Moron de la Frontera- An American Aficionado’s Shangra-La
Jay E. Kantor, PhD
Colloqium “Flamenco in America” NYU Nov 2, 2002
I. General Background
To the average American audience, flamenco is the ancient Gypsy improvised folk dance typical of Spain.
To the average cabal, the knowledgeable admirer of flamenco, flamenco is neither typically Spanish nor Gypsy nor folk nor primarily dance. It is probably not even ancient. While the dance -the baile- is important, it is the song -the cante- that brings the true aficionado to yell - “ole!.” The guitar is third in importance. To the flamenco cabal, the fully knowledgeable aficionado, the music is not from all over and just anywhere in Spain, it is specifically from Andalucia. More purely, what is termed Bajo Andalucia -“Southern Andalucia.”- a triangle within Sevilla, Cadiz, and Ronda. And to call it otherwise, is fighting words for those Andalucians proud of it, as well fighting words for those non-Andalucians who don’t want to be associated with such a low-class music that, of course, is nowhere as good as their local folk music.
Nor is flamenco a folk music. Commonly, folk music has anonymous composers, nonprofessionals as performers, and has no artistes as classical music and dance does. But flamenco counts professionals as its best performers. Unlike folk songs, you don’t collect the best examples of flamenco by going as far out in the backwoods as possible to record the oldest man with the fewest teeth. Any old codger in the country may sing a passable pure old version of Red River Valley. Not just anybody in Andalucia can sing the songs -the cantes - of flamenco. There are great artists (cantaors) who are not professionals who could be, but choose not to.
Moreover, unlike traditional folk music, the composers of many of the flamenco cantes are known - Many of the cantes are named after their creators. And adding moreover to moreover, while Americans can argue about whether Pete Seegar is a better folksinger than Bob Dylan, this type of argument is in no way as musically complex in content as an argument about who now sings the best and purest Siguiryas of Manuel Torre. There are families known for their tradition of cante - These are the casas cantaoras, where particular versions of cantes are passed from generation to generation.
There is an Andalucian folk music, and it exists side by side with flamenco and sometimes overlaps. But the two are not the same. The folk forms have often been incorporated into flamenco, but when they are, their nature and performance is changed. Thus, for example, the folk fandango is danced in couples or groups. It is accompanied by a small band of guitar, bandurria (a sort of mandolin), castanets, and violin. Sometimes tambourines of various types are used. The flamenco version of the same fandango will have no dance and will be one singer accompanied only by guitar. Unlike the folk form, where everyone is standing, the flamenco form is usually done seated with two chairs - one for singer and one for guitarist.
Folk music usually focuses on the text at least as much as the music. For flamenco, like opera and other classical forms, it is how the performer works and plays with melody and rhythm that draws or does not draw oles and it is how he or she expresses the particular aesthetic “emotions” of flamenco. In the serious cantes, the “emotion” is jondura (deepness). In the less serious songs, it is a touch of gentle or ungentle humor called angel. It is possible for a cantaor to overcome the most maudlin and trite of verses and with his/her singing produce jondura in the singing. The lyrics ( “letras”) are rarely improvised. The music works within strict boundaries - The form of each cante has strict rules, most dating back at least a century. And woe from the purists upon those who break those rules.
I keep on mentioning the songs rather than the dances or the guitar. That is because, contrary to what most foreigners believe, it is the song the cante, that has most importance in flamenco. Next is the dance - baile and last is guitar.
As has been said, you can have a flamenco fiesta without a guitar and you can have one without a dancer, but you cannot have one without a singer.
Is flamenco Gypsy music?
As Andalucians aficionados who want to downplay the role of Gypsies in flamenco like to say, “The Gypsies outside of Spain do not do flamenco, so how can it be Gypsy music?” However, as those who stress the importance of Gypsies (gitanos) in flamenco like to say, "Almost all of the known great singers, past and present, were gitanos. Also, with one or two exceptions, the families that have or have had family traditions of doing flamenco, are all gitanos. The term aficionado was first applied to non-Gypsies in Andalucia who liked to play at being Gypsy - writing Gypsy-style poetry, dressing like Gypsies hanging out with them. More than that, the word flamenco itself was once synonymous with “Gypsy.” “Flamenco” meant Gypsy until mid 19th century
Of course, making music for money was a traditional Gypsy occupation. For the Gadje, the non-Gypsy, well, if you were upper class it was looked down upon except as hobby. If you were lower-class, you had a better chance at eating regularly if you stuck to making lasts, rather than dancing around in shoes made on those lasts. The truth is somewhere in between. The Gypsies took existing Andalucian folk forms (some still sung today) and transformed them into something more complex with as much art as Smetna and Dvorak transformed their local folk songs into the classical genre.
I have said that the term aficionado, now universal, referred originally to non-Gypsies who “played” at being Gypsy. Originally, to “have the aficion” was to have an impulse to copy Gypsy ways in behavior, dress, and in writing poetry. This information comes not from an Andaluz, not even from a Spaniard, but from an Englishman who wrote in the 1840s. He ought to know, he had “the aficíon” and lived with the Gypsies ... and he was advised in editing his book about Spain by an American Richard Ford, who traveled there around 1830.
Spain and Spanish music always had an attraction for foreigners. Spain was the exotic place to travel through if you were anybody in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s; more so if you were interested in dance. Dances from Spain seemed to have an eternal allure to the rest of Europe. In one’s travel to Spain it was a must to see Gypsies dance flamenco. In the 16th century, it was the chaconne and the saraband, both banned for being too lascivious. After that, in the 18th century it was the fandango - also banned for the same reason. In between was another banned dance - the zerrembeque which assuredly had its roots and trunk in SubSaharan Africa.
