Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco – The State of the Art / The Art of the State

Flamencologist José Luís Ortiz Nuevo Speaks – “The dance came first” – Translation and comments by Brook Zern

“The foreign spectator has greater respect and understanding of the flamenco aesthetic than the Spaniard, who still has certain intellectual qualms, because it is seen here as a subculture.  The incomprehension is greater here than abroad.”

Interview with flamenco authority José Luís Ortiz Nuevo from Información.es of November 26, 2013

by Cristina Martínez

He took a surprising leap from politics into flamenco.  He directed Seville’s Bienal de Flamenco for fifteen years, as well as other festivals, and he has written numerous books about the art.  Tonight at 8 he will teach a class called “In the Beginning was the Dance” as part of the flamenco course at the University of Alicante.

Q:  Is it true that the dance came first?

A:  We’re in the world of hypotheses, because there are no certainties in the world of flamenco.  But in my particular cae, after a lot of study and reflection, I’ve come to that conclusion, and I also think that at first there was the fiesta or gathering of a group, followed by the development of flamenco, and of the flamenco song as the central component that first became visible in the latter third of the Nineteenth Century.

From the group there emerged the idea of individuality, in the song as well as in the dance and the guitar.  So in the beginning it isn’t an art defined by lamenting or sad cries as was previously thought; the first element – the motor of flamenco’s development — is actually the fiesta.  So the song and the guitar were actually at the service of the dancers, until the mid-1800’s the when revolution of the song began, opening the way for the great solo singers like Silverio and Tomás el Nitri who took over the spotlight from the dancers.

Q:  And this role of the singer as protagonist was detrimental to the dance?

A:  No, nowadays it’s the dance that’s most popular and universal; then the guitar, and finally the song.  The dance is the discipline that has the most adepts and aficionados in the world at large.

Q:  Does it still have more resonance outside of Spain than here at home?

A:  In Spain something has changed, but in general the foreign spectator has greater respect [“valora más”] for, one can even say has greater understanding of the flamenco aesthetic than the Spaniard, who still has certain intellectual qualms, or whatever you want to call it, about accepting flamenco because it is seen here as a subculture.  The incomprehension is greater here than abroad.

Q:  You’re an investigator, writer, essayist and you also produce flamenco-centered events.

A:  I started studying flamenco in the university, and then worked as a journalist and as in a flamenco record company.  I founded the first specialized publishing operation [“editorial”] and then, in my professional fields of politics and culture, I directed my life in such a way that without dancing or playing guitar or singing, I’m a full-fledged [pleno] flamenco.

Q: Though you’ve also defined yourself as a flamenco historian and comedian…

A:  You bet.  As the nineties ended, I started doing a monologue based on one of my books and from then one, I’ve sometimes gone onstage to present people from the flamenco world or flamenco stories.  Now I have a show, Dinero.

Q:  Has the fact that flamenco in 2010 was declared a Cultural Patrimony of Humanity done any good?

A:  It’s a testimonial, it’s a political photo op [una fotografía política], but it’s nothing more than that.  For the flamenco world, it hasn’t done anything.  Those who really do things for flamenco are the artists who carry it out into the whole world, and not some cultural organization, no matter how prestigious it may be.  It’s just another of the perversions of contemporary culture, of the medals and the prizes intended to confer value when the true value is the result of flamenco artists’ work worldwide.

Q:  Do you think flamenco is a Spanish thing/brand/sign of identity [es marca España]?

A:  Well, it’s something [una marca] whose native territory is Spain, but fortunately it’s a universal thing because so many interpreters are doing it around the whole world.  If only [Ojalá – Would that] the international representation of Spain in general were at the same level of quality as that of flamenco.

End of interview.  The original is at:

http://www.diarioinformacion.com/cultura/2013/11/26/extranjero-comprende-espanol-estetica-flamenco/1441944.html

Translator’s comments:

It’s a nice thought, and you hear it sometimes from Spanish artists, and here it is from an official expert with heavy credentials:  We gringos and guiris aren’t as ignorant about flamenco as we think we are.

