[I wrote the following essay shortly after the death of guitarist Paco de Lucía, in 2014.]
“This is how flamenco was born: starving in its soul and with hound-like piety. Humiliated and furious: disconsolate and all-powerful. And biting. And crying. That’s how it was born. And we don’t know when.” – Félix Grande
Antorrín Heredia stands on one side of the small stage. A stocky, middle-aged man, his black hair tumbles, long and greasy, over his shoulders and his eyes are closed. One hand is holding a walking cane, upon which he is leaning. The other grasps a short metal bar, which he suddenly lifts above his head and swings down onto a blacksmith’s anvil. The noise is surprisingly light and bell-like and Antorrín repeats the action again and again, beating out a complex, stop-start rhythm, before throwing his head back and singing.
This is flamenco, but not as most Spaniards know it. Singing a cappella like this – or a palo seco – is a throwback to the music’s 19th-century origins, when those who performed it frequently worked as blacksmiths, or travelling salesmen and even the accompaniment of a guitar was uncommon. It was a time when life was tough for most Spaniards, with poverty, disease and violence to contend with and flamenco music reflected that.
And yet, Antorrín is in 21st century Madrid, in La Quimera, a small venue which he owns on the edge of the relatively well-heeled Salamanca neighbourhood. Supermarkets, banks and bars are everywhere and a Cash Converters exchange store – that symbol of rampant consumerism – is nearby. Perhaps only Las Ventas bullring, sitting a few hundred yards away next to the Madrid ring-road, distinguishes this area from a middle-class district in almost any European city.
As he sings, in a spine-chilling wail of a voice, and hammers away at the anvil it’s easy to believe Antorrín is railing against all this modernisation and globalisation – phenomena which have had an undeniable impact on his beloved flamenco music and dragged it away from the purity of the cante a palo seco.
La Quimera is a genuine refuge from the consumer-driven, smooth-edged outside world. A handwritten blackboard sign Antorrín has placed outside the venue sternly tells passersby that “flamenco should make you feel and not just amaze you”. And on a lighter note, it invites clients to flout the country’s anti-smoking law by lighting up during performances. Inside, there is no artificial amplification and the only instruments performers ever make use of are the guitar, voices, handclaps – and, of course, the anvil. Moments before performing as the night’s opening act, Antorrín had made clear his disdain for the direction flamenco had moved, addressing his 50-strong audience with a short speech that seemed well rehearsed, yet utterly heartfelt.
“Flamenco should make you look into yourself, to see the good and the bad, to create a conflict in your soul,” he said. “But the essence of flamenco is in danger of extinction.” He berated not just contemporary ways of playing the music, but even the attire of modern performers. “The way they dress, with their waistcoats and suits and Gucci brands, you’d think an Englishman had invented flamenco,” he sneered.
The targets of Antorrín’s ire can be found across Spanish culture. He may have been thinking of so-called flamenquito, the flamenco-lite music which mixes elements of the genre’s sound with pop sensibility and production. Handclaps, acoustic guitar and a wailing vocal might all feature, but it’s a long way from “the essence of flamenco” whose future he fears for. Flamenco can also be found in the even more overt pop of a megastar like Alejandro Sanz, who came from a family with flamenco roots, but chose a more mainstream path to success; or even Mala Rodríguez, an Andalusian rapper who sometimes inflects her hip-hop with the more traditional sounds of her native region.
And then there is Pitingo, a former baggage handler at Madrid airport, who claims to have created a genre all of his own called soulería in which he takes classic pop tunes, often in English, and gives them a flamenco wash. He did this with Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly and, to the consternation of grunge fans, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. When Pitingo appears on prime-time television with his carefully coiffeured hair, impeccably tailored clothes and grinning face, it’s easy to imagine Antorrín’s hackles rising before the young star has even sung a note.
It seems entirely fitting that Antorrín’s sanctuary of pure flamenco should be off the beaten track, away from Madrid’s more obvious, and tourist-filled flamenco venues, the tablaos. Despite the efforts of the likes of Pitingo, there are few types of music in the world today that retain such a hermetic, daunting lore.
Much of this complexity has to do with the palos, a system of rhythmic categories around which the flamenco canon is structured. There are dozens of palos. Each one has not just its own rhythmic rules, but also particular parameters that roughly dictate its guitar chords and even the tone and content of the lyrics. There is the alegría palo, which, as its name suggests, is an upbeat type of song, often referencing the sea, boats and fishing due to its maritime origins in the port of Cádiz; or there are the soleá and seguiriya, deeply melancholic palos which express despair over a failed love affair or the death of a loved one.
There are also countless regional variations on all these. Some have changed a great deal over the decades, while others have either disappeared altogether or come close to extinction. The trillera is an old agricultural song which farmers once sang while ploughing their fields and it would have been performed to the accompaniment of a foot stomping a piece of wood or to the ringing of the bells dangling from the harnesses of the horses pulling a plough. One trillera has the following lyric:
The furrows of my land / Are full of clods
And your head, highland girl, / Is full of dreams,
But they’re empty dreams.