Flamenco in general , which developed in its modern form in the late 18th century seems never to have been banned, but it drew foreigners to see it. Writers and composers went there to Andalucia in search of the Gypsy woman - the “Carmen” - doing these dances as they “should” be done. Some foreign women- Fannie Elsner, Lola Montes, became famous on concert stages in Europe doing their versions of these dances.
The term flamenco itself and it’s meaning are crucial to this discussion. The etymology has always been in dispute. Literally, it can mean “Flemish” or “flamingo.” The former, for reasons which are not necessary here, is probably correct. But whatever its derivation, as I said, for this sort of context, it seemed to have started out as a word used to refer to Andalucian Gypsies. From there it came to mean a kind of lifestyle tied to the music and Gypsy culture and, as well, to refer to the music and dance itself. In fact, some might say ( I among them) that the lifestyle is inseparable from the music.
Along with the European interest in the early and mid-Nineteenth century in folktales and folk music, flamenco flourished and started to break into two distinguishable, but interrelated forms. On the one hand, (or “foot”) what might be called tablao or stage flamenco and , on the other, what might be called "pure" flamenco. The dance is the most easily accessible part of flamenco to casual audiences and it is natural that tablao flamenco, aimed at a large market or audience, focused on dance. Instead of the “pure” form of flamenco dance which placed a few minutes of dance in between the verses of the more important cante, in the tablao the dance became the center of the performance.
A distinction was now made between the singer who sang solo alone in front - p’alante. And those singers who stayed behind the dancers serving only as a sort of condiment for the baile. Their freedom to develop a cante was limited by the demands of the choreography. Now the dance was heavily choreographed beforehand and on the stage, at least, the cante fell “p’atras” - to the background literally and figuratively.
These café cantantes or tablaos made it easy for anyone to see some flamenco in a reasonable and civilized way. One bought a ticket, showed up at a specified time, saw the show, and went home. The purer form of flamenco took place among families and their friends and neighbors. Unpredictable when it would happen and unpredictable as to how long it would last - though certainly at least an entire night, at the least. Strangers could not just pop in to hear and see it. If they did “pop in”, they might not be able to “pop out” for a day or two. Aside from the family get-together, perhaps, a rich landowner, a señorito, would hire some artists for a fiesta. A tablao performance might start at 11pm and end at 2 am. But the fiesta might last for days, certainly at least until next morning. In the 20th century, the café cantantes disappeared to be replaced by tablaos or theater performances. So we still had these two types of flamenco venues existing side by side. The theater flamenco and the flamenco fiesta.
II. Foreigners in Flamenco and How They Learn
The initiation of foreigners into flamenco in the Twentieth century usually came via touring theater or concert performances of dance troupes or guitar concerts, or from the few recordings commercially available outside of Spain.
That was true both for those whose interest was satisfied by enjoying whatever and whenever flamenco happened to be presented to them in the concert halls every so often and for those who came to feel that they had to get more involved in this art. As a generalization, for those foreigners who wanted to get further involved, the men who pursued flamenco usually chose to learn guitar; the women generally chose to learn dance. Very few of either ventured to begin by learning cante. The methods of learning each of these facets of flamenco tended to be very distinct. And those differences were very important in regard to the place of Moron in all this. In fact, it may be that the importance of Moron really hinged on this.
For those who studied dance, their initial interest was generally in the complex choreographed baile routines they had seen in tablaos or on stage. The “purer” forms of baile were seldom if ever exhibited to the foreign public. The formal dance studio experience is a common part of learning flamenco baile. Overseas, in America for example, there were a few Spanish dance teachers who lived here and gave lessons. Some of these were as much experienced in escuela bolera as they were in flamenco. They taught “Spanish dance,” and switched from bolora pasadobles to flamenco bulerias without even stopping for a sip of fino. Generally, dance students who went to Spain would study with teachers in studios in Madrid or Sevilla.
Dance lessons are formal and given both in group classes and to individuals. Unlike learning cante or guitar, it is highly unlikely that a student would seek out a dance teacher in some tiny pueblo. After all, among other things, the choreographed baile requires mirrors and treated floors. In the cities, expensive studio space could be shared by a number of dance teachers. Dance teachers are generally working or retired stage performers. I should add that Spaniards,even Gypsies brought up in flamenco families, who want to learn stage dance will often go through this same kind of education process to learn the formal choreography of stage flamenco.
Learning for the guitar aficionado is generally quite different. For foreigners, many took individual lessons with a guitarist whose style and material they admired. Most also took what material and technique that they could from recordings. There were a very few books of music and or tablature available, some took what they could from those. Sheaves of tablature were complied and sold by some individuals. There were classic books of flamenco study such as Marin’s. In Spain, at that time there was no such thing as group classes or courses in guitar. If one studied with a guitarist, it was on a one-to-one basis. Payment was per lesson. The varieties of guitar music available to the student was much broader than the dance lessons available. The guitar teachers ranged from very technical concert solo styles to simpler “purer” styles intended to accompany cante or baile. Those who learned from records or books tended to learn a “concert” style of flamenco guitar. That is, a style strictly suited for solos, not what is requisite to accompany dancers or singers. The compas or rhythm is what is essential to flamenco, and that cannot be easily notated in writing.
