The history of flamenco is inhabited by legendary men and women.
Individuals whose blurry, faded faces are stored in some dusty corner
of the memory of all serious aficionados. Silverio with the hairdo
that looks painted, Serneta with the shawl over her head, Mellizo
looking like a preacher from the wild west, Loco Mateo giving the
appearance of quite a sane young man… But no portrait is more
haunting or insinuates a greater enigma than that of Manuel Soto
Loreto, known to all aficionados as Manuel Torre.
No sooner do we feel the first
that lead to the obsession with flamenco,
than we are told that Manuel Torre was
the greatest flamenco singer of all time.
personality is so outsized, it's hard to know whether we really
ought to seek out his true identity, peel away the stories and anecdotes,
separate him from his idiosyncrasies, his dogs, chickens and watches
to discover the human being. Perhaps the very nature of flamenco
requires an enigmatic personality to complement the character of
an art that has always stimulated the imagination of those of us
who follow it.
No sooner do we feel the first impulses that lead to the obsession
with flamenco, than we are told that Manuel Torre was the greatest
flamenco singer of all time. Afterwards they tell us about Silverio,
Chacón, Mellizo, Pastora, Tomás, Mairena and all the
rest…but Torre occupies a niche out of time and space. The stories
of how people who heard him on a good night were reduced to uncontrollable
weeping, jumped out of windows or pulled off their clothing and
even warts, are known to all flamenco-followers, if not entirely
believed. His bohemian and unpredictable character is legendary
as well. When we hear similar stories of other flamenco characters,
it often sounds like theatrical hype, but Torre impresses us as
authentic – he was authentic. What other singer's cante has ever
been described as hair-raising or blood-curdling? His performances,
whether in private parties or behind closed doors, whether in big
theaters or intimate cafés cantantes, were always described
as inconsistent or irregular, and older people who heard him in
person assure us that what has been handed down on the old slate
records is little more than a sad reflection of the singer's genius.
The ultimate Jerez man, from the historic flamenco
quarter of San Miguel no less, but his personality
knew no loyalty except to «planet Torre».
ultimate Jerez man, from the historic flamenco quarter of San Miguel
no less, but his personality knew no loyalty except to «planet
Torre». Although his career unfolded in Seville, his lengthy
repertoire is one of the fundamental pillars of the current Jerez
school of flamenco singing, and in particular his classic version
of taranto, a cante which is culturally and historically linked
to areas far from the lower Guadalquivir, has practically made the
form indigenous to Jerez. For many scholars, Manuel Torre represents
the clearest beginning of the modern era of flamenco singing. He
survived the ill-fated «flamenco ópera» movement,
no doubt because his voice and disposition were incompatible with
frivolity and commercialism, the need to entertain the wealthy and
make a good impression on audiences whose taste tended towards the
most superficial type of flamenco. His natural chest voice, his
gut-ripping lament and his categorical rejection of all flowery
embellishment, inspired the young «Niño de Rafael»
later known as Antonio Mairena, a singer who came to have a profound
influence on flamenco singing in the twentieth century. Manuel de
los Santos, Agujetas el Viejo was another great storehouse of Torre's
cante which his children and grandchildren continue to transmit.
Pastora and Tomás Pavón also passed the cante of the
man from Jerez through the sieve of their fertile personalities,
and among those still professionally active, Antonio Núñez
«Chocolate» is another faithful follower although he was
born too late to have known the singer personally.
Federico García Lorca was thoroughly taken with the singer and inspired
enough by his genius to give form to certain ideas of his about
Our man raised the standards very high for siguiriyas, although
he sang nearly all the forms of the flamenco repertoire. After Torre,
siguiriya became somewhat distanced from other cantes, to be identified
with the roots, something basic, mysterious and profoundly difficult,
almost ritual, a cante apt for the wee hours of flamenco get-togethers
when drink and fatigue demand the «black sounds» ['soníos
negros'], a hackneyed term in modern times that was popularized
by Manuel Torre after he commented on one occasion that «anything
that has black sounds, has the magic ['duende']», a catch phrase
which could easily serve as the motto for today's flamenco fusion
musicians. His interpretations were anarchic, but always true to
his personal inner inspiration. The group of intellectuals known
as the «generation of '27» adopted Torre as their own,
particularly the writer-poet from Granada, Federico García
Lorca, who was thoroughly taken with the singer and inspired enough
by his genius to give form to certain ideas of his about «duende».
«That sound of his would get into your head
and stick for three weeks…»
Torre was a contemporary of Don Antonio Chacón's, but never
would it have occurred to anyone to say «Don» Manuel Torre,
a formal sign of respect. They were diametrically opposed superstars,
each with his respective diehard followers. Chacón represented
a cerebral, refined and exquisite taste for beauty with a voice
that nowadays might be found excessively saccharine. Torre by contrast
was the incontrollable bohemian, unpredictable, unreliable and capricious,
instinctive to a fault, and the prodigious naked lament he used
to convey his cante was part of the legend. Flamenco singer Pericón
de Cádiz says in his biography «that sound of his would
get into your head and stick for three weeks». Pepe el de la
Matrona, also of the era, used almost identical language: «he's
inside my head and I can't forget the sound» and Juan Talega
said that Torre «only managed four or five soleá cantes,
no more! […], but he had a way of singing them that you went mad!
You'd hear him once and the sound just stuck».
…a sad, premature
death in abject poverty.
His unpredictable whims often caused him to turn his nose up at
well-paid jobs, and as a result of his difficult personality, contracts
dried up and friends became scarce. Antonio Mairena writes that
«he never learned to behave according to the norm, nor did
he dominate the social graces». He suffered a sad, premature
death in abject poverty. Ironically his funeral was paid for by
the greatest star of the «flamenco ópera», Pepe
Marchena who also organized a benefit concert to raise funds for
the family left behind by Manuel Torre, a man whose fame as the
greatest flamenco singer of all time, whether justified or not,
remains intact seven decades after his passing.
Cover portrait based on a work by José Manuel Capuletti.