FLAMENCO, 200 YEARS YOUNG
b
y Luis Clemente


Photo: Anahí Cármody

Flamenco is a young art form that has existed for only two centuries. Following the incorporation of the guitar, it has been in constant flux. A movement that carried over from 19th century romanticism, it is one of the richest and most singular forms of music in the world. It can not remain stagnant, because its eclectic origin is an undeniable fact. The passing of time has defined the limits of the word flamenco.

Flamenco is all about absorption and metabolism. The concept of fusion is very old, but it has been referred to in different ways, and sometimes it has taken place unintentionally. Many years ago, Caracol said, "You can sing with an orchestra, and you can sing with bagpipes! You can sing with everything! With bagpipes, with a violin, with a flute..." 'New flamenco' is not a product of the 1980's, and, for decades, other kinds of flamenco has existed. Movement is the essential and determining factor. Movement implies life.

Flamenco's origins are shrouded in darkness. Following a hazy period of mythology and mystery, the initial references, which at first seemed so closed and hermetic, are being pushed aside to reveal the most genuine product of Andalusian culture. All folklore comes from old traditions, from collective creations, but it is thought that flamenco is a little over two centuries old. Speculation beyond this point is no more than an exotic whim, a pipe dream, and a flight of fancy in absence of logical assumption.

In the 19th century, flamenco was defined as we now know it. The word 'flamenco' was first applied to the art around the middle of the century. According to researchers, the first flamenco artists arrived in Madrid in 1853, and in 1881, the first "Colección de cantes flamencos" was published, written by Antonio Machado y Álvarez. By that time, an ongoing dispute had already become apparent between two groups: When flamenco became professional in the cafés cantantes, one group defended the uncontaminated purity of the art form, and the other defended its projection through new channels.

The 20th century was a period of recreation, copy and restoration, and interpretation. While flamenco's origin is rooted in an unknown past, it took shape in these two centuries with very slight essential differences produced when it emerged from the spheres of its creation. There has been very little room for experimentation since then, due to the great importance of tradition, although today singing styles are stretched out in more relaxed forms lacking the drive heard in recordings from the first quarter of the century.


Photo: Miguel Ángel González

It is a question of creators, amplifiers, and reproducers. Recreation: the continuous personal sampler of flamenco, with its inherent snowball effect. In this sense, the efforts of compilation of Antonio Mairena (1909-1983) are of great importance. He once said that "El cante doesn't jibe with a universal approach". He was the catalyst of the encyclopedic approach, but there has also been a good deal of controversy concerning the legitimacy of his efforts to ordain song forms, bringing forth an enigma in which there is room for the greatness of one's own inspiration before the inspiration in relics.

The song forms have taken shape, and not another branch will fit in the "family tree" of styles. Flamenco is folklore with a built-in lock, and this is surely responsible for its current state of conservation. Today, it is very difficult to innovate in an art form with such highly concentrated purity, and, in a certain tendency towards entelechy, just the opposite is achieved: the older flamenco sounds, the better.

Only very hard-working artists have been able to bring about the evolution of flamenco: highly creative and deeply rooted artists, with exceptional faculties. Two of the greatest, Camarón and Paco, happened to work together for most of their lives. For twenty-five years, these creative efforts have taken place in several areas, receiving international recognition, and due largely to Paco de Lucía and Manolo Sanlúcar in guitar playing, Antonio Gades and Mario Maya in dance, and Camarón and Enrique Morente in singing. It is as if flamenco began to take on color towards the end of the dictatorship. New instruments and musical forms found their place between the voice and the guitar, and the careers of Camarón and Paco are used as models of these mutations. They redefined flamenco for a new generation.

In this carefully woven structure, there will always be loose strands, divergent paths, and dissident postures: the flamencos that have broken rules, musicians from other fields that have become interested in flamenco, restless spirits from other musical traditions... The history of flamenco is a series of impurities, and progress is an ambiguous value.

Natural evolution. In the beginning, it took place in the household and the consequent processes of adaptation, since flamenco is the result of personal creations and divisions by areas, as observed in the subtitles of the song forms (soleá de Alcalá, malagueña de la Trini). Clearly, those that have made their mark on history are those that have blazed their own trails...

The latest step in the evolution of flamenco is based on reinterpretation. It is no longer a question of progression (added instrumentation or the application of electricity), but one of the audacity of unearthing forgotten treasures from the past. Most rules were made to be broken, but, as an unwritten musical form, as enclosed and well-conserved folklore, flamenco must be adorned with passion.

