Interview with Miguel Funi May, 2014
Among the endless debate about the origins of flamenco, one fact remains undisputed: flamenco gitano is flamenco in its purest form. Whatever its roots, influences, and makeup, flamenco was born, nurtured, and perfected in gitano homes. It is so distinctive that it is not to everyone’s taste, but those who love it, crave it. There is no substitute. This was the audience who reverently flocked to see flamenco gitano masters Miguel Funi and Juan del Gastor at Elebash Hall on April 16, when cantaor Funi, with Juan del Gastor on guitar and Sonia Olla and Ismael de la Rosa playing palmas, gave his first solo concert in New York after a twenty-year hiatus.
Though Miguel Funi and Juan del Gastor are consummate showmen in addition to being consummate masters of flamenco gitano, showmanship—with its insinuation, however slight, of artifice or manipulation—was far away. What replaced it was a profoundly deep reverence for the flamenco gitano tradition. Both men, older now, maintained their sly, infectious humor, but beside it ran their profound veneration of “Gypsyness” as culture, identity, lifestyle, and artform. El Funi (Miguel Pena Vargas) is tall, dark, and handsome; he looks like a movie star and comports himself like a king. Juan del Gastor, nephew of the great Diego del Gastor and a natural improviser with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, simultaneously lent gravitas and lightness of spirit as he accompanied Funi’s traditional letras of siguiriya, solea, alegrias, and bulerias. It was a rare event, and everyone knew it.
The gist of the evening is best explained in Juan del Gastor’s own words, expressed in this preconcert interview conducted by Judy Gelman Myers (many thanks to Nina Menendez, Artistic Director of Bay Area Flamenco Festival, for bringing the artists to New York and for translating during the interview):
Q: What is the most important thing for you when you’re accompanying a singer?
A: That he’s gitano, that he sings in compas, that he knows the cante, knows the rhythms, that he sings like a gitano, and that he knows exactly how the music goes and the origins of the cante and sings them as they should be sung.
Q: And what is the most important thing for you to give to the cantaor?
A: Making him or her feel comfortable. Inspiring him with my music so that he gives all that he can in his singing.
Q: Who do you like working with the best?
A: I really enjoy playing for Funi, Fernanda, Perrate, Joselero, people who have a family background and gitano roots. When I play, it’s my family inheritance, and I like to accompany singers with a similar inheritance.
Q: What is the responsibility of a fiestero?
A: A fiestero’s responsibility is to put all the palos of the cante—siguiriya, solea, alegrias, malaguena, taranta—into the bulerias rhythm and do them well.
Q: How do you do that?
Q: What’s your favorite palo?
A: Bulerias. And then sigiruiya, solea—cantes gitanos.
Q: Bulerias used to be performed much slower than it is now.
A: They used to be more beautiful. Today many artists really don’t know how bulerias should be sung or played. They play it too fast, they play it too rough. There are many professionals today who really don’t know how to deal with bulerias. A lot of them are very famous and very highly paid artists, yet they really don’t know anything about the bulerias, the soul of it. The person who really knows how to sing bulerias well can sing all the palos.
Q: What are the variations in bulerias between the cities, and also between families?
A: The bulerias in Moron, Utrera, and Lebrija are all interrelated because the families are interrelated. Some of the families in Jerez are also related to the families in Lebrija, especially, and therefore their bulerias have a lot of similarities to the bulerias in Lebrija especially, but also, because of the family ties, to Utrera and Moron.
Q: Are you finding it difficult to hold onto flamenco gitano?
A: Because we are artists whose art is based on inspiration and from the heart, we don’t lose it. It doesn’t get away from us because it’s always within us. And no matter whether we’re doing bulerias five times in a row, it’s never going to be the same. From each day it’s never going to be the same. It’s always improvised and it changes, because it’s always different, like water, like the river that you step in is never the same.
Q: Is there anything you want to say to aficionados, both in Spain and outside the country?
A: They should study the sound and listen a lot to gitano guitar players who have their own personal style that’s not the same as any other guitarist. For example, Nino Ricardo, or Melchor de Marchena, Paco del Gastor, Diego del Gastor. Their bulerias are not like anyone else’s. They’re very unique and very personal. They’re not the same between each other, and they’re not the same as other guitarists, either.
Q: What dancers do you like today?
A: Miguel Funi. Pepe Torres. I love all kinds of international music, but I’m really disappointed in today’s flamenco. I think it’s really gone off track. The real artists—the ones who created this art and continue to create this art—are ignored, whereas the people who are working professionally are the ones who are getting all the recognition. The others are just left behind. The only artists who are getting work now are the ones who have this whole marketing apparatus behind them. It’s only used to confuse audiences and sell tickets, and it’s not based on the real art. It’s like a can of tomato sauce. Picasso might have made the label, but once you open it up and try to get the sauce out, the can is empty. It’s totally empty.
Q: What does that mean for the future of flamenco?
A: It won’t affect gitano singing and dancing and guitar playing. Take the example of Moron de la Frontera, where I’m from. I have two grand-nephews, and they’re already starting to play the guitar. They’re very young, but they’re emerging as professional guitarists, and they come from this inspirational gitano-style playing, so we’re keeping it alive. It’s passing down from generation to generation.
Q: Do you think there will always be a market for flamenco gitano?
A: Many people don’t understand it or know about it or care about it. Professional artists don’t even really understand flamenco gitano. It’s very exciting to see how the young guitarists in my family, Paco and Antonio, have benefited from modern guitar playing, harmonies, etc. but they still have the really deep roots in the family traditions and the legacy that’s been passed down through the generations. In the old days the artists would gather after a show or a festival at a bar somewhere and they would hang out together and interact together. Let’s say they had a festival with four different artists; instead of being in private dressing rooms and coming out on the stage like often happens in most festivals today, in traditional gitano festivals the artists would interact and hang out, sometimes for three or four days after the festival. Nowadays that’s disappearing. Many artists just jump in their BMWs and ride off to their houses somewhere off in the country. They don’t even say hello to the other artists after the show.
Q: Is there less interaction between families?
A: No. There’s a lot of interaction because of the family gatherings that are not at all commercial. It may be happening in the commercial realm, but in the social realm the families are still all getting together and interacting at weddings, at baptisms, at other family gatherings.
Take pure gitano singing. The fact that it comes down through the generations is really important for a singer to develop as a real gitano singer who can sing bulerias or solea. To be a really good gitano singer, at least one of your ears has to be gitano. By the way, we don’t study in music school, and most of us don’t even know how to write music at all. You can’t make sheet music for flamenco.