The Flamenco Guitar of Manitas de Plata (“Olé!” & “Gipsy Flamenco”), Vanguard 08 9158 72 (2 CDs, 1994)

“The Flamenco Guitar of Manitas de Plata”, Vanguard 08 9158 72 (2 CDs, 1994), barcode 3351479158721

    

Reissued in “Manitas de Plata The Gipsy Legend”,  Barclay 4723736 (9 CDs, 2015), barcode 602547237361

  

Recorded October 1963 in Arles, France

Manitas, Arles, October 1963. Not true Flamenco? Who cares. This is fabulous music and music-making
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 11 April 2014

This twofer from European Vanguard 08 9158 72, released in 1994, collates two programs released individually by Vanguard USA on OVC 8018 Gypsy Flamenco (1993) and OVC 8068 Olé! (1994) (links will open new tab to my reviews). Gipsy Flamenco also had an individual CD release on European Vanguard  08 8018 71, and one on SACD, VSD 503 (2000). The two originally came out, in 1965 and 1966, on respectively Vanguard VSD 79203, under the title “Guitarra Flamenco” (the title was reverted to for the SACD release), and VSD-79224 (“Olé!”) – see my reviews of the two individual releases for details of releases and cover photos. Where I’ve had the opportunity to check, European Vanguard (marketed by a Dutch “Arcade” company) used the same transfers as the US Vanguards (distributed by Vanguard’s founder Seymour Solomon through his company Omega Records), and they always sound great (despite, here, one or two bizarre changes of stereo perspective in some tracks of “Gypsy Flamenco”, where the balance moves from one channel to the next), present, natural, and with very limited tape hiss.

The liner notes deserve mention. They are reproduced from the two original LPs and “Guitarra Flamenco” offered the recollections by the producer of these recordings, E. Alan Silver. They are slightly at odds with the accounts that one can find on public websites, especially Manitas de Plata’s entries on Wikipedia. Since they come here from the source, I am inclined to believe them. Checking them against an online photo of the back cover of the LP “Guitarra Flamenco” reveals that a few unfortunate cuts in the CD notes alter the intent and meaning of the writer, so I have reinstated the original wording (with a few small cuts of my own that don’t alter anything).

I first heard of Manitas de Plata in 1955. My friend and colleague, Marc Aubort [a famous sound engineer], had just returned from his vacation in southern France. He had attended the Gypsy Festival of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer and with a springwound tape recorder had recorded highlights of the affair. Among them were performances of a young Gypsy guitarist, Manitas de Plata, whose playing had so fascinated Marc that he had spent the rest of his vacation getting acquainted with the guitarist and recording more of his art.

Marc decided to write Manitas for permission to release a record of some of the material he had taped. Letter after letter went out addressed to “Mr Manitas de Plata, Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, France” [if known at all by the French Post Office in Les Saintes Maries, where he didn’t reside, Manitas would have been known under his real name, Ricardo Baliardo]. All were unanswered. Since he was unable to get in touch with the artist, the matter was dropped.

In the fall of 1961, Time magazine reported that Manitas had become the rage of the Riviera, but that he steadfastly refused to record. My interest was again aroused – and then came an astonishing coincidence!

Several weeks after the Time Magazine article appeared, I attended an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and saw some outstanding photographs of Gypsies, bullfighting and water-scene abstractions by a French photographer, Lucien Clergue. I heard someone remark in a pleasantly French-accented voice that he had been ‘so close to the bull that the blood spattered my shirt.’ I approached the gentleman and inquired if he was the photographer. He was, and I blurted out that I would like to buy some of his photographs. At the same time I asked him if he had ever come across the Gypsy guitarist, Matinas de Plata. Clergue was visibly startled. He told me that Manitas was a close personal friend and asked me if I, too, knew him. No, I said, but I had heard tapes of his playing. (…) ‘What were the chances of recording this amazing artist?’

Up to now, Clergue told me, all recording offers – and there had been many – had been refused by Manitas, who feared that he might be cheated. Clergue said he was weary of that excuse and would be willing personally to vouch for a recording contract with the Connoisseur Society, Inc. He felt it was overwhelmingly important to expose this man’s art to the world. In the end, Manitas agreed.

We thought it would be best to bring Manitas to New York to record. The guitarist’s response was rather frustrating. He was willing to come if he did not have to travel by boat or plane! In other words, if we wanted to record Manitas de Plata we would have to take our three-quarers of a ton of recording equipment to southern France.

We arrived in the city of Arles (…), a short distance from Montpellier, where Manitas lives during the winter. We found that a medieval chapel, adjoining the Jules Cesar Hotel, was available, with acoustics about as perfect as one could wish. The recording began at 8 P.M. one evening and, except for a brief break to eat, lasted until 4 A.M. Realizing the need for musical communication between artist and responsive listener, we had invited a number of Gypsies and some friends of Clergue’s. (…)

Although we now had enough material, Manitas thought he had more to offer us and we agreed to record again the next night. As before, the session started at 8 P.M. and the inspiration appeared to be limitless. But by 12.30, everyone seemed a bit tired and we asked Manitas if there was anything else he cared to play before we took down the equipment. After a moment of silence Manitas motioned to me to sit in front of him and said he would play one more number, a levantes; It would contain everything he knew about flamenco. It was perhaps the finest performance of the two nights. Indeed, we were all too moved even to greet it with the usual shouts. Then Clergue suggested a saeta by the singer José Reyes. He had saved the suggestion till the end of the session because the saeta is so demanding emotionally. Any singer who puts his entire heart and soul into a saeta is incapable of singing anything else the same night. Reyes sang, and with that unforgettable saeta the sessions ended”.

Running 10 minutes, the Levantes, CD 1 track 7, is the most extended piece from “Guitarra Flamenco/Gipsy Flamenco“, but Olé! fields a 17-minute-long Seguiriyas (CD 2 track 5). Note that CD 1 track 10, a Tarantas or miner’s song, was apparently not on the original “Guitarra Flamenco” LP, nor on its companion LP. It’s not immediately clear which one on either recital is the Saeta mentioned by Silver (originally, a mournful prayer), since none of the tracks bear that title and description. In fact, from what I’ve been able to understand following further investigation, it seems that Silver licensed to Vanguard only part of the huge material he had accumulated from those two nights (the chronology in Silver’s account is not entirely clear, all the online sources come up with October 1963 for the two nights of recording in Arles), and issued the rest (and possibly new recordings at the end) on six LPs on his own label, Connoisseur Society: CS 263 “Manitas de Plata Flamenco Guitar” in 1965, CS 965 “Manitas de Plata Flamenco Guitar vol. 2” in 1966, CS 2003 “Juerga!” in 1967 (some sources including Wikipedia claim that this one had an earlier release, on French Philips 844.535 PY, in 1963),  CS 2006 “Recital Manitas de Plata” in 1968, CS 2013 “Viva Manitas de Plata!” (1969) and CS 2017 “Manitas de Plata Live” (1970). All those albums were licensed to Philips for Europe, and were issued and reissued with different covers, under numerous different label numbers – and sometimes inept titles, like “Manitas de Plata aux Saintes-Maries de la Mer” (the French Philips version of CS 965), which is 40 kilometers away from Arles where he was recorded. Anyway, a 4-minute Saeta concludes Juerga!, which I suppose is the one mentioned by Silver. Some or all of these Connoisseur LPs were ressiued to CD on the Connoisseur Society label, long long time ago, in the early days of the CD era, in Japan, , no barcode, which made them utmost rarities and thus collectors’ desirabiliae, difficult to find online, rarely offered, and always at steep prices. . Discogs.com fields two:

30CD-3003 (CD 4099) Manitas de Plata Flamenco Guitar = CS 263
30CD-3004 (CD 4126) Manitas de Plata Juerga ! = CS 2003

But now the collector and fan of Manitas doesn’t need to search them frantically and break the piggy bank whenever they show up, since, through their licensing to Philips, they’ve been (except, apparently, for CS-2013, but together with the Vanguard CDs) reissued in 2015 on Barclay’s 9 CD set mentioned in the header.

Although he’d seem to have all the necessary credentials – being a Gypsy, and born in a trailer, in the city of Sète in southern France – except being born on the right side of the French-Spanish border, Flamenco purists contend that Manitas de Plata doesn’t play “authentic” Flamenco, only a bastardization of it, among other reasons because he doesn’t have the characteristic “beat” of Flamenco, or or compás (see the section about compás in the Wikipedia  article on Flamenco). This may be true, I’m not a specialist and won’t challenge the specialists, but even if so, and so what? Picasso, Dali thought it good enough for them. Again I am not a specialist or even a connoisseur of Flamenco, but is there is really a set of closed and straight-jacketing rules established in some Tables of the Law? Rather, is it not a living and open tradition, enriched by each successive generation and each individual artist. What I’ve heard of later-day Paco de Lucia, a recognized grand master of Flamenco playing, seemed to me to go into Flamenco-jazz-rock fusion way beyond anything heard here. Maybe it’s not “authentic” Flamenco and maybe it’s not Flamenco at all, so let’s call it something else, “Gipsy music from Arles” if you prefer, but, whatever its name, it is still fabulous music and music-making – and although the focus is on the guitarist, don’t neglect the singers, Manitas’ cousin the great José Reyes and his son Manero Baliardo. Flamenco, so far as I can tell, is an art of raucous singing as much as of wild guitar playing, and this may not be genuine Flamenco, but it sure is raucous and wild.

Outstanding liner notes on my European issue, with, other than Silver’s recollection, a general survey of Flamenco, its roots and development (from the original liner notes of Olé!), and short presentations of each piece, with artists’ bios. TT 54:19 and 50:21. By the way, Manitas de Plata is still alive, going on 93, having survived both his cousin and his son, and he’s recently published a call for help in the French press, having recently suffered a heart-attack and claiming to be ill and broke, having earned much in his life and given even more in typical Gypsy fashion, and claiming not to know what he’s done with all those paintings that Picasso and Dali gave him, if he lost them or if they were stolen, because he “never considered Art as a commercial value”. It’s always startling to meet the real life behind the legends. France has Brigitte Bardot, once the contender with Marylin Monroe for the title of sexiest woman in the world, now going on 80. Imagine Marylin today, she’d be going on 86. And James Dean at 83? Icons are better off dying at a young age, that’s what makes them icons. I’ll help Manitas, in gratitude for this great recital.

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P.S.: 5 November 2014: MdP passes away (fine obituary on The Telegraph). Legend or truth, the story goes that one day, after losing 10,000 dollars in 20 seconds at the casino, he went to his manager to ask for more money. Manager said “Manitas, why are you doing this? With this money, you could do like me and buy a nice little patch of land in the countryside!” to which Manitas responded: “the earth is for the dead”. Welcome to the earth, Manitas.

Comments are welcome