Spanish Singer María José Llergo on Flamenco’s Radical Roots
María José Llergo’s first EP opens with a knock on a sheet metal door. Recorded on her iPhone, a voice answers: “Who is it?” Llergo responds, “It’s me, grandpa.” Her grandfather asks, “Are you coming to see me?”
The exchange marks Llergo’s arrival to the Spanish sierra where she grew up. With the release of her impactful major-label debut, Sanación, or Healing, Llergo comes home.
The seven-song EP, produced by Sevillian LOST TWIN, was inspired by her summers spent in Córdoba. In “¿De Qué Me Sirve Llorar?” she uses field recordings to reproduce the sound of her grandfather’s weeding hoe slamming against dirt and rocks. She says it’s the first percussion beat she learned, along with the 12/8 flamenco meter ingrained in her Andalusian blood. Yet from this she also inherited a lifetime of prejudice: Llergo recalls the days when classmates used slurs like “g-psy” and maligned her for her skin color. “We have a past of invisibility and a present of invisibility as well,” she says.
At 25, she’s a graduate of the Catalonia School of Music (ESMUC), where she studied flamenco under Rosalía’s mentor José Miguel “Chiqui” Vizcaya, and also experimented with salsa, gospel, and jazz. Not long after she completed the program, she was signed to Sony Music Spain. “[Flamenco] is the music Federico García Lorca compared to blues — music that surpasses marketing and commerce,” she says. “It’s a genre of music that is more sincere about Spain’s history than most textbooks.”
Her material carries an ancestral consciousness of the Romani culture and history, filtered through elongated melismas and LOST TWIN’s ethereal, electronic sounds. In Sanación, Llergo reminds both her country and the world that the injustices her people have faced — discrimination, exploitation, displacement, and machismo — are very much alive in 2020.
Sanación is quite a title. What are you trying to heal with this album?
Trauma, painful memories… I’m trying to make something beautiful out of my trauma and the pain, so it doesn’t turn me into a bad person. Because of where I come from, the experiences I’ve lived, I needed to do a personal work of healing to confront my reality and really give myself with the utmost sincerity.
What was it like to grow up in Pozoblanco, Córdoba?
I was born in the countryside because my family has always been there. My grandparents worked on the land and planted vegetables. My grandfather always taught me such respect for nature and to be conscious that, if we are healthy, it’s because everything in our environment is too. He was always singing boleros, fandangos, tangos. He even sang about little arguments he had with neighbors.
Your producer LOST TWIN is also from Andalusia. How did you two start collaborating?
We met through a mutual friend, a producer who’s from Pozoblanco too. I went to Seville to meet him and we made two songs that weekend. It was beautiful. Everything he does, he turns into music. He inspires me so much.
You dedicated “Me Miras Pero No Me Ves” (“You Look At Me But You Don’t See Me”) to your grandmother and great-grandmother, María and Apolonia. What does this song mean to you?
Women in Spain back then, in my grandmother’s time, were not affiliated to the social security system. They’d only count as wives, not workers. They would make no money from their work. That, to me, is a great injustice. The reality is we have a past of invisibility and a present of invisibility as well. They deserve to be recognized for their lives’ work.
The song also speaks to the marginalized people of the world. What do you think the world doesn’t really see about Romani culture in Spain?
There are so many things. Its dignity, integrity, infinite culture, its inspiration, its respect, its immensity, its freedom, its love for the elderly, its strength, its power.
You studied flamenco under El Chiqui at ESMUC. What’s the biggest lesson he taught you?
Chiqui told me something once that helps me a lot: “Sing with your third eye.” I meditate a lot and there’s actually a lot of mantras in this album. Each song is meant to represent a chakra. To me, singing with my third eye is forgetting about the ego, fear, myself. I surrender to something bigger than all of us through my voice.
You stray from traditional flamenco in this album, but the music is still rooted in the genre. What does flamenco mean to you?
For a long time, flamenco has been considered marginal music because it’s made by a marginalized community. The genre implies a revolution in itself, and contains the history of Andalucía, Spain, and the Romani people. It’s the music [Federico García] Lorca paired with blues — music that surpasses marketing and commerce.
Do you feel close to Lorca?
The street where I used to live as a kid was named after him. I hated it. Between his name and mine, I’d take the longest writing it at school. I was a late adopter of Lorca’s writing and discovered that my lyrics have common themes with his work. His way of including nature in his work without forcing it, almost merging with rocks and trees to personify them. I also look at nature that way.
Like when you went swimming in the Mediterranean Sea about four years ago. You wrote “Nana del Mediterráneo” (“Lullaby of the Mediterranean”) there, right?
I went to Costa Brava in Catalonia. I hadn’t had much contact with the sea before because I’m from the sierra. I was in bliss, but all of a sudden, I started thinking that the same sea I was swimming in had buried a lot of people. I felt a deep anguish and wanted to vomit. That same night I wrote the song. It was an attempt to put them to rest.
How are you staying true to the teachings of your grandfather?
My grandfather always tells me: “María, you can charge for your singing, but never sell out.” I’ve always stayed away from conventions because they haven’t done anything good for me. My art is what frees me, and I can’t exchange my freedom for anything. While I live in a capitalized world, I reject labels, especially in my music. At the end, labels are made for the supermarket, no?
It’s interesting because the artwork for your EP cover has a tag on it. Was that your idea?
We all worked on it. It comes back to what my grandfather always taught me, about charging for my work but not selling out. In the end, it’s dignified work and I have to make money.