But it’s not all good news.  As a guitar devotee and flamenco song fan, I’ve enjoyed telling dancers that their baile is not the essential element of the art, just as most experts insist.  But judging from this latest example of hysterical revisionism, it looks like dancers are just as important as they think they are.  Oh, well…

In fact, Señor Ortiz Nuevo makes a reasonable case for flamenco arising from group gatherings or fiestas, which would likely be happy and boisterous and dance-ridden, rather than from desolate cries of prisoners or galley slaves.  (Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.  Did galley slaves have lots of fun parties?)

Personally, I prefer my downtrodden hypothesis to his uptrodden alternative.

I didn’t know Ortiz Nuevo when he spoke at NYU around 2003 as part of an early version of the New York Flamenco Festival.  But I knew he was one of the traitors-to-the-cause of my preferred view of flamenco.  He had left the Gypsy-centric camp and joined the growing group of serious investigators who were re-historicizing flamenco.

Worse yet, they cheated – they went into libraries and dug up bunches of old newspapers and old plays that tended to show that it arose in public around 1850, with no need for a long and secretive “hermetic period” when it was forged by persecuted people to give vent to their woes.

(We took the lack of any public mention as proof of a hermetic period; they took it as proof there was no hermetic period.  Go figure.  We also didn’t trust majority-types writing about minority-types.)

Flamenco, in the new view, was no longer essentially tragic nor essentially Gypsy.

Anyway, after he finished his talk and discussions began, I asked him to please explain how and why he had changed his views about flamencogenesis and related stuff.  He gave a very clear explanation and I thanked him, sincerely, without believing a word of it.

As I was leaving, he caught up with me and asked if I would contribute the American section of an international petition that was being created, asking that UNESCO make that Patrimony of Humanity declaration.

I was surprised that he evidently knew who I was, and honored, too.  I started to explain that since I didn’t yet share his views, it might be problematic and…

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said in essence.  “You know something about the art and its history in the U.S., and that’s all we need.”

I flatter easy.  I happily agreed to do it, he gave me a small book he’d written about flamenco in the New World whimsically titled “Me Gustar Flamenco Very Good”, which had some of his valuable research about early mentions in Cuba and the U.S., and I wrote a long, earnest thing that I thought might help.

I didn’t know any deadline, and when I finally e-mailed it to him – well, it was the very day that Islamic terrorists bombed several trains in Madrid, and suddenly little things didn’t seem to matter.  Much later, with no word, I assumed it had not arrived or had been lost in the shuffle, and let it go at that.

Much later still, I learned that it was indeed part of the petition submitted to UNESCO – and that the petition had been rejected.  (I didn’t know that such petitions are nearly always rejected upon first submission, but often accepted on the second try.)

I was therefore surprised when, in the fall of 2010, I went over to the Onda Jerez radio station to sit in José María Castaño’s otherwise-expert flamenco panel, and the buzz was all about UNESCO finally accepting the petition.  I was secretly kind of proud, though for all I knew, my effort had caused the first attempt to be rejected and its removal had helped the second attempt be accepted.

When a big book came out, I saw that my section had made the cut.  I felt kind of fatherly about the Patrimony, though I never said that.

Regrettably, Ortiz Nuevo’s cynicism about the declaration he helped to engineer (though he doesn’t mention that fact) is probably justified.

In fact, I was dismayed when in 2011 I slipped uninvited into the First International Flamenco Conference in Seville and, amid all the self-congratulatory talk from the many agencies which control flamenco, a UNESCO representative stood up and threatened to withdraw the declaration — because the governing Junta de Andalucía had failed to give flamenco the financial support it had evidently promised as part of the deal.

