Manuel Torre. The singer of the black sounds.
(Manuel Soto Loreto. Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz), 1878-Sevilla, 1933)
I’m going through a phase in which I can only listen to Manuel Torre. Every time I listen to his recordings I find a new reason to go back to him, a new turn of his voice that I didn’t notice before. The lack of high fidelity in those recordings doesn’t bother me at all because Manuel Torre was one of the most enigmatic figures of flamenco history and that is clear in those sounds from nearly a century ago. He is considered to be an icon of the era of classic flamenco and is still a great influence for all flamenco singers. He created and recreated variations of flamenco styles such as seguiriyas, soleares, saetas, tonás, tarantos and even farrucas. He was like King Midas, turning into gold everything he touched…only when he was inspired.
He was born on December 5th, 1878 at the number 25 of the Calle Alamo in the San Miguel gypsy neighborhood of Jerez de la Frontera. His mother was Tomasa Loreto Vargas, from Jerez, and his father was Juan Soto Montero, from Algeciras, who worked at a slaughter house and also was a non-professional singer, a specialist of two flamenco deep song styles, tonás and seguiriyas. His father was a really tall man, which is how he likely earned the nickname Torre-tower in Spanish.
He was exposed to the Jerez school of cante (flamenco song), listening to masters such as Manuel Molina, El Marrurro and Enrique el Mellizo in the city of Cádiz. This last artist being a great influenced in his youth. He had to be stopped from tossing himself out of a window after listening for the first time to this maestro.
He worked as a fishmonger for a while, an occupation traditionally held by gypsies in Jerez as well as the families of “La Paquera de Jerez” and Luis “El Zambo” can testify.
His incredible talent took him to the café cantantes (cafes with live music) of his native Jerez from a very early age, his patrons being the Duke of San Lorenzo and José Aguilar, the army officer from Ecija, who presented him as a child prodigy accompanied by the guitarist Javier Molina.
His debut in Seville was on October 11th, 1902 billed as El Niño de Torres at the Salón Filarmónico and in Madrid in 1909. It was in the former city where he developed his artistic career and where he became a great influence for the legendary Tomás Pavón and his sister Pastora “La Niña de los Peines” (The Girl of the Combs).
He married the flamenco dancer Antonia Torres Vargas “La Gamba”, first cousin of the wife of Pinini, (which links him to another legendary flamenco family from the city of Utrera) and with whom he had two sons, Juan and Tomás. It is known that the ladies next door to their home would stay up until the small hours of the morning, after he got home from that night’s juerga (flamenco party) or show, to hear Manuel whisper lullabies to his children.
He later started a relationship with his daughter-in-law, María Loreto Reyes, also known as “María la Coja” (María the Limper), with whom he had five daughters.
A very sensitive man, reserved and sexually obsessed that lived beyond social norms. His past times were his greyhounds, his fighting cocks and his collection of watches.
He was a victim of his mood swings, his raw talent and the elusive duende (the flamenco state of mind in which one is in communion with ones fellow musicians and the audience) that would escape him if any given situation or person was not of his like.
He excelled in every cante by impregnating them with his own innate personal style, his “black sounds” that were an expression of the man “with more culture in his blood than anyone” as García Lorca put it. In 1922 he performed as a guest artist at the Concurso de Cante Jondo (flamenco deep song contest) that Manuel de Falla and García Lorca himself organized in Granada. From that time on, Lorca’s admiration for the singer was shared by the group of poets, writers and intellectuals that formed the Generation of ’27. The members of this movement celebrated on 1927 the 300th anniversary of the death of one of the most admired figures of Spanish literature, the baroque poet Luis de Góngora, in Seville. It was during this celebration that they were to witness the art of Manuel in a party thrown by the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías at his Cortijo (country state) de Pino Montano on the outskirts of that city.
There is no way to know this artist’s full potential for the recordings he left us are but shadows of his brilliance. Despite the fact that they are incredible historical documents, one can only get a hint through these recordings of his revolutionary vocal style, his “voz natural”, which he placed neither high nor in his chest without being guttural. We have to trust the accounts of him by the people who got to experience his art. For instance, two great maestros of cante, Pepe de la Matrona and Pericón de Cádiz, gave us impressions of his art in their biographies written by José Luis Ortiz Nuevo.
Pepe de la Matrona says: “Manuel Torre was a genius. I have listened to Manuel Torre sing some unforgettable things that will never fade from my memory. He was a genius, but insecure, once he would do a brilliant thing and the next time he would do something unbearable to listen to. That is why they called him “El Majareta” (the nutcase). On the other hand Tomás [Pavón] has been much more confident, as well as El Gloria, although,
at times, Manuel would finish them all off.”
“I remember him in one occasion. We were here in Madrid and it was a coincidence that Antonio el Mellizo and Diego Antunez , who was on his way back from a party in Bilbao, were also here. And a banderillero, Rafaelillo the banderillero, invited us to Rita Ortega’s place, a road inn she had in Cuatro Vientos. Manuel was there the whole night, the entire night singing, and the poor man could not get anything straight, he wasn’t in good shape. At the break of dawn, when we were all leaving, we went to the tables outside to have a coffee. As we sat down Manuel went to the guitarist, the one called Mariscal, Rita’s brother-in-law, and said to him:
-Listen, pick up the bajañí I’m going to sing a couple of things now that I feel alright.
He set his foot on one of those pedestal tables while the guitarist was accompanying him. Then and there, he sang three seguiriyas that made the ground shake. I’ve never seen anything like that. I have those memories in my head and will never forget them in my whole life.”
Pericón de Cádiz recalls: “I remember the time I sang with Manuel Torre and El Niño Gloria in San Fernando.
When it came to Manuel’s turn to sing I was next to El Gloria and just as he was tuning up singing seguiriyas, the bull ring seamed as if was shaking, El Gloria said to me:
-Phew! Pericón, he is opening the perfume jar tonight.
He sang seguiriyas in such a way, it was scary…as he had just finished a man shouted from the audience:
-Manuel, sing fandangos!
Just that, made him crumble! I don’t know what got into him, when he heard that after singing those seguiriyas, he was unable to do anything right.”
“Sánchez Mejías was a good aficionado who knew what to do. He never asked him to sing whenever he called him to come to a party. Manuel would arrive and first thing he would get his liquor or whatever he wanted, he made him feel comfortable and then the singing would start. One singer would start and then another one until the moment when Manuel would ask Ignacio:
-Man! When are you going to let me sing at least once?
-Of course man, sing! As you wish!
Manuel would go wild then, he was dying to sing, as if he were going to swallow the entire world.”
Later on he suffered the loss of his voice. He was sent to hospital in Seville which costs were covered by Ignacio Sánchez Mejias himself. His was doomed, the treatment did not work. His throat silenced for ever, not able to earn a living, he died from tuberculosis on July 21st, 1933. With him he took a school of flamenco.
Follow this link to enjoy Manuel Torre singing seguiriyas and the translation of the lyrics below:
Con qué dobles fatigas
Yo le pido a Dios,
Que me aliviara las que tiene mi madre
En el corazón.
Era un día señalao
De Santiago y Santana,
Yo el rogué a mi Dios
Que le aliviara a mi madre
La ducas de su corazón.
With doubled grief
I beg God
To lessen the one my mother
Has got inside her heart.
It was the holyday
Of Santiago and Saint Anne
When I prayed to God
To lessen the grief
From my mother’s heart.
 Ortiz Nuevo, José Luis: Pepe el de la Matrona. Recuerdos de un cantaor Sevillano. Ediciones Demófilo. Madrid, 1975.
 Person who sticks the banderillas into the bull's neck.
 Guitar, in flamenco-gypsy slang.
 Ortiz Nuevo, José Luis: Las Mil y Una Historias de Pericón de Cádiz. Ediciones Demófilo. Madrid, 1975.