If there is any singer in the world of flamenco whose genius remains unquestioned, it has to be Tomás Pavón. Without exception, everyone pays homage to this Roma musician: the greatest artists of the genre, Roma and non-Roma alike; the inhabitants of the Andalusian regions where the art form was born; aficionados of all stripes; people who are old enough to have heard him in person as well as those whose only reference is through recordings; and researchers and critics.
Tomás Pavón Cruz was born in the Seville district of Puerta Osario on 16 February 1893, and died in the district of Alameda on 2 July 1952, in a simple room belonging to his sister. He was the youngest of three siblings who were all singers, members of one of the most significant flamenco families: the Pavóns. Arturo Pavón Cruz and Pastora Maria Pavón Cruz – known as ‘La Niña de los Peines’ – complete the trio.
His strong artistic personality and humanity were marked by unusual circumstances that shaped him from birth. His father, known as ‘El Paíti’, was a Roma blacksmith by trade, as well as an amateur flamenco singer, bookworm and lover of classical music. He instilled in his son a taste for books and an interest in all types of music. Novels and the music of Chopin would always remain a part of Tomás Pavón’s life, as would fishing, making birdcages and repairing pocket watches. But perhaps the thing that most defined his timid, reserved and shy nature was a congenital physical deformity in one foot that made him limp, although his blacksmith father made him a metallic boot that corrected the defect. Nonetheless, he was left with physical side effects that triggered a certain social complex.
Like his siblings, the youngest member of the Pavón family already carried the gift of flamenco singing in his genes, and this was nurtured in his family and soon displayed to the world. His brother Arturo presented him at the tender age of ten to the flamenco scene in Madrid, where he pleasantly surprised people in the know. However, his difficult temperament soon led him to return to Seville, a city he would henceforth only occasionally leave.
He decided to make a living from private gatherings that he would himself choose, according to who would be attending, for he understood that the intrinsic musical nature of flamenco singing required an ambiance of respect on the part of the listeners. It was his custom to find out the names of the expected guests in advance and he would often turn down a job, regardless of how much money was offered. As a result, he and his wife, Reyes Bermúdez Camacho (a Roma woman from the Triana district in Seville), lived in economically precarious circumstances.
He was a bohemian who always avoided the false glitter of the artistic world, big stages and recording studios, despite receiving ample opportunity and job offers. Although he only made twenty or so recordings – and those were made reluctantly enough – that was enough to showcase the potential he had accumulated. These few recordings left by Tomás Pavón are considered to be of exceptional value and quality within Roma and flamenco music. His performances have come down to us as models to be followed by future generations.
Tomás Pavón extensively explored the Triana versions of soleá and siguiriya, based on the versions created by great flamenco families such as the Pelaos and Caganchos. He also revitalised songs from the neighbourhood which had almost been forgotten: tonás, martinete and debla, of which he made his own version.
Likewise, the forms soleá de Cádiz (by El Mellizo), soleá de Jerez (by La Serneta and Frijones) and soleá de Alcalá (by Joaquín de la Paula) caught his attention and he recreated them with his own special touch – and they have been known ever since as songs by Tomás Pavón. With his rounded voice full of melismas and his unique capacity to lengthen lines and manage low melodic tones, he made his mark on several forms, always in his quest to find a musical expression of his resignation as ‘suffering contained’.
His genius for flamenco music was at such giddy heights that at the mere mention of his name, any flamenco aficionado knows they will be enjoying something sublime. He is the only flamenco performer to have been accorded a place in the flamenco ‘Olympus of the gods’ without their name having appeared in major line-ups and on posters, having barely sung in any major theatre, and without awards, prizes or recognition of any kind in their biography.
Here we can recall one of his brilliant performances in the siguiriya style: