A History of Flamenco, the Soul of Andalusia
Flamenco dance is an art of passion. It’s not just a typical performance – you feel the emotion of the flamenco inside of you. But do you know where this art comes from? Let’s discuss the history of flamenco dance from its origins to its present.
While people associate flamenco dance with Spain in general, it is an Andalusian art, from the south of Spain. In 2010, UNESCO World Heritage declared flamenco on the list as of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
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Etimology of flamenco
The name given to this art, “flamenco“, may be a corruption of the Arabic “felag-mengu” (fled farmer) and felagenkum or flahencou (Moorish songs of the Alpujarras). However, in a sense similar to the current one, the term does not appear before 1836, therefore, it is quite unlikely that it is a derivation from Arabic 350 years after the reconquest of Granada. We have to look for another way: “flamenco” comes from the late 18th and early 19th slang, in which it meant “cocky”, “pretentious”. It still has that plurality of meanings. When we say, for example, “don’t get flamenco” it is as if we were saying “don’t be cocky”. At that time people called gypsies “flamenco” instead of “gypsies”, since gypsy was a derogatory word. In fact, until the reign of Carlos III the gypsies did not enjoy equality.
Other specialists affirm that it was the slender, long-legged silhouette of the flamenco singers of the 18th and 19th centuries – in some way comparable to the flamingo birds- that gave rise to it. Others think that comes from the very characteristics of the song – “flameante” (flaming) – comes the name.
While flamenco flourished in Andalusia, it is difficult to say exactly where it all started.
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Types of Flamenco arts
There is not just one type of flamenco. There are many different variations, divided by origin and geographically. For example you can find Bulerías from Jerez, Seguiriyas, the closest to the Cante Jondo, and Soleás from the flamenco triangle (explained below). Other styles of flamenco are the famous Sevillana from Seville, Fandango (Arab and Portuguese origin) from Huelva, and Alegrías.
Other provinces outside of Andalusia and within Andalusia created their own style of these. For example, Fandango (Arab and Portuguese origin) from Granada (Granaina), Malaga (Malagueña), Murcia (Murciana), or Tango from Cadiz (Tanguillos), etc.
There are also the cantes de ida y vuelta, they are a group of flamenco styles, which have their origin in Latin American popular music. The following styles are within this group: the milonga, the rumba, the vidalita, the guajira and the colombiana. To explain a little more about these styles, “la colombiana” one does not have to do with Colombia, it is the result of the combination of a well-known Mexican corrido and a Basque zortxico with the rhythmic support of a Cuban rumba.
The expression used is “ida y vuelta”, due to the ancient belief that these styles arrived in America by Spanish emigrants. These types of flamenco appeared with the return of these emigrants and the return to their origins.
Origin of flamenco
However, the original flamenco came from further South in Cadiz province. The Golden Triangle of Flamenco is where most people believe the Cante Jondo originated. The flamenco triangle is between the cities of Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera and Triana in Sevilla. Cante jondo is thought to be the purest form of flamenco that still exists today.
The history of flamenco has only been documented for two centuries. For this reason it is difficult to know the precise roots of flamenco in Andalusia. Everything before the 19th century we can learn from stories.
History of Flamenco
There are several theories in the history of flamenco, however all the theories say that the origin comes from the cultural union of different cultures throughout centuries, Arabs, Sephardic (Jews), Christians and Gypsies. However, Hipólito Rossy said that the origin of flamenco musical folklore stems from the three fundamental cultures that are Andalusia: Arab, Hebrew or Jewish, and Christian. And being part of them, the gypsy.
Most theories agree that flamenco comes from Arabic singing. Although Hipólito Rossy comments that, like the language, Arabic music may have added to the folklore that existed in the country, instead of being the basis of flamenco.
With regard to flamenco guitar, you can see the mixture of Arab (plucking) and Christian (strumming the guitar) cultures.
Other theories of the origin of flamenco
- On the other hand, there is a theory in which the cultural “invasion”, spiced up with Greek musical science, and the influence of Hindu music, leads falsely to the conclusion that flamenco singing comes from India. However, some historians think that the gypsies added the similarities to the folklore in Andalusia. The expressive and artistic gypsy contribution to the final result of flamenco art is undeniable.
- Other historians think that flamenco was created by combining Sephardic (Jewish) liturgical songs and gypsy culture to arabic music. It was after that time that this art began to resemble flamenco today. The original flamenco sounded very different from today. In its primitive stage, some say that it was sung with rhythm by hitting the ground. However, it was transformed into exotic songs that exploited emotions and feelings.
- Some theories suggest that to escape persecution from the Spanish Inquisition, many Gypsies, Jews and Moors fled to the mountains. The fusion of the music of these groups formed the origins of flamenco that we know today for several centuries. Others do not agree that it was formed after, but, before, during and after the inquisition.
However, after the inquisition it may be true that almost the only culture that kept flamenco alive were the gypsies.
Growth of Flamenco
In the 18th century, the persecution against gypsies began to subside. They began to move to villages and towns in Andalusia. They brought the music with them. People in the villages and towns found their music exotic and intriguing.
Gypsies began performing at juergas, private parties for the rich. The majority of this growth took place within the Flamenco Triangle, Cadiz and Seville provinces.
The Golden Age of flamenco in the 19th century
The “Golden Age” occurred between about 1850-1910. During these years flamenco shows became greatly popularised. Flamenco bars and cafes emerged and great flamenco singers became local “celebrities”. This is also the time period when flamenco was divided, breaking away from the gypsy culture into different styles. Some of the new styles appeared as well by the influence of traditional local music or each region like “Jotas”.
Many gypsies did not want to perform in the flamenco bars. The bars wanted to dictate precise times for performances and which styles/songs could be performed. For the gypsies, flamenco was a spontaneous and passionate art. What they perform and when they perform it was up to them. For this reason, non-gypsies began performing flamenco.
The non-gypsy (payos) version of flamenco was milder. This mild style of flamenco became more popular and had choreographed dancing as well. The new version was more theatrical, a diluted flamenco show from that performed by the gypsies.
Flamenco in the 20th Century
The flamenco boom from the 19th century decreased in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, the Cante jondo style performed by the gypsies had nearly become extinct. At this time, flamenco mostly existed as Opera Flamenca, a very theatrical performance. Many people consider this time a commercial “debasement” of traditional flamenco.
However, flamenco began to disappear entirely in the 1930s and 40s. Due to the Spanish civil war and World War II, Andalusia was very poor. Flamenco performances died out as people focused on survival.
In the 1950s, flamenco slowly started making a come-back. Córdoba held a flamenco competition and many small towns followed suit with their own competitions and events.
Foreign tourists started to arrive to Andalusia to enjoy the beautiful weather and culture. They noticed flamenco as a distinctive art. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, realised the potential flamenco had to make money from tourism. He promoted it and flamenco bars once again exploded along the Costa del Sol.
During the last 50 years, flamenco has become popularised again and the style has changed. Two modern influential artists are Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía. However, there are many artists who keep Cante jondo alive, which many people consider the purest form of flamenco.
Where to See Flamenco
Flamenco performances now take place throughout Andalusia. However, there are many different styles and types of performances. You can see a theatrical performance with choreographed dancing and music in a large theatre. Or you can find a local bar where flamenco is performed without dancing.
One area where flamenco is very much alive is Jerez de la Frontera. Jerez has produced the largest number of flamenco artists. Gipsies may have started singing Cante Jondo in Jerez. The city is full of tabanco bars, where you can try some local Sherry while watching a performance. If you want to know more about the origin of tabancos and which ones are my favourite click here.
Flamenco is a unique and distinctive performance from Cadiz and a definite must-see in the area. Although Jerez has a lot of places to see performances, you can find flamenco in most places throughout Cadiz province.
Full day Tours in Andalusia and throughout Cadiz province
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