Flamenco, a type of Spanish music and dance originated in the early eighteenth century, in the gypsy communities of southern Andalusia, particularly in the areas of Seville, Jerez and Cadiz. It is speculated that the word ‘flamenco’ originated from the Arabic words felamengu (itinerant peasant) or flahencon (collection of songs). Others feel that it refers to the Flemish (‘flamenco’) retinue that Charles I brought from Flanders to Spain (Rodgers and Rodgers 191). The Andalucian Gypsy came from the Punjab area of Northern India, so their pena (suffering) is said to be because of their exile from the ancestral home, hundreds of years ago. Rejecting this theory, there are some who attribute the origins of flamenco to Arabia, Sephardic Jews or Greeks. In the 1780s, all these explanations assume that the music of the indigenous Andalucians was combined with the music of the gypsies and came to be known as the flamenco music (Rodgers and Rodgers 191). Non-Gypsy artists such as Don Antonio Chacon (1869-1929), Manuel Torres (1878-1933) and Pastora Pavon ‘La Nina De Los Peines’ (1890-1969 are considered to be the founding fathers of flamenco cante (Martinez 22). However, even before the advent of recording, many professionals were performing Flamenco music and the most important among them was Silverio Franconetti (1823-1889) who was known during his lifetime as El Rey de los Cantaores Andaluzes – ‘The King of Andalucian Singing’ (Martinez, 22). With the passage of time, Flamenco as a music form became commercialized as an entertainment form and was hybridized with various other forms of music. But true flamenco is still kept alive in private party circles, clubs and Andalusian cante jondo festivals.
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By the end of the 18th century, Andalusia was a region where people suffered for centuries from religious oppression, dictatorial rulers, poverty and famines. This left people with deep pain and skepticism about life. Out of this misery, gypsies raised their voices in songs expressing their sufferings and soon the Cante Gitano became a way of life and way of communication with the world. Initially, flamenco remained within the confines of the gypsy families and coplas (texts of the songs) were handed down orally and the primitive forms of gypsy flamenco music included the caña, carcelera, tonás (martinete, debla), corrios, playeras (early form of siguiriyas), siguiriyas, polos and soleares. By the mid-19th century, cante gitano became popular all over Andalusia. It ws during this time that the Andalusian gypsy cante repertory expanded to include cante chico or light songs: Alegrías, bulerías, cantiñas, cartegeneras, granainas, romeras, tangos gitanos, etc. Meanwhile, traditional song styles were also evolving in gypsy circles. With the advent of the cafés, gypsies found a commercially viable platform to sell their music and also make it popular. The cante lost its original function of expressing the sufferings of a minority and the cuadro flamenco was developed, which involved singers, dancers, guitar players and jaleadores grouped together for the first time. Professional musical groups preferred the more cheerful cante chico compared to the solemn sounds of jondo. Despite such competition, authentic cante gitano was kept alive by experts such as Silverio, Tomás el Nitri, Curro Dulce, El Mellizo, Loco Mateo, La Serneta, Chacón, M. Torre, etc. This was the ‘Golden Age’ of cante flamenco which was followed in the 1920s by the ‘opera flamenca’ due to the increasing popularity for operas. The flamenco music of the opera age was mostly impure and adulterated. In the early 1950s, fiamencólogos (flamenco specialists) rediscovered flamenco music and the singing styles of older, surviving cantaores came to be recorded for flamenco anthologies. The newly organized archives of the Cátedra de Flamencologia helped to collect flamenco memorabilia to shed light on the history, diversity and meaning of flamenco. Intellectuals suddenly developed a passion for this music and non-Spaniards began to study this music as well.
