You've seen flamenco performances as the ultimate representation of Spanish culture, but the origins of the genre differ so much with this idea.
A harmonious yet complex acoustic guitar is played with mastery, accompanied by a special rhythmic drum box. A pair of bailaores move energetically to the compass of the percussion while their feet mark another tempo. She wears a long red polkadot dress, filled with ruffles that move with the rhythm of the song, and a bright red carnation adorns her special hair updo. Her dancing partner wears high-waist pants and a tight shirt accompanied by a black vest. His wide belt combines perfectly with the dotted pattern of his partner’s dress and all the attitude and elegance that allures the spectators. A passionate and strong voice capable of moving even the hardest souls accompanies their dance with emotions, passions, and even sorrow. That’s what you’d find now in flamenco performances in Spain, especially in the southern region of Andalucia. That's what made me fall in love with it when I was a kid. But where does this particular genre, that’s been called a world heritage by the UNESCO and that's been dragging tourists to the country since the nineteenth century, come from?
Usually, as foreigners, we tend to see flamenco as a joyful demonstration of a rich culture with a lot of history originated in southern Spain. But the more you listen to it and delve into its different sounds and history, the more you realize that it holds a history of sorrow and pain. The peculiar voices, more than a chant of happiness, resemble an aching cry coming from the core of the cantaor (or singer) to move us and make us feel their despair. Now, what kind of sorrow are we talking about? What’s the story behind these heartfelt sounds and rhythms? That, my friends, is a historical cry of melancholy and grief. Flamenco songs, at least in their original form, are anthems honoring a persecuted culture, and the strength they convey talks of their resiliency, which allowed them to survive throughout the years.
There are a lot of theories regarding the origins of flamenco. The most common and accepted one is that it was invented by the gypsies that arrived in the country in the fifteenth century. Even nowadays, the word in Spanish for gypsy is used to refer to many cantaores and bailaores. They are referred as gitanos in a more casual way, and there are even songs like the one by Camaron de la Isla (one of the greatest modern cantaores of flamenco) called “Soy Gitano” ('I’m a Gypsy'), honoring his roots in cultural terms and the fact that he embodies the authentic flamenco music. Now, this might be true, but as many musicologists nowadays point out, the southern area of Spain has always been a cultural melting pot with different people and histories merging in one. For that reason, the theory that flamenco actually comes from many different cultures is the one that makes more sense. However, most of them were widely persecuted through history, so this music genre became a chant nuanced by pain and suffering. So, let's go way back into Spain’s history.
By the year 711, there was a Moorish invasion of Spain that conquered almost all the territory and some parts of what’s now Portugal. This invasion not only merged both cultures, but actually set many of the customs that would later be adopted as their own. These Moors came directly from Northern Africa, creating a cultural and economic link with countries of this continent, and for that reason, it took the Spanish too much time to actually defeat this immense invasive force. By that time, Persian music sounded the most in that region, so its rich composition merged with local music styles.
This invasion lasted for centuries just as the fight to get independence, and this movement was actually known as the Reconquista (reconquest). However, Christians weren't the only ones fighting against Moors for the land. There was also a huge wave of Jewish immigrants that arrived at the land searching for more freedom. As you might have imagined, they didn't find that in their new country, and more than practicing their beliefs in peace, they were widely persecuted for their religion and race. Since Jewish communities didn't leave their musical heritage behind, they fused their music with the Moorish influence, making their new sound a symbol of resistance and a flag to fight for their beliefs. These sounds are thought by many musicologists to be the first roots of flamenco and the basis of the genre as a whole.
The Reconquista lasted about seven centuries until 1492 due to a convenient marriage in which both the Castilian and Aragonese kingdoms joined forces to definitely defeat the Moorish caliphates that had ruled throughout all these years. Under the flag of Catholicism, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile not only expelled the Moors, but they also persecuted the Jews, making use of the Spanish Inquisition, and even the Gypsies who had arrived just half a century before. Since they were all persecuted communities, their musical tradition merged to create songs that conveyed the desperation and pains they were enduring. Moreover, these songs became anthems of strength against this implacable force fighting tirelessly to expel them from their home.
The last decade of the fifteenth century was marked by strict laws against these minorities. At first, they sent them away to the most remote cities in the south in some sort of ghettos. They were offered a treaty in which they could stay as long as they took Catholicism as their faith, something many agreed, even when they practiced their own religious traditions and customs in private. That’s why flamenco has always had that essence of cultural pride and joyous sounds to conceal the real meaning of the songs. So, yes, this makes way more sense than attributing all to only one culture. However, many of the elements that make flamenco so unique do come from the Romani traditions the Spanish gitanos brought to the picture. The parties, the dancing, and even some of the rhythms do come from the gypsies, who were the most persecuted of all these minorities and who are still not so welcome in the country. They’ve endured massive imprisonments, torture, and even extermination, which definitely translated into what was seen as a secret musical genre for centuries.
By the end of the eighteenth century, to be precise in 1782, King Charles III signed an edict in which he gave back to the Spanish gypsies some freedoms they enjoyed when they arrived in the country. These new liberties allowed the genre to be spread throughout the territory, since it wasn’t seen as a forbidden art form. This also allowed a merging with the musical tradition of Spain. This is believed to be the time when flamenco as we know it nowadays was born. However, musicians didn’t allow this to break with the rebellious nature of the genre. In fact, they used this freedom to let their story be known and to show proudly their cultural roots. As it happens with these cultural mergings, the Spanish people, more used to the European forms of art, saw this as an entertaining and exotic art demonstration, so flamenco became that funny strange world people paid to see. By the nineteenth century, people from all over Europe would visit the southern regions of the country to experience this "strange" music and all the party elements of the performance that accompanied it.
For almost two centuries, flamenco was widely popular as a form of entertainment for people throughout the world. Not only the music and the dance became great sources of inspiration, but also the characters who played it were seen as these odd and alluring figures that could tell interesting stories. That's why you can find novels, plays, and even operas alluding to this widely popular art form. But what happened to the subversive tone of the genre? Well, it was not until half of the twentieth century when flamenco composers decided to bring back the essence of the genre. We’re talking about Franco’s regime, when conservatism ruled Spain accompanied by strict nationalistic norms that banned everything that wasn’t purely Spanish. Flamenco was walking on thin ice, since it had been adopted as part of Spain’s cultural heritage but also talked about a multiculturalism that went against Franco’s ideas. Those who were against the dictatorship saw in flamenco a way to express their discomfort and used it once again as a symbol of protest and resiliency.
These widely political and social emblems inspired new generations who wanted more honest and truthful sounds than those void genres allowed by the government, and thus a new modern fusion of flamenco was born. Actually, quite a huge amount of the musical production of the country nowadays could be categorized under this new subgenre, with musicians exploring genres like rock, punk, pop, and even Latin genres like salsa or cumbia, all with the foundation and attitudes of the flamenco culture. Although some of these songs now deal with more diverse topics mthere are many groups and cantaores who are faithful to the genre’s social spirit and are using it now to talk and expose the injustices lived in the country, like poverty, corruption, and the immigration issues going on throughout Europe. What I love the most about the genre is that, on the one hand, it’s become one of Spain’s most important cultural legacies, but at the same time, musicians and dancers use it to expose a world of injustices in that same country that uses the genre as a cultural flag.
Do you want to know more about different music genres? This can be a good start: