Camarón de la Isla – 1979

Flamenco music, oh what bane you have been dealt with. If, you ever encounter flamenco music in popular culture its usually as a type of dead language music. Seeing billowy dressed people stomp their feet, sing with overdramatic melisma, and pointless guitar flourishes you wouldn’t be wrong to have some biased aversion to it…its the musical wallpaper to romantic docu-getaways set in glitzy tourist traps and of scorned lovers in dead-eyed starlet dramedies. To us, at face value, it appears to be music barely getting by on stasis. Oh, but how wrong can we be. There was a time when true Gitanos saw the stagnation running rampant in their own music and opened themselves up to new sounds. My track of the day, “Volando Voy” from Camarón de la Isla, the stage name for Andalusian José Monje Cruz, and its a track that displays a vivid reminder of a living, breathing groove that can find new ways to press forward.

Camarón de La Isla (so named because of his blonde-ish hair, atypical of his family born on the island-like city of San Fernando) was a flamenco wunderkind not by choice but by necessity. From a young age, coming from a dirt poor Gypsy family, he had to forgo his education in order to earn money busking and working odd jobs to help his mother make ends meet. The death of his father from an early age forced him to have resolve and conviction that few young children had, and that in turn fed his growing confidence in singing the songs of his Gitano roots on any stage. At age 16, showing wisdom beyond his years, he won a prestigious Cante Jondo contest in Seville, which propelled him to increased notoriety in flamenco circles. He used that notoriety to land himself a steady gig performing untold varieties of young and new flamenco standards at the most renowned flamenco venue in the world the Torres Bermejas. From that base he would cement his trajectory and discover/cultivate a relationship with then established artist Paco de Lucia to create a lineage of work which created modern flamenco as we know it, on the surface.

Camarón and Paco de Lucia.
By 1976, nine albums into his career, as Camarón and Paco had become their own men who needed their own separate legacies to establish, they went their separate ways and Camarón grew increasingly interested in other types of music and instrumentation. Flamenco music, at that time was extremely conservative and any encroachment whether it be by other styles or instrumentation into what most Andalusians considered germane to their sound was heresy to its cause. For good reason, trying to maintain some control over their traditions was necessary, as Romany people in Spain during the years of Franco’s rule were ostracized and nearly banned from contributing to society at large.

In 1978, as Camarón embarked on his own recording in Umbrete, Sevilla to take stock of where he wanted to go next, he started to feel the pull of new musics that he couldn’t get rid of. It was a time of great transition for him, he was changing record labels, dropping his “de La Isla” moniker, plus hearing and engaging with the sound other young groups like Pata Negra and Veneno were introducing. These groups through small moves, such as using electric guitars and basses, synths and were widening the sonics of the Flamenco, Camarón was used to singing to. In Umbre, joined by his new accompanist Tomatito he set about changing Flamenco as everyone knew it.

La Leyenda del Tiempo cover art.

You hear this change in “Volando Voy”. Melding simpatico African rumba rhythms with a very progressive, electric sound, Camarón and his crew presented a version of flamenco that was vivid, colorful, and, most importantly, not a relic of the past that could stretch its influence across borders. This was music that could compete with anything in the present. You can’t help but get goosebumps listening to Camarón’s vocals spiriting lyrics like “flying I go, flying I come/along the path I entertain myself/loving a life that sometimes hurts me/if I get cold I look for heat” into some new musical canon of his own creation. Lord knows, he found the fire he was looking for.

The rest of the album has countless evolving statement tracks with modern influences but this was a track that prepared you for what was to come. It became such an important album much after the fact by other younger musicians who took his torch, but sadly for Camarón was the album that made him nearly forgotten. Older Andalusians, who had the money to buy his albums, outright rejected and refused to buy this record, to the tune of only 6,000 copies selling in the market…but younger fans and fans in the future would christen it the finest Flamenco Nuevo album ever, and a turning point in Spanish music. Only now, we can unravel how such an important record was unjustly in reality a rare groove for a good while…

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Listen to Volando Voy at Grooveshark.

Bonus track time, the surging and surprisingly heavy Flamenco Nuevo brilliance of the “La Leyenda del Tiempo”:

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Listen to La Leyenda del Tiempo at Grooveshark.