Unsurprisingly, in modern, urban Spain, this rustic palo barely survives.
The complexity of the palo system alone makes flamenco an intimidating music to explore for the uninitiated. When you add all the twists and turns of its history (which is much longer than that of jazz), its rich folklore, unwritten rules and many seminal and eccentric figures, flamenco’s image as an unfathomable, closed world is entirely justified.
Yet while Antorrín wails and rails against the dilution of flamenco in the present day, others observe it more quietly, but with equal concern.
Juan Andrés Maya is a well-known flamenco dancer, or bailaor, who comes from a family of renowned performers. At first sight, he doesn’t look like it and when he arrives at the bar where we have agreed to meet, I initially mistake him for just another punter. He is small, wears glasses and his loose clothes offer little hint of a muscular dancer’s body. Yet he is living proof of flamenco’s global appeal: he danced for Michelle Obama when the US president’s wife visited Spain. But despite his success, Maya is worried about where the sound of flamenco is heading.
“Flamenco’s changed a lot,” he says, hesitantly, almost sadly. “And I don’t know whether it’s changed for better or for worse. With all the new techniques and fusions, it’s worrying.”
Maya is not concerned by the artists who mix flamenco with pop – he feels they are simply stepping into his world to borrow from it, rather than adulterating the music. What does worry him is the phenomenon of artists within the flamenco world not respecting the boundaries that have existed for generations. In particular, he chides those who mix the palos.
“If you are performing, you have to respect one of the palos,” he explains. “Above all if you’re dancing por soleá, which for me is the mother of flamenco dance. The soleá is so beautiful that if you start mixing it with other things, staining it, you’ll ruin it so much that it gets lost.”
Both Maya and Antorrín Heredia give voice to a phenomenon that 21st-century flamenco cannot ignore: as it reaches across the world and enjoys commercial success, it becomes increasingly exposed to outside influences and distanced from the purity of its roots.
One man who did more than perhaps any other to both popularise flamenco and divide opinion about it is Paco de Lucía. Born and raised in Algeciras, near the southernmost tip of Spain, he learned and obeyed flamenco’s strict musical mores as a boy, before exploring and stretching them in unprecedented, controversial ways as a man.
The youngest of five children, his father, Antonio, was an accomplished guitarist who quickly saw the extraordinary potential in his son. Knowing that career prospects for the working-class in 1950s Andalusia were severely limited, Antonio took Paco out of school at the age of 11 and tutored him intensively in flamenco guitar, making him practice up to 12 hours a day. The move paid off: Paco mastered the many palos and his technique was impeccable. In some ways, he was an outsider: he was a payo, or non-gypsy, in a predominantly – but not exclusively – gypsy world. What’s more, Paco wasn’t even completely Spanish – his mother was Portuguese. But he was immersed in the flamenco world, constantly surrounded by first-class musicians and singers and often playing with them. Meanwhile, Paco’s father kept a close eye on him, to make sure that while he soaked up the musical culture he did not get too involved in its more wayward social life.
In 1962, at the age of 14, Paco and his brother Pepe, a singer, competed together in a prestigious flamenco competition in Jerez de la Frontera as the duo los Chiquitos de Algeciras. They caused a sensation. “When it was Pepe and Paco’s turn, they displayed such a knowledge of their art, along with the technique and emotion required to convey it, that they captivated both the public and the judges,” wrote one aficionado who was present. Pepe took the 35,000-peseta prize for the finest singer of the malagueñas palo – a handsome sum for a cantaor who was starting out on his career. But the equally impressive Paco was officially too young to receive any of the available prizes. Such was the ensuing commotion that a new, 4,000-peseta award was created, just for the guitar prodigy.
Half a century on, Paco de Lucía’s influence on flamenco is almost too huge to gauge. Throughout the seventies and eighties he teamed up with Camarón de la Isla, the blacksmith’s son who would become modern flamenco’s greatest cantaor, or singer, and whose gut-wrenching voice, perfect pitch and unique musical tics revolutionised cante. In both cases, their technical brilliance was offset by a burning desire to innovate; the two of them were made for each other.
And their image helped. Throughout the seventies, their lapels grew longer, Paco’s sideburns bushier and Camarón’s bouffant hair bigger and bigger, reflecting their status as cultural heroes as well as musical ones. The shockwaves that had shaken other countries in the late sixties had been mere tremors in Spain, but young people knew all about the Beatles and the Stones, psychedelia and marijuana. Paco de Lucía and Camarón were the country’s own Jagger and Richards, albeit playing a music that could only have come out of Spain.
At the same time that he was accompanying Camarón, Paco de Lucía was also forging a hugely successful career as a soloist. Much of that fame had to do with one particular track he recorded in 1973, called Entre dos aguas. Played to a rumba rhythm, it is a hypnotic instrumental that combines technical virtuosity with a repetitive, catchy melody. It was an instant hit, crossing over from the specialist flamenco scene to mainstream listeners, who bought 300,000 copies of the album it appeared on. It also made the guitarist famous internationally. But as well as being a massive commercial success, Entre dos aguas helped change the sound of flamenco. It has congas, bongos and an electric bass on it, instruments which, while relatively common on flamenco recordings today, were unheard of in the early seventies. It also incorporated musical elements from outside flamenco, such as South American sounds.
