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Friday, May 29, 2009

Great Child Singers I: Joselito

Children, especially in the Latin world, can sometimes have extraordinary singing voices; voices which can take them on to operatic fame, if the child is properly trained, and if –a BIG “if”—the voice does not break and drop drastically in puberty. The most famous such instance for a man would be Beniamino Gigli, a boy soprano who basically just kept singing the way he did as a boy. Fate (coupled with what would turn out to be thyroid problems and diabetes) kept his beautiful boy soprano voice in shape through puberty, and he went on to his extraordinary destiny. This does not, of course, happen to most child singers.

A brief look at the best known film of the enormously popular child singer José Jiménez Fernández, otherwise known as Joselito, is illustrative of many things at once. His biography is easily consulted, and there is no need for me to repeat well known stories. Joselito was a film triumph, with all that can mean. For Mario Lanza it was disaster, and others have suffered similar fates. But they were adults. Joselito made his first film at a very tender age indeed. He grew up in Franco’s Spain and his first films appeared in the mid-50’s. He was a beautiful little boy with an astonishing voice. He did not sing as a boy soprano through any kind of church training; he is not singing on the edge of the vocal chords, the way a boy being trained in a choir school would. His voice does not “hoot.” He is singing full voice, albeit the voice of a child. This at once gives it an astonishing squillo for a child, even if tinged with nasality. This nasality, however, is intentional; that’s how flamenco singers navigate the fioratura. If the last word of a phrase does not lend itself naturally to nasality, the sound ão [as in a cat’s meow] is added to nasalize it.

In the first clip, I invite you to reflect on how utterly foreign everything you see and hear is to anything known in the Anglo-American tradition. In the first place, a child of this age singing a love song to a little girl would be on the far, far side of propriety, something like the titillating “Let’s play house” kinds of things Shirley Temple did back in the 30’s. Joselito was from southern Spain, and the gypsy flamenco music is sui generis—but what vocalism it makes possible! People coming to the traditional music of southern Spain for the first time always think this music is the result of Arabic influence. It is not. It is gypsy music, which makes it ultimately, as near as anyone can tell, form northern India, a very long time ago. I’ll translate the piece—it helps to know what he is saying to her. “Once a nightingale at first light/was trapped under a flower/far from his lady love./ Awaiting his return, in her nest/she saw the afternoon grow late/and at night, near mad with love/ she sang to the river:/ “Where has my love gone?/ Why does he not return?/ What flaming rose has entrapped him?/ O sparkling brook/wandering through reed and bush/tell him that roses have thorns!/ Tell him that there are no colors that I do not possess/I am dying of love!/ Tell him to return!) We are in a very sentimental world here, but that fact has its own importance. I warn you—break out the tissues, and, if you are diabetic, proceed with the utmost caution:) All the selections this time are quite short—please see them through to the end, which is where the vocal fireworks always are in this kind of music:

Amazing singing from a child! Notice the easy emotion and the uninhibited acting, which is in fact not bad at all. Somehow this works, at least in 1958 Spain. It would not work AT ALL in the Anglo American world, and probably not even in modern Spain.

Now, to throw yet another spatula of emotion onto the situation, I need to tell you that the little girl is blind, and his love for her—while remaining a boy/girl love—will turn out to have many spiritual qualities (this is Spain). The following clip, in a church, features our little hero, girl in hand, pleading before a local statue of Jesus for help for his little blind friend. The singing is near cantorial in nature, and is another amazing piece of child vocalism, more refined than the first example. The nasality is now gone…this is not a popular song. His vocal control and concentration here are admirable. This kind of intense and sentimental religious fervor, btw, with heavy gypsy overlay, has no counterpart in the rest of Europe that I am aware of

The purity and control of Joselito’s singing here is the kind of thing that might have served him well had he made a steady diet of it. He was, however, in the hands of unscrupulous managers who exploited him mercilessly, and he never had the chance to study properly. A tragedy in the making, to be sure.

How does the film end? Did you really have any doubt? The final clip, very short, shows our little hero singing another popular song, La Luz de tus Ojos (The Light of your Eyes). You will of course notice who enters the proceedings, and to whom the song gets directed, and what has happened. This is possibly the best piece of singing, considering all factors, in the movie. In your imagination, fast forward about 15 years, and you can see this, very easily, in the opera house. All the elements are already present. Notice the high note at the end, especially, bearing in mind that this boy is not trying to sing soprano He is singing with his natural voice. The point of articulation in Spanish is much more “forward” and much “higher” than it is in English, and there are only five singable sounds in the language. Spanish has the most conservative vocal system of all the Romance Languages, and this fact greatly favors a young, high voice, and keeps it high much longer, as opposed to English, which can be death to a young voice with classical tenor potential.

Put away the tissues now, it’s over.

One can talk endlessly about vocal technique, about the rules of effective singing, about training the tenor voice especially, about acting, and all the rest. But when you are talking about sentimental Italian opera, (how’s that for redundancy?) the simple fact is that, at least historically speaking, it makes a very great difference where you were born, when you were born, what language you grew up speaking, and how expansive the emotional climate of your culture is. If all these are right, the vocal and musical training is all that is left. It they are wrong, all the training in the world is seldom enough.


JD Hobbes said...

I think you are correct about the gypsy tradition, because I cannot think of anything else quite like it. The Vienna Choir Boys--certainly not. I am not familiar with children singers from eastern Europe. Have you found anything like that in their gypsy traditions?

Perhaps our Russian friends can weigh in on this.

Edmund said...

I am not personally all that knowledgeable about the traditions of child singing in Eastern Europe or in Russia. I suspect there are at least similar examples; the problem is that the gypsy melodies tend to blend with local musical traditions, and it starts to vary, from country to country. When I hear Spanish flamenco, I usually think of India. If you have seen a popular Bollywood film, you will know how they feature many many love duets, in which the musical runs up and down the scale are very reminiscent of Spanish flamenco.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article about another singer, unknown in Russia. A very talented boy. It is astouding that children are sometimes more subtle and profound singers than many adults. These songs and the film itself doesn’t seem unbearably sugary , perhaps because Robertino Loretti was so popular in the USSR and we got used to “sweet” singing :). Besides, Joselito’s style is not too “sweet”. Flamenco in general seems very passionate and not sentimental. Lyrics can be sugary, but the sound makes different impression. The technique looks very natural, as though anyone who has a voice can sing it.

“it makes a very great difference where you were born, when you were born, what language you grew up speaking, and how expansive the emotional climate of your culture is. If all these are right, the vocal and musical training is all that is left.”
This thought is the most interesting. Our opera critics think that Russian singers are second-rate in comparison to Italian ones because of the “wrong training”, and no-one writes about Russian phonetics, though there were singers like Sobinov, Nezhdanova, Chaliapin, who were successful in Europe and Italy , but always sang at home in Russian. Also sang a lot of Russian music.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I would have to say that the Russian critics who say that are dead wrong; in fact, Russian training is excellent, from what I have seen. Just think of the great 20th century singers: Lemeshev, Vishnevskaya, Reizen, Chaliapin, Nezhdanova and so forth, the list goes on and on and on. These are fantastic singers. Even Netrebko, although she is utterly without discretion or taste, sings very well. You sent me a recording of Lemeshev once, doing a piece in Italian--was it Una Furtiva Lagrima? Anyway, it was excellent. I understand Italian very well, and it was perfect. And just think of the recording you have posted of his "Parmi Veder le lagrime." All the comments just rave about it. I have never, in my life, heard another like it. I am getting far enough into your fascinating language by now to realize that Russian is actually a very soft and somewhat sibilant language. It looks like a harsh language, when one reads it, because of the words that look like they are all consonants:) But when I hear somebody actually pronounce those words, they turn out to be very soft and pleasant sounds. Russian is a beautiful language. It's English and German that are deadly!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps our Russian friends can weigh in on this."

Yes, there were famous children’s choruses in the USSR, like Sveshnikov’s:

(the leading singer is Igor Danilov). As I understand, Sveshnikov continued the tradition of church choir singing, but without religious repertoire. Many Soviet composers wrote songs especially for children. There were several brilliant and famous boys with beautiful voices, but they didn’t become singers when they grew up, and had to retire at age 18-20 ,because Sveshnikov made them sing soprano for too long.


Edmund said...

Yes, it is very easy to destroy a young voice. It is the very rare boy indeed who can continue to sing soprano when he grows up.

Jing said...

All very interesting indeed. I was struck by your observations about the roots of gypsy music, as opposed to oriental (North African, per se). Those elements (the latter) still seem to me somehow to lurk there also, and there was surely much inter-cultural contact for centuries. In any event, at some point, Edmund, I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on the relationship between flamenco singing and the style of Portuguese music called fado - which seems to me similar, but quite different, almost more like the French. Quaisquer pensamentos sobre isso? Obrigado

Edmund said...

Obrigado. Tenho algumas idéias, mas não tenho a certeza que eu ou qualquer outra pessoa tem uma resposta definitiva.

In my last book, I made some general observations about ancient music in Spain, which, boiled down to their essence, suggest that the "Arabic" influence in Spain is vastly overestimated. (I think you have the book. Vid. pp. 115-120.) One gets hammered for making the point, because there is, unfortunately, a lot of feel-good nonsense about the so called "convivencia" in Spain among Christians, Moors and Jews. In this age of "Diversity," to point out harsh realities is never appreciated. In point of fact, however, the North Africans were seen largely as enemies, and of a markedly lower caste than the Christians. There was a local Andalucian music in the Middle Ages, and it may have had--in a very distant past-- some North African influece. The Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711, and were not fully expelled from Granada until 1492. Ancient elements from the 8th and 9th centuries may have been present in the local Andalucian culture, but so were gypsy elements. A more likely influence, in my opinion, could be from the Jews, especially the liturgical form of the saeta. This is what Joselito sings in Church in the second clip. As for fado, it is important to remember that during the 15th century, Portugal was the main slave trading port in Europe, and vast numbers of African slaves passed through. In this particular case, given the soulful, pining, home-sick (especially) "saudade" nature of the fado, it is certainly appropriate to think of African slaves, mourning their fate and longing to go back home. This makes for a different tone and style, with the result that fado seems markedly different from flamenco, which tends heavily toward a celebratory tone and is very often about love, expressed in an expansive way. Notice little Joselito's last song: "Saint Santa Ana, Saint Joaquin, may those little eyes shine for me, may those little eyes shine for me!" while pointing at the little girl. Certainly inappropriate by todays standards, in terms of such sentiments toward a little girl, but it's a love song, of which there are many variations. Or the first piece: "Tell her (the supposed love rival) that there are no colors that I so not possess, I am dying of love, tell her to come!!" Again, terribly inappropriate in the ears of a near-toddler, but it makes the point about the tone of flamenco singing. It makes for interesting comparison to the fado, which is often (certainly not invariably) good music to get drunk by, if you know what I mean:) :)

Jing said...

Obrigado! Sua resposta é muito interessante e útil. Acabo de voltar a ler as páginas do seu livro, especialmente página 119. Esta frase é bastante notável: "It is too easy to consider as foreign that which is simply strange." Needless to say, that is a truth that has a far wider application than simply the music of 13th century Spain and France. Muito, muito verdadeiro em qualquer idade.

Your thoughts (related to fado) on the sources of "saudade" are also fascinating. Saudade is such a central notion to the Brazilian temperament. There is speculation that saudade entered Brazil through the yearning of Portuguese who settled in Brazil - 16th, 17th century (slavers, soldiers, gold miners - bandeirantes) - who yearned for the homeland, Portugal. They sang their fado in that yearning. But what if its roots were ultimately African? Much strangeness all around. Both port and cachaça go well with fado.

Edmund said...

I suspect (but cannot prove) that the African origin is more credible. I can easily imagine that the transplanted Portuguese in Brazil may have used an already existing fado, with it's African roots, as an appropriate expression of their lonliness, much in the same way that many white Americans have come to accept African-American music as an appropriate vehicle for expressing their feelings. Near infinite examples, from Ragtime to Rock, come to mind.

Anonymous said...

