Amelia Vega dancing at Bar Cardamomo, Madrid. All photos courtesy of Randolyn Zinn.
The way she moves
her slender waist
pleases the eyes
and the soul.
— Abu l-Hajjaj ibn ‘Utba, 13th c., Sevilla
You go scattering,
as you walk,
roses and lilies.
— traditional flamenco Alegrias lyric
In Spain earlier this year, researching a collection of poems I am writing, it occurred to me that my quest to find flamenco puro might be as romantically ill conceived as clambering through the back woods of the Southern United States in search of the blues. A fool’s errand, because both flamenco and the blues share at least one common fate — professional integration into their respective cultures.
Before my trip, I had visions of coming upon a late night impromptu scene of music and dance in some smoky room in an Andalucían town, aficionados yelling their appreciative ¡olés! (the first syllable is pronounced ah for reasons I’ll get into later). In fact, I did stay up late watching all manner of flamenco performances in very smoky rooms to learn that the art has become somewhat of a career path, enjoying renewed interest today from artists and audiences not necessarily born in the Andalucían province of its ancestral beginnings. And the pure flamenco I had fantasized about finding proved elusive.
In the Beginning, Complexity Not Simplicity
Even though the word “flamenco” elicits a variety of images and sounds, perhaps cliché — dark-eyed women in long ruffled dresses clicking castanets and drilling the floor with rapid heelwork, a man hunched over his guitar plying its strings in the plaintive voicings of the ancient Phrygian scale — the art bears closer scrutiny. Born of strife between Christian, Jew, Gypsy and Muslim, whose ancient shared anguish is mirrored by the challenges of our own era, flamenco is one of the world’s first multi-cultural art forms.
While definitive answers about flamenco’s origins are impossible to pin down, conflicting theories abound. Andalucía, the southernmost area of Spain, is one of the world’s original melting pots. Its mountainous regions fall down the west coast to the town of Cádiz, the oldest city in Europe, settled by the Phoenicians. From Tarifa or Gibraltar, Africa is a quick boat ride away.
Map of Andalucia from the Lonely Planet Guide
Throughout history, Muslim, Jewish, Indo-Pakistani, Byzantine, Greek and Roman peoples have congregated in al-Andaluz, the name colonizing Moors gave Andalucía. When Tamerlane expelled the Gypsies from India around 1400 CE, they wandered west, settling on both sides of the Mediterranean, while other tribes walked north through Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Germany and France, arriving in Spain around 1447.
Here’s a clip of music (alegrias) with images of Cádiz from the film “Rito y Geografía del Cante.”
Some scholars contend that Gypsies were in al-Andaluz as early as the 8th century, as camp followers of the conquering Muslims, who ruled from 750 to 1492, gracing Spain with brilliant innovations in irrigation, art, architecture and the introduction of important new crops they nurtured in the dusty heat. The Arabs made Andalucía a peaceful simulacrum of their homeland, tolerant of cultural and religious differences until Ferdinand and Isabella mounted the Reconquest. When the Spanish monarchy prevailed and, in 1492, Boabdil had no choice but to hand over the keys of the Alhambra to Ferdinand and Isabella, tolerance fell to tyranny. The devastating Catholic Inquisition persecuted and/or expelled ‘infidels’ — Jews, Muslims and Gypsies who refused conversion to Christianity.
Those ‘infidels’ who stayed Spain despite the dangers discovered common ground with others similarly oppressed. Frightened, desperate outcasts hiding in Sierra Nevada hill towns and caves aided and learned from one another, their survival promoted by intermarriage and the intermingling of cultural and artistic traditions. The very word for flamenco may have roots in two Arab words: ‘felag’ and ‘mengu’ put together as felagmengu, fugitive peasant. It is not a huge stretch to link the cries of protest and grief that so dominate flamenco to the outrageous predicaments of those fugitive peasants hiding in caves. As D. E. Pohren asserts in his seminal book The Art of Flamenco, “they must have all expressed their sentiments through song, dance, and musical instruments.” Gypsy artists borrowed from Arab and Jewish artists and vice versa, tinkering with style and content as influences blended to create new forms.
