Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Authority Norberto Torres

Un Baile en Malaga – 1838 Account of a Flamenco or Pre-flamenco event – Translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  This text comes from Alvaro Fuente Espejo’s website “Puente Genil con el Flamenco”, and was possibly provided by the flamenco expert Norberto Torres.  I believe the text author was a Polish diplomat called Count Dembowski.  [My interjections and intended clarifications appear in brackets.]  The website introduction begins:

The following is description of a flamenco gathering – or a pre-flamenco gathering, depending on your point of view – from the same year as the well-known account “Un Baile en Triana” by Estébanez Calderón.   (Little by little, things like this are coming to light…)

In terms of flamenco historiography, the this description of what [flamenco specialist] Eusebio Rioja doesn’t hesitate to call a “juerga flamenca” [the term assumes it is a flamenco “jam session”] occurred in Malaga on November 4th, 1838, the Day of Saint Carlos, and is described by the Polish writer in a letter sent from that city the following day.  It’s worth noting that this is the same year that Serafín Estébanez Calderón, who was the political leader of Seville, described a similar event in his “costumbrista” work [on popular or folk customs] titled “Un Baile en Triana”.

The letter begins with a reference to the musical and improvised activity as it developed within the collective [association] of the blind, one of the few offices that was dedicated to facilitating this group’s journey from marginal life to integration into society:

“Yesterday, early in the morning, the blind came in with a kind of serenade marking Saint Carlos’s day, which is my Patron Saint’s day.  They sang while accompanying themselves with violin, guitar and tambourine [pandereta]…”

What follows is a dance “function”, organized according to the rules of this type of spectacle, half-private and half-public, in which the flamenco genre is in the process of being created [se va a gestar parcialmente]:

“My companions from the house have come to congratulate me [felicitarme], and to reassure them of my respect [deferencia] for Spanish customs while at the same time  satisfying my curiosity, I have arranged a Gypsy zambra [the word refers to an evening of dance, as well as a specific dance form].

The organizer [[procurador], a service-oriented person [persona muy servicial], has offered to seek out the Gypsies, and they, now that the accounts are squared away, have accepted the invitation of the curial as a stroke of good fortune.

At nine in the evening, all were reunited in doña Marquita’s store:  In my role as the patrón of the fiesta, I gave my arm to the two prettiest Gypsies, and all the invited guests followed me into the sala del baile, illuminated mysteriously by an old lamp with three points, hanging down from the ceiling by a rope.  The eight Gypsies, three men and five women, took their seats in the fondo of the room.  Among the women, Rita stood out by the expression on her Moorish physiognomy and the richness of her voluptuous talla [stature], free of any constraints.  A black leather bucle [loop], adorned with a rose, fell from her left sien [temple], and her short indiana [printed calico] skirt left open to view a tiny foot imprisoned in a white leather escarpín [slipper] that would have been the envy of the lovely ladies of Paris, or the beauties of China.

Seated near Rita was the chubby/thickset [gruesa] Juana, her mother, twice as dark [doble de negro] as her, and covered with chains and fine metal cadeneta [chain stitching].  This is a custom among the Gypsies of Malaga, for “imprisoning the devil in his house”, and that belief has enriched the owner of the chestnut stand that she has in the Plaza de la Constitución.

Pepe, the most renowned bailarín [dancer; usually connotes formal dance as opposed to bailaor, flamenco dancer – but this is likely a later distinction] in Malaga, where he lives by making false keys and running a tavern, wore white pantaloons, faja encarnada [red belt], a shirt with an immense chorrera [frill], and an earring hanging from his left ear with a crucecita [little cross?] that reminded me of the Neapolitan “jettatura” [evil eye].

Rita took charge of the guitar, and don Pedro, the elegant cura [priest], began by dancing a fandango with Dolores, a young embroiderer who worked in doña Mariquita’s house.  The pirouettes of my priest did not scandalize us, because you know beyond doubt that the sacerdotes [priests]  are not excluded by law from Spanish dances.  With the arrival of the tenor and the bass [bajo], who had come from the Opera House where they had sung “Semiramis”, the Gypsy songs and dances began.  One of them accompanied the verses of the “playera”, a song beloved by the moradores [denizens] of the beach, by strumming the guitar; the men and the women alternated in the song, marking the compás [rhythm] with handclaps, a curious effect that they call “palmoteos” [sometimes simply palmas].  At times a gitano [male Gypsy] danced with his gitana.

Imagine the pair dancing together, Pepe and Rita face to face, the left arm at the cadera [hip], the right foot recogido [upswept], as they await the end of the verse.  Soon, the agrio [bitter] sound of the castanets overshadows the the handclaps and the music of the guitar; it’s Pepe and Rita, dancing together, each reproducing the same movements of arms, feet and head.  This the the paseo, or the first part of the playera.  Then, when Pepe launches himself toward Rita, she flees from him, inciting him, and when Rita advances, Pepe retreats in turn.  The moment arrives when the Gypsies renew their songs and mix into them exclamations that seem to embriagar embolden the dancers, and – a strange thing – has a similar impact  on the singers and even the spectators themselves.  “Olé jaleo!  “Toss the sugar!”  “Go for it, move it!”  “Muerte!” [“Death!”]  “Alma, Alma” [“Soul, Soul!”]  “Olé, olé, olé”.  Shouts that bubble with ardor and animation in Spanish, and that would only be possible to translate imperfectly if at all into French.

