The history of flamenco, in particular the origin of the name (literally ‘Flemish’), is obscure, although it’s believed to have originated in the 18th century with the gypsies of Andalusia. Its songs of oppression, lament and bitter romance were taken up by the peasants of Andalusia and spread throughout Spain in the 20th century as they migrated in search of jobs.
Flamenco consists of two main groups of songs, the small song ( cante chico), which is lively and cheerful, and the big or deep song ( cante jondo), the genesis of flamenco, lamenting love, sadness, death, hardship and the struggle for life. The classical flamenco repertoire consists of some 60 songs and dances. Castanets, although symbols of Spain to many foreigners, are rarely used by the best dancers.
The best flamenco singers tend to live tormented lives and many die of alcohol and drug abuse, including the revered El Camarón de la Isla who died in 1992 (fans are still mourning his loss). Antonio Ruiz Soler, Spain’s most famous flamenco dancer, died in 1996 aged 74. In the last few years flamenco has increasingly been blended with music from other cultures such as the salsa, rumba and blues, which is known as the ‘new flamenco’ ( nuevo flamenco) or ‘flamenco fusion’ (one of the most famous and controversial ‘fusion’ dancers is Joaquín Cortes).
Flamenco has been shamelessly exploited by the Spanish tourist industry and it’s commonly performed in commercial tourist shows advertised as ‘genuine flamenco fiestas’, which although enjoyable are a pale imitation of the real thing. Generally, the more commercially orientated the performance, the less authentic it’s likely to be. In fact, the idea of a staged performance is alien to the whole concept of flamenco, which is traditionally informal and spontaneous. Real flamenco is said to evoke the indescribable quality of spirit or demon ( duende) that possesses performers and contains a primitive, ecstatic allure that embraces listeners.
Real flamenco can be experienced in specialist bars and small members-only clubs ( peñas) in Andalusia and other regions of Spain, where unappreciative foreigners are rarely welcome or invited (although it’s possible to find authentic places where guests are admitted).
The best chance most foreigners have of experiencing authentic flamenco is at one of the big summer festivals held in Cadiz, Jerez, Granada, Malaga and Seville or during festivals and fiestas in small villages off the tourist track. Many books have been written about flamenco, including Songs of the Outcasts: an Introduction to Flamenco by Robin Totton (Amadeus Press), In Search of the Firedance by James Woodall (Sinclair Stevenson), Flamenco! by Gwynne Edwards (Thames & Hudson) and Duende: a Journey in Search of Flamenco by Jason Webster (Black Swan).
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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