Andalusians have a reputation for being passionate, and according to award-winning flamenco dancer Sara Baras from Cádiz, passion is "the most important thing in flamenco".

If you don’t feel it, you can’t do it. It’s not just a physical expression – it must come from the heart.
— Sara Baras

You don't have to understand Spanish to be able to appreciate this Andalusian art form. Flamenco shows are generally intimate, close-to-the-stage affairs. As the lights dim and the guitarist plucks the introduction, there's the click of heels and fingers, a swish of skirt, the song begins, and the raw emotion in the singer's voice will make your hairs stand on end.

Flamenco is popular world-wide and is taught in many non-Hispanic countries, especially the United States and Japan. In fact, there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain! But where does this musical tradition come from? Andalusia, of course!

The history and origin of flamenco

It's been difficult to pinpoint the exact cultural origin of flamenco, because it has only been documented for the past two hundred years. Additionally, the word 'flamenco' (which applies to the song, the dance and the guitar) did not come into use until the 18th century. Early romantic travelers recorded in their writings the surprising and spellbinding nature of a type of musical expression of the people they encountered in passionate and hospitable Andalusia. The oldest written record of flamenco dates to 1774 when José Cadalso examined Spanish society in this book Las Cartas Marruecas. Much of what is known before this time comes from stories that have been passed down through families, in a similar way to the flamenco songs themselves. 

Although many of the details of the development of flamenco are lost in history, it is certain that it originated in Andalusia. Between the 8th and 15th centuries when Spain was under Arab domination, their music and instruments were modified and adapted by Christians and Jews, and later by gypsies, forming a separate hybrid musical style. When you experience flamenco, it's not difficult to imagine that the modulations and melisma (the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession) that define the flamenco genre could come from the monochord Islamic chants. For example, listen to this piece in the canto jondo style by Manuel de los Santos Pastor ('el Agujetas'/'el Agujeta'):

Others attribute the creation of this music to the gypsies that entered Spain at the beginning of the 15th century, and this theory would seem to be supported by Blas Infante (the father of the autonomy of the region of Andalusia) in his 1929 book "Orígenes de lo flamenco". Infante suggests that the word "flamenco" was derived from the Arabic term "Felah-Mengus", which means "wandering country person". However, it is widely accepted that numerous musical legacies exist within the region due to the peppered history of its peoples, such as the Visigoths, the Jews and the Moors. What is certainly true is that flamenco was born of the people, with obvious roots in folk music, and that this musical tradition has been passed down through the centuries from performer to performer to become an indisputable art-form.

The development and structure of flamenco

Un café cantante (1850). Oil painting by José Alarcón Suárez.

The first flamenco schools appeared in Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera and Triana (Seville) between 1765 and 1860, followed by the opening of 'cafés cantantes': night bars where spectators drank and enjoyed a great music show. Silverio Franconetti purportedly opened the first in 1881 in Calle Rosario, Seville. These bars became a trend, and from them emerged the figure of the professional flamenco singer, which was the base for the development of flamenco as an art.

Early flamenco seems to have been purely vocal, accompanied only by rhythmical clapping of hands ('toque de palmas'). Later, dedicated composers such as Julián Arcas introduced guitar playing. During this golden age of development from 1869 to 1910, flamenco grew into its definitive form, including the more serious expression of deep feelings ('cante jondo'). Flamenco dance arrived to its climax, being the major attraction for the public in the cafés cantantes, and guitar players featuring the dancers grew in popularity.

The diversity in the styles of flamenco you may experience in Andalusia are due to the 'palos' or 'cantes' - the names given for a popular, if sometimes inconsistent way of classifying songs according to similar characteristics. Each palo is identified by a variety of musical features such as its rhythmic pattern, its mode, its characteristic motifs, the type of stanza used for the lyrics, and its origin. For example, to determine that a song belongs to the palo called 'Bulerías', only the rhythm is taken into consideration, no matter its mode or stanza. 'Fandangos', on the other hand, include a variety of forms in 3/4 or 6/8 timing, but later developed 'free' forms (that is, with no determined rhythm). Most palos include dozens of traditional songs, while others like the 'Serrana' include only one song. 

