What's extraordinary about flamenco singer Diego el Cigala's way with a Cuban bolero, a Brazilian song, or a classic tango is not how original it sounds—and it does—but how natural it feels. Perhaps because he knows about unwritten codes and traditions, he remains a respectful outsider as he ventures into a territory not naturally his own.
But he doesn't emulate. The voice that seems to fray at the edges, the phrasing that probes and concedes, the cries—they're all his own. He seems to inhabit the stories he sings and then go about his normal business. Regardless the style or the arrangement, el Cigala sounds only like himself.
Before recording with the great, late Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, el Cigala had never sung Cuban music. "I did it all by intuition," he told an interviewer. "Bebo used to say, 'Sing like the gypsy you are, and I'll play like the Cuban I am.' So we let ourselves go with the flow of that intuition."
Lágrimas Negras became one of the most unlikely global hits in Ibero-American music in recent memory. It also won a Latin Grammy, made el Cigala an international star, and set him on an unlikely path.
In Lágrimas Negras, he also recorded his first tango. It was a heartbreaking version of "Nieblas del riachuelo," a classic in which the lyrics evoke a very specific place in Buenos Aires: a turn in the river where old ships, like the great love in the song, are left to die. "I had never heard it before," he said afterwards. But that didn't matter.
Something resonated and, in time, it led to Cigala & Tango, recorded live in, of all places, Buenos Aires, the world's tango capital. But when el Cigala explored tango, he didn't set out to copy archetypal singers such as Carlos Gardel or Roberto Goyeneche. "Why would I try to sing like that? They are geniuses at that," he said at the time. "The idea here was to sing tango as I felt it, from my point of view, with my experiences. You have to let the music take you."
He once explained that to build his repertoire, he tried songs like someone trying on jackets. "Some felt too tight, others too big, and some fit just right," he said. "I ended up choosing only the songs that hurt. I felt that if those songs touched me, they would touch the audience."
Only exceptional interpreters can, in the memorable line of singer Julius LaRosa about Frank Sinatra, turn a 32-bar song into a three-act play. But embodying experiences from inside a tradition not your own also requires a special sensibility—and perhaps some learned wisdom.
After all, Diego el Cigala was born Diego Ramón Jiménez Salazar into a family of Spanish gypsy artists in Madrid. Dealing with continuous adjustments and adaptation—holding on to an identity while embracing change and different surroundings—is a matter of survival in gypsy life.
So el Cigala keeps moving—from the tablaos of his youth to his associations with jazz, Cuban music, tango, Latin American folk music, and, as always, flamenco.
—Fernando Gonzalez is a Miami-based music writer, critic, and editor.