(First published in Phillyflamenco.com on September of 2007)
After eleven years living away from Spain I can’t help thinking about peñas flamencas with nostalgia. When I first started going to a peña flamenca, I was twenty years younger than I am now and falling in love with that pristine and innocent love that is the first one. If you add to this picture the dazzling streets and parks of Sevilla where my friends and I used to hang out, then you have right there the whole set up to get an idea of what those memories mean to me.
I became a flamenco aficionado in one of those social clubs. There in Peña Flamenca Torres-Macarena in Calle Torrijiano in the barrio de la Macarena, I started to get acquainted with the differences between the “palos” or flamenco styles and rhythms. Many evenings, a bunch of aficionados would get together in one of the traditionally tiled back rooms of the peña to listen to cassettes played on a boom box. We listened to Tomás Pavón, Antonio Mairena, La Niña de los Peines sitting around a table covered with little plates of olives and “cañas” as they call the tube like glasses of pilsner beer over there.
I was lucky enough to see the performances of Antonio Nuñez “El Chocolate”, Chano Lobato, Rancapino, José Mercé, Aurora Vargas, Naranjito de Triana, José de la Tomasa, El Pele, and many more wonderful “cantaores” or flamenco singers. I saw a very young Javier Latorre dancing, as well as the “flamenquísima” Carmen Ledesma who still lives across the street from the peña. I also enjoyed the playing of such guitarists as Pedro Bacán, Dieguito de Morón, Quique Paredes, Antonio Carrión to name a few.
The common denominator of these performances was the “pureza” or the purity of the rendition the artists gave of the flamenco forms. One thing is for sure, you won’t see any nouveau flamenco or any fusion in a peña Flamenca. The objective of those institutions is to preserve flamenco in its purest form.
At that time the president of Torres – Macarena was Juan Iglesias Hernández who is today the president of the “Federación Provincial de Sevilla de Entidades Flamencas” (Seville Federation of Flamenco Institutions). I thought there is no better person than him to talk about this subject. Below is an interview I had the pleasure to have done with him for Philly Flamenco.
Could you talk about the Federación. What is its purpose?
Our main purpose is to preserve and promote Flamenco.
Tell us about the history of the peñas. When and where the first peñas were established and how and why did they come into existence?
The first peñas flamencas came to be in the sixties, almost at the same time as the summer flamenco festivals there are in many towns and villages throughout Andalusia.
At that time flamenco was in need for promoters and the peñas came to fill in a niche between the artists and the public institutions and local governments that were organizing those festivals.
The first Peñas were established in the big urban center of Andalusia, such as “Peña La Platería” in Granada which is truly a jewel, “La Peña Juan Breva” in Málaga, “El Taranto” in Almería and “Torres – Macarena” in Sevilla.
These Peñas got to organize the aficionados who up to then had been dispersed, established the festivals during the summer and they are the venues where recitals take place keeping the flame of flamenco lit during the harsh winter time.
Was flamenco in danger of disappearing at that time?
If you read about flamenco history you’ll find out that already in the early 20th Century Don Antonio Machado (also known as Demófilo, one of the first Flamenco researchers) is talking about the disappearance of flamenco. That didn’t come to pass. Flamenco has gone through different historical stages. There was a period of darkness in which this art form was practiced in the intimacy of the family environment, then came the period of the cafés cantantes or music cafés where it became a performance done by professionals. After that came the reviled opera flamenco which I think was a golden age. There never have been so many good companies, cantaores and dancers as in that period of flamenco history. Then in the sixties, thanks to the economical growth in Spain, came other forms of entertainment like the television and with it the disappearance of many of these companies which gave way to the summer festivals we have today. Although I personally think we are at the end of this period of our history where we are enjoying a new crop of young artists that are taking the place of the older generation of incredible singers who are sadly passing away.
Who founded those Peñas? Were they aficionados, artists or both?
Although there are actually many Peñas named after artists, you should realize from what I said in one of your previous questions, the oldest Peñas are not named after any artists. If so, they are named after legendary artists.
Peñas are founded by aficionados, it is rare to find artists as members.
How do you become member in a Peña?
There are different ways, it depends on the Peña. You can be introduced by a member, filling in a form, paying a fee, sometimes a very high sum in the case the members are the owners of the Peña.
Do you need to be a member in order to attend the events that take place in a Peña?
As you well know from your experience in Torres-Macarena, you don’t need to be a member to attend the activities that take place there. Although there are occasions when you have to buy a ticket to, for instance, attend a show. This money works as a fund raiser for the Peña.
The last time we saw each other in Seville I remember the Federación was organizing an homage to Manuel Vega “El Carbonerillo”. Who was this flamenco artists and what took place in his homage?
Manuel Vega “El Carbonerillo” was a flamenco singer born in Sevilla in 1906 and died in 1937. He had a hard and tragic life. He created some styles of fandango that brought him fame but very little fortune. As a cantaor he was a good example of the opera flamenca period.
His homage consisted in a series of lectures illustrated by cantaores who performed his repertoire in all thirty-seven Peñas that form our Federación, as well as the release of an album on three compact discs with all his recordings.
Despite the fact that the public is becoming more interested in flamenco singing here in the States, flamenco in this country is really synonymous with dance. What is the role of flamenco dance in the Peñas?
I personally think flamenco dance is at its best nowadays, although there are artists that confuse flamenco dance with ballet or modern dance.
Right now we are organizing at Torres-Macarena and sponsored by the Federación the “Concurso de Baile Flamenco Carmen Ledesma”, a contest where a wonderful dancer from San Francisco (I later learned it was Cristina Hall) is participating as one of the contenders.
How do aficionados from the Peñas view the commercialization that is taking place in flamenco thanks to record labels and artists? Is everything commercial faking the art form or are there good “experiments”?
In some cases we, the aficionados, think they are mistaken, you just have to look at CD sales of those “experiments”. When those experiments are based on the tradition they can be artistically viable and there is commercial success, when that is not the case there is commercial failure. Enrique Morente’s recordings are experiments based on his knowledge, as well as José Mercé, therefore they make a lot of money. Others experiment and despite marketing campaigns they completely fail. I want to make sure you understand I think there are great flamenco innovators, and their works are based in the tradition.
I’m going to get here a bit off track our conversation, although I think there is a curious point to be made that can be of interest to our readers. I remember a conversation you had with a colleague from the Federación in which you both mentioned how much you respect Enrique Morente as an artist, yet he doesn’t really get the acceptance he deserves from the Seville aficionados. I think this is clearly due to the local taste (what we call in flamenco “localismo” which means to, sometimes, blindly favor the local artists over others from outside your town), some artists or aesthetics are favored over others, in the same way people from Jerez favor other ways to understand flamenco aesthetics or artists. Being Peña members part of the larger picture of aficionados, how would you explain to the American flamenco followers the effects of “localismo”?
I don’t agree. Seville is maybe the place where you find the least “localismo” and I don’t say that because I’m from Seville. Of all the three annual contests of young flamenco singers we have organized, only one of the winners was from Seville, exactly from a town outside Seville called Alcalá de Guadaira.
Anyway, I won’t say Enrique Morente has an incredible following here, there are some aficionados who really follow his work. We tend here to favor artists from Jerez and Cádiz more than anywhere else. Despite that, good aficionados remember and have the earlier recordings by Enrique which are master works.
Finally, before we say goodbye. Would you like to say something to the American flamenco aficionados of phillyflamenco.com?
Only a few words, flamenco is an universal art form, as well as for example jazz. It is an expression of human feelings and if there is communication between the artist and the audience we experience what we call “el duende”. Flamenco, as I said, is universal, there are great performers that are not born in Andalusia who can conjure up “el duende”. It is this incredible capacity of drawing people towards it what makes flamenco greater every day.
Thanks very much Juan and good luck.
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