The flamencos are a strange and simple people.
They sing with their eyes fixed on a point shimmering in the horizon,
and then they explode.
—Federico García Lorca
It began with hashish, warm and familiar, the fateful spiral. Then cocaine, for years, the best in the world, gifts from friends and worshipful aficionados alike. Finally, heroin made her fateful entrance into the dramatic life and death of José Monge Cruz, better known to the world as Camarón de la Isla.
But in the end it was
life and life only that killed flamenco’s most-gifted gypsy cantaor. On July 2, 1992. He was 41. Lung cancer, for a singer, can only be ironic, a simple twist of fate.
The Spanish newspapers ran front-page stories for three days. Network television interrupted their broadcasts to air old tapes of his concerts. Tens of thousands attended his funeral in his home town of San Fernando. To much of the world press he was known as "The Mick Jagger from Cádiz."
The Blonde Shrimp of the Island was absolutely one-of-a-kind, the undisputed king of flamenco song. As a dependable short cut to a true appreciation of the magic that belongs exclusively to the gypsy musicians of Southern Spain, one need look no farther than this complex little man.
They say that my time is running out.
They ask whether I am alive or dead.
And I say, I say:
As long as my heart is boiling,
I will conquer my enemy.
—Camarón de la Isla, Dicen de Mí
So he sang on his last record, Potro de Rabia y Miel
(Colt of Rage and Honey), released two months before his death. As his video image played before thousands at the Flamenco World Fair in Seville, Camarón was entering the last phase of his illness at the Mayo Clinic
in Rochester, Minnesota. The recording was produced by his friend and long-time collaborator, guitarist Paco de Lucía
, and it marked a poignant reunion for the two artists, who had not performed together for almost a decade. Their previous ten albums, recorded between 1968 and 1977, constitute the high-water mark for modern flamenco music presented in the traditional manner. As Camarón himself told interviewers:
Paco's father came often to Torres Bermejas. One day his son came with him. We understood each other immediately. He liked the things I did and I liked the things he did. Was I interested in working with him? Wow was I interested! He was incredible! Every time we worked together we got along so well we understood each other by telepathy.
In grief and in homage, Paco de Lucía did not perform for a year following his friend's death.
Such is the regard in which flamenco's maestro was held.
Born the seventh son of a gypsy family on December 5th, 1950, in San Fernando on the Bay of Cádiz, José Monge Cruz grew up infused with the sights and sounds of gypsy aristocracy: his father was a blacksmith, king of the gypsy trades, and his mother a canastera, a basket weaver.
Like all the great gypsy artists, Camarón absorbed the essentials of his art from the cradle. "My childhood was the forge, the anvil, the nail and the hook," he offered in interview. "In our house everybody sang, but not professionally. My father sang his gypsy soleá
, but his asthma was choking him. He didn't get it at the forge. He got it earlier, during the years of hunger working on the streetcars in the day and night shifts in the rain, and so, often soaked to the bone. My mother sang with incredible personality. I could say I learned everything from her—from her, and from all the old artists. Everyone on the island learned from those who passed through and stopped at our house. Many nights I stayed up all night to listen, concentrating on the details. I've done the same thing all my life, learning from the old artists, going back to the sources."
And it could be argued his elders also learned from him, for by the time Camarón was ten years old, he was singing for pesetas
in the local tavern. By the age of sixteen he was a seasoned professional. It was the 60's, and Spain was enjoying an economic recovery, primarily through tourism. It was the 60's, and the day did not possess enough hours to contain the young genius's energy:
You can't imagine. Every evening I did two sets singing to ten dancing girls. Then at night another two sessions early on to the foreigners. The Spaniards didn't arrive until two or three in the morning. Then I could sing alone. And then there were the señoritos. They invited you to their villas and afterwards kicked you out by the seat of your pants. Most nights, though, we artists just hung out together.
It was the sixties.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and fate.
Camarón, as artist and man, embodied the best and the worst of his generation, and his popularity as flamenco's Golden Child brought him wealth and enormous fame. But Fate's unerring sense of history also brought Paco de Lucía and Camarón de la Isla together in 1968. The chronicles of flamenco music are emblazoned with great singer-guitarist duos, but none have embraced and extended the boundaries of the art like these two men.
They began with a strict observance of flamenco's thirty basic styles of song, as determined by their compas, or their rhythm or metric. The early songs bore the traditional lyrics, passed down through the ages, learned, truly, by heart at parents' knee.
By 1972, after absorbing non-flamenco influences such as The Rolling Stones, Chick Corea, and Miles Davis, Camarón had added electric guitars, percussion, and synthesizers to his musical mix, which also incorporated the latest studio recording techniques. The poetry of Garcia-Lorca, though assimilated by flamencos as letras, lyrics, for generations, was set to great effect within these non-traditional formats. Camarón's collaborators during these ground-breaking years, Pata Negra and Ketama, went on to score major hits on the international pop charts.
As is often the case, much of this experimentation, particularly as it came to be reinterpreted and performed by lesser artists with less respect for the great flamenco institution, was reviled by the traditionalists. But Camarón himself, though living and performing beyond the cutting edge, never strayed far from the formidable roots of the grand flamenco tree:
I have always tried new and different things and to contribute something of my own, without losing sight of the roots. With every new record I bring out, I did the same thing. That's not difficult. I say that everything we do is flamenco because I am above all Flamenco, and that's it.
Singing is the only thing that I know how to do. I don't know how to talk. My mother brought me into the world to sing. It soothes my pain and takes my mind off the things that sometimes get stuck there. I pick up the guitar and get into it and my bad mood goes away.
I don't know anything that is exclusively my own, but I put my soul and all my personality into it and it comes out the way I feel.
Flamenco is a mystery.
And so, one supposes, is the suicidal tempo at which Camarón de la Isla lived his too-short life. After creating, truly, music that will reside forever in the flamenco pantheon
, and after inspiring virtually every
flamenco singer who came after him—José Merce, Ramón el Portugués, Boqueron, Susi, Marelu, Remedios Amaya, Aurora Vargas, Pepe de Lucía and Luis de Córdoba, to name but a few—after only 41 hard-living, hard-loving years, it seems to me tragic that the world will never know what joy and sorrow Camarón de la Isla might have discovered in song at sixty years of age, at seventy, and given to us, free and clear as the air we breathe.
The Journal of Flamenco Artistry, October, 1992, edited and published by Greg Case
A Special Tribute to Camarón de la Isla, Spanish National Radio, Madrid, co-produced by Allison Hughes and Mercedes de Prado
Cambio 16, May 25, 1992, José Marvel Bellver, translated by Paco Sevilla
A Colt of Rage and Honey, El Pais, Miquel Jurado, Barcelona
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Wild Bill Donovan
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
king of the queens
Paco de Lucia
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
Bernardino de Sahagun
A. J. Weberman