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The Relationship Between Flamenco and Literature Essays

The first references to Andalusian singing and dancing are found in Romantic literature, particularly in the texts of foreign travelers. In the beginning of the 19th century Spain was a part of the itinerary of travelers in Europe, and Andalusia was inevitably included (especially its most emblematic cities: Seville, Granada, and Cordoba), and was often the subject of the greater part of the narration of these travelers.
The characteristics of Romantic literature, such as the preeminence of emotion over rationalism, and the preference of the exotic over the ways of the past, made Andalusia and its infinite remains of former cultures a constant source of inspiration. In the hundreds of books written on travel in Andalusia we find that a stereotypical image was created and has been maintained, with slight and logical adjustments, practically up to modern times. In events such as public celebrations, festive gatherings, fairs, Easter celebration, etc. popular artistic expression was to be found in greater abundance. These situations were described time and time again by the Romantic writers. What generally attracted the attention of those writers was Andalusian dancing: “The Andalusian dancers have an advantage over our classical dancers seen in theaters throughout Europe. Their free and fluid body movement can be found in no other place. It is clear that they dance for their own pleasure, and the movements of their arms and bodies are different from the stiff, rhythmic, and geometric movements of the most important Parisian dancers… (Baron Ch. Davillier : “Viaje por Espana”, 1874). “The greatest thing to be found in Spanish theaters is the dancing of this country. There is no possible comparison or imitation; it is unique, and can only be interpreted by Andalusians”. “There is nothing indecent in this style of dancing. No one tires of seeing it (pity he who does). If any defect is to be found it is its brevity” (Richard Ford: “Las cosas de Espana”, 1846). At times though, some of these travelers seem to have been less than enthusiastic about the music they heard.
For example, Ford, who felt such admiration for dancing, describes his unpleasant experience with a singer: “A burly singer, the exact opposite of Farinelli, shouts his prosaic verse at the top of his lungs, resulting in imminent danger for his trachea and the auditory organs of non-Spaniards” However, the general impression is favorable, and foreign travelers fall under the spell of a popular art form that fascinates them: “When one has heard this music he finds all other types to be boring and unimaginative” (Cuninghan Grahan: “Aurora La Cujini”, 1898).
So we have seen that a good number of foreigners were attracted to Andalusian popular customs and gave testimony of them. This fascination was to become a constant throughout the literature dealing with flamenco. Spanish Romantic poets also made reference to situations that are easily interpreted as manifestations of flamenco. In Becquer’s “La venta de los gatos” we can read: “… there, a grocer from the Macarena neighborhood sings with half-closed eyes, accompanying himself on a little guitar, while others carry the rhythm with clapping or the beating of their glasses on the tables… ” “… oisy song, castanets, laughter, voices, whistling, guitars, beating on the tables, clapping of hands… ” The Spanish writers that portrayed local customs in the 19th century also noted the Andalusia of the Romantics (Palacio Valdes, Salvador Rueda, Alarcon, Fernan Caballero). Standing out in particular from all others is Serafin Estebanez Calderon “El Solitario” (1799-1867), who narrated many scenes of flamenco and appears to have been a great enthusiast. His main piece of work of this nature is a collection of various stories with the title of “Escenas Andaluzas” (Imprenta de don Salvador Ballesteros, 1847).
This collection includes two stories that are indispensable to any study of the history of flamenco: “Asamblea General” and “Un baile en Triana”. Estebanez described situations that he had witnessed, offering us a perspective of the evolving cultural manifestation that today is called flamenco. He mentions, for example, the legendary singers El Planeta and El Fillo. Both were fundamental to the evolution of flamenco singing but, as is logical, they left behind no recordings to accredit their existence.
El Solitario also described the song forms (the lyrics to some romances are included), the dances, the clothing, the atmosphere, the attending public, etc. , in such detail that, by reading these passages, we feel as if we were witnessing what could be described as a performance of a forerunner of flamenco. One must search throughout 19th century literature to find descriptions of flamenco, but with all of these references we may draw an idea of the components of this art form in the 19th century. So far we have mentioned the relatively frequent appearance of flamenco or a forerunner of it in Spanish and foreign literature.
