Interview: Pablo San Nicasio
«TRADITIONAL FLAMENCO IS WHAT'S REALLY AVANT-GARDE»
José Mercé has become so well-known nowadays that you see him on talk shows chatting about sports. But what’s clear is that if his devotion to the Madrid team is now public domain, before it was his voice that reached every corner of the flamenco panorama and beyond.
He is winding up the year 2012 with “Mi Única Llave”, a strong recording backed up by the all-powerful Javier Limón and a good part of his Berklee musicians. It’s been some time since we spoke to the Jerez singer, so he was happy to bring us up-to-date on his opinions, projects and the flamenco outlook in general.
The other day we saw you on TV in a debate about football (soccer).
Yeah, well, my buddy Sergio Sauca called me for his program to discuss football. Sometimes they bring a bullfighter, a singer…
Will you sing about the Madrid team some day?
I already did, the anthem, don’t you remember?
I mean a recording.
No, that’s no go…gimme a break.
But you sang about alkaline batteries!
That’s something that would have to come about naturally…I don’t know, I just don’t see it.
In your record promotions you’ve been saying the same phrase for years, “flamenco for the 21st century”. I wonder if that’s some kind of pre-emptive protection from criticism that might come from traditionalists.
No, it’s no protection. What I mean to say is, there are verses about everyday life so young people can identify with them. Creating something new is very difficult, flamenco has already been created. It can, however, be updated, and the only way is through new verses. That’s my belief.
Montoya was a creator, he changed the guitar tuning to play rondeña, or my great-great-grandfather Paco la Luz, who created siguiriyas. But after that…in this era there have been no creators. We’ve been more innovators than creators, the whole thing has been updated.
What I’ve been trying to do since 1998 with “Del Amanecer” is bring this music to young people. Because it used to be they hardly went to any flamenco concerts, and it was because they were afraid of all that seriousness imposed by flamencology. But since then, young people young to my concerts, as well as the regular flamenco fans.
And this, by the way, is a great personal satisfaction which has made me more open.
And that modern idiom is “Mi Única Llave”, which is a much more flamenco record than I usually make. With bulerías, tangos, fandangos, taranta, martinete…a line that hasn’t been seen in twenty years. Nowadays people do a “lite” flamenco, with fusion that’s closer to con-fusion. Young people ought to be doing more traditional flamenco, which is the new avant-garde.
Hold on now, what you just said needs to be elaborated on. What you say about creators. To say that there have been no creators since Paco la Luz is, at the very least, inflammatory, don’t you think? Morente comes to mind…I don’t know…lots of people…
Enrique was an innovator, not a creator. You can change a soleá, but not create a soleá. You can add your tones and half-tones where there were none before, but that’s not creating.
You mentioned the fusion confusion as a problem. But you’ve done some things in that line as well, no?
I’m doing flamenco fusion, open flamenco. But with dignity and criteria. In “Mi Única Llave” I’ve got a trumpet and a jazz pianist for example…two great musicians, and they go together. Going further than that is watering it down, not joining musical genres that actually have something in common.
And you mentioned the young people…ones you saw as somewhat lost…
I’d have to say that nowadays, unfortunately, traditional flamenco has become scarce…more than pure flamenco, which reflects something else. Something is pure or great depending on who does it, his way of doing it. You can sing a siguiriya which is the purest thing is the world, but if the interpretation isn’t pure, then it’s not great, it’s not pure, it’s not anything. Just like if you interpret a style not considered important, and you do it right, then you’re making it important.
And young people have to begin with the basics and later move on to the meaty stuff. If you don’t know basic cante, and already you’re innovating without believing in what you do, that’s bad news.
Those purists, flamencologists and such, whom you said closed up flamenco. Where are they? Certain artists? Journalists?
There was a time, during the festival period, when a certain sector of the press began to wield a lot of power, and there was a lot of destructive criticism. Many artists stopped going to those festivals. The festival organizations got blamed for a lot of things, like the singers always singing the same things…nowadays, it’s no longer the same three or four cantes and they don’t demand you do the “ay” like Manuel Torre to be considered a respectable artist. But listen, I’m not Manuel Torre. Today, the critics are different, without a doubt.
I sing how I think I ought to sing. And I can’t be bothered by some critic’s guidelines.
Were critics really so powerful?
