Evolution and Revolution in Flamenco
by Oscar Nieto
The word ‘flamenco’ conjures up images of intense and passionate Spanish dance, yet it is much more. It is a lifestyle, an art form, song, dance, and music. These many aspects of flamenco owe their richness to a long and turbulent history, under conditions of cultural, ethnic and political turmoil which continue to drive its evolution.
We live in an era when flamenco song, dance, music and its cultural matrix are undergoing changes at an ever-quickening pace. Why? And why now? These changes began to appear in the mid-seventies when Spain itself was coming to the end of the Franco era. Its doors, culturally speaking, were beginning to open wider and Spaniards were beginning to be aware that they had been living in a world which some might say was behind the times. Coinciding with this was the world’s changing mental climate, much of it to do with the growing communications revolution and satellite link-ups to all parts of the ‘global village.’
A confluence of these two events stimulated many changes in Spain. One of the major musical influences at this time was the collaboration of Paco do Lucia (pictured at left) and Camaron de la Isla. They, along with artists like Loli y Manuel, Manzanita, Las Grecas and many more, were changing not only the musical construct of flamenco but also the poetry and writing of this generation and genre. The cante reflected what these people were living and experiencing, both negative and positive. This younger generation of flamenco artists were a by-product of the hippy ‘free-love mind expansion’ movement. With the new social freedoms and more access to international music and TV programs, many of these artists were writing about flowers, existential love and themes that had not been written about in this way or with these new sensibilities. Some of the flamenco songs that had been sung up to this time period still dealt with themes from the era and mind-set of the Spanish Civil War. The new cante letras also began to use poetry of writers like Federico Garcia Lorca, who had been murdered by the Franco Fascists in 1936.
In the 1970s, composers of flamenco music began to incorporate jazz harmonic progressions and Latin and South American rhythmic patterns. The addition of congas, drums, cajon, keyboard, bass, flute and other instruments began to have a very strong effect on the direction some of this music was taking. Choreography began to change also. Dancers began to study modern dance as well as jazz and other forms that they now had access to.
The dance, music and art of flamenco previous to these changes had been, according to younger Spaniards interviewed for this paper, the exportation of an image that Franco wanted the rest of the world to see—namely, that Spain was a happy place where Gypsies and everyone else had their place and all lived in social harmony. The truth was much stranger and bloodier than any fiction writer could come up with. Ironically there is still a generation of Spaniards who feel that life was actually better for them under Franco. Similar feelings are held by Russian communists who feel that times were better during Joseph Stalin’s regime.
In the pre-seventies era of the Spanish flamenco dance world, men’s hair had been short-cropped and neat, with the edict of “No long hair!” Jackets and flamenco dance suits were tight and high waisted. Bolero jackets were also form-fitting and not very comfortable to dance in. This all began to change. During the seventies, women’s flamenco dance attire responded to the miniskirt craze of world fashion. Dresses were shortened to knee length and puffed up with many yards of crinoline, giving women the appearance of Barbie dolls with their teased-up hair and Jackie Kennedy makeup.
It is recognized by many Spaniards that Lola Flores was one of Franco’s main Spanish goodwill ambassadors. She was seen in many Spanish, Mexican and Latin American films. The forties, fifties and sixties were the heyday for flamenco dance companies like Jose Greco, Antonio and the Ballet de Madrid, Luisillo, Jimenex-Vargas, Lola Montes (pictured at left) and Carmen Amaya— who to this day is still venerated as a true genius in flamenco, one of the first women flamenco dancers to perform complex footwork and wear trousers.
On a side note, many people in the arts consider that the death knell for touring dance companies was the gasoline shortage of the mid-seventies, which was fabricated by the oil companies to raise world oil prices. It was not the first time that world politics altered the evolution of flamenco; indeed, they were instrumental at its very birth.
In 1492 the Catholic Spanish king Ferdinand V and queen Isabella (who gave Christopher Columbus a one-way ticket to discover if he could sail west to get to the east and find spices, gold and Indians) decreed that everyone living under their domain had to convert to Catholicism. This edict was issued under the threat of varying degrees of punishment, the most severe being the death penalty, by fire. Much of this was carried out by the Spanish inquisitor general Torquemada and his loyal band of inquisitors. History books seldom reveal that the financing for Columbus’ trips to the New World came from property confiscated and appropriated from Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism and were ultimately expelled from Spain in 1492.
