Estrella Morente: A future star, steeped in the past

After a fantastic year, the exotic flamenco singer Estrella Morente looks set for fame. And yet, she's less interested in Spanish music's present than in its history, its styles and its musicians
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The Independent Culture

A very good evening to you. Barcelona, thank you for letting us into this... sanctuary." A composed young Estrella Morente finally breaks the between-songs silence after her sixth number, looking out over one of the most exquisite concert halls in the world, the glass-walled, Modernist Palau de la Música Catalana. Under the profusion of alabaster statuary and art nouveau glasswork, a well-to-do, South Bank-style audience applauds enthusiastically but politely and then falls rapt as Alfredo Lagos, her guitarist, produces a gravely exciting minor chord sequence, and Estrella's poised and agile voice launches into a lovely bulerias.

Morente is one of the stars of the first flamenco boom of the 21st century. Her performance in Barcelona, sharing festival billing with José Carreras, the Golden Gate Quartet and Brian Eno, underlines her exaltation to the world of Euro establishment arts heavyweights. It comes at the end of a meteoric year, in which her first CD, Mi Cante y Una Poema (My Songs and a Poem), has sold 100,000 copies. It's a phenomenal result, for a genre in which 10,000 copies in cassette format was once good. And Morente has done this via an appeal not to the future, but to the past, as her soberly elegant black and white suit and mantilla, her restrained gestures and her mellifluous, unforced delivery indicate.

"I'm crazy about the stars of the past, their music and their style and mannerisms." Midnight, in her hotel lounge, la Morente sits for interview, with her young husband of two months perched behind her on the arm of the sofa, stroking her hair. "I live in 2002 and I wear jeans, but I love that limpid look of women from that period, the flowers in the hair, the sense of respect they engendered. So I bring this feeling to my own life. I think I see life a lot from the point of view of my grandmother."

As a budding flamenco star, Morente could hardly have had a more appropriate viewfinder than her grandmother. Rosario was a dancer in the company of Pepe Marchena, the great Sevillean singer whose mannered delivery made operatic flamenco a nationally popular style in the Thirties. And the rest of the family gets better. Her grandfather, also from the gypsy side of Estrella's family, was a well-known guitarist. Her mother, Aurora Carbonell, aka La Pelota, is a dancer, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins tread the flamenco boards.

The towering presence in the Morente pedigree is Estrella's father, Enrique, a singer from a humble, non-gypsy Granada family. In an almost 40-year career, he has forged a reputation for being the most brilliant flamenco vocalist of the era, combining deep traditionalism and encyclopaedic flamenco knowledge with a thirst for experimentation. At the age of seven, Estrella was improvising at a family party with the great guitarist Sabicas – and her wavering, off-key taranto can be heard on a bonus track on her recent Christmas album, Calle del aire (which is yet to be released here), along with the maestro's gruffly amused "Ole!" At 16, she was singing chorus as her father fronted the Granada rock band Lagartija Nick in his 1996 Omega suite, a series of darkly ear-blowing settings of texts by Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen for heavy metal flamenco.

Reaction to Estrella's budding career has echoed this dichotomy. While most of the Spanish music press has raved over the traditionalism and purity of Estrella's debut album, the rare discordant note from the critics has usually involved comment at the lack of adventurousness from a young Morente.

"Maybe my father is more rockero than I am," she says, "but I'm perfectly comfortable with new flamenco, fusion... the new flamenco movement did a lot of good, brought a new generation of listeners. But things change, and I wanted my first record to be more classical. But I got this from my father too. You know, when we used to travel by car up to Madrid, we'd stop at the petrol stations and he'd buy those cheap cassettes of the great old stars – Marchena, La Niña de los Peiñes – and we'd listen to them all the way."

The late Pastora Pavon, known as La Niña de los Peiñes (the Girl with the Combs), the greatest of the historic cantadores, is a reference of great magnitude to Estrella, and to a handful of similarly minded young artists, such as the Catalans Mayte Martin and Miguel Poveda, and the Jerez singer Arcángel. Indeed, the Spanish press, perhaps sated with headline allusions to Estrella's name – "A Star (Estrella) is Born" – recently came up with the phrase Los Niños de los Peiñes (the Children of the Combs) to define the new movement.

Delicacy, melody and the trilling tones of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties are the trademarks of this style, contrasting with the gut-wrenching banshee wail that has predominated in recent years. In this, the influence of El Camaron de la Isla, the tortured gypsy genius from Cadiz whose searing performances brought a new rock generation to flamenco in the Seventies, is finally being contested. So, too, is the apparatus of new flamenco, which followed in Camaron's wake – the hybrid of blues and salsa created by a generation of groups such as Ketama, Pata Negra and La Barbería del Sur.

Not that the impeccably connected Estrella is estranged from the protagonists of new flamenco. On the contrary, the Carmona family, a dynasty of Granada-based guitarists whose younger generation formed half of the members of Ketama, are intimate friends, and they supplied much of the guitar work on Estrella's album. In addition, continuity with the past was supplied by the eminent senior Carmonas Juan and Pepe "Habichuela", and by Manolo Sanlucar, one of the last surviving accompanists of La Niña de los Peiñes.

On Estrella's record, it is Sanlucar who contributes the pensive, measured falsetas (runs) and rasqueados (strummed chords) that frame the hauntingly lovely verses of the song "Alcazaba", an example of the unusual Media Granaina song form, in praise of the tower of Granada's Alhambra Palace, the great Moorish jewel at the heart of Medieval Andalucia. And in praise, too, of the view from the windows of the Morente family home, on the choicest terrace of the Albaicin, the historic hilltop barrio that Estrella swears she could never leave, among whose Cofradia de los Gitanos – Gypsy Brotherhood – she still processes during Holy Week.

Removed from the Deep South flamenco triangle of Seville, Jerez and Cadiz, Granada's musical traditions nonetheless comprise a perfect backdrop to the Morente career. In one direction is the old gypsy district of Sacromonte, whose caves, once home to a ragged populace, blacksmiths and butchers by trade and flamencos by instinct, have gradually transmuted into gaudy, tourist-thronged tablao musical cafés which continue to provide work for dozens of Morente family friends and a few relatives. Down in the modern city is the municipal theatre, in which a committee led by the composer Manual de Falla and the Granada poet Lorca organised, in 1922, the Flamenco Song Competition that was of such crucial importance in the intellectualisation of the rough folk genre of flamenco.

Lorca, flamenco, the Alhambra – only one thing is lacking from Estrella's qualifications as a virtual icon of Andalucian tradition. Bulls. Well, not lacking, actually. Javier Conde, the clean-cut young father of Estrella's expected first child, is a matador. Their union, via a huge Granada wedding, with coach-and-horses and blanket media coverage, has formed a new pinnacle in the long-standing liaison between flamenco and the corrida. From the pre-War friendships of Pepe Marchena and La Niña de los Peiñes with the toreros José and Rafael El Gallo, to the ring-side serenades of El Camaron to the 1980s gypsy matador Rafael de Paula, flamenco and the toros have gone hand in hand, and ceremonial cattle slaughter has followed cante jondo through the prism of Lorca and Hemingway into not only entertainment, but also into art.

Sitting entwined on the Barcelona hotel lounge sofa, Estrella and her handsome young husband talk reverentially of the mutual influences of their art and passion, and the way that both cross themselves before going out to perform. For a moment, the familiar trappings of Euro-success, the record company executives and the press managers cease to impose their uniformity, and Estrella seems truly exotic.

'My Songs and a Poem' is out now on Real World/Virgin