Yes yes, without a doubt. A bad review could do you in, just like that. I can assure you there have been reviews that take your work away for years. And we’re beholden to these people, and fearful of them.
“I sing how I think I ought to sing…I can’t be bothered by some critic’s guidelines.”
Times have changed. Now you’re working with Javier Limón who surely took you to that world in Boston.
In Berklee you’ve got the best musicians in the world. Those people are crazy for flamenco. The music, the verses, the rhythms…I went with Javier and he introduced me to people who collaborated in things…the violinist, the pianists…and they went all out.
When did you and Javier hook up?
Well, we’d known each other for a long time. He was after me back from my years with Vicente Amigo and Isidro Sanlúcar. But this happened now, and for me it’s been pure pleasure. We made a record where he let me sing what I wanted…each recording has been pure delight, in New York, in Boston, in Jerez…
What’s Javier Limón got that other producers don’t have?
He’s a flamenco freak. He’s very studious. He sings, plays the guitar…he lives it. And anyone around him has a good time with him. He brought in the best guitarists, and I’m grateful. I honestly believe it’s one hell of a record, one of the best of my career.
How did you get the idea for the martinete stuck in the middle of the chorus?
Javier had a chorus of boys and girls singing, and he said “get in the middle and sing whatever comes into your head”. And my first impulse was to warm up and start singing the most primitive thing I could think of. Javier already had all of them prepared. They were voice students from many different countries, so I gave it a go…
Alejandro Sanz wrote the lyrics for your tribute to Morao.
I’ve known Alejandro Sanz since we were young, when he would go places and no one paid any attention to him. He was just a boy when I was working at Torres Bermejas. He’s nuts about flamenco, like Javier. He really loved Morao…naturally. Manuel was the best guitarist for accompaniment of these two centuries. No doubt about it. And Alejandro loved him so much…when we heard the verse he wrote we were all crying in the studio.
And Diego as a guitarist? How would you compare them?
Diego has more material, he knows the fret-board better. But the thing is, Manuel didn’t need any of that. Manuel could make mildew sing by just picking up the guitar…it was his special magic…
Tomatito shows up here too.
Listen to the beginning of those bulerías…it’s his son José, what a guitarist. He needs to be playing for singing, it’s the right moment.
“La Salvaora” with pianist Alain Mallet, was that an outside idea?
No, this piece of Quintero, León and Quiroga was my idea. I remembered the genius of Caracol, and I felt like doing it, and with piano. I told this to Javier, he introduced me to Alain, and that’s exactly how it happened. Alain had never played flamenco, but he got the idea right away. I hummed it for him, and it came out great.
“Diego has more material, he knows the fret-board better. But the thing is, Manuel didn’t need any of that. Manuel could make mildew sing by just picking up the guitar”
The elegy to Ramón Sijé of Miguel Hernández that Morente did, how did you tackle that? Was the intent to respect the original, or do something more?
I didn’t change anything. I respected Enrique’s version to the utmost. It’s even the same guitarist, Pepe Habichuela, we’ve known each other since Torres Bermejas. The only difference is Eric Truffaz’ trumpet, but the cante is the same.
It was on the record “Despegando” made forty years ago. I heard that record in Buenos Aires when I met Enrique. In those years Miguel Hernández was forbidden in Spain, and I bought his complete work in Argentina. I fell in love with his poetry, and ever since then I’ve considered him the most profound poet in this history of this country. Then I heard this piece of Enrique’s and loved it.
That same verse I used to do for martinete, so I suggested it to Javier, and I think it came out well.
Why is “Mi Única Llave” fandangos?
Because with my voice, it’s the only way I can go through life. I don’t even have the keys to my house [laughter]. I been a professional since the age of thirteen, and that line seemed perfect for those fandangos and the whole record. And each person can take it to mean whatever they want.
You talk a lot about that anthology you want to do, that you’ve heard Vallejo, Pastora…
Yes, and I’m getting right on it. It’s something I’m going to do with great patience and good guitarists. The day I get inspired, I’ll get into the studio with Javier, and take it very very seriously. It’s something I’m going to produce myself, and it will belong to me. No multinational is going to be involved because, look, in the end when I’m not here any more, it’s what will be left of me, so I’m going to make a big effort and see if all those people who criticize what’s pure and not pure, we’ll see if they actually go out and spend the money to buy it.