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. www.DeFlamenco.com
[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 – www.deflamenco.com

¿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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment