What Is Flamenco?

La Peña Flamenca de SeattleFlamenco as we know it began to be recognized within Spain and internationally during the last half of the Eighteenth Century.  From there, it has followed the same trajectory as a number of other “urban blues” forms, and has become one of the most successful and prominent of those forms.  Think for a moment of American Jazz, Argentine Tango, Greek Rembetiko and Portuguese Fado, all arising from rural or urban conditions of poverty and oppression, moving to the cabaret or nightclub phase in cities, and at length overcoming the prejudices of the more privileged classes and appealing to a world-wide audience.  In the case at least of flamenco, jazz and tango, the forms have been highly developed both musically and technically and have been successfully presented on the concert stage.

In the case of flamenco, however, the roots go back thousands of years and thousands of miles.

Spain has had a vibrant musical and dance tradition since ancient times; dancers from Cadiz, playing what resemble castanets, have been pictured in Roman mosaics.  Spain was one of the Roman Empire’s most important components, but within the millennium before the Roman conquest, it had been settled by immigrant Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Jews as well as its native Iberians.  There is a strong possibility that the Spanish art of bullfighting developed from ancient Greek beliefs and ceremonies associated with the bull.  Bullfighting later became one of the important themes of flamenco singing, and members of the same family often go into each profession.

After the collapse of Rome, Spain was ruled for several centuries by the Visigoths.  Spain had become Christianized late in the Roman period, and the Visigoths, although only roughly civilized, practiced Christianity as well.  The country was invaded in 711 by a Muslim army comprising Arabs, Berbers and Moors from North Aftrica, as part of the whirlwind conquest of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern territory by the new religion of Islam.  Under the leadership of Tarik b. Ziyad, all of Spain save for a small portion of the north and west, swiftly fell into  Muslim hands.

In the eighth ninth and tenth centuries, Al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain was called, enjoyed

a remarkably enlightened and tolerant rule by the Umayyad Dynasty under the Caliphate of Cordoba.  The Spaniards refer to this period as “La Convivencia” or the time of living together.

Islam was dominant, but populous communities of both Christians and Jews were allowed to govern themselves locally.  Many Christians converted by Islam, becoming known as Mozarabes.  Culture, especially poetry and music flourished, along with agriculture and medicine.

All during this time, Christians from the north of Spain were pushing southward, trying to regain their lost territories.  By the eleventh century, they had regained sizeable portions of the north and west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Things took a further turn for the worse for the Caliphate during the eleventh century when two waves of austere Islamic fanatics, first the Almoravids and later the Almohads, invaded from their kingdoms in Northwest Africa.  These invaders found the culture of Al-Andalus decadent, and greatly damaged the culture of tolerance that the territory had previously enjoyed.  Nonetheless, it was the descendants of these invaders who were to rule the ever-shrinking Muslim Spain until their final defeat by the Christians in 1492.

As the Christians began to take back territory from the Muslims, by and large they continued to practice “convivencia” with the Mudejares (Muslims in Christian territory) and Jews, and to respect the high level of civilization of the lands and peoples newly conquered.  This began to change after the conquest of Sevilla in 1248, and in 1391 a horrendous attack against the Jews was perpetuated.  The Inquisition was officially established in Spain in 1478, and in 1492, the same year that Granada fell to the Christians, the Jews were expelled from Spain.  Some fled to the Ottoman Empire, some to North Africa, some to other parts of Europe, and some to Mexico.

The Muslim population of the Kingdom of Granada had been promised that their faith and properties would be respected, but these promises were soon retracted.  By 1502, the Muslims were forced to choose between conversion to Christianity  or exile, much like the Jews.  By 1609, after several rebellions by the Muslim population, they too were expelled.  Most returned to North Africa, where they received a mixed welcome, now being regarded as “westernized” by their new hosts.  Meanwhile, areas abandoned by the Moors became depopulated and impoverished.

But there were many Jews and Muslims who fled into the countryside and mountains, hiding and eventually intermarrying with sympathetic local people.  The Andalusian population of today shows evidence of the intermingling of European, African and Middle Eastern traits.  These people and their musical traditions became a strong component of flamenco.

Close to this calamitous time, around the 1450’s, the Gypsies, or Rom People, appeared in Spain.  We know that several hundred thousand crossed the Pyrenees, and travelled south slowly.  There are Gypsies all over Spain, but most of them seem to have settled in Andalusia.

There are some theories that another wave of Gypsies travelled across North Africa and up into Andalusia while the territory was Muslim but there is no hard evidence of this.

All researchers agree that the Rom originally came from the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent.  They were a wandering tribe, like many still in India.  They travelled to Egypt (hence the name “Gypsy”), Turkey, the Balkans, Central Europe and through France into Spain.

They have been universally persecuted, oppressed, and even enslaved all the way through their travels.  Upon arriving in Spain, they were obliged to stop their wandering and to settle, although until recently there were still itinerant Canasteros living in Spain.

La Peña Flamenca de Seattle 3 It is not surprising that once the Gypsies were established in Andalucia they would have become acquainted with the “underground” Moors and Jews, as well as disaffected and poor Christian Spaniards, and discovered their musical traditions.  Wherever the Gypsies have travelled, they have taken the native musical styles and preserved and embellished them (another example: Hungary and Romania, with heavy Gypsy populations, have a great deal of Gypsy influence in their music).

The next several centuries were extremely difficult for Spain and most of her people.  Much of her economy was weakened by the expulsions and harassment of its industrious minorities; her wealth was squandered fighting wars all over Europe, and her colonies were beginning to agitate for independence.  The plight of Spain’s poor was abysmal.

By the late eighteenth century, the music that was to become known, mostly in its “cante hondo” form, was beginning to become known.  The aristocracy was hiring Gypsy musicians for entertainment.  The occasional traveler in rural Andalusia was making note of this mournful and exotic singing style.

By the nineteenth century, flamenco had “come to town”.  Gypsy artists continued to be hired privately, as they are to this day, but by 1860 certain urban districts in and near Sevilla, Jerez and Cadiz were becoming known for their Cante styles and artists.  The age of the Cafes Cantantes had arrived.  These were “flamenco cabarets”, featuring guitarists, singers and both male and female dancers in formal performance dress.  Many of the styles we will be exploring in the next pages were developed and refined during this stage, and singers and dancers who performed during this golden age are still referred to in songs and poetry that are performed today.

A seminal event occurred in June of 1922.  The composer Manuel de Falla, with the collaboration of Federico Garcia Lorca, Joaquin Turina and Andres Segovia, along with other artists, musicians and writers organized a “concurso de cante”; a contest for singers, in the hopes of stimulating interest among the general public in this art form and encouraging new talent.

Around this time also, flamenco began to be presented on the concert stage.  Two classically trained, Argentine-born dancers of Spanish descent, La Argentina and La Argetinita, although not purely flamenco dancers, raised consciousness of the unique Spanish art form around the world.  La Argentinita staged the flamenco show “Las Calles de Cadiz” with the best artists of the times during the 1930’s.  The public’s appetite for flamenco, along with the artform’s own evolution, has grown exponentially ever since.

 

Experience local Flamenco live, Feburary 21 at Crossroads Bellevue – FREE!

Historical written by Rubina Carmona, Flamenco singer/dancer, La Peña Flamenca de Seattle

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