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Flamenco – Introduction and History

Flamenco is not, as many people think, Spain’s national folk music, but one of many different styles of folk music, as befits a country with many different cultures. This in no way makes it less interesting – on the contrary. And it is the folk music of Andalusia, in many ways Spain’s face to the world, whether other regions like it or not.

Worth the Effort
Flamenco is not an easy form of music to appreciate, partly because its scales, harmonies and rhythms sometimes seem weird to European ears, partly because the form of singing requires a flexible approach to the notes which untutored listeners can find discordant. In addition, like jazz or lieder, flamenco is often an intimate, introspective music, and those brought up on the artificial communicativeness of pop and rock find this difficult to relate to. No flamenco artiste will say through lying teeth how great it is to be in such-and-such a place that night, nor what a wonderful audience you have been, nor ask if there is anyone there from Denver or Hull. The flamenco performer’s task is that, to perform and interpret – it is the audience’s job to make the approach, the effort to understand, which will be repaid in appreciation and enjoyment.

Flamenco Singing, Music and Dance
Many people believe that flamenco is essentially a dance form, which is understandable, but wrong. If you look at the SPV flamenco links pages, for example, and compare the three forms of flamenco expression – cante(song), music and baile (dance) – you will see that flamenco singing and singers are not well represented, which could lead you to conclude that it is the least important of the three. But although forms of flamenco exist which are not sung (e.g., the farruca), in general, the opposite is true – flamenco is, first and foremost, a form of song and everything else is subservient to the song, which is accompanied by guitar(s) and rhythmic clapping. The flamenco guitarist accompanies like no-one, and if you observe a typical singer-and-guitarist duo, you will often see the latter watching the singer attentively, ready to respond. Flamenco dance, too, is an illustration of the song, which is why the transition from flamenco dance to flamenco ballet is so natural – this is even true of stylised forms like the Sevillanas, a group courtship dance which many visitors find themselves motivated to try for themselves, often to the great embarassment of everyone else.

Palos and Compases
The variety of flamenco styles, rhythms and moods can be bemusing as well. Styles (palos) are often very regional in origin, whether or not this is reflected in their names (the Malagueņas is obviously from Málaga, the Sevillanas from Seville, and so on). And moods range from heart-tearingly tragic to jocular. Serious forms are called cante jondo (pronounced “cantay hhondow” – it means “deep song”) while relatively frivolous ones are called cante chico (“little song”).

Rhythms or compases are, in fact, relatively simple, 3/4 or 4/4, though heavy use of syncopation can make this less easy to perceive. For example, the Soleares form is 3/4, but successive bars have different accents, like this:
1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3
This sequence of 12 beats or 4 bars is called a falseta, and is the natural unit of flamenco, like the phrase is the natural unit of speech and the sentence the natural unit of literature.

Flamenco Roots
The origins of flamenco are a source of contention, and unfortunately the discussion is not devoid of ideology. Everyone agrees that Spanish gypsies played an important part in its development, but other theories have less foundation. Flamenco’s exotic, oriental feel lends credence to the idea that it derived from Moorish, particularly Arab music, but I know of no other hard evidence for the idea (and I have my own theory in this respect, which I shall save for later*). What does seem certain is that the gypsies who reached Spain in the fifteenth century already had a long tradition as performers, first in Persia, then in places like Hungary, Romania, Russia and Turkey, assimilating local music and interpreting it in their own way, with the evident aim of catering to local tastes.

And they found in Andalusia a home – there is evidence that gypsies fitted in there, particular in Seville and Cádiz, better than elsewhere. For example, in other places in Spain and Europe, they invariably continued their nomadic lifestyle, whereas in Andalusia they were more likely to live a sedentary existence. As Miguel Ángel Berlanga say, a little more fancifully than usual, “The people of Andalusia liked them, which was not surprising because of the similarities between them: hospitality, a talent for getting on with people, music, a festive spirit.”

Lamplight Dances and the Función Privada
The gypsies were immediately associated with singing and dancing, partying and celebrations, though they were more likely to earn their living as metalworkers or street sellers. Because it was not until the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth that the función privada was invented. This was a kind of show-cum-party held in a private home, to which the lucky spectator would be invited and to the cost of which he would be invited to contribute. These funciones were public versions of the baile de candíl, lamplight dance, which the people of Andalusia, not just gypsies, would hold for their own amusement. It seems that as the gypsies became increasingly associated with these dances, the curiosity of the middle-classes was aroused, so creating the market for the función. This was the Romantic period, after all, and who knew what kind of exotic and, with a bit of luck, sinful pleasures could be found at a gypsy party?