III Autobiographical Notes on Moron de la Frontera
I think my own history is a pretty common example of the foreign male guitar aficionado. I started by playing and singing American folk music accompanying myself with guitar. Also typical, were those others who entered flamenco from a classical guitar background. I loved folk music, but loved classical music even more. I worshiped Bach. (But could play only folk music on guitar.) Somewhere along the way during my college days, I heard recordings of the flamenco guitarists Sabicas and Escudero, two major concert style flamenco guitarists, whose recordings were available in the US. Mostly, I was amazed more than I was moved. I heard recordings of Carmen Amaya, which I liked and I saw Jose Greco on TV and on college stage, which I marveled at. Some of those guitar pieces really pulled me in. A little later, in a college music course, the instructor played a bit of cante on a 78rpm recordings. It was the great singer Nina de los Peines singing the form petenera, for which she was famous. Something about her singing grabbed me in a way that I could not compare to anything I had ever heard, though I had no thought at all of trying to learn to sing such a foreign-sounding music. However, it did make me want to get more involved in this music.
I started to learn a little bit of toque. I learned from Americans I met who played a little. I also picked up some from listening over and over to recordings. I did not read music which was not uncommon for flamenco students at that time and certainly not uncommon for professional Spanish flamenco guitarists. Inability to read music was not at all considered a handicap. As I started learning more and more flamenco guitar, I started reading about flamenco. There was a total of two or three books in English available. On a post-college trip to Europe, I planned to make Madrid my base because I had the name of an American who was living and studying guitar there. I landed in Casablanca by boat, traveled to Tangiers, crossed the Straits of Gibralter, then hitchhiked up from the south with a cheap American guitar on my back.
One night I slept on the beach at Cadiz. At dusk, a Gypsy teenage girl and her little sisters came over and asked me to play for them. I played the tiny bit of flamenco I knew, a farruca, and they danced. I was smitten by flamenco music. I made my way up to Madrid and took some lessons there. The lessons were straightforward and taken with that American who had lived there for a while. I say “straightforward” because there were some drunken nights, but no real fiestas. This was before cassette recorders. Material was learned by memorization. Though many guitarists used tablature. He would play and I would try to copy. He would play again and I would try to copy again.
We lived in a pension on Calle Echegaray. Among those living there was an old guitarist, Jose Revueltas. My Spanish was awful and I could barely speak to him. He would go out every night looking for fiesta work and come back late. I doubt if he got much work at that stage in his life. A few times we (the other American and I) got involved with some fiestas with a professional guitarist living in Madrid who was a friend of his. While I found them immensely enjoyable, I had no conception of the Andalucian fiesta structure. The gatherings in Madrid were sort of a mixture between a U.S. party and a pueblo fiesta. There was always a number of pretty American women for the guitarist to focus on.
I came back to the US with a love of Spain and flamenco and a wish to continue with flamenco, hopefully some day in Spain. Though the idea of becoming a professional flamenco was never really in my mind. The directness to their music and dance of the girls on the Cadiz beach was somehow always on my mind. When I got back to the States, I started hanging out with the small group of American aficionados in New York. I played for a flamenco dance school and after a while played solos in coffee houses. I started listening more and more to recordings of cante and less to solo guitar. There were three or four restaurants that had flamenco shows and I would frequent them. Soon my extensive classical music record collection started gathering dust. Fittingly, it was the 19th Century Romantics Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, who suffered most from my intensifying love affair with flamenco. As I read and heard more and more about flamenco, I realized there was another aspect to it that I had not really experienced, and that aspect was basic to flamenco. That was the flamenco life itself: the fiestas, the 24-hour a day flamenco. This was described in the books I had read by Pohren, Howson, and Hecht. In reading those books, the accounts of the flamenco life fascinated me. I began to dream of going to Spain to find that aspect of flamenco, though with no plan about how long and how much and how to be involved.
After completing my MA in Philosophy in Chicago I had the good fortune to be hit by a car while crossing the street one day. I received the enormous sum of $3000 and decided to use it to go find that life in Spain. I thought that every town in Andalucia had a thriving flamenco scene ... A rather naive idea that I later found to be false. I don’t know how common his idea was with other foreigners, but it was clear to me that every pueblo in Andalucia had a thriving flamenco scene. However, since some of my friends had been to Moron de la Frontera, I thought with my limited Spanish it would be the best and easiest place to make an entree into this world. Of course, I was wrong. Very few, if any, other pueblos had a flamenco scene like that of Moron.
Moron had at its heyday a population of more than 35,000. Too large to be called a pueblo. It was formally designated a city around the turn of the 20th century. It is on a mountain, “Espartero”, the first of a mountain range in the province of Seville. It is about 75 kilometers from Seville itself. Early on, it had a paleolithic population and was later settled by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. The latter called it “Arunci”. The meaning of Moron is uncertain, but appears to be “mound” It is on one of the first mountains in a chain. It is noted for a very fine limestone used for cement. Too, it is known for its olive factories. More recently, it became known for an American airbase. I should mention that in spite of the proximity of Moron to the enormous airbase, we had very very rare contact with Americans from the base. In fact, the first time I saw American military personnel in numbers in town was many years later during the Gulf War. Moron is also known throughout Spain, at least via a saying, for a statue of a featherless rooster and the legend that goes with it. It is too well known to need repeating here. It was an important town in the history of flamenco in the 19th century, but there is only slight direct connection between the flamenco of the 19th century Moron and the flamenco I shall talk about. In many flamenco pueblos there is a flamenco lineage that directly traces back at least to the 10th Century. Diego’s family did not come from Moron.
