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A popular flamenco saying goes: “When I sing with pleasure my mouth tastes of blood.” The words speak volumes about the vibrant gypsy music indigenous to Andalucia, and the harsh environs that spawned it.
Blacksmith by trade, José Luis Monge moved from the small fishing pueblo of Conil de la Frontera to nearby San Fernando shortly after his marriage to Juana Cruz Castro.
Just south of Cádiz, and surrounded by salt marshes, the town is known locally as La Isla de León, or simply ‘la isla’ the island. Once settled, the poor gypsy couple went on to produce a large family.
The fourth son of eight, José Monge Cruz was born on 8th December 1950 on the patio of number 29, calle del Carmen. The baby boy soon grew into a skinny and active child. With his blonde hair and pale, almost transparent, skin it was little wonder his Uncle Joseico dubbed him Camarón (Shrimp). And as Camarón he went on to be the most revered flamenco singer of modern times.
In 2012 San Fernando celebrated the bicentennial of the Spanish Constitution. On 19th March 1812, years of French rule came to an end with its signing in the town fortress. Yet, despite such an important historical connection, San Fernando would still remain relatively unknown beyond Andalucia if it weren’t for Shrimp. For as Camarón de la Isla, the little gypsy boy went on to become the greatest flamenco singer of modern times. Each year, droves of visitors from all over the world pay homage to his memory.
To appreciate flamenco properly we have to begin to understand the day to day hardship prevalent during its genesis and evolution. In common with blues and jazz, the essential rawness of the form emerged against a background of poverty, racism and deprivation.
For thousands of years Andalucia has seen many peoples come and go. Founded around 3000 BC, Cádiz is the oldest city in Western Europe. Under centuries of Moorish rule, Jews, Moors and Gypsies all settled in the area. They intermingled freely. It was only after the Moors were finally expelled in 1492, and Catholicism brought in the Inquisition, that repression, segregation and discrimination became rife. Life was very tough.
The majority of Andalucians had always worked on the land or as fishermen. At the end of each day, they drank to ease their hardship. They played instruments, danced, and sang to relieve their pain and express the harshness of their existence. Flamenco grew from a gradual fusion of the many forms of music common to each culture. It is living testimony to both ancient and recent history.
The first twenty-six years of Camarón’s life were spent under the brutal dictatorship of Franco’s Spain. Hatred ran deep from a civil war that had pitched town against town, and in some cases, family member against family member. The Guardia Civil ran the nation with an iron fist. Knocks on doors in the middle of the night were commonplace, and random arrest was a constant threat. People simply disappeared, never to be seen again. Flamenco represents the soul of the beleaguered gitano crying to be heard.
The old blacksmith’s workshop in calle Amargura, which translates literally as Bitterness Street, stands next to a bar. Its fire dormant for many years now it is open to visitors. As a boy, Camarón helped his father light the forge each morning. His childhood was spent to the ringing of steel hammer against iron anvil. Most days, after his chores for his father, he bunked off school to play with friends in the salt marshes. They caught eels and picked shellfish to sell in the town.
According to myth, the most commonly heard phrase in Andalucian bars begins with the words: “I’m a bit short.” Once his parents discovered the truancy, their anger dissipated as soon as he handed over the proceeds of his ventures. They realised, even at such an early age, he could supplement the family’s meagre income.
Camarón paints a picture of his childhood in the song Otra galaxia (Another galaxy).
I am a blacksmith,
Anvil, nail and tongs,
While other children studied
at school in the morning,
My childhood was the blacksmith’s
Both Camarón’s parents were noted cantaores. His father sang in local bars, and his mother occasionally made money from singing. The house in Carmen Street must’ve been filled with song during Camarón’s childhood. A commonly told tale is that Juana sang a buleria as she gave birth to Camarón. Whether true or not, the story gives an idea of how strong the flamenco tradition is. Take a walk in the back alleys of any Andalucian town or city and you are almost bound to hear a voice singing of a broken heart through an open door or window.