Anyway, the American petition is here (in Spanish) at:

http://www.flamencoexperience.com/blog/?p=303

And the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Brook Zern

January 5, 2014   1 Comment

Flamenco producer Ricardo Pachón speaks – Interview from El Confidencial – translated with brief comments by Brook Zern

A Spanish publication called El Confidencial recently carried an interview by Victor Lenore with the important producer of flamenco recordings and events, Ricardo Pachón.  Here’s my translation:

Headline (quoting Pachón):  “Spain’s institutions are 100% racist where flamenco is concerned”

He’s known as the producer of “La leyenda del tiempo” (1979), the most modern recording done by Camarón.  He’s also worked with figures like Lole y Manuel, Kiko Veneno and Pata Negra among many others.  Ricardo Pachón (Sevilla, 1937) is now presenting his documentary film “Triana pura y dura” [Triana, pure and hard; less literally, Triana, the real deal], the winner of the 2013 In-Edit Film Festival, where it explains the expulsion of the Gypsies from that emblematic barrio of Seville.

The unifying thread of the film is a 1983 concert that took place in the Lope de Vega Theater, and that served as a swan song for that kind of real-life flamenco as it happened in the streets (among the guitarists we see a young Raimundo Amador).  In the following interview, Pachón denounces the institutional racism with respect to the Gypsies (from the Channel Four television chain to the Junta de Andalucía that controls the entire region), and he points out the real threat of extinction that menaces flamenco today.

Q:  Would you say that flamenco is disappearing?

A:  Well, yes.  The issue is increasingly difficult.  Now you don’t know what to say when foreigners come to Seville, on the recommendation of friends, seeking flamenco that isn’t in the setting of theaters or tablaos [flamenco night clubs that usually serve dinner].   They want to see the old style of flamenco as an intimate gathering or celebration, and that’s harder to find every day.  The old ways of life have changed, and now there are no coherent Gypsy barrios like the former cava de Triana or compact Gypsy groups in pueblos like Utrera or Lebrija.  It’s very difficult to find that kind of intimate, real fiesta.

The whole subject is “peliagudo” [tricky, thorny]  because today everything is called flamenco.  We’re seeing huge paradoxes like the Statute of Andalusian Autonomy that claims exclusive rights to all aspects of flamenco for the province.  The key article 68 then defines as flamenco the work songs of the Alpujarra region, the verdiales of Malaga and the sevillanas.  Those aren’t musical forms that many of us consider to be flamenco.

Q:  In 2011 you denounced the fact that not a single Gypsy was invited to an International Flamenco Congress [in Seville].  Is this kind of problem being resolved?

A.  No.  That Congress had 81 official assessors, some of them foreigners, but no Gypsies.  Now that game has been repeated in the Second Congress, held in Cordoba.  It’s full of anthropologists, politicians and commercial agents, but again they have completely disrespected and insulted the Gypsies who created this culture.  They should have invited the Peña family from Lebrija that includes singers like El Lebrijano and scholars like Pedro Peña.  They also slighted the people of Jerez.  It seems that traditional flamenco is going to disappear, and we’re going toward flamenco as theatrical spectacle.

I’m speaking of the difference between “frontal” communication (between the artist and a spectator who has paid for a seat) and “circular” communication (as in those “horizontal” private fiestas that I had the privilege of attending, thanks to my age.)   I’m talking about the intimate “reunions” or fiestas with the guitarist Diego del Gastor in Morón, or the singers Perrate in Lebrija and Fernanda de Utrera.  I’ve been at baptisms, weddings and gatherings where there aren’t spectators or artists, but simply a bunch of participants.  They could last hours or even days, and there was no economic motivation at all.  That’s when the duende might arrive, the catharsis that’s a key reason for the event.  Those fiestas had little to do with organized productions.