Clap Your Hands
Flamenco as we know it today surfaced in the 19th century. You can hear the original strands of its multi-cultural blending in, for instance, the rhythms of the tabla that show up in the palos (styles) of bulería, siguiryia and soleá.
Flamenco is counted in 12-count phrases, which is very different from the predominant 4/4 time signature used in most Western musical compositions (or the waltz, set in ¾ time). Varying accent patterns within the 12-count phrase determine the particular form. The bulería compás (meter or time signature) is counted with stresses marked below as / or in bolded numbers. Try tapping your desk with emphasis on counts 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12.
../.././././ 123 456 78 910 1112
The variations are endless when accompanied by palmas (clapping), if every count is given equal emphasis or if the unaccented counts are syncopated by pitos (finger snapping) or the dancer’s zapateados (footwork.) Trying to keep tabs of the counts is like counting Stravinsky when every measure might change its time signature.
Here’s a useful aid for counting via Ravenna Flamenco by Andy Fitzgerald:
The soleá or soleáres is an intensely sad song usually danced by a woman with the last two counts kept quiet: ../.././././ or 123 456 78 910 1112, while the guitarist hits beats 1, 4,7,9 and 10. For the emotional tone of this form, I will quote a few lines from one of my poems posted recently on 3 Quarks Daily.
No singing. No dancing.
Let the spores multiply on the dishes. My feet won’t move.
Outside the window celadon leaves tremble against the glass
but they don’t comfort me. It will take stillness to recover
from yesterday’s news.
Likewise, the form known as siguiryia, perhaps the oldest cante jondo (deep song), is concerned with grief and death, and is funereal in both tone and tempo. The counts are tricky — you have to feel it.
/././../../.. or 12 34 5 678 910 1112
Torn Throat, Not Singing Pretty
The flamenco musical scale uses the plaintive Phrygian or Dorian mode and not surprisingly, its vocal style eschews a smooth or pretty aesthetic. In fact, the rougher the better. As it winds around simple, skeletal melodies, force of feeling marries the voice to the stylistic link back to Arab, Persian, Sephardic and Indian vocal traditions. A singer can extend one word of text for several minutes as he or she spirals down into the emotional cave. Lyrics tend to be compressed, but their subjects of love, jealousy, social protest and outrage reach back to the poetry of Ibn Arabi, Ibn Hasn, and others. A malagueña by La Trini.
If only out of pity
write to me sometime
for my heart
is so withered with suffering
that it can no longer even feel the pain
Some of the 20th century’s greatest exponents of the torn throat singing style include Nina de los Peines, Enrique Morente, and Camarón de la Isla, whose legacies are preserved on widely available CDs. Paco de Lucia is the contemporary guitarist who has moved flamenco forward the most without sacrificing tradition. Remember that the guitar was developed in Andalucía by Arab musicians. Flamenco has brought it to artistic heights (or depths, depending on your point of view), and not by taking the pretty route.
So why is the first syllable of that one-word Spanish pep talk, ¡olé! pronounced ah? The answer holds another secret of cultural amalgamation. Muslims cry Allah, Allah! when they have witnessed a spiritual moment in music. For flamenco performers, the worst audience is a quiet one. While Westerners have been taught to keep appreciation quiet until the end of a song or dance, in flamenco, a moment of depth or risk must be appreciated right away. The present is elusive and meant to be enjoyed to the fullest. Anda jaleo! Let’s have some commotion!
Maybe our polite society has subsumed its cri de coeur for too long. If we use the film Network as an example — the moment when the newscaster Howard Beale raves “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” — and transpose his rant to a flamenco moment, instead of throwing our televisions out the window, we might stamp our feet. Hard. And shout ¡olé! to a lyric like this:
Tirando piedras por las calles
y a quien le dé que lo perdone
de puras cavilaciones.
(I’m throwing stones out of the window
and if they hit anyone, I’m sorry.
It’s just that I’m going crazy from all this thinking.)
