Flamenco is a name widely known but a music little understood, at least beyond its Andalusian heartland. Forget about Hollywood images of flounces, castanets and flashy posturing. Even the bravura solo guitarists and dance troupes that draw audiences outside Spain are peripheral: the heart of flamenco is the cante, the art of flamenco song. Its most compelling spectacle is starkly simple: a lone cantaor (singer) with a lone guitarist on a bare stage, exploring the cante jondo, the 'deep song' associated with the gypsies of southern Spain.
Flamenco is abrupt and angular, frequently harrowing, sometimes ecstatic, always spontaneous and at the same time deeply meditative. There are no choruses, refrains or hooks. It's headlong and forceful, marked by dramatic shifts in mood, volume and tempo.
Flamenco demands attention and empathy. It casts its own mood and brooks no compromise. It's a popular music utterly alien to 'pop' as we know it. 'Deep song,' said the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, 'is a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice, a marvellous undulation that smashes the resonant cells of our tempered scale [and] eludes the cold, rigid staves of modern music.'
It's impossible to tell the story of flamenco without talking about Lorca, who found in it a source of inspiration in his lifelong political-cultural-sexual struggle against bourgeois philistinism. The recovery and promotion of deep song was part of a larger democratic embrace of popular beauty, an antidote to what he came to see as the inhuman machine of modern capitalism.
As a leftist and modernist, he was ahead of his time in embracing cultural diversity and plural identities. For him, the universality of flamenco lay in its particularity, in its unique expressive forms, in the access they gave to remote but shared human realms. He championed the music of the gypsies, as he did the Muslim and Jewish roots of Spanish culture.
All of which made him a prime target for the fascists, who murdered him in the early days of the civil war.
In flamenco, the major creator is the cantaor, who in each performance invents the song anew, building it extemporaneously from a fixed framework provided by the sub-genres known as the palos. Among the more frequently heard of these are the solemn siguiriyas and soleas, the Moorish-influenced fandangos, the dancing bulerias and festive allegrias. Each palo has its own history, rhythmic pattern (compas), melodic scale, verse structure and associated lyrics.
It's not meaningful in flamenco to say someone 'covers' someone else's song; its essence is improvised. In this respect, as well as in the use of modes outside the familiar major and minor scales of western music, it is more akin to Arabic or Indian classical music than to other European folk traditions.
The cantaor can dwell at length on a single phrase, probing and elongating it, and then complete the rest of the verse in a rush of tumbling syllables. The voice slides into and around the notes, dredging up micro-tones from hidden depths. It's an immensely suspenseful music, building to serial climaxes, hesitating, holding back, plunging forward.
Remarkably, this intensely rhythmic music does not use percussion instruments (the castanets are strictly for tourists). Instead, hand clapping, finger snapping, knuckle rapping and foot tapping weave a rich rhythmic tapestry, full of cross and counter-rhythms, syncopations within syncopations. It's a highly sophisticated, highly technical folk music; even the hand clapping requires intensive study and practice and is not to be attempted by amateurs.
Flamenco's roots spread wide. Influences from Arab, Berber, Jewish, Byzantine, even south Asian musics were mingled with Spanish folk and ballads, together with tunes returning from Spanish America. All these and more were fused in the forge of the gypsy experience into a singular art form, unlike any of its sources, evoking its own worldview, its own existential stance.
It's as silly to say gachos (non-gypsies) can't sing the cante as to say that white people can't play the blues (there have been numerous gacho masters). But what is true is that it was in the gypsy barrios of Seville, Jerez, Granada, Malaga and Cadiz that flamenco was flourished, and it is indelibly marked by that history.
The singers draw from a treasury of colloquial coplas (verses), brief, trenchant lyrics that face death, loss, persecution, love, loneliness, and jealousy without trimmings. They are bare and stark, 'a song without landscape,' as Lorca said, 'withdrawn into itself and terrible in the dark.'
Only to the earth
do I tell my troubles
for there is no one in the world
whom I can trust
No happy endings
In the coplas, love is a wrenching, perilous experience: 'When we walk alone / and your dress rubs against me / a shudder runs deep in my bones.' Or: 'I went to a field to cry / screaming like a madman / and even the wind kept telling me / you loved someone else.'
Emotions are presented as facts, without justification: 'I am jealous of the breeze / that touches your face / if the breeze were a man / I would kill him.' Injustices stand unmitigated; the songs are pure indictment. 'You killed my brother / I'll never forgive you / wrapped in a cape you killed him / he did nothing to you.'
It's often said that flamenco is not political because it dwells exclusively on the individual. That seems to me to imply a narrow definition of both the political and the personal.
The palos and the coplas are, of course, collective creations. In using them as the foundation for a highly personal act of expression, the performer reconnects with that common experience, an experience shaped by poverty and persecution. The songs confront blank, powerful forces with nothing but the singer's own irreducible being. It's a music of clannish outsiders, and much of it certainly feels like a prolonged protest, an act of defiance whose only reward is itself.
The marvellous Camaron
The dominant figure in modern flamenco, its chief icon and martyr, was the marvellous Camaron de la Isla ('the shrimp from the island'). Another gypsy from an impoverished but deeply musical family, Camaron died in 1992, at the age of 42, from the combined effects of cancer and drug abuse.
Small of stature, quietly spoken and affable, he was nonetheless hugely charismatic, a master of the deepest core of flamenco tradition and at the same time a bold innovator. His 1979 album, La Leyenda del Tiempo, is often lazily dubbed 'the Sergeant Pepper's of flamenco', in that it mixed studio techniques, unorthodox instruments, pop-style choruses and lyrics drawn from Lorca poems. Not all the fusion elements work, but the heartfelt, rhythmically-compelling singing is ravishing. Camaron possessed one of the great voices of the 20th century. As a genius of modern popular culture, he stands with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.
On his right hand Camaron had the image of the Jewish Star of David and the Muslim Crescent - a powerful statement from a gypsy in the context of a country only just emerging from the centralist Castillian-Catholic hegemony of the Franco years. Like Lorca, Camaron embraced the multiplicity of Andalucia's cultural roots, and as such he speaks to and for the energetic diversity of post-Franco Spain.
The core of the cante
In Camaron's wake, innovation and fusion have become commonplace, but continue to arouse passionate resistance. Though I'm a newcomer to flamenco, I can understand the fear that something precious and irreplaceable will be lost if the core of the cante is compromised.
However, flamenco does seem to be alive and well in southern Spain, with hundreds of clubs and schools, numerous festivals, and scores of new as well as old performers making magical music.
Despite the dissolution of much of its social base, as gypsy communities have been decanted from the old inner city barrios into the tower block suburbs, flamenco continues to bring a multi-dimensional past into a living present.
As one of the first folk musics to undergo commercialisation (as early as the mid-19th century), flamenco has long been the site of fierce arguments about purity, authenticity, tradition and innovation. A field day for ethnomusicologists.
The post-modernists, of course, have taught us to be wary of any claims to authenticity or purity. Nonetheless, flamenco itself, in its deepest core, remains a quest for authenticity, for a direct expression of those human emotions that are both uniquely, intimately personal, and universally shared. Authenticity may be utterly elusive, but the search for it remains a necessity for those of us who seek to be human in an inhuman society.
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.