Fernanda De Utrera

Flamenco singing star

Monday 11 September 2006 00:00 BST

Fernanda Jiménez Peña (Fernanda de Utrera), flamenco singer: born Utrera, Spain 8 February 1923; died Utrera 24 August 2006.

When the vocalist Fernanda de Utrera died, El País hailed her as "surely, the best solearera of all time". She had a command of several flamenco song idioms, but soleá, said to be related to soledad (solitude) - and all the desolation that that word summons - was her forte.

She was born Fernanda Jiménez Peña in 1923 in Utrera in Andalusia - her gitano (gypsy) nom de flamenco referred to her home town - into the Peña clan of hereditary musicians.

The year before her birth, the flamenco world had been turned upside down. Historically, flamenco had been tainted with deep-rooted prejudices against gypsies and taunts of primitivism. In June 1922, a group of freethinkers including the composer Manuel de Falla, the poet-writer Federico García Lorca and the painter Ignacio Zuloaga staged in Granada the Concurso de Cante Jondo - the convocation of deep song. By offering good prize money, they attracted leading and new gitano heroes and heroines such as La Niña de los Peines (Pastora Pavón) and Andrés Segovia. For the first time in Spanish gitano history, Spain began to accept flamenco as a cultural form worthy of being treated seriously.

Fernanda grew up in a new era in which flamenco began to liberate its performers from generations of ghetto mindset. As a small girl, she was hailed as a child prodigy, attracting listeners from near and (even) far to hear her singing. In his 1992 book In Search of the Firedance: Spain through flamenco, James Woodall wrote of her "extraordinary career" -

in that she has travelled the world over with her flamenco song, like a star, though, like a gypsy, she could not think of settling anywhere else other than amongst her family and fellow flamencos in Utrera. She has lived there all her life . . .

She and her younger sister Bernarda sang in Edgar Neville's 1952 documentary film about flamenco dance and song, Duende y misterio de Flamenco ("Flamenco's Duende and Mystery", retitled Flamenco on its US release in 1954). Its inclusion of such as Antonio Mairena's martinete, a song form combining singing and the rhythmicality of anvil ringing, took flamenco into new worlds.

In 1957 Mairensa prevailed upon Fernanda's father to allow Fernanda and Bernarda to pursue their muse - they were usually billed as Fernanda y Bernarda de Utrera. One anecdote has it that, rather than cause their mother to worry, they never let on that they were going to the 1964 New York World's Fair, saying they were off to an equally fantastical but imaginable place called Barcelona. Their mother gave them flour to take so they had bread and a source of income.

Fernanda de Utrera appeared in Radio Televisión Española's extensive series, shown between 1971 and 1973, on the rites and regionalities of flamenco cante (song), baile (dance) and toque (playing, literally, "beat" or "tap"). Her special was televised in 1973; the various series appeared as a 12-DVD set under the generic title Rito y Geografía del Baile (2003). In 1993, both sisters appeared in Pedro Almodóvar's film Kika. Fernanda's other film appearances, usually as herself, included Doris Dörrie's ¿Bin ich schön? (Am I Beautiful?, 1998) and Carlos Saura's Flamenco (1994), in which she sings a soleá.

The sisters' lives remained intimately interwoven, with such albums as Cante flamenco: Fernanda y Bernarda de Utrera (1990), until Fernanda's art was silenced by Alzheimer's.

Ken Hunt

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