If she had still been alive, Fernanda Jiménez Peña, grand-daughter of the fabled El Pinini, would have reached 90 years of age on 9 February 2013.
Known throughout the world as La Fernanda de Utrera, this humble gypsy was undoubtedly the greatest female singer to ever grace the art of flamenco: although she died in 2006, she is still revered and remembered with much admiration by all who were touched by her incredible art.
One of five sisters born in the celebrated Calle Nueva in Utrera, La Fernanda’s heart wrenching style of cante was charged with an aching duende; her voice was what best described the true meaning of this art and one need look no further for a better example of it.
It was the great Antonio Mairena that had noticed the wealth of talent that La Fernanda possessed and although her father was not keen for any of his daughters to become professional singers, Mairena convinced him otherwise.
La Fernanda quickly rose to fame together with her sister La Bernarda and they would forge an inseparable partnership that only ceased when La Fernanda passed away.
Although they remained in Utrera all of their lives, they took their art to all corners of Spain and they became revelations on the flamenco tablao scene in Madrid. By the 1980′s their fame had spread as far as New York, where they performed at the International Fair in 1986.
The sisters would regularly return to the flamenco scene in Madrid, where they were contracted to sing at numerous tablaos including Corral de la Moreria and Torres Bermeja, and this was a time when many of the greatest names of flamenco would rub shoulders in the same clubs.
La Fernanda was famed for quality rather than quantity and tended to stick to the soleares, fandangos, tangos and bulerias, yet it was the soleá with which her name would become synonymous.
Her delivery was charged with a glowing duende and her afilla voice smothered the listener with a warming sensation, where as her sister’s style was full of arrogance and wildness, and charged with riotous jaleo and whip-lash rhythms. La Fernanda’s art however, was always far superior.
La Fernanda first started to sing in her home when she was around twelve years old and her father was said to have been astounded as to how his daughter knew these old songs: he was even more mystified by the torn and cracked voice that she possessed at such a young age.
She later claimed that god had blessed her with the knowledge of the cante and had bequeathed her the ripped and broken voice with which to sing it.
Most people who had witnessed La Fernanda first-hand conclude that although she would visibly move people during her festival and tablao performances, she only really sang to her full potential in the juerga atmosphere.
Her voice was ferocious and jagged, yet when necessary she would sing so heart wrenchingly sad and her child-like, mischievous grin would be replaced by all the pains and sorrows of which she sang. When performing the soleá her voice was as saintly as a harp and as melancholy as a death chant, but there was something about her singing that made the listener feel a warm and glowing comfort.
One of her last recorded performances was the Carlos Saura film, Flamenco in 1995, where she performed a moving soleá to the guitar accompaniment of Paco del Gastor – nephew of the legendary Diego; Fernanda’s habitual guitarist. Her voice was torn and drained and only a faint echo of when she was in her formative years, yet she possessed a magic that seems to develop when these great singers reach their prime.
The last few years of La Fernanda’s life were spent in the confines of her home because she was suffering with Alzheimer and she slowly wasted away until she died in August 2006.
When Mercedes La Serneta died, nearly one-hundred years previous in 1912, a dark cloud was said to have hung over the flamenco world: it would be fair to say that when La Fernanda died, the last remaining element of true orthodox singing vanished with her and it is improbable that there will ever be a female singer who could match the quality she possessed: she left a gaping hole that has never been filled.
Happy 90th birthday La Fernanda!
- Flamenco; an Englishman’s passion (Sol y Sombra Books ISBN: 978-0-9563132-5-6)
- A Time-defying Heritage ( ediciones flamenco sapiens, museo del baile flamenco ISBN- 13:978-84-9727-429-6)