Even if they had converted, there was no guarantee that life would have gone on as before. So when Ferdi and Isi— as they were affectionately called— made this decree, all hell broke loose. It was not only the Jews who had to convert. Gypsies, Muslims and anyone living in Spain at the time was ordered to. It didn’t matter how much money you had or didn’t have, or how well placed you were in Spanish society. For example, even the Jews in the Spanish court who took care of the treasury had to convert. It is believed that because of this decree these different ethnic groups came together to help each other, and within this melding of cultures flamenco was born.
One thing that many will agree on is that the birthplace of flamenco the art form is Jerez de la Frontera. A small town about an hour’s train ride northeast from coastal Cadiz, Jerez is primarily known for being the world’s largest producer of sherry. It is also considered the Spanish capital of the horse with its Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre. It has the honour of having maintained one of the most beautiful and highly-regarded breeds, the Cartesian horse. As one Jerezano put it, all things Spanish come from Jerez: sherry, horses and flamenco.
The history of Jerez dates back to the Paleolithic era or stone age. The Phoenicians arrived in the region around 1100 BC. Romans ruled from the second century BC to the fourth century AD, and when they were invaded by the Visigoths at the fall of the Roman Empire, this Roman town of ‘Seret’ then became the Visigothic ‘Seritium.’ In the year 711 it was again conquered, this time by the Muslims. Its name was once more changed, this time to ‘Sherish,’ from which comes its present name ‘Jerez.’ Interestingly, ‘Sherish’ is also the origin of the English word ‘sherry,’ created when ‘Sherish’ was mistaken for the plural form.
If we are studying flamenco the art form, we must start at the beginning, and the beginning is with the Cante— song forms. Many believe that the first llanto or cry was heard in Jerez. The cry reflected the mistreatment and oppression of the people living in Jerez barrios like Santiago and La Plazuela de San Miguel. The originators of the cante were a mix of different cultural and ethnic groups: Sephardic Jews, Muslims, Christians and Gypsies. Starting in the seventeenth century with the legendary Tio Luis de la Juliana, considered to be the first of all the Andalucian cantaores, there have been many famous Jerez performers who have created their own schools.
Many people agree that the catalyst for the eventual fusion of all these different elements were the Gypsies. To be ‘Gitano’ in the way you sing, dance and play guitar is to be considered the best in many circles. Although Gypsies are not the only exponents of modern day flamenco, many would argue that it is they and their respective families who pass on the legitimate torch to the newer generation of flamenco artists. That being said, there are many non-Gypsy or ‘payo’ performers who are regarded with much respect if they truly understand the foundations of the art form, and the foundation is still always the cante. The first songs could very well have been songs learned and passed on through an oral tradition that dates back to a time almost impossible to pinpoint. There are currently many books being written on this subject, but at present there is very little from the Gypsies themselves, and even less in English. There are two types of flamenco people: those who study it and those who live it. As one contemporary Gypsy said, “Our story has been written by those who won dominion over us, not by our own people.”
The musical elements that make up flamenco, be they melody, rhythm or instrumentation, have distinct connections to Byzantine and Arabic forms. There is ample evidence to show the Sephardic musical connection from the chants sung in the synagogues. Romances, Christian songs, were also contributing factors. It was born in Andalusia, Spain under Castilian rule with Castilian becoming the dominant language. Other languages like Catalan, Basque or Calo, the Gypsy dialect of Romany, were suppressed. Calo however is making a comeback. It is being passed on to newer generations of Gypsies and Spaniards by older Gypsies who maintained the language in spite of the penalties imposed upon them.
Though there are many aspects of flamenco they are all based on one thing: life. It has taken approximately 500 years for flamenco to develop to our present-day art form through evolutionary and revolutionary change. So why is our particular phase of this evolution so important? Because many experts concur that the changes that are happening now will not only influence flamenco in its natural evolutionary path but will also help to bring about its demise. Others would argue otherwise. This contradiction is endemic to flamenco in many different ways.
For example, one finds now in Spain a musical art form best described as ‘flamenco rap.’ Traditional flamenco artists deny it as a sort of illegitimate relation, yet if one examines its musical foundations they are found to be undeniably rooted in the long lineage of flamenco. It therefore represents what may be the next branching out of this family tree, however shocking it may be to the branch below it.
Flamenco was born out of the turbulence of cultures being thrown together under adversity, and shaped over centuries of political and ethnic influences. It remains to be seen whether current global conditions will lend new spice to the cultural mix and evolution of flamenco, or spell its doom through the homogenization of world cultures.