Flamenco: the Soul of Spain

Feb 29, 2020
folder_opencategory: Art

Flamenco is the most popular genre in Spain. It is the only style that combines singing, dancing, and playing guitar. Flamenco has undergone numerous changes that formed the kind of art we know today. This genre was created under the influence of both social and cultural background, which was expressed in contradictions between people with different social status, as well as between people of different origin. Although flamenco evolved many years ago, it still plays an important part in the development of modern music.

Flamenco is an old kind of art. Its roots are complex and deep. It first came to Spain in the 15th century. People believe that Gypsies were those, who created flamenco. They say that Gypsies brought their native styles of music and, being inspired by Andalusia, formed flamenco as we know it today. However, they are not the only creators of this style. Different cultures, e.g. Greeks, Romans, North Africans, and Jews, have shared one land for many years. Gypsies entered this cultural mix and founded their own community known as gitanos caseros. They lived in a total harmony, so flamenco is the fusion of their cultures. It expresses the views of folks, the views of poor people “at the bottom of the pile, who expel their last breath to give voice to an anguished life” (Washabaugh 8). Flamenco is the way to express the voice of society, as most of the flamenco performers are “people who live their art more fully than they perform it” (Washabaugh 8). Although flamenco is a combination of many cultures and traditions, the presentation of it as Gypsies’ everyday activity made people believe that Gypsies were the only creators of the genre.

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The Golden Age of Flamenco started at the end of the 19th century (1850-1910). This genre developed in music clubs, called Café Cantantes, where public was able to attend different kinds of performances such as spectacles, musical and non-musical shows, as well as cinema projections. Silverio Franconetti founded the first Café Cantante in Sevilla (Seville) in 1842. Flamenco dancers became the major public attraction. For the first time Gypsies, who performed this genre, received the right to sing and dance on a public stage. Since then, “the identity of the Gypsy was no longer reduced to that of the petty thief or the jester” (Martinez, Fouce 18). They became well-known professional musicians. Besides, guitar players, who supported the dancers, gained a good reputation, so that flamenco guitar playing was born as a new art form. This music instrument functioned both as a solo and as an accompanying instrument. Flamenco started to become famous throughout Europe, and each traveler was eager to see the performance. Many taverns were opened to spread and commercialize this style of music.

The historiographical roots of the genre are traced back to the second part of the 19th century, when the Spanish poet Antonio Machado y Álvarez published several writings about Andalusian folklore (Zagalaz 34). “The Gypsies call Andalusians gacos (non-Gypsies), and in turn are called flamencos by them” (Machado y Álvarez, 1881). In the book of 1995 about Silverio, who was a famous popularizer of flamenco, it is stated that the term “flamenco” in relation to music was first used in 1853. Before that it had many meanings, which included ‘a soldier’, ‘a contrabandist’, and even ‘a style of dress’. There are many theories about the origin of this word. “Flamenco is the Spanish word for a flamingo bird, and for the Belgian language which is almost identical to Dutch – Flemish” (Martinez 14). The idea of the “flamingo” theory lied in the fact that flamenco dancers looked like those pink birds and were named after them. However, this explanation is stated to be the most absurd one. Many people even believe that flamingo birds were named after the music style. Flemish theory sounds more realistic. During the Medieval Ages, Flemish court musicians performed music so well that the other good musicians were said to be ‘as good as the Flemish’. However, this theory ignores the gap of several hundred years between those Flemish courts and the appearance of flamenco (Martinez 14). Since the style we know today was not called ‘flamenco’ until the 19th century, it remains almost impossible to define the origin of the word, as it has undergone so many changes as the genre itself. This fact adds more charm to such a mysterious art.

Many scholars distinguish between flamenco and Andalusian songs. Machado y Álvarez wrote that he associated flamenco with the Gypsies. In 1922, the composer of the Spanish nationalist movement Manuel de Falla distinguished between cante jondo (deep song), which he associated with gypsies, and flamenco. Finally, Antonio Mairena mentioned the cante gitano (gypsy song) and the cante flamenco (flamenco song) (Martinez, Fouce 18).

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This form of art consists of cante (singing), baile (dancing), and togue (playing guitar). At first, it used to involve only vocal. It was a primitive song, accompanied only by hand clapping in order to keep the rhythm. This style is called Palo Secos or a dry style. It is the oldest form of flamenco known today. Later, dancing elements and music background were added to this genre, but still cante was the most important element, as it was the source of inspiration for the guitar players and dancers. Different kinds of cante are called palos. “Palos are musical structures with specific rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic characteristics” (Zagalaz 35). The most popular palos is the bulería, built over a 6/8 – 3/4 alternation with emphases on the strong beats. The soleá has a complex structure and it is based on a 3/4 time signature with accents in different places (Zagalaz 36).

As any other music style, flamenco has major and minor modes. Besides, this genre has preserved the Phrygian mode (the third mode of the diatonic scale), which is the most common type in flamenco melodies. In such a way, “major and minor are alternated in a specific way that we could call flamenco resolution” (Zagalaz 35). Loren Chuse highlighted certain melodic characteristics of the traditional cante. They include a reiterated use of one note, sliding from one note to another, a small melodic range of about a sixth, and profuse ornamentation of the melody (36). Flamenco music in its nature is more melodic than harmonic. The repetition of certain notes creates a unique tension.

All parts combine into one powerful masterpiece that resembles “a miniature opera” (Martinez 5). Each flamenco song has an emotional theme and each musician expresses it in his own way and creates a unique and powerful piece of art. Many people state that flamenco has one more element, which is called duende (pain). The word is derived from the name of the mythological creature in the Spanish folklore. This part goes beyond human understanding and is hidden in mystery. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca said “Duende could only be present when one sensed that death possible” (1933).

Although flamenco is considered to be a male genre, women played one of the major roles in its formation. Unfortunately, “women’s presence in cante flamenco had either been ignored, or considered quite minor and unimportant” (Chuse 5). Nowadays, flamenco expresses female independence and freedom from male dominance. The clothes of the performers help to hide their roles and let them simply remain humans. Women wear long flowing skirts, which are fitted at the waist. Colorful tank tops allow moving freely. Women have their hair fastened in a way that leaves the face expression bare and clear. Men dress in a similar way. They wear bright and colorful shirts, accompanied with black pants. The main idea of this genre is not to distinguish between the genders but to keep dialogue held between performers.

Flamenco is as popular today as it has been since its appearance. William Washabaugh said that, “In the face of popular fascination with an allegedly magical past, flamenco in the future is an opportunity for realizing Andalusian solidarity and autonomy” (2). Today flamenco is a many-faceted kind of art. It is a unique genre, which can be even associated with theater. This style is so important for the modern world that it was added to the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (2010). Moreover, new subgenres of flamenco have appeared. One of them is Nuevo Flamenco or New Flamenco that is a modern version of the Spanish dance.

Flamenco used to be an exotic genre, however, in the twenty-first century it became a part of the world music. Non-flamenco artists are interested in this kind of art too. Musicians often add some elements of this style to their repertoire. Listeners easily identify the Andalusian cadence (Am-G-F-E), the Phrygian mode, handclaps, and catchy rhythm. However, the main centers of flamenco music are still situated in towns of Gypsy origin such as Utrera, Cadiz, and Jerez. It took more than 500 years for flamenco to develop to the present art form through both evolutionary and revolutionary changes and because of the political and ethnic influence. There is no doubt that current world conditions will lead to the appearance of new ways of expression in this genre.

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