However, at the end of the 19th century we see the birth of what can be called true flamenco literature. The year 1881 marked the beginning of all examples of the specifically flamenco bibliography, with the simultaneous appearance of three very important works: * “Coleccion de Cantes Flamencos” by Demofilo. * “Primer Cancionero Flamenco” by Manuel Balmaseda. * “Die Cantes Flamencos” by Hugo Schuchardt. The first strictly flamenco work appears in Seville in 1881, and is titled “Coleccion de cantes flamencos, corregidos y anotados por Antonio Machado y Alvarez (Demofilo)”.
This work characterizes the tendencies throughout Europe of the scientific study of folklore in the second half of the 19th century. One of these tendencies was the appearance of “folklore societies”. The first of these was founded in London in 1878, and only three years later the society “El Folk-lore Andaluz” appeared in Seville, promoted by Demofilo himself, with the firm proposal of applying scientific study to Andalusian culture (among which flamenco was no doubt included).
The book contains a prologue on the origin of the different song forms, a collection of over 881 lyrics to martinetes, deblas, tonas, livianas, seguiriyas, soleares, polos, canas, etc. The work concludes with a biography of Silverio Franconetti (Seville, 1829-1889) and a collection of the lyrics he sang. For the writing of the book Demofilo consulted the singers Juanelo de Jerez and Silverio Franconetti. The “Coleccion de Cantes Flamencos” of Demofilo presently forms the cornerstone of a great part of the flamenco bibliography.
A key work to the comprehension of the figure of Demofilo is “Antonio Machado y Alvarez ‘Demofilo’: Vida y obra del primer flamencologo espanol”, by Daniel Pineda Novo. Another book was published in Seville in 1881: “Primer cancionero de coplas flamencas populares segun el estilo de Andalucia, comprensivo de polos, peteneras, cantos de solea (vulgo soleares) y playeras o seguidillas gitanas” by Manuel Balmaseda. The author of this work was a railroad employee that died of tuberculosis in complete misery a year after his work was published.
He was practically illiterate, and many nights he had to get someone to write out the lyrics that he had thought up during the day. All his lyrics are chillingly dramatic, dealing mostly with sadness, suffering, hunger, illness, death, and cemeteries: There was a stone raised in the cemetery when I got close to look I saw it was my graveHe cried to me before he died If you take me to the hospital I’ll never get out aliveThis suffering is so bad I can’t take it any more I’m calling out to death because now I want to die! | Una losa levanta En el cementerio habia Y al acercarme a mirarla Vi la sepultura mia Me dijo llorando
Antes de mori Como me lleves al hospitalito No voy a sali Mis penitas son muy grandes No la puedo resisti ?A voces llamo a la muerte, Que ya me quiero mori! | Months after the appearance of Demofilo’s work, the German Hugo Schuchardt published “Die Cantes Flamencos” (publishers Max Niemeyer de La Halle). Once again we find a foreigner involved in the study of flamenco. A doctor of classic philology, he carried out several studies on different languages, such as Albanian, Celtic, Hungarian, and Basque. In 1879 he spent seven months in Andalusia, and frequented the company of intellectuals like Demofilo, Luis Montoto, or Rodriguez Marin.
Through them he came into contact with the flamenco atmospheres of the period, and as a result of this contact he became interested in studying the Andalusian dialect. His work “Die Cantes Flamencos” is divided into two different parts: The first chapters deal with the study of the general characteristics of the song forms (poetry, music, language, and metrical forms) and the second with the study of Andalusian dialect and phonetics. Over a century was to pass before this work was published in Spanish in 1990, by the Fundacion Machado.
In parallel to these studies of flamenco, another movement that rejected flamenco began to appear in a significant portion of Spanish society. This is observed in the work of some prominent intellectuals of the period, especially those belonging to the “generation of ’98. ” These writers identified flamenco with dishonorable activities (the truth is that they have never been far from the development of flamenco): dance houses, taverns, prisons, whore houses, etc. , and its exponents were portrayed as being idle, arrogant, young and rich, or delinquent.
