Flamenco is indeed one of the most developed and maintained folk music genres in Europe. While there is folk music everywhere, even in Europe, especially in more rural areas, few have such an extended, and internationalized tradition, safe perhaps the also quite well-known folk music from Ireland. For that reason, Flamenco is also on Unesco’s World Heritage List.
That Flamenco might be part of my cultural heritage is not that far-fetched a thought, since also what are probably distant family members (surname and place of birth, etcetera) are also active in Flamenco, such as singer Miguel De Tena, having the same surname as my grandmother.
So I encounter it due to my background, have some connection to it.. but do I like it, that whole Flamenco culture? Readers of my (this) blog could deduce that I am mainly a Reggae fan, though also a broader Black music fan. Yet here and there I also pay attention to other music genres, even world wide, including Spanish music.
The answer is yes, I like and appreciate Flamenco.
There are some nuances, though. I noted that there are quite some misconceptions, and divergent definitions and descriptions of Flamenco and its origins. It also is very broad and varied, with several varying subgenres and patterns. In that sense, Flamenco is not “one thing”, but rather a varied cultural complex centered on Andalusia, developing furthermore over time.
Contrary to what many think, Flamenco is not of Gipsy origin. The Andalusian Gipsy/Roma population soon became very active in it, as players and creators, but originally Flamenco combines several cultural influences within the Andalusia region itself, including local Spanish genres. It also is influenced by the Moorish/Islamic history of South Spain, also in some musical aspects, by Jewish presence, and other aspects, combining all this with Gipsy influences. It is thus local, and after all: if not, the Gipsy/Roma populations in Eastern Europe or elsewhere would have that Flamenco too as main expression, but do not.
Throughout my life, I have learned more and more about Flamenco: both its history and its current characteristics and variety. It started with vague information, also mistaken notions, but these got corrected, as I started to study more reliable and scholarly sources. The contradicting information and misconceptions – or deliberate false information spread – made some facts difficult to unearth.
I read the current (English-language) Wikipedia article on Flamenco, and derived from other sources, I can conclude that it is relatively correct and accurate.
Another source is the book 'World Music. – Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East' (London : Rough Guides, 1999), a book of over 700 pages about several countries, which dedicates a separate chapter on Flamenco music, and another one on other Spanish music.
It is overall more sketchy and less scholarly than even the Wikipedia article, let alone other, actually scholarly studies I also know. Some aspects are therefore not even entirely correct, partly maybe because of ideological reasons.
The author on the chapter on Spanish Flamenco in the World Music book, Jan Fairley, separates Flamenco from Spanish folk music as such more than elsewhere, stating “the roots of flamenco have evolved in southern Spain from many sources: Morocco, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Greece, and other parts of the Near and Far East”.. One country she seems to have forgotten: Spain itself (present local Spanish folk music, already there before the Moors conquered Spain, and the Gypsies came). Furthermore I do not really know what the Pakistani or Greek contributions to Flamenco consist of, but there might be.
Not entirely adequate, and probably a (transparent, thus failed) attempt at “political correctness” against a colonizing European nation as Spain, oppressing its minorities. It is a bit more complex than that. Besides, it is a bit less convincing when someone with an English name does that, England having at least a similar colonial, racist past as Spain.
To be fair, other parts of that same chapter are a bit more interesting and correct as an overview. Fairley rightly emphasizes the importance of “improvisation” in Flamenco music and gatherings, and discusses some important aspects, artists and subgenres and mixtures.
For a more correct and easily accessible description of Flamenco’s origins I however recommend the English-language Wikipedia article.
It is hard for me to say if I necessarily like all forms or forms of Flamenco, also because I do not know enough of all forms.
I am more a percussion man than a guitar man - I am a percussionist after all - and also play a drum kit at times. Some Flamenco is very guitar-oriented, and therefore possibly less appealing for non-guitarists. The connection to the classical guitar (Spanish guitar) is however culturally interesting, Spain being the place of origin of the guitar in that form. That form became in time very widespread and influential in international Western pop music, with all the later developments in the guitar outside of Spain (steel strings, electric guitar, country guitar, bass guitar, etcetera). The original acoustic guitar with nylon strings is still the norm within Flamenco, and I personally like the sound of nylon strings more than steel ones.
Both my brothers play guitars: one specialized in bass, the other in Spanish and Flamenco guitars, so I personally encountered it.
Besides music, there are also Flamenco dances, for which the same applies.
I certainly like to dance to music, but as naturally and rhythmically as possible: just following the rhythm. Some of the moves in Flamenco dances I find nice, but others a bit too stylized and rigid to my taste. At times the male-female distinctions of these moves betray old-fashioned, somewhat conservative gender relations, that I as a progressive, modern man do not feel so attached too. Still, even with such more stylized moves, I at times can appreciate the elegancy and grace, especially when it flows naturally with the music.
What I like most, though, of Flamenco, is that it, for European music standards, has quite an important role for “rhythm”. It is a largely (acoustic) guitar-driven nature, but many styles of playing of the acoustic guitar are quite rhythmic, maintaining specific rhythm patterns, befitting the several subgenres within Flamenco (soleá, buleria, siguiriya, tientos, tangos, regional, etcetera). The recurring hand clapping in Flamenco (and feet tapping) also relate to this. These genre distinctions are defined by differing rhythmic patterns, around which the music is built, rather than chord/harmony structures, as in other Western music. I like this rhythmic focus within Flamenco, being myself quite oriented on rhythm.
