Understanding Flamenco, a complicated emblem of Spain
This article is an edited version of the one first published by Nick Snelling on Culture Spain and which is largely based on Flamenco, an Englishman’s passion by Tony Bryant which was published in March 2012 by Sol y Sombra Books, an imprint of Books4Spain.
Flamenco and bull fighting are words closely associated with Spain’s cultural heritage. In reality, Flamenco is restricted to the culture of Andalucia. Few Spaniards outside of Andalucia would think of Flamenco as being emblematic of their country.
Nevertheless, Flamenco is set deep within the psyche of most foreigners, when it comes to the identity of Spain, which is not surprising, given the exotic flamboyance of Flamenco.
But what is Flamenco really all about? Where did it come from and why does it encourage such passion, both for and against it?
Certainly, Flamenco is complicated and pure flamenco (Cante Jondo) is brutally hard to listen to. In fact, author Tony Bryant in his book Flamenco, an Englishman’s passion describes the perfect Flamenco voice as being burnt, cracked and dry like the Andalusian terrain’. This is hardly the melodic sound that naturally appeals to most Europeans.
Meanwhile, pure Flamenco dancing can be almost as harsh as a Flamenco singer’s voice and yet combines an extraordinary combination of movements. The upper body of the dancer has the fluid movements reminiscent of a Hindu dancer, whilst the lower body is like that of an Egyptian belly dancer, albeit one able to tap dance to incredibly complex rhythms. Meanwhile, the face of the Flamenco dancer is stern to the point of being ferocious and notable for lacking the happy smile so common to Western dancing.
Of course, Flamenco is a gypsy art form and one sustained and developed by Andalusian gypsies for centuries. This probably has much to do with the history of the gypsies in Spain and the fact that, until recently, they lived in tight communities, difficult for outsiders to penetrate. This meant that Flamenco was, for a long time, kept distilled in a very pure form.
In fact, gypsies first came to Spain around 1425 and were itinerant traders of horses and cattle, whilst also earning money as blacksmiths. However, a series of restrictive laws were passed from 1499, one measure being to remove their right to trade in animals and another stating that they were only allowed to work on the land. The gypsies were also stopped from ‘wandering’, which goes a long way to explain why gypsies in Spain are not itinerant but have been settled for hundreds of years in the same places.
Finally, in 1783 a law was passed calling gypsies in Spain the ‘New Castillians’ and providing them with equal rights to other Spaniards – although they were still forbidden from wandering and were not allowed to wear gypsy costume or speak their own language (Cali). Indeed, it is thought that the very name Flamenco comes from the Arabian word ‘fellah mengu’ meaning fugitive peasant.
Needless to say, the gypsies in Spain have been oppressed and it is this oppression that comes across in the music. Indeed, in Flamenco, an Englishman’s passion Tony Bryant sums this up well, when he says that most songs are about ‘suffering, persecution, hunger, lost love and death’, which accounts for the brutal harshness of pure Flamenco.
Interestingly, Flamenco has become more commercialised over the years with ‘fusion Flamenco’ the sound that most people hear. This is because pure Flamenco (Cante Jondo) is too difficult for most non-aficionados to enjoy. Certainly, at its most pure Flamenco is just about the voice – so much so that Flamenco was not accompanied, even by a guitar, until the latter part of the nineteenth century!
There are now four parts to Flamenco, namely Cante (voice), Baile (dance), Toque (guitar) and Jaleo (‘hell-raising’). Whilst the first three may be pretty obvious, the fourth is less so. However, Jaleo is the interaction of an audience with the performers by clapping, foot stomping and shouting and is an intrinsic part of a performance – although it is something that most Western audiences shy away from.
Of course, no mention of Flamenco is possible without saying something about duende! This is a word used to describe the perfection or ecstasy that is felt by either a performer and/or audience when the Flamenco being played or performed reaches a state of sublime perfection.
So where should you go, if you want to see Flamenco?
Well, Tony Bryant maintains that the finest Flamenco occurs spontaneously in Andalusia as a jamming session (Juerga) and is best witnessed in the natural gypsy environment of a smoky tavern or the backroom of a bodega. It is then that Flamenco comes into its own, in a way made impossible within anaemic halls or theatres. However, to feel and see duende is not something that many people will ever experience, even though it is clearly worth searching for.
Finally, if you want to know more about Flamenco then do get Tony Bryant’s excellent book: Flamenco, an Englishman’s passion. Tony is a professional musician (a drummer), who brings Flamenco alive in a uniquely effective way. He knows his subject intimately, together with the history of Flamenco and its performers and he writes in a style easily accessible to anyone interested in the culture of Spain – or should I say the culture of Andalucia?
Read the Foreword to Flamenco - An Englishman’s passion.
Read the Introduction to Flamenco - An Englishman’s passion.
To learn more about Tony Bryant – visit his blog at www.flamencoheritage.com