La Niña de Los Peines

Pastora Maria Pavon Cruz was born on the 10th February 1890 in Calle Butrón in Seville and she died on the 26th November 1969 after a long illness.

Pastora Pavon is probably the most important female voice in the history of the flamenco song and she gained her nick-name of Niña de los Peines after a style of tango she sang that contained the words “Comb your hair with my combs, they are the sweetest things”.

She is no exception regarding the mystery that surrounds flamenco history, as many experts place her birth in the small town of Arahal, just outside of Seville. This was the town where her mother and elder brother Arturo were born, but Arahal holds on to the legend of La Niña de los Peines with a bronze statue that stands in the plaza.

Her father was a gypsy blacksmith known as El Paiti who was from El Viso del Alcór, and it was in this town that La Niña de los Peines was raised listening to flamenco which was performed in her fathers workshop.

Her childhood was spent in the midst of flamenco performers, including  her two brothers Arturo and Tomás who were both excellent singers of flamenco, although Arturo never received the attention that Pastora and Tomás received.

She made her first public appearance during the April fair in Seville in 1889, along with her brother Arturo and she spent time studying the cantes of Mercedes la Serneta, who’s songs she would reproduce with her profound Hispanic genius.
When she was just thirteen she made her début in the capital of Spain, and from here she went to Bilbao where she performed at the Café de los Columnas.
After this she was contracted to perform at the Café de la Marina in Málaga, where she is said to have been paid three pesetas a day for her efforts. She spent quite some time living in Málaga where she shared a house with another legend of flamenco song, La Trini, the queen of the Malagueña.

After this period, La Niña de los Peines moved to Jerez de la Frontera, and here she was contracted to work at the Bar La Primera.
It was also during this period that she recorded her first record for the Zonophone label, at the age of just twenty and from here on she went from strength to strength.

She became one of the biggest and most sought after flamenco singers of the period appearing at the best theatres with artistes like Antonio Chacon and Manuel Torre.

She was soon to receive the pseudonym of La Reina de la cante flamenco, and she was offered many contracts of work in the bullrings and theatres during the era known as Opera Flamenca, where she toured extensively all over Spain with numerous different flamenco troupes.

She had an affair with the singer Manuel Escacena, a union that Pastora claims resulted in the birth to her daughter, although there is even some discrepancy to the authenticity of this claim.

She did have a youthful relationship with the mighty Manuel Torre, a singer from who she is said to have learnt many styles of tangos and tientos.
But the main man in her life was the singer Pepe Pinto who she married in 1936 at the outbreak of the civil war, which resulted in them both taking shelter in Madrid until the three year conflict was over.

After the war she and her husband returned to Seville where Pastora joined the company of Concha Piquers. After finishing this tour, where she performed with such greats as La Maccarona, Perción de Cadiz, and Melchor de Marchena, La Niña de los Peines retired from the stage, only returning for a brief period in a show that was written by her husband.

This show opened in Seville in 1949 and was an instant success, but the tour soon ran into financial difficulty and was abandoned after a short while. This was to be Pastorals last professional engagement after which she retired to spend her last days with her husband.

She made one more appearance at a homage in her honour in 1961 in Cordoba, but her final years were racked with illness and when she died in 1969, she was unaware that her husband had passed away just weeks before her.
The ayuntamiento of Seville erected a bronze statue in her honour in the Alameda de Hercules area of Seville, just one of many monuments that record her brilliance as one of the greatest female flamenco singers.

La Niña de los Peines is said to have sung all of the flamenco styles with ease, but she is noted for being an excellent performer of the lesser-known styles like the bamberas and marianas.

She was also one of the first women to sing the style of the siguiriya, but she excelled in the tangos and bulerias, not forgetting her mastery with the peteneras and also the saetas.

In her early recordings her voice was sweet and mellow but her final recordings were sung with an extremely coarse profound voice, a gypsy echo that many believe to be unsurpassed.

She has been compared to the jazz and blues greats such as Ma Rainey, one of the earliest known professional blues singers who had a primitive untrained voice full of a profoundly emotional quality, similar to that of Pastora’s.

La Niña de los Peines is said to have sung with profound duende in her live performances and there is one anecdote written by the poet García Lorca that tells of her almost supernatural association with the duende.

He reports that whilst performing at a tavern in Cadiz, Pastora seemed to sing without feeling, leaving the audience unmoved but after a comment made by one of the listeners she somehow produced a monstrous glow of duende. He also states that this duende was displayed after she had consumed a large amount of aguadiente, a strong Andalucian brandy, which forced her to sing “without voice or breath, but with scorched throat and with duende”.

In 1996 the Junta de Andalucía declared her records an asset of cultural interest and created a trophy with her name attached, a prize that has been presented to some of flamenco songs greatest perfromers.

She left behind a catalogue of more than 350 recordings on which she demonstrated her artistic supremacy, one of the true masters of the cante flamenco.

Recommended listening.
Grand Cantaores du Flamenco, La Niña de los Peines.

Living in Andalucia