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Interview to Rafael Jimenez EL FALO

"I'm only interested in the intrinsic beauty of cante, and the defense of its authors"
March 8, 2012
Interview: Manuel Moraga
Photos: T. Jarrín

For those of us who like flamenco that’s done well, who defend the concept that personality is fundamental in all art and who believe that doing something “personal” is not the same as having “personality”, this new recording of Rafael Jiménez “Falo” titled “El Cante en Movimiento”, is great news.  We’re talking about one of the most knowledgeable flamenco singers who has one of the greatest capacities for reflection that can today be found.  This isn’t a value judgement, but demonstrable facts that stand up to the private militancy of each flamenco fan.  Rafael Jiménez “Falo” knows perfectly and exactly what he sings and why he sings it the way he does.  Only from that kind of internalization of musical information can concepts be elaborated.  And only from that kind of knowledge can come a work such as “El Cante en Movimiento”.  More than once we’ve defended his work as “authored flamenco”, but I’d go still further:  Falo is a flamenco cult figure.   

Falo & Fernando de la Rua

The first thing that gets your attention is the title of the recording: “El Cante en Movimiento”.  What does that refer to?

Let me try explain it concisely: the path between tradition and avant-garde is movement.  It’s sort of related to that.  Everything is in movement, in constant movement: earthquakes and all natural phenomena…they create mountains, and make them disappear, they create chaos and then everything returns to normal…  And the human body is always in movement: we never stop existing until the heart stops beating.  And even then, we are still in movement.  Life is movement. And of course cante is as well.

At the presentation of the record last October 19th, at Madrid’s Tablas, critic Alfredo Grimaldos pointed out that it’s been exactly 15 years since your first recording, “Cante Gitano” came out.  Why has it taken so long to make another recording?  Was it a personal decision?  

Exactly, it was 15 years ago I presented the record “Cante Gitano” in Madrid, although the recording was made in 1994, released the following year in the United States and presented in Madrid in 1996.  I invested all my musical resources in that first piece of work, things I’d had in my head since childhood.  At the age of five, according to my father at the time, I was already singing the polo and the caña, as well as playing the guitar.  I used all my musical capital so to speak in that first record, things collected between the ages of 5 and 29.  I don’t think quantity is important, I believe a record should be made when you have it.  Sometimes, for commercial reasons, people try to make three records in one year for purposes of marketing.  I think what remains is much more important.  What am I trying to say?  That the record “Cante Gitano”, although it’s 15 years old, was reviewed just a few months ago in a specialized internet medium.  It continues to be current.

I don’t mean to compare myself, nor anything of the sort, but just to give an example: the most important recording of the twentieth century is possibly the collection of all of Tomás Pavón’s work, and there’s hardly enough to fill one CD.  There are artists who have made numerous recordings over the years, but I don’t know if that actually helped them in any real way.  I didn’t record for promotional purposes, but to try to contribute something, which seems much more important.  Having said that, I would also like to add that filling up the creative sack again takes a lot of time, and 15 years seems like a reasonable period to reflect and investigate.  And it’s not that I’ve been stalled in any sense of the word, because people think when you don’t record, you’re stuck in a rut; I’ve been making music continuously, for example for Belén Maya, Manuel Liñán, Marco Flores, Rocío Molina…I’ve been working non-stop.  I also had a very interesting experience composing in Finland with the company of Kaari Martin.  And I’ve collaborated on recordings of other artists.  Nowadays, to do something alone and try to contribute something relevant, this takes time.  It’s a very complex labor of investigation and reflection.  In actual fact, you can make a record in one or two afternoons, but that’s not the case here….

“I’ve invested all my musical capital in this recording”

We have here a work that is not only varied, but full of contrasts, different atmospheres, compositions which are conceptually very different from each other.  Each one has its own particular universe of sound, not the same sound, nor the same concept of arrangements, for example of the tangos and soleares.  How do you go about constructing a piece?
You might say I just go along seeing what I think is needed at any given moment.  For example, I believe it’s necessary to discover, or bring back melodies that I think are beautiful and which are not recorded.  It’s not that they’re getting lost, because they’re always there.  From long ago they’ve always been saying flamenco is getting lost, but look at all the artists who have been born.  I’m talking about trying to rescue and give a second opportunity to these melodies, like for example the montañesa.  This is the guiding force of the record: revival and updating.  In the case of the montañesa, this is a cante that’s not in circulation or even known.  The second part, which is what I recorded, wasn’t a part of the flamenco repertoire, only the first part had been recorded.  In this piece I tried to have the square tambourines (which are probably one of the oldest instruments of the Spanish peninsula, and which are also close to home because of my background), contribute that special sound to give the rhythmic form of 6/8 (which is the same one as the bulería), something I was talking to Eliseo Parra about the other day, but giving it a new spin, interpreted by a flamenco musician and sung in a different way.  You see, in each piece I was trying to find how I could contribute something, discover what was needed, with the intention of humbly giving what I could.

