An overview of the life of the famous flamenco singer El Camarón de La Isla.
By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Arts and Culture Staff writer
It was in 1969, in La Venta de Vargas, a restaurant in San Fernando de Cadiz in Spain, where a duel occurred between the old and new styles of flamenco singing. Manolo Caracol, now sixty, had established himself as one of the most celebrated flamenco singers of his time. The other singer was José Monje Cruz, later known as Camarón de La Isla. In those days, the eighteen-year-old from San Fernando had been making a living as a flamenco singer in Madrid. As told by Antonio Lagares, author of Venta de Vargas, Camarón had shown up to the restaurant that day and was invited by Caracol to sing. They started with the guitar capo on the third fret, then the fourth, and so on, challenging each other to sing higher and higher to see who could sustain the beauty of their singing, while managing the technical demands of the higher register. When they reached the sixth fret, Caracol could no longer sing. Undeterred, Camarón asked the guitarist to put the capo on the seventh fret.
At the time of his early death in 1992, at just forty-one years of age, Camarón de La Isla had been recognized as the greatest flamenco singer of all time. Of his first encounter with him, the guitarist, Paco de Lucia, whose international fame was entwined with Camarón’s through numerous collaborations, said: “We got together and we were singing and playing all day throughout the night. He impressed me. Camarón is a revolutionary. He is the symbol of flamenco today.”
Camarón de la Isla’s fame spread throughout Spain at the beginning of his career, and then internationally when in 1987, he performed at the Cirque d’Hivers in Paris, at the Palladium in New York in 1990, and in 1991, at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland. Pino Sagliocco, his musical promoter at the time of his appearance at the Montreux Festival, recalls an interaction with Quincy Jones, who had just witnessed the performance. “Quincy said to me, ‘Please translate what I say. Tell him that I have never been so close to anybody who has shown me their soul like him. It is truly an honour to be here, to greet him, and to have met him.’”
The story of Camarón de la Isla began in the small town of San Fernando de Cadiz. Born in 1950 to a Romani family, the boy, then named José, lost his father when he was only twelve years old. José sang on the street and in inns in order to make money.
As José recalls in a 1992 interview: “I would sing. They would invite me to parties and houses. They gave me money. They gave me food. I was invited as a singer, and this is where I found my path.”
He toured with a flamenco troupe around Spain, eventually becoming an artist in residence at the Torres Bermejas in Madrid, where he refined his craft, and where José became known as El Camarón de la Isla— a nickname meaning “the shrimp of the island,” and a reference to his native town of San Fernando, often called “La Isla.”
In a 2018 interview, Manuel Del Lunar, a lifelong friend of Camarón, remembers a second meeting between Camarón and Manolo Caracol. “José sang a soleá, and Caracol tore the buttons off his shirt with emotion. ‘Who taught you to sing like this? Your mother, your father? A friend from La Isla? Who sings like this?’ He said, ‘No. This is how I sing.’”
But what is flamenco, and more specifically, what is cante flamenco, or flamenco singing? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “flamenco is a form of song, dance, and instrumental (mostly guitar) music, commonly associated with the Andalusian Roma (Gypsies) of southern Spain.” The Gitanos, as they are known, migrated to Spain between the 9th and 14th Century from the regions of northwest India, and encountered the cultures of Sephardic Jews and the Moors. This cultural richness and intermingling produced the art form known as flamenco.
In the documentary, El Canto Bueno Duele, (“The Good Singing Hurts”), Moraito Chico, a flamenco guitarist from Jerez, gives his own definition of the cante:
“Sometimes it hurts, but that pain also gladdens the soul. Sometimes your soul needs to be hurt. Not everything has to be joy. Pain makes you strong. And as Tia Anica La Piriñaca said: ‘When I sing, my mouth has the taste of blood.’ Perhaps it is true that us gypsies, because of our suffering through the ages, use our cante, our singing, to scream out our feelings. And that through the flamenco we express our feelings, all that anger and the pent-up emotions of all those years.”
In January 1992, just a few months before his death, Camarón de la Isla gave his final concert at the Colegio Mayor de San Juan Evangelista, in Madrid. His health had deteriorated due to heavy smoking and drug use. He was diagnosed with lung cancer.
José Monje Cruz, El Camarón de La Isla, was buried in his town of San Fernando in Cadiz, where more than one hundred thousand people attended his funeral. He was an important influence in the history of flamenco and for many musicians around the world. For the Gitanos, he became a symbol of pride and even veneration.
In his final interview in 1992, Camarón describes a moment that reveals the effects of his fame among his people. “A gitana came to me with a child that was sick, asking me if I would touch him, and that I would heal him. And I, crying, I asked her, how could I heal him…? I gave him a kiss with all the love in the world. But of course, only God can heal.”
Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega is an Arts and Culture staff writer for Trinity Times, and a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, studying English, philosophy, and creative expression and society.