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Monday, January 3, 2011

Americans Weep for Enrique Morente?


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.)

Estrella Morente
In the United States,  Morente’s most widely distributed cd is the splendid Morente--Lorca (1998 on the Narada label), which gives flamenco treatment to verse by the blind poet, murdered by Franco's thugs in 1936. Another recent standout is Pablo de Malaga (2008), which celebrates Pablo Picasso’s poems and paintings. In his latest outing, Morente Flamenco (2009), the cantaor is in supreme form with traditional repertoire on stage. His voice exudes a basaltic dark power, frequently on the verge of revisiting its magmatic origins, but always lasing the soundscape with controlled emotional intensity. Morente is survived by his daughter Estrella, who shares many of his musical sensibilities and has sold many more recordings than her father thanks to her vivaciousness and status as a world music superstar.

Morente Videos:

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.


Anonymous said...

*I* wept for Morente, but not only because I play flamenco, but because I understood what we were losing - and for the purely personal loss of not being able to see what he would come up with next!

Your analogies to Piazzolla and Ali Akbar Khan are beautifully apt - I saw both perform, and while (like Morente) they embodied the heart of their deep traditions in wonderful ways, they also pushed them forward and outward with their imagination and massive talent.

But Morente also brought to the table an amazing political sensibility, and also left the world with a superb successor that could be his equal - his daughter, Estrella - I just hope that she can hang on to her father's superb instinct for balancing tradition and innovation - "taste" is a tricky thing, flamenco struggles with the "razor's edge" between fulfilling a tradition, and goofing it up. I remember him saying in an interview, "I'm making Estrella do all this old stuff, she can do new things after I'm dead..."


"...take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again."

Wig & Pen said...

Thank you, Anonymous. We have Enrique's vast recorded legacy; we have Estrella. It is bittersweet that these "positives" are insufficiently appreciated (at least in the U.S.) We must individually do what we can to remedy that!

Wig & Pen

Aurora Reyes said...

Thanks Lou for your thoughts. I posted it on Flamenco Latino's facebook page. Feel free to send me other work. I will put your email on my database.

As someone who has been trying to balance tradition and innovation in my choreographic work with Flamenco Latino, I've been watching what Morente does for a long time [since 1985 in Madrid, where I lived for a year, furthering my performing experience, taking classes, etc]. Will miss Morente but will follow Estrella's exploits with interest!

Aurora Reyes
Flamenco Latino, 250 W. 54th Street, 4th floor, NYC 10019
212 399 8519