The Gypsy influence on flamenco is one of the art form’s most important ingredients. The playful fieriness and “otherness” of the music can almost certainly be traced to this well-established, yet often marginalized, group in Spanish society. Musicologists may find elements from Byzantine, Moorish, and other Mediterranean styles in the general flamenco mix, yet it is the unique Gypsy spark that makes flamenco one of the world’s most important musical legacies. Underlying this influence is the fact that a large percentage of the great flamenco singers have hailed from Gypsy backgrounds, as have many dancers. Among guitarists, however, Gypsies have generally been less represented. Perhaps the most celebrated exception is the Almería-born genius José Fernández Torres, better known by his apodo, Tomatito (“little tomato”).
As is so often the case with flamenco greats, Tomatito grew up in a flamenco family. His father and grandfather were both guitarists who went under the name “Tomate” (despite being in a desert, Almería is a horticultural center known for its tomatoes). Young José grew up playing the guitar and made his debut as a soloist at the local peña, or flamenco club, at the age of 10. The family soon moved to Málaga, a city with a stronger flamenco tradition, which is where Tomatito’s career began to take off. It was here, when still a youngster, that he first met the legendary (and fellow Gypsy) singer Camarón de la Isla. In his early work, Camarón had been accompanied by Paco de Lucía, yet after a fierce argument in a New York hotel room (the reasons for which are still unknown), the two artists went their separate ways. Tomatito quickly filled the gap left in de Lucía’s wake, and Camarón and Tomatito went on to form one of the most powerful and artistically successful partnerships in the history of flamenco—one that lasted until the singer’s death in 1991.
“Camarón gave me everything I have,” Tomatito later said. “He made me.”
The spectacular alchemy between the two men is still evident from their first recordings together, notably on the 1979 album La Leyenda del Tiempo, one of the truly groundbreaking records in the art form. The duo combine effortlessly and flawlessly as though made for each other, Tomatito’s guitar producing a perfect platform and counterpoint for Camarón’s extraordinary and unequalled voice. Look out for video footage of the two men performing live, where the connection between them becomes even more evident. For me, one of the most powerful visual images that exist in flamenco is the expression on Tomatito’s face as he accompanies Camarón: Those eyes speak of admiration, absolute artistic union with his partner, and what can only be described as love.
Camarón’s untimely death at the age of only 41 was a low point for the world of flamenco, even more painfully so for Tomatito. “I went through a bad time,” he told an interviewer. “Everything was broken for me. I still haven’t heard anyone sing like him.”
Many feared that the experience might derail Tomatito’s promising career; yet, amazingly, he came back, reinventing himself as a solo performer who went on to become one of the most important flamenco guitarists of the modern era.
“To play the guitar, you have to be in love with the instrument until you die,” he insisted. In the two-and-a-half decades since Camarón’s death, he has barely stopped, recording eight albums, writing music for film, collaborating with an impressive number of artists—including Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Neneh Cherry, John McLaughlin, and Chick Corea—and winning a seemingly endless number of awards, including two Latin Grammys.
Like many in contemporary flamenco, Tomatito has explored other musical forms to a certain extent, bringing influences from jazz and pop into the art form; yet he is perhaps the figure who has strayed the least in those directions, retaining a sound deeply rooted in his flamenco—and Gypsy—upbringing. The spectrum of tone in his playing is vast and versatile, ranging from muscular and rhythmic to whimsical, impish, and heart-wrenchingly delicate, like a reed bending in the breeze, never breaking.
If you are already familiar with his music, you know what I mean. If his name is new to you, I suggest you start with his first solo album, Rosas del Amor, and slowly work your way through. It will be a magical, unforgettable ride.
This story originally appeared the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.