Esperanza Fernández is a virtuoso singer from the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla. She is a household name in the world of flamenco and has one of the most important voices in Spain today. Her international career spans three decades, having worked along the way with iconic artists such as Camarón, Paco De Lucía, and Dorantes, amongst others.
The interview was conducted on May 14, 2018, at Bar Santa Marina in the Macarena neighborhood of Sevilla. It will be presented over the course of several posts.
My name is Esperanza Fernández and I’m from Triana [Sevilla]. I was born on July 11th, 1966. I’m Gitana (Roma) and was raised in a family where practically everyone was an artist. My father is Curro Fernández and my mother is Pepa Vargas. Just two days ago her biography was published. It’s about her life, her perspective on flamenco, and how she lived through flamenco. I’m a flamenco singer. One of my brothers plays guitar and the other dances. My musical career is about thirty years old now.
Can you describe your style? What would you say defines your style?
When I started singing, I began by listening to a singer named Lole because her voice fascinated me. I sang all her songs, those by the duo Lole y Manuel, because I fell in love with her voice and her form of expression. Later, I realized I really couldn’t imitate, because each person is unique. After I said I was going to dedicate myself to flamenco professionally, I realized I needed to listen to others. I had to park all those discs of Lole and store them away in a box, and had to say, “now I need to establish my own identity.” So, at that point I started listening to many more people. My family was full of Mairenistas, so everyone was always listening to [Antonio] Mairena. They listened to people like [Manolo] Caracol and [Pepe] Marchena too, but they were really specialists in Mairena. Naturally, I listened to a lot of Mairena as well. I also listened to Fernanda y Bernarda [De Utrera], to La Paquera [De Jerez], and to Camarón and Enrique Morente, who were the two most important people of the day. I worked to learn all those cantes and tried to do it with my own personality. Nobody is born knowing that material, and we all have that mirror in which we look at ourselves. It’s logical for anybody. I had to work hard to do that, of course. Flamenco is free, but you must have respect for it and study it. In my case, I had to at least treat the cantes in a way that was true to their roots. From there, I could start interpreting them my own way, but without losing the style and the roots.
Outside of flamenco, what types of music do you listen to and what other types of art do you like?
I really like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. I’m fascinated by Billie Holiday, I like her a lot. Umm Kulthum, who is an Arabic singer, but I forgot where she’s from. As I mentioned earlier, my father brought home a lot of music from outside because he traveled a lot. So, my ear is pretty accustomed to listening to different types of music, Cuban music, African music, for example. Then the ear just goes to work on its own. It absorbs a lot of the music and later you grab on to something and then to something else, from one singer and then from another, and then you use those things in your own way.
And when you’re teaching, because obviously a school is different and is more formal, how do you teach?
That was also one of the most important challenges of my life. I owe a lot to the Fundación Cristina Heeren for that because they were the first to ask me to teach. It completely terrified me because it was something totally different! To step up on stage to perform and to give a class are two completely different worlds. But I said to myself, “Why not? I’m going to try.” I loved it. I loved giving the classes and I also saw that people came who admired me. It allowed me to develop my own way of teaching, but also helped me develop my singing too. I was there two years and after that I created my own school. I’ve taught for many years now and I’ve developed my own way of delivering classes. There are a lot of foreigners from outside of Spain, that’s true. The demand is huge. That has also pushed me to develop my teaching style and to vocalize differently so that the foreign students, many of whom hardly even speak Spanish, can understand me. It’s also forced me to speak more slowly. The truth is that I’m happy and content and I think there are a lot of people who are happy when they take my classes.
Do your children do flamenco?
They both like music. Each got started with soccer. Miguel, who is the oldest at eighteen, always liked percussion. He’s still young of course, but he already has work as a musician and has educated himself within the world of percussion. He plays the cajón well and I take him with me for my performances too. He’s been completely self-taught since he was young. Nobody taught him. He continues to teach himself, because flamenco is one of the longest careers around. You never stop learning, never. There’s always something that can surprise you or come at you again in a different way. And David, who’s fifteen, likes flamenco a lot, but no. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do yet. He’s into soccer.
