Twenty-years without Camarón de la Isla.
Twenty-years without Camarón de la Isla.
In the early hours of the morning of Thursday July 2 1992, one of the most venerated gypsy singers in the evolution of flamenco uttered his last words: “mother of god, what’s wrong with me?”
The news of his death vibrated around Spain and gripped the nation in a similar manner to when Franco had died 17 years previous; however, unlike the latter, Camarón de la Isla, who was just forty-one when he died, was about to become a martyr.
Camarón had climbed to the very top of his profession and became the very first flamenco singer of rock-star status; selling more recordings than any flamenco singer at that time. Yet like numerous young musicians who become superlative, he stumbled on the slippery path that fells many of them. Camarón’s life had been tarnished with drugs, scandal and lawsuits, and the events of the last two years of his life certainly filled newspaper columns, although not with stories of his brilliance, but of prison, non-appearances at concerts and his rapidly failing health.
Years of drug and alcohol abuse, and his 80 a day Marlborough addiction, attributed to his early demise; yet today twenty years after his death, Camarón de la Isla is still hailed as the greatest flamenco singer that ever lived.
Within hours of the sad news of his passing, Spain would witness an extraordinary outpouring of grief and the people of San Fernando entered a period of uncontrolled lamentation for the boy whose name was derived from the fact that he had the physique of a shrimp.
One-hundred thousand people are said to have attended his funeral and the riotous scenes that took place outside of the cemetery in San Fernando appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world: his tomb has since become a shrine to which pilgrims continuously flock.
His death also brought him a saint-hood in the eyes of most Spanish gypsies, and the commoditization that follows the demise of most rock idols would soon take the image of Camarón to a level unforeseen in his life.
Suddenly this humble andalusian gypsy was transformed into a national treasure and his effigy was turned into a religious-type icon that more resembled Jesus el Gran Poder, than a gypsy flamenco singer.
José Monje Cruz – Camarón de la Isla - was once a young gypsy who had an incredible talent and an even more extraordinary voice which he groomed and matured in the streets of San Fernando and many people would agree that this was when he was at his best.
His voice was full of dark gypsy emotion with incredible range and unreachable depth and in his later years he gained an earth shattering cry that made the muscles of ones stomach ache with anguish.
Born in San Fernando, Cadiz, on the 5th of December 1950, his teenage years were spent in the company of flamencos and bullfighters and it was the corrida that was to be his first true vocation, although this was a career that was very short lived and his love of flamenco soon replaced his lust for the bullfight.
His career began in venues such as La Venta de Vargas, along with his lifelong friend Rancapino, and his first professional performance is reported to have been in La Taverna Gitana, in Málaga, with Miguel de los Reyes.
At the age of fourteen he appeared in the movie El Amor Brujo, alongside Antonio Gades, and at sixteen he won first prize during the IV Festival de Cante Jondo in Mairena de Alcor, Seville.
After his triumph in Mairena he was invited to perform at the Caracola festival in Lebrija along with El Lebrijano, El Perrate de Utrera and El Turronero, and he went on to perform at numerous other festivals and peñas in lower Andalucía. However, he would soon head to Madrid because at this time the capital was fast becoming a hive of activity where many of flamenco’s elite performed.
His first job in Madrid was at Torres Bermejas where he performed as a palmero but it was in Los Canasteros, a smart flamenco club owned by Manolo Caracol, where Camarón started to make people aware of his outstanding qualities as a flamenco singer.
Camarón made his first record in 1969 accompanied by the guitar of Antonio Arenas but it was an introduction to Paco de Lucía that would launch him on the road to international stardom.
Their partnership was to be a milestone in the history of flamenco because they altered and changed the rules of the art and they embarked on a quest that was to turn the flamenco scene on its head: for a period of ten years they were dominant on the festival circuit and they released a string of recordings that revealed the strange musical chemistry that existed between them.
His early work with Paco produced some of the finest flamenco ever recorded and his later albums with Tomatitio paved the way for a revolutionary new flamenco style that would gain him his rock-legend status in the eyes of the younger generation.
These later recordings would fuse numerous different musical modes and his ground-breaking album, La Leyenda del Tiempo, on which Paco de Lucia returned into the partnership, demonstrated just how pioneering Camarón had become with regards to flamenco song and rhythm.
Camaron recorded tirelessly throughout the 1980s producing such classics as Paris 1987, Soy Gitano, Vivire, Te lo dice Camarón and Como el agua.
Rabo y potro miel, which was to be his last studio album, came just before his death in 1992, but like most music legends that die young, an array of compilations are still being released today.
He was awarded a posthumous 4th Llave de Oro del Cante nine years after his death because his voice and contribution to flamenco is still very much alive today and in 2005 his life-story was preserved in a movie named Camarón, La Pelicular and this resulted in a new influx of fans that have continued to help keep his legend alive.
He has been labeled the “Mick Jagger” and the “Picasso” of flamenco and yet he was said to have been the victim of a system that failed to nurture his talent and his demise became just another clichéd ‘live fast die young’.
But is Camarón de la Isla just another dead legend like Elvis, Hendrix or Holiday, who make more money today than they ever did when alive. The answer I suppose is yes, but José Monje Cruz is still very much alive today because his image and his music have been kept afloat, not only by his millions of adoring fans, but by his people - the gypsies of Andalusia.
Had he have still been alive today he would have been in his sixties, and of course, he would still be singing flamenco and he would still be adulated because he was Camarón de la Isla; the gypsy god of flamenco!
There have been numerous performers whose way or mode of singing flamenco far exceeded Camaron’s and it would be an injustice to say that Camaron was the greatest singer that ever lived. It would be more correct to say that he was the most famous, if not the most controversial, and he certainly was an incredibly talented young singer who will be remembered as the person responsible for bringing flamenco to much wider audience than it had ever had before.
His capabilities with the tangos, alegrias and bulerias was astounding and his voice on works such as Soy Gitano was limitless; his presence could be felt before a note ever left his mouth. In his final years however, his once magical grip and command of the cante was obviously fading with his health.
The scenes that unraveled during Camarón’s funeral back in 1992 demonstrated that his memory would survive for centuries because, although the wailing and sobbing is synonymous with gypsy weddings; it was rare for a gypsy flamenco singer to be the subject of universal mourning: Felix Grande summed up the scene with the words “Camarón is dead, but not dead”.
Camarón’s passing gave the andalusian gypsies their first deity; but maybe Camarón should be remembered and valued for his music and his art, and not for the legend that was created when he died.
Tony Bryant. 2012.