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Not many musicians can claim to have changed the sound of their genre. Flamenco vocalist Camaron de la Isla is on that short list. He re-energized a centuries-old tradition, leading flamenco into the 20th century and beyond.

In another report in our series 50 Great Voices, NPR's Felix Contreras tells us how he did it.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Flamenco singing is one of life's deeper musical mysteries.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CAMARON DE LA ISLA (Flamenco Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: We hear traces of Africa, by way of the Moors. You can also hear bits of Punjabi singing. There are Persian, Arabic and even Jewish cultures in the DNA of flamenco.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Some say it's almost impossible to understand the subtle nuances of the vocal tradition, because flamenco singing is so complex. Even Paco de Lucia, Spain's most celebrated flamenco guitarist, says it's a hard nut to crack.

Mr. PACO DE LUCIA (Flamenco Guitarist): (Spanish spoken)

CONTRERAS: He says it is the purest expression of flamenco, and because of that, it is difficult to understand. Outside of Spain, flamenco singing is the least valued, he says, because it is so complex and difficult to grasp.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Camaron de la Isla not only understood it, he lived it. His family was gitano - Spanish for gypsy, or Roma. He was born Ramon Monge Cruz, and his nick name reflected his small size and unusual light skin: Camaron de la Isla, small white shrimp from the island.

As he began his career, flamenco was still a connoisseur's music, hardly part of the Spanish popular mainstream. So as he started to revolutionize the music in the early 1970s, you'd think that it was a somewhat quiet rebellion, noticed only by die-hard aficionados and musicians. Think again.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: The music burst out of the tiny bars and meeting rooms where flamenco had been traditionally performed for centuries. Tens of thousands flocked to auditoriums to hear him sing. Rock stars like Mick Jagger paid notice. And yet just how he did it is as hard to pin down as one of the non-Western scales he sang so well.

For 10 years, starting in the late 1960s, Camaron and Paco de Lucia made a series of albums that up-ended tradition and made them both flamenco superstars.

Brook Zern helped me understand how they did that. He's a U.S.-based writer and educator who was recently knighted by the King of Spain for his life's work of educating the world about flamenco.

We listened to a cut called "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas," from an early album by the duo.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Now, is that some kind of establishing his presence? Is that a technique to do that?

Mr. BROOK ZERN (Flamenco Scholar; Director, "The Flamenco Experience"): Yes, the tradition is to begin a song and tune up your voice with a syllable, usually I-E, which he did.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: And then eventually, he gets - and then he gets into the lyric.

Mr. ZERN: Yes.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: I think what people hear are the trills - the unusual trills and the almost non-Western intervals between the notes.

Mr. ZERN: That's absolutely right. And, in fact, the great master of micro intervals was Camaron. He was known for his afinacion, which simply means the ability to be perfectly on pitch, although not necessarily on the notes of a Western scale.

Flamenco music uses microtonal intervals all the time, and nobody cut them closer and did them more precisely, technically, than this young artist.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. ZERN: What's happening: He's saying, by the way, they tell me you're deceiving me, and I just hate to think about that.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: That'll raise your blood pressure.

Mr. ZERN: Yeah, that's it. It's jealousy.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. ZERN: Here he goes.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: What was it that he did there?

Mr. ZERN: It's improvisational, in a jazz sense, that it's in the moment. It's something that he won't do again, and there it is. Live with it.

CONTRERAS: Let's listen to it again.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: It's his last phrase at the end, right?

Mr. ZERN: Yes.

(Soundbite of song, "Son Tus Ojos Dos Estrellas")

Mr. DE LA ISLA: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. ZERN: The Spaniards have a word, rematar, to end something. And that's when you sum it all up, wrap it up. And there's no better way to end this particular light style song, but very gypsy - the bulerias - than what he just did there.

CONTRERAS: Camaron's successes were matched only by his excesses. Like so many other musicians, he fell victim to drinking and drug abuse. And in 1992, at the age of 42, Camaron de la Isla died. The official cause of death was lung cancer, as a result of years of heavy smoking. Many of his fans blamed his life style.

What was not at issue was Camaron's voice and how this once-slight young man became such a presence, that the history of flamenco is forever divided between Before Camaron and After Camaron.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

INSKEEP: From flamenco to fado, hip-hop to folk - over the past year, our series 50 Great Voices have included singers from a wide range of styles. And now, there are just three more voices to go.

Here's a little test for you. See if you can guess who they are.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of song, "Better Days")

Ms. DIANNE REEVES (Singer): (Singing) But tonight, she was slightly remarkably different somehow.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Vocalizing)

INSKEEP: Samples from the final three singers in our series, 50 Great Voices. We'll be learning their names and hearing more of their voices in weeks to come.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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