Flamenco is made up of four elements, 'cante' (voice), 'baile' (dance), 'toque' (guitar), and the 'jaleo' (which, roughly translated, means 'hell-raising' and involves the hand clapping, foot stomping and shouts of encouragement, like "Ole!"). Whichever way jaleo presents itself, it is performed by the audience as well as the artiste and anyone else who feels the urge to participate. The hand clapping is an art in itself, and although it may look easy, it is not. The palmeros will weave intricate rhythms around the bases of the song. Here's a great example of the use of palmas and jaleo during a flamenco rendition:

In the course of time, flamenco has passed through several states to reach the current moment of great diffusion and international recognition.

The future of flamenco

The constant evolution of flamenco throughout the centuries has occurred without any loss of the traditional sound and style. Paco de Lucía, a Spanish virtuoso flamenco guitarist, composer and producer, was a leading proponent of the new flamenco style ('nuevo flamenco'). He helped legitimise flamenco among the establishment in Spain, and was one of the first flamenco guitarists to cross over successfully into other genres of music such as classical and jazz. Noted for his fast and fluent picados (fingerstyle runs), de Lucía was a master of contrast, and often juxtaposed picados and rasgueados (flamenco strumming) with more sensitive playing, and was known for adding abstract chords and scale tones to his compositions with jazz influences. These innovations saw him play a key role in the development of traditional flamenco and the evolution of new flamenco and Latin jazz fusion from the 1970s. Here's an excellent example of this fusion:

Flamenco is such an important part of Andalusian cultural heritage that the Andalusian Government has created a website dedicated to education in the subject, and there is consideration towards including the tradition within compulsory education. This commitment by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport in Andalusia has been significantly strengthened after the declaration of flamenco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.

Escuela de Baile Flamenco de Ronda

Where to experience flamenco in Andalusia

Well, this month (August), right here in Ronda! Every year in August the Flamenco Festival of 'Cante Grande' takes place in Ronda (this year at the Muralles del Carmen on 27th August, 2017). It's one of the oldest flamenco festivals in the province of Málaga.

If you're not planning to visit during August, there are a wealth of other flamenco festivals throughout the year. Here's a list of the major festivals every year in the region:

  • Jerez de la Frontera: Festival de Jerez - April

  • Alhaurín de la Torre: Festival Torre del Cante - June

  • Dos Hermanas: Festival de Flamenco Juan Talega - June

  • Utrera: Potaje Gitano - June

  • Alora: Festival de Cante Grande - July

  • Lebrija: Caracolá Lebrijana - July

  • Antequera: Noche Flamenca de Santa María - August

  • Granada: Noche Flamenca de Albaycin - August

  • Morón de la Frontera, Málaga: Gazpacho Andaluz - August

  • Torremolinos: Festival Flamenco - August

  • Bienal, Málaga: Málaga en Flamenco - September (www.malagaenflamenco.com)

  • Mairena del Alcor, Málaga: Festival de Cante Jondo A. Mairena - September

The website deflamenco.com is also a wonderful resource for locating flamenco concerts and events.

Right here in Ronda we have daily shows at El Quinqué, where you can enjoy a meal along with the show, or traditional flamenco guitar in intimate surroundings with Celia Morales (every day except Sunday). Additionally, Ronda Guitar House offer both flamenco and classical guitar displays every day except Sunday.

Whatever your musical tastes, no visit to Andalucía can truly be complete without experiencing this cultural heritage of the region: flamenco.

If you have any questions about festivals and events that will take place during your stay at La Cazalla, please don't hesitate to contact us - we're always happy to help you get the most out of your holiday.