La Paquera de Jerez
Biography, discography and readers' comments...

José Mercé
Biography, discography and readers' comments...

Juanito Valderrama Festival de la Unión.
13th May 2000

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Carlos Piñana

Long live Dionysos!

Chronicle of a neophyte at the Festival de Cante de Las Minas, held at La Unión

Daniel Gil. La Unión (Murcia province), August 2002

The reporter arrives at Cartagena intrigued, expectant. It's 7pm on Friday August 9th, and the sun is still beating down on this industrial and shipping town in Murcia. La Unión 2002 will be his first flamenco festival, a genre of which his grasp is not at all firm, and he touches down somewhat lost, waiting for things to start happening, waiting for the magic to flow...

Hardly four hours later, just time to dump the suitcases at the hotel, grab a bite to eat and catch the local bus to La Unión, and the journalist enters the Catedral del Cante. A former meat market, built in a modernist style, this is to be the festival's main venue. That night the building, without doubt one of the finest around, is the gateway to one of the biggest annual events on the flamenco calendar: a week of non-stop singing, dancing and music - an overdose of flamenco arts.

The festival had already began when the journalist joined the throng that evening. The previous evening, Thursday, choreographer and bailaora Yoko Komatsubara raised the curtain on the event, making good the organizers' desire to pay tribute this year to the artist's native Japan.

Niña Pastori. La Unión 2002 (Photo Kyoko Shikaze)

But not until Friday did the big names start to show their faces in La Unión. The headliners, Carmen Linares and Antonio Canales, caused an endless queue of spectators at the market entrance. What seemed extraordinary to the journalist turned into plain ordinary after he tired of the same old story time and again for subsequent shows. The expectation caused by the program, coupled with the festival's unusual organization, meant that waiting for the audience to enter always delays the start of the shows.

That first night the reporter learned that Carmen Linares is an encyclopaedia of cante. In other words, she's capable of singing almost every palo or style of flamenco... and does it very well indeed. The reporter also learned to differentiate between Dionysiac and Apolline. In other words, that not everything that's done well is exciting, and not everything that's exciting is done well. And he thought he learned with Antonio Canales what good dancing was all about. His performance and that of his young bailaores Juan Ramírez, Paul Vaquero and David Paniagua, the incredible technical and physical skill the show unfurled, caused a profound impression on the journalist. Later, a few fellow journalists explained to him that flamenco dance isn't the same as tap dancing, and that Canales and company were too wrapped up in the foot-stomping zapateado, allowing other aspects such as arm movements, choreography or the fundamentals of each different style of dancing to fall by the wayside. Somewhat confused at this late hour, the reporter called it a night, and lay in bed thinking over the complexity of the relationship between the emotions and precision, between passion and technique, between Dionysiac and Apolline.

On waking that Saturday, the young reporter took note of a new axiom of flamenco festivals: the performances never start early, always finish late, and you don't get to bed until the early hours. Corollary: you don't get up for breakfast and you seldom get up for lunch. Even so, the festival program includes numerous daytime activities: courses, conferences, presentations, tributes... The sparse trickle of curious individuals arriving at these events confirms the arguments expressed above, and just goes to show that when attending a music festival you go for the music, live and direct if possible.

Manuel Cuevas Rodríguez. Lámpara Minera de La Unión 2002
(Photo: José Albaladejo)

As night falls, though, the atmosphere in La Unión is like a street party. With the main streets decorated and lit up, and with several pavement cafés dotted around the Catedral del Cante, this building becomes the epicenter of life for both locals and visitors during the whole week. And when the main acts finish their shows, the music and atmosphere spill out into the streets. Whether it's on the steps of the market building, where the public are just as interested in the singing as they are in their breakfast of churros con chocolate; or at the 'Latino' street café, a little bar a bit further down the street, whose tables and chairs take up the whole of the other plaza, and which offers bread smothered in tomato and oil once the patrons have given up worrying about what time it is. Colorful, peculiar, charming, and fun.

That Saturday night, at the second grand flamenco gala, José Mercé reigned in La Unión. At the end of his powerful performance, a throng of gypsy children stretched out their hands to him from the foot of the stage, in adoration of the messiah of cante. The art in his voice, and the intimate communion held with his guitarist, Moraíto Chico, brought the audience to its feet in the market. Mercé's performance perhaps stole the show from the guitar recital by Carlos Piñana and his group. The undeniable quality of the artist from Murcia and of his musicians fueled the debate between Dionysiac and Apolline, which continued to perplex the journalist.

On Sunday dawn broke over a sleepy, quiet, dull, almost moribund Cartagena. The reporter goes out into the street but there's not a soul in sight. Shops and bars closed, newsstands open but with no newspapers (a total contradiction), early-morning strollers not out for a stroll. The Sunday atmosphere, in the middle of August, traditional closing period for shops and businesses, only serves to accentuate the impression given by this city, deep in industrial crisis since the mid-eighties. Proud of its Roman and Carthaginian ruins, the town is building up a collection of contemporary ruins, the victim of shocking urban planning, for which graffiti all over the town lays the blame on the powers that be in the region's capital Murcia. La Unión, which is a small, modest town, gives a very different impression. It's humble air and well-kept, decorated streets, with the market square acting as the center of town life, makes for an inviting atmosphere.

This is the forty-second year the festival has been running. In spite of the ample experience, the festival organization still resembles that of a beach party, hardly what you'd call professional. That puts some black marks next to the Festival de Las Minas, for example the delays already mentioned, or a certain crudeness in the announcement of the acts. Having said that, it has a lot going for it too. Throughout the course of the festival, the artists who pass through La Unión really come into contact with visitors and locals. And its resemblance almost to a village fiesta really does give it a flavor all of its own.

That Sunday evening, however, the organizational aspect was at its worst. A problem with the soundcheck, causing an hour and a half delay to the start of the show, meant that an angry Diego Amador, first artist up on stage, offered no more than twenty minutes of his piano and group of musicians. With the audience who filled the market on the brink of starting a riot, and differing explanations offered by Amador and the festival organizers as to what had happened, on came Niña Pastori and made the peace. Her show isn't strictly flamenco and maybe sits uneasily in the middle of a program like that of La Unión. But those spectators who'd come that night to the Catedral del Cante did so, for the most part (especially the mothers and daughters), to listen to the singer from Cadiz. And the truth is they went home satisfied.

La Paquera de Jerez arrived in Cartagena on Sunday night, and the festival's tone changed distinctly. When she left on Wednesday, it was hard for journalists and members of the panel to recall everything that had happened on the weekend. Her presence, always overwhelming, lived up to expectations, both as an artist and as a person. The reporter awoke on Monday nervous, uneasy. The previous winter he'd had the once in a lifetime opportunity of accompanying Francisca Méndez Garrido and her family during the series of recitals offered by the cantaora in the Japanese capital Tokyo. During those days far from home the young reporter developed an intense personal relationship with La Paquera and her entourage, way beyond the call of duty, a duty which produced an article that can still be read in this corner of the Net. But on his return he hadn't made contact with them until now. He knew that he was going to meet them, and he was worried what type of reception awaited him. Mid-morning, when he crossed paths with the singer's brother Pepe Méndez, at the hotel where they were staying, his fears were allayed. During these days in Murcia the family from Jerez treated him just like one of their own again. The trip, the flamenco immersion at the festival, it had all been worth it. The experience of being close to and having connected with someone like La Paquera has immense value.

We had to wait for her star performance, La Paquera's that is, until Tuesday night, after the Town Councilors paid tribute to her. And the result, as mentioned, was a revolution. With her peculiar style, always thrilling, she won over an audience who melted from her charisma and gave her a long standing ovation. And by the end, the journalist was able to resolve his philosophical diatribe: Long live Dionysos!

The previous night saw a performance by Yoko Komatsubara's flamenco ballet who, with a well-chosen line-up of Japanese bailaoras and Spanish musicians, offered a highly entertaining interpretation of 'Bodas de Sangre'. The festival's orientation toward the Japanese flamenco market proves to be justified.

On Wednesday, more than halfway through the festival program, the competition begins. Out go the stars and in come the aspiring newcomers. The thirty or so entrants took over the Catedral del Cante and began a top-notch run-down of mineras, cartageneras and other styles of cante from the Levante region. Powerful, very powerful. During these days, up until the final outcome on Saturday, the glory of the great stars which filled the dressing-rooms gave way to the dreams of glory. Young artists looking for the success which could change the course of their careers, could give them the boost they need to reach the league tables of those artists who've made a name for themselves.

On Sunday the winners - in the cante category Manuel Cuevas, on guitar Antonio Soto, and dancer María Ángeles Gabaldón - basked in the glory of their triumph as they headed for their respective homes. And that same Sunday the reporter started the detox process. The diagnosis: flamenco overdose. The remedy: pop music and junk TV. But just one glance at the bedroom calendar and he breaks out in a cold sweat: only fifteen days to go till the 'Festival Bienal de Sevilla'!

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