How do you go about picking your collaborators?
I have many colleagues and when I’ve put together shows I’ve had luck in being able to count on good artists, whether they’re flamenco artists or not, depending on the circumstances or the show I’m putting together. I’ve had luck with practically all the artists that have worked with me and that have asked me to work with them, with Camarón de la Isla, Enrique Morente, and now with Arcángel, Rocío Márquez, Estrella Morente, Tomatito, Manuela Vargas, and Eva La Yerbabuena. I’ve also been able to work with really recognized musical directors when I’ve done classical music. I’ve been so lucky that they’ve wanted to feature my voice as well, doing things such as El Amor Brujo, La Vida Breve, Canciones de Lorca, de Falla, orchestral work. I’ve collaborated, and still collaborate with a Cuban musician named Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I met him a few years ago while working on a documentary that was made about the master Lecuona. I sang the Malagueña de Lecuona and he accompanied me. We had never met each other before that. I told him over the phone what key I sang in and when he came to Spain and then to Sevilla we got together, and it was just one of those really special things. From then on I knew that I had to do something with this master of the piano. — I like the piano a lot. It’s one of the instruments I like most aside from the guitar. I’ve also collaborated a lot with Dorantes. — We began studying and researching the musical world of Cuba. Luckily, I have a colleague that I’ve worked with for several years who’s a Cuban percussionist. He does palmas with me. So, I said to him, “Talk to me about old, traditional Cuban music, about some old singers.” He told me about Benny Moré. I started researching Benny Moré, and he fascinated me. There was a similarity there regarding the emotions of his music and his way of understanding life, but with a completely different form of singing. I thought that [Manolo] Caracol would be the best person to use to connect flamenco with the music of Benny Moré, and I don’t think I got it wrong. So, I went to Miami to see Gonzalo and shared my vision for a new show. He said to me, “I love it and we’re going to work together.” That’s how my most recent show was born. It’s been recorded live. Another of my projects that’s been running in parallel is called “De Lo Jondo Y Verdadero.” It’s completely traditional flamenco and I made it in the flamenco peñas. I did it in the peñas as an homage to them, because I cut my teeth in the peñas. I think it’s important that the peñas are recognized because all the great artists have passed through them at one time or another. This has happened because of proximity, but also because of all the flamenco aficionados that the peñas attract. I recorded ten concerts and a number of today’s artists collaborated with me.
And the last one was at the Fundación [Cristina Heeren], right?
At the Fundación, yes, exactly. I worked with, and I owe many thanks to everyone, Marina Heredia, Arcángel, Rocío Márquez, José Valencia, Tomatito, Miguel Poveda, Jesús Méndez, many different people.
Do you enjoy performing? Are you still enthusiastic about performing?
Yes, always! It’s my life. I couldn’t live without music or flamenco.
Do you like touring?
Yes, but when I had my kids, it did hurt to leave because they were so small. I had to explain it to them, so they’d understand this was my way of living and also my work. I can’t live without the stage. If I go fifteen days, or a month, without stepping on stage… No, I can’t.
In your experience, what’s different about performing here in Spain and performing outside of Spain?
Being at home is different. It’s not that when we leave Spain that the sense of responsibility is different. The responsibilities are the same. Maybe here, because of the proximity we have, that people look at you differently or they hear you differently. Each person has their way of seeing and I respect that; it’s all respectable. But, I do like to work outside of Spain a lot because people really respect flamenco. It’s not that they don’t respect it here, they do, but the respect for flamenco outside of Spain is incredible. I owe much gratitude to the people outside of Spain for coming to shows and filling the theaters to see flamenco. This continuously expands flamenco’s reach, and there are many people that really know flamenco and know perfectly well what it is they’re seeing. That is important.
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