The dandy of Flamenco has a name: ‘Porrina de Badajoz’, the greatest Gitano flamenco singer to have come from the region of Extremadura. An exuberant musician with a big personality, he had the vision to set himself up as a brand, with slicked-back hair, oversized dark sunglasses (according to him, this was in order to ‘see what I want to see’), impeccable suits and shirts in loud colours, always with a fresh carnation in his lapel. As far as having a professional image was concerned, he was ahead of his time.
‘Porrina de Badajoz’ was born as José Salazar Molina in the city that would one day be incorporated into his artistic name. The date of his birth was actually 13 January 1924, but forever superstitious, after becoming a professional artist he changed the 13 to a 6. He grew up in a home where singing and dancing were normal everyday activities. ‘It is a duty of our people to open the doors of the house to flamenco singing,’ his mother, Ana Molina, used to say; she was an extraordinary guitarist, although she never became a professional musician.
It was in the bars and cafeterias of Badajoz that the young ‘Porrina’ first performed while still a boy – but destiny had reserved a privileged place for him among the biggest stars of the era. It was merely a question of demonstrating his abilities in the relevant setting, which happened when the renowned cantaor Rafael Farina fell ill and asked him to perform instead at Madrid’s Teatro Pavón.
You could say that he came, he sang, he amazed. The capital was – and still is – the decisive filter for any artistic breakthrough. Anyone who sought success in the flamenco world had to rely on a positive critique from Madrid, and Porrina passed this test with flying colours. He was like a breath of fresh air, who gave flamenco aficionados styles that from that point on had a name of their own: cantes canasteros, jaleos, fandangos and tangos, all interpreted with cadences that differed from anything that had been heard previously. These sounds that now belong to the flamenco canon were all established by the Gitano from Extremadura, who viewed himself as an ambassador for the younger generation of cantaores from his home region. In Madrid, he presented his music in milieus which received a great deal of attention from the media, focusing on singers such as La Marelu, Ramón El Portugués, Los Chichos, Guadiana and Azúcar Moreno.
Like all flamenco artists who arrive in Madrid, Porrina did the rounds of the various venues the capital had to offer: theatres, tablaos, the rural restaurants called ventas, private parties, etc. At the same time, he established his headquarters in the city that would become his second home. The first – Badajoz – would always remain in his heart.
From then on, his name appeared on posters alongside the most important ensembles. Porrina was to leave his undeniable mark on this new era, which would go down in the history of flamenco as Ópera Flamenca. Along with Pepe Marchena, Antonio Molina and Juanito Valderrama, he became one of the four ‘kings’ of the deck of cards. Their voices were sweet and delicate, with the fandango form taking centre stage as the absolute star of the repertoire.
In post-war Spain, hunger and misery was part of everyday life. People sought something to cheer up the collective nightmare with colourful, entertaining crowd-pleasing shows; they were in no mood for a soleá or siguiriya sung by gravelly voices and with mournful laments (which, in any case, had never been to the liking of the majority).
These were the ideal conditions for Porrina, who knew better than most how to exploit them. It brought him great wealth, but money alone held no intrinsic value for him, and as fast as he earned anything he would squander it all on family and friends; ‘[It] is only good for spending,’ he would say. The endless nights of flamenco partying eventually affected his health and he developed cirrhosis of the liver, leading to his death in Madrid on 18 February 1977, at the age of just fifty-three. His hometown of Badajoz accorded him every honour, and he was recognised as the most important flamenco artist ever to have come from Extremadura.
His biographer, Francisco Zambrano Vázquez, defined him as ‘a free thinker, an emotional anarchist, an unschooled but cultured man, a dandy in a country of plenty and envy’. It is certainly a fitting description, although he proudly reduced it to the epitaph inscribed on his statue in the neighbourhood where he was born and became a singer: ‘Gitano and from Badajoz’.