There are certain individuals who have gone down in history as the epitome of genius, of the unexpected, of the innate, of being capable of expressing feelings that make the human soul emerge in its purest form. We find examples of this type in every area of life: Isaac Newton, Pablo Picasso, John Coltrane, and so on. We could also include Manuel Soto Loreto, known as ‘Manuel Torre’, in this category.
‘Federico García Lorca claimed Torre was the person with “the most culture in the blood” that he had ever known’
Manuel Torre was born in 1878, in the humble surroundings of San Miguel, a Roma neighbourhood in Jerez de la Frontera. Amidst the daily struggle to survive the tough conditions and poverty, people had a unique way of expressing themselves: flamenco.
As one of the main creative centres of flamenco, Jerez experienced a golden age in the second half of the nineteenth century. In this period creative giants in the flamenco gitano music scene such as Loco Mateo, Antonio Frijones, Diego el Marrurro and Paco la Luz among others, were all active around the same time.
Manuel soon discovered his love of singing thanks to two people who were influential in his infancy: his father (a non-professional singer) and his uncle, Joaquin Lacherna, who was one of the great siguiriya singers in the history of flamenco.
He started earning his living while still a child, working as a fisherman while at the same time taking advantage of his artistic talent to earn a little money. Later on, he began to make his name in private gatherings, then went on to perform in the city’s cafés, where he was billed as ‘El Niño de Jerez’.
After becoming a cantaor, a flamenco singer in his own right, he decided to turn professional, and so at the beginning of the twentieth century he moved to Seville, where he worked in a variety of flamenco venues while also touring throughout Spain with various companies. He earned the respect and admiration of his fellow artists and left evidence of his art on a number of recordings.
‘He died in the most dire poverty – possibly the result of the Roma philosophy of singing for spiritual need rather than economic necessity’.
Although flamenco was at this time a relatively recent art form, the burgeoning commercialisation in the middle of the nineteenth century meant that singers received massive exposure on the various stages of the cafés cantantes, and were forced to adapt their respective repertoires to the taste of an ever-growing audience. Gitano song forms were not to the liking of the general public, who were not accustomed to such sounds, and thus they remained a feature of private gatherings of aficionados (and, of course, the Roma flamenco milieu from which they had derived).
Some intellectuals, led by Manuel de Falla and Federíco García Lorca, foresaw the danger of this process of ‘folklorisation’ of flamenco, and so they organised a flamenco singing contest in Granada in 1922, with the objective of re-evaluating and rescuing cante jondo. Great artists and intellectuals of the era supported the event and were in attendance. Manuel Torre was presented with great fanfare as a guest artist. As a musician with a tremendous artistic legacy, the singer from Jerez epitomised the Roma cantaor gitano. Federico García Lorca himself claimed Torre was the person with ‘the most culture in the blood’ that he had ever known.
By this time, the singer of ‘black sounds’, ‘the madman’, ‘the king of cante gitano’, as he was also known, was already a living legend, and impresarios vied to secure him as a headline act for their shows touring throughout Spain. In spite of this, he died a few years later, in 1933, in the most dire poverty – possibly the result of the Roma philosophy of singing for spiritual need rather than economic necessity.
Manuel Torre revolutionised Flamenco with his interpretation, innovations and even his own creations. His particular interpretation of the seguiriyas, farrucas and tarantos styles and his historic recreation of the song ‘Los Campanilleros’ have been paradigmatic for later generations. His moving delivery and natural voice constitute a school of cante gitano that shaped great singers such as Tomás Pavón, Juan Talega and Antonio Mairena, and one that will endure forever.