Today the artists arrive at the theater in a Mercedes. Just hoping to get it over with and leave.  I remember festivals like the Potajes of Utrera or the Gazpachos of Morón where people were waiting for the official public event to end so they could go over to the club Peña El Gallo or to find the restaurant where you might find singers like Antonio Mairena or Fernanda de Utrera singing “a gusto” [at their best, comfortable in their element, among good aficionados] until dawn.  That kind of flamenco is on the point of vanishing, if it hasn’t disappeared already.

Q:  What do you think of the current institutionalization of flamenco?

A:  The way things are going these days, it would be better if they got rid of those institutions.  I don’t regret saying that they have a perspective [“enfoque”] that is one hundred percent racist.  There’s an intellectual climate in flamenco where anthropologists are growing like mushrooms.  They get masters degrees in flamenco and go forth knowing a lot of history, but they don’t know how to do the palmas (rhythmic handclapping technique) for the bulerías, they don’t know the metric system, they can’t even tell the difference between [crucial major forms like] a siguiriya and a soleá.  Flamenco has a complicated metric system [the complex rhythmic structure called compás] that combines binary and ternary rhythms [e.g.. 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-1-2-1-2].  It’s not a music for the masses, because it’s difficult to listen to.  It has remained an art for minorities precisely for that reason.   These difficult aspects of flamenco are being sidestepped to make room for the “flamenquitos” [who create an easy-listening “lite” music they call flamenco] trying to fit the formulas for radio hits.  It’s more complicated and difficult to find good flamenco every year.

Q.  Watching your documentary from 1983, it seems that the authorities in Seville have always been hostile to the Gypsies.

A.  Of course, but not just in Seville.  Since the era of the Catholic Kings [Ferdinand and Isabella] in the late Fifteenth Century, it has always been the case, at least until the Law of Vagrants and Malefactors of 1933 [?], that was in effect until two days ago [?].  I think there are forty or fifty Spanish laws against the Gypsies.  In Triana there’s a Gypsy prison from 1949, created by Ferdinand the Sixth.  All the men and all boys over seven years old were taken to Cádiz as galley slaves.  The women were kept separate from them, in walled cities, so they could not reproduce.  Carlos the Third was the first king to give them rights as Spanish citizens.  But hey, there’s still a latent racism that continues to exist, and that we must consider to be mutual, because the Gypsies “tampoco les hacemos gracia nosotros” [didn’t make us laugh either?].  The thing is, without institutions, the Gypsies were incapable of doing such damage to others.

Q:  How did the arrival of democracy make things better for the Gypsies?

A:  At the least, they can vote in elections.  Unfortunately there is no political party or strong association that brings them together politically, but formally, things are better.  There is more Gypsy participation in social welfare programs, for example, pensions, from which they were formerly excluded.  It’s also necessary to point out that they turned away from all that:  To avoid military service, they registered all their sons with girls’ names.  But you also found Gypsies with eight or ten kids that never received any state funds.  Now there is an Institute of Gypsy Culture within the Ministry of Culture.  Civic associations have grown, and they are treated with more dignity.

Q:  The documentary is very critical of the official handling of the barrio called Tres Mil Viviendas.  What problems has that caused?

A:  The exodus from Triana to that barrio began toward the end of the sixties.  After the expulsion, four families remained in El Tardón, that’s very nearby, while the rest went to the Poligono de San Pablo or to La Corchuela.  They were forced out of Triana to be stuck in houses “de uralita” [made with asbestos], without sanitary facilities, that were only improved little by little until running water was provided.   The Tres Mil Viviendas is a disastrous urban experiment where they threw together the [well established and long-settled] Gypsies of Triana with [less rooted, sometimes wandering] canastero Gypsies with whom they had nothing in common, as well as other marginal Gypsies.  The economic solution was drug dealing, and that led to a series of family disasters that would have been previously unthinkable.

