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Finding the Real Flamenco


It had been some years back, but I had never forgotten that entrancing flamenco evening in the Santa Cruz district of old Seville. The voice of the male singer seemed to hypnotize his audience into a state of ecstasy. Impressive in his traditional black suit, ruffled shirt and high-heeled boots, his penetrating songs took us on a journey to the haunting lands of the East. His voice vibrating inside the walls of Los Gallos entered my very soul. No different from the captivating cry of a bedouin singing a mawwal (emotional ballad) in the open desert, it gave me a feeling of exhilaration.

This thrilling vociferation appeared to inspire the fiery black-haired women dancers as they stamped the stage floor with wild uncontrolled passion. Beautifully costumed, their tightbodiced multicolored dresses, flaring at the hips and covering petticoats with countless ruffles, matched the carnations in their hair. Turning, twisting and leaping up in a provocative fashion, they stirred, then inflamed my inner emotions.

Like purebred Arabian horses, sparks flew from their eyes as they held their heads high. Now coy, now inviting, they snapped and clicked their fingers as they twirled their erect bodies to the strains of the captivating music. Never did a dance before or after affect to such a degree my very being.

Now, some a half dozen years later in the same establishment in Seville, remembering that exciting evening, I felt a surge of joy and anticipation as I waited with my brother for the flamenco show to begin. Alas! Where were the fire and fervour of yesteryear? In the same fashion as in most Spanish places of entertainment, to appeal to tourists, the authentic flamenco had been transformed into a modern commercial spectacle. For one like myself enamoured with the traditional dance, this tourist oriented performance verged on the disgusting. The dancing, music and lyrics no more related to the true flamenco than classical music relates to present day rap.

Yet, even in this modern version, it was an inspiring extravaganza – an exhibition of moving entertainment. The thrilling voices, stamping feet, lithe young bodies with their teasing graceful sway and clapping hands still seduced most of the audience. Even in its emasculated form the flamenco still had its enchantment.

However, I was peeved. I had waited for so long to return to Seville and experience the rapture I had felt after watching the authentic flamenco. It was a letdown that I had not expected. Culture and history had been overwhelmed by the tourist trade.

The next morning, at the tourist office in the heart of old Cadiz, still annoyed that I had been cheated of the pleasures of the historic flamenco, I asked the friendly official, “Is there such a thing as a traditional flamenco to be found in the whole of Andalusia?” The young man smiled, “If you want to see a great flamenco pageant both modern and authentic, tomorrow in the town of Ubrique there is a huge flamenco festival. You are in luck – that is if you like travelling on winding mountain roads.”

As we drove through the wide modern avenues of Cadiz heading for Algeciras, I debated whether we should travel to the extravaganza at Ubrique or, as we had planned, cross over to spend a few days in Tangiers. The Spanish green coastal lands, through which we drove, seemed to lull my pondering. However, by the time we had reached Algeciras’s tourist office, I had made up my mind. We would travel to Ubrique the next morning.

The sun had not yet risen when we set out on our way to Ubrique, some 80 km (57 mi) away. As I drove in the early morning darkness, I reflected about my interest and love for the traditional flamenco. My years of research as to its Moorish past and gypsy connection seemed suddenly to become vivid. Its history, as if in a dream, entangled my every thought.

Although it is known as a gypsy dance, the flamenco has no historic connection with these artistic people. Perhaps, since the Andalusian gypsies have a virtual monopoly on this entertainment, people came to associate it with these world wanderers. Nevertheless, as to its name and origin it is a different story.

In spite of the fact that most dictionaries derive flamenco from the word Flemish, the name is probably a mispronunciation of the Arabic fallah manju (fugitive peasant). Some historians indicate that this epithet was likely applied to Andalusian persecuted farmers who fled to the mountains. To express their suffering these fugitives developed the cante jondo (deep song), the original heart of the dance. Through usage fallah manju could easily have been transformed into flamenco.

Even though elements of Greek, Indian, Persian and other Oriental music have been absorbed by this fiery spectacle, the Arab influences have been the most profound. All four components of the flamenco: cante (singing), bail (dancing), toque (guitar), and jaleo (rhythm accentuation and reciting) have been greatly influenced by the Moors. When, during a performance, these components are perfectly combined, a masterpiece which defuses an aura of the magical East is produced.