Towards the end of the 20th century, we may speak of the "element of cultural blending", where the most valuable results are found in experiments that respect ancestral rhythms. This adventurous manipulation of traditional elements has always been of higher quality than quantity. In order to be able to speak of avant-garde, one would have to recover the dense, torn, and brittle sensation that is increasingly absent in flamenco. On the other side is the cantaor, like a living archive, loaded down and charged with references, homages, influences, loans, loot, and plagiary. The moving camera of the flamenco kaleidoscope. It does not occur to anyone that flamenco artists of long ago were also inspired by the myth of the frontier.

The blending of cultures in Spain is not a fashion, but a very old and deeply rooted concept. We are one of the border countries of Europe, made up of diverse cultures and even races. Our force lies in what may be gained from this. However, the handling of this concept is a delicate matter, and it is necessary to search for a more stable perspective of this blending process, looking not only to the past, but towards the future, as well. It must be realized that what is necessary is neither the creation of a colorful mosaic nor groups of integrated folkloric styles, but rather a double effort: the goods one needs must be smuggled through the border, and must then be chewed and digested until this becomes the sound of one's own home. It is not a question of flying all over the world choosing this and that, throwing it all into a pot, and then having a studio technician mix the results into the year's new genre and new fashionable rhythm.

The same principles are at play in the defense of the model of biodiversity: the identity of the homeland is used to counter the effects of globalization. Said in other words, cultural homogenization through electricity. The electric light of the new generations illuminates the cavern of primitive forms, revealing to them the babbling and intimate ways therein.


Photo: Miguel Ángel González

It is no accident that flamenco enthusiasts are staunch traditionalists, a quality that is desirable only in part, as evidenced by the inability to popularize flamenco, to make it comprehensible. Dealing with cantes, palos, compás, and melody is like dealing with living beings: they deserve the respect involved in keeping them alive.

We live in a "techno-centric" and hurried society, in which values are consumed and arts are devoured faster than ever before. With this perspective, it is possible to understand the lack of foresight of flamencólogos (the name given to flamenco researchers, as if flamenco were a dead art). The science of flamencología takes its name from the 1955 publication by González Climent and is dedicated to the study of the past. Due to the opaque nature of flamenco and the lack of documental evidence in this art form-abandoned by anthropology-, these researchers, obsessed with retrospective, have spent so much time investigating its past that they have made flamenco a closed world. And what is worse, their attempts at indoctrination-based on the soundness of their evaluations-have established tendencies in the values of flamenco. Although the primitive authenticity and highly addictive nature of flamenco are part of its character, this sound is also a magnet for the tin poetry of critics that hide behind the concept of "uncontaminated expression".

In a demonstration of vitality, flamenco's artistic value has prevented its isolation from cultural and social tendencies. It appeared in the cafés cantantes at the beginning of the century, it became a thing of intellectual fancy with Falla, Lorca, and La Niña de los Peines, it adapted to the phonograph and radio with Manolo Caracol and Pepe Marchena, it practiced musicology with Mairena, it became liberal with Menese, and it dabbled in cultured poetry with Morente. It was hippie and revolutionary with Camarón and Paco de Lucía, and punk with Pata Negra, and even took to salsa and jazz with Ketama, Jorge Pardo, and Carles Benavent.

I must insist that purity has become a scale indicating commercial value, in a line of defense used by journalists without resources. It is comforting to know that there is already a generation that has not become bogged down in the debate between purists and innovators.

There is little perspective to evaluate what is being created now. Some say that technique and rhythm were much better prior to the 1950's, and that only the singing of veteran artists is of any worth. Others think that these are the best of times. "Flamenco has changed more in the last fifteen years that in its entire history," state La Barbería del Sur. They, like many others, base their attitude on a new vision of flamenco that starts with the 1979 recording of Camarón "La leyenda del tiempo".

Pure flamenco is not old, but ancient, and therein resides its value. In flamenco, the disappearance of an elderly aficionado is like the burning of a book, or the breaking of a record. If the question is one of musical primitivism, authenticity, and purity, the difficulty in innovation is obvious. When the singer and guitarist perform, it is an "act of memory." Sentiment is like a shadow of the memory.

Jean Cocteau defined flamenco style as "a flame that insists on dying in order to be reborn". However, this is a world full of doctrine and unyielding purists, in which there is an obvious problem in the renewal of names, the monopoly existing in contracting artists for festivals, the lack of serious tablaos... Contrasting with this is the attitude of exaltation and reverence of flamenco expressed by foreign musicians, as well as the importance of the collaboration of names like Paco de Lucía and Ketama with musicians from other countries.

In conclusion, an idea of Álvarez Caballero, the most influential critic of our times: "It's increasingly rare to see just the singer and guitarist together on the stage, and it will soon become an archaeological relic. I hope I'm wrong". And he will be. This is the fear of those who are frightened by their future. Pure flamenco will not disappear.

Luis Clemente
Translation: Norman Paul Kliman

 
 
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