Interview: Pablo San Nicasio
Cover photo: Ana Palma
Photo Paco Heredia: Juanlu Vela
The singer will present “Flamencas en la Sombra” in Madrid's SUMA FLAMENCA 2013.
“I picked up cante as I worked, in the tablao, without even realizing it”
Years ago, Antonio Canales' company, and the parallel group of Paco de Lucia, enjoyed the presence of heavyweights like Jose Jimenez Viejin, a wonderful guitarist who, in addition to being interpreter and composer, was always a great talent scout for new stars. It was he who recruited the almost adolescent Montse Cortes, a singer who had shown great promise in Barcelona tablaos from early on, and who today is one of the most important singers. We chatted in her Madrid home with her and her husband. This couple, who live in the Catalonian capital, is currently working on the creation of a new show and a recording project.
What was to have been a brief encounter turned into an in-depth discussion, almost without questions, conversation just flowed…
Montse, your jump-start was with Canales…
Yes, I was at the Tablao de Carmen, and they called me, from one day to the next I was to go with him. Ramon Jimenez and Viejin, also got involved in this. And Canales, without even knowing me, trusted them both. That day I'd been doing a gig, and I stayed with Canales until I was thirty.
You were already a pro.
It’s that my childhood was a little weird, because I went from being a little girl, playing in the sandbox, kind of tall and lanky, to working at the Tablao Cordobés when I was thirteen. I’d sung a taranta one San Juan fiesta at home for the directors of the tablao, and a few days later I had to substitute for a girl who ran off with a gypsy, just like that, from one day to the next.
At first it was just to fill out the cuadro doing palmas. Then I sang more and more. I remember Pedro Sierra was at the tablao. I stayed there three years singing every day, it’s a long time when you’re young…
Then I moved on to the Tablao de Carmen, and I was there from the age of seventeen until I went with Canales.
Viejín also put you in contact with Paco de Lucía.
Yes, and before going permanently with him, he’d called me several times. The fact is, I wasn’t able to because my son was very small and the tours were long and far away. It was very hard, just imagine saying “no” to Paco de Lucía. But I really couldn’t. Javier Limón also got involved. When it was time to tour with “Cositas Buenas” in Spain, then I agreed. And I joined the group with no rehearsal, because they told me the wrong day to look things over. And there I was telling Paco “maestro, please forgive me, I don’t know the repertoire, I thought it was a different day…”. And Paco said “don’t worry Montse, but be prepared for Tana to give you a hard time…” [laughter]. That tour we started in Barcelona.
You grew up in San Adriá de Besós, in your Mina neighborhood…can the local interest in flamenco be compared for example to the neighborhoods around here?
Montse: Well you know, I actually think there’s more up there.
Paco Heredia: It’s not a very big area the Mina, but there are eighteen thousand inhabitants. Buildings of twelve and thirteen floors with five or six to a house. When you have that many people packed together, you get a good carpenter, a good flamenco singer…everything. And the flamenco there is a connection with the roots. She’s got her roots in Granada and Almería, and me in Málaga. And we were both born in Barcelona, the outskirts, but with some very strong southern roots.
In actual fact, Paco, I have to confess I came to talk with Montse, but your story is also interesting. You studied guitar in the conservatory.
Yes, I ended up at the Liceo.
I find this very interesting because Cañizares for example couldn’t get in.
Yeah, just imagine, such a great guitarist. His adaptations of the classics, his versions are brutal…very impressive. It’s crazy. But getting back to the neighborhood… In La Mina people live as a community, with great sensitivity since the post-war period. During the hard times people were executed right there…there was so much suffering, and like I say, a kind of awareness that’s inherited.
Paco Heredia: “Thousands of kids don’t have Mairena’s recordings, or Talegas’, but they leave from Youtube, or from working night after night. There are many ways of learning, and they’re all valid”.
Although there were no professional flamenco artists at home…
Montse: Well, my two sisters were dancers. My older sister, the wife of Juan Ramón Caro [a tremendous guitarist who accompanies Mayte Martín], had a duo called “Las Zíngaras”. They don’t perform any more. Aside from that, my family was always very flamenco, but we’re the only professionals.
Paco Heredia: Same thing here. My grandfather, my uncle…I have relatives in Argentina and Switzerland. And although they know a lot about flamenco, they never really encouraged the family to become professional flamencos, because they knew how hard this is. My mother could have been professional, she was a fantastic singer. Not long ago in Cartagena, with Rubio de Pruna, Guadiana, Farru…she sang tangos and that was the end of the fiesta. She knows the cantes of la Repompa so well, I can’t even believe it, I swear.