I asked earlier about your process for “constructing” a piece, and I don’t use the word casually because in your case I think it has a double meaning: you don’t only build a structure, but I mean to refer to the construction as opposed to de-construction.  In recent times it’s seemed that innovation was obligatorily synonymous with deconstruction.  In dance we’ve seen this a great deal, perhaps too much.  In cante not so much, but it’s also been tried there.  Nevertheless, your process is exactly the opposite: you try to build something, to study a cante in order to enrich it even more squeezing out the most beauty possible, according to the way in which it was conceived, in other words, without diminishing it.

Well, I see that the path of traditional orthodox flamenco, isn’t what people think, it’s a straight and narrow path, but with many possibilities.  All our predecessors worked from an orthodox perspective.  For example, verses of soleá have 3 or 4 lines of eight syllables that have certain shared characteristics such as the harmonic relationship, rhythm, etc., and using that as a starting point, those creators built as they deemed necessary every step of the way.  If we singers in the twenty-first century don’t do the same thing, we’re betraying what went before.  I try to keep the faith.  Obviously today we have more resources, well, I don’t know if it’s more resources, but without a doubt different resources.  And my goal is to put them at the service of cante

When I got to Madrid around the nineties, I felt very bad about what was happening with cante.  I remember for example a wonderful show with the maestro José Antonio Galicia with Pedro Sarmiento playing, and I was very open to the music, having a great time, but when it came time for the cante, all the musicians disappeared and I was left alone on stage with the guitarist.  And I thought “my God, why is cante so poorly considered?”  There’s a fable that comes to mind, about a monkey and a fish.  There was this monkey in his tree, and he was madly in love with a fish he thought was beautiful.  Suddenly the river swelled and the monkey tried to save the fish from drowning by taking it out of the water, but the fish died.  I was seeing the same thing in flamenco, wonderful musicians, but when it came time for cante…  I don’t know where the idea came from, maybe that thing of the cante being untouchable…they didn’t participate, and the whole thing turned into a repetition of what went before.  I thought this was terrible.  Flamenco has developed in so far as rhythm is concerned, dancers have sought out impossible moves, in guitar the technique has become very advanced…  And it might be harmony which is the least developed.  Musician that I am, I’m in love with music, and I’ve tried to bring that feeling to cante, because it’s something that maybe, as a contemporary singer and product of the times, I can contribute.

“All our predecessors worked from an orthodox perspective.  For example, verses of soleá have 3 or 4 lines of eight syllable that have certain shared characteristics such as the harmonic relation, rhythm, etc., and using that as a starting point, those creators built as they deemed necessary every step of the way.  If we singers in the twenty-first century don’t do the same thing, we’re betraying what went before.  I try to keep the faith.”

We were talking about diverse audio universes in each cut of this recording.  The closing piece is soleares seen with the most traditional sort of rear-view mirror: there’s nothing more to the “arrangement” than knuckles keeping rhythm on the table, and the guitar of David Serva who doesn’t even accompany part of the cante.  You’ve created or re-created a unique sound atmosphere, perhaps searching more for the idea of the root, because those soleares are titled “Cantes de Autor”.

That piece is a tribute.  When I say “Cantes de Autor”, it’s because in that moment I believe it’s absolutely necessary to remember the authors.  It seems that with this idea of breaking the bonds with the authors, trying to classify things by a simple geographic order and then letting the various zones fight it out so that a cante is from one place or another, something fundamental is forgotten.  It’s true that Alcalá named Joaquín de la Paula a Favorite Son, but maybe, outside of Alcalá they’re forgetting the importance of the creators.  This music didn’t grow like a cabbage.  They say “soleá de Alcalá”, but whose is it?  Soleá is sung in shows of the most important dancers, the biggest of them all.  These songs have an author, and it’s usually Joaquín Fernández Franco, Joaquín el de la Paula, from Alcalá.  And when we hear that brave verse of soleá we say it’s soleá de Triana.  De Triana?  From whom?  We forget that it’s attributed to María la Andonda.  That’s why I think it’s absolutely necessary, now, when flamenco is no longer something of the lower class but rather has become big business that gets big financial support, to remember the authors.  Having been born in the north, with nobody defining me as representative of any particular school of cante, I’m only interested in the intrinsic beauty of the cante, and the defense of the authors.  That’s one issue.