From the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabs brought their mawwals and qasidas (deep songs and epic poems), elements which were absorbed into the flamenco songs. These infused into the melodies complex Oriental halftones expressing profound emotion. A number of music historians have written that the passionate songs of the flamenco are only the ancient religious chants and lyrics of the Middle East. Some have even suggested that the moving voice of the singer had its origin in the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

When discussing Spanish folk songs such as the lyrics of the flamenco, N. B. Adams in the Heritage of Spain, writes that there is decidedly something Oriental, at least un-European about simple melodies heavily adorned, with distinctive rhythms.

More than the songs, the haughty dances with their sensuous lure which stir a wild feeling in the audience, are the main attractions of a flamenco performance. These were originally brought from India and embellished by the footwork of the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. The dancers’ flaunting looks, rhythmical punctuation of the feet, flashing eyes and movements full of grace, all have their roots in the lands of the East and North Africa.

The guitar, to whose music the singers and dancers perform, is the qithara of the Arabs. The prototype of this most Spanish of all musical instruments was introduced into Spain by the famous Arab musician Ziryab in the 9th century and evolved to become the modern guitar. In flamenco today, the guitar gives impetus to the dance and the guitar player is the hardest worker -the unsung hero. Like his brethren, the lute players in the Arab lands, he is, at times, a spontaneous composer. There is little doubt that this method of playing musical instruments, practised by Arab musicians since time immemorial, is a leftover from the Moors.

The jaleo, which is another intricate component of the flamenco, has a strong connection with the Arabs who inhabit the countries edging the Arabian Gulf. The beat of the rapid hand-clapping in flamenco is a carbon copy of the clapping in the folk melodies and dances of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, the recitations which punctuate the dance are no different from the poems with which many Arab singers include in their songs.

As to the shout of Ole!: it is of pure Arab origin. E. Sordo in his book Moorish Spain understood this connection when he wrote: “…The ole of the cante jondo is still the wa Allah (Oh God) with which the Arabs cheered every poetic recitation.”

I awoke from my reminiscence at the break of dawn as we drove through tree covered hills which seemed virtually uninhabited. The road wound its way through towering mountains overlooking valleys miles below. Every curve had an element of potential danger. At times, we were driving on what appeared to be the top of the world. A few minutes later, we would be making our way through valleys surrounded by mountain peaks. I thanked God that this was not Canada in March when such highways would be dangerous with their ice and snow.

By mid morning we were driving through the streets of the sparkling white town of Ubrique. Nowhere could we see anything which indicated a festival was in progress or to be held. I was beginning to feel a little panicky. Were we misled by the Cadiz tourist official?

I stopped half a dozen passersby asking in my poor Spanish about the festival. They all indicated as far as I could understand that there was no festival this day. Shocked, I searched for an English-speaking person who could give me a true explanation of our seemingly misguided and fruitless journey.

In a bank we found someone who would ease our dilemma. “Two days ago we had a small flamenco festival – nothing to speak of. I don’t know why they told you that we were having a great pageant. They even gave you the wrong day”, the bank official, who spoke perfect English shook his head. He seemed to be genuinely sorry for us.

Sadly, we left the mountain rimmed town of Ubrique driving on another scary winding road until we reached majestic Ronda – an enchanting town set atop a cliff. Here we spent a day spellbound by the city’s Moorish atmosphere and fantastic setting.

From Ronda, unlike the narrow dangerous mountain roads we had travelled, there was a very modern highway to Marbella – the jewel of Costa del Sol. In this attractive and affluent tourist city we did not dare to dream that we would find the authentic flamenco.

However, we were truly surprised. In a tiny café in the heart of the old town we were entertained by a flamenco show which, although somewhat tourist oriented, still displayed many of its historic roots. The songs and dances exhibited much of the Andalusian Moorish inherited gaiety. Even in its castrated form the haunting remains of the Moors were present.

Our journey had not been vain. We had savoured a tiny bit of this finest contribution made by the Moors to the world of entertainment. Our dream of enjoying the pleasures of the traditional flamenco – the pinnacle of Spanish folkloric art – had eluded us. Yet, we had, like most visitors, returned with fond memories of this majestic, now largely tourist oriented, folk extravaganza saturated with many vestiges from Spain’s Moorish past.

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