The Story of Flamenco: Origins of an Andalusian-Romani Art Form
Night is falling in Sacromonte, and yellow lamps are lighting up along the slope, illuminating the painted white houses. Outside the Zambra María la Canastera, two flamenco guitarists play a few licks back and forth while a dancer—polka-dotted scarf around her neck, red flower in her hair—waits for the show to start.
In a few minutes, they'll follow the gathering crowd—myself among them—inside, where a long, narrow cave carved out of the soft rock of the hillside is hung festively with bright brass pots and pans. This is a cueva, or cave, an underground home characteristic of Sacromonte, the traditionally Romani (commonly known as "gypsy") neighborhood of Granada, Spain.
Earlier today, I've walked along these steep streets and footpaths, many too narrow for cars, and as the sun beat down, the houses were shut and hushed. Now, a few have opened their doors for evening performances. The Alhambra, lit up with spotlights, is just a stone's toss away.
Cuevas such as this one are common dwelling-places all over the Andalusian region. They offer respite from the unforgiving summer heat, but have generally been home to southern Spain's poorer and marginalized classes, Romani among them. The gypsy, or Romani, people are originally from India. They arrived in Spain in the 15th century, and have been among the country's most persecuted peoples ever since. Yet at the same time, one of Spain's most famous art forms—flamenco—originated among the Romani of Andalusia, influenced also by other occupants of the region. To tell the story of flamenco, then, you must tell the story of the Romani and of Andalusia.
The Art of Flamenco
The Zambra María la Canastera and other venues like it in Sacromonte are among the most authentic settings in Spain to see a flamenco performance. A tablao is a stage or performance space where you can see flamenco performed, but a zambra is a party or, these days, a performance in one of these traditional cuevas, especially in Sacromonte. It was in caves such as these that the Romani people developed and performed flamenco among themselves, before the flood of tourists, before the demand for performances in more formal settings.
I feel like an intruder. This is a private space. It was once a home—perhaps it still is. The zambra was a safe space for the Roma people for centuries, where they could express themselves and develop this complex art form without the intrusion of the outside world—a world that racially profiled them, that barred them from economic opportunities and segregated them, that spread disparaging stereotypes about them throughout Europe. A world that still commits all of these crimes.
The performance begins with music, two guitarists accompanied by the claps, stomps, and calls of the dancers: "¡Olé! ¡Hala!" They are calls of encouragement, but they are also a fundamental part of the music. Flamenco is first and foremost an art form rooted in the human body: the voice, the feet, the torso and arms. It can exist without the accompaniment of the guitar. The guitar, however, cannot traditionally deliver the heart and soul of flamenco on its own—it needs the singer, the dancer.
The singer, a woman with long, dark hair blotted with flowers, opens her mouth and begins. Her voice wavers in a husky alto. It does not try to deliver clear or operatic tones. Instead it wavers on a real life lived, a life of struggle, twinged at times with pain.
"In flamenco, we value age and experience, the traces—the sediment—that life leaves in your voice over time," explains flamenco singer Rosalía. Born in 1993, she is relatively young for the art form. She says one of the greatest complements she has received has been from guitarist Pepe Habichuela, who told her: "You sing like an old woman."
Finally, the first dancer comes forward. Her feet tap and stomp to the rhythm at lightning speeds as she drifts forward along the length of the cueva. Her arms raise above her head, a model of control, as her hands twist at the wrist, fingers poised as though they were the petals of two more flowers, turning to find the sun.
The next dancer embodies the duende that must be present in every great flamenco artist's performance. "Duende" is a difficult word to translate. The Real Academia Española (RAE), the definitive resource on the Spanish language, defines it as a "mysterious and ineffable charm." But the word also connotes an expression of suffering, that inevitable pain that accompanies living. That she is channeling her own experience into her dance is evident in her face. The audience is enrapt. I feel like I'm holding my breath for her entire performance.
The Romani in Europe and Spain
The Romani people are an ethnic group colloquially known as gypsies or Roma. Spanish Roma are often referred to as calé. The Romani originally came from modern-day Pakistan and northern India, but arrived in Europe around a thousand years ago and have lived throughout the continent ever since. Today, large populations also live in the Americas, primarily in the United States and Brazil.
Many Romani are traditionally nomadic traders, traveling in wagons or groups of wagons. Their societal traditions are often related to Hindu purity laws, which dictate which parts of the body are considered clean and unclean and define both birth and burial practices. Many have adopted the religion of the country where they live.
From the moment the Romani arrived in Europe, they have faced persecution. They have been repeatedly expelled from different regions. In the 1500s, any Romani in Switzerland were put to death by official orders, and similar rules existed in England and Denmark. Portugal would deport Romani to its colonies.
In the late 1600s, they were integrated as forced labor into the French and Dutch armies. By the 1700s, they were being attacked and killed with impunity all over Holland in an attempt to eradicate them as a part of heidenjachten, which translates as "heathen hunt."
The Romani are believed to have arrived in Spain around the 15th century. In 1695, a royal edict restricted them to living in particular towns. Another ruling 20 years later placed even tighter restrictions, and was designed to ensure they weren't concentrated in any single place. In 1749, many were arrested and imprisoned during the Great Gypsy Round-Up.
