Listening to Fernanda de Utrera is not something to be undertaken lightly, but rather an experience that always has a profound effect on the listener. You might think you are witnessing a fight to the death between the singer and the songs, and wonder whether her voice will fail during the voyage towards that last note. And yet Fernanda de Utrera was always victorious, which led to her nickname as ‘the queen of soleá’. No matter how hard and biting the singing may have been, she always ended up the winner. At the end of each vocal journey, all that is left are the shreds of a soul that fell by the wayside, and a feeling of ecstasy that pinches the listener’s heart. This is when you suddenly realise that the expression ‘singing as if in pain’ is no empty metaphor.
Fernanda Jiménez Peña was born in Utrera on 9 February 1923, into the heart of a Roma family where flamenco singing and dancing were a natural outlet for expressing emotions. Happiness and sorrow flowed to the rhythm of soleá, siguiriyas and bulerías. Her family is well known in the flamenco world as the ‘Los Pininis’ clan – a nickname that came from her grandfather, Fernando Peña Soto ‘Pinini’, who created the famous cantiñas de Pinini.
Born into a family that ran an abattoir business, her childhood and youth were fairly comfortable in economic terms, and she never had to resort to her artistic ability in order to survive. However, flamenco singing was an intrinsic part of who she was, and it flowed from her spontaneously. Any family celebration provided the perfect opportunity for Fernanda Jiménez Peña to give free rein to her musical talent, to the delight of all those present. It was clear to all around her that sooner or later she would end up turning her natural gift into her profession. However, this would occur in spite of her parents’ disapproval, not only because there was no economic need, but also because it was then not seen as respectable for a woman to become a professional performer.
But her destiny had been mapped out. Her home was visited by artists of all kinds who were deeply impressed by the young Roma woman’s powerful expressivity. Everyone was of the opinion that this hidden jewel could not be kept only for the enjoyment of a small minority. Her opportunity came in 1952, when she was officially presented in the film Duende y Misterio del Flamenco by filmmaker Edgar Neville. Henceforth there were performances at private parties and gatherings, and then she made the great leap to the Spanish capital with the help of Antonio Mairena.
At that time, Madrid was the beating heart of flamenco. This was the heyday of the tablaos (nightclubs specialising in flamenco such as Zambra, Corral de la Morería, Torres Bermejas and Las Brujas), and artists were constantly coming up from Andalusia to join the ensembles. All the venues were eager to feature Fernanda Jiménez Peña in order to enhance their own prestige. The first recordings followed, and then in 1964 she made her international breakthrough with an appearance at the World’s Fair in New York. It was a magnificent triumph, and she subsequently set off on a tour that took her to a number of countries on several continents. Upon returning to Spain, record companies vied for contracts and she recorded the entire spectrum of cantes gitanos, accompanied by the most prestigious guitarists of the day such as Manuel Morao, Juan Habichuela and Melchor de Marchena.
It was during this period in the late 1960s that festivals were in their heyday, and Fernanda Jiménez Peña decided to leave Madrid and return to her hometown. Logistically speaking, it was much more convenient as most of these events were staged in the towns and villages of Andalusia.
That takes us to the 1990s, specifically 1995, when the renowned film director Carlos Saura made Flamenco, and it was inevitable that he would choose Fernanda de Utrera to perform and embody the soleá, the song form for which she was so well known. However, it was around that time that her health began to fail, and she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a condition which would continue to deteriorate until her death on 24 August 2006.
The solemnity, elegance and emotional power, the rough broken voice and the sheer gitanería [Roma sound] of Fernanda Jiménez Peña – la soleá – were extinguished.
She was awarded numerous prizes, among which the following are most noteworthy:
– Premio Nacional de Cante de la Cátedra de Flamencología de Jerez de la Frontera [National flamenco singing prize of the flamencology chair of Jerez de la Frontera] (1967)
– Medalla de Plata de Andalucía [Silver Medal of Andalucia] (1994)
– Medalla de Plata al Mérito en el Trabajo [Silver medal for professional merit] (2003)
– Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes [Gold medal for merit in the fine arts] (2005)
Examples of Fernanda Jiménez Peña’s singing can be found at the following links: