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,

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

La Serneta

Mercedes Fernández Vargas – La Serneta 1840-1912 

The Holy Grail of flamenco

Much of the information in the following hypothosis is a result of the years I have endured researching and writing about the history of the flamenco tradition of Utrera.
Many hours have been spent sifting through old documentation in the archives of churches and the civil register in Utrera, in order to try to find some evidence concerning La Serneta’s existence in the town of Utrera.
Considerable research concerning this subject has been undertaken by several other researchers over the years, some of which has aided me in my own work, but nearly all of their evidence is conflicting and so it is hard to decide if any of it has any bearing on the truth.
Some of my own opinions have no factual endorsements, they are simply based on the evidence that was available to me at the time, whilst other beliefs and theories have been formed from conversations and discussions that I have had with people who are more knowledgeable than most in this field.
The people that I spoke with in Utrera, concerning this subject, all seemed to be of the same opinion; that La Serneta arrived in their town around 1863, but even though I am intimately attached to this town and its people, I made sure not be susceptible when forming my opinions.
As seems to be the case with much of flamenco’s badly documented history, there are many different theories surrounding the life of this celebrated singer: some of these are endorsed with factual evidence; many are not.
There are a few ‘flamencologists’, or researchers, who will refute anything other than their own premises, and this minority will, and often do, scathingly attack the theories and speculations of the people who are genuinely trying to unravel this convoluted history.
This article examines the varying conjectures of this grand debate in order to try and decipher the truth behind La Serneta and her association with Utrera and it will analyse the variable oral tradition’s concerning her correlation with two of Utrera’s most distinguished flamenco families.

Tony Bryant: - Málaga 2013

Part one

 The deliberation

One of the most debated and inconsistent issues concerning the history of the cante flamenco is the on-going dispute concerning the origins of the soleares of Mercedes La Serneta.
Mercedes Fernández Vargas has now been dead for more than one-hundred years and yet we are no closer to knowing the truth about whether she had lived in Utrera for more than just a few years.

There are people in Jerez who fiercely deny that she had lived in the town before 1910; hence in their minds the soleares de Serneta evolved in Jerez and not, as is the prevalent hypothesis, in Utrera.
This disavowed attitude completely destroys the popular belief that La Serneta had indeed lived in Utrera for some considerable time, yet no one seems to be able to provide the exact date that she had arrived in the town, or for how long she had stayed.
One thing for certain is that La Serneta was laid to rest in the Patio de San Francisco of the provincial cemetery in Utrera, and the timeworn plaque on her tomb bears the virtually illegible words - DEPA Doña Mercedes Fernández Vargas. Falleció el 18 Junio 1912 a los 72 años de edad – Recuerdos de su sobrinos

Her arrival date ranges from 1863, when she is said to have gone to Utrera in her youth to engage in a love-affair with Joaquin Alvarez Hazañas; thus developing her soleares in Utrera and not in Jerez.
1882 is another year that has been cited; the reason being that her father had died and so she went to Utrera to live with her sister, who had married a local man and settled in the town soon after.
Another date suggested is 1903, which is probably one of the most accepted; although there is good reason to believe that it may have actually been earlier than this.
However, others state her arrival to be as late as January 1911, when it is said that, unable to sing because of failing health, she went to Utrera to be cared for by relatives until she died in June 1912.

Much importance has been placed on a statement made by one of El Pinini’s daughters (Fernanda La Vieja) during an episode of Rito y Goegrafia del Cante Flamenco. During this interview La Vieja’s niece, La Fernanda de Utrera, said that La Serneta arrived in Utrera when she was “muy chiquitia” (very young).
But La Vieja continues with – “Mercedes was an artiste, she was always in Madrid, and she sang in Madrid for many years, Mercedes was an old woman when she came to Utrera” [1]

But the statement has been twisted and spun in every way possible by certain factors who claim that this declaration is enough to prove that La Serneta did not arrive in Utrera until the very end of her life.
The dispute is based on whether the verb “venir” is truly not the same thing as “volver”; did she “come” to Utrera for the first time as an old woman, or “return” as an old woman?
One may wonder how such a few mere words can be deemed as conclusive evidence with regards to La Serneta’s life, and one might believe that far too much importance has been attached to this interpretation.
We must consider the age of Fernanda la Vieja who (84 years of age at the time) claimed in the same interview that her father had only ever sang alegrias and nothing else![2]
La Serneta could, of course, have been in Utrera before Fernanda la Vieja’s birth (1888), but logically she would not neccesarily be able to recall things that happened before she was born, or even during her early childhood.

Maria de la Mercedes Fernández Vargas was born in Calle Don Juan of the San Pedro district in Jerez de la Frontera in 1840 and she grew up in the neighboring area of San Miguel.
One of seven children, three boys and four girls, Mercedes’s early life was no different to any other gypsy of Jerez, yet she went on to become one of the most talked about flamenco singers of all time. 
Her father, Salvador Fernández Acosta, was a blacksmith and it was in his forge that a young Mercedes would first encounter the basic styles of the gypsy cante.
She would have experienced the cantes of Tia Sarvaora, a singer remembered mainly for her interpretation of the toñas, and also Manuel Molina, a gypsy singer who gained great popularity in Jerez de la Frontera between 1840 and 1865.

La Serneta was christened in the Church of San Miguel in Jerez de la Frontera, and she was registered at numerous different abodes in Jerez between the years of 1840 and 1881.
The padrón (census) proclaims that La Serneta left the district of San Miguel in 1860 and went to live in the Santiago neighbourhood of Jerez, supposedly until 1881[3].
If the information on the padrón is accepted as undeniable evidence, then it would challenge the circumstances surrounding the supposed affair; a matter fiercely disputed by José Manuel Martin Barbadillo; purportedly a leading authority on the life of La Serneta.

He has dedicated many hours to researching the mysteries surrounding her life and much of his findings are based on the padrón; which he declares proves that La Serneta was still living in Jerez de la Frontera with her father Salvador and her two siblings, Adolfo and Micaela, in 1881.

Unfortunately, the padrón cannot be considered as indisputable confirmation because, although her name may well have been on the document, it does not necessarily prove that she was actually residing there at that time.
Other than the padrón, there is nothing to prove how long La Serneta had stayed in the Santiago district of Jerez and I would imagine that in this time, one-hundred and fifty years ago, people would have worried little about the padrón, especially the gypsies who would most often live wherever their work took them.

One aspect that has been questioned is whether La Serneta’s father would have allowed his twenty-three year old daughter to travel to Seville unaccompanied! Would a lone girl not need to be chaperoned? This was an era when daughters were normally kept under the constant protection, and watchful eyes, of their parents.
However, an unmarried girl in her twenties would almost certainly have been considered a spinster, so it is possible that her father would not have objected.
The theory surrounding the affair, put forward by Daniel Pineda Novo, claims that La Serneta was the lover of Joaquin Álvarez Hazañas, father of the celebrated playwrights Serafin and Joaquin Álvarez Quintero. (The Guia del Flamenco de Andaluica, published by the Junta de Andaluica in 2002, claims that she had actually married him!)[4]

La Serneta allegedly met Joaquin in the cafe Burrero in Seville in 1863, after which she had gone to live with him in Utrera.
This however, has been sternly rejected because the padrón declares that at this time she was still resident in Jerez de la Frontera, and also because the cafe Burrero was not opened until 1881[5]
Joaquin is also said to have taken La Serneta to Madrid, where she mixed with nobility, and it was supposedly through his connections that she gave guitar lessons to some of Madrid’s aristocracy.
Mercedes definitely spent some considerable time in Madrid and it is generally perceived that she did indeed offer guitar lessons in order to subsidize her earnings as a singer; although any interaction with the father of the Quintero brothers has been branded as “invented nonsense”.

If the affair did actually exist, or to what extent, shall never be known, but there are those who declare that it could never have happened because Joaquin was the Mayor of Utrera, albeit a post he held for just eight months.
‘Would such an important member of the community engage in an affair with a woman who was one of the most famous singers on the flamenco scene, and expect it to go unnoticed’?
In actual fact, this affair could quite possibly have occurred, especially during an era in traditional Spain where the custom was that the wives turned a blind eye in order to keep up appearances and preserve the family.