In the period I am talking about, -the 1950 to 1970s-Moron flamenco centered around a barrio in the old part of the pueblo where a guitarist and his family lived. This guitarist was Diego del Gastor. A Gypsy, he was the son of a wealthy horse trader who originally lived a bit east of Moron in the town of Arriate near Ronda. Horse-trading involved travel from onepueblo fair to another and Diego is said to have been born en route during one of these journeys. He spent his early years in the pueblo of Gastor, hence his name. Flamenco keeps that ancient tradition of identifying people by nicknames. Diego had a few brothers and sisters. Some of them also settled in Moron. He studied some guitar when young, mainly with an older brother who played some guitar. When fairly young, his family moved to Moron. Somewhere along the way, his father died and an uncle absconded with the family money. The family appears to have been pretty assimilated with the non-Gypsy community. I know of at least one very close childhood friend of Diego who was not Gypsy and probably would be considered middle-class, growing up to become a veterinarian.
In Moron, he picked up formal studies with a guitarist, Pepe Naranjo who, it is said, was one of only two direct disciples of a great 19th Century guitarist, Paco de Lucena. Subsequently in Moron, Diego started to get a reputation very similar to that Pepe Naranjo: he played only when he felt like it, even if great money or fame were at stake. To be redundant, this Gypsy Diego had acquired the reputation of being a bohemian. For whatever reasons, which were not totally clear, Diego preferred not to do commercial recordings although he was sought after. He preferred not to stray very far or very long from the Moron area.
In Moron he attracted a small number of important singers. From Utrera, came perhaps the greatest singer of solea ever, Fernanda de Utrera and her sister, Bernarda. From Alcala, two important singers Manolito el de la Maria and Juan Talega. Diego’s sister was married to a singer, Luis “Joselero” Torre. Diego’s playing trips were mainly to these other pueblos with an occasional fiesta in Jerez or Ronda and very rare trips to Madrid and Barcelona. Before the influx of foreign students, local money was earned by occasional fiesta paid for by the olive magnates in Moron and lessons to the occasional Spanish officer at the airbase. Later on, when flamenco festivals got started in the 1960's, he got work at them accompanying singers. Usually he would be asked to play a solo. In these cante-based festivales8, that was an honor and recognition of his abilities.
In 1962 an American aficionado of guitar, Donn Pohren, made contact with Diego. This contact turned out to be, for many foreign aficionados, like the discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb. There had been a few other Americans living in Moron prior to Pohren, but the influx of foreign aficionados was really an effect of Pohren and his activities.
Diego had four nephews with a propensity for guitar. Only one of them, the oldest, Paco, was to get lessons from him and be his designated heir to the instrument. The others, Juan, Paco’s younger brother, Agustin, son of Diego’s sister Teresa, and Dieguito, son of Joselero and another of Diego’s sisters, would have to beg for lessons or pick up bits and pieces by watching and listening. The fact that there were so many excellent guitarists available in Moron is, I think, an important point overlooked when talking about the rich flamenco life in Moron. Many a town had a good singer or two or a good festero, but few had even passable guitarists. The fact that three or four guitarists were always available for “something” was important to Moron’s ever-in-blossom flamenco life. I shall come back to that.
There were other flamencos in Diego’s Moron family. A well-known festero, Fernandillo. Another festero, Andorrano.
Foreigners could easily get lessons from Diego. He held nothing back, no secrets in his playing. It is legendary that many great masters would hold back secrets of playing from their students. That was not the case with Diego. One such foreigner, who came to Moron very early on, an American, David Jones, who took the stage name David Serva, was very talented and has made a career in Spain of flamenco guitar.
Toque followed the cante of the region: bulerias, bulerias, bulerias, solea. Siguiryas once in a while, Alegrias once in a great while and Chuflas. Also, whenever a drunk or old gacho was around, a fandango or two. Interspersed now and then, of course, were declamaciones: Lorca, Machado. Pohren decided he could make a living here from flamenco. He bought a finca from an American who had owned it. The finca was about a kilometer outside of town.
VI Pohren’s Finca Espartero
He wrote a book about flamenco “The Art of Flamenco” in which he described Moron. He set up “flamenco vacations” at his finca where foreigners-mostly, but not exclusively Americans, could stay. He would hire Diego or one of his nephews plus a singer and festero for fiestas at the finca periodically. Those who stayed at the finca would pay for room and board. The fiestas were paid for a la carte by the foreigners staying there. Periodically, Diego or one of the nephew would go out to the finca and give lessons. At the same time. some foreigners came to the pueblo itself and rented pisos of houses, usually in the barrio where Diego lived. They would take lessons from Diego and from his nephews. Some living there for a year or more. Their means of support was always mysterious. I think very little discussion was held among the foreigners about their means of support. Pueblo life in Spain in that time was very very inexpensive. During my times there , I saw mostly Americans, but I saw also Italians, English, Australians, Greeks, Northern Spanish and Germans. There developed a sort of “town and gown” life and rivalry. We living in town would laugh as Pohren periodically drove into town with his Land Rover full of those staying at his finca. They would spend an hour or two in town and then head back. This was all an extraordinary situation for flamenco. Though Pohren paid what could be said to be low fees to the artists, he provided pretty steady work for the flamencos. In a country where flamenco was little appreciated, the idea of foreigners traveling to this small town to learn flamenco could not help but have a positive affect on the flamencos in town. And perhaps an effect on flamenco in all of Spain.
VI Autobiography Again.
I remember the day I arrived in Moron. There were two public means of getting to Moron from Sevilla. There was a bus that went the Moron-Sevilla route a few times a day. There were also taxis that waited until they had 3 or 4 passengers and made the trip from Moron to Sevilla and back. Their “station” in Sevilla was a bar, the Bar Robles. I took the bus in from Sevilla. The bus station was in the center of town just a few minute’s walk from Bar Pepe where I had been advised to go. I had been given directions beforehand to Bar Pepe. As I walked up the hill leading to Bar Pepe carrying my guitar, two or three people came up and rhetorically asked me if I was there to see Diego as they led me up the hill to the bar helping me with my luggage. I entered Bar Pepe in a daze, but I was invited to drinks immediately by the various people hanging out there. Within an hour I was in a swirl of people and nicely drunk. Within a few hours, I was helped to rent a sort of house-piso a few yards from the bar. This was a ground floor apartment that had been cut out of a house. It consisted of a room with a bed and a small window and another room with a combination tile ceramic sink and charcoal stove by another window. On one side of the room was a bathroom with no windows nor ventilation. There was a bed, a table and a couple of chairs, and some bits and pieces of kitchenware.
It took two nights of insect powder application to get rid of the bedbugs. It took a few hours to rig up a shower by connecting a plastic pipe to the sink and hanging the other end over a metal tub-pail just big enough to stand in. Like most foreigners, I acquired a small butane tank with cooking burner attached and some flatware, plates, glasses and pots. The glasses were most important. After a while, the small butane tank was replaced by a periodic delivery of a large re-filled orange tank of butane which could be fed to more of a stove-like apparatus. It could also heat large quantities of water, enough for a hot wash. Though in those Franco times, water was always a problem. There were periods of days when no running water was available in town. Sometimes one would have to gather up empty tubs and pails and bottles and wait for a municipal water truck to come around. In later years, going to Moron, the water issue was the sources of demonstrations in a number of pueblos. I remember one year four women were shot by the Guardia Civil while demonstrating for water. That was in the town of Carmona.
In general, for a foreigner who didn’t have to face a lifetime of such conditions, life in Moron was wonderful. Although there were three or four bars where the flamencos tended to go, the center of activity was Bar Pepe, or more formally, Casa Pepe. Just as any walk into a Western movie bar could be a walk into a gunfight, any walk into Casa Pepe might be a walk into a fiesta ... except the Casa Pepe and its fiestas were real. The bar was an old style pueblo bar. One in which a patron was honored when regular enough to have a running tab chalked up on a small blackboard. As one walked in the main entrance, there was a doorway leading to an upstairs room used mostly for storage, but also often for fiestas. Past the doorway was the bar which went the length of the room, perhaps about 40 feet. Walking in with eyes left, one saw first a pinball machine, then tables lining the wall and finally, a urinal with a swinging half-door. Later on, when the bar got a television set, the pinball machine was moved further in. There was a doorway to the bar on the left side too that opened to a side street, a less-used second entrance.
As I said, the bar was in the old part of town, the Plaza San Miguel, which has the church of San Miguel there, built back and forth century between Christians and Moors, with architectural elements of both. A quarter of a mile further uphill were the ruins of the pueblo’s castle. Next to the bar on each side were entrances to pisos. It was in these that Diego and some of his family lived. I am not an architectural historian, but this block of buildings must have been at least two hundred years old. In many instances, gitano flamenco families were, and are, somewhat closed to outsiders. This was not at all true of Diego. Although not highly educated, he had a great curiosity about the world. As a person, he has been described as looking like a college professor. He generally wore a conservative grey suit. A shock of white hair was combed over the barer spots on his head. He had an aquiline nose. His face was almost turtle-like. He had delicate hands, almost child-like. He would talk with some sophistication about world politics and freedom and yet at the same time, and unrelated to the politics, turn his head to spit on the floor or interrupt himself to curse one of the stray dogs begging for food near his table. His politics were Left and he would sometimes talk openly and critically about Spanish politics. Because of his fame for the town, he was allowed some leeway in those closed Franco times. Yes, he also had that look of Sam Jaffee in Shangra-La in the movie Lost Horizon. Or perhaps of an elected Roman warrior-emperor, but whatever kind of charisma best describes it, he had charisma.
Diego was looked upon with awe by the other foreigners too. I picture in my mind’s visual memory the scene outside Bar Pepe as a visual analogy to those photos of great artists and writers in cafes in Paris. One sees them sitting at a café table with their worshipers sitting attentive and attending them. This was true in Moron as we sat around Diego at the few tables set in the plaza outside Bar Pepe. We hung on every word. We watched his nails to see how he cut them. And when the conversation was over, we ran back to cut our nails that way. He described a rasgueado. When the conversation was over, we ran home to try the rasgueado.
On the other hand , he had his share of gausa, or malange. There were people he had not spoken to in decades, and he had a temper and, in traditional flamenco manner, he could and did drink. But he could easily drink beyond what was allowable. There were certain unwritten rules of behavior one was required to intuitively follow. To break those rules could mean being ostracized by Diego. “To know how to be”, “to know one’s place”, were two of the important rules. Obviously “to know one’s place” was not a statement about social class distinctions. It was a statement close to the Delphic “Know thyself”. Most commonly, this rule was broken by some foreigners who came to Moron with the attitude that they were great performers of flamenco, and cabales when it came to knowledge about flamenco. As for “To know how to be”, I can still remember an example of how the rule was violated one day. One day the tables were set out in the Plaza in front of Bar Pepe. At one table were three of us Americans who were familiar with and accepted by Moron. At the next table were a group of Australian guitar aficionados. They were loud-drunk and generally disgusting. While sitting there, Diego came by. The Australians asked him if they could hire him for a fiesta, offering a large sum. He refused and immediately came over to our table and asked us if we would like to arrange a fiesta with him.
The flamenco life here was exactly what I had been looking for. The guitar music was intrinsically wonderful. Much of the music was able to stand alone as solo guitar. However, most of the guitar music was composed with accompanying cante and pueblo baile in mind, rather than focused on difficult technique for the sake of technique. Along with this, Diego tended to stay away from composing “set” solo pieces with beginning, development, and end. Such would be more appropriate for a concert soloist. Bulerias reigned. The bulerias were always present and the bulerias compas made you move your body, your feet, or your fingers. At the same time, Diego was maestro and composer enough that he could not avoid guitar solo. One of the paradoxes for great flamenco guitarists is that the genre demands that the music be secondary to the cante and baile, yet the guitarist who is genius is also pulled towards creating pure guitar pieces. To put the guitar solo in perspective, in a 10 hour fiesta., Diego might play 2 or 3 solos. When he was in the mood to play solos, they could go on for half an hour.
The repertoire of Moron toque was very much limited to the gitano flamenco of that geographical area. While Diego, like any professional flamenco guitarist, could play the full range of over 24 toques, most of his playing was dedicated to bulerias, soleares, and siguiryas. His mastery over the guitar was such that he could and did extemporize without mistake or “stuttering.” At that stage, his nephews, particularly Paco, could extemporize, but often had to stop to work on variations on a particular idea until they found one that worked, or they would work to find the finger position for the cord they had in mind. His nephews Paco who became perhaps even a better technician than his uncle and who has played in more venues in and out of Spain, and recorded, still keeps the sanctity of the fiesta and plays no more than two 10 minute guitar solos in an 8 hour fiesta. The fiesta is a special thing. It is not a performance. That is an extremely important distinction. It is more like a party with some performance in it. People at fiestas are better described as participants than as audience. They are not there in order to sit quietly, hands folded, listening to music. The fiesta centers around the music: cante, dance, and guitar.
For a big city American like me, this too was part of the wonder and glory. As folkies in the States, we would often have parties where each and all sang songs, but we were of the same class and age. In the fiesta in Moron (and, of course, in Utrera, Jerez, etc), all ages were represented and the group was not composed of a bunch of college students. Moreover, the folk music parties were forms isolated from our daily life. The flamenco in Moron was not. As far as that subculture of Spaniards and foreigners clustered around the Plaza San Miguel, it was our daily life. There were foreign guitar aficionados who never, to put it snobbishly, reached this level of afición. They remained interested in fast difficult guitar runs and barely tolerated cante. They were not a good fit with Moron. While there, they either sequestered themselves with books and records and ignored the pueblo life, or quickly left for somewhere else.
Discussions in the bar were about flamenco. Obviously other things were spoken about also. Some topics were dealt with cautiously. It was known that the Guardia had a spy placed in the bar and the pueblanos all knew who he was. One thing that always amazed me about these Andalucian bars was that while an argument in a US bar might end up in a nasty brawl, an argument in Bar Pepe would likely end up in a fiesta.
By the time I got to Moron, Diego’s oldest nephew Paco, then in his twenties, had steady work with Bambino in the North. Bambino was a well-known rumbero. Paco came to Moron only occasionally in this period. The other nephews scrambled for work giving lessons to the Americans. No matter where the foreigners came from, they were called “Americans’. This was as much for prestige as for money. There was no doubt that they liked to have a few Americans tailing after them. (It is a topic for another time to mention that three of his four nephews married foreign women. One, an American, one an English woman and the third, an Irish woman.) Ansonini a great festero dancer close to Diego and the people of Moron, had an initial long-term affair with an American woman. After that had broken up and years later, he “married” an American woman and moved to California for a while. A non-flamenco nephew married an American woman about 30 years ago and lives with her in the US. Aside from more “serious” relationships, the Finca was used by the nephews as a steady source of casual relationships. I think for this social class of Spaniards in Spain in those Franco times , such “goings on” were very unusual. In those days, the usual source of sex outside of marriage for men were prostitutes.
Diego himself was a curious mixture of ego and shyness, generosity and vengefulness. His nephews all seemed to inherit some of those characteristics to different degrees. Each seem too to have inherited a different virtue of his playing. Paco, the technique; Agustin the sensitivity, etc. Diego had numberous offers to record yet, except for one 45 rpm, he never did. It is not certain why. On the one hand, I suspect that he lacked self-confidence. Though in other situations like fiestas he certainly showed a strong ego. In a book, “Cronicas para una Historia de Moron”, an ABC de Sevilla interview with Diego is quoted: “La guitarra es algo desmasiado sublime para que no se pueda comprar o vender.” Thus implying an anti-commercial attitude. His reluctance to record remains a mystery. One can cynically toss it off to psychological difficulties, but one can also take Diego at his word ...that to commercialize it is wrong. He certainly was honest in his distaste of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. An often repeated story was that when nephew Paco came back from his stays in Barcelona, Diego would lock the two of them in a room together for hours and hours so that Diego could “clean” up Paco’s toque. It is true that they locked up together when Paco came to visit, but I cannot vouch for what went on. However, for those of us interested in “purity,” such a story was like a Biblical parable. It should be pointed out that Diego’s own teacher during his youth in Moron, Pepe Naranjo, was famous for rejecting lucrative “gigs” when he did not like the perspective audience or did not feel like playing. Even rejecting a command performance from the King.
