La Fernanda and La Bernarda de Utrera
by Tony Bryant
La Fernanda de Utrera had a special voice that was full of a gravelly emotion similar to that found in the old blues singers like Billie Holliday or Bessie Smith.
Singers of flamenco seem to gain a unique quality to their voices with age, and the riper the age the more ardent their voices become.
La Fernanda had this special quality and in her later years her voice was a struggling pain filled cry but which contained a soulful tone that came straight from the blood in her veins.
Many of these old singers have destroyed their vocal chords with years of singing, smoking and drinking, all ingredients in the training of many great singers. But La Fernanda`s voice was just drained of all the body and grit that she had in her early years simply as a result of illness and wear and tear. As a result of these factors, she was left with a chilling gypsy echo, a profoundly emotional cry that numbed the body and sent your hairs to a shivering attention.
She was born in Utrera, Seville, in 1923, four years previous to her sister, La Bernarda, who was to become her constant companion and singing partner. It was said during the 1960s and ‘70s that wherever you saw La Fernanda, her sister would not be far behind.
They were to become two of the most respected female singers in the history of flamenco, performing at festivals and juergas together all over Spain.
La Fernanda and her sister were the daughters of a respectable slaughterhouse man who tried hard to dissuade his children from careers as flamenco singers. He was bemused that his children would want to sing for money when he had enough to support the family comfortably.
But La Fernanda and La Bernarda were determined, and it was the singer Antonio Mairena who persuaded the girl’s father to let him take them to Seville to record a record. After much persuasion the father agreed and the record, “Sevilla, Cuna del cante”, was to be the start of the vast collection that La Fernanda left behind.
La Fernanda and La Bernarda belong to the Peña family, they are the grand daughters of El Pinini, who was as famous for his cantiñas as he was for his drunkenness.
The Peña family is one of the biggest and most influential flamenco families, a tribe who’s roots spread from Utrera across to Lebrija and consist of names like El Perrate, Pedro Bacán, El Lebrijano and Miguel El Funi, to name only a few.
La Fernanda gained fame after wining the 1959 Concurso de Cante Jondo in Cordoba, in the Soleá section, and went on to become known as the undisputed queen of the soleares.
La Bernarda is more suited to the fiestera styles and her bulerias and Tangos are full of excitement and overflow with frivolity.
La Fernanda`s style was said to have been inherited from Mercedes la Serneta, but Fernanda molded these styles and made them her own creations, charged with passion and duende.
In her prime she was so majestic, her voice rough and raucous, tearing at your heartstrings and smothering the listener with a warm and glowing duende.
La Fernanda was said to be at her most pleasing in the juerga atmosphere, and to watch her perform with Diego del Gastor, one of her preferred guitarists, was probably the most rewarding show of flamenco delivery one could ever hope to experience.
La Fernanda de Utrera once said that “Diego and I were the couple with the best understanding of flamenco, each one loved the other's art, and no one has known how to bring out what I have in me, like Diego”.
Although these two sisters were inseparable, it was La Fernanda who stole the limelight and her style of cante is often copied, but never equaled. They performed at the World Trade Show in New York in 1986 along with El Chocolate, Farruco, and Manuela Carrasco.
There is a rather amusing story that tells of their mother's concern at them going to America because she worried how they would provide for themselves in the big apple. Obviously she did not have enough faith in their singing, as she advised them to open a Churro stall should they fall on hard times.
Fortunately this was not necessary and they went on to conquer audiences in New York, establishing themselves at an international level before returing to Utrera.
One of La Fernanda’s last screen appearances was in the film Flamenco, which was directed by the award winning director Carlos Saura, but there are many episodes in the Rito y geografia del cante jondo series that show these two masters in their prime.
La Bernarda was still performing at the age of 81, and although these occasions are extremely rare, she still has the gypsy echo in her worn vocal chords. It is an echo that reminds us of where this music has been brewing for so many years; the smaller villages in lower Andalucia where the gypsies have preserved these ancient old styles.
La Fernanda and Bernarda had many honors bestowed on them including the Medalla de Plata de Andalucía. They were also appointed favorite daughters of Seville, and Utrera, and their hometown named a street after them as well as erecting a monument that sits proudly opposite the Municipal Market in Utrera.
La Fernanda had a duende in her voice that would send tears streaming down the face of the most hardened men and thankfully there are quite a few recordings that prove her status as one of the greatest flamenco singers ever.
It’s a shame that an artiste who gave so much to one of Andalucía’s most treasured cultures should pass away virtually unnoticed other than to the true aficionados, who mourned her passing in much the same way as fans of Billie Holiday had done nearly fifty years previous.
La Fernanda passed away in Utrera, the town where she had spent her entire life, on the 16th August 2006. She had been absent from the flamenco scene for many years, due to a long and stressful illness.
La Bernarda spoke out after her sisters death, claiming that many of the people that La Fernanda had helped, to get to where they are today, had turned their backs on the singer during her illness.
La Bernanda was always the more outspoken of the two even though she lived almost entirely in the shadow of her sister's singing,
Bernarda de Utrera was once asked if there was any difference between La Fernanda’s singing and her own, to which she answered, “Yes of course, my sister sings much better than me, her art is far superior.”
Many flamenco aficionados will agree that although La Bernarda de Utrera is a shining example of all that is great in cante flamenco, it is La Fernanda that most will remember as one of the greatest female flamenco singers of the twentieth century
Recommended viewing and listening.
Dvds. Rito y Geografía del cante, Vols 5 / 6 / 7
Cds. Raza y Compas. Cante Grande de Mujer