Category — Flamenco / Jazz Parallels – The First Analysis – by Brook Zern (19730
The Evolution of Flamenco – An important 1953 book review/essay by Eric Hobsbawm from the Times Literary Supplement (plus bonus book review by Ed Zern)
The book review below – actually an essay – is one of the finest articles about flamenco ever published. It appeared yesterday on my Google RSS feed for all mentions of flamenco, on the Times Literary Supplement archive. (It was a Pdf – I’ve copied it out as regular text.)
It was written in early 1953 by one of my culture heroes, Eric Hobsbawm, a British red who was a famed Marxist historian (not all Marxist historians were Communists or even Marxists – I think it was, and perhaps still is, a method to approach history, like postmodernist-deconstructionism.)
Hobsbawm was known for his works on the rise of industrial capitalism, socialism and nationalism – and he is also credited with introducing the idea of “invented traditions” which has become important in many fields including flamenco studies. Hobsbawm was from a Jewish family that moved from Egypt to Vienna and then to Berlin; after Hitler took over, he moved to London and entered academia before serving in World War II.
Hobsbawm was born in 1917 and died just a week ago, on October 1st.
The article shows an extraordinary understanding of flamenco and raises issues that are very relevant right now. It was provoked by the reissuing of the great 1935 book “Arte y Artistas Flamencos” by Fernando el de Triana, and it also considers some penny-pamphlets or fanzines featuring the hit songs of the era’s wildly popular “cante bonito” or “pretty song” flamenco singers including Pepe Marchena, Juanito Valderrama, El Principe Gitano and Antonio Molina, whose singing had eclipsed the art of more profound cantaores.
(A year after the article appeared, the great 3-record Antología de Flamenco appeared featuring serious singing, and a decade later that kind of flamenco – with an emphasis on Gypsy artists – became dominant in Spain, a phenomenon called mairenismo after the singer Antonio Mairena who spearheaded the movement.
(Today that idea is passé in Spain’s flamenco establishment. The claim that certain Gypsy artists deserve special respect for their alleged ability to enter the realm called duende and to produce the mysterious music that García Lorca called the sonidos negros or black sounds is dismissed as romantic nonsense. And in an interesting twist of the knife, the son of the second-most-idolized cante bonito or pretty song singer, Juan Valderrama, has just released an album called “sonidos blancos” – yes, white sounds.
(In American terms, you might say that the era of affirmative action is over.)
My comments appear at the end. Here’s the piece:
“The Evolution of Flamenco”
Review written by E.J. Hobsbawm (Eric John Ernest Hobsbawn)
In the [London] Times Literary Supplement (London, England)
Published January 9th, 1953; pg. 29; issue 2568
THE EVOLUTION OF FLAMENCO
FERNANDO EL DE TRIANA: Arte y Artistas Flamencos. Madrid. 100 pesetas
Cancionero Flamenco (con los éxitos de Pepe Marchena, El Principe Gitano, Canalejas de Puerto Real, Antonio Molina, Juanito Valderrama, etc.) Seville: Ediciones Patrioticas. 1 peseta each.
For those who accept its unfamiliar musical language, the flamenco of Andalusia possesses that concentrated capacity to move the emotions which sometimes makes small and simple works of art the momentary equal of great and complex ones. Its effect on modern Spanish poets and musicians has been profound; of all the forms of popular poetry and music on which they have fortunately been able to draw, flamenco has provided the most immediate and powerful inspiration. Without that inspiration it is difficult to understand much of the golden age of Spanish genius which ended with the defeat of the Republic. Its effect on the international repertoire of ballet, opera and concert has also been great; for the distinctively Spanish part of it derives mainly from the inflections of Andalusian popular music. Flamenco has, however, another claim on our attention. It was born and has flourished in the atmosphere of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which have normally proved fatal to the great forms of popular art, and it achieved its greatest glories between 1850 and 1930. This art of long-drawn, descending, ornamented phrases, Scarlatti-like guitar accompaniment and assonant repeating verse-lines, is roughly contemporary with the Victorian music-hall and Gilbert and Sullivan. Moreover, like the comparable folk-music of the Mississippi Delta, it has been a great colonizer. From a small corner of southern Spain it spread – admittedly in a debased form — across the peninsula and into the wider hispanic world to become a generally accepted idiom of popular entertainment.
Our small knowledge of this remarkable evolution was greatly increased in 1935 when Fernando el de Triana , a veteran performer, was prevailed upon to publish his collection of memories, critical appreciations and portraits of flamenco dancers, singers and players. The book has now been reissued with an appendix by Máximo Quijano, discreetly surveying the flamenco some at present, 70 years after “Demófilo’s” pioneer singer of the great singers, 30 years after de Falla, García Lorcs and others organized their cante hondo festival in Granada. From this platform we may conveniently survey the art.