The time came quickly when I had to arrange for guitar lessons. Frankly, although I had been playing for a while, I was too shy to approach Diego for lessons. Though I knew he would have no compunctions about giving me lessons. This was silly on my part. People who were far more beginners than I took lessons with him. But I was too much in awe of him. Choosing which nephew to take lessons with had political implications, but because my Spanish was so bad, I knew nothing of that. I ended up taking lessons with, as well as becoming friends with, Agustin Rios. Diego’s nephew by way of his sister Teresa. He was about 18 at the time. I should say that my initial lack of Spanish was a godsend. There were various factions in Moron, to the degree that some people would not speak to others. Knowing nothing about any of that, I was able to be friends with all.
The methodology of taking lessons revealed its own social aspect. Agustin would come to my house and give me a lesson. In that time, I think a lesson was 200 pesetas. The “lesson” was not only a strict guitar interaction, but lots of charlando and joking and general talk. Afterward, we would immediately walk over to Bar Pepe where Agustin would invite me to drinks. This procedure was ritual. I think it served a number of purposes. It showed the people in Moron that Agustin was giving lessons to an American and getting paid for them. At the same time, his inviting me to drinks, a number of rounds, showed that our relationship was more than just business or his taking advantage of a foreign gacho. It was also a friendship. He made sure that all the lesson money was not spent at the bar, some was saved and went back to his family. (I hope he doesn’t mind this sort of cold description of what went on, for Agustin became and remains a friend close to my heart.) His father had lost a leg in the Civil War and sold lottery tickets. His mother has a small toy stand in the public market. He had two married sisters and a brother,Pepe Rios, who had some fame as a dancer. Pepe Rios lived in Sevilla and had a small dance studio.
Daytime sometimes could be boring for the foreigners in Moron. At other times the days had their own wonder. Agustin and his cousin, Paco’s brother, Juan, were close friends then. We often would gather up some of the very young kids. With money supplied by me and or other foreigners, Juan, a good cook with an a aficion for cooking, would buy supplies for an arroz. He would buy a chicken, garlic, onions, rice, Aeroplano colorante, a cheap saffron substitute, and a demijohn of cheap wine. We would borrow a large paella pan and some spoons from Bar Pepe and with kids and guitars, pile all into a town taxi and go about a kilometer to a spot next to the river where there were shallow wading pools. Eucalyptus branches were gathered and Juan would cook. We would stay there eating, drinking, wading, singing and playing for a few hours. It was idyllic. Our spoons were tiny coffee spoons borrowed from Casa Pepe. The children made do with pieces of bark to scoop rice and chicken from the pot. These excursions were somehow magically planned. At the right time, after we had cleaned the utensils and were ready for town, the taxi would show up and we would head back to town. Payment for taxi was also taken care of by the foreigners. In retrospect, the idea of taking a taxi to and from the picnic spot makes the whole scene a sort of parody of an upper class English picnic.
Of course, in summer, generally there was little other remedio but to stay in and siesta during the hot part of the day. For those unfamiliar with Andalucian climate, in summer at least, the days were impossible in that area. Sometimes the daytime temperatures would hit 110 Fahrenheit. Sometimes that section of the river used for picnics would dry to mud. There was a municipal pool, but we seldom used it. Those foreigners lucky enough to have a cool room could practice guitar. Anyone who had a car was at a premio. That meant he had the ability to carry people from venta to venta , pueblo to pueblo, and so keep a fiesta going. Or he could help in creating one if, for example, a spontaneous decision was made that we would like to have a fiesta with so and so who dances or sings and lives in a neighboring pueblo. There would be no compunction at all in piling a bunch of people in a car or two, driving to that person’s house, and pounding on his door whatever the hour. For whatever the hour, we would be welcome. On some hot days we would go to pueblos like Coripe which had a sort of sizable stream and a pleasant venta overlooking the water.
Juan del Gastor was a notorious and sensitive clown and often would create some plan for gachandeo. One night six of us stuffed ourselves into a German guitar student’s VW bug and went out to steal melons in the countryside, another night it was grapes. Another night it was treating a retarded pueblano to a mock mass, Juan half-nude as the priest sprinkling “holy water” with a soup ladle.
Sometimes the lack of privacy was as bothersome for Americans, as was the boredom. Americans are used to having private time. Time alone to walk or think or do nothing. In Andalucia, especially in a pueblo, that was simply something not understood. To want to be alone was either to be crazy or to be insulting. I soon gave up on trying to explain why I did not want to join others for a drink on some days. Often, when I wanted to be alone, I would have to sneak out of my house (which was easily visible from Bar Pepe) and take a circuitous route around the edge of town in order to take a lone walk up to the castle or onto the mountain.
It was in the evening when things really got started. Bar Pepe did a good business or, at least, was usually full in the evening. This was still in the days before television was affordable by most pueblanos. The clientele was essentially male, mostly non-gitano, though, of course, Diego’s family would hang out there. Any women there except for Pepe’s wife and daughter and a helper Carmen, who worked for them, were almost bound to be foreigners. I never noticed any overt anti-Gypsy sentiment except on one occasion which still sticks in my mind: One day, a man who was a constant fixture at flamenco fiestas, a regular at Bar Pepe, a man whose jaleo was as loud as any, took me aside and told me to beware of the Gypsies, they would try to cheat me out of my money. That never happened to me down there. Never. Ever.
