Sal's flamenco soapbox

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So what is traditional flamenco

Flamenco is a generic term applied the body of music, song and dance normally associated with Andalucian Gypsies. In the broader sense, flamenco is the Andalucian folk art of the poor. The word is also used to describe a flamenco performer or aficionado. It evolved from a combination of Gypsy and non-Gypsy cultural influences. Although we tend to think of gypsies as being major contributors to flamenco, which they were, they were not the only contributors. The truth is they were relatively late arrivals on the scene in terms of actual influences.


Way back in the 9th century for example, a musician from Baghdad called Ziryab founded a singing school in Cordoba. He is credited with introducing the lute (Al-U'd) to Spain and also with adding a fifth bass string to it. It is said he knew 10,000 songs (more than your Ipod can hold) and he was largely responsible for adding Persian music and poetry to Andalucian culture.


A major diaspora of Gypsies started arriving in Spain in the mid 15th century. They had come at a bad time and were not welcome. With the rise of Queen Isabella came the Spanish Inquisition. When the Moors surrendered in 1492 and Spain officially became a Christian country, Moslems, Jews and Gypsies were given three simple choices. Basically, you agree to walk with Jesus, or get lost. The other choice was you would get to meet the inquisitors and try to explain why you object to being a Catholic. But conversion didn't mean freedom. It just meant you would be persecuted and live a short, miserable life instead of being killed.


It comes as no surprise that most of the Moors and Jews decided to flee and never come back. Gypsies were also part of the religious cleansing and given the choices, were forced to flee the city troubles along with the Moors and Jews. So this unlikely mix of fugitives, while not bonded to each other by race or religion, were at least allies who had a common enemy and had ample opportunity to steal music and dance ideas from one other as they camped under the stars.


That's the simple version. I leave the unpleasant details in the hands of bickering historians. The long and short of it is that many of the gypsies ultimately survived the turmoil and remained in Spain while the others (Moors and Jews) left the country for good. In this context it would be fair to say that at least some of the music and dance traditions of the Moors and Jews (and Christians) were assimilated and adapted by the gypsies.


Although the Sephardic Jews disappeared from Spain in the late 15th century, echoes of their haunting music linger on in flamenco melodies such as Peteneras. Personally, I can't listen to Sephardic music without being reminded of flamenco. The well known guitar piece "Romance", (or "Spanish Ballad") is believed by some to be a pre-Inquisition Jewish song. Likewise, the Moors have long gone but the Arabic-Islamic influence is unmistakable in such things as Granadinas and Tarantos. Later influences included the Gregorian musical system as well as the Christmas carols of the Christians. Some of this is wonderful stuff for a lively academic debate, but the main point I'm making here is that flamenco did not just suddenly appear out of thin air. Unlike the Beatles in the 1960s, who suddenly burst onto the music scene in what might be called a revolution in music, flamenco "influences", without which there would be no flamenco as we know it, evolved slowly over many centuries. Mind you, the Beatles had their influences too but theirs were more contemporary. Flamenco as we recognize it today is only around 200 years old but there can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that it's incubation period stretches way back.

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