The State of Competitive Flamenco: Contests Have Grown and Evolved as the Art Form Has Changed
Right: Lampara Minera winner Maria José Carrasco with Antonio Muñoz
BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
The highlight of the summer flamenco festival season in Spain is the Cante de las Minas International Festival, now in its 58th year. Held in the town of La Unión in the region of Murcia, with a strong connection to mining, the prizes of the Cante de las Minas (“flamenco singing of the mines”) have names such as the Lámpara minera (miner’s lamp); María José Carrasco (above, right) won that award this year as the best flamenco singer.
Surprisingly, after the 1922 Concurso de Cante Jondo in Granada—the first national competition for flamenco singers, originally organized by Manuel de Falla, Federico García Lorca, et al—and other competitions of the 1920s, there were very few concursos (competitions) again until the 1950s, when they began to flourish.
In August 1952, the first Gran Concurso de Alegrías was held in Cadiz, and even recorded by Radio Nacional España—under General Franco (1936–1975), flamenco was considered to be a useful tool for promoting the international image of Spain. However, as with all the country’s art forms, it was tailored to suit the needs of the authoritarian regime; of course, that’s another story. In 1953, a second edition of the competition was held—the II Concurso Nacional de Alegrías y I de Cante Popular Andaluz, which also featured a competition for popular Andalusian songs. No further competitions were held.
In 1956,Córdoba held its first national competition, the Concurso Nacional de Arte Flamenco de Córdoba. The acclaimed singer Antonio Fernández “Fosforito” won the first prize, the premio absolute. The Córdoba concurso was held every three years after 1956, continuing until 1992. However, in the time between each event, there were selection rounds held in such locales as Huelva, Malaga, Cadiz and Seville—all in 1957—and Jaen, Granada, Almeria, and Córdoba in 1958. This gives some idea of the level of organization and seriousness with which the Concurso Nacional de Arte Flamenco de Córdoba competition was held. They wanted to achieve a certain standard of performance, so it was not unusual to see the word “desierto” in the results, that is, no contestant reached the required level to be awarded the prize. In these first years, legendary cantaores such as Sernita de Jerez, Curro de Utrera, Juan Talega, Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, and La Perla de Cadiz began to win prizes in the competition.
The 1962 edition of the Córdoba concurso saw the reappearance of the Concurso Nacional la Llave de Oro del Cante (“Golden Key for Singing”). The first Llave de Oro del Cante had been awarded to El Fillo in the 1860s in Seville, the second to Manuel Vallejo at the Teatro Pavón in 1926—a gap of around 60 years. In that 1926 edition, each of the competitors was required to sing three particular flamenco forms: siguiriyas,tonás, and soleares. The siguiriyas and soleares had to be sung in three different styles within those forms, and for the tonás, each sang a tonás, tonágrande, martinetes, and debla. Beyond that, each cantaor was required to sing two further cantes of their own choice. By the 1965 edition of the Córdoba Concurso, the categories of toque and baile were included for the first time.
La Unión already had a long tradition of flamenco. The discovery of valuable minerals in the area had brought a great migration of workers from Andalucía during the 19th century and they brought flamenco with them, so the area had a huge number of cafés cantantes during a period stretching roughly from 1850 to 1920; sometimes called La Edad de Oro de Flamenco—the Golden Age of Flamenco. The cafés cantantes offered a small stage on which the flamenco artists could perform; their walls were covered with mirrors and posters advertising the latest bullfights in the Plaza de Toros.
The Festival Internacional del Cante de las Minas was established in 1961, with the first held in the Cine Meri. By the 18th edition, the event had moved to a big public market building, now referred to as the “Cathedral of Cante.” The competition was initially for cante only, but over the years more sections have been added, so that in 2018, they held the 39th Concurso de Guitarra Flamenca and the 25th Concurso de Baile Flamenco for flamenco dance. The newest section of the competition is the Concurso de Instrumentalista Flamenco, first held in 2009. The list of possible instruments includes violin, flute, saxophone, piano, keyboards, percussion instruments (including castanets), electric guitars or electric bass, synthesizers—basically any instrument other than the flamenco guitar—reflecting the great broadening of flamenco’s musical tools of expression.
This year, Agustín Carbonell (“El Bola”) won the prestigious “Bordón” award for the best flamenco guitarist for his minera and bulerías. Luis Medina Blanco won the second prize for his minera and Fandango de Huelva. The family tree of El Bola includes many prominent flamenco guitarists; he is a great nephew of the legendary Sabicas, and also traces his lineage to Ramón Montoya. As a guitarist, he feels this connection so strongly that he has researched the life of Montoya and in 2015, published a book called El Sueño de Ramon Montoya, including a recording. Now in its second edition (2017), the book has been revised and expanded in collaboration with guitarists Manolo Sanlúcar and Victor Monge (“Serranito”) and flamencologists José Manuel Gamboa and Faustino Núñez. The accompanying CD has also been expanded from the original nine tracks to 22 and now includes many historic recordings of Montoya accompanying the cante of Niña de los Peines, Niño Medina, Pepe Marchena, La Rosa, Encarna Salmerón, and Juanito Valderrama.
El Bola himself has lived and traveled in different parts of the world (Brazil, London) for short bursts and now is back in Spain. Born in 1967, his early years were spent in Madrid in the flamenco circles there; so much so that he was part of the “flamenco football team” that played weekly and included such distinguished musicians as guitarists Paco de Lucía, Juan Manuel Cañizares, and Enrique de Melchor. In fact, Paco was playing football on a beach in Cancún with his children just before he died.
Below, Luis Medina at the 2016 Concurso Nacional de arte Flamenco de Córdoba: