José De La Tomasa is a master singer from Sevilla. He’s long been a major figure in the world of cante flamenco (flamenco singing), and his flamenco lineage runs deep. He’s the grandnephew of the iconic singer Manuel Torre, whose repertoire comprises one of the art form’s major pillars, along with that of Antonio Chacón and la Niña de los Peines. José is also a beloved professor and taught the first class ever held at the Fundación Cristina Heeren.
The interview was conducted on April 03, 2018, at the Fundación Cristina Heeren in Sevilla, Spain. It will be published over the course of several posts.
I’m from the capital city of Sevilla [province], from the area near the Macarena and the Alameda [de Hércules] where there’s a lot of flamenco. It’s a really flamenco place and I grew up listening to a lot of cante. As you know, my entire family sang. My grandfather was Pepe Torre, from the family of Manuel Torre and Joaquín la Cherna. This all created a very flamenco environment for me. I was born in 1951 and here I am sharing all I’ve learned from my family, the wisdom I have, with the young singers of today.
What are the first memories of music that you have?
My first memories are of the Beatles. I liked the Beatles and used to listen to soul and other black music too. But more than anything else it was the Beatles. They were liberating. Flamenco was already inside, it was already in the blood, but there was a sense of restlessness and curiosity. We were living in a time when we didn’t know whether we were free or in prison, and those kids from Liverpool helped me spread my wings, so to speak. I owe a lot of gratitude to that group.
What have been some of the most difficult challenges in your career?
The challenge is daily, which is stepping up on stage each day. Some days I feel great, with all my physical abilities and other days not so much, but I always give the best I have. I don’t care where I sing, because when I close my eyes it doesn’t matter as long as it’s done with soul. But that’s the main challenge, to get up each day with the sense that you’re a flamenco singer and that you must produce that fire that exists.
Have you ever been to the point of quitting music?
No, never, because music is my psychiatrist. If I have a problem, the music cures me. Bad times do come. The moment we’re living in right now is confused, there’s a lot of low-quality flamenco out there. However, I’ve had my glorious moments, and so have many of my friends. But people now are squeezing in with a different type of flamenco, a flamenco that’s much more fused [with other styles]. But, you have to be wise. You must know that times change, and you must accept it.
You’ve had flamenco at home your entire life, but many people learn flamenco differently because they don’t have it at home. How does one know if they’re prepared enough to work professionally?
Well, the students I have here at the moment are already prepared to sing professionally. The thing is that they are so honest, such good people, and such aficionados. They want to continue here to keep fulfilling themselves and keep developing their knowledge. But, I can tell you that there are about six or seven that could sing professionally now, and four or five of them already are. They keep coming here to learn because they know you can’t just have three pieces in your pocket, you must have more.
What recommendations do you have for young artists taking their first steps as professional performers?
What I tell them is, “take this as a passion, because flamenco is not just another class of music, something colder, this is a passion.” I tell them to listen, understand, and keep humming [what you’ve learned] at home and keep singing it there. They need to know how to respect their audience. I tell them to be flamencos when they go out in public too, to behave civil, to be honest and honorable. What’s most important though, is to understand flamenco for what it really is, a passion and a music of the soul.
Obviously, it’s difficult to describe music in words, but how can we define your style of singing?
The cante that I do is intuitive and comes from inspiration. I don’t ever sing the same way twice. You can hear me sing today and tomorrow I’ll sing the same lyric differently because flamenco and cante and music are alive. I’m one of the few singers left that sings from this type of inspiration. I don’t ever sing the same way because life is never the same. The mornings are never the same and neither are the nights, so I like to improvise on stage. I’m also lucky because I write my own lyrics. I’m my own author, and that allows me to do more with the cante.
Have you always written you’re own lyrics?
Yes, ever since I began. [The lyrics] of my first album were done by a good friend of mine. But, I was missing the cuadratura (rhythmic phrasing) because usually writers aren’t singers. When I’m writing I sing mentally and that’s why many singers sing my cantes, because the cuadratura is already worked out. I call it, even though it’s a bit vulgar, the second orgasm, because to sing and be able to sing something you’ve written yourself is very special.
What do you think is your greatest achievement so far?
I think it’s my honesty and my knowledge. I have a lot of knowledge and I still study the masters. I listen to the masters a lot and to my family, which is the most important. Knowledge, rhythm, phrasing, and being honest with myself. That’s why I’m here [at the Fundación Cristina Heeren], because I don’t think that any human being with wisdom should take that to the grave. They should pass that down to others. Imagine some great human being discovers something important and dies days later and takes with him something he’s been researching for forty years. That would be a shame. Being able to pass down what I know to the young guys is why I’ve been here for twenty years, and I feel very accomplished. I don’t come here for economic reasons. What I earn singing elsewhere is what I charge here for four months. But, I feel proud of what I’ve learned and of what I have inside and of being able to pass that on.
Do you feel recognized for the contribution you’ve made to flamenco and to music?
Yes, but I feel recognized more by them, by my students, than by the official entities, which haven’t cared for me. My work is here. If one day I was to be recognized, I’d be honored. If not, my students are the ones that call me maestro and treat me with respect, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Flamenco is growing and is international now. When you think of the flamenco community, what is the image that comes to mind?