Then, in this tribute, Diego del Gastor is also present, he played for the children and nephews of all those singers: Enrique el de Paula, Juan Talega, Manolito de María…  I think what Diego had with them was a conversation.  Diego didn’t accompany, he conversed.  So how was I not going to represent that?  I made sure all the details, falsetas, the guitar music, all had the same importance as the singing.  Another reason for doing this piece was because unfortunately I think the cante of soleá is rather badly interpreted in some recordings I’ve heard lately.  I was born in 1964, and in those days, those cantes were still current from the mouths of offspring and nephews of the creators, so they heard them with all sorts of detail.  And it’s strange to see, with few exceptions, how badly people sing now, and how little they know of the details.  What those people were doing at that time was pure craftsmanship.  So I think it’s totally necessary to make a record in the year 2011 with shading, the traditional melodies, the right breathing and adequate compás.  I also think that piece, although it seems simple, is framed in a different way which makes it modern.  It was almost recorded live.  We did three takes, and took the best of the three.

“What those people were doing at that time was pure craftsmanship.  So I think it’s totally necessary to make a record in the year 2011 with shading, the traditional melodies, the right breathing and adequate compás.”

At your record presentation I took note of something you said which sounded very wise: “I never set out to do great things.  I just want to do each day whatever is within my possibilities”. 
Well, the statement isn’t mine, it’s Dale Carnegie’s.  When he was investigating “worry”, he visited the New York public library and discovered there were more books about worms than worry.  But something very interesting that he discovered was that people who had done really important things in life, did not have lofty goals.  Carnegie talks about a doctor who became a great authority, and who apparently was disabled, but was only concerned with achieving small things each day.  That allowed him to sleep well and work well, and in this way, the things he did each day stayed with him and were not forgotten the following day.  That was very helpful for me, because I was living in New York for five years, and in that city, described by Lorca with his superlative vision, you see many people trying to do grand things, you know, the “microwave generation”, the people who want it all and want it now, while the truly great people were only worried about getting through each day to the best of their possibilities.

Falo con Pedro Sanz, Iván Mellén y Flavio Rodríguez. (foto: Rafael Manjavacas)

In my opinion, your first recording “Cante Gitano” is a classic.  Classic in the sense that it not only remains relevant, but gets better with the passage of time, in any number of ways…it has universality.  I actually believe that “El Cante en Movimiento” is going work the same way.  And compared to the first one, you can tell there was much more conceptual and production work.  Was it hard to say “now I’ve got what I want”? 
No, it wasn’t.  As I said before, I deposited all my musical capital in this record.  Right now I’ve got three cantes ready to be recorded, but they weren’t for this CD.  In actual fact, I don’t know if I’ll record again, I’d love to, but I’m also a realist.  What was planned for this record, everything is there, and it’s fulfilling to be able to justify a 27-year career by leaving part of the repertoire that I humbly contributed.

“I never set out to do great things.  I just want to do each day whatever is within my possibilities”.

We spoke earlier about the soleares that close the record, and you commented on the long process that brought you to that point: the romance of José el Negro, the soleares of Juaniquí, José Illanda and el Chozas with the piano of Pablo Suárez, the guajira, Vallejo’s pregón, the wonderful malagueña of Mellizo, the very personal interpretation of tientos…had I planned the interview as a meticulous dissection piece by piece, it probably would have taken three more interviews to explain the where and why of each piece.  The best thing is for the reader to find your music, listen to it, try to read the message contained and just enjoy it.  But I wouldn’t want to close this conversation without speaking about the tangos.  I’m very interested in the kind of music that results from the Portuguese influence…is this music which has been forgotten?
It’s not that it’s forgotten.  There are singers who interpret this music, but I don’t know if people are aware of what the origins are.  Personally, I have a close connection with Portuguese and Extremaduran gypsies because, as you know, there’s the historic silver route from Asturias to Extremadura where the Asturian dialect “bable” is still spoken and gypsies circulate between fairs.  I was singing those tangos in my infancy and adolescence, my family still sings them.  For me, it’s remembering my childhood.  Obviously there’s a lot of background to those tangos.  What I did was change the verses which I first heard in “portoñol” (a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish) which is spoken along the Portuguese border.  I put verses, mostly soleá and some fandangos, like what Porrinas sang, possibly dedicated to the fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.  The poetry is completely flamenco, and the melodies completely Extremaduran Portuguese, and it all comes together as a kind of portrait of who I am.