Today’s post is Part 2 of Armando Mateos Fernández’s interview. Click here for Part 1. Armando is a talented young singer in early stages of his artistic career. He works as a teaching assistant at the Fundación Cristina Heeren and Artes Escénicas Rebollar and performs throughout Spain and Europe.
Today I write while the entire world is on edge due to the outbreak of Covid-19. I hope this post helps serve as a useful distraction by giving you something positive to read, however fleeting it may be. Things are changing fast and we are all concerned for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our livelihoods. I no longer live in Spain, but many of my friends do, including Armando. Musicians and other workers whose livelihood depends on bringing people together are particularly vulnerable right now. Please keep these people in mind in the upcoming days and consider lending a hand where you can. Thank you.
The interview was conducted on January 21, 2018, in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla, Spain. It will be presented over the course of several posts.
What was your first experience with music and with flamenco?
I’ve been with flamenco since I was born. Traditionally, my father’s family liked to sing a lot. No one in the family achieved anything artistically; they weren’t artists. It wasn’t what they did professionally, but it’s in our genes. In fact, my grandma almost was [a professional]. She was known as la Niña de Antequera. She wanted to go on a tour once, but in that time being an artist was looked down upon, especially for women. My great grandmother, her mom, told her no, that she couldn’t be part of that show. I’ve lived flamenco in that way, and from my mother’s side. She’s from a Roma (Gypsy) family with a lot of the flamenco tradition. Again, it was simply to listen and to enjoy at flamenco parties. No one was an artist, except one of my uncles on my mom’s side. He liked flamenco a lot and wherever he lived he found it easiest to work by doing flamenco. He worked at a conservatory in Valencia. In Valencia there’s little flamenco, so the few people who do it are highly valued. His name was Manuel Reyes.
Did you learn with him?
No no no, I learned from my parents, from the cassette tapes they put on at home when I was little. My first experience with flamenco came when I was 11 years old, in the year 2000. We had moved to Estepa and it was our first year living in Andalucía. We were now in my parents hometown. There was a fundraiser for a young handicapped girl. They were raising money to buy her a wheelchair. She was from a poor family and they couldn’t afford to buy it for her. The flamenco peña in Estepa organized the fundraiser and I went with my parents. I had to go everywhere with them at that time since I was so young. I wasn’t allowed to go alone. There was a lack of singers so they asked my father if he could lend a hand and sing for the event. After so many years without singing, and after having problems with his voice, he decided he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t think himself capable at the time. At that moment he thought of me because I was always singing at home. I listened to a lot of Camarón back then and knew a bunch of his material. I sang at the fundraiser and did a bunch of Camarón.
And so you liked flamenco from the beginning?
Yes, from the beginning. Ever since I was born flamenco and I were a good pair. That night [at the fundraiser] I sang a bulería from Camarón and some fandangos. The bulería was called Pasando el Puente (Crossing the Bridge). It’s a bulería that he did live with Tomatito [on guitar] and it has a lot of letras (lyrics). I think it’s something like 13 minutes of bulería. I liked that piece and out of the 15 or 18 letras that it had, I think I did about half of them. After that I sang por fandangos, everything by Camarón.
At what point did you realize you were talented enough to be a professional artist?
I never realized it myself. For me it was just one of our customs, to sing at home. My mother sang to me. My father sang to me. I was always listening to flamenco and so it was normal to just sing. In fact, I never wanted to sing anywhere. It embarrassed me. It was my mother who realized [I had the talent] shortly after we arrived in Estepa. Being in the Comunidad Valenciana, if you sing then fine, you sing. No big deal. When I arrived in Andalucía everything surprised me. It all changed. It felt good to emigrate to Andalucía. It’s as if the voice just fits better here.
When did you make the decision to move ahead with this as a career?
At the beginning it was complicated because I really liked soccer. I was signed up for the local soccer team in Estepa. Nothing bad happened, actually I was playing in all the games and was traveling to the surrounding towns each weekend to play. There was even a special team for the top young players that wanted me. After I sang at that fundraiser, there was a family that saw me and they arranged for me to sing in Montalbán, a town in the province of Córdoba. Furthermore, the president of the peña flamenca in Estepa gave me the opportunity to sing the local flamenco festival. After that it was just word of mouth… “the kid sings, the kid sings!” Ultimately, the kid ended up singing every weekend practically! There was no time to play soccer anymore. [It was tough], because I didn’t want to sing at the beginning, but then I realized that the only thing I really knew how to do well was sing.
What have been some of your biggest challenges so far?
There have been three big challenges for me so far. The first was singing a Saeta. Before that I was accustomed to singing more typical flamenco, with the guitar and such. When the time came to sing Saeta, I’d never done it before. I quickly learned a few and this was really a challenge because I didn’t have a reference tone (Saetas are typically sung during Holy Week without instrumental accompaniment). There was the murmur of the crowd and this was important because it really impacts you. You have to be well-prepared to sing one professionally. Anyone can just sing a Saeta, but to do it with that sense of responsibility, no.
Another challenge was returning to the Fundación Cristina Heeren to work several years after being a student there. That was in 2016 and I had been in my hometown and was a little lost in the world of flamenco there. Things weren’t really working out for me. I was isolated from the city and no one knew me as a singer and so finding opportunities to work was hard. There weren’t as many [resources] there, and so working in the Fundación again became the next challenge and it continues to be one. I think it’s a big responsibility to work there and it’s demanding.
The last challenge was three months ago, in November, when I went to perform in Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean. That was hard for me because I had never flown before! Never, not in my whole life. I hadn’t even left Spain except for that same summer when I went to Portugal with my girlfriend. But you know how it is. It’s one thing to be here next door in Andalucía. I arrived in Lisbon in three hours. It was beautiful, but nothing like boarding a plane and flying across the pond to Miami and then on to Trinidad and Tobago. That was also hard also because of the show that I had to prepare. There were many good artists and so it was a long month of preparation. It was a chaotic month of studying, rehearsing, and with the pressure to fly for the first time in my life.
Have you ever come close to quitting music in a moment of frustration?
Yes, of course. About two and a half or three years ago I had decided to leave flamenco. It was in 2016 and it was the same year that the opportunity arose to return to the Fundación.
Do you think you already have your own style?
I think I’ve had my own style practically since I began. Since I was learning Camarón’s cantes and since my vocal range was similar to his, I could reach those really high notes and adjust to his voice. I’ve never considered myself a Camarón and I’ve never tried to be like him, but he was the one who got me into this. If I wouldn’t have known of him, I don’t think I’d be here doing flamenco. Of course, after some time I’ve had to focus on other singers in order to learn. I’ve learned that following Camarón isn’t the ideal path, but to start out with it was good. I do have my own style in that regard, at least I think so.
The American composer Philip Glass once said that for him it wasn’t that hard to find his artistic voice, and that it’s much more difficult to escape one’s voice. What do you think of that? You’re a singer and your voice is your voice. That has a lot to do with it too I guess, more so than for a guitarist. For a guitarist, it’s a little easier to copy other styles.
I don’t see it that way either. You can learn a falseta, for example, any falseta that a teacher shows you or that you seek out, but the dimensions of your hand, the feeling in your heart, or the way you see the music is what creates variety. It won’t be the same, you can copy but it will never be the same. I think that everything influences you, physically and psychologically. Those who copy exactly, because okay, yeah there are some who do copy things exactly, but they get comfortable. It’s so easy for them to just copy that they get complacent. They don’t search for alternatives and so they never do anything but copy. When you become aware of all your possibilities, that’s when you begin to investigate. You also have to realize that when you study flamenco, or anything else for that matter, that you’re not just studying the music, but you’re studying yourself and learning what you have to offer. That’s my way of seeing it, at least.
What would you recommend to a young person getting into flamenco or trying to start a career as a musician?
To study, most importantly, something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with flamenco. Also, don’t listen to those who always say you need to be something like a doctor either, no no no. Study something that truly attracts you. There are people, for example, that are intrigued by electricity. They can be a true genius in the electrical field, knowing how to fix anything! Also, I would say that if you have something you’re working on, finish developing that first it if it’s attractive to you. Flamenco, since it doesn’t really cost money [will always be there]. Now it’s all on the internet. There are many recordings and nearly any resource you want you can get now. If you like flamenco, don’t ever stop listening to it and try to find even the smallest moments for it, rather than wasting time watching TV or doing some activity that doesn’t jive with you. Sit down and listen to flamenco because it will always carry you. That’s clear, because it’s a whole culture. It’s Andalusian culture and it’s rich. Again, I would first say to study something that attracts you and that makes you feel fully actualized. If it’s flamenco that attracts you, then don’t ever let it go. Don’t ever stop listening because flamenco, I don’t know why, but just by listening and not doing anything else, it will make you happy. One way or another, the flamenco you have inside will have to come out.
How has teaching changed in flamenco?
I have two points of view. I simply started singing because it came naturally and I just sang. It suited me because I had a certain type of voice and I was accustomed to using my voice. Later on, I had a big problem when my voice started changing. All of a sudden I thought I couldn’t sing anymore because I couldn’t sing the same pitches as before! I didn’t know anything about what was going on. I was not a cultured person. I didn’t have any idea how to keep advancing [as a singer]. I thought I’d just lost my voice. It’s one thing to be stuck in some small town and another thing to be in the capital or around educated people. I had a teacher that came from Córdoba and he was a guitarist. A guitarist was teaching me! I am grateful to him, but that wasn’t the best idea. You have to learn from someone who understands singing, not a guitarist. I came to Sevilla and then I saw the academies here and the big professionals that were around who could help prepare me. Those are the two teaching concepts that I have. One is being uncultured and from a small town that isn’t flamenco and that can’t teach you any more. [The second] is having everything right around me. It’s complex. The truth is that I didn’t realize all this even existed. I was 110 kilometers away and had no idea that a school like this existed. For me, flamenco was what I had in my town and little more. Coming to Sevilla opened my mind.
This post is Part 2 of Armando’s interview. Click here to return to Part 1.
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