Enrique Morente, the most influential artist in the contemporary world of jondo music, was also the most controversial. His towering talent had earned him the aficionado’s undying admiration but that very talent, which enabled him to innovate, had appalled the purists on the other side of the divide. Morente’s groundbreaking genius impassioned and continue to impassion many and repel some.
The unbending purists of the flamenco world would accept nothing less than the most orthodox Romany and would therefore not be partial to Enrique Morente (25 December 1942 – 13 December 2010). The sceptic would tend to wonder if indeed he had not been a tad too “impure”. Ironically, on the other hand, his passionately partisan flamenco fans and colleagues are convinced Morente was a daring purist.
Morente was a flamenco genius who approached pure flamenco from, and fused it with, almost every music genre. He was a punk rock flamenco singer when he wasn’t doing something else that was equally daring, an almost oxymoronic species that purist gypsies all fired up with inquisición flamenca would have loved to drive out of the tablaos for being blasphemous even before he could sing the opening notes of his cante. Morente enjoyed some of his brightest moments on stage garbed in cowboy gear!
Like practically all other flamenco geniuses Morente had no formal training in the art. It simply was something that came to him in the magical ambience of the old quarter of Albaicin in his native Granada. “The cante begins in you when you listen to the villager’s singing, to people in their birthplace,” he said.
From a young poverty-stricken seise singing and dancing to the beat of the castanets at religious festivals in Granada he went on and mastered the canon of flamenco song in its variegated styles by the time he was 16 years old. Two years later he was off to Madrid to delve deeper into flamenco and live professionally on it. Success may not have come easy to a perfectionist who was never completely satisfied with his songs, but it didn’t prove elusive either.
He was just in his early twenties when he performed in the Spanish pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. He toured Europe and Japan with flamenco dance companies. In Madrid he gigged at such tablaos as the fabled El Corral de la Morería and his concert within the hallowed walls of the Ateneo de Madrid was the first ever by a flamenco singer. He even bagged a special mention award of the Cátedra de Flamencología y Estudios Folklóricos Andaluces.
In those early days Morente kept to convention. Which was all to the good. It showed beyond doubt his mastery of traditional flamenco which would serve him well in the years to come (from the 1970s onward) when he started innovating and was accused of “impurity” if not tagged outright as a composer-singer of bogus flamenco. To a significant degree it was a proof that his innovation was the fruit of that deep knowledge of pure and classic flamenco; only someone who had it could tap flamenco’s exceptional potentials.
And despite the sever criticism heaped on him by the extreme traditionalists for whom there’s no flamenco but the Romany’s most orthodox, he, who was no gypsy, became arguably the world’s most influential and understandably the most controversial contemporary flamenco singer, creating a tradition with his own cantes.
Morente was an indefatigable innovator. He would put verses by Federico García Lorca, Lope de Vega, Jorge Guillen, etc. on his music, fuse it with Leonard Cohen’s music, and draw inspiration from Cervantes and Picasso – and Elvis Presley! With that great sense of humor of his, he used to claim that he would have wanted to be a rock singer.
In 1972 Morente was awarded the Premio Nacional del Cante by the Cátedra de Flamencología and before the decade was out Homenaje a Don Antonio Chacón, his album of traditional flamenco, won the Ministry of Culture’s National Award for Best Folk Music.
And then he had enough of orthodoxy.
In 2001 he recorded Enrique Morente en la Casa Museo de García Lorca de Fuentevaqueros, a collection of songs based on Lorca’s poetry. He had performed beside, and was deeply inspired by, the Guernica at the Museo de Reina Sofía. The Alhambra was a favorite venue; his Morente Sueña la Alhambra won him the National Award of Music for Best Flamenco Recording (2006).
At the Flamenco Festival 2005, Carnegie Hall, New York, he rendered an experimental medley of flamenco forms from which Gershwin’s “Summertime and the living is easy. . .” emerged. It brought the house down!
In mid-2010 the Republic of France made him Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for “the exceptional career of this performer who was recognized early on as one of the most complete artists of the jondo,” as the French ambassador to Spain Bruno Delaye said. Delaye added that Morente “never stopped being a pioneer, a purist, and a precursor” who sang in concert halls and at festivals in Nimes, Paris, Perpignan, Toulouse. . . In the process he taught the French people “the reality of the Hispanic world” and, above all, he “touched their soul.” He made history with his “brilliant innovations” in the music world.
(Cante jondo is an intensely sad form of flamenco music dealing with death, despair and suffering or religious sentiments. It is said to be the heart and soul of flamenco and is sung with no guitar to accompany it – that is, “a palo seco.”)
Morente was to have been given the insignia of the Chevalier on the 17th of December 2010 but in the afternoon of the 13thhe died. No amount of songs that his elder daughter and artistic heir Estrella Morente sang into his ear, nor the prayers that his Romany wife Aurora Carbonell said desperately, could save him from two successive surgeries that didn’t turn out well.
“Vino un rayo y se lo llevó (A lightning came and took him away)” was how his widow put his absence when she received the insignia on his behalf in late May 2011 at the Residence of the French ambassador in Madrid.
At the start of 2011 the Institute of Gypsy Culture, a foundation under the Ministry of Culture, issued a manifesto at the Filmoteca Española in Madrid; it said that “el flamenco es, fundamentalmente, la musica del pueblo español, especialmente en Andalucía, y la de quienes han compartido nuestro sufrimiento (flamenco is fundamentally the music of the Spanish gypsies, specially in Andalusia, and of those who have shared our suffering).” It is “la filosofía musical de los flamencos, es decir, de los gitanos, sean de sangre o de sentimiento (it is the musical philosophy of the flamencos, that is to say the gypsies, whether by birth or by sentiment).”
After the presentation of the manifesto Carlos Saura’s movie Flamencowas screened in honor of Morente. Diego Fernández, director of the Institute of Gypsy Culture, said that Morente would
have been one of the signers of the manifesto had he lived to the day.
Photos: Moreen Silver