Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Authority José Luís Ortiz Nuevo

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:


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:


And the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Brook Zern

January 5, 2014   1 Comment