Flamenco 101 — Oscar’s Flamenco Journey
by Oscar Nieto
My story with flamenco song, dance and music starts around 1965, when I was taking classes at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles, California. Our teacher Lilly Aguilar and her daughters were teaching us classes in Mexican Folk dance, some ballet and Spanish dance. In the Spanish dance repertoire we learned folk dances as well as Spanish neo-classical dances.
Flamenco came much later. Now looking back on that time I guess what really turned me on to flamenco was the singing. I don’t remember how many LPs I went through listening to Carmen Amaya’s album “Queen of the Gypsies” with Sabicas playing and Domingo Alvarado singing. These weren’t household names but in time they would come to mean many things to me and other aspiring students of Spanish dance.
I came into flamenco around 1966-67 with my first forays into professional dance companies in Southern California. These were the companies of Juan Talavera, Lola Montes (shown at right; Oscar appears in back row, far right, c. 1972) and other groups that came and went. In the short time that I have been involved with flamenco (40 years) there have been many changes in music, styles of costumes, and song developments.
Much of this is due to a strange quirk of fate with the death of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled over a broken and destitute country after the Spanish Civil War 1936 – 1939. This was one of the cruelest in modern history and a precursor of things to come in WW II. Historical records indicate that this was a proving ground for Hitler’s future arsenal that would be used with deadly and effective use in a war that engulfed the entire world in the first half of the 20th century. With Franco dead, the arts began to flourish once again in Spain, and this contributed to the further evolution of flamenco.
I came into the dance form at a time when it was in the last stages of its second heyday (late 1960s) in both North America and Spain. Although there were still companies touring of the era of Jose Greco (shown at left), the great Antonio and the Ballet de Madrid and in my case Lola Montes, these companies were the last of that period.
I should make a distinction here between Flamenco Dance and Spanish Neo-classical — Spanish Classical Dance. It is assumed by many people that they are one and the same. To some extent they are, having similar roots being born in Spain, but they are different especially when one talks about flamenco. Flamenco “art,” as I have come to know and understand, is really based on a way of life. ‘The way’ can mean a lot of different things to many people.
From interviews that I conducted with Gypsies in the barrio of Santiago in Jerez, Spain, I was reminded time and again of the fact that flamenco really is a way of life, not just the dance, song or music. It may be hard for us here in North America to understand this way of life. A parallel that I can make in the United States is with the interpreters of blues or Gospel music. Many of the best exponents of these types of music were in the working class, be it ‘blue-collar’ labour or working for someone else. Similarly, some of the greatest exponents of flamenco song, dance and music had other “real” jobs. Some were butchers, ironsmiths, coppersmiths, horse traders and other trades that could travel well.
Much of what we know today about flamenco dance has been passed down through an oral tradition and as such leaves much room for elaboration, stretching of truth and in some cases downright lying. Many of the people who were involved with flamenco in its early stages of development were poor and illiterate, so the written record of its early stages of development, although having been written about, may still contain erroneous fabrications.
The flamenco dance that we see today (2003) and the dance that we were doing in the late 1960s is not the same dance, and yet it retains a core that is as true today as it was at its inception. That core is the “cante” or song. One of the things that we’re almost certain of is that it was the songs or song forms that came first; then the dance was added, and finally the music.
The art of flamenco is only about 150 years old, give or take a few decades. Like many other art forms, the exact date of its creation is hard to pinpoint because of the oral tradition with which it was passed down. But it is generally agreed that around the beginning of the 19th century, song forms began to evolve out of traditional Spanish songs such as romances and other typical songs of Castilian Spain.
Many travelling minstrels carried these songs to the different regions of Spain. Some folk songs travelled to the south of Spain via the port of Cadiz. Sailors and military personnel, who were on their way to do battle in this Southern most region of Spain, brought other folk songs to Andalucia. The Alegria song form is a case in point. It was originally a Jota, a folk song from the region of Aragon. There are many other songs and song forms that had the same evolutionary process.
The golden age of flamenco song is considered to be the Café Cantante era, around the latter part of the 1800s. These were clubs or Tablaos where the general public and aficionados of flamenco song could come and hear singers sing their particular repertoires. Flamenco dance grew out of these types of tablaos. With the increasing demands of the public for better dances and dancers, new pieces were created for the consumption of the public. As the audiences grew more knowledgeable, so did their demands on the performers to be in time and to present flamenco on a more professional and artistic level.
Beginning in the 1970s, and certainly by the end of that decade, the next evolutionary period was beginning and has continued to this day. Through interviews conducted in Spain with experts on different aspects of flamenco’s evolution three constants came up: The Spanish Civil War; the death of Francisco Franco; and Paco de Lucia (shown at right). Paco was the product of a Spain coming out of almost 40 years of dictatorship and isolation from the rest of Europe and the world. Like many of his contemporaries, he began to incorporate into flamenco, musical influences from North America and Europe—in particular jazz harmonies.
In 1976 I introduced the use of congas in my dance group Mosaico de Danzas in Los Angeles California, after hearing Paco de Lucia’s album “Entre dos Aguas”. In 1983, along with other musicians, I created Flamenco Heresy a flamenco fusion band in Vancouver, BC. It was one of the first of its kind in Canada and the U.S.
In the latter part of the 20th century much change has come again to flamenco. During the decline of the heyday of flamenco’s first great evolutionary period (early part of 19th century) some of the traditionalists of that time were decrying the introduction of the Cuban rumba to flamenco song forms, saying this would be the death knell for the art form. The same argument is being waged today.
With the introduction of jazz harmonies, and addition of other instruments like bass, Latin percussion, flute, cajon, keyboards, and any other instrument that anybody wishes to employ, many of today’s purists too feel that this is the death knell for flamenco song, dance and music. I believe that the natural order of flamenco art is to evolve, if it doesn’t, it will die and become a museum piece. Suffice to say that this argument will probably be with it as long as the art form continues to survive and stays alive and vibrant.