El Camarón and the Cádiz Tradition
John Moore
1. Introduction

    El Camarón de la Isla has been one of the most influential and innovative singers of the twentieth century. His cante is inextricably linked with the flamenco nuevo movement, although his career precedes this movement, spanning a period from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Apart from his enormous influence on the cante of today, Camarón has been something of a cult figure, both among younger Gypsies and Spanish intellectuals. Camarón has probably expanded the popularity of flamenco beyond its traditional subculture more than any other singer in almost three hundred years of cante flamenco.

    Given the innovation and wide-spread appeal of Camarón's cante, it is inevitable that he should be a controversial figure in a field where elitism and tradition play such an important role. Flamenco aficionados are extremely elitist in that the world is divided into los que saben 'those who know' and the rest. Furthermore, ever since the café cantante period of the mid-19th century, there has been something of an ongoing battle between non-commercial and commercial flamenco. Camarón's cante has run afoul of both this traditional elitism and non-commercialism. However, Camarón is clearly not merely a popularizer of commercial flamenco; had he been he wouldn't have been nearly as controversial. Manolo Escobar and Rafael Farina have been commercial successes, but essentially have been written off and ignored by most aficionados.(1) Rather, Camarón is a cantaor por derecho, and capable of profound traditional cante. In this respect his position is similar to that of Manolo Caracol, a singer whom Camarón idolized. Like Camarón, Caracol sang some of the best cante gitano of his time, but also produced many very popular commercial zambras, cuplés, and fandangos.

    This article discusses the traditional roots of Camarón's cante, and, to a lesser degree, the controversy surrounding his innovations. Camarón, associated with flamenco nuevo, has often been cited as a force behind the homogenization of flamenco and the demise of regional variation. The question I will try to address is: to what extent is Camarón an exponent of the Cádiz tradition in cante flamenco? In the next section I will attempt a characterization of Cádiz' cante; following this I will discuss Camarón's background and then go on to ask how faithfully Camarón follows in the Cádiz tradition. I conclude with a general remarks regarding Camarón's role in the demise of regional variation.

2. Cantes de Cádiz

    Cádiz is one of the cradles of cante flamenco. Pohren (1988:334) notes that during the dawn of cante flamenco nearly all interpreters of cante gitano were from the province of Cádiz. However, the cante gaditano, as it is know today, can be traced to Enrique del Mellizo (1848-1906), his contemporaries, his sons, and his student, Aurelio Sellé (1887-1974). Pohren (p. 49) notes that the school of cante associated with Cádiz and its surroundings are largely due to the creativity of Mellizo. Examples of cante gaditano are preserved on a number of recording, roughly beginning with Sellé, but also including Pericón de Cádiz, Manolo Vargas, Manuel El Flecha, Antonio el Chaqueta, La Perla de Cádiz, Chano Lobato, El Chato de la Isla, El Beni de Cádiz, and Juan Villar. Among the younger generation are Flecha's sons El Flecha and Chaquetón (I am only aware of recordings by Chaquetón), and Rancapino.

    One often hears the cante from Cádiz described as somewhat lighter than that of Jerez. Perhaps this is due to the cante chico forms that have been so well-developed in Cádiz (e.g. cantiñas, tangos, bulerías, and tanguillos). However, listening to Sellé and his contemporaries, even jondo forms such as soleares, siguiriyas, and malagueñas are delivered with a certain restraint. Whereas cante from Jerez is intense, almost from the temple, cante gaditano seems to create tension by understating the first few letras, and then opening up with the tercio valiente. In this respect, there is a good deal of uniformity in the cantes of singers such as Sellé, Pericón, Manolo Vargas, El Flecha, and Rancapino. In fact, some of these singers (particularly Vargas, Flecha, and Rancapino) duplicate many vocal features of Sellé's cante. Given that Sellé was a disciple of Mellizo, it is possible that these were features of Mellizo's cante. Other singers, such as La Perla, seem to employ a more even festero delivery; while the vocal features and delivery are different from those of Sellé, the cante is no less gaditano. Hence, the 'Cádiz' sound associated with Sellé may be a common, but not necessary, characteristic of cante gaditano. Crucial to the Cádiz aire, however, is a keen sense of timing, and a gracia for cantes such as cantiñas, bulerías, and tangos.

    Mellizo, his sons, Antonio el Mellizo and Enrique el Morcilla, as well as other contemporaries (e.g., Paquirri el Guante) left a canon of cante that essentially defines cante gaditano. These include styles of soleá, siguiriyas, malagueñas del Mellizo(2), as well as various cantiñas, bulerías, tangos, and tanguillos. One finds these labeled de Cádiz, de los Puertos, del Mellizo, de Paquirri, etc.(3)

    To summarize, there are two fundamental aspects to the cante gaditano: a certain aire that has different manifestations (i.e., the restrained delivery of Sellé, or the festero aspect of La Perla), and a large canon of traditional cante gaditano. Furthermore, Cádiz has a tradition of innovation, particularly in cantiñas, bulerías, and tangos.

3. El Camarón de la Isla: Background

    El Camarón de la Isla was born in 1950 on the Isla de San Fernando, a suburb of Cádiz. He grew up in San Fernando in a casa de vecinos (i.e., a slum tenement) in the Barrio del Carmen. Both of his parents were singers. Montiel (1994: 36) describes Camarón's mother, Juana Cruz Castro, as being from a family that was "canastera y cantaora"; According to Montiel, Juana grew up in San Fernando in gypsy barrios where flamenco was a way of life. He mentions a video of her singing at a fiesta, in which he characterizes her cante as reminiscent of Pastora Pavón. A family legend has it that Juana sang por bulerías while giving birth to Camarón. Camarón's father, Juan Luis Monje, was from a town near Barbate. He was a blacksmith and a non-professional singer. He spent nights in his fragua drinking and singing with local flamencos, among them the legendary Macandé (cf. Pohren 1988:310-311).

    Camarón was one of eight children; the family was apparently financially secure as long as Luis was alive; however, Luis died of asthma when Camarón was very young. After that, his mother went to work cleaning offices. Camarón remembers this as a time when he was "as hungry as a snail on a mirror" (interview cited in Montiel: 257).

Aspects of Camarón's early life are reflected in the following letras:

            En la Isla yo nací                                    I was born in La Isla
            me crié al pie de una fragua                   I was raised at the foot of a forge
            mi madre se llama Juana                        my mother's name is Juana
            y mi padre era Luis                                 and my father was Luis
            y hacía alcayatitas gitanas                     and he made gypsy hooks
            (Fandangos de Niño Gloria, D3)

            A la iglesia mayor fui                             I went to the main church
            a pedirle al Nazareno                             to ask the Nazarene
            que me salvara a mi padre                     to save my father
            y me contestó que no                              and He said 'no'
            que me dejaba a mi madre                     but He would leave me my mother
            (Siguiriyas, D14)

            Cuando los niños en la escuela             When the children at school
            estudiaban por la mañana                     studied in the morning
            mi niñez era fragua                                my youth was forge
            yunque, clavo, y alcayata                     anvil, nail, and hook
            (Solea, D15)

    Camarón's artistic career started as a boy in San Fernando. He and Rancapino, his best friend, would go into Cádiz to the Plaza San Juan de Dios to sing for tips. He later frequented the Venta de Vargas in San Fernando, where he listened to all of the great singers of the area and performed in fiestas with local flamencos such as La Perla and the notorious guitarist Campinetti.(4) The owners of the Venta introduced Camarón to Manolo Caracol. Unfortunately, Caracol appeared unimpressed with his singing, an event that haunted Camarón for the rest of his life.(5)

    In 1966 Camarón left San Fernando to begin his professional life, singing in the Malaga tablao La Taberna Gitana. Three years later, he went to Madrid to work in the tablao Torres Bermejas. Around the same time he toured Europe with Paco Cepero, Paco de Lucía, and others. In 1969 he recorded his first colaboración especial with Paco de Lucía (D2). There were eight more such collaborations with Paco (D3-10) between 1970 and 1977.

    Camarón's recordings divide roughly into two periods. The period between 1969 and 1977 involved fairly traditional flamenco sung with just Paco de Lucía or Paco and his brother Ramón. However, in 1979, he recorded La leyenda del tiempo (D11), which departed radically from previous work. This record introduced the guitar of Tomatito, as well as a number of non-traditional instrumental accompaniments. After this, Camarón's studio recordings would all break with tradition in a similar manner (D11-D17).

    During the 1980s, Camarón performed in festivales, accompanied by Tomatito. These live performances presented a much more traditional style of cante, involving only single guitar accompaniment. Furthermore, Tomatito, although capable of virtuosity, played in a very simple and direct manner. Two recordings of these festivals have been released, one posthumously (D18 and D19).

4. Camarón as a cantaor gaditano

    Given Camarón's background in San Fernando, it is clear that his initial cante must have been in the style of Cádiz and nearby areas. Rancapino, who he grew up with, clearly sings in this manner, being one of the Cádiz singers to approximate Aurelio Sellé. Camarón, however, does not have this sound. Two possible explanations come to mind. One is that Camarón, having left San Fernando when he was fifteen, found other influences, and lost his Cádiz sound. The other is that Camarón's model was not Aurelio, but rather other Cádiz singers, such as La Perla. I believe that both of these positions are correct.

    It is clear that Camarón came under new influences after he left Andalucia. Sevilla (1995:28) points out that Camarón's first record with Paco (D2) was very much in the Cádiz traditions, with the exception of innovative tangos, bulerías, and fandangos. Sevilla cites an interview with Camarón where he says "I left my homeland singing bulerías, tangos, soleá, and siguiriyas ... But one comes to Madrid and begins to hear other things. If you have afición and like what you hear, you try to learn it." According to Montiel (1994) Camarón would seek out older singers wherever he went; he would accompany them with his guitar, and learn their cante. Given his afición, he developed an extensive knowledge of cante, beyond the bulerías, tangos, soleares, and siguiriyas he brought from San Fernando. In his first nine records, he sang a wide variety of cantes. In addition to the bulerías and tangos for which he was famous, he recorded several varieties of soleares, siguiriyas, fandangos, as well as a number of granadinas, tarantos, tientos, and cantiñas. In addition, he recorded less common cantes such as cartegeneras, polo, peteneras, bamberas, fandangos de Lucena, and tangos del Titi. Although not often thought of as such, Camarón, was one of flamenco's more complete cantaores.

    It is equally clear, however, that Camarón was greatly influenced by La Perla and Antonio el Chaqueta. La Perla, hearing Camarón singing in Madrid commented "That blonde! He's learned all of my cantes, and now he sings them better than me!" (cited in Montiel 1994:273). Camarón also credits El Chaqueta as an important influence. Sevilla (1995:133) cites Camarón as attributing his tongue-twister bulerías to El Chaqueta. The romeras on Camarón's second record (Jardín de belleza, D3) was also sung by El Chaqueta. Both La Perla and El Chaqueta are honored in Te lo dice Camarón (D15). On this record, Camarón sings an innovative alegrías dedicated to La Perla (Tu mare Rosa, after Perla's mother Rosa la Papera), and an Homanaje a Chaqueta. In this latter, he reprimands orthodox flamencos for their lack of recognition of these singers in the following verse:

            Que penita mas grande                 What a shame
            que en esas peñas flamencas         that in those flamenco peñas
            no tengan un cacho foto                they don't have a scrap of a photo
            ni tuyo ni de La Perla                     neither yours [El Chaqueta], nor La Perla's
            (Solea, D15)

    Thus, Camarón's cante was clearly formed with a foundation of cante gaditano, particularly as interpreted by La Perla and El Chaqueta. It is also clear that he branched out into new areas after leaving San Fernando. The question is: to what extent did he keep his Cádiz roots, particularly after his move into less traditional flamenco.

    On the first nine records (the colaboraciones especiales) there are a number of cantes that are in the style of Cádiz. Among them are a soleá in the style of los Puertos (D2), a tientos that is very similar to one sung by Aurelio (D2), an alegrías de Cádiz (D2), a romeras from El Chaqueta (D3), a siguiriyas in the style of Mellizo (D4), a malagueña del Mellizo (D4), and a soleá in the style of Paquirri (D10). Throughout these nine records there are Cádiz-inspired bulerías, innovative tangos (although not necessarily always in a Cádiz style), and various cantiñas, some innovative. In sum, these records provide a good case for the claim that Camarón was basically a cantaor gaditano who branched out to other cantes, and added innovations of his own.

    The seven studio recordings from La leyenda del tiempo on (D11-17) are probably Camarón's best known, but most controversial work. These records all involve some non-standard instrumentation. Four of them feature the combined guitar virtuosity of Paco de Lucía and Tomatito. In fact, the accompaniment on these records form something of a canon for the flamenco nuevo sound. Another change from earlier recordings is the emphasis on cuplé-inspired bulerías, tangos, and rumbas. These records do not always contains soleares, siguiriyas, and fandangos (although some do). Like earlier work, most of these recordings feature cantiñas, often very innovative: the two cantiñas on Leyenda have become standards, others include Pueblos de la tierra mía (D12), Mar amargo (D14), Tu mare Rosa (D15), and Casida de las palomas oscuras (D16). While one might argue that the innovations por bulerías and tangos are in the Cádiz tradition, this does not distinguish Camarón from other modern singers. His innovations por cantiñas are more convincing in this respect.

    Nevertheless, there are two features of Camarón's later work that suggest adherence to the Cádiz tradition: one has to do with several bulerías that are clearly in the style of El Chaqueta and La Perla; the other with the nature of the cante that he favored during live performances with Tomatito. With respect to the former, Bulerías de la Perla (D13) is nearly identical to a bulerías sung by La Perla on a Chant du Monde recording (D22). Similarly, the final bulería on the Viviré record (Tres luceros) shows clear influence from La Perla and El Chaqueta. His soleá, Homanaje a Chaqueta (D15), is sung in the style of los Puertos. During live performances, recorded on D18 and D19, we see more Cádiz influence than on the studio recordings from the same period. This is perhaps more telling, as it represents the cante that Camarón would be most comfortable with. On both of these recordings we hear alegrías that are pure Cádiz.(6) Also, on both recordings we hear bulerías similar to those by La Perla (D23). Finally, on the posthumous Camarón nuestro, he sings a soleá that is very similar to one recorded by La Perla (D23).

    Thus, we can conclude that despite innovations and other influences, Camarón remained committed to the Cádiz school of cante throughout his career.

5. Conclusion

    To conclude I would like to briefly discuss some of the controversy surrounding Camarón's influence on modern flamenco. Given the above description of Camarón's traditional cante, it is surprising that he should be such a controversial figure. It appears that this controversy stems from a number of sources. First, Camarón's cante has been innovative in a number of ways. He is associated with a new genre of tangos and bulerías. In addition, his cante has a propio sello that some aficionados may find unflamenco. He often glides between tones in manner that is almost Middle Eastern. He does this effortlessly, due to his superior voice control. This has become one of the most imitated aspects of his cante. Secondly, he has sung his share of cuplés, particularly on his later records. Some of these have become modern flamenco standards (e.g. Volando voy, Como el agua, Caminando, ...). Many of these cuplés come across as quite flamenco, but perhaps only because of Camarón's flamenco delivery, as suggested by Pohren. Finally, Camarón's influence on modern cante flamenco has been nearly unprecedented. He, along with Paco de Lucía and Tomatito, have put down the foundations of the flamenco nuevo. There are many younger singers who imitate Camarón's vocal style. To the extent that singers all over Spain are taking Camarón as a model, this popularity contributes to the homogenization of cante flamenco. Regional variation is giving way to a single, flamenco nuevo sound.