All the spectators enthusiastically repeat  the words; Juana’s strong voice dominates all the rest.  Rita’s movements are bacchanalian  [son de una bacante], her face is that of a pitonisa [fortune teller].  The flashing of her black eyes  seem to follow an invisible god whose influence she is under; her limbs [miembros] all tremble and palpitate with new life.  The Gypsy does full turns, animated with similar furious energy [furor].  In sum, give me words to describe for you the incidents of this impassioned pantomime so full of  passion, gracia, voluptuousness,  Everyone applauds Pepe and Rita who, drawing renewed energy from continuous cups of ponche [strong punch] and anís, danced several times during the night.

After the dinner, a young widow sang an enchanting rendition of the charming [graciosas] songs of “Tripilittrápala”,  the “Panadera” [bread woman] and the “Contrabandista” [smuggler].  We then heard a Gypsy butcher whose father’s girth was such that he was called the Full Moon of Malaga.  Nonetheless, he played the guitar with rare perfection, and despite his clear voice, we couldn’t listen to him because of his horrible pronunciation.   He preceded each vowel with a “v”, to the point that the words of the song emerged from his mouth so disfigured as to be ridiculous.  It was hard to fathom the vanity of that Gypsy.  Knowing that I was a foreigner, he kept interrupting the verse at any point to offer me the guitar and invite me to be heard in turn.  “Now it’s your turn to sing, sir.”  When he sang en falsete [in a falsetto voice], he wiggled and moved his legs like a madman, and invited all those near him with dance steps to render him admiring tributes.

The dancing was still going on when, on hearing the church bell strike six, doña Mariquita, anxious to open her shop, begged us to put an end to the fiesta.” ) Majado, 1986” 91-93).

[End of text]

Note by flamenco authority Norberto Torres:

This text is noteworthy because it took place the same year as the famous Triana dance of Solitario in Seville, but in another region of Andalusia that is perhaps insufficiently studied in flamenco historiography: Malaga, where we find the same sequence of events and participants.

This similarity shows that the appearance of flamenco is not an isolated incident in a specific place, but a social phenomenon that erupts within a determined context.  In both cases, a key factor is the presence of Gypsy men and women, conveniently organized to meet the demand of a public that  consists of outsiders/strangers [forasteros].

In this case, the key person and patron is a Polish aristocrat.  And the person who rounds up the “artists” is no less than the “procurador” of the city itself, in whom we recognize a consummate tejedor de redes clientelistas, [weaver of social networks] while in Seville it had been the local governor Estébanez Calderón who took on the same role.  The “function” or event seems to dilute the social classes, and in this case we see a congregation of “lower class Gypsies”, according to Ford, and members of the aristocracy, the clergy, and the judicial and artistic bourgeoisie,

The guitar is strummed, played by Gypsy men and Gypsy women, which reaffirms that it was part of the musical customs of this collective group.  ‘’Even Dembowsky – the author of the text — gives us a sketch of one of them who was a butcher by trade, but a virtuoso in the execution of his art, playing and singing at the same time [a rarity in flamenco], as did the [recent] guitarist and concert artist Pedro Bacán.  Finally, we can’t overlook the recurrent references to the noisy nature of this occasion, produced primarily by the percussive sounds of the palmas and the castanets.

End of entry

Translator’s note:  The musical form called the playera is sometimes regarded as an older form of the siguiriyas.  The theory is that playera was a shortened term for plañidera — those hired mourners whose job was to plañir, or weep and wail (yes, plaintively) at funerals.  Their lamenting — which would have been unaccompanied, and without a lively rhythm — was linked to the tragic deep song or cante jondo form known as the siguiriyas, which is indeed a tragic lament with a complex, broken rhythm that may be hard to discern.

Well, say goodbye to that theory.  The real-deal siguiriyas was and is so profound and draggy that nobody dared to dance it until Vicente Escudero took it on in the 1930′s or so.  (To his critics, he just said, “I could dance in a church without profaning it.”  For that matter, the often avant-gardist Escudero, who hung out with Dali and the surrealists, apparently also danced flamenco to the sound of a foundry press or a steam drill, so nothing was sacred to him.)

I conclude that the playera was clearly named for the layabouts and lowlifes who hung out on Malaga’s low-rent beaches or playas and might’ve been called playeras, and it was danceable two hundred years ago.  So whatever it was (it might’ve resembled or been another flamenco form), it sure as shootin’ wasn’t an early siguiriyas.

(Who sez I’m not a diligent, rigorous and qualified academic researcher?)

Brook Zern

January 29, 2014   No Comments