Pedro Peña

Juan Peña ‘El Lebrijano’: Uncle Juan

In my family, having the curiosity to know and try to understand the world that surrounds us is nothing new, and we have our elders to thank for that.

Contrary to the dominant code of conduct of the time, and even contrary to the opinion of many of their own, they made an effort to obtain the necessary means which would facilitate the intellectual growth of younger generations, awakening the spirit of overcoming problems and making us believe not only that success was possible for us too, but that it would always come as a consequence of sacrifice, persistence and talent, and of knowing that mere luck was something others had.

They served as actual visionaries in times of extreme hardship for everyone; in our case, this was multiplied due to the old clichés and prejudices that have followed us down the centuries for the simple fact of being who we are.

Like all the children of my generation, I grew up between school, street games, superheroes and black-and-white movies on TV. But unlike what went on in the homes of my playmates and school friends, music was a nearly obsessive constant in my family environment.

My father, Pedro Peña Fernández, explained all this very well in his essay ‘Los Gitanos Flamencos’, which for many people in the know is the ‘bible’ of flamenco.

Working as a national schoolteacher, he was probably one of the first Roma in our country to be licenced to teach, and he would delight my siblings and myself every morning with a variety of exquisite music before heading off for school. Many mornings he woke us up that way. Ludwig van Beethoven, Juan Talega, Lole y Manuel, Tomaso Albinoni, Los Smash, Triana, Diego del Gastor, my grandmother ‘La Perrata’, Oum Kalsoum, Antonio Mairena and many other artists from diverse genres, chosen with exquisite taste and concern in order not to contaminate our delicate virgin ears. In this way, the dose of sensitivity we received every morning upon waking made us feel everything the day was to bring in a very special way.

It is an ancestral tradition that also makes us feel, in an intense and different manner, the link shared by those of our ethnicity.

But in addition to being a cultivated passion, in my family a sort of liturgy exists around music, particularly flamenco, that goes beyond the standard concept, situating it as the principal axis of communication from which we drew so much to express good fortune and bad. It is an ancestral tradition that also makes us feel, in an intense and different manner, the link shared by those of our ethnicity, regardless of whether or not we belong to the same lineage or area.

Our get-togethers were, and continue to be, musical shows of the highest order. I remember one time when we were all gathered for some celebration, and there was a little time to bring out the instruments and start getting organised in a natural way, as if it were a stage, in order to facilitate the singing, dancing and guitar performances. From one moment to the next, the most perfect harmony reigned among all those present: children, adults, performers, those who accompanied on guitar and clapping, and those who just listened. Not everyone was admitted as a guest; you had to know how to behave and have absolute respect for what we did.

I can’t recall the precise moment – I wasn’t even able to judge such things – when during one of these get-togethers I discovered someone who made an impression on me. This one person stood out from among the rest. He had a fascinating aura and his presence was felt by everyone, or so it seemed to me, and I wanted to believe it was the same for everyone else. At that time I didn’t even know our exact relationship.

This fascinating person, whom I recall as being affectionate and always laughing, played the guitar and danced happily in a different manner from everyone else. He had a huge personality and quickly became the centre of attention at the party. In actual fact, this way of being he had was accepted by everyone.

Dressed in elegant modern attire for the era, which highlighted his incredible blue eyes, this little man, who wasn’t really tall or particularly strong, managed himself socially with supernatural ease and self-confidence. His way of being approached the arrogance of someone who knows he has been touched by the hand of God and feels worthy of that condition ... his effort, his talent and sharpness had earned him a social status that was above the rest of his competitors, relatives and neighbours in town.

This great little man who made such an impression on me was my uncle, the singer Juan Peña, known as ‘Lebrijano’; over the years, I came to feel very close to my father’s brother, both as a musician and as a person.

From my earliest imagination, his fame made me see him as the sun around which the rest of us orbited like planets.

His appearances, among numerous comings and goings, were big events for us all, and in just a few years, almost without realising it, in the eyes of the rest of the world we all became the brother, the mother, the cousin or the nephew of Juan ‘El Grande’, as José Antonio Blázquez, one of the most respected flamencologists and critics of the era would nickname him.

From my earliest imagination, his fame made me see him as the sun around which the rest of us orbited like planets irreversibly bathing in the light of his popularity, feeling observed ourselves and loved for the simple fact of being his relatives, although logically in proportion.

From time to time, this Andalusian prophet would sit us down, adults and children alike, in the large living room of his house in front of the best hi-fi equipment of the era, to show us the miracles brought from Madrid. As I said above, the veneration for music in my family always went beyond what was normal or even orthodox, but even so, the surprised and delighted faces of the older adults became a show in itself, and no wonder.

Uncle Juan’s recordings were authentic works of art, spiced up with the best and most novel ingredients of the moment. From an orchestration of seguiriyas by the maestro Manuel Lillo Torregrosa, to the guitars of Niño Ricardo and Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlúcar, my father Pedro Peña, Enrique de Melchor and Paco Cepero, the voices of Rocío Jurado, María Jiménez, a chorus of nuns and the Orquesta Andalusí of Tangiers. There was no end to the surprises. The rest of the world continued on its course, but he had his own ideas and nothing and no one could stop him.

Around that time, apart from certain strategic experiments of a record company, the concept of a flamenco work was not within the reach of the average flamenco singer. And he, who had nothing average about him, discovered that from there he could achieve both artistic and intellectual fulfilment.

As I said, the need to live in accordance with your times was deeply engrained in my people from very early on, but all possible artistic virtues came together within him: curiosity, the capacity to make sacrifices, perseverance, bravery and of course a voice and the extraordinary talent that God gave him when he was born.

His first major recording was ‘De Sevilla a Cádiz’ with the guitars of Niño Ricardo and Paco de Lucía, playing together for the first time. On this ‘basic’ record of flamenco singing and guitar, Uncle Juan, who was still practically a youngster, poured out all his knowledge masterfully interpreting the most revered song forms of the traditional Andalusian Gitano repertoire.

The freshness of his voice and his rhythmic concepts quickly made him the centre of interest for all flamenco followers. At times I think he gave so much in this work that when it was done, he felt so empty he seriously rethought what his next step ought to be. In that recording, he’d shown in capital letters who he was and where he came from, but he still had a lot of curiosity to assuage and he knew this could only be the beginning of a long career still to be laid out.

Without ever turning his back on traditional singing, the kind he received from his family, he immediately set off on a new avant-garde path no one else had travelled. It was no longer enough to just sing, as he’d done on ‘De Sevilla a Cádiz’, and better than most other singers; his ambitious personality never allowed him to stay put, nor was he a man to let his guard down.

From that moment on and until the end of his days, he always lived in a constant state of being on a quest, with the bravery of someone who knows he possesses great knowledge and faculties and without caring what anyone else had to say. In the strictest intimacy, he once told me: ‘Kid ... I’ve sung better than the guy who invented all this’. And it was so true...

‘Kid ... I’ve sung better than the guy who invented all this’.

And thus was born a series of works, in the broadest sense of the term, that no other singer has matched to date: ‘La Palabra de Dios a un Gitano’, ‘Persecución’, ‘Ven y Sígueme’, ‘Encuentro’, ‘Tierra’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Cuando Lebrijano Canta se Moja el Agua’. Between one recording and the next he would occasionally give us a record of traditional singing, in order to silence the most radical fundamentalists who were determined to discredit him for daring to experiment. This all explains why his discography contains more than thirty recordings.

All flamenco fans know that he started out not as a singer but rather playing a guitar as accompaniment, and that he became a singer due to incidental events instead of there being a premeditated decision to become a professional as such. These biographical data, like his relationship with Pastora Pavón ‘La Niña de los Peines’, Antonio Mairena, Antonio Gades and Manolo Caracol for example, are more than well documented by experts who have studied his life and the history of flamenco in general. What I find really noteworthy about this happy anecdote is the influence of his close connection with the guitar in the course of his career.

Although Uncle Juan had no formal knowledge of music, nor was he a virtuoso guitarist, he knew the guitar well, and had a great deal of curiosity about the harmonic possibilities of chord fingerings. He needed no more than a guitar in his hands to let his creativity fly. The guitar gave him the option of working in private without having to ask anyone’s help, right or wrong, in the process of working out a new creation or interpretation. Back then this was rare among singers of the era, and this is something that I feel has not been treated with due importance.

