Antonio Ortega Escalona was born in 1844 in Velez Málaga, and he was responsible for popularizing the malagueña, a lighter style of flamenco that was to take the café cantante scene by storm.
He was a non-gypsy singer who had presented a style of Fandango to the public at a time when the gypsy style cante was at the forefront of the flamenco scene.
Silverio Franconetti was considered the king of flamenco at this time, but Franconetti sang the harsh gypsy styles of song in the confines of his café and he refused to alter his style of singing.
Most singers of this era sang only for pleasure or to a close knit circle of friends and payment was simply the appreciation shown by these friends.
But Juan Breva presented a more polished style of non-gypsy song which soon caught the attention of the general public and catapulted him to stardom. Other singers of flamenco soon realized that these malaguenas and other styles of fandangos was where the money was and soon these styles were pushing the flamenco deep song into the background.
Juan Breva took the malagueña to such heights that he became the most popular singer in the cafes, but unbeknown to him he was about to start the decline of cante jondo.
The malagueñas swept across Andalucía, and the rest of Spain, and at one time there were more one-cante specialists of the malagueña than any other style of cante.
The old time singers realized that the malagueneros (singers of the malagueña) were getting the best paid jobs so they either altered and adjusted their cante jondo to make it more acceptable in the cafes or they simply jumped on the bandwagon and became Malagueneros.
Suddenly the andalucian people or the non gypsies had an idol of the masses who was singing a style of song that was created in the hills and mountains that surround Málaga. Until then the majority of good flamenco performers were gypsies who performed the styles of song from the western areas of Andalucía, but Juan Breva was about to change all of this.
Juan Breva became the highest paid singer, earning 25 pesetas a show, and he was said to have made as many as three performances a night at different café cantantes in Madrid. He became rich and relatively famous in an extremely short period of time.
He was the first flamenco singer to ever sing at the royal palace in front of the King and Queen of Spain, and he was also to become known as a king himself, King of the malagueñas.
It was after one of his performances at the royal palace, that King Alfonso XII asked Juan Breva what he would like as a gift, as his excellent performance of the malagueña had moved the king and he wanted to reward him personally.
Juan Breva replied that there was one thing that he desired, and this was that a friend of his who was being held in prison, be released, and the story goes that a few days later his friend was released, by order of the King.
Juan Breva became a regular performer at the palace and he obtained a large collection of gold tiepins, which were given to him as gifts from King Alfonso. But despite being a well recognized artiste, Juan Breva died in near poverty and a collection was held by fellow colleagues to pay for his funeral.
The malagueñas became popular with many singers outside of Málaga, and with gypsy cantaores as well, including Enrique el Mellizo, who gave them a different feel with his raucous afilla voice.
Juan Breva, who was partially blind, sang a form of malagueña that was derived from the verdiales, he wrote most of his own lyrics and also accompanied himself with the guitar.
Juan Breva is also credited with the discovery of a young non-gypsy singer of the cante chico of whom he predicted an excellent future, maybe someone to carry on his legacy. This young phenomenon was called Antonio Chacón, another milestone in the art of flamenco.
Today the malagueña is part of the flamenco repertoire and when sung well is one of the best and most shattering styles of flamenco, however it has been far removed from the versions that Juan Breva sang and today the malagueña has all the deep echoes of flamenco’s cante jondo.
La Epoca Dorada del Flamenco Vol 31