Why Flamenco does not come from India.
“Flamenco comes from India”. I have heard this said so many times over the years. Every time I hear it I think it is such a simplistic statement. It shows how little information there is about the origin of this beautiful art form we all love so much.
We all know that Indian Kathak and Bharatanatyam dances have footwork, very different footwork technique to flamenco, but footwork. Despite that, Kathak as we know it today was developed in the courts of the Mogul Empire starting in the 16th Century. As we will see later the gypsies arrived in what today is modern Spain in 1425. If we think about the length of time the gypsies took in their migration from Rajasthan and the Punjab, it is very unlikely that they knew what Kathak dance was.
Today we can see connections between these two art forms despite the great geographical, historical and cultural differences they have. I wonder why we don’t see the connection between flamenco and the zapateo or footwork of the Mexican Jarabe Tapatío?
To say flamenco comes from India is as if we were to say American musical theatre comes from Italian opera or jazz comes from Africa. Those art forms are so American that nobody would dare to question their origin. For instance, let us look at jazz. The majority of jazz pioneers were African-Americans. Yet, just because the ancestors of people who created and practiced an art form came from somewhere else - even though African-Americans are Americans - it doesn’t mean that art form comes from the same place from which they originated. Jazz has obviously, among others, African roots, that doesn’t make it an African art form. Again, that is simplistic, not accurate. Even more so, don’t the majority of Americans-except for the Native-Americans-come from somewhere else? Despite that, nobody would say rock and roll comes from England, Poland or Germany. Culture, history and art arise from processes much more complex than this simplistic point of view.
I have even heard the crazy theory, hypothesis or whatever you want to call it that because the Celts settled in the Iberian Peninsula and Irish step dance comes from a country of Celtic heritage, that flamenco footwork is somehow descended from Irish step dancing. It is believed the Celts came to the Iberian Peninsula-remember, back then it wasn’t called Spain- in the 6th Century BC. There is no way we could know what those Celtic people’s dances were like!!! I also find hard to believe the flamencos of the golden age in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries had any knowledge of Irish step dance.
In the modern age of communication we have access to incredible amounts of information. Mass culture, technology and media make everything so immediate and instantaneous that we tend to forget that some cultural processes took generations to arrive to the forms we know today. Those processes were isolated from one another even though we may find similarities among different art forms. It boils down to the fact that we all are human beings, with the same talent for creative thinking, breathing the same air, we all have the same bodies and the same physiology that is affected by gravity in the same way everywhere in the world, therefore the similarities in our art forms.
As a Spaniard, I feel as if something so dear to me and to my culture was being taken away. The general public most of the time does not go beyond the cliché when it comes to flamenco. Yet we are willing to believe or draw mistaken conclusions. I would even say more: in this time and era of political correctness, I don’t find it politically correct to say “flamenco comes from India”. Are my people, Spaniards, gypsies and non gypsies alike, so stupid they cannot create their own art form?
I would like to encourage artists, educators and all those who do care about flamenco to make the extra effort to do their research, to get closer to the new thinking from the latest research. I would like to see more accuracy, especially when introducing this art form to the general public and school students.
It is amazing how important and how much part of people’s lives flamenco is in the United States. We are so far away from the source of this culture, yet we do care so much about it. I love the fact that interest in flamenco is widespread today. Within the context of today’s flamenco we need to put it in its right place, and knowing about its origins, I think, is very important. In order to go forward we need to know where we came from.
In this article it is my intention to try to organize some of the information I have gathered from books I have read. It is a shame all the flamenco bibliography coming out of Spain has not been translated into English. The advances in flamenco research have been incredible over the last few years.
When you love something, you should get to know it in depth, getting to the heart of whatever subject you love. When you start learning about something it is accurate to use the scientific method. One must gather as much information as one can, combine the evidence and come to a conclusion or hypothesis. One has to come to an overall idea of the subject beyond the myths, legends, oral traditions, misunderstandings and romanticism.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m the first one who feels romantic about flamenco and love the oral tradition, for flamenco would be nothing without oral tradition. There is a “truth” to be found as beautiful and passionate as the legend itself. I have learnt that in Scandinavian oral tradition the northern lights were believed to be the souls of warriors fighting one another. We now know they are caused by electrically charged particles from the solar wind, colliding with the strongest area of the Earth’s magnetic field at the North Pole. The science is as fascinating as the legend.
People from Andalusia, both “gitanos” and “payos” (gypsy and non-gypsy), created flamenco. There would not be flamenco without one or the other. They are all people of Andalusia and they created their own traditional art form.
Ever since the beautiful musical documentary by the French filmmaker Toni Gatlif entitled “Latcho Drom” was released it has become a pop culture icon, especially among the followers of the so called “world music” genre. After watching this movie some people came to the erroneous conclusion that flamenco came from India.
In this movie the migratory journey of the gypsies is portrayed in beautiful musical vignettes starting in the Indian northeastern region of the Rajasthan through Egypt, Turkey, the eastern European countries of Rumania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, France and finally Spain. Even though the musical styles in these vignettes are completely different, some people still came to the conclusion we are discussing here.
If one thing is obvious in these performances, it is the incredible talent and creativity of the gypsy people, the idiosyncratic way in which they re-interpret the music of the areas they settle in. They throw into the mixture their own raw musical talent creating new flavors and art forms from the folkloric music they find in their travels.
Gypsies came from India after a long migration that took them halfway across the world through centuries of traveling. Yet, we don’t find flamenco anywhere else but the South of Spain. The first historical records we have of the arrival of the gypsies in the Iberian Peninsula are from 1425 where we find them in Barcelona. From there they spread all over Spain and Portugal. We tend to think of gypsies as a homogeneous group of people and culture but there are many different groups with different customs, ways of living, occupations and musical traditions. They share a common ancestry but when it comes to music and dance there are many distinct styles.
The question now is. Why does flamenco not come from India?
Language. Language is the first reason and the most obvious one. Flamenco is performed in Spanish. It is Spanish with an accent from Andalusia in which we find words from “caló” the language from the Spanish gypsies as well as the “lenguaje de germanía” the slang or jargon of the lower classes in the streets of Andalusian cities. These two became almost inseparable by the 19th Century. If you are not an expert in linguistics it is difficult to know if some of those words came from one or the other. Flamenco lyrics follow Spanish grammatical rules; they are not Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, or any other Indian language or dialect.
Stanzas. The stanzas of flamenco lyrics are also found in the folkloric music of the rest of Spain and Latin America as well as Spanish and other European poetry. I don’t know much about the lyrics in Indian music but I’m sure the meters of the stanzas don’t follow the rhymes of flamenco.
Rhythm. The rhythms of flamenco are not found in Indian music. Some of them are found in early Spanish music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. We find twelve count rhythms in the folías, chaconas, zarabandas, jácaras and canarios, all of them musical and dance forms found in Spanish tradition. These twelve count rhythms may well be influences from African slaves’ music via the Americas and Spain itself. You may be surprised that 12% of the population of Seville in the 17th Century was of African origin. The first style or rhythm attributed to flamenco that is found in historical records is the fandango, a term used in Spanish music even before the word flamenco was used the way we use it today. We don’t hear about the word “flamenco” with reference to the art form until the middle or late 19th Century. The newer studies also attribute to the word fandango an African origin.
The tango rhythm is a relatively recent addition to Spanish music. It was in the late 1840’s when a song and dance called “el Tango Americano” or “Baile de Negros” arrived in the dance halls of Spain. It was a style of Cuban “güaracha” whose rhythm was related to the habanera pattern that became so popular in Europe as to inspire opera composers. The flamenco artists adopted this new dance and added their lyrics and melodies or created new melodies altogether, becoming what we know today as one of the most popular flamenco styles. It is believed that two artists from Cádiz, Marruro and Enrique el Mellizo, slowed down the tango creating another style, the tiento, by the turn of the 20th Century. I don’t understand why people want to associate flamenco with India while the Afro-American-Caribbean influences are so much more evident and plausible.
Modes or scales. Even though we can hear echoes of Moorish, Al-Andalusian and Sephardic Jewish music in the folk music of Spain, the melodies of flamenco are fairly recent creations. It was in the mid 19th Century that flamenco started to develop its musical forms as we know them today. The traditional flamenco scales are the Medieval Phrygian (or Dorian), major and minor scales which make flamenco a modal style of music. We find scales similar to the Medieval Phrygian scale in other musical traditions: the maqam (mode) Hijaz in Arabic music or the thaat (thaat means mode in Indian tradition) Bhairav in Northern India. Even though those modes may sound similar to a Western ear, I think they respond to very different musical traditions. We have to go back, really far back, in history to find the “musical DNA” from which those modes originated.
When we talk about flamenco we need to come closer in time and space to find the evidence of its origin. The origins are in Spain and in its former colonies in the Americas.
We know Gregorian chant includes the Medieval Phrygian mode in its repertoire. It has been documented that the low clergy used to preach the Gospels to the illiterate by chanting them in Spanish in the streets and squares of cities and villages. This was banned by the Catholic Church as the official language of the Church at the time was Latin. This practice didn’t stop and very possibly gave birth to the saetas. Saetas are devotional songs sung in the streets of Andalusia to the processional images of Jesus and the Virgin during Holy Week. These saetas very possibly gave birth later on to other a capella styles such as carceleras, tonás, and martinets. These, it is said by the new research, developed into the cante jondo (deep song) styles of seguiriyas.
From the Middle Ages all the way to the early 20th Century there was a guild of blind singers and storytellers in Spain. They used to sing medieval ballads, episodes of the Bible, miracles of Saints, historic events of their time, even the adventures of “bandoleros” or bandits and smugglers in the sierras of Andalusia and the rest of Spain. These blind singers and story tellers would accompany themselves with the strumming of a guitar and sell their stories printed on chapbooks, little booklets bound by a thread or saddle-stitched. These chapbooks or pamphlets were part of a Spanish literary genre called “pliegos de cordel (thread bound booklets). They were so common among the populace that the stories in them became part of the repertoire of folk music. The “romances” we find in the flamenco repertoire today are excerpts of these ballads interpreted within much modern and recent flamenco melodies from the 19th Century. Those melodies of the “romances” are not from the Middle Ages but very possibly from the blind ballad singers that were adopted by flamenco artists.
The bolero school of dance of the late 18th Century also had a great influence in the development of flamenco. “La Escuela Bolera” was a balletic interpretation of Spanish folk dances. The dances of the bolero school were fandangos, jaleos, seguidillas (these gave birth to the sevillanas), zorongos, peteneras, cachuchas, el ole de la Curra and boleros among others. Some of these dances have names that are reminiscent of what flamenco styles would be called later on. I could go on and on describing examples like these about other flamenco styles and their origins.
Even bullfighting has an influence in flamenco, not only in the movements of the flamenco dancer but in the way those traditions are interwoven in Spanish culture. There is no way we can separate bullfighting and flamenco because a lot of times bullfighters themselves enjoyed flamenco or were flamenco artists themselves. For instance the word “tercio” means literally “a third” in Spanish. When it comes to “tauromaquia” or bullfighting it means the different stages of a bullfight. “Tercios” are also the melodic phrases of a flamenco song. There are many more examples like this shared by these two traditions.
Especially since the 1960’s, it was believed that there is a genealogical tree of flamenco styles in which the styles performed without the guitar “cantes a palo seco” were at the trunk of that tree. From there all the rest of flamenco styles or “palos” (palo in Spanish, among other meanings, is a suit of a deck of cards; therefore we have “flamenco suits”) shoot out from that trunk. It was also said that “Flamenco began with the singing”. I don’t think that is accurate based on the findings mentioned above. Spanish people have danced forever: there are traditional dances in every village and town. There has also been guitar music in Spain for centuries. The guitar was born in Spain. Why would the flamenco artists refrain from dancing and using the guitar early on in flamenco history?
Rather than a genealogical tree I think there was a parallel evolution of different artistic expressions which in time were all gathered under the umbrella of flamenco.
The Romantic Movement that took place in Europe from the early 19th Century and their Dionysian obsession with freedom, Turks and their harems, Moors, Gypsies and civilizations of past times, gave the cultural context in which flamenco started to take shape as we know it today. The gypsy became the romantic icon of the free man. Gypsies became the messengers, the carriers of primitive traditions of former times. Even today, we feel the fascination for their way of life and talent for music and dance.
