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Exploring the Beautiful & Mysterious History of Flamenco

It is ingrained into our consciousness, and it’s the pride of an entire nation. It is passion, in just one word, completely sublime in temperament with raw sexual energy, in the simplest of descriptions. The immense energy you feel from sitting in the audience watching is both a visual and audible experience that will leave you breathless.

This is Flamenco.

Flamenco in Spain

The Essence of Andalusia

Flamenco is one of the most passionate elements of Andalucía. The brilliant and frilly red colours of the dresses worn by the women, the rhythmic hand clapping, and of course the amazing and exhilarating footwork, with Spanish guitar in the background. But best of all, it’s the dance, and how slowly it begins, only to lapse into a climatic change like no other.

Besides its extreme popularity, Flamenco’s roots and how it evolved into what it is today is complex and mysterious. One thing that cannot be denied is the feelings this dance invokes. In fact, it’s not bold at all to put Flamenco square in the middle of other popular dances like ballet or hip-hop.

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While researching for this article, finding Flamenco’s origin story was somewhat challenging. Flamenco after all, has only been documented for the past two hundred years, even though the stories transcend generations, with historians estimating the time from the VII to the XV centuries, when Spain was under Arab rule.

Even the word Flamenco which applies to the song, the dance and the guitar, only came into use around the 18th century. What we know before this time usually comes from stories passed down through families.

There are a few things we know for sure, one being that Flamenco originated somewhere in Andalusia. We also know it was during the Moorish rule that the music and instruments were modified and adapted by Christians and Jews, then later by gipsies. The gipsies branched off, so to speak, making Flamenco their very own with separate forms that included instruments and other forms of artistic nature.

But the Flamenco we know and love today began in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz and Triana (Seville). It began in the ballrooms, quickly garnering attention, especially from the elite of the time. And, oddly enough, Flamenco was purely vocal, together with only rhythmical clapping of the hands. It was composer Julian Arcas who first introduced the guitar playing.

“The most important thing in flamenco is passion. It is not about technique, but about emotion – if you don’t feel it, you can’t do it. It’s not just a physical expression – it must come from the heart.” – Sara Baras

The Amalgamation of Cultural Folk Dancing

In retrospect, perhaps with some imagination, and thinking back to a time when Moorish rule intertwined with Spain’s already diverse religious culture, which included the Jewish, Christian and gipsy tribes, we can break apart the wall of mystery surrounding this artistic and passionate dance.

Under these circumstances we can visualise a combination of sorts or the best of all worlds when we look back at Flamenco. Let’s not forget that Andalusia was and still is incredibly unique, and still stands apart from the rest of Spain when it comes to ancient history, language and culture.

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“I love flamenco because it is an art form, which you don’t listen to with your ears but with your intestines. First you have to feel the music before you can think about it.” – Robert Vidal, a famous classical guitar professor

The dance itself originated in the 15th century, with the arrival of the Gitanos (gypsies) to the Iberian Peninsula. The gypsies travelled the globe, and are thought to come from many different lands, most likely India, Iran and Egypt. As they travelled, the gypsies adopted various folk dances they encountered on their travels.

It is also believed, the gypsies, having encountered many of the lands traditional dancing, decided to make each their own, and thereby creating their very own culture, identity, and artistic expression through dance.

Enter DNA & Science

Back in 2012, a new study was conducted with genome-wide sequencing, and seemed to confirm the widespread Romani population has its origins in North West India, around 1,500 years ago. The study, published in the December 6 issue of the journal Current Biology, consisted in the analysis of genome-wide sequences coming form 13 different Romani groups in Europe.

The results show that Romani’s exodus most likely started in the current Punjab region, in India, at about 500 CE, with a subsequent migration through Central Asia and the Middle East. Their entrance to Europe appears to have been made through the Balkan region, especially Bulgaria.

It was only in the early 19th century when Flamenco music and dance became popular, and was referred to as “café entertainment”. It was also when Flamenco developed a horrible reputation, which was exploited through systematic racism and hatred.

The Arrival of the Gypsies

From the mid-nineteenth century on, flamenco entertainment spread quickly from southern Spain to the capital (Madrid) and onward to other Spanish urban centres, flourishing there as a consequence of the rise of a mass urban culture and increased foreign tourism.

The reason for flamenco’s horrible reputation among Spanish elites during the 19th and 20th centuries was that historically, performances were associated with the ostracized Gypsy (Roma) population in Spain, and they took place in seedy urban areas.

