An old friend of mine is a very cheeky chap with a great sense of humour and some of my favourite stories are of his experiences while he was in the British merchant navy in the 1960’s, assigned to the P & O liner “Oriana” as a stewed. On one of the ship’s cruises he was working in the first class dining room when a passenger, who had been particularly rude and obnoxious throughout the cruise, started clicking his fingers to get Brian’s attention. After trying to ignore the man for as long as he could Brian went over to him and told him, in a fairly loud voice so that the rest of the man’s table could hear, that there was no dancing allowed in the dining room. The confused man said he was trying to get a waiter’s attention and Brian replied, “I’m sorry sir but I thought you were doing the flamenco”. The rest of the table dissolved into fits of laughter, leaving the gentleman suitably embarrassed. Anyway it may make you chuckle, though Brian tells it much better than me. Being a quarter Spanish on my father’s side and, so my mother informs me, distant Romany Gypsy on her side, may be the reason why I’ve always been captivated by the distinctive guitar music and dance rhythm of the flamenco. During our last visit to our home in Menorca a few weeks ago imagine my delight then when we found a bar in our local village that holds a flamenco night once a week. One theory as to the beginnings of flamenco is that in the 8th and 9th centuries a substantial number of the Untouchables, a group within the Indian caste system comprising animal traders and trainers, acrobats, dancers, musicians and other entertainers, emigrated from the Punjabi region of India. These nomadic groups, generally referred to as Romany and/or gypsies, divided into two major migratory routes, one moving west across Asia into Eastern Europe and some on to Southern Spain. The second route was down to and across North Africa and up into Andalusia in Southern Spain via the Straights of Gibraltar. These two different groups, while maintaining their own distinctive culture, also incorporated the many elements of music and dance from the ethnic groups they encountered during their long migration. After years of persecution and isolation in their new homeland, some measure of freedom was restored to the Spanish gypsy and the different elements of their dance and music combined to become the flamenco culture, eventually adopted by the general population of Spain. Although nowadays most of us usually appreciate the beautiful costumes, guitar and castenet playing and dramatic dance routines of the flamenco, the most important element according to the aficionados is the singing. If you go to see flamenco at a tourist spot in Spain it will probably only be flamenco dancing you will see. If you’re lucky the dancers will be accompanied by guitarists, but more than likely the dancing will be to recorded music, as it was in our village bar. In fact though, originally flamenco was comprised purely of singing (cante), with handclapping or knuckle rapping percussive accompaniment. The guitar, a variation of the Arabic Oud, was gradually incorporated in the 19th century. Flamenco first became a public, performing art in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the cafe cantante. The first cafe cantante opened in Seville in 1842, and by the 1860s similar cafés were established not only in the major cities of Andalucia but as far as Madrid, and beyond. An audience could expect to be entertained by a group comprising perhaps one or two singers, three or four female and two male dancers, accompanied by two guitarists. This was one of the great ages of flamenco performance as the cafés brought together the Gypsy and the Andaluz singers with their many different forms of flamenco. The cafés cantantes' greatest days were over by the turn of the century, and by the 1910's they were in serious decline. The years up to 1936 were to be the years of the theatrical presentation of flamenco, as public taste changed. War in Europe and the aftermath of civil war in Spain made the 1940's an unpropitious decade for flamenco, with little opportunity for paid performances outside the Americas. However, a concern for true flamenco began to reappear in the 1950's, and festivals in Cordoba, Jerez and Malaga in the late fifties and early sixties stimulated public interest and encouraged a new generation of artists. Nowadays, apart from the large festivals, if you desire to experience true flamenco, you will have to go to the backstreet flamenco clubs and bars in the cities of Andalucia and the larger cities in the rest of Spain. While in Seville a few years ago, we went to one of these flamenco clubs and it was certainly a more thrilling and atmospheric experience than the usual performances put together for tourists in the Spanish resorts.
by Britney B.