Francisco Ortega Vargas was born in Puerta Real, Cadiz in 1820, although he seemed to have led the normal gypsy existence, traveling between Cadiz and Seville performing his cante in the many taverns and inns along the route.
It is known that this legend spent considerable time in Triana, which, in the nineteenth century, was a gypsy Mecca where many flamenco singers headed to test their skills alongside some of the most respected flamenco performers of the era.
During this period, flamenco was a mysterious way of life and the performers were not artistes but people who sang as a way of getting through their daily routines. Much of the flamenco of this time was performed in the forges where the gypsy blacksmiths worked and it was here that it was believed that El Fillo created the siguiriya de cambio, also referred to as the cabales. This style was preserved by Tomas el Nitri, who was El Fillo`s cousin and Silverio Franconetti, one of El Fillo`s students.
Diego el Fillo belonged to the same clan that gave us the Caganchos, a legendary family of flamenco singers famed for their duende-filled profound style of cante. El Fillo absorbed the cantes of Triana, reviving old styles and improving on many existing ones, and he was also a disciple of el Planeta from whom he learned the cantes of Tio Luis.
Diego el Fillo was also the first flamenco performer to be paid for his performances, whether it was with gold, presents, or simply in kind. He also became the artiste who set the guidelines and formats against which, nearly all singers from this period would be measured. His style of voice would also be immortalized; his rough, no frills, scorched gypsy voice would become known as voz afilla a quality still very highly valued today. This style is often described as the sonidos negros by people who are aware of the dark secret of cante flamenco, but it is explainable by few of them.
El Fillo was married to Maria La Andonda, a wild and turbulent singer from Utrera who had as much a reputation for her soleares as she did for her knife fights. He also had two brothers who were also singers in their own right, although not to the standard of El Fillo. Curro Palabras and Juan Encueros were both killed by the blade in street fights; Palabras was killed by his lover’s vengeful husband and Juan Encuero’s murder was attributed to Silverio Franconetti although it was never proved.
There is a famous siguiriya by El Fillo in which he tells of the murder of his brother, although which one he is referring to has always been a mystery.
Serafin Estébanez Calderón, author of Un Baile en Triana, wrote that Diego el Fillo was a strange character who wore a military style hat, thread-bare clothes, his trousers hitched up over his belly and held in place by a leather belt, and his sockless feet crammed into scruffy shoes.
This is an image so commonly portrayed by the romantic writers of the period, but it is El Fillo`s voice that is the most important part of him to have survived. The voz afilla has become an essential jondo credential and to possess this voice is considered as something of a gift, a specialty that is normally, but not exclusively, possessed by the gypsy singers.
It is said that El Fillo died in Seville in 1878, poverty stricken, his voice destroyed by alcohol and juerga (partying) like so many singers of this era.