Under Christian rule they were ordered to stop wearing their style of dress, stop talking in the Romany language, and stop wandering around or seeking out steady employment. This of course, stopped them from making any sort of money by their usual means, which was horse dealing, trading at fairs, and sorcery. These laws and restrictions resulted in bands of gypsies, moors, and Jews taking refuge in mountainous areas, which were far too treacherous and desolate for the authorities to pursue them.

Enter the Romantic Era

It was by this time, and the arrival of the Romantic Era in Europe, which dates the late 18th and early 19th centuries that Flamenco was finally really getting noticed.

The people of Europe stood back in awe as Romanticism laid the foundation for exuberant emphasis on nature, literature and the arts. Flamenco started to gain more prominence for its divulge of art and emotional energy. More so, the artists that had adopted folklore as their very own on their travels, were now being stimulated by other foreign and more Bohemian cultures, such as the Andalusian one we see today.

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In Andalusia, Flamenco was more than just a haven for romanticists, it was a manifestation of the oriental and the exotic from its origins. It was in this time period that the modern form of flamenco, which is popular nowadays, emerged. A prime example of the fanatical fantasy of flamenco can be seen in Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen (1845).

In the late 19th century, Flamenco began to hit its popularity peak, and commercialisation began to set in. It was during this “golden age” that Flamenco began attending the openings of cafés cantantes – cafés and bars in which flamenco song and dance entertained visitors. It was at this time as well, where the more serious forms of expressing deep feelings (cante jondo), were introduced.

Flamenco dance arrived to its climax, being the major attraction for the public of those cafés cantantes. Guitar players featuring the dancers increasingly gained a reputation. For this reason, the passionate artistic dance was quickly making its way across Europe, so much so, that the most prestigious ballerinas of the theatre were converted into ‘Gitanas.’ Ballerinas such as Taglioni or Gestiginer adopted the gypsy image and together with the ópera flamenca – a flamenco spectacle translated into opera and ballet – flamenco had officially transformed to a popular culture enjoyed by the aristocrats and elites.

The Flamenco Language

Flamenco does have its very own translations, with canto (“song”) meaning the core of flamenco, and then baile (“dance”), and it has three forms: grande or hondo (“grand” or “deep”), intense, profound songs, tragic in tone, and imbued with duende, the transformation of the musician by the depth of the emotion; intermedio (“intermediate”), moderately serious, the music sometimes Oriental-sounding; and pequeño (“small”), light songs of exuberance, love, and nature.

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More interesting, the baile grande is believed to retain elements of the folk dances of India, where the Gypsies originated. Castanets, which is found in Andalusian dance, are not traditional to flamenco. Song and dance may be accompanied by jaleo, rhythmic finger snapping, hand clapping, and shouting.

In the 19th century, guitar accompaniment became common for many genres, and guitar solos also developed.

Flamenco Propaganda and Franco’s Dictatorial Years

During Franco’s reign, from 1939 to 1975, Flamenco, and the dance we know and love today was in its final stages. Franco saw an opportunity for tourism and popularity, considering Spain how the nation was under a large lens. The country was volatile to say the least, with the Spanish Civil War and the rumours of torture and murder being reported in the media of the time.

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Flamenco was adopted as a national dance by the Spanish dictator in order to display a new image for Spain, but most notably, his very own image as a good or positive leader for the nation.

It was at this point, we began to see Flamenco in films, which was in tune with the government’s attempt to gain more tourism. Films such as Los Tarantos (1963) widely popularized flamenco as a Spanish art form to the citizens of other European countries. So, by the time of Franco’s death in 1975, flamenco had established itself in the music and dance world as a prominent form of art and culture, which only became synonymous with Spain.

Flamenco Today

Modern flamenco is a highly technical dance style requiring years of study. The emphasis for both male and female performers is on lightning-fast footwork performed with absolute precision. In addition, the dancer may have to dance while using props such as castanets, canes, shawls and fans.

“Flamenco nuevo” is a recent marketing phenomenon in Flamenco. Marketed as a “newer version” of Flamenco, its roots came from world-music promoters trying to sell albums of artists who created music that “sounded like” or had Spanish-style influences. Though some of this music was played in similar pitches, scales and was well-received, it has little to nothing to do with the Art of Flamenco guitar, dance, cante Jondo or the improvisational language. “Nuevo Flamenco” consists largely of compositions and repertoire, while Traditional Flamenco music and dance is a language composed of stanzas, actuated by oral formulaic calls and signals.

Do you want to experience the real essence of Flamenco dance in Spain? Please visit Malaga Travel Guide to find out about shows and future schedules.

 

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