I accidentaly read this very interesting post and the discussion I'd like to join. As a fado admirer I'm also among those enthusiasts who claim that there are - and there certainly are - africanisms in Portuguese music. Apart from your saudade theory, one can easily recognize the syncopated African rhythm patterns even though in a decelerated manner. The fado soloists always tend to play and improvise very freely and independently over the given harmonic structures. This is a typical African element you also find in Afican-American music traditions.
I disagree with you on the point of Arab influence. Why should there be a Jewish influence (a minority of estimated 3% of the Iberian population) rather than an Arab one, having been the ruling ethnic group for 600 years? Furthermore, Sephardim have also absorbed Arabic vocabulary and customs. One of the most evident Arab influences on fado may be the dynamic change between harmonic minor and the Phrygian mode, a concept usually found in Moorish music. And for gypsy music, I have to say, that the Romani people arrived in Iberia during the 15th century from both France and Africa. The latter group had already acculturated Arab music traditions.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for an erudite and interesting comment! There is much that you say about the influences that rings true. I could be wrong, I fully admit, about the degree of North African influence in Flamenco, and about cross-fertilizations in general. I will only say in my defense that it has always seemed to me that "Arabic" influence, and the whole "convivencia" argument in general, is a bit too convenient and pat an answer where influences are cncerned. I know that in discussions of "Arabic" influence in medieval Spanish music, at lest one musicologist, J.M. Llorens Cistero, dismisses in general the possibility of determining Arabic influence in the melodies of the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria, for example. He once wrote, after studying the matter in some detail, that "In reality, no once can assure us of the existence of a single medieval melody which cn be identified as being of genuinely Arabic origin." I'm well aware of the long stay of the North Africans on the Iberian peninsula (711 to 1492 is a mighty long time) but the question that arises is whether in fact there was much penetration of influence into music. I don't have the answer, obviously, and I have learned from sad experience talking to Spaniards that the discussion can become heated because of political and religious motives, and that I have to avoid at all costs because it clouds the issue. I suppose I could only say that it might be too easy to accept as foreign that which is simply strange, and in the case of old music that may be the case. Other musicologists, for example, have contended that medieval Spanish music was more influenced than many realize by the compositional modes of early church music that come directly from the Latin and Byzantine ecclesiastical traditions, and in fact comform quite closely to the precepts expounded by medieval theorists regarding the composition of chant melodies within the system of the 8 modes. However, as I say, I do not have the answer, and find your comments helpful. I will re-read them and think about it.

Thanks for a superb observation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your quick reply and your explanations. I truly appreciate such discussions but they became few in the web. And sorry if my above comment seemed a bit harsh, but that happens sometimes unintentionally when I'm writing in English.

As you say, there is no obvious evidence for any influence. Many people tend to interpret flamenco and other Iberian musical traditions as "Arabic", just when they hear a harmonic minor scale or a Phrygian mode. But all those tonalities can be explained wholly through Western musical theory as you said, since they are all diatonic, in contrast to e.g. the blues scale in North America. A small exception would be e.g. the augmented fourth in the "gypsy scales" featured in Flamenco, Jewish music and Arabic popular music. Such tiny notes are the only basis for speculations.

As an emerging geographer I tend to reconstruct the spatial relations. If there is no other evidence in music, I have to find it otherwise.
I agree, that in fact there was not so much "convivencia" on the peninsula; if you examine the Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese language, there are plenty of Arabic words. But they have all one in common. If a Spaniard refers to the mayor (el alcalde, from al-qadi), he would literally say "the the mayor". The word "alcalde" already contains the article. So, if there was something like "convivencia", why did the Spaniards not even know about their ruler's article?
And thus it is probably with music. Spanish and Portuguese musicians maybe tried to imitate Arabic sounds but used (modified) European scales for that purpose. The practical performance may then again be more "Arabic" (as the examples I mentioned before).
As for African influence, we can't just only consider West African slaves in Brazil as significant, as I learned yesterday during a concert of famous fado singer Mariza. She was born and has ancestry in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique and she's making extensive usage of African percussion and Creole language in her songs. So influences probably may also be traced back to East Africa or apart from slave trade roots, too - if not again North Africa...

Warmest greetings from a chilly Vienna!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Very well said! You bring great knowledge to the subject, and I appreciate the opportunity to have such conversations.

If you would like to exchnge ideas sometime on email, rather than anonymously, feel free to write to me at:

By the way, what is your native language? Si por acaso es Espanyol, me puede escribir en ese idioma, ya que soy profesor universitario de literatura medieval espanyola. (Perdone la grafia: este foro no permite--debido a una tecnica, o falta de la misma:), que permitiera la acentuacion en lengua extranjera.

lines Felinto said...

Acabei de ter uma aula de música de alto nível.Parabens Edmund St. Austell

Edmund St. Austell said...

Muito obrigado pelo seu comentário gentil!

Anonymous said...

Joselito my childhood dream in the 1950's when I was living in Uruguay.He gave meaning to my life with his natural sweet nature and that angelical voice, the lirics of his songs, especially 'una vez un ruisenor' and 'torre del oro' he made me very happy.