In Triana there was a kind of Senate of Elders, all coming from the blacksmith clans [a prestigious occupation of established Gypsy families] who mediated in cases of conflict.  The Triana Gypsies all had trades: they were butchers, or matarifes [worked in slaughterhouses]  or they worked at the docks.  The ironworkers/blacksmiths were the essence of the barrio, but with the coming of foundries the trade disappeared, just as the horse-trading clans lost out when field work was mechanized.  Those who fared best in the exodus were the artists: bullfighters, singers, dancers…  For the rest it was either dealing in drugs or being a street peddler.  Flamenco fiestas weren’t like they used to be because there were no longer houses built around central courtyards [“corrales de vecinos”] , but mud streets and rickety houses where only a few people could gather.

Q:  You recently said the the Gypsies are living their “particular 15M” [referring to the nationwide protests against Spain's austerity programs on May 15th of a few years ago].  What does it consist of?

A:  There’s a generalized “cabreo” [anger] against the Andalusian Autonomy Statute because it tries to monopolize flamenco.  I also see growing resistance to the idea of flamenco congresses and also against TV shows like “Palabra de Gitano”, broadcast on the Channel Four network.  In fact, there is active protest against that program because it presents such a bad image of the Gypsy people.  I believe there will also be a move to have the Statute declared unconstitutional.

Q:  What are the interesting things going on now in flamenco?

A:  Well, look.  Last night I felt very happy to see the new production by [the great Gypsy dancer] Farruquito called “Improvised”.  He teamed up with four stupendous singers and two good guitarists, giving the sensation of being at an old-style gathering of aficionados.  They gathered in a semicircle and Farruquito went in and out of the central hot spot.  The songs and the guitar playing were respected for their key role, and the dancing was just some solo work, or interjected segments.  The production had enormous maturity.  It brought back that essence that we’ve been talking about…but Farruquito realizes that the inspiration for it was our dociumentary,“Triana pura y dura”, which he saw a year ago when we were filming it.  His grandfather [the immortal dancer El Farruco] appears at the end of the film.

I think “Improvised” will be a major triumph, the proof that flamenco dancing doesn’t consist of leaping about, nor in machine-gun heelwork solos.  Twenty years ago [actually 25 years ago or more] there was a flamenco show that triumphed on Broadway.  It was called “Flamenco Vivo” if I remember correctly [it was actually called “Flamenco Puro”, and it was fabulous indeed].  It was produced and staged by two Argentinians who had made a lot of money with a show featuring the tango, and they wanted to do the same with flamenco.  So the producers went to Andalucía and signed up the very best:  Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, Farruco, Manuela Carrasco, El Chocolate…  The folks from Seville said it would be a disaster, that the artists would fight among themselves, but in the end it was a real triumph.

It finally ended only because Christmas was coming and the artists had earned so many dollars that they decided to go back and spend it all in Seville or Jerez or their home towns with their families.  They could have kept performing in New York for five years, but they settled for just one.  It was in a theater with 1700 seats and the moments that got the most enthusiastic applause were Chocolate’s siguiriyas and Fernanda de Utrera’s soleares.  These are cantes duros [demanding, hard-core songs], but flamenco has so much “entidad” that it was unnecessary to do what Joaquin Cortés did, which was to dance with a skirt, or dance shirtless.  You don’t have to “rizar el rizo” [make things overcomplicated]; it’s enough to just learn to play guitar, dance and sing well.

End of article.

Some notes:

I’ve translated this interview because it makes a lot of points I’ve tried to make in these blog pages, but it’s from a respected and authoritative source.  Hey, borrowed credibility is better than none at all.

First, it’s interesting for a change to see Ricardo Pachón apply the term racism to people who exclude Spain’s Gypsies from official flamenco activities and who downplay the importance of the role of Gypsies in the creation and interpretation of flamenco.