These images contrast with those given by authors like Ford, Merime, etc. , and are used to identify all of Spanish society. Europe sees the culture, civilization, and progress of Spain as the stereotypical Andalusia, with its festivals, dancing, bullfighting, and flamenco that travelers crossing the peninsula had chronicled. Some examples: Pio Baroja: In his work “La busca” (1904), there is a chapter dedicated to a “cafe-cantante” which includes this description of a flamenco performance: “La Tarugo rose from her chair and broke into a sideways dance, then began to shake her hips in a convulsive manner.
The singer began to gargle softly; at times he would stop and only the snapping fingers and stamping heels of la Tarugo were heard… When the singer from Malaga finished a chocolate-colored gitano stood up and danced a tango; a Negro dance. He twisted about and thrust out his belly, folding his arms back to his sides. He completed his movements of effeminate hips and an extremely complicated twisting up of his arms and legs (… ) At that moment a fat thick-necked singer and a cross-eyed guitarist with a killer’s face came before the public.
While one strummed the guitar… the other let out a guttural cry, his face swollen, the veins on his neck standing out, and his eyes bulging. This must have been some feat, since it made him turn red right up to his forehead”. Clarin in “La Regenta” (1884): “The so-called flamenco music began to be acceptable in certain artistic neighborhoods and in some societies. The young doctor dressed in tight-fitting trousers, and intelligently combined the normal hairstyle of the day with the bullfighters’ bangs combed back against the temples…
He had finished his university studies that year and he planned to marry a wealthy girl as soon as possible. She would contribute with the dowry and he would provide his figure, his degree, and his flamenco abilities”. The paradigm of this trend is found in Eugenio Noel with his work “Campana antiflamenca, Senoritos, chulos, fenomenos gitanos y flamencos”, the title of which is an authentic proposal of intentions (antiflamenco campaign, rich kids, the arrogant, gitano and flamenco geniuses). Here are some examples: “One of the evils of flamenco is the deterioration in dancing that it has provoked.
Tonight there is no voluptuosity, refinement, or subtle grace. Our dancer is an indecent type; androgynous and tortured. His female companion disgracefully wields her body like her soul: without art or science, only to earn a few pesetas”. (Campana antiflamenca, 1919. Valencia: publishers Sempere y Cia. ). “A man who is flamenco cares about nothing except that which may affect his interesting self. And even in such a case, he must only be concerned with matters of poise, elegance, smugness, suit, and kidneys. There is nothing more revolting than flamenco. It is the ferment of the decomposition of a people… ” (Republica y Flamenquismo, 1926). However, this author is a bit paradoxical since, on other occasions his impressions seem filled with sensitivity. The short novel “Martin el de la Paula en Alcala de los Panaderos” (Madrid: La Novela Mundial, 1926) includes a sensitive description of flamenco singing: “For a narrow-minded Andalusian, hondo flamenco singing and the emotive singing of his land are one and the same.
For this very reason he loves flamenco; because it defies all definitions, all laws; it admits all styles and forms, progressions, sounds, rhythms… and because each one that dances, plays, or sings can interpret it as he and only he wishes. All of this is Tartessian, Persian, Byzantine, probably Greek as well, Mozarabic, Latin, and being all of this and more, all of this is nothing more than what the final interpreter wishes it to be”. The antiflamenco movement has remained, not as a literary form, but as an ttitude shared by some Spanish intellectuals. A milestone in the reevaluation of flamenco was the celebration of the Concurso de Cante Jondo (singing contest) in Granada in 1922. It was promoted by numerous intellectuals such as Manuel de Falla and Federico Garcia Lorca, along with Andres Segovia, Fernando de los Rios, and Manuel Angeles Ortiz. The event provoked an intense debate among enthusiasts and detractors (led by Eugenio Noel and Francisco de Paula Valladar), and was widely covered by the press at the time.
The organizers sought a way to revitalize certain core singing styles that they thought were on the verge of disappearing, due to the hostile atmosphere in Spain towards flamenco. From an artistic point of view the contest was not seen in a favorable light, but from a bibliographical point of view it had two significant consequences: – The lecture “Importancia historica y artistica del primitivo canto andaluz llamado cante jondo”, read by Garcia Lorca, and was published along with other lectures of the poet. The pamphlet “Cante Jondo: Canto primitivo andaluz” by Manuel de Falla, published by Editorial Urania, the same year as the contest. In the period of time between the celebration of the contest and the mid-1950’s some titles dealing with flamenco appeared. Some are of greater relevance than others for researchers, and a few of these titles are: – “De cante chico y cante grande” by Jose Carlos de Luna (1926), and “Andalucia, su comunismo y su cante jondo” by Carlos y Pedro Caba Landa (Biblioteca Atlantico, 1933).
These works attempted to describe the essence of cante jondo, considered to be the very essence of Andalusia. – “Arte y artistas flamencos” by the singer Fernando el de Triana. 1935. It is a series of biographies of flamenco artists accompanied by an extremely valuable collection of photographs of many of these artists. The book provides important details because of the direct contact between the author and the artists. In 1955 “Flamencologia”, by Anselmo Gonzalez Climent was published (Madrid: Imprenta E. Sanchez Leal).
It offered a different approach to the study of flamenco based on scientific methodology and extensive documentation (in 1965 the author went on to publish “Primera Bibliografia Flamenca”, publishers Escelicer). In the following years many different kinds of works would come to form the flamenco bibliography. There are now nearly a thousand different titles, a study of which reveals these observations: a) The majority of studies deal with singing rather than dancing or guitar. Perhaps this is because the latter two require deeper technical knowledge of both the author and the reader; in any case, the difference is considerable.
Of special note is the great number of publications dealing with flamenco verse. b) The constant presence of foreign authors is a characteristic of the flamenco bibliography, and works have been written in such languages as Russian and Japanese. Foreign writers have produced 10% of the flamenco bibliography. This is noteworthy, bearing in mind that we are dealing with an intrinsically Andalusian art form. c) The great amount of works dealing with the origin and history of flamenco, the genealogy and classification of song forms, etc.
There are many studies of this nature, and although some are unquestionably valuable works (detailed in the annexed bibliography), a good number of them were written by flamenco enthusiasts who perhaps relied more on their good intentions than the knowledge necessary for taking on such a task. Many of these studies simply repeat theories of a romantic or legendary nature, at times influenced by local viewpoints, and based on unverified myths with absolutely no documentation or method of study.
In this group of titles we may include a good number of biographies of artists that simply reproduce anecdotes that can be humorous and at times accurate. They are, however, practically useless as methods for understanding the idiosyncrasy of a particular artist or period covered. Mitigating this rather poor impression of flamenco literature, in the last two decades multidisciplinary studies have appeared, dealing with the different facets of this art that are subject to analysis.
There are now prestigious works on flamenco dealing with linguistics (Manuel Ropero Nunez), sociology (Francisco Carrillo Alonso, Gerhard Steingress), anthropology (Cristina Cruces, Genesis Garcia Gomez), literature (Francisco Gutierrez Carbajo), music (Jose Romero, Norberto Torres, Faustino Nunez, Miguel Espin), and even cinema (Angel Custodio Gomez). It is clear that this multidisciplinary approach to the study of flamenco will produce an excellent bibliography in the coming years.
In 1997, the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco held the “First Annual Conference on the Flamenco Bibliography”, with three objectives: – To analyze the process of evolution of the flamenco bibliography. – To establish an internal comparison for each period of bibliographic production. – To analyze the state of current flamenco research. A group of nine experts was formed to debate these questions, using as a reference the analysis of eleven works chosen for being representative of the different periods of the flamenco bibliography. The result of this work is a book that has just gone to press, titled “La Bibliografia Flamenca, a debate”.

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