Obituary: Camaron de la Isla
Tuesday 07 July 1992
THE BULLFIGHT, the zarzuela musical comedies and the art of flamenco - these are three traditional Spanish passions. Another is a fascination with death. The first three have recently been overshadowed by other enthusiasms for basketball, soccer and rock. Pedro Almodovar's latest movie, Tacones altos ('High Heels') follows fashionable trends by presenting Spain's only woman rock singer, Luz Casal, reducing most of the cast to tears with the song Piensa en mi ('Think of Me'), and reminding us that she performed with Spanish rock stars like Juan Pardo and Miguel Rios, as well as with foreign imports like Sting and Peter Gabriel.
But it is the cult of death that overshadows all passing fads and fashions in Spain, as can be seen in her morbidly ecstatic religious fiestas and dramatic passional processions at Eastertide, and in the vast convulsions of grief at the death of the great flamenco singer and guitarist Camaron de la lsla at the early age of 42. The whole of Spain has been devastated.
He may be said to have played the leading part in effecting a viable bridge betwoon the old, conservative culture of the Franco regime and the new Americanised culture of rock, salsa, ska and rap. Flamenco purists deplored his adventurous crossover fusion of flamenco and rock, but they were reluctantly compelled to admit that he was a musical genius who revived the interest of the younger generation in a musical tradition that had been discredited as a symbol of the late dictatorship's rabid nationalism.
Camaron's death was given huge spreads in the native press, and there were astonishing photographs of the devoted wife, Dolores Montoya, her face distorted by agonies of weeping, and of the members of the family in intimate poses of melodramatic grief. There were long reports from doctors and surgeons in the oncological unit of the Barcelona hospital where Camaron died, giving almost hour-by-hour accounts of his irreversible progress towards death, with copious medical details and tributes to his stoicism and calm and exemplary conduct. The Spanish public loves all hospital sagas and descriptions of lingering death-throes.
The evening television programmes were interrupted; the mayor ordered three days of official public mourning, all flags to be flown at half mast, and the shutters of shops and offices to be lowered. He revealed that preparations were under way to confer upon the town's prodigal son the posthumous honour of local hero, and that a bronze statue to his memory was to be erected in the central park. Many flamenco musicians who were to perform that night cancelled their appearances in tribute to their dead colleague, and both the Catalan and the Andalusian television channels showed videotapes of Camaron in concert with his favourite gypsy guitarist, Jose Fernandez, known as 'el Tomatito': he himself had played with all the great contemporary jazz guitarists and had helped form Camaron's unique flamenco style.
It was a deeply moving experience to see and hear Camaron de la Isla performing some of his most famous numbers of cante jondo - that 'deep song' which is the cry of the human soul in joy or torment. It was obvious that Camaron's voice was past its best: whisky, hash, cocaine, heroin and, above all, tobacco had taken their toll. (One doctor said that it was tobacco smoked to incredible excess that had brought about the cancer of the lungs that eventually destroyed him.) Yet he managed his breathing with professional skill, firing off his pistol-shot hand-claps to set the rhythms and from time to time startling us by punctuating his low-key passages of brooding sadness with sudden explosions of vocal rage and tragic defiance. He remained seated all the time, his face emaciated and his eyes lowered, while Tomatito kept on smiling at his friend over the hips of his guitar, silently encouraging him, suggesting themes, improvising runs, supporting his every mood and variation of tone. The rock fusions became almost unnoticeable in the powerful spell known as duende which he was, despite all his difficulties, exerting upon the audience in a musical trance of profound fascination.
He compelled us to listen to every note, and to feel with him the agony behind each breath, each proud, furious clamour against the pain of life and the pain of death. Meanwhile, tickets for Bruce Springsteen's concerts in 'la Monumental' bullring were selling like hot cakes in Barcelona.
Camaron de la Isla, when he was still a little boy called Jose Monge Cruz, wanted to find fame and fortune as a bullfighter - the dream of so many Spanish youths. But he showed a great gift for singing and started working the Chiclana bus, performing for a few pesetas to help the family budget. He was the youngest of eight children and his father was a blacksmith - along with cattle- and horse-dealers the aristocrats of gypsy society. Young Jose worked the bellows of his forge, and the work songs called martinetes were sung a cappella to the rhythm of hammer on anvil. His uncle nicknamed him Camaron de la Isla ('Shrimp of the Island') because of his almost ludicrously skinny frame.
Just after his 12th birthday, he had his first triumph at the Montilla amateur flamenco festival, proving that flamenco is an inborn gift. He joined the group of Miguel de los Reyes in Malaga, playing for tourist fiestas, where the local wine proved his undoing. He also appeared in that temple of cante jondo, the tablao of Dolores Vargas, and soon all the great flamenco masters were recognising that, despite his unorthodox innovations, he was a musical prodigy. He became a devoted follower of the Rolling Stones, and was later to be called 'the gypsy Mick Jagger' and 'the Joe Cocker of San Fernando'. In the Seventies he appeared in the Barcelona bullring on a bill that included Weather Report, Jeff Beck and Stanley Clarke. Among his fans and his own idols were Chic Corea and Miles Davis. He became a charismatic figure for the young in the Seventies, with his long hair, his bold Mick Jagger mouth and his reputation for drugs and dangerous driving. With the great guitarist Paco de Lucia he began cutting very unusual flamenco discs for Philips Iberica and made his firat fusion recording La Leyenda del tiempo ('Legend of Time') with Pata Negra, Paco de Lucia and Tomatito.
He became increasingly involved in the world of progressive rock. His albums Soy caminante or Castillo de arena ('Sandcastle') sold as well as Lou Reed's Berlin or David Bowie's Hunky Dory. By the age of 26, he had become the undisputed leading flamenco rock star, and because of his appeal to both old and young he may be said to have helped post-Franco Spain to find its true identity again. He was the genius who expressed the deep soul of flamenco with the rebellious defiance of the rockers, expressed cante jondo with the greatest intensity and took his art to undreamed-of heights.
Juan Pena, 'el Lebrijano', who often appeared with him, said, 'We have lost the genius of la Venta de Vargas - a cantaor of enormous personality and gifts, whose like we shall not see again.' Many other guitarists and singers declared that when playing with him they felt themselves to be in the presence of an immortal.
Camaron recorded Calle Real in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; 'Soy Gitano ('I a Gypsy') was another great hit, and he made recordings at Abbey Road studios of the tangos in that album.
His concerts were always unpredictable, but his fans packed the stadiums to listen to whatever he gave them. Festival organisers, after his latest release from a rehabilitation clinic, would wonder if he would show up. His last record with Paco de Lucia and Tomatito was Potro de robia y miel ('Colt of Fury and Honey' - a good description of his character and his voice), cut in May 1992 and which sold 75,000 copies in its first three weeks on the charts. The video Sevilla, Sevilla for the Spanish Pavilion at the Seville Expo made him known all over the world.
But he was in bad shape. He had just emerged from the Mayo Clinic in April, and knew his fate was sealed. The recording that best displays his genius is Flamenco vivo (1987), almost the last time he was in full possession of his gifts. We leave him, as he leaves us, with these lines from Soy gitano:
take pity on me and do not condemn me that my torments may let me breathe freely again in the rays of the sun.
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