What is it about flamenco that so intoxicates us in northern Europe? To be sure it evokes a popular image of exotic, fiery Spain. Yet the music and dance of regions such as Galicia and Asturias are very Celtic, not unlike Irish or Scottish forms, with reedy bagpipes and light, skipping steps. But flamenco – that is something different. Flamenco is from Andalusia, on the southernmost edge of Europe, a province that still bears the scars of its chequered, often violent history. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Jews, Gypsies, and yes, northern Europeans have all passed through, settled or conquered the area; and all have left their imprint.
Flamenco is most closely linked with the gypsies. The gypsies originally came from northwest India, and indeed traces of the Indian tala (rhythmic cycle) and kathak dance are still found in flamenco. They spread through the Near East and across Europe, arriving in Spain in the fifteenth century. Following the reconquista of 1492 – the reclaiming of southern Spain by Christendom from Moorish rule – the Spanish gypsies, along with the Moors and the Jews, suffered a brutal and protracted regime of subjugation, ostracism, and forced assimilation. For the gypsies, this sanctioned oppression endured until Carlos III’s historic edict of 1782 put an end to their official persecution.
a brutal and protracted regime of subjugation, ostracism, and forced assimilation
It was at this time that the word ‘flamenco’ began to be used in relation to gypsies. According to flamenco historian Marion Papenbrok, the word originally meant ‘Flemish’, dating from the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the sixteenth century, and grew to mean ostentatious or dashing by association with his flamboyant Flemish courtiers. After 1782, ‘flamenco’ came to be used as a substitute for gitano (gypsy), which still retained connotations of social stigma.
Nevertheless, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that flamenco began to spread beyond the confines of the gypsy community, through the growth of the cafés cantantes, where flamenco was offered as entertainment. Moving out from the gypsy ghettoes, flamenco now began to incorporate and adopt elements from Andalusian folk music – music already marked by the diverse traces of its hybrid history. It was also with the cafés cantantes that flamenco began to give more prominence to toque (guitar) and baile (dance), whereas previously the central focus had been cante (song).
Reflecting this history of persecution and liberalisation, Ricardo Molina has divided flamenco song (from which the instrumental and dance forms derive) into two basic groups. The first, cante gitano, stems from the hermetically isolated gypsy traditions of the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and includes tonás, siguiriyas and soleares – the jondo (deep) forms of flamenco. The second, cante andaluz, arises from the adaptation of Andalusian folk music in the nineteenth century; it tends to be lighter in vein (chico), and includes alegrías and fandangos.
the elemental themes of an existence pitted against the vicissitudes of fate
Certainly the character of flamenco was formed against this historical backdrop. Of the flamenco performer, Fernando Quiñones has said, ‘Mysteriously he gathers within himself all the pain and joy of centuries.’ Songs often take the elemental themes of an existence pitted against the vicissitudes of fate – love and death, labour, longing, and loss – and refract these subjects through personal feeling. For flamenco is perhaps above all an art which dramatises inner conflict.
A tocaor (guitarist), for example, will alternate between contrasted segments of melodic line (punteado) and strummed or rhythmically struck chords (rasgueado). A melody is interrupted by rapping the sound board, a rhythm shifts its stresses unpredictably, reverberating strings are abruptly dampened. A bailaora spirals sinuously arcing arms above her head, fingers caressing the air, a foil to her earthbound steps spiking forcefully downwards. A percussive series of rapid staccato footbeats ends with a suddenly frozen pose, her arched back and twisted shoulders, half turned towards the audience and half away, a tensed gesture of defiance. The voice of a cantaor grows harsh, rasping against the melody like an abrasion. A word is distorted with fervent emotion, or drawn out in a melismatic improvisation that insinuates itself between and through the lyrics.
it is not just passion that suffuses flamenco, but also the contrary and equally powerful force of restraint
If flamenco cuts deep, it is because it is a double-edged blade. With its restless extremes of violent outpouring and muted resignation, its tremulous oscillation between wayward improvisation and strict precision, it is not just passion that suffuses flamenco, but also the contrary and equally powerful force of restraint. Within its fluctuating moods, outbursts of temper are themselves tempered by discipline, constrained by the rigours of rhyme, rhythm and posture. Close to its very bones lies a struggle between form and feeling, a drama that echoes the personal experiences of displacement and subjection:
I am no longer who I was
Nor will I be again
I am a tree of sadness
In the shadow of a wall
In Europe but somehow not of it, flamenco flowered in the darkness of Europe’s shadow. It is its doubled, dissident, conflictual nature that imparts such astonishing intensity, that so intoxicates, unsettles and transports us.