobs in Torremolinos was at the infamous El Mañana Bar in the centre of the town but it was to be in the popular tablao El Jaleo where he would shine like a star amongst the stars.
At El Jaleo he would form a partnership with the Granadina dancer Mariquilla and together they would excite audiences with their dazzling dance routines.
El Jaleo was one of the best tablaos in Málaga and some of the biggest names from the flamenco world appeared on the stage with José.
Camaron de la Isla, who called him the ‘monster’, was said to have been mesmerized by José’s dance and would often turn up unannounced to perform with him at El Jaleo. Paco de Lucia, Sabicas, El Farruco, Manuella Carrasco, Fosforito and Pansequito are but a mere few of the people with whom José performed.
El Carrete had made his name in El Jaleo and he wanted nothing more than to become as famous as his hero and over the next few years he would perform in Norway, Germany and England.
In 1977 he move to Los Angeles where he worked in a flamenco tablao in Santa Monica and it was here that Carrete would be captivated by the American Jazz scene. He had gone to Santa Monica to marry the daughter of a writer who he had fallen in love with in Torremolinos. His new wife’s family were wealthy and Carrete lived like a “film Star” with a lavish apartment and fancy cars, but he began to miss Spain and he also his children, whom he had left back home with their grandparents.
A rash decision saw El Carrete return to Spain in 1979, and he headed straight to the lucrative flamenco scene that was thriving in the plush tablaos of Madrid. He soon acquired a contact with the Villa Rosa tablao and here he would regularly perform with some of the most formidable artistes of the time including La Fernanda de Utrera, Bambino, La Paquera and Chano Lobato.  
It was in Madrid, whilst working at the tablao El Cafe de Chinitas that Carrete turned down a contract that may have been his stepping stone to international stardom.
Antonio Gades was a regular customer at the tablao, and after watching Carrete perform on numerous occasions, he offered him a part in a production that was to be produced and filmed by Carlos Saura.
Torn between family commitments and this once in a life-time offer, he turned the part down; instead borrowing the fare from Gades in order to return to Torremolinos to help a cousin who was having difficulties at the time.
During the 1980’s El Carrete appeared in numerous tablaos and hotels along the Costa del Sol and especially at El Jaleo, where he would appear on stage like the local boy turned superstar he had become. His dream was to own his own tablao and this would become a reality in 1990 when he opened the tablao ‘El Carrete’ in Montemar, Torremolinos. Many artistes passed through this popular flamenco tavern; some of whom he had known since his days in Madrid, like Paco Valdepeña and Anzonini del Puerto.
However Carrete’s his life was about to be thrown into turmoil when his daughter died at the age of  just 36 and one of his sons became extremely ill; forcing El Carrete to close the tablao and retire from the stage for a brief period.

He soon returned and in 1996 and began a ten-year stint dancing in the tablao Los Tarantos in Torremolinos and again the stars came to see him and it was here that Carrete would meet the man who would re-launch his career.
José Luis Ortiz Nuevo had gone to Los Tarantos in the company of Chano Lobatao and La Cañeta de Málaga and he soon became acquainted with Carrete. Ortiz Nuevo was said to have been astounded by Carrete’s life-history and persuaded him to tell his story by way of a grand flamenco extravaganza.
Yo no se la edad que tengo was written and directed by Ortiz Nuevo and the show, which is based on the fact that Carrete claims to not know his correct date of birth, premiered during the second (and final) Bienal de flamenco in Málaga. After this, the show went to Seville, Jerez and numerous other venues in Andalusia.  
Today he still lives in Torremolinos and can be seen on most days strolling through the streets accompanied by his ever loyal Yorkshire Terriers Gazpachuelo and Gazpachulino.
El Carrete survives on flamenco; it is his lifeline, his inspiration and his reason for living: At the age of seventy-two, he is as popular now as ever and his name will be found on the posters of many festivals during the summer months. His life story has been the content of a successful show, his name is etched into a ceramic plaque recalling his days at El Pimpi and his autobiography has added fuel to his new found fame:  Is there anything left for him to do before he hangs up his dancing shoes?
“Of course yes”, he asserts excitedly – “I want to dance in New York and have my name illuminated in neon lights – “Carrete: El Fred Astaire Gitano”.