The shrimp returns: beloved flamenco singer Camarón stars in graphic novel

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In death, as in life, the legendary flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla continues to confound expectations, cross borders and demand that his blistered and blistering voice be heard.

The revered, beloved and sometimes controversial cantaor died of lung cancer in July 1992, aged just 41. But as the 30th anniversary of his death looms, the singer born José Monge Cruz is being reincarnated in the black-and-white pages of a new graphic novel intended as a homage to Camarón, the music he created and the comic book itself.

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Taking its name from one of his latter songs, Camarón, dicen de mí is the fruit of five years’ work by the writer Carlos Reymán and the illustrator and designer Raulowsky.

The novel’s 190 pages focus on 10 moments in Camarón’s life, including his first performances as a child prodigy, his pivotal partnerships with the guitarists Paco de Lucía and Tomatito, and the recording of his divisive 1979 New Flamenco masterpiece, La leyenda del tiempo.

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Camarón, dicen de mí begins with the singer’s birth into a musical Gypsy family in the small Andalucían town of San Fernando. José, who emerges into the world with howls that foretell the plangent songs to come, sets aside his dreams of becoming a bullfighter as his vocal talent becomes inescapably apparent.

His stage name – which translates as the Shrimp of the Island – was the nickname an uncle bestowed on him because of his thinness and pale skin.

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In the second chapter, while play-fighting a calf, he has a premonition of perhaps the most formative moment of his life – his father’s premature death. For Raulowsky, both Camarón’s Gypsy heritage and the loss the singer suffered a young boy are key to understanding the paradox of the taciturn, introverted man and the passionate performer.

“Through the comic, I tried to understand why he gave himself over when he sang; why he sang with such passion,” says the illustrator.

“We know very well that flamenco is about pain; it’s like the blues. But where does that pain and that feeling spring from? It has to be something personal, doesn’t it? I think the early loss of his father must have marked his character very deeply. And he was a Gypsy, and his people had been through a lot of difficulties. He had internalised all those feelings of sadness.”

Raulowsky says he and Reymán opted for a graphic novel because of the form’s simplicity, visual potency and the way “it crosses the frontiers of verbal language”.

As well as devouring biographies and documentaries, the pair sought out those who had known Camarón, including Ricardo Panchón, who produced La leyenda del tiempo and agreed to provide the novel’s foreword. In it, Panchón’s describes Camarón as a “magical Gypsy” who would have been amused to see his life sketched out in a comic that depicts “an adventure that started sadly and ended sadly but which was a life as brilliant as it was quick”.

Despite his drug problems – and the scorn that his attempts to fuse flamenco with contemporary music elicited from purists – Camarón swiftly became an icon among Spain’s marginalised Gypsy population and beyond.

“When Camarón came along, he united Gypsy and non-Gypsy cultures and he became an inspiration for all the poor,” says Raulowsky.

The illustrator’s joy at seeing the book finally appear has been tempered by the loss of Reymán, who died a few weeks ago. A photographs of the pair strolling down a street on the night in June 2016 when they came up with the idea for the book is the novel’s penultimate image.

“I’m excited because the reception’s been great,” says Raulowsky. “But we’d thought we’d be able to enjoy this moment together, and obviously it hasn’t worked out that way.”

Although the book ends, inevitably, with Camarón’s physical decline and death, its final pages pay tribute to the transformative power of his once-mighty voice.

“I think the bit where we see him singing during his tragic end really represents his spirit and the way in which, as a man and an artist, he gave himself over to that spirit,” says Raulowsky.

“He gives himself over entirely and he breaks apart entirely. He was true to the very end.”

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