Aside from his inquisitive nature and his enormous singing talent as such, without the knowledge and help of his guitar, the investigative and creative facets of Uncle Juan wouldn’t have been the same. For better or for worse, the guitar was his most faithful companion in solitude, at sunrise, through success and also personal failure.

Without getting into comparisons, if I had to name the three most influential singers of their generation – Camarón, Enrique Morente and Lebrijano – I would cite the fact that all three played guitar as something they had in common. I don’t mean to imply this was a determining factor for any of them, but it is relevant. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ that each of them marked in his own way continues to be relevant.

Another of Uncle Juan’s virtues that I witnessed on numerous occasions was his capacity to adopt the appropriate stage presence, adapting with no apparent difficulty to each venue or situation. One day we would be sharing the stage with the Orquesta Andalusí de Tánger with Joan Manuel Serrat, Luz Casal, Luis Eduardo Aute and U2, and the next we were doing a traditional recital at El Taranto, a flamenco club in Almería.

As someone who was aware of the responsibility of being where he was, he took it upon himself to oversee technical as well as artistic aspects. He is said to have learned this from Antonio Gades, for it was otherwise unheard of in flamenco artists of his generation – and I learned from him.

‘The day will eventually come when superficial fashions pass and visceral mindless fascination burns itself out, when justice will be done and people look back and seriously analyse the transcendence, the depth and the avant-garde nature of the body of work left by Juan Peña “Lebrijano” ’

As a guitarist who has spent more than thirty years sharing the stage with him, he taught me everything, from how to come onto the stage to how to space the silences or give the solemn cue required by soleá and seguiriya – without learning any phony effects or tricks to excite the general public. He was the most important element, as well as what went on between us when we performed. After a time, I came to feel that our own internal rhythms had become one. That we were capable of stretching, cutting, pumping up the rhythm and the intent, giving a particular life to each interpretation, without breaking up or deforming the true spirit of the piece in question.

When he was nearing the end of his life, something incredible happened that even he was unaware of until I told him. When he was looking for something comfortable to sing, he would always ask me to tune the guitar down a bit before going on stage because logically his physical condition was not what it used to be. I would do this in a rather free way, with the help of a digital tuner and calibrator – but always by ear and according to how his voice had been during the sound check. When we were done, he never had anything to say about this, which was a relief since it was a big responsibility, and I understood that my decisions had been the right ones. In this way I would tune down more on some days, and less on others, according to my own criteria.

After a few years following this practice, one night when we were finished he asked me: ‘Tell me son, what tuning was I at today? I want you to remember it always, I felt particularly at ease and I don’t want you ever to change it.’ To my surprise, when I checked the tuning of my guitar that day, his comment after the performance gave me the chills: the guitar was perfectly tuned to 432 vibrations per second, the true universal tuning. It’s said the rotation of the Earth produces 432 vibrations per second and that was always the tuning until World War II, when the Nazis decreed that it should be 440, with the aim of upsetting the natural harmony of things.

This anecdote was yet more proof of his tireless search to find existential perfection, showing he was not oblivious to anything that surrounded him. And I lived with the firm belief that this was extraordinary. It was a premonition, a lucky circumstance that we discovered together, just as the end of his days was approaching.

Like all geniuses, my uncle had a very strong personality, and more than thirty years of working alongside him left an indelible mark. He was a very generous person and his company was always a joy. We were very different people, but the affection and respect were always above everything else. My admiration for him, as is only natural and fitting, grew constantly and never waned.– but I know it came to be mutual, something that makes me proud as an artist, as a musician and as a person.

Being a universal man, his contribution to defending the culture and sociology of his people has no equal in any other flamenco artist of his ethnic group. ‘El Lebrijano’ honoured the history of the Roma people in Spain with ‘Persecución’, which is perhaps his signature work in this regard, but by no means the only one. Moreover, his artistic name represented the inhabitants of his hometown, Lebrija, a city in the province of Seville.

The day will eventually come when superficial fashions pass and visceral mindless fascination burns itself out, when justice will be done and people look back and seriously analyse the transcendence, the depth and the avant-garde nature of the body of work left by my uncle, Juan Peña ‘Lebrijano’.

Rights held by: Pedro María Peña (text) — Estela Zatania (translation) | Licensed by: Pedro María Peña (text) — Estela Zatania (translation) | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive