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.