Flamenco is, like the Negro blues which it resembles, a folk-music transmuted by the nineteenth-century city; it is the creation of professional entertainers in the music-halls which began to appear in Spain after 1850. Andalusian artist, musical spectacles and the migration of poor Southerners spread it across the country as the trek of Negroes up the Mississippi Delta spread jazz. In fact, readers of Don Fernando’s book will be struck by the similarities in the evolution of these arts. Both took shape in great port towns, New Orleans, Seville and Cadiz, serving areas which have some social characteristic in common. Both have provoked the same arguments about their “racial” character; the same charges that they were inevitably lined with crime and prostitution, and the same indignant denials. This is not surprising. Professional entertainment, crime and sport, the occupations which set the very poor free from the bondage of wage-labour, merge into one another. Specially underprivileged peoples, like Negroes and gypsies, naturally supply a high proportion of entertainers of all kinds: certain gypsy families have impartially produced singers, dancers and bull-fighters of the highest caliber for generations. These arguments are not of great interest. What matters is that flamenco is essentially an art of the poor, who provide both its artists and its audiences. Since, unlike bull-fighting, it does not even require large capital investment, it owes nothing of substance to the patronage of the wealthy or intellectual fancy, and everything to the private singing of gypsies in some back room, to the miners whom Don Fernando recalls visiting for the pay-day festivities, or to the communities of expatriates from the South for whom he sang their native fandangos. Their traditional folk-song and folk-dance was, and remains, the foundation of the professionals’ art, though this was much more ambitious, elaborate and individualized.
It is the emergence of this community of flamenco artists from anonymity which Don Fernando chronicles. They were known by sketchy nicknames: Paco from Seville, the man from Lebrija, Crippled Pinea, Ramoncillo from the Pottery, Portuguese Antonio, Crazy Mateo, Snub-nose from Jerez, the Old Man from the Island, Little Salvador. Like Francisco Díaz (“The Lucena Kid”), they made the transition from the amateurism of Richard Ford’s barber-guitarists to fully fledged professional life. Like Franconetti, they gave up tailoring to sing the songs of the gypsy smiths. Like the Cartagenera they met the hostility of their neighbours to pioneer professional women singers:
Conchita la Peñaranda,
The one who sings in the café
Has lost all shame,
Though she was a respectable woman.
Like the people from whom they sprang, these artists composed and improvised naturally abouththeir own lives and fortunes – love, sickness, death of friends, self-assertion, local pride, complaint of poverty and police, and and occasional song in praise of a hero of the political left. Unlike the amateur, however, they developed the specialist artist’s intense and technical pride in their complicated craft, a quality which sometimes becomes very moving on Don Fernando’s pages. This combination of characteristics has produced perhaps the most remarkable achievement of flamenco, as it is of blues: in the mouths of the great cantaoras the thoughts and feelings of normally inarticulate women have found direct expression as art.
As soon as folk-art leaves the safe base of untrained performers or conventional occasions, purists scent degeneration. As early as 1881 critics feared that the cafés would kill gypsy song. Such fears were then still unjustified. It is true that the golden-age flamenco, such as we may still hear on the records of the Niña de los Peines, was a modified and mixed folk-art. Moreover, competition between great virtuosi led to an elaboration, and sometimes a floridity, of style which lost much of the primitive austerity, and has made flamenco sound progressively more “oriental”. Yet this loss was probably more than offset by the professional artists’ gain in technique and emotional power. In any case, flamenco remained a form of folk-art, though one in rapid evolution. Its great artists were both creators – for they invented and improvised – and interpreters, and as they turned the technical and conventional limitations of their style to advantage, perfected an idiom of popular art of great economy and power. Its foundation was the copla, popular poetry divorced from the traditional functions of rural life and turned into a medium of free personal expression. The copla, like the modern bull-fight, is the product of that cultural revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which the feudal society of Andalusia could not stifle, as it stifled political or industrial revolutions; without it the gap between poetry and the music-hall could hardly have been bridged. The beauty of these three- to seven-line verses lies in the nakedness of laconic statement with a certain compressed ambiguity, combined in the love-poems at least, with the formalities of an elaborate courtship ritual:
Clareando biene er día;
Ya lo abisa la cornís;
Adios, prenda de mi bía.
(The dawn breaks. Now the quail announces it. Good-bye, joy of my life.) The “hit songs” of the golden age were of this sort, and it is not surprising that the poets and musicians treated both the art and the artists with the utmost respect.
However, in the history of every popular art under private enterprise there comes a point when the entertainer gives way to the entertainment industry, which is at best eclectic, at worst destructive. Even in the 1920’s and 1930s connoisseurs and artists in the old tradition fought a rear-guard action, and since then matters have got worse. Compared to the older songs, the “hits” of the 1950s make disquieting reading, and this is not only because many of them are now professionally written “lyrics” of no greater poetic interest than our own dance-band verse, and of much the same character; possessing at best a robust music-hall sentimentalism. Authentic flamenco verse is indeed still sung. Most singers perform a number of anonymous couplets, chiefly the comparatively recent fandangos and alegrías, but also the beautiful three-line soleares or blues. One or two lyric-writers continue to strike the right unadorned note, if only by a laudable though unacknowledged pillaging of the traditional collections of coplas. Some stars show good taste, and perform few of the more appalling numbers. Yet there is an air of the museum even about the authentic repertoire. The bullfighters about whom Canalejas sings have been dead longer than John L. Sullivan; the ship in Antonio Molina’s Cadiz is a three-master. Nothing in these verses suggests that they have been written by specific people, to-day, in particular places, out of their personal lives. There is none of that sometimes naïve atmosphere, at once universal and private, localized and general, which still pervades the coplas song by amateurs as it does the great printed collections. The flamenco of the entertainers is, in fact, drawing dangerously far away from its source and inspiration.
