The birth of flamenco and, in particular, what is known as Cante Gitano Andaluz, has much to do with the period of social isolation that the Roma community experienced in the period following the Great Raid of 1749. The fear of again being imprisoned, and the trauma of those who lived through the Raid, must have been a mark that lasted for generations in the Roma community.
The 1789 novel Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso is among the first works after the Raid to address the topic of Andalusian Roma and their music, with a story about Roma at a musical gathering in a rural farmhouse.
There is no doubt that the elements of Cante Gitano Andaluz were already fermenting by that point. Songs in the toná style were being developed, and early flamenco singers such as Tío Luis el de la Juliana had already spread their creations by 1770 (liviana, toná grande, toná del cristo and toná de los pajaritos). By the start of the nineteenth century, the toná had branched off into as many as thirty-three different melodies created by Roma singers from Jerez and Triana. However, many of these songs have been forgotten without anyone having recorded them.
The toná song form provided the basis for the siguiriya, which yielded its first styles at the beginning of the nineteenth century, mostly from Triana and the area around Cádiz.
In these early stages of flamenco, we find a single name that overshadows all the rest: the Roma flamenco singer ‘El Planeta’. The first references to this cantaor come from writings by the Málaga author, professor of Arabic and politician, Serafín Estébanez Calderón. He was the first intellectual to report in writing on a flamenco event, with two articles published under the pseudonym ‘El Solitario’: ‘Un Baile en Triana’ appeared in Seminario in 1831, and ‘Asamblea General’ in El Siglo in 1847. Both texts would then be included in a compilation of period pieces published in 1847 as Escenas Andaluzas.
The writer gives a detailed description of everything that occurs at the aforementioned gatherings, describing and analysing the music while also giving literary descriptions of the various artists who perform. In his first account, ‘Un Baile en Triana’, ‘El Planeta’ appears as a noteworthy figure among the other performers, with an exhaustive description of his clothing and personal features. Years later, this would serve sketch artist Francisco Lameyer as a basis for creating the prototypical image that has come down to us for posterity.
Thus it was that ‘El Paneta’ acquired such significance in the history of flamenco music, above and beyond his artistic qualities, as the first flamenco performer in the annals of this art form to ‘make it into the papers’. This makes it the first music review by the first flamencologist of the first known flamenco performer:
‘We went in just as El Planeta, a veteran singer with a great style, according to people in the know, was beginning a ‘romance’ or corrida [a type of ballad], after the introduction by a vihuela [primitive guitar] and mandolin that formed the heart of the musical group. The treble string began to resonate with a penetrating sound, supported by the melancholic laments of the base string, all in a grave and solemn rhythm. From time to time, the canny musician would make some soft taps on the fret of the instrument, as if to better carry the beat, something which increased the attention of his audience even further. The singer began with a prolonged lament and then, after a brief pause, delivered the beautiful ballad of El Conde del Sol, which easily conjures up times gone by, thanks to its simplicity and antiquated flavour.’ (Estebanez Calderon, Serafin: Escenas andaluzas, Madrid: Cátedra, 1985, pp. 253–254)
Later on, further texts came to light that also highlighted the artist’s creative and interpretive qualities, but it would not be until 2011 that more details appeared about ‘El Planeta’. A Roma butcher – the profession was a family tradition – by the name of Antonio Monge Rivero, he was born in Cádiz in 1789, and died in Málaga in 1856.
We also know that in addition to his job as a butcher, he was an exceptional singer and guitarist, both as a performer and an innovator. His performances tended to be made by request at private gatherings, and in addition to singing and playing the guitar he was in charge of putting together the line-up of artists. He became famous in flamenco circles of the era, and travelled to artistic engagements throughout most of Andalusia and in Madrid, a city he regularly frequented.
The romance, polo, caña, toná and siguiriya were his preferred song forms, and he wisely knew how to leave his mark on each of them for singers in the subsequent generation, including the outstanding Roma performer ‘El Fillo’, who founded an entire school of cante gitano.
And so we are talking about the first great flamenco singer in the history of Roma flamenco: a man who gave shape to forms he had learned, thereby establishing a way of singing that would become the model for later generations. Moreover, he left at least one original song of his own which has been dubbed siguiriya del Planeta, an archaic-sounding melody with elements typical of Roma music that transport us back to the nineteenth century. His greatest disciple was ‘El Fillo’, another creative musician who enriched the musical vocabulary of Cante Gitano Andaluz.
It was precisely this disciple who created the famous siguiriya cabal known as siguiriya primitiva, which was recorded for the first time by Pepe Torre (Manuel Torre’s brother) on the Antología del Cante Flamenco, issued by Columbia in 1960:
‘A la luna le pío,
la del alto cielo.
Cómo le pío, le pío,
que me saque a mi padre
de donde está metío’
‘I ask the moon
high in the sky,
I ask again and again
to get my father out
of where he is’
It is said that the nickname ‘El Planeta’ comes from his singing this verse, in which he appeals to the moon to help his father.
The following link contains a version of the siguiriya del Planeta, a musical form that masterfully combines major and Phrygian modes in a single phrase, modulating between both in the verse ‘La del alto cielo’, for example. The cante cabal is a song form that is normally used to end a set of siguiriyas. This version by Pepe Torre was recorded in 1959, with guitar played by Melchor de Marchena: