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.