Camarón, the gypsy god of flamenco

Camarón de la Isla was an idolised Gypsy flamenco singer.
Camarón de la Isla was an idolised Gypsy flamenco singer. / SUR
  • Camarón de la Isla died 25 years ago, but he is still considered the greatest flamenco singer of all time

  • 100,000 people attended his funeral and the riotous scenes that took place outside of the cemetery appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world

In the early hours of the morning of Thursday 2 July 1992, one of the most venerated gypsy singers in the evolution of flamenco uttered his last words: “Mother of god, what is wrong with me?”

The news of his death vibrated around Spain and gripped the nation in a similar manner to when Franco had died 17 years previously, however, unlike the latter, Camarón de la Isla, who was just forty-one when he died, was about to become a martyr.

Within hours of the sad news of his passing, Spain would witness an extraordinary outpouring of grief. The people of San Fernando entered a period of uncontrolled lamentation for the boy whose name was derived from the fact that he had the physique of a shrimp.

Camarón de la Isla died in the Hospital Germans Trias i Pujol in Badalona, Barcelona, and within hours of his passing, his body would land at the San Pablo airport in Seville, as the city was playing host to the ’92 Expo. His coffin, draped in the blue and green gypsy flag, was then transported to his final resting place in San Fernando in Cadiz.

Just ten months previously, Camarón had performed a sell-out opening concert in the Expo’s newly erected Cartuja concert hall, although it was obvious during this concert that all was not well.

He was also booked to open the Olympic Games in Barcelona in the summer of 1992, but this was an appointment that the singer would not be able to fulfil.

One-hundred thousand people are said to have attended his funeral and the riotous scenes that took place outside of the cemetery in San Fernando appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

He was said to have been a victim of a system that failed to nurture his talent and he became just another clichéd ‘live fast die young’.

His death brought him a saint-hood in the eyes of most Spanish gypsies, and the commoditisation that follows the demise of most rock idols would soon take the image of Camarón to a level unforeseen in his life. Suddenly, this humble Andalusian gypsy was transformed into a national treasure and his effigy was turned into a religious-type icon that more resembled Jesus el Gran Poder, than a gypsy flamenco singer.

Camarón had climbed to the very top of his profession to become the very first flamenco singer of rock-star status - selling more recordings than any flamenco singer at that time. One of his most popular recordings was Soy Gitano (I am Gypsy), recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Abbey Road Recording Studios in 1989.

Yet like numerous young musicians who become superlative, Camarón stumbled on the road to success. His life had been tarnished with drugs, scandal and lawsuits, and the events of the last two years of his life filled newspaper columns with stories of prison sentences, non-appearances at concerts and his rapidly failing health.

The newspapers had stopped writing about his mastery of flamenco to concentrate on unsavory incidents, like the story about a gypsy woman who had attacked a policeman with a meat cleaver during one of his concerts in 1990.

In the early 1970s, Camarón de la Isla was a good looking young gypsy with the world at his feet, yet within just two decades, his world began to crash around him.

Shortly before he died, the singer was facing ruin after receiving a demand for ten million pesetas of back tax from the Spanish treasury, and yet this would be a debt that he would never get chance to pay.

Years of drug and alcohol abuse, and his 80-a-day Marlborough addiction, attributed to his early demise, yet today, twenty-five years after his death, Camarón de la Isla is still hailed as the greatest flamenco singer that ever lived.

His voice had incredible range and was tarnished with dark gypsy emotion and unreachable depth. In his later years he gained an earth-shattering cry that made the muscles of your stomach ache with anguish.

Born José Monje Cruz, in San Fernando, Cadiz, on 5 December 1950, his career began in La Venta de Vargas in Cadiz, although his first professional performance is reported to have been in La Taverna Gitana in Malaga.

Camarón made his first record in 1969 accompanied by the guitar of Antonio Arenas, but it was an introduction to Paco de Lucía that would launch him on the road to international stardom. Their partnership was to be a milestone in the history of flamenco, because they altered and changed the rules of the art, embarking on a quest that was to turn the flamenco scene on its head. Over a period of ten years, they released a string of recordings that revealed the strange musical chemistry that existed between them.

His early work with Paco de Lucía produced some of the finest flamenco ever recorded, and his later albums with Tomatito paved the way for a revolutionary new flamenco style that would gain him a rock-legend status in the eyes of the younger generation.

He was awarded the coveted ‘Golden Key’ of flamenco nine years after his death, seeing as his voice and contribution to flamenco was, and still is, very much alive.

The scenes that unravelled during Camarón’s funeral back in 1992, and the aftermath that followed, was incredible, for it is rare for a gypsy flamenco singer to be the subject of universal mourning: Poet and flamencologist, Felix Grande, summed up the scene with the words “Camarón is dead, but not dead.”

Camarón de la Isla will be remembered as the person responsible for bringing flamenco to much wider audience; especially the younger generation, who had paid little attention to flamenco prior to listening to Camarón.

His death gave the Andalusian gypsies their first deity, but maybe Camarón should be remembered for his talent and not for the legend that was created when he died.