The Café Cantante
The función developed into the Café Cantante, a kind of flamenco cabaret which took root from the 1860’s on, and this is the period often referred to as the Golden Age of flamenco. However reasonable or not this description is, this was the time when it became formalized, rules began to be laid down, the repertoire was standardized and its theory and history began to receive academic attention. And as it became more popular and professional, some performers began to depend on theatrical crowd-pleasing, and new song forms with suitably lachrymogenous lyrics were invented, leading to something of a purist backlash. The peak moment of this was in 1922, when Manuel de Falla organized a cante jondo competition in Granada (this kind of cycle is the rule rather than the exception in the flamenco world, constantly either “rediscovering its roots” or “reinventing itself” – you just have to know what is happening at any particular time).

The Tablao
In the nineteen fifties and sixties, the Café Cantantewas reinvented as the tablao, catering to the new phenomenon of tourism, and Madrid, not Andalusia, was its capital. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, whole families, even clans of gypsy performers, emigrated to the capital and to a lesser extent to Barcelona to meet the new demand. This phenomenon was accompanied by another wave of purist classicism, to which the 1954 release of the tremendously influential Antología del Cante Flamenco contributed greatly.

New Flamenco
In the seventies and eighties, various attempts were made to create “fusion” forms of flamenco, with results as uneven as in other musical “fusions” (note that Miles Davis’ seminal Sketches of Spain (1959) is completely unrelated. Sketches of Spain is a kind of fusion of jazz and classical music, particularly Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez). When this fusion had a sufficiently high flamenco content, it was referred to as Nuevo Flamenco, and it is a school from which many of today’s most famous names emerged (as usual, actual musicians tend to stand aside from this kind of debate, being more interested in getting on with things and playing than in putting labels on things). And flamenco erupted into the world of pop with force, mixing flamenco with jazz instruments and Latin American dance rhythms like salsa. The sheer success of these groups and performers meant it became acceptable for even “classical” flamenco singers and musicians to add this kind of pop element, especially on record, and it is now rare for a flamenco CD not to contain at least one track which has the possibility of becoming a hit.

Flamenco Today
At this moment in the twenty-first century, it is not really possible to divide the flamenco world into old and classic versus new and radical. Rather, there is a range of positions, from purist to innovative or from classic to pop, and each artiste occupies a distance from either extreme he or she feels comfortable with. There are, it is true, performers who continue to sing, play or dance in whatever way they grew up with, particularly among specialists in what is called la juerga, private parties (often referred to as “flamenco jam sessions”) with semi-professional or amateur flamenco entertainers, some of whom acquire near legendary status. But the most important contemporary names are stage performers, and to consider a few: the eternal Paco de Lucia is a classic, but was responsible for the introduction of the cajón and other percussion elements (and still has a very nice sideline collaborating with America’s biggest rock stars). Enrique Morente is a “revolutionary” who, even when “committed to his battle to renew flamenco… sometimes recorded absolutely orthodox cante,” as Flamenco World puts it. Diego el Cigala is a classic, but won a Grammy for one of the loveliest, most idiosyncratic albums of 2003, Lágrimas Negras, recorded with the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés. Niņa Pastori is an ex-child prodigy of flamenco who sells pop records by the hundreds of thousand – high-quality, flamenco-influenced pop, but pop for all that. José Mercé is a classic, a veteran of the tablaos of Cádiz who has worked with Manolo Sanlúcar and Antonio Gades and who is having considerable commercial success since Vicente Amigo began producing his records. And let’s not forget that million-selling teen idol Alejandro Sanz is, deep down, a flamenco artiste. Flamenco is as relevant as ever.

* There was certainly contact between gypsies and moriscos, Moors who had converted to Christianity and remained in Spain after the reconquest. But this was not extended – the moriscos were expelled from Spain between 1602 and 1610, though this may have been long enough for at least some Moorish songs and dances to enter the gypsy repertoire. Let us suppose it was. Does that mean Arab music developed into flamenco in the hands of the gypsies? I very much doubt it, and for one important reason – the Moors were not principally Arabs, but Berbers, or at least your average Moor-in-the-street was a Berber. The Arabs, it is true, were the dominant culture, and held the positions of power and owned the best land before the reconquista, but they were never preponderant in numbers, whereas the common soldiers of the various conquering Moorish armies, who stayed and were given land to settle in payment, were Berbers. And it is not unreasonable to think that the relatively wealthy and therefore mobile Arabs would have been in a better position than the Berbers to retreat to North Africa or elsewhere when their lands and properties were seized by the conquering Christian hordes, long before the arrival of the gypsies.

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