Michael Mullan - Juanito Valderrama


One song more than any other is associated with the name of its author, the legendary flamenco artist Juanito Valderrama, who has died at the age of 87. El Emigrante, written by Valderrama in 1949, is an anguished ballad of yearning for what a Spanish emigré has left behind. The date is crucial, for this was written before Spain became a country of mass economic emigration: the emigrés to whom it refers were, in fact, the hundreds of thousands of refugees exiled as supporters of the losing side in the Civil War that ushered in the 40-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Juan Valderrama Blanca was a giant in the flamenco world, one of the most popular performers, most encyclopaedic experts and most innovative artists in this tradition of heartfelt and dramatic song rooted in the gypsy culture of Andalucía. His chief innovation within that somewhat conservative tradition was as a writer of his own lyrics, an accomplished "cantautor" or singer-songwriter decades before the term became a commonplace in Spanish popular culture. In flamenco parlance he was a cantaor, a performer of the cante jondo or melancholy sentimental ballads typical of the genre.

Valderrama was also a successful impresario, nurturing the early careers of some of flamenco's latter-day greats like the late Camarón de la Isla or José Mercé. He did not deserve the reputation as a sympathiser of the Franco regime that tended to erode his popular appeal in the last years of the dictatorship. True, he had - like many another star in the flamenco firmament - performed for the amusement of the Caudillo and his cronies, for whom flamenco symbolised a pure strain of the Spanish culture they purported to champion. But there was another side to the story, as Valderrama told his biographer Antonio Burgos.

Summoned to perform for a hunting party in Franco's honour - an offer he could not refuse, on pain of imprisonment - Valderrama was told to sing El Emigrante. He did so with some trepidation, and was astounded when the dictator himself requested an encore, describing it as a "wonderfully patriotic" number. The singer performed it again, feverishly hoping that its subversive message would go over the heads of Franco and his hosts. He got away with it. In reality, the lyric had been inspired by the tears he witnessed on the cheeks of Republican exiles, moved to grief by his performance at the Teatro Cervantes in Tangiers: it was a quintessential protest song avant la lettre, scribbled on the back of his hotel bill.

Born in Torredelcampo in Jaén province on May 24 1916, Valderrama was a tiny man, with an impish grin usually topped by a typical flat-brimmed sombrero from Cordoba. His parents were peasant farmers, and he recalled as a child singing to their olive trees and accompanying his father to trade horses or mules at gypsy ferias. His talent was recognised when he won a village competition at the age of eight. In 1934, he was recruited into the touring song company of Niña de la Puebla, with whom he made his debut in Madrid's Cine Metropolitano.

When the Civil War broke out, Valderrama enlisted in the loyalist ranks (in an anarchist battalion) and toured the front lines, digging trenches and entertaining the troops and the wounded. His artistic reputation helped him escape the reprisals visited on the vanquished Republicans in the post-war years. Instead, he dedicated himself to performing and promoting all over Spain and occasionally abroad.

Valderrama performed with some of the foremost names in flamenco - Aurora Pavón, Niña de los Peines, Pepe Marchena, los Gaditanos - but from the 1950s his shows extended beyond the traditional canon. He had a keen sense of changes in public taste, attracting derision from certain flamenco purists when he interspersed conventional popular songs or coplas with those of the thoroughbred cante jondo. He defended the practice as a means of widening the audience base for the authentic sound - and as a way out of the hardships facing a cantaor passing around the hat for a few pesetas. His sternest critics derided him as a collaborator with the watering-down of a passionate art form into a mass-market spectacle; what would nowadays be hailed as "crossover" was seen as heresy.

His recording career began in 1935 and lasted over six decades. More than 1,500 songs are left to posterity, though his repertoire was larger by far. With his then accompanist, el Niño Ricardo, he started writing his own songs, a dozen major hits among the 300 credited to his pen. Apart from El Emigrante, his signature tunes included De Polizón (The Stowaway), Su Primera Comunión (Her First Communion) and Madre Hermosa (Sweet Mother). He also acted in seven films, of middling quality. For many who lived through the bleak years of Francoism, Valderrama's voice was very much a part of the soundtrack and consequently he fell somewhat out of favour with the public when democracy was restored, despite his impeccable Republican credentials. He returned more fully to the flamenco tradition in the latter part of his long career and was an acknowledged expert on the many local variants of Andalucian song, like granainas, malagueñas, bulerías, soleares, fandangos or cartageneras.

His constant companion for half a century was the flamenco songstress Dolores Abril, a teenager of striking beauty performing as Lolita Caballero when she joined Valderrama's touring company in 1954 and for whom he abandoned his first wife. Divorce was not feasible in Spain in those days, and it was not until 1979 that he was able to get his short-lived first marriage annulled. A civil marriage to Dolores in 1981 received the Church's blessing six years later.

Valderrama formally retired in 1994, but made occasional television appearances thereafter. On February 23, the Andalucian regional government hosted a Madrid concert in Valderrama's honour, at which he gave his last public performance in the company of contemporary stars who recorded a tribute disc: Paco de Lucía, Juan Habichuela, El Cigala and many others acknowledged their debt to the frail old maestro. Soon after, he suffered a heart attack. He was convalescing at his chalet in Altos de Espartinas, Sevilla, and preparing for an afternoon stroll through the neighbourhood when he died on April 12. He is survived by Dolores, their daughter Blanca and son Juan, himself a noted singer and actor.

Michael Mullan - Obituaries...

Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo (pending)...