Enrique Morente
Biography, discography, Real Audio and readers' comments

 

 

"When purism takes the form of religious dogmatism, creativity is stifled, and there's no room for compromise"

 


Enrique Morente, cantaor. Interview

A desire and a quest for everything

Àlex d’Averc, June 2006

Who is Enrique Morente? Like the devil with the scriptures, he'd say both one and many. One day he's bringing back to life abandoned cadences that were the bases of the oldest of cantes, and the next he's getting up on stage with Sonic Youth to invent grunge siguiriyas. He's a courteous, prudent gentleman with not a bad word for anybody, and who challenges the established doctrines and their custodians with his approach and his ideas. A meditative lover of life and workaholic who'll take on any challenge and who before he's finished one project has already launched himself into the next. Perhaps we're getting to grips with who Enrique Morente really is. An outstanding artist who with his tremendous intuition, versatility and perseverance has shown better than anyone the thousand faces of flamenco, and who's made a decisive contribution to its vibrancy and promise today, at a time when other traditional musical styles are beating a hasty retreat.


Enrique Morente at Plaza de Toros de La Maestranza
(Photo: Daniel Muñoz)

 

 
   

It hasn't been easy. First came the accusations of corruption of the music, of treachery in his struggle to disfigure what was already perfectly coded. When some albums and some categorical evidence of his knowledge of the classical approach laid these malicious comments bare, then came the most twisted condemnations. That the pace of the compás waned (just get a metronome and see for yourself), that he didn't really make you feel (are there really many true aficionados whose hair doesn't stand on end listening to his caña ‘Eso no lo manda la ley’, ‘La aurora de Nueva York’ or ‘Generalife’, to name three markedly different examples) and that kind of thing.

However, at the time of sharing this conversation with him, all this “antimorentism” has died down a little, and Enrique doesn't really seem to be interested in retaliation or settling old scores anyway. Firstly, because he himself understands that the peñas and the more conservative sectors were moved by an understandable fear that that which they loved would be destroyed “with a nuance that when this takes the form of religious dogmatism, creativity is stifled, and there's no room for compromise”.

Secondly, because Morente's struggle seems much more to be a battle with his own dissatisfaction. It's a fight to extract something authentic in spite of the barriers and of whatever adversities. One of his latest offerings illustrates this perfectly. It's a joint project with painter José María Sicilia, “a fantastic, intrepid artist, who isn't ashamed to put a torch to his own work if he isn't satisfied with it”, based on ‘The book of one thousand and one nights’. That never-ending book, continually being re-written and which represents the quest for life whilst overshadowed by the threat of death, is a deeply expressive and poignant symbol for the vocalist, who brought this project to its fruition with a concert in Cairo on 5th March 2006.

 
"Purity is exactly this: true self-expression"

And lastly, because from a very early age he took on board the idea that he comes back to again and again, though with a somewhat discouraged tone, as if in spite of his struggle he still hasn't made himself understood: “This is an artform for professionals, for people who are totally dedicated to it”. And not only because of the dedicated effort and the seriousness demanded by a career as a cantaor - “this is a very difficult, very delicate musical genre, which takes a lifetime to master. I don't mean to say that it's better or worse than others, just that it's really difficult to really get to grips with the rules and codes of flamenco”, but above all because “the professionals are the ones who have to decide, who must take risks and carry on moving forward. It's your professional experience, your ongoing contact with audiences and your work in the studio which allows you as a vocalist to establish a style of your own, to enrich the cultural legacy of flamenco. And the fact is that purity… purity is exactly this: true self-expression.”

And for this reason, to Morente cante shouldn't tie itself to being just an imitative repertoire, mimicking the approaches of the past. Because if this was the prevailing tendency the future of this discipline as a dynamic artform would be gravely threatened. “Traditional cante won't disappear, it'll always be around and there'll be people who perform very well. You have the albums, and on them you can find everything that's been preserved, and everyone has access to them. The danger facing cante isn't so much that it might be lost, but rather that the form of expression becomes standardized”. To be more precise, the possibility of a few inflexible norms leading to stagnation, when “in flamenco there's always been an evolution, there's always been change, it's constantly updated, and that's been how many of the big names of yesteryear approached it.”

 
"You have to know your stuff and you have to give it your all, but the most important thing is for what you're doing to be from the heartn"

The driving force behind cante is reinvention, not repetition - a misinterpretation that's often made. And its decline comes more as a result of the serialization of recitals in line with to a few formulae that are considered sacrosanct, than for attempting to work some personal feeling into age-old music. “I've been asked lots of times what's the key to good singing. Some say using your head, others say the sound has to come from deep within, from your entrails. But when they ask me, I say that the key is this (pointing to his heart). You have to know your stuff and you have to give it your all, but the most important thing is for what you're doing to be from the heart.” And it isn't just empty rhetoric. This comes from the man who never sings the same way twice, who tirelessly seeks that new inflection, that unheard-of scale, the change of tone that best matches the desired feeling and intentions at a given moment. The easy option would be the other one. To do what Enrique does you need extreme intellectual abilities and extreme emotional commitment. He takes the perfectly-laid, common foundations, defined by tradition, and on them builds with all the conceivable potential of flamenco.

 

Enrique Morente. 2006 London Flamenco Festival
(Photo: Daniel Muñoz)
 

 

 

But the determination to hit upon that exact edge which makes every occasion a new revelation, and thus find his own true voice, has no self-obsession or tendency to hide behind personal aesthetic convictions at its root. Quite the contrary: it's a question of opening up new avenues: “Translating everything of value that can be found in other forms of expression into flamenco” (a concept that's dear to the Granada-born cantaor) so that cante can communicate it with its own unique way of interpreting and expressing things. That's the main reason for setting up joint ventures like those that brightened up his latest album ‘Morente sueña La Alhambra’ and the documentary of the same name that accompanied its release. Some of the tracks from the movie didn't appear on the album, such as the one where he performs with Cheb Khaled. But ‘El Ronco del Albaicín’ - literally, the hoarse voice from El Albaicín - doesn't put these omissions down to a dissatisfaction with the result: “Of course I loved working with Khaled, an anti-fundamentalist like me, just as I'd like to do something with Cheba Zahouania” (the Algerian raï singer who had to seek exile in France due to the especially critical nature of her lyrics).

It has more to do with another of the aspects in which Morente was a pioneer: studio work. Albums these days can't be compared with traditional 78 recordings “where the recording process ended when the singing did”. Firstly, because “the type of concentration needed to make a whole album is different to that needed to record two songs”. And more importantly, “because an album is conceived today with a sense of purpose that extends beyond the mere collection of cantes”.

As with other musical genres, many modern-day flamenco albums aren't just a sample of the talents and knowledge of the artist, but the whole, the way the tracks are ordered and the mixing, aims for an effect and a meaning that goes beyond the sum of its parts. Although you have to exercise restraint when it comes to polishing and adding the finishing touches. “These days you can make a thousand overdubs on a track if you want, but that won't make it better. And you might think you're perfecting a track whereas actually you could be destroying it. And the fact is… perfectionism can stifle inspiration. Having more resources at your fingertips is an advantage… but it can also make the work more difficult”.

But in spite of his doubts, in spite of his fear that he may be committing a grave error - something that always accompanies risk-taking - it's obvious that all these risks have borne their fruit. To begin with, Morente can take much of the credit for having brought true, untamed flamenco to an audience which up until a few years ago still dismissed it as an archaic folk tradition. One of the first to be really capable of showing people from other musical backgrounds the dazzling beauty, the strength and the vibrancy of this music. With his fascinating stage presence, he performs miracles like getting hardcore rock audiences to listen open-mouthed to a martinete, or to have acclaimed musicians like Pat Metheny or the members of Sonic Youth begging for the compás of a bulería por soleá or a siguiriya. “Like I told you, when I start a project I can't be worrying about whether it's going to define an era. I just make sure it's the best I can do, that's all. But of course it's rewarding doing things like working with Sonic Youth, and it's a huge boost to me that people with a career like that should show an interest in flamenco. And if later they draw on some of what they've learned in their own music or we draw on something of theirs, I think that's positive for everyone and we all come out better off.” Although the vocalist is a little reticent when asked if sooner or later we'll see this or other experiments with the New York band released on CD: “Well, we recorded some of the stuff. Now we have to listen to it carefully and then decide what to do.”


Enrique Morente with Sonic Youth (Photo: Daniel Muñoz)

But when you confront him with the huge impact of this breadth of vision which has allowed him to approach and be approached by other musical traditions, and the ebullient creativity that this has brought about, Enrique meekly plays down his role. It seems that preaching or believing himself invincible is the last thing on his mind. He recalls his humble beginnings: “Before we'd travel miles to go and see an old cantaor performing at a café who could teach us something we didn't know. And we just had to memorize it by ear.” He laughs at himself frequently: “They used to sing very well, until Morente came along and messed it all up and sang everything wrong.” And he oozes the ironic wisdom of one who has discovered that to closed minds, to those who impose, to their credos nothing is worse than the free approach of one who pokes a little fun at them. A posture, on the other hand, that shows great coherence in flamenco, as “cante can transmit extremely profound, truly terrible messages, but it does so with plenty of charm.”

Perhaps this last statement captures the essence of the mystery and of the poetic ambiguity that has characterized his career. That desire and that quest for everything that has come to represent for ever more one of the most moving examples of crossing artistic borders that any creator has ever offered.

Moree information:

Interview with Enrique Morente (February 2006)

Enrique Morente & Sonic Youth. Heineken Greenspace Valencia. Review and photos

The 2006 Flamenco Festival London. Enrique Morente: review and photos

 
 
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