For those who know about flamenco guitar or gypsy guitar, the nickname “Tomatito” has a lot of resonance.
It belongs to Jose Fernandez Torres. With an artistic career that covers five decades, Tomatito has achieved a high level of recognition and appreciation from the public. This is not only well deserved, but also justifies his influence on the musical genre of flamenco guitar.
Table of contents:
- 1) The beginning of his career
- 2) His influences and style
- 3) His first album: “Rosàs del Amor”.
- 4) The life of Tomatito after the death of Camarón de la Isla
- 5) His connection to the music industry
- 6) A unique approach to the flamenco guitar
- 7) An artist who continues to shine
Like every artist who has perfected his art – who has honed his skills on the guitar – Tomatito’s story spans a long period of time.
José Fernández Torres was born in Almería on August 28, 1958 in the Autonomous Community of Andalusia in southern Spain. Having been born in the cradle of flamenco music, his destiny was surely guided and influenced by the vast cultural wealth of the region.
It cannot be denied that being born in such a culturally rich area was one of the main influences on Tomatito. However, his main influence undoubtedly came from his own family.
Being the son of another famous flamenco guitarist, El Tomate – and having Miguel Tomate as his grandfather – young José Fernández was exposed to the beauty, metric scope, harmony and melody that comprise flamenco music throughout his childhood and infancy.
In a way, you could say that being a flamenco guitarist runs through your veins – it’s in your genes. His uncle, Miguel Vega de la Cruz, better known to the public as El Niño Miguel, provided the young José with an example of the levels of success that could be achieved within flamenco music.
Today, this talent can also be seen in Tomatito’s son, José del Tomate, who more recently accompanied his father on his international tours.
1) The Beginnings of Tomatito’s Career
Tomatito’s famous career took its first step in 1970. It coincided with the time when the young Fernandez, 12 years old, moved with his family to the city of Malaga. Located along the Costa del Sol, Malaga offered Fernandez a place that retained cultural hegemony with his native Almeria, while also exposing him to a more diverse and vibrant environment.
In the end, the move to Malaga allowed the young Tomatito to continue to nurture his appreciation of flamenco music while also fostering his talent with the appreciation of the local population, tourists and – most importantly – other established flamenco guitarists and singers who were able to mentor Tomatito in his early artistic years.
This list includes artists such as José Menese, Pansequito, Enrique Morenete and José Monje Cruz – better known to the flamenco world as Camarón de la Isla.
Accompanying Morente, Menese and Pansequito, Tomatito had the opportunity to perfect his technique under the tutelage of true masters of his art. By sharing the stage with them, Tomatito and his guitar skills were placed in a die that allowed Fernandez to perfect his talent with the flamenco guitar.
During this period, it was Tomatito’s collaboration with Camarón de la Isla that proved to be the most relevant for his career. Camarón de la Isla is considered by many to be the most influential flamenco cantaor of the modern era.
Since Camarón became famous in 1969 and until 1977, he recorded a total of nine albums accompanied by the legendary flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucía. Towards the end of that period, Paco de Lucía became more involved in solo commitments and his collaboration with Camarón de la Isla diminished.
It was then that Tomatito, at the age of 16, assumed the task of providing guitar accompaniment to Camarón de la Isla. This would become a professional event for Tomatito. The collaboration between Tomatito and Camarón de la Isla lasted 18 years, coming to an end due to Camarón’s premature death at the age of 41 in 1992.
During his time with Camarón de la Isla, Tomatito not only provided guitar accompaniment for Camarón’s recordings, but also for his live performances.
Camarón de la Isla’s tenth album released in 1979, “La Leyenda del Tiempo“, was the first in which Tomatito provided the flamenco guitar accompaniment.
Today’s musicologists agree that this album – although it received mixed reviews at the time of its release – was fundamental in the history of flamenco music. It is often described as one of the pioneering forces of “new flamenco”.
After the release of “La Leyenda del Tiempo“, Tomatito accompanied Camarón de la Isla on eight additional albums – four of them together with Paco de Lucía. Tomatito also made a guest appearance on Camarón’s 1989 album, “Soy Gitano“. This was recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
List of albums by Camaron de la Isla with Tomatito and Paco de Lucía accompanying on flamenco guitar
- Como el Agua (1981)
- Calle Real (1983)
- Vivire (1984)
- Potro de Rabia y Miel (1992)
List of albums by Camarón de la Isla with Tomatito as the only flamenco guitar accompanist
- Te lo Dice Camaron (1986)
- Flamenco Vivo (1987)
- Camaron Nuestro (1994)
- Paris 1987 (1999)
Tomatito accredited as a guest
- Soy Gitano (1989)
2) How Tomatito’s early influences affected his style
The almost two decades that Tomatito was artistically involved with Camarón de la Isla helped forge his style of flamenco guitar playing.
This is not to say that this has limited the development of his own style. As Tomatito said, “Flamenco is wise and there are new things that end up being great, that remain part of it. It is a music that is in continuous movement, that is not static“.
The influence of Camarón and his “new flamenco” style on Tomatito cannot be denied, but it is perhaps better described as an influence that allowed Tomatito to open up to musical innovation while also knowing and respecting the roots of flamenco.
Nowadays, when one has the opportunity to listen to Tomatito’s flamenco guitar mastery, one is indeed enjoying the talent that was perfected by the young Fernandez during his stay in Malaga. His sound, unique but also adherent to the traditions of the flamenco guitar, is a testament to the respect Tomatito maintains for the long history and traditions of his art. This has allowed Tomatito to be anchored to the flamenco guitar and at the same time be open and receptive to other musical styles.
3) “Rosas del Amor”, Tomatito’s first solo album
Tomatito’s first solo album was “Rosas del Amor“. This was released in 1987, when he was still collaborating with Camarón de la Isla. The first track on the album was entitled “Dedicado a Camarón“.
“Roses of Love” offered the audience the essence of Tomatito. He demonstrated to have a style that intermingled different genres achieving a harmonious mix that ended up creating his own unique sound. At the same time, he imparted to his listeners a sense of deep appreciation for each of the musical styles used in his creation. In this case it was traditional flamenco and jazz with a gypsy-French influence.
The influence of jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli and jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt are clearly evident in Tomatito’s “Rosas del Amor”. The eight themes in “Rosas del Amor” can be described as fresh and inspired, never stale or unoriginal.
The album has even been referred to as the equivalent of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (The Beatles) for the flamenco guitar genre. In other words, it connected in a fresh way with an audience willing to go further in their quest to enjoy flamenco music. He dared to innovate without turning his back on his origins.
The fact that Tomatito was able to create such a masterpiece as his first solo album was a clear demonstration of his talent and the scope he would demonstrate throughout his career. It was also an indication of the appreciation and dedication he felt for Camarón de la Isla. Despite having gained a solid presence with this album, he continued to play with Camarón in his live performances.
4) Tomatito after Camarón de la Isla
Before the release of “Rosas del Amor” – between 1984 and 1986 – Tomatito had already started with his first forays as a soloist. This is demonstrated by his participation in the III Bienal de Arte Filamenco de Sevilla in 1984, the festivals of the Cumbre Flamenca at the Teatro Alcalá Palace in 1985, and the V Festival de Jazz de Madrid in 1986.
However, it was not until after the death of Camarón de la Isla that Tomatito began to seriously identify himself as a soloist.
From 1993 onwards, Tomatito’s professional career included participation in numerous flamenco festivals, concerts and a multitude of other musical events throughout Spain, Europe and the world. During that same time, Tomatito’s talent brought him to the top of his genre.
Now, he is often proclaimed as one of the best flamenco guitarist on the planet by both his fans and critics. This shows the importance of his artistic presence. It has resonance with the casual audience, the devoted public, the dexterous ear of the music critic and with the purists of the genre.
5) Tomatito’s place in the music industry
In the case of Frank Sinatra, Tomatito recalls the experience as “very nice“. In 1993, Tomatito was the opening act for Sinatra’s tour. Tomatito did not share the stage with Sinatra, nor did he accompany him musically, but Sinatra asked him to be the opening act.
In an interview with Hoy Los Angeles, Tomatito talked about his experience with Sinatra. “I could see him watching me at the side of the stage; also, since Camarón had recently died, he gave me his condolences. He also said that his experience with Elton John was similar.“
For years, the Savarez flamenco guitar string models have been marketed under the signature of Tomatito.
6) Tomatito’s approach to the flamenco guitar
Tomatito’s approach to his music is one that is based on his past, but always continues to move forward. This feeling can best be summed up by the response Tomatito gave to a reporter from Hoy Los Angeles in 2016 when he was about to make his first live performance in Los Angeles:
They asked Tomatito about his willingness to make musical collaborations outside his comfort zone. His answer was, “Flamenco must remain alive, and for that it needs to keep evolving, so other things have to be done”. Tomatito elaborated even further by saying, “one must do everything, as long as it is done well and with heart, because beautiful is beautiful everywhere“.
It is this sense of tacit understanding of how a style of music should develop organically while anchoring itself to its roots that has made Tomatito a renowned master of the flamenco guitar.
When an artist is recognized at a young age and has been fortunate enough to play with true legends, the temptation to become artistically arrogant or pretentious may be present. In spite of this, in Tomatito’s case, his success has never gone to his head.
This is evident in another of his approaches to his art. Tomatito makes an important distinction in the way he approaches each performance – whether as a soloist or as an accompanist to a singer. Tomatito has characterized the role of the flamenco guitarist as that of “the carpet of all flamenco: of those who sing, of those who dance…“. He also stresses that the flamenco guitarist has to be very tolerant. That the rhythm must always be set by the cantaor.
Having also had success as a soloist, Tomatito has made very interesting observations about what it takes to be a successful flamenco soloist. He recognizes the importance of having a structure for performance, without forgetting that a flamenco performance is always like a new adventure. Each performance is a unique experience for both the artist and the audience. Tomatito describes a solo performance as one in which the artist knows where he begins and where he will end with his intermission being what comes from the inspiration and soul of the guitarist.
In Tomatito’s own words, “Not even when I play something that I have created myself will it always be the same, every day the music will be different. It also depends on the mood.“
7) The road ahead is wide and promising
The path that awaits Tomatito is brighter than ever. International tours, performances at flamenco festivals are the order of the day for Tomatito today. He continues to illuminate the flamenco scene, satisfying his fans and inspiring a new generation of flamenco guitarists.
He has reached a stage in his career where his talent, style and presence transcend generations as he does with musical genres.
Just as Tomatito was lucky enough to be tutored by the giants of flamenco when he was young, he is now also a mentor to his own son, José del Tomate. Both have toured together and have captivated audiences with their guitar recitals. Tomatito is aware of the importance of young blood – just like his son and others – when it comes to flamenco. He has made it clear in numerous interviews that, “young people are the future of flamenco music… youth is what always keeps everything going… and I am delighted with all that is going on today“.
If there is one phrase by Tomatito that all flamenco guitar lovers should bear in mind it is this one:
“No matter how many things I learn in life, I’m never going to stop being flamenco. For that, I’d have to be bloodless.”
Living those words and not just speaking them has brought Tomatito to the top of his art and made him the best guardian of this musical genre. The art of flamenco guitar is in good hands with Tomatito.