And you, Montse…although you’ve been professional for a long time, you haven’t really made many recordings. You’ve sung a lot for dance, I don’t know if you’ve sought that out in order to gain experience, of if it just came out that way…
It’s been good for me. Because I’m kind of lazy, and it made me disciplined. It gave a well-defined structure to the repertoire. I never had any real teachers, maybe Chiqui de La Línea”. I learned cante by doing it, coming face to face with it, not because I was trying…almost without realizing it.
Paco: Lately they say this is all being lost. There’s a famous singer says young people have lost it, just like that. When many young people who record chorus for him sing better than he does. And that’s a cheap shot because young singers, and some not so young, learn in many different ways, but they learn. I can assure you. There are countless young people who have no recordings of Mairena, or don’t listen to Talega, but they learn on Youtube, or working night after night. There are many different ways to learn, all of them valid. And that an old-timer who didn’t learn like that should deny the bread and butter to the younger generation is just unfair. The most beneficial thing is to get the best from artists. Here in Madrid, in a radius of fifty kilometers there are some singers who could retire a lot of top professionals. What’s sad is today everything is being approached from the wrong perspective. Because more importance is given to what you know than to how well you sing. And if you don’t have anything to say, you could be doing the most complicated thing in the world, I won’t give a hoot because I’ll have already fallen asleep.
And take into consideration, regarding Montse’s record I produced, we did a lot of research, but always looking for women who communicated something.
Montse: I needed to make this record, because it’s true Pablo, although I had two previous recordings, I’m still considered a singer for dance, and this time I hope to show my solo facet with a large and varied repertoire. It’s not so much a question of songs this time.
Paco: We were looking for a concept. We wanted Montse’s voice to be the common thread that held together many different concepts of cante. Women’s cante, from women who, for one reason or another, never became professional despite their talent. La Piriñaca, María Bala, la Andonda, even Fernanda and Bernarda didn’t have an easy time. Perhaps it’s record that would have been out of place ten years ago. But this way of managing different aesthetics within flamenco may be a good thing now. Where it’s important to fit in is in a variety of formats and venues. This is a record that doesn’t depend on twenty-five musicians, the important thing is the concept it defends. That’s something that was done with some of Lebrijano’s records, with Manolo Sanlúcar’s Tauromagia…and it’s only fitting that Montse should do something like that. We have things of Tina of Las Grecas, of Periñaca, of some people who never made it to the top for a variety of reasons, but who are references for everyone who knows about this artform.
Montse Cortés: “I’m still considered a singer for dance, and this time I hope to show my solo facet with a large and varied repertoire. It’s not so much a question of songs this time”.
Speaking of women, in your case Montse, did anyone ever give you hard time?
I had no problems, they took it well, but my father went everywhere with me. I’d finish singing, and c’mon, let’s go home.
Paco Heredia: A certain amount of protection is normal. And more so among artists. In any case, Spain hasn’t changed that much, it’s not as open in some things, regardless of what they say.
We’ve always seen Montse Cortés very involved in the Evangelical religion, it was a recurring theme. In you and many others, a lot of flamenco heavyweights, and it’s never been looked at.
Paco Heredia: That movement, the Church of Philadelphia, grabbed hold of the gypsy community in a complicated way that even came to be frowned upon. For many gypsies it was, and is, the only light that illuminates their lives. The only chance to get out of certain circumstances and some frankly difficult problems. Very often the individual fails, despite the greatest of professional success. We can all think of many people. Some are no longer with us. I can’t be oblivious, nor can any flamenco person, to that mental and especially sentimental extremism that goes along with flamenco. Naturally there are different levels, but the church has been the salvation from much confusion. Even without God being the priority, it’s more like a discipline. We live it like just another part of our daily lives, especially the flamenco that makes us feel fulfilled but doesn’t obsess us, we live everything with naturalness and we lead a normal life.
Of course now, generally speaking, those of us who are in it come from a very calm and peaceful life. But the way that form of living religion came to be was because an entire generation of flamenco was being lost. There are people who tell you they hear a guitar and they feel like dong something violent…well, the only thing you can do is tell them to read the newspaper, or get out of this because they have a problem.
Montse Cortés: You always have to have God, whether or not you’re doing well. There are probably people who take this on in a more desperate fashion, but that’s not us as Paco says.