Gypsy Flamenco music may be classified in many ways – grouping by song origins and derivations, and grouping by compas (the metrical/rhythmical characteristics) are two possible types. Flamenco music can also be categorized into three song categories: cante jondo, cante chico, and cante intermedio (Cutmore 20). Cante jondo meaning “deep song” in Spanish is the oldest group of Andalusian Gypsy songs. They are of serious type, sorrowful, pessimistic and tragic, are primarily Gitano (of Gypsy origin), and they express the suffering that is characteristic of poverty stricken Andalusia. The cante chico (“light song”) on the other hand, is more cheerful and energetic and originates from Andalusian folklore and Latin American Folk music. They are generally easier to sing than the cante jondo and have simple musical structures. The cante intermedio form a third group of flamenco songs and consist of hybrids of cante jondo with Andalusian folk music. Compas is a term that describes the rhythmic structure of a piece: in flamenco, this means the meter as well as the rhythmic pattern – the cyclical rotation of stressed and unstressed beats, along with its variations. Based on their compas, flamenco music can be classified into three broad groups – those with rhythmic units of either 12, 4 or 3 (Cutmore 20).
The spiritual world of flamenco is rooted in the experiences and feelings of the Andalusian and gypsy peoples (Nidel, p. 138). Generally, the male or female flamenco singer is called cantaor or cantaora respectively and it is believed that in performing Flamenco music, a singer must possess duende, an inspired feeling that can transform a performance to high art. To appreciate flamenco, it is essential to understand the concept of duende. As the song progresses, the voice bursts with an intense, furious emotionally charged urgency that reaches a catharsis. Deeply felt pain and vulnerability are exhibited during performance and according to Garcia Lorca, duende could only be found “in depths of abandonment, in the final blood filled room of the soul” (Nidel, p. 138). As a result of this emotional component Flamenco music has extremely dramatic quality. In a Gypsy Flamenco musical performance, the singers get emotionally involved in the song and have painfully distorted faces or an expression of deep religious gravity and the gestures indicate enormous internal struggle that gets intensified during the unexpected breaks in the melody. The voices are generally hoarse and many passages are almost wailed so much it is difficult to follow the lyrics (Schreiner and Peters, p. 49). In authentic Andalusian gypsy flamenco, the cante is and always has been the centerpiece, with dance and guitar taking their direction from it. This means, in a Gypsy Flamenco performance that includes the singer, musicians and dancers, the singer dominates and behaves like an absolute soloist on the stage. The singer is often flanked by a group that participates by their commentary, encouraging words, and clapping (Schreiner and Peters, p. 49). The cantaor controls what happens, for flamenco is primarily about communication of feelings and meaning through song and generally the cantaor has an extensive repertoire of songs at his fingertips (Schreiner and Peters, p. 58). Until the middle of the 19th century, cantaores sang without accompaniment and maintained rhythm by tapping with a palo (style stick). Later on within increasing adaptation to the tastes of listeners, the guitar was included as an accompanying instrument in addition to palmas. The guitar served to expand the richness of the music and also to provide some variety. The guitarist serves to mark the time, support the song and keep it on track. As it is important for the singer to totally focus on the act of singing, only the calls of aficionados are allowed to break silence and encourage or help the singer.
Coplas or texts of flamenco songs were traditionally passed across generations orally. The content shows that these texts must have been written by the Andalusian gypsies. These lyrics were later expanded with coplas written by later poets such as Manuel Machado, Garcia Lorca, Manuel Balmaseda and others (Schreiner and Peters, p. 61). The traditional lyrics still remain popular among Flamenco singers who improve on them using their own styles. In the case of the conte jondo, the coplas are moving accounts of personal suffering, tragedy and death. These accounts are written explicitly or with lyrical imagery and are often interwoven with words describing different kinds of conflicts – “conflicts between hope and despair, love and the pain of love, guilt and atonement, evil and divine protection” (Schreiner and Peters, p. 62). Death is also a popular theme of cante jondo. Coplas are made of verses of three, four or five lines and most of them are sung in Andalusian dialect and Caló, the language of the gypsies is no longer used. The musical form of flamenco singing is very complex and makes use of half tones that are double-sharped, without leading to the next scale step (enharmonics) (Schreiner and Peters, p.63). The interval spans a sixth. This allows the cantaor to lend a lot of color to his emotional expression and the effect is enhanced through repetition or “by slurring or drawing out syllables and words (melismas)” (Schreiner and Peters, p. 63).
Chacon is one of the historic figures in the context of flamenco music. Chacon is credited with having given several cantes their defining form, and musical and melodic structure: caracoles, granaina, malaguena and tientos (Martinez, p. 24). He is said to have given the malaguena six different styles. La Nina de Los Peines is credited with the creation of the Bomberas, sung to the compas of a solea. The lyrics of the bamberus are old and La Nina just adapted them to a flamenco compas and style of delivery with great skill that they were accepted into the flamenco family (Martinez, p. 24). Manuel Torres modernized the seguiriya to make to more contemporary, less rough, more emotional and familiar to the Andalucian. These singers were defining interpreters and they just improvised on already existing songs of other masters (Martinez, p. 24). Spaniards regarded Gypsies as illiterate, uneducated, and untrustworthy and as Flamenco was associated with them, it was rejected by many Spaniards who felt offended by the fact that such an art from the lower strata of society should come to represent the whole country. Even today most of the Flamencos come from simple background. Antonio Ranchal is an unusual exception as he came from an aristocratic family and in the 1960s was recognized as one of the best interpreters of the fandangos of Lucena (Martinez, p. 25).
A comparison may be made between a cantaor (singer) and a bullfighter as it was always seen that there is a kind of symbiosis between the arts of flamenco and toreo. Both of them are symbolic acts of fighting oppressive elements in society and it’s no wonder to note that many flamenco singers came from matador families. Allen Josephs says that the two arts, flamenco and toreo, offer “the only true catharsis left in Western culture” (Stanton, p. 145). But, it must also be noted that flamenco lyrics and performances are rarely, if ever, overtly political (Stanton 144). Bernal Rodríguez (1982: 311) has summarized the politics of flamenco in this way: “It is widely understood that political problems and social conflicts traditionally find no explicit treatment in cante flamenco, to the point that when such treatments do appear in a song, one doubts its authenticity.” Germán Herrero makes the declaration that “A flamenco singer… makes no effort to influence the public” (1991: 74); “Scarcely anywhere can we see signs of those who spoke with a tone of rebellion, which may be so because cante served to absorb suffering and almost never to invite others to combat it” (1991: 79). This lack of rebellious spirit is mainly due to inherent cultural values in society. The consciousness of the musicians had not been high enough to focus on the sources of suffering (Washabaugh 5). In the words of Gelardo and Belade, the class from which flamenco song springs “feels itself powerless to initiate any kind of struggle and is dominated by fatalism, by tragic fate: hence, their passive attitude” (Gelardo and Belade 1985:146).
Technology has played a huge role in popularizing flamenco music. Along with the guitar the microphone also expanded the possibilities for the cantaor. The voice could now be projected more powerfully and also used to create softer gentler tones. Antonio Chacón’s falsetto voice and the murmured dreamy vocals of Pepe Marchena were suddenly available to large crowds and they could now moan and whisper and yet heard by their audiences (Washabaugh, p. 64). Technological findings such as the phonographic recording equipment and radio transmission favored a new and softer song style and reduced the popularity of earlier flamenco sounds. For example, radio transmissions discouraged the high-volume shrieks that were generally used in flamenco music. With the advent of the phonograph, song lengths had to be limited in size. This created some changes in the art of flamenco music in the 1930s, and consequently, the fandango form became very popular during this period (Washabaugh, p. 64).
Flamenco music has stood the test of time, its quality ranging from sublime to trivial. Originating from provinces in the south and east of Spain, it has spread to the whole of Spain and to the rest of the world with tremendous capacity for change. What was once an extremely local and regional kind of music has become more quasi-national and global in nature. It has thrived in the new world of mass culture. Musicians have experimented with various hybridized forms of flamenco music and succeeded. Thus, flamenco music is an example of traditional music retaining its charm despite changing times and changing tastes.
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