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Pitingo, flamenco cantaor. Interview

“I’d rather be criticized the way Camarón and Enrique Morente were criticized”

Silvia Calado. Madrid, December 2007
Translation: Joseph Kopec

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, in principle, has nothing to do with a bulería. But if Pitingo steps in, it seems like anything can be turned into flamenco. That’s what the Huelva-born cantaor upholds in ‘Soulería’, a show which is booming at the box office and which “takes flamenco to people my age”. The show, which puts twenty-five people up on stage between gospel singers, rockers and flamencos, will be released on DVD next year, shortly after his second solo album comes out. He has announced that on the recording songs like ‘Yesterday’ are side by side with tarantas by the Habichuela family. And that more than ‘soulerías’, “now they’re ‘pitinguerías’ ”. He isn’t planning on getting off that ship.

Pitingo (Photo Daniel Muñoz)

The smoke from the roast chestnut stands contrasts with the ice cream shop which now occupies the hall. But the din from the street is comparable to that inside the Teatro Häagen-Dazs Calderón. It might even surpass it. This afternoon it’s time for the rehearsal of ‘Soulería’. And nearly thirty people swarm around on stage, the pit, the streets, the seats... Technicians, assistants, friends, and of course, artists. A gospel choir coming from New Orleans, a rock band, flamenco guitarists, clappers, vocalists and box drum players... and at the front, Pitingo. During this stint, it’s time to adjust a song by... Nirvana?!

But what is ‘Soulería’?

The one who defines it best is José Manuel Gamboa - producer of his first album -, of course. But the word itself means soul with a bulería beat. And now there are ‘pitinguerías’, which are follies of mine.

What does the show have to offer?

There’s a bit of everything. The show starts with a trilla. And people who come have the chance to listen to the usual cante, without any madness. And from there we go on to ‘Georgia on My Mind’ by Ray Charles. The concept of the show is that: parts with flamenco and parts with pure gospel. There’s a granaína, a soleá, a fandango... And there are songs as famous as ‘Killing Me Softly’, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana, ‘Let It Be’, ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong... There’s a lot of variety, there’s something for every audience. And everything’s been adapted to flamenco styles. For example, ‘Wonderful World’ goes por soleá. And there are songs por tangos, por bulerías and even por fandangos de Alosno, which we do with the gospel choir and it turns out brilliant. More than one person isn’t going to understand it, that’s normal; but little by little I think it’s going to be accepted by everyone.

Pitingo (Photo Daniel Muñoz)

Being such a varied repertoire, what was the work choosing the songs like?

We did it between Alejo Estivel, Juan Camborio and me. We fought over it, we shouted at each other, because each of us wanted to stick in a song, but we reached an agreement in the end. Ha ha ha. The concert is just as easily up, then down, then up, then down and afterwards up, up, up, until the end. We also intend to do a gypsy Christmas carol mixed with ‘Silent Night’ which they do a capella. Everything’s, well... ‘soulería’.

And the music?

There’s guitar, a chorus... and then, percussions, electric bass, hammond, drums... There are twenty-five of us up on stage.

Has it been hard for the gospel choir to absorb flamenco?

At first, when they arrived from New Orleans, they came wondering where we were going to stick them in. But then they flipped out. It had to be explained to them that por bulerías (and he marks the beat on the table with his knuckles) a soul song could be done. Las Bautista are going to do a song alone por bulerías which is by Whitney Houston. And they freak out because they’ve only listened to soul, funk... with a normal beat, tango stuff. When all of a sudden, they see a soleá or a seguiriya, and their jaw drops. In the end we got along really well, with a lot of affection, and they cried like crazy when they left. They were already looking forward to coming back; we’re all going to spend Christmastime together. They say we’re gypsies with a black soul. They’re enlightened.

Pitingo with Gospel Black Heritage Singers
of New Orleans (Photo Daniel Muņoz)

And the thing is that ‘Soulería’ was already on the bill in September. That is when it premiered and when it was recorded for its upcoming release on DVD. Now it’s back on the bill in Madrid, with such success at the box office that it’s had to be extended. And to do so, it even changes theaters. From November 30th to December 7th, it’s on the bill at the Teatro Calderón. They then move on to the Teatro Bellas Artes, where they’ll be starting on December 10th... “until we don’t know when”. The public will decide.

Do the gospel singers take part in the flamenco cantes?

Oh yeah, they take part in the bulería ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, which is mixed with cantes by La Perla. The refrain is Bobby McFerrin’s por bulerías and then it goes on to La Perla’s cantes, the ones (he starts singing them) “partying with the Habichuela family one day, trán, tracatán, tracantín, trán, trán”. And all the rest is traditional. Let’s say that the refrain is the novelty.


Pitingo (Photo Daniel Muñoz)

Who took care of coordinating, of making sure all the pieces fit together?

Juan (Camborio) and I. Before the choir came, we’d been working for three months. Musically, we prepared everything ourselves, although Alejo also took part. For example, ‘No Woman No Cry’ is por tanguillos, and of course, to transfer those lyrics to tanguillos and for them to also sing to that beat was hard for us. The thing is that they take it that way: tá-tacatá-tacatá... (he hums it, marking the beat). And the bulería is a little hard for them... quite hard. But it was solved by explaining to them when they have to come in. They wanted the compás to be explained to them, but even if I told them one, two, one two three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, they weren’t going to get it. They had to understand the sense of it and they waltzed into it. They do it as if it were por tangos, but they stick it in bulerías. It was really hard for us, but I think it’s really well-done.

But, no matter how much you explain it, it seems impossible to imagine Nirvana in flamenco and in soul...

Doesn’t it? Ha ha ha. That just what I used to say. It was Alejo who wanted to include that song. I listened to Nirvana and I couldn’t see it; I told him that I couldn’t do it, that they seemed phenomenal to me in their thing, but I couldn’t see it. Alejo encouraged me to try. In the end, we changed it completely. You can see it’s the song by Nirvana. The truth is that we’ve turned all the songs around.

And singing in English?

I’ll say! A little bit... well, like Raphael, if you know what I mean. Ha ha ha ha. But not ‘indegueto’ (‘in the ghetto’)... not that. Ha ha ha.

How do you manage for that mix to preserve the ‘flamencura’?

Oh yeah, it preserves it. I like to settle down and go to ‘flamencura’, to the classical. I do the granaína without embellishments or nonsense, I do the trilla, I do the soleá with its three sets of lyrics and its change before moving on to ‘Wonderful World’. The fandangos de Huelva are fandangos, fandangos. And then, I do the grand finale, like everybody, singing and dancing por bulerías. They’re always details. We want to respect flamenco... and turn into flamenco the songs which are not.

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