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Flamenco: A Glance at the Art Form and Way of Life Among Gypsies & Other Groups

Flamenco is a type of music and dancing—and a major player in culture—that I did not know existed until recently.  All the signs were telling me I must know more about this intriguing art form:  When speaking on the culture of Spain in my Spanish 101 course, flamenco pop was introduced and joked about to lighten up the seriousness of class material.  I thought nothing of this until I again heard mention of the term during World Music studies of the Muslim/Arab world.  Not long after, in the same music class, we began a section on Indian music and culture.  Immediately I was brought back to what little knowledge I had of this vague musical style, flamenco.  I drew connections to the two types—Southern Indian music and that of flamenco—and wanted to know more.  The opportunity presented itself in the form of one last World Music blog, one where I have thus far become enlightened on the seemingly mystery subject.

Flamenco is indeed an art form quite mystifying and complicated.  The majority of flamenco that exists today consists of singing, dancing, guitar playing, rhythm accentuation, and reciting (Pohren 43); however, it has evolved over many years and has begun to envelop several different types of musical styles.  Traditional flamenco still consists of these elements, but, as we will see, was often performed in different contexts, for varying reasons, and by specific groups of individuals.  The origins of flamenco are widely debated and specifically unknown, but conclusions can be drawn about its general beginnings, how it has transformed over time, its meaning among those who perform it, and its relation to the music of both Arab and Indian cultures.

In order to begin understanding those who perform flamenco and its role in many different cultures, one must acquire some perception into the art of flamenco itself.  What is flamenco?  We have already acknowledged what the majority of flamenco consists of (singing, dancing, guitar playing, rhythm accentuation, and reciting [Pohren 43]), but the musical characteristics are major contributors to what makes the art unique.  According to Katz, one principle of flamenco exhibits a modified scale resembling the Arab maqam.  Also, melodies found in flamenco are usually diatonic and ornamentation is almost always used, often done so quite heavily.  Katz affirms my notion that Indian and Arab “practices appear valid” (Flamenco).  Vocalists can also help to create polyrhythmic periods in the songs, along with cross-rhythms created by heel stamping, hand clapping, and finger-snapping (Katz).  When listening to various examples of flamenco with some knowledge of Gypsies in mind, I can easily visualize their historical struggle represented in the feel of the music.  Manuel confirms this perfectly, stating, “It has been commonplace for Spanish authors to describe flamenco—both in terms of vocal style and text content—as a “cry of pain”—pain, most specifically, of the persecuted Gypsies.”  It is also clear that most of flamenco seems to exhibit a vocalist with a rather raspy timbre.  Manuel, again, notes that this is associated with Gypsies, along with a “generally strenuous, impassioned, and histrionic vocal style.”

This street performance of flamenco by a local group in Spain demonstrates all of these characteristics:

Arab world musical characteristics, including nasally and raspy vocal textures and ornamented vocal melody, are similar to those found in flamenco.  Here is an Arab Call to Prayer that demonstrates these things: 

The rhythms and dance often found in South Indian Carnatic music also reminds me of that found in flamenco.  This is a video (I believe was also shown in class) of an Indian Bharat Natyam dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prQOdTmF8u0

It may never be known the exact origins of flamenco, but it is clear that Andalucía, Spain found itself at the heart of flamenco as early as the 15th century.  Some theories state that it was brought into Spain by Flemish immigrants or by Gypsies (Flamenco).  Pohren asserts that gypsies were not the only creators of this music, “rather, it is generally agreed that flamenco is a mixture of the music of the many cultures that have played important roles…throughout the centuries in Andalusia, the most important of these being the Muslim, Jewish, Indo-Pakistani and Byzantine” (39).  Whatever the debate, it is widely agreed upon that Gypsies in southern Andalucía were those who traditionally and most often performed the song and dance.

Very important to the text, the localization and spread of the music, and the overall emotion found in flamenco are those who perform it.  Gypsies are made up of very diverse cultures and all come from different backgrounds and value different things; however, Wilkinson states that Gypsies can generally be categorized into two groups:  Indian-originated Roma and indigenous Traveller groups of specific countries and areas.  It is often said that the Roma are those who commonly practiced flamenco in Southern Andalucía.  Despite any groupings, most Gypsies share certain values, like abstinence from social assimilation, susceptibility to persecution from “’host’ societies,” a lack of shared homeland, and an attitude that strays from the desire for possessions.  Along with persecution and a pride for desiring little, poverty was often found among Gypsies who were also often the “scapegoats” (Manuel) throughout history for many communities’ plagues and issues.  This way of life for the persecuted Gypsy culture is evident in their flamenco music, looking back at the pain heard in the vocals and thinking of the passion bursting in their dance.  According to Wilkinson, one subgenre of flamenco is the cante hondo, which means deep song, and often “include genres such as laments, begging, and prison songs.”  The culture and history of those who most often performed the music (through vocals, instruments, and dance alike) traditionally made up the essence and spirit of what flamenco is all about.

Traditional flamenco performers are seen as “natural actors,” living life and the art in the street and Spanish cafes (Pohren 36).  Eventually, however, flamenco entered a period of professionalism when performers other than Gypsies began to present the music.  The first flamenco operas were even seen around 1920 (Katz).  Some newer developments include a fusion of jazz, pop, and traditional flamenco style; and a combination of blues-like Arab vocals and flamenco guitar playing.  Flamenco Arabe and flamenco pop have become very popular not only in Spain but in many other countries as well.

This street performance of flamenco is a representation of the role flamenco still plays in Spanish communities today:

Hossam Ramzy and José Luis Montón do a beautiful example of Flamenco Arabe in Sahret Ghawazy (Gypsy Night of Celebration); however, this example entitled A Caballo is also a good representation of the genre (I could not find a public source for Sahret Ghawazy), including elements of traditional flamenco (most noticeably the rhythm and guitar) as well as highly ornamented melodies from the Arab world: 

David Bisbal is currently a very famous flamenco pop star in Spain.  This is a video of his popular song Bulería:

Both the traditional and the modern art of flamenco are beautiful and valid parts of the cultures they represent and are valued by.  Even though they may not be the sole creators of flamenco, Gypsies have arguably played the most important role in its traditional roots, and have something to be proud of and shine through, despite (or even in spite of) any struggle they have thus far encountered.


Works Cited

Katz, Israel. “Flamenco.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 14 Apr. 2012. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/09780>.

Manuel, Peter.  “Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity in the Contemporary Flamenco Complex.” Ethnomusicology , Vol. 33, No. 1.  University of Illinois Press (1989), pp. 47-65 .  14 Apr. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/852169>.

Pohren, D. E.  The Art of Flamenco. Spain: Society of Spanish Studies, 1972. Print.

Wilkinson, Irén Kertész. “Gypsy music.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 14 Apr. 2012 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41427>.


Other sources viewed :

Robert Stevenson, et al. “Spain.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 214 Apr. 2012 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40115pg1>.

And the Naxos Music Library


Comments on: "Flamenco: A Glance at the Art Form and Way of Life Among Gypsies & Other Groups" (4)

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  4. Chris Kjorness said:

    Great job Erin.

    A few things to check out

    It is interesting that you brought South Indian dance into the conversation. As mentioned in class, I am one of the last people you should ask about Indian dance. Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka has recently been exploring the Indian – Flamenco connection.


    I would also point out the flute(nay?) intro at the beginning of the Flemenco Arabe example is reminiscent of the short non-metered-Taqasims we heard at the beginning of a number of Arab World examples.

    Good stuff

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