Sr. Díaz de Quijano’s postscript to Don Fernando’s book confirms this impression. The Spanish entertainment industry, aided by the authorities, has tended to transform flamenco from a popular art into a piece of colourful and traditional bric-a-brac, like sporrans and Venetian gondoliers. This is not to deny that the modern “espectáculos folklóricos” and their like may be pleasant minor forms of entertainment in their own right, as Hungarian gypsy operettas are. Authentic flamenco artists still adorn them, together with performers in the new and bastardized idiom. But this is no longer the art which filled the poets and musicians with awe and intoxication. Nor have the artists remained untouched. The postscript suggests that no new singers of major stature – especially no women singers of importance – have appeared since 1935, and hints lightly at a number of emigrants. Guitar-players have been less affected, dancers perhaps least, for it has proved possible to carry some of the flame of the art into the newer forms of spectacle and ballet. However, no major woman flamenco dancer seems to have arisen since the death of La Argentina.
If flamenco should go the way of so many other popular arts, our loss would be great. Fortunately, so long as the common people of Spain still used the language of poetry and dancing to express their comments and emotions, there is no reason why it should permanently decline. Yet as things stand, more will be needed to revive it than a mere enthusiasm for “el folklore” or for the capacity of gypsy spectacles to attract box-office customers, and the elegiac tone of Sr. Quijano’s postscript indicates that lovers of the art in Spain to-day are not optimistic about its chances. One can only hope that they will prove mistaken.
End of E.J. Hobsbawm’s 1953 book review/article in the Times Literary Supplement.
Wow. Where to begin? Well, this may be the first piece to draw serious parallels between serious flamenco song and the American blues that came out of the Mississippi Delta. (My 1973 effort on that topic, which I’d hoped deserved that accolade, appears elsewhere in this blog.) Hobsbawm then notes that “both have provoked the same arguments about their ‘racial’ character” – foretelling today’s situation where it has become politically incorrect to advocate a “gitanista” or “Gypsy-ist” viewpoint (sometimes called “racism”, to my dismay), and preferable to stress the idea of flamenco as Andalusian without identifying or crediting any sub-culture.
Hobsbawm is also acutely aware of the situation of women in flamenco – perhaps today’s hottest topic – citing the nasty reaction to the idea of women like Conchita la Peñaranda appearing in public. He loves the idea of oppressed women finding their voices in flamenco, and in the blues. And he worries about the fact that no significant women singers have appeared since 1935, and no great women dancers since Argentina – I wonder if he was aware of Carmen Amaya or the other noted touring bailaoras in early 1953.
Hobsbawm also understands the great seminal 1883 work of Antonio Machado y Alvarez, writing as Demófilo, called Cantes Flamencos. (I took that book as Holy Writ – today, it is considered suspect or misleading for its focus on Gypsies as the crucial players in this field. And, ironically, the charge often leveled against the book is that “Gypsy” is in some measure an “invented identity” – a concept that Hobsbawm himself is often credited with introducing into modern sociological or anthropological analysis.)
Inevitably, Hobsbawm also highlights the conflicts that arise from the professionalism and increasing commercialization (now linked to the idea of “commodification”). He specifically mentions Franconetti – Silverio Franconetti, the great non-Gypsy singer behind the creation of the cafes cantantes where flamenco first went public. He also notes that one result is increasingly flowery vocal acrobatics, which in his view makes the music more “oriental” (his quotation marks). (Somehow I don’t see flowery, highly ornamented flamenco forms – a complex malaguena or taranta, for example – as more “oriental” than an equally complex but (to me) unornamented siguiriya or solea or martinete.)
In case after case, Hobsbawm nails essential points about flamenco that are still crucial to today’s arguments. He casually and constantly reveals his deep knowledge, as in “the beauty of these three- to seven-line verses lies in the nakedness of laconic statement with a certain compressed ambiguity.” He seems to translate the key deep song style called the soleá as “blues” – a perceptive move, since the word may be a form of the word soledad or solitude.
And he goes to the heart of today’s key debate about the necessity of continuing evolution of flamenco when he says, “Yet there is an air of the museum even about the authentic repertoire.”
I wish I’d known that Hobsbawm was still alive until last week. I would’ve tried to track him down to learn more about flamenco – and to ask if he happened to have any interesting private recordings lying around.
Incidentally, this is only my second-favorite book review. My favorite book review was written by my father, Ed Zern, a fisherman and conservationist who for decades had a regular column called Exit Laughing in Field & Stream magazine. Here it is:
BOOK REVIEW — Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.
End of review. My father told me that he was delighted to get a lot of letters taking him to task for completely missing the point of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But he said his his favorite letter was from a reader who asked where he could purchase a copy of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.
October 9, 2012 No Comments