Mentionto most people, and they’ll tell you it is a fiery, foot-stomping, impassioned kind of Spanish dance. They may add that it’s also a dazzling style of concert guitar playing. And so it is—but those are just two components of the art, and not the most important ones at that.
In its heartland—the area between Sevilla, Cadiz and Jerez—is above all a specific style of singing. It consists of two or three dozen specific forms—no new ones have materialized in this century—usually rendered with guitar accompaniment. So while occasional dancing can add something to a traditional gathering, and while the guitarist may be allowed to play a solo or two, the focus—and the burden—is on the singer.
And how is flamenco viewed in its home region? Well, for many at the upper end of the social order, it is still seen as the disreputable music of a motley underclass. For those who live it, love it and may perform it, flamenco is regarded not simply as a musical style, but as the expression of their particular outlook on life. In fact, many individuals who are revered as true “flamencos” are not performers at all. They simply embody the art’s unique attitude and perspective.
Flamenco is a way of life in the southern region of Spain known as Andalucia. In Jerez, children wander the streets clapping the rhythms of the music. In Malaga, grandmothers and great-grandmothers dance the verdiales together at family parties. Tourists gather in the caves of Granada hoping to catch a gypsy throwing her head back in a sensuous zambra. Flamenco is the pain of a persecuted people imparted through a complex and intricate music. Like the blues, the art evolved as a therapeutic means of surviving with dignity and strength. The improvisatory style of the performers, their ability to spontaneously answer each other with variations on traditional themes, resembles American jazz.
Five centuries ago flamenco was a lament, an unaccompanied song that sustained men working in the fields, trapped in prisons or enduring miserable predicaments. Spain was in turmoil. The Moors, who had ruled Spain for more than 700 years, had just surrendered their last stronghold, Granada, to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The Spanish Inquisition banished all Jews. Just prior to this, the Gypsies arrived in Spain in their centuries-old peregrination from India. Through a smaller component of the ethnic-cleansing efforts of the day, the gypsies were sent off to the hills along with the Moors and the Jews.
This extraordinary cross of cultures in the poverty-stricken, isolated pockets of rural Spain produced the music of flamenco. The gypsies brought with them Egyptian, Indian and Byzantine influences which in Spain mingled with Arab and Jewish traditions. As the genes of an art form can never be proven absolutely, defining exactly the origins of flamenco has been the source of considerable debate. Undeniably, the wail of the cante jondo resembles the mournful chant of the exiled Sephardic Jews. Its poetry has the existentialist angst common in Arabic poetry. The dance suggests Islamic designs, the trance-inducing rhythms of Africa, and the stubborn search of the Jewish mystic.
Learned by imitation and osmosis, mastered through hours of improvisation among friends, flamenco has only very recently been taught formally. At first, the best performers never prepared themselves for a professional career. They merely inherited the art and strove to survive. Over the years, the techniques of the toque (guitar playing) and the style of the flamenco dance became formalized and codified. Different regions in Andalucia boast their particular contributions: the fandango from Huelva, the taranto from the Levant, and the tango from Malaga (as differentiated from the tango from Granada, both of which are unrelated to the Argentinian tango). Not until the early 1800s did the song of flamenco leave the confines of the caves and bars to gain a public. While remaining largely a solo artist, the singer was soon joined by a guitarist, as well as a dancer. The guitarist similarly borrowed much of his technique of the folk and classical players, but added the driving force of rasgeados (rapid strumming of the strings) and decisive bursts and twists characteristic of the gypsies. Within this triangular support, the dance took shape as a third partner to the poetry and music that had flourished for hundreds of years. Drawing from the Spanish folk and classical dances, the dance of flamenco slowly gained in stature.
With the influx of European tourists in the mid-1880s, flamenco enjoyed its first wave of commercial success. Known as the Cafe Cantante period, the presentation of flamenco as a public spectacle from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s was considered to be both its golden age and its downfall. In an effort to restore some standards, the composer Manuel de Falla and the poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca held a competition in 1922, which looked for knowledge of flamenco repertory and ability to invent within the narrow confines of the tradition. Most important was a singer’s duende a quality very similar to “soul” in African-American music.
In the last 15 years, the young Spaniards, freed finally from outside or domestic repression, have embraced flamenco as a fertile art form. The musicians are exploring the Arabic roots of flamenco, while importing jazz and rock influences from the Americas. Leaders such as the virtuoso guitarist Paco de Lucia are orchestrating their pieces to include percussion, brass, strings, and wind instruments. Dancers, now generally trained in a variety of disciplines, have added a technical virtuosity and complexity never seen before. Theater and dance companies are stretching flamenco from its original solo format to abstract group works and dramatic plots.
The flamenco singer and his poetry have always claimed the greatest draw in Spain (Cameron de la Isla, who died in 1992, had a wider following in Spain than Mick Jagger had in the U.S.A. in the 1970s). Singers now collaborate with groups ranging from jazz ensembles to Egyptian string orchestras, yet the flamenco song, still considered the spine of flamenco, has changed little. With his raw plea, the flamenco singer connects us to man’s eternal dilemma that despite the power of our being, we are helpless in the face of fate.