El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía

El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía

Camarón de la IslaEl Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía [AKA Al verte las flres lloran] Philips 5865 026 (1969)

This, the first of many collaborations between El Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía, documents an already fruitful partnership.  de Lucía’s guitar is showy.  It begs for attention always.  Camarón sings in a way that cannot but help commanding attention.  Together, those somewhat disparate approaches go together sublimely.

The duo’s take on flamenco music was as groundbreaking a thing as possible under the Franco dictatorship.  The Wire magazine, in a feature entitled “100 Records That Set The World On Fire (While No One Was Listening)” (issue 175), said,

No one whose funeral was televised with thousands of people fainting over his coffin can really be described as neglected, but Camaron, the tormented duende of contemporary flamenco, is too little known outside Spain — and flamenco itself too little understood. Camaron helped restore the form’s rawness and authenticity after decades of operismo and Franco-inspired dumbing down, while his tousled, rebellious image appealed to the young.

Flamenco had long been a vital genre.  For instance, Niño Ricardo & La Niña de los Peines“Alegrias” is a classic from just before the Great Depression — mentioned in Michael Denning‘s Noise Uprising for its radical connotations (though “alegrías” is a palos or cantes [style], not really a distinctive song title as such).  The genre’s golden age ran up to about 1910-20, at which point the “opera flamenca” period began — brought on by preferential tax laws that gave “opera” performances in theaters a lower tax rate than other types of shows.  This theatrical style is disliked by some and considered very commercial.  Intellectuals tried to return the genre to its golden age roots from the early 20s, but the fascist Franco dictatorship changed all that.

Across the album there is a push-and-pull quality, as emphasis shifts subtle between de la Isla’s singing and de Lucía’s guitar playing.  Camarón regularly calls out, “Paco!”  This gets a bit tiresome, but it underscores the loose, “jam session” quality of the music — something entirely within the flamenco tradition.  The duo’s later work, like their fourth self-titled collaboration and Castillo de arena, is even better, in that it integrated the two performer’s abilities into something more unified and greater than the mere sum of its parts.  Still, this first meeting is great on its own terms, and, relatively speaking, perhaps one of the most “traditional”-sounding recordings they made together.

El Camarón de la Isla – Castillo de arena

Castillo de Arena

El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de LucíaCastillo de arena Philips 63 28 255 (1977)

Castillo de arena (translation: “Sandcastle”) was the culmination of years of collaboration between noted flamenco performers Camarón de la Isla (vocals) and Paco de Lucía (guitar).  Camarón is strongly associated with raising the prominence of flamenco music among international audiences.  Both performers also helped develop what is called “nuevo flamenco,” which incorporated elements of non-flamenco music.  While Camarón’s next album, the pathbreaking La leyenda del tiempo, is most strongly associated with a transition to nuevo flamenco, there are subtler gestures in that direction already present here.  And, anyway, to insist on flamenco purism is a bit ridiculous anyway, given the already syncretic nature of the music.  It shares aspects of a variety of ancient musics, including — in brief segments, especially in the vocal phrasing — some striking resemblances to Moroccan berber music (and specifically Jbala sufi trance music) from the likes of The Master Musicians of Joujouka/Jajouka, which, after all, comes from merely a few hundred kilometers away to the south across the Straight of Gibraltar.

Brook Zern has said,

“He was known for afinacion, which means the ability to be perfectly on pitch but not necessarily on the notes of a Western scale. Flamenco music uses microtonal intervals all the time, and nobody cut them closer and did them more precisely technically than this young artist.”

Camarón was Romani (gypsy) by birth.  He definitely imbues in his music the defiant character of his upbringing in a (notoriously) dominated social group, evidenced by his willingness to break from tradition and use of afinacion.  His voice is husky, almost sandpaper coarse, yet precisely pitched and expertly controlled.  Paco de Lucía complements the singing perfectly, with intricate strumming and embellished melodic lines that flow back and forth smoothly and seamlessly.  Flamenco style guitar playing really represents one of the most interesting ways of strumming a guitar, with far more rhythmic (not to mention melodic/harmonic) intricacy than the often lazy manner of strumming chords on a guitar in many Western traditions that hardly do more than establish a chord progression.

Like much flamenco music, this album has a melancholic and bitter yet emotionally fiery feeling.  “Y mira que mira y mira” and “Como castillo de arena” have the most modern “nuevo flamenco” elements, with a vocal chorus on the former and layered, almost mechanical (motorik?) handclaps on the latter.

Flamenco music, in general, has been described this way:

“A typical flamenco recital with voice and guitar accompaniment, comprises a series of pieces (not exactly “songs”) in different palos [styles]. Each song of a set of verses (called copla, tercio, or letras), which are punctuated by guitar interludes called falsetas. The guitarist also provides a short introduction which sets the tonality, compás and tempo of the cante.”

Castillo de arena definitely follows the format of such a traditional flamenco recital, lacking only a traditional dancer.

This is another excellent effort by some of flamenco’s more highly regarded performers on the 20th Century.  Although in some ways the experimentation of La leyenda del tiempo is more intriguing, those not ready or interested in synthesizers and electric instruments in flamenco often cite Castillo de arena as these performers’ best recording.  There is certainly no need to pick a favorite, as both are excellent and come from a peak period in the careers of both Camarón and Lucía.

Camarón – La leyenda del tiempo

La leyenda del tiempo

CamarónLa leyenda del tiempo Philips 63 28 255 (1979)

Camarón de la Isla is credited with being one of the key figures in revitalizing and spreading flamenco music in the latter part of the 20th Century.  His voice is more or less perfectly suited to his music: raspy, agile, defiant, emotionally-laden.  La leyenda del tiempo (translation: “The Legend of Time”) is considered one of the key documents of so-called “nuevo flamenco.”  Traditional flamenco is a folk music that uses guitar (acoustic), vocals, and simple percussion from handclaps and snapping fingers, and is a dance music.  It originated in the Andalucía region of southern Spain.  The “nuevo” version incorporated many other sounds and instruments: electric guitar, bass, drum kits.  In other words, it modernized the music by incorporating aspects of other musical styles, most notably rock.  The most modernized tracks here are easy to spot, with synthesizer, electric bass, drums and such — even sitar on the closing “Nana del caballo grande.”  And yet, they blend effortlessly with the traditional style of flamenco.  The guitar playing (mostly by Tomatito) is just as fiery and detailed, the vocals just as impassioned.  It simply has nothing to fear about embracing the modernity all around it.  Recorded just a few years after the death of Generalissimo Franco, during the period of a return to a monarchy and some democratizing reforms in Spain, the timing of this music bridging the old and new is no coincidence — the lyrics of fully half the songs are drawn from Federico García Lorca, a member of the “Generation of ’27” who experimented to new poetic forms and was also a martyr of the anti-Franco Spanish socialists whose works had been banned in Spain for a time (until 1953).  And yet, the album was a flop upon release, and it actually was reported to have angered longtime, traditionalist fans.  As James Kirkup put it in an obituary:

“Flamenco purists deplored his adventurous crossover fusion of flamenco and rock, but they were reluctantly compelled to admit that he was a musical genius who revived the interest of the younger generation in a musical tradition that had been discredited as a symbol of the late dictatorship’s rabid nationalism.”

In spite of controversies he stirred, and the initial lack of success of this album, Camarón remained one of the most famous Spanish performers of his era, and this album has since come to be highly regarded.  A comparison to this approach to music on a conceptual level might be Lucio Battisti‘s Anima latina, which has nothing to do with flamenco, but nonetheless, like nuevo flamenco, takes a kind of insular, provincial European music and incorporates international influences (although El Camarón sticks closer to tradition and virtuoso acoustic performance, and features a proud and resilient attitude in place of Battisti’s highly structural existential pondering).