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Interview with singer José Canela

The artist talks about his first record, "Un Romance con el Cante" and reminisces about his father, Canela de San Roque, who passed away in August.
October 25, 2015
Interview: Silvia Cruz
Photos: Rafael Manjavacas

"I'm very faithful to the flamenco I've always listened to"

Few artists wait twenty years in the profession before making a first record.  Unless of course it's a flamenco artist.  In this genre, it's normal for a singer to wait until there is some background experience or material in order to create something that documents what he or she has done up until that moment.  José Canela is no exception, and it's even possible he might think now and again that “Un romance con el cante” (La Drogueria Music, 2015) came a little soon.  "Lots of people encouraged me to do it.  Flamenco followers, my father, experts such as Luis Soler. And I felt it was the moment to show what I'd learned so far" explains this man of 38 who debuted at the age of eleven but still says he's just beginning.

José Canela - Circulo Flamenco Madrid

José lives in Algeciras, but only for the time being. Just three months ago his father died, Canela de San Roque, and he has decided to return to his hometown.  "My father rests in San Roque. This is a difficult moment, and I think it will do me good to be there".  At the other end of the telephone line, he sounds calm and with a certain sadness.  "Since his passing, I feel more responsibility, and I know I have to be very focused at every point, because it's going to be doubly hard now that my father is gone. He represented one of the most important lines of the flamenco in Spain and the Campo de Gibraltar".

The weight of a specific zone

The Campo de Gibraltar is where Paco de Lucía is from, true enough, but there have been other artists who have received less media attention.  Antonio de San Roque, Perico Montoya, Jarrito, Pansequito and of course the Canelos, which is José's family.  It's an area of intensity in the singing, but for some reason it never had the same repercussion as other areas such as Jerez or Lebrija.  At one time it was known for contraband and fishermen, a rich mixture that yielded flamenco.  José is heir to all of that, but he's young and worldly.  "I come from a family line deeply involved in flamenco, but I need to contribute something of my own. I feel I'm an artist, and that means I have the obligation to enrich this art-form".   He says he goes about this task passing what he knows through his own prism.  "Emotionally and physically, adapting what I sing to how I feel, and also to the color of my voice".

And in what cuts from this record can we see the color of Canela?  "In the bulería por soleá that opens the recording, but also in the fandangos.  I'm also pleased with the bulerías, because it's hard, but I'm on top of it.  And I'm also happy with the tangos, with the verses of Manuel Molina".  He names four of the eight pieces included on his first recording, and points out the three guitarists that accompany him.  Miguel Salado, Manuel Valencia and Manuel Jero, a trio of young but well-seasoned guitarists to accompany a singer who also plays the guitar.  José also mentions the contribution of the siguiriya toná of Antonio García from Écija for whom he has unlimited praise.  "I appreciate the work of my colleagues, because the guitar has helped me a lot to accompany myself, to understand the cante, to learn", says this son of a city that yielded guitarists such as Antonio Sánchez Pecino, father of the De Lucías, as well as the much-admired Juan Mesa.

José Canela - Circulo Flamenco Madrid

"True flamenco"

Chatting with José, one phrase overshadows his otherwise calm discourse, without sounding pompous.  "True flamenco" he says at one point, and it begs the question of which kind is untrue.  "It's what you get when someone says they're singing por soleá, but what they sing bears no relation to any of the fifty or so existing styles of soleá".  He says this without arrogance, but with absolute conviction, like when he says that "flamenco has a mother, classic flamenco, and you have to defend that".  The singers he names when asked for his current favorites, leave no doubt about his school and his preferences: his cousin Antonio Reyes, Pedro el Granaíno, Jesús Méndez and Rancapino junior.  But he doesn't only draw from flamenco, and out of nowhere Elvis Presley comes up.  "It's not that I like him, I'm actually a fan. He has an ability to transmit, and vocal ability that goes beyond perfect. He's a genius" says José using the present tense, like any other fan of the King of rock 'n roll.

But if there's anyone José admires, it's his father.  "I love my father", he says at one point, also speaking in present tense.  A similar phrase appears in his whatsapp, although with a different tone that increases the impact of his orphanhood: "Te amo papá". "Being his son helped me, but it's also been hard.  Nobody lent me a hand for having been his son, and it was a struggle to get to the little place where I am today".  His father counseled him throughout the making of the record, and lived long enough to be present for the presentation, and José says the patriarch was pleased with the results.  "Now I have to focus my career really well, because everyone is going to look at my work doubly hard, seeing what I do and how much I'm like, or not like my father.  That's why I have to keep a cool head now".

The heritage

José inherited some vocal characteristics from his father, and also a certain aggressive quality.  "His low tones, and his medium low tones, the sweetness, are more complicated for me".  From his mother Paqui, an amateur singer, José says he inherited the velocity.  "But these things are hard to explain.  When I'm singing, sometimes I hear something that sounds like my father, or shading that reminds me of my mother.  But I wouldn't know how to explain it with words..."  He does know how to explain it with his speaking voice which is deeper than that he uses to sing, sweeter and more worn.

"It's not a record to become an overnight sensation" says flamenco specialist Ramón Soler about "Un Romance con el Cante".  And José agrees.  "I know this isn't going to make me a millionaire.  What I do isn't for the public at large, but it's my best shot and I like to think I made a good record for flamenco fans".  José, with plenty of contests under his belt and more than twelve important prizes, advises young singers to begin as he did, but to get out in time.  "You have to sing for dance, you have to learn and compete in those contests, it's all for the best, but someone who is truly an artist can't stay stuck in that rut. You have to get out of that circuit and make your own contribution to the art-form you've chosen".

And what is something José Canela would never do?  "Change my way of feeling flamenco.  I'm very devoted to the flamenco I've heard all my life and which is inside me".

Canela de San Roque - Miguel El Rubio - Antonio Ingueta en el Círculo Flamenco de Madrid

Canela de San Roque - Miguel El Rubio - Antonio Ingueta - Círculo Flamenco de Madrid


José Canela - Un romance con el cante