From very early on the gypsy boy showed a passion for flamenco, and began singing in the streets. By the age of seven he was busking in nearby Cádiz for a few pesetas. His young voice honed on sparks from the anvil and flames of the forge, it wasn’t long before he was a welcome guest in the local bars and ventas.
José Luis Monge died prematurely of asthma leaving twelve-year-old Camarón and his siblings fatherless. Juana Cruz was bequeathed a family of eight children to raise on the paltry income of a cleaner. Joseico was to fill his father’s shoes. Camarón said he served, not only as uncle and godfather, but also father and grandfather.
As his reputation grew the young gitano started singing at the famed Venta de Vargas at the end of calle Real in San Fernando. A popular haunt of bullfighters and flamenco artists, the restaurant was able to stay open until five in the morning, as it stood just beyond the town limits. In a small side room, the table at which Camarón ate and drank with his family and friends still stands. Their photos line the walls.
In 1966 Camarón left his hometown for a journey that took him to Malaga, and later to Madrid. It was to change his music forever. The Spanish capital was a magnet to poor gypsies in search of fortune at the time. It was there he heard singers from every corner of Spain. Their influence was to have a profound impact on the young musician, which lasted the rest of his life.
So impressive was he, that when he sang in Madrid in 1968 – he was eighteen at the time – he was asked by Antonio Arenas, the renowned guitarist from Ceuta, to record with him. The modest young gypsy is said to have replied: “But what am I going to sing if I only know four or five songs?”
Early photographs of the singer depict a handsome, slender youth, wavy hair tumbling about his narrow shoulders, typical of rock ’n roll heroes of the USA and UK of the 1960’s. Later pictures reveal a complexion ravaged by heroin.
With his good looks and stylish dress it was only natural Camarón should be compared with other young singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker, as his fame grew abroad. Aficionados such as Jagger and Peter Gabriel held him in high esteem. But his earthier style and approach have more in common with Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. And like both, he was to die relatively young at the age of 42. It is as if the pain of singing became too great for those narrow shoulders to bear.
He met the biggest influence of his life around the time he signed for the Polygram label in 1969. Perhaps the greatest living exponent of flamenco guitar, Francisco Sánchez Gómez, more widely known as Paco de Lucia, recognised the young singer’s talent immediately. They went on to record and perform together on many occasions. Though only three years separated them, it was through the older musician’s reputation and fame Camarón was able to reach a wider audience. Camarón’s talent wasn’t only in his incredible voice, but the fact it, and the guitar of Paco de Lucia, helped shape the way much of flamenco is today.
Camarón’s was 25 when he married Dolores Montoya in 1976. A Romani girl from La Línea de la Concepción “La Chispa” (The Spark), as he named her, was only 16 at the time. The couple had four children. Despite his growing fame, the family was by no means rich.
Like countless musicians true financial success was to evade Camarón while he lived. Cheated by early record impresarios, it was only after his death the royalties began to flow in.
Drugs have always been freely available in coastal Andalucia. Morocco lies on the southern horizon. It was routine for flamenco musicians to smoke hashish, and Camarón was no exception. He is rumoured to have first tried heroin at some stage during the recording of La Leyend del Tiempo in 1979. As with many legends he went on to become an addict. Many believe he died of a heroin overdose, but he is officially recorded as dying of lung cancer in 9th July1992 near Barcelona.
Born a gitano, José Monge Cruz was fiercely proud of his gypsy heritage and his birthplace. His LP of 1989 Soy Gitano (I am a Gypsy) pays homage to it. His wish was always to be buried in his hometown.
Camarón de la Isla, Shrimp of the Island, lies buried beneath his seated statue in the little cemetery at San Fernando at the end of General García de la Herrán Street. As when he lived and sang, tears were wept and hearts bled at his passing. Yet, for the growing bands of fans worldwide, his soul lives on.
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
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