Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Genre of Spanish folk music from the area of Seville, Cadiz and Jérez de la Frontera, in southwest Andalusia. Its ethnic origins are debated, though Islamic, Jewish, Mozarabic and even Hindu influences are all widely accepted. The scholar Ricardo Molina and the 'cantaor' Antonio Mairena (b Antonio Cruz Garcia, 1909-83) in their Mundo y formas del cante flamenco '63 concluded that flamenco is essentially the music of ostracized Andalusian gypsies who arrived in Spain in the late 15th century; others such as Timothy Mitchell (in his Flamenco Deep Song '94) argue that it has more general lower-class roots in a region which has suffered centuries of economic crisis and exploitation, that the 'gitano' argument is the product of 19th-century romanticism and that a subcultural milieu of heavy drinking and upper-class patronage was crucial. Most commentators hold a middle position, giving a special role to the gypsies while admitting cultural interaction; a good introduction is James Woodall's In Search Of The Firedance '92.

Contrary to popular belief outside Spain, dancing (and the guitar) have been less central to flamenco than song. Its characteristic themes include suffering in the face of love and death; justice and injustice, honour and dishonour; religious belief, and the vanity of worldly things. It is distinguished from most Western music by the use of the Phrygian mode, which starts from E and progresses without sharps, and has intervals of less than a semitone. It is often divided into cante jondo (the most profound types of song) and cante chico (lighter types), though the division is often a little arbitrary. Among the cante jondo are the siguiriya, a lamentation; the soleá, sung with heroic intensity; and the saeta, about the Passion of Christ, sung with piercing melancholy. (Saetas '93 on Audivis is a superb introduction to that form, including saetas recorded streetside in Jérez during Holy Week.) Among the cante chico are the festive buleria, the very danceable fandango (including the malagueña, rondeña, granaina and cartagenera, all named after their places of origin), and the colombiana, guajira and rumba, all having absorbed Latin-American influence possibly as early as the 16th century.

In the mid-19th century flamenco was popularized in the 'cafés cantantes' of Seville and Madrid by non-gitano singers such as Silverio Franconetti and Antonio Chacon, and gitanos including La Niña de los Peines and the anguished eccentric Manuel Torre (1878-1933), who claimed to be able to make any female in the audience weep at will. In the early 20th century exclusive, fashionable and often orgiastic 'juergas' (private performance parties) dominated by the aristocracy included artists such as Chacon, La Niña and Ramon Montoya (the atmosphere of a more modern juerga in Morón de la Frontera is captured on Cante Flamenco, recorded live in Juerga, and Concert in Andalucia '90 on Nimbus). In the '20s a cultural elite including composer Manuel de Falla (El sombrero de tres picos '17) and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Poema del cante jondo '21-2) attempted to rescue flamenco from what they saw as commercial debasement; this culminated in a flamenco song festival at Granada in 1922. Their taste was for a relatively refined flamenco, less brutally passionate than some older forms; the nature of 'real' flamenco is as hotly debated as its origins: popular innovations by Chacon, El Niño de Marchena (b José Tejada Martin in Marchena, 1903-76, aka Pepe Marchena) and others have been scornfully dismissed by traditionalists, but everybody agrees that the Franco years were a lean period. The dictator banned the subversive lyrics that had been common and promoted forms attractive to tourists, or loathsomely patriotic.

The rapid modernization of Spain fatally wounded gypsy communities in the famous flamenco barrio of Triana (Seville) and elsewhere. A second great contest in Cordoba '56 sparked a revival, and the vitality of flamenco in the last generation owes much to two geniuses: Camaron de la Isla, whose 'voz afill ' (a rough, gravelly voice, contrasting with the melodious Chacón or Enrique Morente) enjoyed immense popularity both among purists and the general public, and Paco de Lucia, who built on the legacy of the Montoyas, El Niño Ricardo (1904-83) and Sabicas in developing flamenco guitar as a virtuoso solo instrument played with arpeggios and picking rather than simply strumming. Both made innovations in fusion, absorbing the influence of jazz, Latin-American sounds and even rock. The jazz direction has been pursued by Manolo Sanlúcar (b Manuel Muñoz Alcón '45 in Sanlúcar de Barrameda): his album Sanlúcar '75 features catchy tunes like 'Caballo Negro', while Fantasia para guitarra y Orquesta '77 essays symphonic flamenco. 'Flamenco rock' dealing with issues of urban crime, punishment and drugs, as sung by Los Chinguitos and Los Chichos, was popular in high-rise Spain in the 1970s-80s, though both bands went increasingly mainstream. Kiko Veneno's Veneno '77 was influential, featuring Rafael and Raimundo Amador from the bluesy band Pata Negra; the most successful flamenco-pop outside Spain has been that of the Gipsy Kings, while a new group, Navajita Plateá, has experimented with flamenco rap. José Heredia's Macama Jonda '83 and El Lebrijano's Encuentro '85 are examples of Arabized flamenco, of which the half-Moroccan Lole Montoya was a pioneer with her recording of the Egyptian song 'Anta Omri' '77; in '87 she sang the blues in Arabic. Her albums have been successful in Spain from Nuevo Dia '75 to Alba Molina '94 as half of Lole y Manuel (with Manuel Molina): their 'El rio de mi Sevilla' is a beautiful highlight of the three-CD set Duende '94 on Ellipsis, an intro to flamenco concentrating on the last generation.

Another good miscellany of recent flamenco is The Young Flamencos (Los jovenes flamencos) '91. The enormous potential of flamenco is illustrated by the flamenco mass: that of Ricardo Fernández de la Torre and José Torregrosa was recorded by Philips '66, another by Antonio Mairena by RCA in Segovia '68. The Misa Flamenca '91 on Nimbus composed by the outstanding guitarist Paco Peña (b 1 June 1942) features the choir of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and flamenco cantaores including La Susi (b Susana Amador Santiago '55 in Alicante, a protégée of Paco de Lucia); in the 'Canto Penitential' a jaggedly passionate flamenco voice soars and swoops against an ethereal chorus. (Flamenco Passion on UK Decca compiles Peña tracks '66-80.) Flamenco dance has sometimes reached great artistic heights: the colombiana was popularized by Carmen Amaya (see Sabicus), one of the greatest flamenco dancers of the century; Antonio Gades (b '38) appeared with the ageing Carmen in the film La Historia de los Tarantos, and later choreographed and starred in Carlos Saura's trilogy Bodas de sangre '81, Carmen '83 and El amor Brujo '85. Saura predicts greater international success for flamenco in coming years.