    While I believe that the above is true, it is less clear that Camarón is to blame. Rather, he may merely be a symbol of trends that were inevitable. During the 1950s many Andalucian flamencos (as well as many Andalucians in general) migrated to Madrid for economic reasons. As a result, Madrid became a flamenco melting pot where various regional cantes came together. While first generation immigrants (e.g., Pericón, Manolo Vargas, El Sordera, ...) retained their regional cantes, the second generation grew up with a distinct flamenco culture, and sang a different cante. Camarón came to Madrid during this period, and adopted new cantes, while retaining old ones. Thus, many of Camarón's 'innovations' were merely adaptations of other regional traditions. For example, Sevilla (1995:28) notes that the impetus for Camarón's trademark tangos came from the cantes of Extremadura.(7) Nor is it clear that Camarón should be faulted for singing cuplés any more than Caracol, La Macanita, La Bernarda, etc. Sean O'Brien, in a post to the Internet flamenco discussion list, notes that in many instances singers may record cuplés due to pressure from recording companies for new material. He also points out that Spanish aficionados are often much more receptive of such hybrid cantes than foreign aficionados (perhaps because cuplés represent an active tradition in Spanish music).

    Now consider the issue that Camarón's propio sello has been widely imitated. Generally, it is considered important to develop a propio sello. Thus, Camarón cannot be faulted for having one. Whether or not it sounds particularly flamenco is difficult to address objectively. Certainly Camarón's rajo voice is very flamenco. It is also odd to bemoan the fact that Camarón seems to have founded a school of cante. Other great singers of the past have done just this, and are held in reverence for exactly this reason. We saw above that many singers from Cádiz imitate the cante of Aurelio Sellé, who in turn may have imitated Enrique el Mellizo. Consider what might have happened if the migration to Madrid never took place. Imagine if Camarón and Paco de Lucía had stayed in the Cádiz area, and had gone on to innovate in exactly the ways they did in Madrid (perhaps with less jazz on Paco's part, and perhaps with fewer non-Cádiz cantes on Camarón's part). Then imagine a new generation of gaditanos imitating Camarón. What we would have would be a second Cádiz school of cante. In effect, Camarón would have been a second Mellizo. However, Camarón didn't stay in Cádiz, and his cante is imitated over a wider area. This does not make it intrinsically less pure; just more wide-spread.

    Finally, there is the issue that because Camarón has so many followers, his cante has diluted the ranks of aficionados with those who are interested only in only festero cantes and cuplés. Despite the elitist aspect of this attitude one does worry that a generation raised on Paco and Camarón will have no interest in the likes of Diego del Gastor and La Fernanda. Nevertheless, one should take some solace in the fact that in Camarón we find a model with a great deal of traditional depth, as well as a wonderful understanding of pure cante. In fact, one might argue that Camarón and Paco are models for today's flamenco precisely because they are intrinsicly so flamenco.


Blas Vega , Jose (1978) Coversaciones flamencas con Aurelio de Cádiz. Libreria Valle, Madrid.
de Cádiz, Pericón (1975) Mil y una historias de Pericón de Cádiz. (recogidas y ordenadas por J. L. Ortiz Nuevo). Ediciones Demofilo, Madrid.
Howson, Gerald (1965/1993) The Flamencos of Cádiz Bay. The Bold Strummer, Westport.
Montiel, Enrique (1994) Camarón: Vida y Muerte del Cante. Ediciones B, Barcelona.
Pohren, D. E. (1988) Lives and Legends of Flamenco: A Biographical History. Society of  Spanish Studies, Madrid.
Sevilla, Paco (1995) Paco de Lucía: A New Tradition for the Flamenco Guitar. Sevilla Press, San Diego.


[D1] Aurelio Sellé, Cantaores Gaditanos, vol. 1. Clave, 18-1278 S.
[D2] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía (1969). Philips, 58 65 026.
[D3] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía (1970). Philips, 63 28 004.
[D4] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Son tus ojos dos estrellas. Philips, 63 28 021.
[D5] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Canastera. Philips, 848 541-2.
[D6] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Caminito tontana. Philips, 63 28 100.
[D7] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Soy caminante. Philips, 63 28 130.
[D8] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Arte y majestad. Philips, 848 547-2.
[D9] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Rosa María. Philips, 848 543-2.
[D10] El Camarón de la Isla con colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía: Castillo de arena. Philips, 63 28 225.
[D11] Camarón: La leyenda del tiempo. Philips, 63 28 255.
[D12] Camarón con Paco de Lucía y Tomatito: Como el agua. Philips, 63 01 035.
[D13] Camarón, Paco de Lucía y Tomatito: Calle Real. Philips, 814 466-1.
[D14] Camarón con Paco de Luíia y Tomatito: Viviré. Philips, 822 719-1.
[D15] Camarón: Te lo dice Camarón. Philips, 826 818-1.
[D16] Camarón de la Isla: Soy gitano. 842 050-1.
[D17] Camarón: Potro de rabia y miel. Philips, 512 408-2.
[D18] Camarón con Tomatito: Flamenco vivo. Philips, 832 783-1.
[D19] Camarón nuestro. Philips, 526 187-2.
[D20] Chaquetón: Museo del flamenco. Abanico, 30112443.
[D21] The history of cante flamenco: an archive. Murray Hill, S-4360.
[D22] La Perla de Cádiz: Grands cantaores du flamenco vol. 13. Le Chant du Monde, LDX 274 934 CM 211.
[D23] La Perla de Cádiz: Maestros del cante. Hispavox, (50) 150 100.
[D24] Pericón de Cádiz: Cantes de Cádiz. Clave, 18-1216 (S).

1. Camarón mentions Farina in a 1989 interview: "We [Gypsies] are one race. If Rafael Farina had been born down here [Andalucia] instead of in Salamanca, God knows what he would have been." (Cited in Montiel 1994:269).

2. Aurelio Sellé claims to have innovated the practice of warming up for the malagueña del Mellizo by singing a granadina (Blas Vega 1978:80; cf. D1, Que te olvidara for an example).

3. There is a certain amount of confusion in the labeling of these cantes on various recordings. For example, the Soleá de Cádiz sung by Pericón on the Archivo anthology (D21) is identified as a Soleá de Enrique el Morcilla on another recording of Pericón (D24). A soleá with an identical melody is sung by Chaquetón and labeled Soleá de los Puertos (D20). This is cleared up by comments by Sellé and Pericón. In Blas Vega (1978:33), Sellé points out that "... the flamencos used to give more importance to the verses than to the cante". That is, a soleá of el Morcilla must be a soleá with the verses of el Morcilla (and perhaps subtle changes in delivery and melody). El Morcilla himself may have adopted his own verses to the melody of the soleá de los Puertos, as well as other styles. Pericón (de Cádiz 1975:245) notes with respect to el Morcilla that "... other times he would sing other letras, all within the cantes de Cádiz and the cantes de los Puertos". The point is that the canon has two parts: a stock of traditional letras and a stock of traditional melodies. To avoid confusion I will use in the style of Mellizo, etc. to refer to cantes that maintain the melody, but not necessarily the letras.

4. See de Cádiz (1975:147-140) for amusing stories about Campinetti. It is likely that Campinetti is the inspiration for the character Efrén in Howson (1964/1993).

5. Camarón idolized Caracol, and was deeply hurt by the snub. Later in Madrid, Caracol tried again and again to convince Camarón to sing in his tablao (Los Canasteros), but Camarón never agreed to. This ambivalence towards Caracol is summed up in the chorus from the tanguillo in Potro de rabia y miel (D17):

            Que pena y dolor             What pain and sorrow
            que eco mas puro             what a pure sound
            tenía Caracol                   had Caracol
            que buen cantaor             what a great singer
            dejaste una herida            you left a wound
            en mi corazón                    in my heart

6. It is interesting to compare the alegrías on these live performances with the alegrías recorded on D2. They are sung in the same style, but the later ones sound more 'Cádiz', perhaps because of a more mature voice.

7. Madrid has a rather large community of extremeño flamencos, including the late Poriñas de Badajoz, his guitarist son, the late Juan Salazar, nephews Ramón el Portugués and Guadiana, and other family member that include Los Chunguitos and Azúcar Moreno. These last two have been instrumental in the popular rumba genre. Many of these artists have been active in the Madrid tablao circuit.