The History of Flamenco

One of the major attractions of this area of Spain is Flamenco. Who can fail to be enthralled by the DUENDE (magic). The soulful guitar, stunning costumes, castanets, heart wrenching words of the songs, frenetic dance routines……need I say more.

Flamenco is a genre of Spanish music, song, and dance from Andalucia that includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps). First mentioned in literature in 1774, the genre grew out of Andalucian and Romany music and dance styles.

In recent years flamenco has become popular all over the world and is taught in many countries. In Japan, you may be amazed to know, there are more academies than there are in Spain.

There are many assertions as to the use of the name flamenco as a musical term but no solid evidence for any of them. The word was not recorded as a musical and dance term until the late 18th century. Some have referenced the Flemish courtiers of Charles I of Spain from the word, who were known for their florid and exaggerated displays of courtesy at the royal court at a time when the native aristocrats patronised Gitano (Gypsy) players and performers, more really to satirize the despised but powerful incomers than for any other reason. “Flama” in Spanish means flame or fire, and “enco” or “endo”, is a suffix which means a quality-of, or having a-similarity-to, or pertaining-to. It is really lost in the mists of time but that is of no consequence.

Flamenco today

Flamenco performance has evolved during the history of this musical genre. In the beginning (the 18th century at the latest), songs were sung without any guitar accompaniment’ During the 19th century, the guitar was used to accompany songs, and since the second half of the 19th century, the solo guitar is played in flamenco concerts.  From flamenco’s beginning in the 18th century most performers have been professionals. Flamenco as a folk art has remarkably conserved an extraordinary level of conservatism within the caucus of European folk music, with its unmistakable rhythmic patterns and tones that mark its varied form. It has actually been the concern, like speech itself, of non-professionals in the countryside: goatherders, charcoal-burners, miners and fishermen.

Flamenco is recognised by widely respected figures, such as Pepe Arrebola, former President of the Peñas Flamencas de Andalusia. It is the product of competition between ´payos´or non-gypsies, and gypsies or ‘Roma’, each with their own distinctive style. The subject matter of the songs themselves were not much concerned with urban themes, and this in turn should remind us that the land itself is the ‘author’ of the music. Originally it was learned from other performers in the manner of an apprenticeship, not in conservatories or dance schools. This lack of formal training led to interesting harmonic findings, with unusual unresolved dissonances. Today most guitarists undergo rigorous professional training and often can read and play music in other styles; many dancers take courses in ballet and contemporary dance as well as flamenco.

Flamenco occurs in four settings in the main – in the juerga (small-scale cabaret), in concert venues and in the theatre, a ‘zambra’ (spontaneous) and lastly, for the most part ‘Roma’ celebration can occur outside any place a tourist or ‘expert on flamenco’ would be likely to happen upon it.

  • The juerga is an informal, spontaneous gathering, rather like a jazz “jam session”, that can include dancing, singing,palmas (hand clapping), or simply pounding in rhythm on an orange crate or table, adapting to local talent, instrumentation and mood. The cantaores (singers) are the heart and soul of the performance. A meeting place or grouping of Flamenco musicians or artists is called a peña flamenca.
  • There are also tablaos, establishments that developed during the 1960s throughout Spain, replacing the café cantante, that may have their own company of performers for each show. Many internationally renowned artists, like the singer Miguel Poveda, started their careers in tablaos flamencos.
  • The professional concert is more formal. A traditional concert has only a singer and one guitar while a dance concert usually includes two or three guitars, one or more singers singing solo in turn and one or more dancers. One of the singers may play the cajon, a wooden box drum played with the hands or else it may be played by a percussionist, and all performers will clap even if there are dedicated palmeros. The so-called Nuevo Flamenco (New Flamenco) popularized by artists such as Cameron de la Isla may include flutes and saxophones, a piano or other keyboard, even the bass guitar and the electric guitar.
  • Finally, the theatrical presentation of flamenco is now an extended and sophisticated performance in its own right, comparable to a ballet, by such ensembles as the Maria Pages and the famous Sara Baras Ballet Flamenco Company.

If you want to see flamenco this is the place to be. At all our local fiestas flamenco dress is almost obligatory and like appearing fully dressed in a nudist colony you feel naked attending a Spanish event in this area in ‘Western’ garb! Here I am in my costume. By the way, be prepared to spend a small fortune if you want to buy one. But it is worth it.

Flamenco outside ruin