Discrimination against the Romani has continued into the 20th century. They faced genocide at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. In Czechoslovakia, the state forcibly sterilized Romani women in an attempt to reduce their population. And today, in 2018, one definition of the word "gitano" (gypsy) in the dictionary of the RAE is "trapacero"—crook. The dictionary notes that this is an offensive usage.
The Origins of Flamenco Music and Dance
The earliest mention of flamenco in a historical source dates to 1774. While this musical and dance style was influenced by the Romani, it is unique to the region of Andalusia in southern Spain. For this reason, it also draws upon influences from all the ethnic groups that have historically occupied the area, especially from Muslims and Jews. Moriscos—Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity after the Reconquista—are said to have had a particular influence on flamenco, whose singing style indeed evokes the Muslim call to prayer. Seeds of flamenco, then, probably existed in Andalusia long before 1774.
With the rise of a sense of Spanish pride after the War of Spanish Independence (1808–1812) against the French, the Romani emerged as models of this individualism and national pride. European Romantics likewise grew fascinated with Andalusian culture and style. Los cafés cantantes, singing cafés, emerged in the mid-1800s as places where flamenco was performed.
The popularization of flamenco in public and the professionalization of its performers changed the musical form considerably from what it had been. It nonetheless retains some of the popular character that makes it a music of the people, rather than a high-brow genre, inaccessible to most.
Flamenco in Modern-Day Spain
Even as flamenco emerged as a uniquely Spanish style, it continued to face resistance. Many artists of the Generación del 98 (Generation of 1898) looked down upon it, among them the writer Eugenio Noel, who considered flamenco and bullfighting to be the sources of everything bad about Spain.
Still other artists embraced the art form, including the renowned poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Born in the Granada region of Andalusia, Lorca celebrated traditional art forms such as flamenco and the Romancero, a traditional ballad form that had been passed down orally for centuries.
After the Spanish Civil War and the installation of a brutal dictatorship under Francisco Franco, flamenco was at first looked upon with suspicion. Franco advocated a purely Spanish "race" based on a tradition of Catholicism and the Castilian Spanish language.
The regime would eventually allow flamenco to flourish, adopting it as a model Spanish art form. However, starting in the mid-1960s until the death of Franco in 1975, many flamencos (flamenco artists), especially cantaores (singers), emerged who would oppose the regime through their lyrics. Flamenco became, in many corners, a space for political activism.
During Spain's transition to democracy in the 1970s, flamenco underwent a transition, too. It became internationally known and celebrated. It also, in some cases, underwent a fusion with other art forms, for example with the emergence of Andalusian rock group Smash. Famous guitarist Paco de Lucía incorporated such influences as jazz and Arabic and Brazilian music, and introduced the Peruvian cajón, or box drum.
Other notable flamenco stars in the last fifty years have been Camarón de la Isla, Lola Flores, Juan Peña El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente, Tomatito, and Rocío Jurado.
In 2010, UNESCO declared flamenco an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World.
Types of Flamenco
A palo is a type of traditional flamenco singing. Palos are categorized based on their tempo, their geographic origin, or their style—be it festive or serious. A number of other factors can also determine the type of flamenco you're hearing.
There are dozens of styles of flamenco and it could take a lifetime to learn the history and characteristics of each one. Here are just a few of the most popular types you might encounter.
Alegrías: A festive style in octosyllabic verses, used to incite dancing; origins in Cádiz
Bulerías: Festive and fast-paced, often accompanied by palmas (stylized clapping)
Fandangos: A fundamental palo dating from the 19th century
Malagueñas: With origins in fandangos malagueños, this is a traditional style from Malaga with its own dance and a particular style of dress
Tangos: Among the most basic flamenco styles
Your Visit to Andalusia
During any visit to Spain, and especially to Andalusia, a flamenco show is certain to be a highlight of the trip. Flamenco is stunning, guttural, moving, unforgettable.
Keep in mind the history of this art form and its many manifestations as you decide what type of show to see. A zambra will have a fundamentally different character than a show on a big stage in Madrid or Granada. Both types of performance are well worth seeing.
If you're in Granada, try to see both a zambra and a tablao in the Jardines del Generalife, in full view of the Alhambra as it's lit up at night. Recent flamenco shows have been inspired by the poetry and plays of Lorca, and locals who have likely seen their fair share of flamenco have told me that these are simply spectacular.
After the show, I walk out into the hiss of crickets and yellow lights that engulf Sacromonte at nighttime. The Alhambra, aglow on a nearby hillside, is also a part of the show I've just seen: the Muslim caliphs who built it contributed their own long musical and artistic traditions to the region. All of these are still omnipresent in Andalusian culture.
Sacromonte was once considered a slum, a place where the poorest Granadans lived. Now, though it is still a residential neighborhood, it has also become a tourist destination. Flamenco—its irresistible draw, its profound capacity for expressing human suffering, and its spirit of celebration and empowerment—has transformed Sacromonte on a fundamental level.
As responsible visitors, our role must be to know the history that has effected this transition. It helps us tap into all that flamenco means and communicates and feels and emotes. As I walk along the lowest wall on the Sacromonte hilltop, descending back into the most bustling tourist quarter, I wonder if I have been able to connect with these performers a little better for having known this history, even though I can never know their experience. Acknowledging it and listening, I hope, can be enough.