‘Debajo del puente se van a acostar
pobres gitanillos si viene riá’
‘Under the bridge they’re going to sleep
Poor little Roma if the river swells’
This is an autobiographical verse recorded by Rafael Romero, known as ‘El Gallina’, describing his childhood.
Rafael Romero Romero was born on 9 October 1910 in Andújar (Jaén province) and died on 4 January 1991 in Madrid. These eight decades of the twentieth century were crucial in forming, developing and creating the history of flamenco. They were epochs in which the genre manifested itself in the most explicit diversity of various formats, and this cantaor gitano from Andújar formed a part of each one.
Romero’s genesis as a Roma singer stemmed from his early years with his family, with everyday life functioning as a natural music conservatory that allowed him to hear his first flamenco sounds. It was there that he learned and developed an affinity for the music in order to sing his first songs and ‘mark’ the rhythms of his first dances. His most noteworthy relative was his great-uncle José Illanda, creator of a style of soleá.
At just twelve years old, he began his professional career in his hometown by performing at private fiestas. Oddly enough, having temporarily lost his voice, he started off as a flamenco dancer.
He longed to go to Madrid, and finally moved there after the Spanish civil war. The capital city’s bars and tablaos [flamenco hangouts] offered him the opportunity of making a living with his singing, while also making contact with other flamenco singers who could pass on new flamenco sounds. Of all these establishments, the Zambra was the tablao where he remained the longest, and where he had the chance to work with the Jerez guitarist Perico el del Lunar, who would become a fundamental figure in his artistic career. The guitarist was highly knowledgeable about flamenco, and having swiftly identified Romero’s talent as a singer, he became the latter’s maestro and introduced him to the wide array of flamenco forms. From this artistic brotherhood came Rafael Romero’s first contact with the world of recording, and that led to him becoming recognised as an encyclopaedic cantaor. His chance came when Perico el del Lunar was chosen by the record company Hispavox to direct and produce the great Antología del Cante Flamenco in 1954. Perico selected the line-up of singers for this major work, and of course ‘El Gallina’ was among them; he recorded a large part of the contents, which allowed him to demonstrate his wide knowledge of the palos [forms] and styles. Especially noteworthy are the tarantas, which he called cantes de madrugá [morning songs]. These were characteristic of the miners of Linares, who would sing them when changing shifts. Further varieties that are worthy of mention, thanks to his stylisation, are caña, mirabrás, rondeña and garrotín. His discography is completed with Grandes Cantaores del Flamenco (Philips) and Rafael Romero y el Duende Gitano (P. Records).
In his long artistic career, ‘El Gallina’ also lived through the era of what was known as Ópera Flamenca, travelling throughout Spain and abroad with various ensembles, along with Vicente Escudero, Teresa y Luisillo, Antonio and others. During this period he developed a new creative facet, namely singing to accompany dance; here too, he left his mark for upcoming generations. Last but not least, Rafael Romero was often present at the flamenco festivals which sprang up around the early 1960s and rapidly spread in popularity.
Yet he proved to be even more multi-facetted as an artist, for there was a further venue where he could exhibit his talent: in the cinema. The singer from Andújar appeared in films by important directors such as Florián Rey (Brindis a Manolete in 1948), Carlos Saura (Llanto por un Bandido in 1964) and Yves Robert (El Arte de Vivir in 1967).
Thus, in ‘El Gallina’ we are dealing with a highly versatile artist, an encyclopaedic singer and a flamenco innovator. It is telling that he has received recognition from important contemporary singers such as Enrique Morente, José Menese and Carmen Linares, who have all openly declared that Rafael Romero ‘El Gallina’ has left an indelible mark on their own flamenco styles.
As an epilogue to this article, and fitting right in with its beginning, we have this story from his friend, fellow Andújar native and cantaor, Paco el Pecas, as related in his book Rafael Romero Romero en su Centenario: Vida y Obra Ilustrada:
‘The last time Rafael visited Andújar, he told me to take him to see his first home. He stopped to buy some things at a small store, where he got a bottle of whisky and some dried codfish. When we got to the place, his “home” turned out to the be the third span of the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir river. Rafael sat there without speaking, drank from the bottle and pulled off bits of the dried fish until it was finished, and then broke the bottle against the bridge, cursing from the deepest part of his soul.’