Review of Seeking Silverio, the Story Flamenco by Paco Sevilla
Review by Vera King first published in Flamenco News in autumn 2008. Vera edits Flamenco News, magazine of the Peña Flamenca de Londres. Flamenco News is available by post for £4 including postage. www.flamenco-london.org.uk. It is free to members of the Peña
In the second half of the 1800s, Andalucía was Spain’s poor stepchild, its southernmost province and largely neglected by the central government. It was a time of political unrest and anarchy, a time when thousands died of starvation and disease, smugglers and bandits roamed the countryside, and some towns were still walled, their entrances guarded by armed customs officers. In many areas villages crumbled, deserted by villagers and farmers seeking work in the cities or emigrating to the north.
In this environment a young shoemaker’s son sets out to become a flamenco singer. His journey takes him across Andalucía in the search for knowledge, personal recognition, and respect for his beloved art. Along the way he meets many of the legendary and often eccentric characters, both gypsy and non-gypsy, who created what we today call flamenco. Prominent among these artists: singers Juan Breva, Enrique el Mellizo, Curro Dulce, Fosforito and the mysterious Silverio Franconetti; guitarists Javier Molina, José Patiño, Paco el Barbero, Maestro Pérez, Juan Habichuela and Paco de Lucena; and dancers Juana la Macarrona, Fernanda and Juana Antúnez, Salud Rodriguéz and Rosario la Mejorana.
So says Paco Sevilla of his latest book Seeking Silverio, adding “This is the saga of the birth of flamenco and its obscure history laid out here in a coherent yet entertaining manner that will be enjoyed by the casual flamenco aficionado and scholar alike.”
This is such a good read. It’s nearly 400 pages, beginning with the boy at the forge, aching to do what his father forbids. We follow him on his hungry, stony path, Seeking Silverio – the first one to sing flamenco who was not gypsy. The boy knew that he too could sing flamenco, though he too was not gypsy. And he became Antonio Chacón, famed for his part in the development of malagueñas and other forms into what they are today.
As he makes his way through boyhood in a Spain that fortunately no longer exists, he discovers more about the cante, his chosen way of life. And we discover it too, or rediscover it as the case may be. With Antonio’s first experience of a guitar after singing for years a “palo seco” (a capella) he finds that “por siguiriyas” means to play in the musical form of siguiriya since there is no specific song by that name, only an assortment of verses and styles selected or improvised on the moment by the singer. Those little consultations between guitarist and singer are touched upon: they are deciding on the key so that the guitar does not take the singer out of his range .or so that he can show off his versatility. Not possible before the invention of the cejilla.
And serranas, of the form of siguiriyas but slower, more relaxed, more flexible, is not a gypsy cante and the way to know that is that the “”letras” are more formal, with less raw emotion.
One of the most interesting episodes was billed as a contest between Juan Breva, from Malaga, and Antonio Chacón, from Jerez, singing malagueñas at the famed Café de Chinitas in Malaga. Each sang their own letras in their own way, and the audience went so wild that it was not a contest at all: there could be no winner and no loser.
In his epilogue on what he calls an historical novel Paco Sevilla says “Without Antonio Chacón flamenco would be very different from what it is today. He single-handedly created the modern forms of the fandango family as we know them, including malagueñas, cartageneras, murcianas, mineras, granaínas and media granaína. Antonio Chacón was born in about 1870 and died in 1929.