The unique art-form which Seville has made its own
Flamenco originated in Andalusia and has a long tradition in Seville. This post traces its roots in gypsy culture and explains all the aspects which combine to make this colourful, dramatic art-form so unique: music, song, rhythm, dance, gesture and costume. There’s information too about the Museo del Baile Flamenco, Seville’s flamenco museum with its informative displays and concerts and some quotations illustrating how various travel-writers reacted when they came across this highly emotional art form. Flamenco was added to UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage List in 2010.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Flamenco began in Andalusia, especially in places with Roma populations such as the Seville suburb of Triana and the cities of Jerez and Cadiz. People arriving from other lands wanted to preserve their culture and over the centuries Moorish, Jewish and Christian influences were added to the original Roma art form. The golden age of flamenco was between 1840 and the outbreak of World War I. Many ‘cafes cantantes’ opened – cafes where people gathered to be entertained and artists could find an audience. Again, in Seville, it was in Triana that this took root and singers, dancers and guitarists gathered in the courtyards and squares to perform, often improvising and developing their work as they went along.
WHAT IS FLAMENCO?
A number of elements combine to make up flamenco. Here’s a rundown:
Song. There are about 60 ‘classic’ flamenco songs, some performed solo, others sung by groups or with a musical accompaniment. They are full of emotion, often on sad themes like death and loss, and sometimes include sobs as well as singing. But there are joyful ones too, such as those sung during the Feria de Abril spring festival.
Music. The guitar is the key instrument, and guitarists play a key role in shaping the song, interacting with the singer and sometimes inserting spontaneous extra phrases. They use pauses for effect and sometimes tap rhythms onto the body of the guitar, providing a sort of drumbeat.
Dance. The intense, dramatic dance involves rapid footwork to create rhythms and taut body shapes – head high,
straight back – and hand and arm movements to accentuate the emotion of the performance. Again, there’s often an element of improvisation.
Costume. Traditionally, female flamenco dancers wear a brightly coloured polka dot dress, known as the ‘traje de lunares’. It’s tightly fitted to the body, with long ruffled layers down to the ground and a shawl is often worn over the shoulders. Hair will be back in a tight bun, often adorned with flowers. But you will also see similarly shaped dresses in one colour, usually dramatic black or red. Sometimes the dancer will have castanets and use them to beat out the rhythm of the dance.
Jaleo. This is a chorus, but one where the performers encourage the audience to respond, by clapping, snapping their fingers or calling out at high points of emotion. You might hear Olé or – more bizarrely – Agua, which means water.
Duende. This elusive quality is hard to explain! It’s the heart of flamenco, a feeling of deep emotion, felt by the performers and communicated to the audience. It’s sometimes translated as ‘soul’. What is certain is that if duende is missing, then it isn’t really flamenco.
Listen to the podcast to hear the story of Seville’s best-known flamenco dancer, Cristina Hoyos.
authors on flamenco
These quotations, from 3 different authors, convey the spirit of the flamenco which they saw in southern Spain.
André Gide: ‘Nothing, not even the songs of Egypt, has touched a more secret part of my heart ….. to hear that song again, I would have travelled over three Spains.’
Vita Sackville-West listened to the impromptu singing of a large woman sitting on a small chair by a courtyard fountain. ‘She sang what appeared to be an interminable lament, in a voice like a trombone, and as she sang, she began to sway backwards and forwards, as though she indeed bewailed some personal grief too intolerable for her mountainous flesh to bear.’
P D Murphy, author of As I Walked out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee: ‘A dancer emerges from behind the curtain ….. he moves slowly in time to a solo singer picked out by the spotlight …… the chant from a long time ago is torn from him and reborn, its bare pagan bones scattering on the hard surface. The staccato heels of the dancer stamp and fly in a swirling dance to the death. His arms arc through the air, the body erect and proud, the eyes are dark and all-seeing.’
seville’s flamenco museum
At the Flamenco Dance Museum you can learn the history of flamenco through documents, photographs, paintings, videos, sculptures and costumes. They also run flamenco classes and put on regular evening performances. The museum aims to convey ‘the soul and origins of Andalusia, its identity and heritage’ through as many media as possible. ‘Here’, says their guidebook, ‘you can see, hear and touch flamenco.’
Listen to the POdcast
Spain by Jan Morris
As I walked out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee by P D Murphy
Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural and Literary History by Elizabeth Nash