Few Americans will lament the death on December 13 of Enrique Morente, age 67, Flamenco’s leading male vocalist (cantaor). That’s because few Americans have heard of Morente or, for that matter, of his fellow cantores. But for flamenco, losing Morente—a traditionalist and a modernizer; a guardian and disseminator of Lorca, Antonio Machado, and other Spanish poets; and a world music innovator—was a supreme loss—analogous to the passing of Astor Piazzolla in tango or the recent death of Ali Akbar Khan in Indian classical music.
When most Americans think of flamenco, percussive dancers or extraordinary guitarists like Paco de Lucia, Paco Pena, and Gerardo Nunez come to mind. But ultimately it is the voice that occupies the high-intensity still-point of the Andalucian art form. And in that genre, vocal sonority frequently takes a back seat to unvarnished passion. It is precisely that raw vocal intensity that transports the cantaor and his audience to the euphoric musical experience that flamenco culture calls duende.
If bel canto has an antonym, this is it. Paying ear-witness to many a cantaor is much like imagining Tom Waits with strep. In other words, my fellow Americans, you’ve had zero exposure to flamenco singing because the American music establishment considers it Not Ready for Prime Time. So there!
A Cantaor apart. But Mr. Morente was a musician apart who combined a powerful baritone with remarkable vocal control and nuance—assets that ultimately enriched his art. Here’s Robin Totton’s assessment of those skills in his valuable guide to flamenco, Song of the Outcasts:
This is not to say that fine singing choices don’t exist: Enrique Morente’s baritone (and his musicianship) could have put him in the class of Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras, had he so chosen.
Recent Recordings. Morente and his tragic contemporary, Camaron de la Isla (1950-92), are widely regarded as flamenco’s greatest post-war and (eventually) post-Franco cantaores. Both had deep roots in flamenco tradition; both also exasperated purists by experimenting with juiced up instruments, including electric guitars and electric basses. One of Morente’s greatest nontraditional achievements is the 1996 cd, Omega, which features a rock group and synthesized effects on half of its tracks. Many of those cuts, including the nine-minute eponymous Omega, highlight poems by Lorca. Others offer bold interpretations of songs by Leonard Cohen. (The flamenco-infused takes on Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan and Hallelujah!, the latter with small chorus, are surprising, unforgetable listening experiences.)
The first video below features Enrique Morente and the guitarist, Tomatito in Suena la Alhambra, an evocative Morente pipe dream. The second, which explores flamenco’s affinity with Northern African music, offers Morente in tandem with Khaled, the planet’s leading exponent of (Algerian) Rai.