In Spain, a café cantante (singing cafe) was a kind of food and drink establishment where cante, toque and flamenco Barcelona dance shows were performed. These places had its biggest boom since the middle of the XIX century until the twenties of the XX century.
Cafés cantantes used to be decorated with a classical andaluz style: walls were covered with mirrors and bull-fighting posters in a wide hall full of tables, and one tablao situated at the end of the space where the artists offered their show to the audience. The atmosphere, overloaded with smoke, was dimly illuminated by oil and kerosene lamps. The alcohol helped to rise the mood and brawls and quarrels were regular guests of this places.
The appearance of these establishments made possible the birth of the professional flamenco Barcelona singer, and the tablaos were the scenario where the flamenco Barcelona art was shaped. At cafés cantantes, people who weren’t gypsy learned the art from the gypsy ones and these ones performed, in their own way, the andaluz folkloric cante and they also increased the repertoire. In the same way, the taste of the audience contributed to define the flamenco Barcelona genre and unified its technique and its theme.
From the twenties on, the professionalization and the prestige of flamenco Barcelona allowed the artists to perform in more prestigious establishments like theatres, leading the cafés cantantes bit by bit to the disappearance.
Barcelona, along with Sevilla and Madrid, was one of the cities where first cafés cantantes appeared and one of the places where flamenco Barcelona was worshipped. This was, in part, due to the constant immigration of people from Andalusia, to the Mediterranean nature of this city and to the interest and curiosity of Barcelona for all the foreign artistic manifestations.
To be able to imagine in a better way the boom of the art of Andalusia in Barcelona we are going to travel to the mid of the XIX century, specifically to April 4th 1847. That day was the inauguration of the Gran Teatro del Liceo de Barcelona (the most important theatre of the city, even now). That same day, in Sevilla, the first café cantante “El Burrero” was opened and La Feria de Abril was made official thanks to a catalan and a basque.
But let’s go back to the famous stage of Liceu, in Las Ramblas of Barcelona. Already in those times, the Spanish technique and the love for the dances from Andalusia were loved and admired by the Catalan audience. For this reason, in the inauguration of the theatre they hired the Catalan dancers Juan Camprubí and Manuela Garcia, together with a line-up of dancers who interpreted seguidillas manchegas, rondeñas, boleras and cacuchas. The performances stirred up the audience and had a great success.
The audience preferred our Camprubi with his Sinfonia de Mercadante, his Malagueña o his Misceláneas rather than French dances, considered boring by most of the public.
The performance program of Liceu kept being renewed with leading dance figures like Petra Cámara, Josefina Vargas; Pepita de Oliva; the famous Lola Montes, Rosita Mauri, who conquered one of the firsts places of the Paris Opera; and Ricardo Moraga. The golden age of Spanish dance arrived with Juan Magriñá and Rosita Segovia, accompanied by great stars of the moment.
At the end of XIX century, Barcelona had already seventy-four cafés cantantes, fruit of the enthusiasm and passion of Catalan society for this kind of show. Among all of them, we can highlight Café Sevillano, El Villa Rosa, Café Concierto Barcelonés, Café Concierto Sevilla, Gran Peña, Café Concierto Triana, Café del Puerto and Café de la Alegría, which changed its name in 1887 for Edén Concert. There succeeded as an artist in 1908 the dancer Faíco, María Pantoja and Juana Ortega, also Estrellita Castro and Carmen Amaya when she started and the singer Fernando de Triana as well.
Edén Concert This establishment offered, in the beginings of XX century, the most select environment of Barcelona. All the young gentlemen used to go there to attract the artists just after the ending of Liceu’s function. More than one dancer hanged the castañuelas, dazzled by the jewels and abandoning the tablao.
El Villa Rosa Café cantante Villa Rosa was sold in 1916 to a virtuous guitarist called Miguel Borrull Castelló, husband of the dancer Lola Jiménez. They both transformed the establishment in one of the most prestigious of Barcelona. Borrull family was formed by their daughters, the dancers Julia, Concha and Isabel, and their son Miguel, also guitarist and father of the famaous dancer Mercerdes Borrull “The white gypsy”. Finally, we have to mention the daughter of the patriarch, Lola, who wasn’t an artist, but gave birth to Trini Borrull, who occupied the role of first dancer in the Gran Teatro del Liceo.
The tablao of Villa Rosa was the scenario of the greatest flamenco artists of the beginnings of XX century. In its decline, during the fifties and the sixties, this establishment was managed by Manuel Pantoja, under the name of Casa de Vinos Villa Rosa. “El Guiza”, a famous dancer of those times, also performed in this establishment. He had performed in the show of La Chunga, who, in 1970, inaugurated Tablao Cordobes Flamenco Barcelona, currently open and the most ancient tablao of Barcelona.
“El Guiza”, tired of discipline and timetables, started to dance without ties and he just approached without warning to the meetings where he thought he could earn a good tip. This dancer united the Russian folklore with la bulería, resulting in a new type of dance that made the audience tremble.
In 1954, Cocha Borrull invited the dancer José de la Vega and the great dancer and pupil of her, Leonor Maria, to go to her school. They all were going to welcome a leading figure who came from United States. The person was, in the end, the renowned dance master Eduardo Cansino, father of the Hollywood star Riyta Hayworth. They all performed for him dancing sevillanas and the celebration reached its highest point with his brother, the guitarist Miguel Borrull, who played along the dancers “por soleá”.