If you’ve not had much exposure to flamenco, you might start by watching the films of Carlos Saura — Blood Wedding, Carmen, El Amor Brujo and Flamenco. Saura grafts ballet, Bizet, Lorca and de Falla onto flamenco, meddling, as some aficionados complain, with its purity. In any case, you’ll never forget the scene in Carmen, Saura’s play within-a-play, when the choreographer (legendary dancer Antonio Gades) scouts Madrid’s dance school, Amor de Dios, for his leading lady and finds the alluring Laura del Sol, who will change his life forever.
Flamenco Everywhere, Where Is Flamenco?
I didn’t come upon a Gypsy wedding in Andalucía, but I did find the sleekly attractive Museo de Baile (dance) Flamenco in Sevilla, where the education-minded can wander through galleries made up as dressing rooms, and watch floor to ceiling screens showing scratchy old film clips of bygone flamenco artists and glossy collages of beautiful contemporary dancers. This tourist was non-plussed by the museum’s attempt at codification of an art that by its very nature resists definition. Sevilla, however, lives and breathes flamenco with its scores of professional schools and fiestas. More than once I lingered under a window to listen to someone giving himself to the guitar. One’s ears become so attuned to the wily counting patterns that it is easy to mistake the clatter of a suitcase rolling along the cobbled street for a flamenco compás.
By chance I wandered into Bar Peregil, the outpost of once-legendary singer Pepe Peregil, who is still a very busy man holding court, arguing with the bartender, slicing jamon (ham), yelling with customers he doesn’t fancy and beating out compás on the bar for those he does. At one point he started a song — his voice ragged as he’s no longer in his prime – and the entire bar joined in spontaneously with palmas accompaniment. One fellow pulled out a guitar and the evening spilled out onto the street where the neighborhood had gathered for a fiesta of food and music. I was astonished to see that even children knew palmas, including one excited baby tucked into his stroller.
Up in Granada’s Sacramonte hills in a whitewashed cave roughly the length and width of a NYC subway car, I sat on a wooden rushed chair with other turistas to watch a band of desultory performers sing and dance. To their credit, as their concentration deepened, their initial disdain for us fell away. I empathized with their plight. It must be hard to crank out fiery songs and dances for foreign yokels night after night. But I wondered if such compromise stokes the fire of outrage, flamenco’s inexhaustible fuel.
La Canastera in Granada
The espactáculos in Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada and Madrid that concierges will urge you to attend (hotels must get a commission) are rather cut-and-dried affairs, presenting well-rehearsed numbers by either novice or waning professionals who sport the ubiquitous over-accentuated furrowed brow to denote seriousness. They click castanets (palillos), twirl fans and shawls and negotiate the tricky ruffled dresses with long trains called bata de cola. All these are folkloric accessories introduced in the 19th century by ballerinas performing flamenco for foreigners. They are meant to enhance the pretty factor but are not considered signs of jurando (deep) flamenco.
Quality varies on the espactáculo circuit. Some are downright dreadful. I’m remembering one chorus of chubby girls chewing gum and wisecracking with the guitarists as they marked through a raggedy number like schoolgirls in ill-fitting recital costumes. In another, a barely competent woman (wife of the proprietor?) wore black stretch pants and a saucy sombrero but could barely manage the footwork. My companion leaned over and whispered, “Desperate housewives of flamenco…?”
A dancer in Madrid referred to these shows as museums of “Jurassic” flamenco, but other venues were quite good, like Sevilla’s Los Gallos or Madrid’s Bar Cardamomo, the latter a small peña where artists gather to improvise, much like how jazz clubs operate in New York or Chicago. Improvisation is the keyword in flamenco, and improvisation is what you want to see: when musicians and dancers tending the traditional fires get close enough to burn. When the pre-ordained gives way to a deeper concentration and the elusive, indescribable force of duende takes over, the force Lorca writes about so well.
But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation…The duende works on the body of the dancer as the wind works on sand…But he can never repeat himself… The duende does not repeat himself, any more than do the forms of the sea during a squall.
Not only flamenco artists communicate duende. I would include the work of Francisco Goya, Francis Bacon, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Rimbaud, and Sylvia Plath, among others.
With only two days left of my month in Spain, I was finally granted a glimpse of flamenco puro. “Oh sure,” aficionados will shrug. Jerez is the spiritual home of flamenco. Well, I was late to the party, but happily, I got there.
First, following the sound of voices raised in song, I was led to an outdoor café in the square where a group of grandmothers had gathered to play castanets and sing traditional variations of the Sevillanas, a popular folk dance every Spaniard knows. Were they members of a club? Did they meet regularly? One thing was certain. Their table crowded with empty bottles revealed that these ladies had been singing for quite awhile. The sun was setting. They put down their castanets occasionally to answer cell phones, but otherwise took turns dancing while their compatriots sang reiterations of Sevillanas. It is a sure sign that a country’s culture is alive and well when matriarchs don’t sit sequestered and alone, sadly turning pages of a scrapbook, but instead belt their favorite songs in a public square and don’t mind when an audience of strangers draws near to connect with traditions. The exuberant joy these women expressed with their voices and bodies stands as a correction to the clichés we harbor about how elders should behave. Their culture keeps them fit and engaged.
Later that evening, I walked over to La Taberna Flamenco, a joint in the Gypsy quarter that resembles so many others I had visited in Spain. Its walls were covered with drawings and photos of great singers, dancers and toreadors and a small stage barely large enough to turn around on with a bare set of simple wooden chairs. The bailora (female dancer) wore a skirt printed with traditional polka dots, but the cantaor (male singer) wore sneakers more suited to a skateboarder. Their company also included a cantaora, only the second female singer I had heard in four weeks.
Despite their youth (or maybe because of it), these performers were the most attuned I had seen in Spain. The lead guitarist ran his fingers over the strings like a spider as he improvised beyond the expected rendition of a bulería. I was startled by how quietly they started the set, moving gradually into deeper concentration and force. Nobody pushed emotionally.
At one point in her solo, the cantaora stared suddenly into the distance, arrested by an unbidden thought or memory and she turned away. When she faced us again, with eyes closed, she let loose with a howl that electrified the house. Something inessential had given way in her and she began to sing from necessity, giving away her privacy in the kind of performance moment every artist longs for.
La Taberna Flamenco, Jerez
No matter that I am a trained dancer and somewhat proficient in flamenco, I had long ago come to terms with the fact that I would never achieve that certain angle between shoulder and chin that is the birthright of Andalucían Gypsies. However, while writing this essay a possible explanation for my interest in flamenco emerged. Like so many Americans I cannot claim a singular homeland. My genetic makeup is a blending of Italian, French and German with a dot of Pocahontas’ blood. Maybe flamenco’s amalgamation of bloodlines compels my interest because its home is mutable like mine, having changed through centuries of wandering and suffering, bridging differences between cultures, embracing the Other. Flamenco has spread its message not by waving flags or drawing national borders, but by singing and dancing — these days, not as far-fetched a homeland as a desirable one.
Randolyn Zinn is a writer and choreographer based in New York City and grateful to the Jerome Foundation for her stint in Spain to research her first collection of poems.
Franzen, Cola. Poems of Arab Andalusia. San Francisco, City Lights Press, 1989.
Garcia Lorca, Federico. In Search of Duende. New York, New Directions, Bibelot, 1955, 1998.
Menocal, Rosa. Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 2002.
Pohren, D. E. The Art of Flamenco. Madrid, Society of Spanish Studies, 1962, 1990.
Totton, Robin. Song of the Outcasts. Portland, Amadeus Press, 2003.
Don’t miss the superb clips from Dawn in Granada, a film made for television about fathers — dancer Manuel Santiago Maya or “Manolete” (one of the greats), and singer Jaime Heredia “El Parrón” — “…passing their art and their passion for flamenco along to their daughters Judea and Marina.”
In this one it doesn’t matter too much that the sound and movement don’t match perfectly, but the mise en scene and bulerías are fantastic. Featuring Camaron Turronero, Paco Cepero, Camaron de La Isla and Paco de Lucia.
Grape harvest fiesta in Jerez. Bulerías, Gypsy style.