The Bay of Cádiz is one of those magical places containing the necessary ingredients for the creation and development of flamenco. The city of Cádiz itself was the gateway to commerce and immigration, mostly from the Spanish colonies in America and Africa, making it a diverse and authentic melting-pot of cultures.
The existing music – Arabic, Jewish, Castilian and Roma – was refreshed by new sounds and rhythms from indigenous South American, African and Caribbean singers who expressed their emotions through ancestral song. Moreover, we should not forget that Roma men who were captured during the Great Raid of 1749 were confined here. From this primary mixture came lamentations in the form of expressive music that extended to the Spanish Roma community of the area.
It was in this same city, although much later on, that Antonia Gilabert Vargas was born on 19 June 1924, in its most ‘typically flamenco’ neighbourhood of Santa María. She would become known as ‘La Perla de Cádiz’, a Roma flamenco singer who is considered to be the most significant female voice of Cádiz flamenco.
Her destiny was marked from birth: her parents, guitarist Juan Gilabert and singer Rosa Vargas, known as ‘Rosa la Papera’, were well-known artists, and so flamenco was part of everyday life at home. Antonia soon drew attention to herself with her passion for singing. Her great talent was matched by her fervour, and she had two excellent teachers in her parents. According to her biographer, Félix Rodríguez,
‘La Perla had flamenco singing in her blood more than in her head. Her beginnings were forged in that melting-pot of flamenco maestros known as the Santa María neighbourhood and, without realising it, almost unconsciously, she had all the majesty, essence, rhythm and duende – the particular magic of flamenco singing – in her voice.’
At long last the stage was set for Cádiz to have the great cantaora it so deserved, but personal circumstances delayed her artistic success. In 1948 she married Roma flamenco artist Francisco Torres, known as ‘Curro la Gamba’, who did not allow his wife to become a performer. But her destiny was written in the stars, and so ‘La Perla de Cádiz’ would indeed go on to conquer the world of flamenco, if a little later than she had imagined.
In 1959, she won first prize in the category bulerías and alegrías at the Concurso Nacional de Arte Flamenco, Córdoba’s national flamenco singing contest – an important accolade because the contest was highly regarded in flamenco circles. Her performance was such a triumph because it came as a real surprise for the audience of aficionados, flamencologists and critics, and was resoundingly praised in the press. Flamenco fans had discovered in ‘La Perla de Cádiz’ a singer with personality who was also innovative in her interpretations of styles that were based on centuries-old foundations and used fixed structures. She entered that select artistic Olympus of the type: ‘…so-and-so sings bulerías or alegrías like La Perla’.
There followed a decade marked by professional fulfilment and triumph for ‘La Perla’. In Madrid she was received with open arms, and various flamenco tablaos in Spain’s capital (including Zambra, El Duende, Los Canasteros and Torres Bermejas) competed to hire her; the same was true in the tablaos of Seville (El Guajiro and Los Gallos), where the originality of her singing style was undeniable. At the same time, she toured throughout Spain, participating in well-known shows and sharing the bill at the most prestigious festivals. As a result of her success in Madrid, she was in high demand with major recording companies such as Columbia, Hispavox, Fontana, Zafiro and Belter, which sought to immortalise her voice and her stylised way of singing on vinyl. Her ten recordings in the space of twelve years have now gone down in the history of Cádiz flamenco.
Unfortunately, the splendour of ‘La Perla de Cádiz’ was short-lived, as she passed away aged just fifty-one. But like a rose, her fragrance lived on in the musical memory of everyone who was lucky enough to have heard her. The great Niña de los Peines claimed to be an admirer of her art, and Camarón de la Isla himself soaked up her ways to become one of her most faithful disciples.
Days after her death in Cádiz on 14 September 1975, Amós Rodríguez Rey, a poet from her home town who admired her greatly, wrote in his Impresiones:
‘A rich voice resonating with the awareness of belonging to a sad people is gone from us forever, among the monotonous murmuring of the waves that so often accompanied the songs, which could never be happy because that is not the nature of bulerías […] The flamenco of La Perla de Cai [sic] was always profound and authentic, these were the sounds of a wounded heart […] La Perla possessed the rare quality of convincing her audience and subordinating them to her artistic will. Her versatile and velvety voice expertly prepared for the highpoint of the cantes, and then, in the most natural manner, without exertion or artifice, she moved from sheer power to the most graceful tenderness.
She expressed her thinking as a singer with tones full of subtle nuances, simple and extraordinarily noble, and the strength of her expression was always matched by the force of her feelings […]’
(Diario de Cádiz, 21 September 1975)