The romantic nationalism and revolutions in Europe at the time also played a role in the creation of flamenco. After the Peninsular war against Napoleon, Spain underwent a crisis of identity. The Italian opera and the French ballet dominated the theaters in Europe. Spanish people expressed these nationalistic sentiments and culturally separated itself from the rest of Europe by adopting the character and manners of what it was thought Andalusian people were. There is the origin of the flamenco type. The proud, at times flamboyant, attitude of the flamencos comes from this period of time.
Flamenco is very rich and complex, it is many things, but I won’t be far from the truth if I say it is also in its origin a 19th Century romantic re-interpretation of the music and dances that were performed in Spain.
We also have to think about the Spanish Industrial Revolution. Peasants migrated from rural villages into the cities. As they started working in factories and workshops the musical expressions that were closely related to the work in the countryside didn’t apply any more. The alienation of the mechanical work in factories and life in crowded neighborhoods, like Triana in Sevilla, (my mother was born in one of those tenements in Triana), created another reality, a reality which couldn’t be expressed by songs about plowing the fields or bringing in the harvest. This is the reason why the songs of the Andalusian gypsies and payos are so full of pathos. The Romantic Movement and its ideas about the human self in this world of suffering and emotion played a key role in the development of the flamenco poetic esthetic.
It is important to understand that Flamenco is fundamentally an urban art form. Flamenco was born in the cities of Cádiz, Jerez, Utrera, Sevilla, and from there spread all over Andalusia and the rest of Spain. Flamenco is an urban art form in the same way in which Argentinean tango, Mexican mariachi, Greek rembetika, American jazz, rock and roll, hip hop or Puerto Rican salsa are urban art forms. Flamenco is a modern Spanish expression of human feelings… and today, it is practiced, performed and appreciated all over the world!!
Needless to say, I have nothing against India. But flamenco never came from there.
I have had the honor to be part of several Flamenco/Indian fusion shows. I admire Indian music and dance. In the process of putting those shows together I always felt great joy, mingled with respect and admiration for the artists with whom I had the good fortune to share the stage. In putting these shows together it was always very difficult to find the common ground between, for instance, the kathak tradition and flamenco. We always had to compromise, and either the flamencos had to go to the Indian’s terrain or the Indians had to go to the flamenco’s terrain. There are no common stanzas, or shared rhythms: we always had to undergo the process of give and take and to create an arrangement to be able to perform together. It was challenging to put these shows together, but that’s the beauty of art. Despite the difficulties we always found ways to blend our art forms into a wonderful show.
On the other hand, when we fuse flamenco with, for example, Cuban music, I don’t find the same difficulties. Jazz, Brazilian music, blues, even jarocho Mexican music from Vera Cruz are a lot easier to fuse with flamenco. What is it those styles of music share? It is their Afro-American-Caribbean roots. I think there is still a lot to say about the influences of the Americas, not only in flamenco, but in European music in general.
If you are interested in knowing where I found all this information, I have put together a bibliography of the titles I have read over the years. I’m sorry, it is all in Spanish. I hope it is helpful to you.
-BARRIOS, MANUEL: Gitanos, Moriscos y Cante Flamenco. RC Editor. Sevilla 1989.
-CARO BAROJA, JULIO: Ensayo sobre la Literatura de Cordel. Ediciones Istmo, S. A. Madrid 1990.
-GAMBOA, JOSÉ MANUEL: Cante por Cante. Disco/libro didáctico de Flamenco. Flamenco en el Foro y New Atlantis. Madrid 2002.
-HURTADO TORRES, ANTONIO Y DAVID: La Llave de la Música Flamenca. Signatura Ediciones. Sevilla 2009.
-LINARES, MARÍA TERESA/ NÚÑEZ, FAUSTINO: La música entre Cuba y España. Editado por Fundación Autor. Madrid 1998.
-MACHADO Y ÁLVAREZ, ANTONIO (DEMÓFILO): Colección de Cantes Flamencos, recogidos y anotados. DVD ediciones. Barcelona 1998.
-MOLINA, RICARDO; MAIRENA, ANTONIO: Mundo y Formas del Cante Flamenco. Ediciones Giralda. Sevilla 2005.
-STEINGRESS, GERHARD: Sociología del Cante Flamenco.
III premio de investigación de la Fundación Andaluza de flamenco. Centro andaluz de flamenco. Consejería de Cultura, Junta de Andalucía. Signatura Ediciones. Sevilla 1991.