Payment of drinks or venta bills was almost always done by foreigners, but for good reasons ... we had the money, the locals did not. They were entertaining us with their music and, to me, they were trapped in an economic existence that was pretty bad in those Franco times. I, on the other hand, always had my passport and could leave for better parts. I might complain about the days without running water, but I could always go back to the US.
The Bar Pepe clientele were mixed in occupations. There was a non-gitano who had steady work laying down tarmac at the airbase. He was a wonderful festero. There was the owner of a small stall that sold candy and kid's items. His wife ran the store. He was alcoholic and lived in Bar Pepe. One night we drove out to the campo to steal grapes. While there, he lost his glasses with his initials on them. I still remember his panic that the Guardia would find them and track him down. There was a medical assistant, many old men too old to work and who hung out with the eternal set of dominos in front of them. Of course, unemployment was very high especially out of harvest and planting season. Diego and nephews certainly hung out there. If a paid fiesta out of town was in the offing, Joselero and Diego might hang out at Bar Pepe because owner Pepe, whose piso was a few steps away, had the only phone in the area, and the phone was used to set up logistics for those private fiestas.
As for fiestas in Bar Pepe itself , they were often and really ran a broad spectrum. A sort of bare fiesta would be the common event of someone rapping knuckles on the bar in compas and singing. This might be a drunk wandering in with a friend or two singing Pepe Marchena fandangos. In such cases, they were ignored, but it could be a regular doing those nudillo compas and singing a bulerias or solea. Someone might object that he was singing it wrong, and launch into his own version. This could go on for ten minutes and stop, and other conversation resume or it might expand. If one of Diego’s nephews was there with a guitar, or Diego was there with a guitar and in the mood, the guitar would be taken out of its case and a more complete fiesta might start. If any of the participants could dance, space was made for them. If things got really serious, we moved to a room upstairs. No matter what else was going on in the bar, we foreigners always had a third eye open and searching for signs of a fiesta, hopefully with Diego.
Post festival fiestas could also occur. As well as Diego, other local artists such as his nephew and Joselero were hired for the Gazpacho, Moron’s flamenco festival. That sudden spilling in of glory and money inevitably meant a fiesta. Too, Diego’s returning from a private paid fiesta in another town usually meant a fiesta. In retrospect, I realize that desire to keep going was an indication of his love of the music and playing. I remember one morning at 8 am I was with Diego keeping him company at one of his favorite bars after a fiesta. A small bar in the mercado. He was about 70 at the time. I was exhausted. He said, “I am tired”, and I thought to myself, “Thank God, I can soon go to bed”, He continued, “What an awful thing it is to be tired”. He then finished off his glass of gin and went off to Bar Pepe to start another fiesta. I went home to bed.
It was sad that when Diego suddenly died, most of the Americans abandoned the town. Pohren closed his Finca. I still came back yearly for a number of years, because I loved the town and had friends there, even when the nephews left or essentially left. Though after a while I too would end up spending more of my time In Sevilla. Some Americans never went back after Diego died, which is beyond my comprehension. When I came back each time to visit Moron it was always a depressing experience. The “old gang” and I would sit around a bar table in the center of town bemoaning the loss of the old days and constantly repeating old stories. That is still true when I go back there.
VII The Effect of Foreigners on Moron
My own feeling is that, aside from cosmopolitanizing the nephews of Diego, the influx of foreign aficionados had very little effect on the life of the pueblo, even upon the life of the aficionados who always hung out with us. Larger things were just about to happen in Spain at the time Diego died: the return to Democracy. In Europe and general, the hippy youth movement was also soon to have its effect. As for the place of Diego and Moron flamenco on Americans flamencos. Well, putting aside Diego’s musical genius for a moment, perhaps the biggest effect, was having a pueblo with a constant flamenco scene. A real flamenco pueblo. Each other pueblo site seemed to lack something. Utrera had its great singers and dancers, but really lacked guitar. Remember that in Moron it was not just one guitarist, Diego. There were at least four other competent guitarists there: Diego’s nephews. Also, once in a while a foreigner, like David Serva, who could keep up with them. So a fiesta with guitar was always an available possibility.
Lebrija has singers, dance and guitarists, Pedro Bacan and Pedro Pena, but for some reason never achieved a “critical mass’. They were younger than Diego. Pedro Bacan was interested in solo guitar. Pedro Pena kept one foot solidly out of the flamenco scene as schoolteacher and involved in Gypsy affairs in the government. Certainly neither had the genio that Diego had. And, again, they were only two guitarists ... two that often had fights and did not speak to one another for years. Other places were mainly barrios in cities in Jerez or Cadiz or Madrid. But even a close-knit barrio in a city does not have the unified separateness and warmth that a pueblo has. Moreover, whether true or not ,it was said that the Jerez flamenco gitanos were not very open to foreigners. Certainly I know that the major guitarists in Jerez in that period, the Moraos, were not interested in giving lessons.
I think Moron and the foreigners fed on one another. As I said, few foreigners studied cante, so few were likely to go to Utrera to study with singers like Fernanda. Moron had Diego and other teachers for all. This enabled a “large” number of foreigners to study guitar at the same time. With that, more money came to Moron flamenco and that, in turn, encouraged more paid for and unpaid for flamenco. As I said, I first came to Moron thinking it could have easily been a choice of flamenco pueblos by coin toss. It was only long after did I realize how unique Moron was in that time and how lucky I am that part of my life coincided with that time and place.
Mi casa su casa.