But this is not of concern here because there is once again, much discrepancy because it has been constantly reiterated, by numerous aficionados, that this affair began in 1863 and that it was around this time that La Serneta first went to Utrera to live.
Those who argue against this, armed with the padrón and Joaquin’s nobility, question whether he would have acted in such a fashion.

Señor Barbadillo questions whether Joaquin Alvarez Hazaña would have had the “means of fortune sufficient to keep a celebrated singer”: yet he follows with the contradictory question of “what conceivable human head could believe that Joaquin would take his lover to Utrera where his wealthy family resided.[6]
If this ‘riquisima famila’ refers to Joaquin’s parents, then I cannot understand why he thinks that Joaquin would not be able to present his girlfriend in the town. In Señor Babadillo’s own words, La Serneta was ‘guapisima and a top-billed artiste in the best cafes of Seville’.
He obviously cannot be referring to Joaquin’s wife and children, because he had neither at this time of his life!
Joaquin Alvarez Hazañas was born in Cadiz in the November of 1841, and his wife, also native of Cadiz, was born in 1851. If Joaquin and La Serneta had met in 1863, Joaquin would have been 22 and La Serneta, 23; This was seven years before Joaquin married Maria Quintero, eight-years before they had their first child and nine-years before he became mayor.

Therefore there is a possibility that the two were friends, or indeed lovers, long before he married or became mayor of Utrera, but as with the rest of her life, this is something that will never be trustworthily established.

An important point worthy of consideration here concerns the guitar tuition that La Serneta is said to have offered to Madrid’s nobility. What style of guitar did she teach? If she offered tuition in flamenco guitar, would the upper crust of Madrid be interested in learning it? Even though flamenco was considered rather uncouth and seedy, the rich did lavish money on gypsy performers during organized juergas, so it is feasible that some would care to learn the skill of the guitar.

Another popular theory concerning her arrival in Utrera claims that La Serneta went there after the death of her father, who died in Jerez in approximately 1882; ten years after her mother had passed away.
La Serneta’s sister Josefa had married Diego Torres Vargas in the Santiago church in Jerez in 1878, and they went to live in Utrera around 1880. 

Many will accept that La Serneta was not in Jerez after 1882; although in their minds she did not go to Utrera, but to Seville and then Madrid in order to fulfil singing contracts.
There were as many as three thriving cafés cantantes in Utrera during this period and if La Serneta was in Seville, it is logical to think she could have worked at them on a regular basis.

The book ‘Los café cantantes de Sevilla’, by José Blas Vega claims that La Serneta did perform in the Café Silverio and also the Café Burrero in Seville during the 1880s.
In those times the cafes were not very well regarded by the press and critics, so there is little evidence of the activity that took place in them.

One anecdote tells of a time when La Serneta had to pull out of a performance in a Seville cafe due to ill health and apparently it was El Pinini whom she had persuaded to sing in her place[7].

Although she was one of the most popular singers of that time, by 1895 she had fallen on hard times and her friend and admirer Don Antonio Chacon organised a benefit concert in Madrid on her behalf.
Is it possible that La Serneta, who may have been in need of support due to her financial predicament, went, or returned, to Utrera soon after this?
Her sister, Micaela, appeared on the civil register for the first time in Utrera in 1903, when she is recorded as living with Josefa.[8]
La Serneta does not appear on the register for another seven years, although some of the volumes of the registrar from this period are unaccounted for.
The Civil register confirms that in 1903 Josefa and Diego lived in Utrera with their two children, Juan (Utrera 1880), Salvador (Utrera 1882) and Micalela.
Josefa died in 1904, Micaela in 1906, and Diego in 1908 and this is when La Serneta is believed to have gone to live with her nephews in the Plaza de Constitution in Utrera.
The first time that La Serneta appeared on the civil register in Utrera was in 1910, when she was recorded as living in the Plaza de Constitution with Juan and Salvador.