Today in Spain’s flamenco circles, it is much more common to see the charge of racism leveled against those who lament the exclusion of Gypsies from official activities and who stress the importance of the Gypsy role in the art itself.  (I’m among those who are freely being called racist for allegedly giving undue credit or importance to the Gypsy aspect of flamenco.  Denying the importance of any special group  is now considered progressively color-blind, and the very mention of the word Gypsy — “the G-word”, it’s called — is often banned in public presentations about flamenco.)

As for the changes in the way flamenco itself is situated in Spain — well, those of us who fail to embrace the tendencies toward breaking all of flamenco’s traditional rules while calling the results flamenco are often called the Taliban for our undue intolerance of modernity.

Pachón’s stance can seem rather paradoxical here.  Nearby in this blog you’ll find my translation of another interview with Pachón, wherein he stakes a solid claim to be the key man in radically changing flamenco from the way it used to be (specifically, the intimate nonprofit traditional flamenco gatherings that he pines for in this article) into something else entirely (i.e., a hot commercial product such as the glossy, highly-produced musical blending and fusion that is exemplified by Pachón’s trailblazing production of Camarón’s brilliant 1979 album “La leyenda del tiempo”.)

Pachón is right about the stunning artistic success of the U.S. Flamenco Puro show but not its financial impact.  I saw it many many times in New York, noted the generally high attendance, and assumed it was a commercial hit.  I was later reliably told that unlike same producers’ show about Argentine tangos, Flamenco Puro was not really profitable – the crowded house was “papered” by offering low-cost discount tickets to groups and school classes.

Incidentally, I was at the 2011 Flamenco Congress in Seville, and I completely failed to notice what Pachón so rightly criticizes — the failure to invite any Gypsies to the proceedings.  (Come to think of it, I wasn’t invited either — I sort of snuck in with a bunch of invited sociologists and critics, and tried to look invisible with excellent results.)

I lived in Seville from 1965 to 1967 — I’m pretty sure that most of Triana’s Gypsies had already been relocated to the Poligono San Pablo and/or Tres Mil Viviendas.  And I wish it had been easy in that distant era to find intimate flamenco sessions anywhere in Seville/Triana, but it wasn’t.  It was much easier in smaller towns like Lebrija and Utrera and Morón.

Brook Zern – brookzern@gmail.com

December 13, 2013   3 Comments

Flamenco Singer Miguel Poveda to Appear in Madrid’s Huge Bullring – Article from ABC.es – translated by Brook Zern

Spain’s major newspaper, in its online version ABC.es of May 8th, has an article by P.M.Pita about the brilliant and hugely popular flamenco singer Miguel Poveda.  It also touches on key issues affecting the state of the art today.  The URL is:  http://www.abc.es/cultura/musica/20130508/abci-poveda-201305071658.html

Here’s my translation, from my blog at www.flamencoexperience.com.

[Headline]  Miguel Poveda:  “The important thing is to open a new door, not bathe in the admiration of the multitudes.”

It’s one of the few stages that flamenco has not yet conquered: Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring.  The flamenco singer Miguel Poveda will assume that responsibility next June 21st, to celebrate his 25 years as a musician.  “The important thing isn’t to bathe in the glow of a huge crowd,” the Catalan artist said in a press conference today, “but to open a new door for other artists, a showcase that has featured many international figures but never a flamenco artist.”

But for him to arrive at this point, Miguel Poveda recognized the fact that many others have smoothed the path.  “It’s an homage to those who made it possible for someone like me to sing in Las Ventas, in Madrid’s Teatro Real, in the Paris Odeón and in New York’s Carnegie Hall – artists like Paco de Lucía, Carmen Amaya, Camarón, El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente…”

He also cited the other greats of cante jondo [flamenco deep song], including Lole (of Lole and Manuel), and Carmen Linares, “who besides being a great artist has always had the humility to support young artists, as she did with me.”  He tells a charming anecdote about her: “When she met me she said I didn’t look like a flamenco artists, and then she added, ‘but that doesn’t matter, because I look like a pharmacist.”