Over time, all this became even more interesting, also for me.
The vocal part I like too. The impassioned singing can be beautiful and heartfelt, with the melismatic, North African-like singing style adding some passion and fervor to the lyrics. Some, including my “family member” Miguel De Tena, can sing like this quite well, but Flamenco has and has had several great and original singers, such as the legendary Camarón De La Isla.
Regarding lyrics, I again have a caveat, however. Used to and appreciative of the “conscious”, socially critical messages common in Reggae music – rebelling against the system and injustice -, I cannot focus too long on lyrics lacking this. Many (not all!) Flamenco lyrics are about love affairs or romantic love. Nothing wrong with a sincere love song, or nice poetic renderings of “matters of the heart”, but love, heart break, lost love, etcetera, are well-trodden paths in much popular music. It is part of life, but there is more to life than that.
Luckily, there is some socially conscious Flamenco too, and not coincidentally one of those “conscious” Flamenco singers is one of the first I got into, in that genre: Manuel Gerena. A great, intense singer, accompanied by good, improvizing guitarists, plus having socially critical lyrics, often about poverty and exploitation of workers – and other injustices - in rural Andalusia. Spain being a dictatorship up to 1975, censorship probably limited such lyrics long, and as my mother explained to me about growing up during the Franco dictatorship in Spain: employers/bosses had “free reign” to exploit and abuse lowly workers, with few – if any – labourers rights, during this Right-wing, Fascist-like dictatorship lasting in Spain until 1975 (my mother migrated/”escaped” to the Netherlands, around 1966).
Still not the best-known Flamenco artist, Manuel Gerena, but at least his social lyrics are now openly possible. I certainly “felt” his songs, anyway.
Flamenco developed further, and another interesting direction came with the influences from the Spanish colonies, like Cuba. These “came back” to Spain, you might say, after Spanish music was mixed with African and Amerindian music in Latin America. Some Flamenco musicians, such as Paco De Lucia, were open to these influences, also after travels, and added Afro-Peruvian and Afro-Cuban instruments, such as the cajón percussion, becoming quite common in Flamenco, and at times also congas and bongos, and smaller percussion instruments of Cuban or Latin American origin.
Besides these musical instruments, new patterns and forms developed within Flamenco, influenced by Cuban and other styles, including a subgenre in Flamenco, known as “Rumba”, being Cuban-influenced rhythmically. The style known as “Tangos” in Flamenco is on the other hand partly Argentinian-influenced.
Some Flamenco purists object to these additions and changes, but many Flamenco artists welcome it at the same time, to differing degrees.
I personally like those Afro-Cuban and Latin American additions, and find them often groovy, and combining interestingly rhythmically with the guitar sounds. One of the best-known Flamenco songs, the classic Entre Dos Aguas, certainly has that Cuban-influenced groove.
Rumba-flamenco also spread to Gypsies, outside of Andalusia, notably to the Catalonia and Perpignan (France) regions. Hence, the band known as the Gypsy Kings, based in the South of France, who had some international hits in this rumba-flamenco style (Bamboleo).
More recently, some more innovations took place by musicians active in Flamenco. Flamenco came to influence in recent decades pop genres in Spain – predictably, maybe – resulting in Flamenco Pop and Flamenco Rock, with mixed results. There are several talented artists and musicians, however, active nowadays, mixing Flamenco nicely with not just Rock, but also Funk, Blues and Reggae. I like Makandé, from Cádiz, for instance, mixing Flamenco with funk, reggae, and other genres, adding percussion. He has nice, groovy songs.
Other groups and artists, such as Radio Tarifa, work together with African and other musicians, combining with Flamenco, as a broader “World Music” approach.
The mentioned World Music book names in this regard also, justly, Ketama (mixing Flamenco with Rock and Salsa), and Pata Negra (mixing Flamenco with Blues) as noteworthy bands.
Interesting I find as well some Andalusian reggae artists, e.g. Little Pepe from Málaga, that in their singing clearly show Flamenco influences, on Reggae riddims. Often to good and original effect.
I can conclude therefore, also from a personal perspective, that I like the Flamenco tradition, and in that sense also that I more or less grew up with it, consisting of a nice heritage. Musically, I went in different directions, and was inspired especially by Black music, like Reggae, already as a child, increasing as teenager.
My musical interest, however, has always remained broad and open-minded, while Spanish and Italian music had my interest due to my background (Italian father, Spanish mother), with Flamenco being part of that. I listened regularly to some Flamenco artists (Camarón De La Isla, Manuel Gerena, Enrique El Extremeño, Paco de Lucia, Fosforito, Antonio Molina, and others), with both Gitano (Gypsy/Roma) and non-Gipsy backgrounds.
Later I began making music myself, and in time specialized in playing percussion. I do not exclude the possibility that some Flamenco influences appeared into my approach to percussion playing, singing, or other music making..