Therefore it would seem to be some-what difficult to situate La Serneta in Utrera pre 1910, and there is of course the possibility that she was never resident in the town until then: but is it possible that an entire town would conspire to pretend that La Serneta lived there for longer, when in actual fact she did not?
There are those who claim that the populace of Utrera had indeed conspired to pretend that La Serneta had lived in Utrera for many years, which is, as I’m sure most would agree, insane.
One must remember that not many people, during this period, cared too much about flamenco.  In fact it was considered to be low-life music and flamenco performers were certainly not superstars or idols.
How, or why, would the people of Utrera collude to support such a farce? 
The most intriguing thing is that there are numerous people that insistently refute her association with the town, while the people of Utrera seem not to care and just continue to consider La Serneta as one of their own

But it is the soleares that La Serneta was so famous for singing that are the nucleus of this deliberation, and the whole concept is based on which town can claim them as their own.
There are numerous theories concerning the evolution of the soleares and it is possible that they have been in existence for many centuries, although not necessarily in the form we hear today.
The oldest geographic centre of the soleá would appear to be Triana and the first recorded singer of it was La Andonda; a fiery gypsy who frequented Triana during the second half of the nineteenth century.
She was said to have been the lover of Diego El Fillo, and after his demise, she is said to have taken up with Tomás El Nitri.[9] There has also been confusion surrounding her birth place, which is believed to have been either Utrera or Triana.
Antonio Mairena and Ricardo Molina suspected that much of La Serneta’s cante contained echoes of the soleares de la Andonda and they also believed that many compositions attributed to Juaniquin contained traces of the old soleares of Triana and of La Serneta.[10]

Would it be illogical to think that the soleares of La Serneta were actually based on those of Triana and that she took these, and not those from Jerez, to Utrera, where Juaniquin and subsequently Rosario la del Colorao transformed them further?
Many gypsies left the district of Triana during the 19th century and settled in towns like Alcalá, Utrera and Lebrija; illuminating  the fact that the cantes of these small pueblos were greatly influenced by the songs of Triana.
The similarity of the soleares of Triana and certain styles from Utrera are noticeably similar and this could give rise to the Mairena/ Molina theory that the soleares of La Serneta were undoubtedly based on those of La Andonda. 
It is believed that the soleá was originally a cante de baile, but during the last quarter of the 19th century they were transformed by individual singers like Loco Mateo, Enrique El Melizo and La Serneta.
At the start of the 20th century it was Juaniquin and Joaquin de la Paula who shaped much of the soleá styles evident today and even though the solea is abundant in Cadiz and Jerez de la Frontera, the three main styles are those of Triana, Alcalá de Guadiara and Utrera: of these three, it is those of Alcalá that are the most fundamental because the soleares of Alcalá incorporate the most numerous individual, or personal, styles.[11]


[1] Rito y geografia del Cante flamenco – Vol V
[2] Fernanda’s father, El Pinini, is remembered for singing the cantiñas de Pinini, but according to the family lore he was also said to have been an adequate singer of bulerias and saetas.
[3] José Manuel Martin Barbadillo: De donde es la soleá de La Serneta.
[4] Guia del Flamenco de Andaluica, page 75ISBN 84-8176-576-7 Junta de Andalucía 2002
[5] This error concerning the cafe Burrero is another thing that fuels the debate for the detractors of this relation, but it is not undeniable proof that La Serneta and Joaquin Alavarez were not involved in an affair of some degree. As is evident throughout the whole of her biography, dates are one of the most inconsistent issues.   
[6] La Verdad siempre resplandece: José Manuel Martin Barbadillo –

¿Es posible que el misterio señorito de Utrera con 21 años tuviera medios de fortuna suficientes para poder mantener a una cantaora guapísima y cabeza de cartel en los mejores cafés cantantes de Sevilla, la cual además estaba muy bien pagada? ¿en qué cabeza humana cabe pensar que se la llevara a Utrera, donde vivía su riquísima familia?
[7] Interview with Bastian Bacán – El Candil 19/12/2006
[8] Where, one might ask, was Micaela between 1882 and 1903? If La Serneta went to the province of Seville after the death of her father, would her sister not have gone too?

Lives and Legends of Flamenco -  Society of Spanish Studies Madrid 1964. Donn E Pohren
[10] Mundo y Formas del Cante Flamenco - Ricardo Molina & Antonio Mairena: 
[11] Three of the most legendary creators from this town all came from the same family: Joaquin de la Paula, Augustin Fernandez and Juan Talega, and it was these three who conserved Alcalá’s uniqueness within this style.