Flamenco: A Very Brief History

As promised last week, this post will start to explain the actual title of this blog. Being one third of the way through my time here, it seems like a good time to address the first section of the holy trinity of Horcharta, Churros y Flamenco. Of course, to take them in the order of the title would be logical but I will be breaking said logic and going backwards. Partly due to my maverick nature as a writer and partly so that come December I can use a title for the final post that will please those readers who are also fans of Vampire Weekend.

So this week we will be learning about Flamenco – the vibrant and mysterious music and dance culture of Spain. Having so recently finished my academic studies in Medieval History, and now an intern at the Museo Del Baile Flamenco here in Seville there is a Gollum like internal argument taking place within me as I write this. The historian and museum (almost) professional inside me wants to engage you the readers in a long passage of writing about the conflicting theories regarding the evolution of Flamenco while the normal human inside me would rather produce a chilled bit of coffee break reading. The compromise that the two have made is to produce a crash course text on what makes Flamenco such an intriguing part of Spanish, and more specifically, Andalusian culture while still maintaining the guise of a happy go lucky blog post. So here goes…

We start our crash course with the castanets – those wooden, clicking percussion instruments that will either immediately transport you to Spain or have you wanting to murder the enthusiastic user of them. Flamenco is often labelled as being created by the Romani Travellers who arrived in Spain during the early fifteenth century. While their mark on it is perhaps the most clear of all, the history of the art form goes back much further than this and had ongoing influences long after. The castanets were brought over to Iberia by the Phoenician traders, thousands of years before the arrival of the Romani. Next in the queue to have their effect on Spanish culture were the Moors in the eighth century. These Muslim powers were responsible for much of the marvellous architecture found across Spain (for example the Alhambra of Granada and the Alcazar of Seville) and actually kick started the development of what we would recognise as the typical musical sound of Spain. Arab musicians gave Flamenco its characteristic, chant like singing now known as Cante.

Now our attention can turn to the Romani, whose music has recently had a surge of popularity with modern electro-swing bands such as Caravan Palace and Parov Stellar. Their impact on Flamenco however is seen rather than heard. The mesmerising, flowing arm movements seen in the dancing reflect their Indian ancestry and shows how Flamenco has elements from around the globe. After the Romani it was the turn of the Caribbean peoples to add their touch to Flamenco. The sensual hip movements were added by the people whom Christopher Columbus brought back from his Atlantic voyages after 1492. In the eighteenth century, the final element behind traditional Flamenco was introduced. This came from France in the form of the Bolero School and their distinctive foot work, involving high speed tap dancing and intense stamping.

With such a long history and variety of cultures to it, one can easily see why Flamenco is such a spectacle to behold as seen in the trailer for this film by Carlos Saura.

I hope this post hasn’t been too historical, rest assured that normal service will resume next week. I also hope that this brief Flamenco crash course serves as a decent introduction, sparking curiosity and inspiring interest.