Instead of presenting material from a specific record, Poveda will offer a retrospective of his 25-year career, in which he has focused on different genres, or as he prefers to say, distinct musical “colors”  For example, “the color of the poetry and the poets whose verses I’ve sung, such as Rafel Albertí and Miguel Hernández.”

Also present will be the “copla” – sentimental popular Spanish songs which he says “I have always defended” [most recently in an extremely successful recording which probably far outsold any of his flamenco records] and “popular Latin-American music.  I feel great love for those styles, and in that part of the concert I will go from tangos to boleros to Mexican songs, with a nod to Chavela Vargas.  And finally, on to the fado, counting on the help of the fadista Mariza.”

It was inevitable that the talk would turn to the grave situation of Spain today, and of culture in particular.  “I don’t want to seem too pessimistic, but they aren’t making things easy for the world of art, and of course flamenco music, as always, is one of the musical forms that has it worst.  It’s obvious that the rise in the Value Added Tax [up from 8% to a punitive 21% for performances and cultural events] makes it almost impossible for an artist to develop his projects.”

He went on to enumerate the many obstacles that have made the road so difficult:  “The municipal governments are giving only minimal contracts, and artists have to arrange their own programs, managing themselves, taking all the risk of poor attendance.  And then there’s the problem of media coverage, because every day journalists are being fired.  It makes everything very difficult.”

As an example of the respect that other countries have “for their own music, and their own artists”, and that is lacking here in Spain, he cites the case of Argentina and “the admiration they feel for the tango, the class and elegance with which they treat it, the museums devoted to that art and its great figures.  It grieves me, because for me Carlos Gardel [the late, great tango singer] is in the same league as Manolo Caracol [the late, great flamenco singer].  But we don’t give Caracol the importance and respect that Argentinians give to Gardel.”

End of article.

Translator’s comments:

Poveda mentions Carnegie Hall, where Enrique Morente appeared about a decade ago as part of the New York Flamenco Festival and nearly filled the place.  At roughly the same time, I saw his invited guest artist, the Portuguese fado singer Mariza, do the same thing.

Mariza was clearly a phenomenal artist, but I was sort of nonplussed when she started the show by announcing that she was tired all those sad, draggy fados and she preferred more cheerful kinds.  I had always heard that saudade — roughly the same as sadness — was the defining characteristic of genuine fados, ever since a huge earthquake had destroyed Lisbon and killed thousands.  Oh, well —  if flamenco artists insist on changing with the times, I guess fado artists have the same option.

I think I also saw Poveda’s other co-star, Carmen Linares, in Carnegie Hall, among many other New York venues.  She is the most admired female flamenco singer in Spain, and the counterpart to Poveda.   (Jerez, where I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, has its own taste in flamenco song, and leans more toward hard-core, rough-edged, funky stuff as sung by often problematic people.  In other words, Jerez’s key artists aren’t necessarily folks you’d like to take home to meet your parents, or even your children.  Of course, most of Spain’s culturati think Jerez is just a backwater, and will just have to get with the program.  I think Jerez is a frontwater, and someday the rest of Spain will come to its senses…)

May 9, 2013   No Comments

The State of The Art / The Art of the State: Is Spain Ready for a National Flamenco Day? – Article translation and comment by Brook Zern

The State of the Art / The Art of the State – Is Spain Ready for a National Flamenco Day?

Today’s edition of Spain’s online publication ideal.es includes an article from EFE, the national news agency, which I’ve translated below.  It reveals some important current issues about flamenco including its complex and often ambivalent relationship with the Andalusian and the national government, public funding of this “cultural industry”, and its inclusion in the educational curriculum.

Some background:  The November 16th Day of Flamenco is already recognized by the Andalusian government – which rather remarkably also lays legal claim to flamenco itself, saying that the art (which is not actually defined), as well as the teaching and researching of the art, is the exclusive property of Andalusia.

Of course, the idea of a National Flamenco Day might seem to conflict with this proprietary view, and many Spaniards resent the fact that the country’s truly emblematic art form emerged from its less-developed southern region.  But the opportunity to stake this formal cultural claim may have been irresistible to Andalusia.

There are major efforts to teach flamenco in schools there, though few teachers are qualified or interested in it.  A curriculum is being devised which, in my personal view, deliberately diminishes the creative role of the Gypsies in flamenco’s development.  (The intent seems to be positioning the art as inclusively Andalusian without singling out any particular ethnicities for special recognition.  It may also reflect recent deconstructionist scholarship, which questions key parts of its traditional backstory.)

Here’s the article:

Flamenco:  The Assessing Council [of the Andalusian government] proposes a National Day of Flamenco.

Seville — The Assessing Council (Consejo Asesor) of Flamenco unanimously recommended that the Junta de Andalucia (the autonomous governing body of the Andalusia region) urge the National Government’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport declare November 16 the National Day of Flamenco, announced the Junta’s Cultural Counselor, Luciano Alonso.

Speaking in the Cultural Commission of the Andalusian Parliament, Alonso said that the importance of flamenco “deserved recognition not only in Andalusia but at the national level, because although it is true beyond any doubt that this art is identified with our region, it is also identified with Spain itself as a sort of trademark [“la marca España”].

The date, which commemorates the 2010 inclusion of flamenco [“el arte jondo”] in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Patrimonies of Humanity, celebrated for the past two years in the autonomous community with the object of furthering the diffusion of flamenco and the involvement of society in its development.

In addition, the counselor has developed the five central points (ejes) of its policy regarding flamenco for this legislative session, since it “is necessary to keep furthering the promotion and support of this art and the relation with its interlocutors.”

In the first place, the measure refers to flamenco as a “right of the citizenry”, not just to enjoy it (disfrute) but also to learn about it through instruction in schools (formación),

It then underlines the value of flamenco as an “element of social cohesion” and cites its “therapeutic” value, noting that there are many flamenco-related initiatives in marginal neighborhoods, prisons and rehabilitation centers which contribute to the fight against social exclusion.

To achieve these objectives, the Council works on agreements to foment the art in education and among young people, in universities, and among Andalusians who live outside of Spain.

It also supports artists, both recognized (consagrados) and just starting out (noveles) and “the flamenco all around us (más próximo y cercano), represented by the peñas (flamenco associations), since there are 368 of these in Andalusia with 75,000 members.”

The consolidation of flamenco as a cultural industry belonging to Andalusia, generating wealth and employment, will be another objective of the Counsel and, at the same time, will intensify the internationalization of flamenco.”

End of article

Note the phrase “el arte jondo” — the deep art – to describe flamenco in general.  Flamenco consists of more than fifty distinct forms or palos , only three of which – the soleares, the siguiriyas and the martinetes – are considered “cante jondo” or deep song.  Many other forms are light and cheery – they used to be called “cante chico” or “little song” or, confusingly “cante flamenco” though they were just a subset of the broad art of flamenco.  And most forms are not particularly deep or particularly upbeat, but somewhere in between, and those were called, for want of a better term, “cante intermedio”.

The three deep songs were generally attributed to Gypsy creators – if they are linked to a specific name, that name is virtually always the name of a Gypsy.  So there’s a touch of irony in the fact that the increasingly de-ethnicized art of flamenco is often officially called el arte jondo, when ninety-five percent of its forms are not jondo and about ninety percent are not attributed to Spain’s Gypsies.

As for the Andalusian government’s claim that flamenco has therapeutic properties — a claim first used about a century ago by charlatans who claimed that dance lessons would cure all manner of ailments from cancer on down — well, if I and my flamenco acquaintances are a reliable sample, it would seem that it doesn’t guarantee augmented physical ability, emotional stability or mental agility.

For that matter — wait, where was I?

Brook Zern

December 5, 2012   No Comments