If you go to an official presentation of a flamenco event, you’ll see three singers there, twenty critics, and two hundred people that make a living off flamenco. I believe this is the response to the question. People have realized that there’s an important musical world within flamenco, but flamenco is not intellectual. A flamenco is a crude, rural person. He doesn’t speak the same way and his words aren’t backed up by others. People are served well when they’re able to make others believe something is flamenco. This is the only thing that pains me inside, that these men are protected economically. They live wonderfully, but there are singers out there with real needs. I don’t know if that answers the question, but if not it’s a marvelous answer anyway!
To be flamenco, this is a common concept and phrase within flamenco. What does that really mean to you?
It’s a prototype of a particular kind of person. When I was young, I used to see a torero (bullfighter) in the Alameda [de Hércules] and I knew he was a torero without knowing. He walked like the toreros, wore his suit and hat a certain way, so I knew. Fifty years ago, in the Feria de Sevilla there was a caseta (tent/pavilion) that was called Mal Traga and you knew which people there were singers and which were dancers. It’s a certain way of being alive, of facing life, of behaving. Today it’s not the same. Today singers emerge that don’t have experience, but they’ve had opportunities to listen to lots of recordings. Afterwards they copy what they’ve heard, because they don’t have that life experience. That’s a different way of pursuing flamenco.
There are many foreigners that do flamenco now as well. There’s also the historical situation here in Spain with the Gitanos (Roma). Have you seen much racism of any kind in flamenco?
Here in the Fundación, we adore the foreigners. We adore the main figure, which is Cristina Heeren, a North American. We treat them with even more respect, perhaps, than those from here. We see something in them that we don’t have here, which is the passion they bring. They come here as crazy lovers of this art form. I’m lucky that my mother was Gitana and that my father was not. He was practically Italian. I share aspects of both, and I’m happy to have had both cultures. If there was any racism here, I’d be the first to denounce it, because music should never be racist. Music should be music.
One of the common stereotypes in flamenco is that it’s just nightlife, drugs, alcohol, all that. Do you think there’s a drug problem today in flamenco?
Much less, almost nothing, compared to when I started as a singer. It was disgusting, the number of colleagues that fell into that. This was around the seventies. Now, thanks to the availability of information and being able to understand reality better, there is less, a lot less. I only see it when I sing with others and there’s some different behavior. But, that was harmful [back then]. Those stains were brought on by the famous artists. For example, if Jimi Hendrix does drugs and someone loves his music, they do it too to identify with him. The famous flamencos of that time did the same. I’m not going to name names, but many people identified with [a particular flamenco artist] and committed the same error.
What do you like and dislike about teaching?
I like to teach when the students start to understand what I’m saying, when they write down what I say, and when they ask me lots of questions. “Maestro how does this work?” There are some students that can be good artists, but they are more distracted and inattentive human beings, and this requires a lot of patience. There are students who understand the cantes quickly and retain them perfectly. Others need a month, but that doesn’t mean they have less art. They could have more. That’s just a hearing issue. What matters is if they work passionately and respectfully. I feel honored here. I’m content to spend my remaining time here doing what I like to do.
The concept of a formal, official school for flamenco is still rather new. This is very different than having it at home as part of a family culture. Can you talk to me about the changes you’ve seen in the learning and teaching of flamenco?
I would like to answer your question with wisdom I just don’t have. I’ve been learning to do this day by day. I remember I told my students in my first class that there were careers out there just for studying pedagogy. I just went into that first class with a guitarist, Manolo Franco, and began to sing. After a while I realized I needed to record what I’d been singing, I’ve been self-taught in this sense. I don’t have official metrics for teaching. I sing to the youngsters and they record it. I give them two or three days and then I see what they’ve done with what they’ve learned. Then I fix what needs to be fixed and help them out. But, apart from that there are two hundred thousand nuances. For example, if you sing a melody like this (gesturing), you cut short the phrasing. You must carry it over here (gesturing). I’ve discovered these things by being here so long. I’ve learned many nuances and have learned to breath naturally. You don’t do this on stage (breaths deeply and loudly). A singer always needs to breath naturally. I search for little spaces between words, or within a word, or in the expression “ay,” to grab air. I teach these things. I discover something new every day, and not just for them either. I discover things for myself as well, because being around flamenco every day helps me reach further and find some magical things. Also, at home I never stop listening to the old masters that I love.
When you’re performing on stage do you play for yourself, your fellow musicians, the public, or something completely different?
That’s a really interesting question. One never sings for himself, nor for the public. He who sings for the public is lost, because his head is not where it should be. I always try to revive my ancestors in my cante. I search for them. I remember them. I see their faces. This transports me to another place and I can be more authentic and can sing with more soul. I’ve sung many times while thinking of my youngest son. This gives me an internal strength. If you sing with real emotion, if you search for something deeper, it’s the public that will be the first to feel those emotions. But, to say I’m going to sing for the public, that I’m going to fight for the public… What if the audience isn’t good and they don’t understand? How am I going to sing for them? When the audience is bad, what we do is this; I sing for the guitarist and he plays for me. We play for each other without looking at each other. We say, “let’s go, I’ll sing to you and you’ll play to me. They’ll be listening, and we’ll give the max, but what isn’t there just isn’t there.”
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