The embodiment of cante gitano as primitive, naked, profound, free, irrational and emotional: all this was Manuel Agujetas. His expressivity is a raw, savage, rebellious scream devoid of musical adornments; unfiltered by the senses, it appeals directly to the most primal human feelings.
His disconnect from social norms was such that he was not even sure exactly when or where he was born. Flamenco researchers are unable to settle on a place or fixed date; some situate his birth in Jerez de la Frontera, and others in the neighbouring town of Rota, while opinions are split about whether the year was 1936 or 1939.
One thing we know for sure is that Manuel de los Santos Pastor, known as ‘Agujetas’, came from a long line of Roma blacksmiths with flamenco singing in their genes. His family, which was related to the great Manuel Torre, passed on its own flamenco expression, with its unique aesthetic in terms of form and content.
As per tradition, he began working in his father’s smithy (‘Agujetas El Viejo’ was the direct inspiration for his musical aesthetic) with his siblings and other relatives. They all sang, making the workplace a natural conservatory in which he could learn and develop his talent for flamenco singing. It was a perfect example of how Roma families pass on musical traditions from generation to generation: from mouth to ear as part of everyday life, free from contamination.
At the beginning of the 1970s, encouraged by flamenco aficionados, he decided to leave the smithy and moved to Madrid to become a professional singer. He was hired at the tablao Café de Chinitas and made the rounds of the flamenco hotspots in the Spanish capital. With a sound that was different from all the rest, flamenco critics and flamencologists gradually began to take note – but he only received definitive recognition from his first recording in 1972 (Viejo Cante Jondo, accompanied by the respected guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar).
This was the height of the festival era, and he took full advantage by performing throughout Spain. Everyone wanted to hear him perform this archaic music, which was nonetheless new for most people because while Agujetas interpreted the soléa and siguiriya styles on the basis of creations by Manuel Molina, Manuel Torre, Marrurro, Mojama and Tío José de Paula, he managed to make them all his own with his searing personal sound.
His expression was a sort of magical audible chemistry combining guttural, vocal and nasal sounds, achieving with the latter something akin to human weeping that conveyed the pain of his lyrics in the most gripping manner.
His fame spread across the Spanish borders and he soon received requests from America and elsewhere in Europe. This led to him spending extended periods in Canada, Mexico and the United States, where he married his first wife (he would ultimately marry three times) and thus obtained American citizenship. At the same time, he was idolised by flamenco fans in Europe and Japan. France in particular became his second home, and it was there he made his legendary recording Agujetas en París in 1996, securing his place of honour in the world of flamenco.
Only cinema was now missing, and this came thanks to the well-known director Carlos Saura, who gave him a large role in the 1995 film Flamenco. The French filmmaker Dominique Abel also put him in front of the camera in 2000 for the documentary Agujetas Cantaor.
This virtuoso cantaor lived as he sang: free and untamed, set apart from mainstream society in a small, rural house that he had built himself, amid animals and plants that he cared for with exquisite dedication, and surrounded by a few carefully chosen faithful friends. His last wife, Kanako, cared for him until his death on 25 December 2015.
Fortunately for flamenco music, Manuel Agujetas was always conscious of being part of a dynasty of traditional singers, and for this reason he took care to pass on this musical heritage to his offspring. His children, Antonio and Dolores, now keep alive the flamenco that he so fiercely defended, beyond all fads and conventions.