Flamenco music is still alive and thriving in Southern Spain and you will come across it in every town. Most festivals will include some live flamenco music and dance and it is nearly always free. This traditional music is supplemented by plenty of discos, concerts, festivals and live performances in bars and public squares. After 1pm the clubs open and you can dance away until 6am if you please.
The Collins English Dictionary defines flamenco as:
1. a type of dance music for vocal soloist and guitar, characterized by elaborate melody and sad mood.
2. the dance performed to such music.
This definition, while concise, conveys nothing of the passion of flamenco. If you have seen bored girls in shiny dresses chewing gum while clapping and stamping, then you haven’t seen flamenco. On a recent visit to Granada, I was lucky enough to see a zambra gitana, or flamenco show, in one of the caves in the gipsy quarter of Sacromonte. Even though the show is obviously aimed at the tourists, the passion is real. When I asked the director of Cuevas Los Tarantos, Juan Martin, if the emotion and concentration visible on the faces of the performers were simply part of the show, he assured me that one cannot dance flamenco without “the feeling.”
Andalucía was the geographical birthplace of flamenco, the cradle probably being Cadíz, Jerez de la Frontera and Triana in Seville where the first flamenco schools were created. It is thought that the gypsies who settled in Andalucía came from India and Pakistan. The influences of these two cultures, along with Jewish and Arabic contributions, have helped to shape flamenco, now considered to be the embodiment of Spanish folk music, the present form of which is only thought to have been around for about 200 years.
It seems that early flamenco was purely vocal with the accompaniment of rhythmic hand clapping, or toque de palmas. The guitar was introduced later, though it was much later that el toque, or guitar playing, became a solo art form, pioneered by the likes of the virtuoso Paco de Lucia, still considered by many to be the greatest. To the uninitiated, el cante, the singing, can be difficult to appreciate. Flamenco song falls into two main styles: jondo, profound songs of anguish, death, loss, pain and persecution; and chico, happy, often humorous songs of love, birth and joy. But it is dance (or el baile), according to Francisco Lopez Gutierrez, the director of the festival of Jerez that is “the most accessible facet of flamenco for new audiences.” The complex rhythmic patterns created by the footwork are emphasised by the nails in the soles and heels of the dancers shoes and boots. The upper body emphasises grace and posture with elegant arm and hand movements and the facial expressions demonstrate how completely involved in the music and passion the dancers become.
Whether or not flamenco can be successfully performed by anyone other than the gypsies is a moot point. Most gypsies will say that it is in the blood and that although a foreigner can learn to dance, sing or play quite well, they lack the duende or gift. Gerald Brenan, in his famous book, “South from Granada”, reinforced this view when describing impromptu singing of cante jondo, which he said was “so much more moving when sung by illiterate country people than by music hall professionals.”
Flamenco is still today very much a part of gypsy culture, not simply a show for tourists. It is still performed at family events and social gatherings within the gitano community, being by nature a spontaneous and frequently improvised art form. Purists frown upon the watering down of flamenco by mixing it with other styles of dance and music, while many believe these fusions to be an inevitable evolution, which often results in opening flamenco to a wider audience. Joaquin Cortes, while perhaps not the greatest exponent of el baile, has done a great deal to popularise flamenco with his spectacular shows. His musicians perform a marvellous fusion of flamenco, jazz and blues while he and his troupe of female dancers, dressed in simple, understated costumes, designed by the likes of Armani and Dolce and Gabbanna execute stunning routines which owe as much to modern ballet as they do to flamenco. Cristina Hoyos, who has been a leading light in flamenco dance for many years said, “In the contemporary realm there are certain elements and a kind of liberty which we don’t deal with in flamenco. Flamenco is bulerias, solea, seguiriyas and tarantos. You can’t get too far away from the bases. You always have to respect the art and do it well, with quality. I always try to keep up to date, but without going overboard.” To my mind, that is the key: move with the times, allow flamenco to evolve, make it accessible to a wider audience, but stay true to its roots.
Of course the only way to become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of flamenco singing and sensibility is by going to see it yourself, either at a tablao,( flamenco show), or at a peña, (flamenco club). There are plenty of places to see live flamenco, although like any form of live entertainment, the quality can vary. Checking with your local town hall (ayuntamiento) is a good place to start when find out if there are any large shows coming to town and generally asking around will lead you to some flamenco. The World Wide Web is also a great resource for finding flamenco venues and generally learning more. For those who want to try their hand at playing, singing or dancing flamenco, some dance schools run classes teaching easier forms of flamenco such as the popular “Sevillanas” seen danced at all the local ferias and at the peñas, it is sometimes possible to take music classes.
Every time I see flamenco, something stirs inside. It may be simply the atmosphere of such events, or the soulful singing or passionate moves of the dancers. Whatever it is, it draws me back time and time again and seeing the “real thing” is a treat not to be missed.