The title Entre dos aguas – or “between two waters” – refers to the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, which meet before Paco de Lucía’s coastal home town of Algeciras. But some see deeper significance in the name, the two opposing musical impulses which would collide in the guitarist’s music throughout his career: tradition and modernism.
A television clip from the time shows the young, long-haired Paco playing the instrumental. He is wearing a groovy, distinctly un-flamenco sports jacket and his band surrounds him. At the tale-end of the Franco era, most Spanish viewers would have watched the black bongo player seated behind the guitarist without having ever seen a person of African origin in the flesh.
Ironically, Paco de Lucía remembers the recording of his most celebrated tune as almost an afterthought. “I improvised it because I was short of a track,” he said. “At that time I was into improvisation which wasn’t common in flamenco.”
Such is the instrumental’s influence, that it has been the subject of reams of written theory and eulogy. “On many levels, the ‘New Flamenco’ would not have been possible without this rumba, which without a doubt marked a sea change in Spanish music,” wrote one critic.
Yet for the shy guitarist himself, the success wasn’t altogether welcome.
“Suddenly, the tune became popular and it made me popular,” he remembered, years later. “In Spain, they played it in discos and I was famous, I was doing interviews. It was very heavy in comparison to how I’d expected my life to turn out.”
And this new direction he was signalling for flamenco was not embraced by everyone. There were stories of old gypsies returning the groundbreaking records by Camarón and Paco de Lucía to the Corte Inglés department store and demanding their money back. The rumba palo, which the guitarist had used for Entre dos aguas, was for many in the old school a lesser style, barely even flamenco. The critic Agustín Gómez described Paco de Lucía’s commercially successful experiments as those of “a circus man” who was diluting traditional music.
“You cannot ever leave flamenco,” warned the elderly Sabicas, a legendary guitarist in his own right and a heavy influence on the young Paco. “If you take on another style, if you want to do something else, you will lose what you have … No, no, I do not know why he has done this.” Paco’s reply to his former mentor was terse: “Sabicas thinks that there should be no evolution, that [flamenco] should be monotonous and always sound old-fashioned.”
But it wasn’t just the guitarist’s music itself that was riling the purists, there was also his unusual way of holding the guitar – at a 90-degree angle to his body, like a rock or folk musician, instead of the traditional and uncomfortable 45-degree tilt used by the vast majority of flamenco players. And even the fact that he crossed his legs while playing, to allow his left hand to dance up and down the fretboard more easily, sent some traditionalists into paroxysms.
“The first time I played in public with my legs crossed was in Madrid, in the Teatro de la Zarzuela,” he later recalled. “And I got flack for it – the flamenco purists criticised me, they said I was disrespectful, that I was shameless, that I was showing a lack of respect for the audience.”
But flamenco’s ideological division had existed long before Paco de Lucía. The tensions between those who believe in preserving the music’s rawness and “purity” and those who want to stretch its boundaries are about as old as flamenco itself.
Flamenco now has a place in libraries and bookshops and specialists examine its theory and lore in universities and foundations. But for generations, its history and the music itself were passed on through word of mouth. As a result, its origins remain quite obscure. But its association with Spain’s gypsies, who are believed to have first arrived in Spain via France in 1425, is not disputed. The gypsies had originally come from India, slowly crossing from Asia to Eastern Europe and then to the continent’s western and southern limits, such as the region of Andalusia.
The music we think of today as flamenco seems to have existed as far back as the 18th century, by which time Spain’s gypsies had suffered deeply at the hands of the state. Their different appearance, clothing and lifestyle made them targets for persecution by the Catholic Kings, who forcefully converted or even expelled Jews and Muslims during their reign. During the 16th and 17th centuries, gypsies were the targets of legislation banning them from practicing their customs, speaking their own caló language and even getting married.
In 1749, King Fernando VI took anti-Roma policy a step further, ordering all gypsies to be rounded up and jailed. The implementation of this policy would have had a hugely traumatic effect not just on those imprisoned, but also on the loved ones from whom they were separated. The following flamenco lyric is a throwback to the days of gypsy repression:
The gypsies of the port / Were the least fortunate.
And to the mercury mines / They were taken after being sentenced
And the next day, / They were made to wear hats
And sandals of grass / And in sorrow they drowned
And to make them suffer even more / They had a master
Who never let them rest. / Beaten with sticks, with sticks
They were left for dead.
Such a dramatic and traumatic history certainly helps explain the despairing melancholy that runs through flamenco. A people who would use their knives to beat out a rhythm on the iron bars of the jail they were held in as they sang to their loved ones outside, as gypsy prisoners in Seville used to, were obviously not going to produce music that was bland, easy listening.
The singer Antonio Mairena, who was a flamenco icon during the Franco years, was a vehement standard bearer for both pure flamenco and the idea that only “pure” gypsies could perform it. In 1963 he wrote, along with the poet Ricardo Molina, Mundo y formas del cante flamenco (or ‘The world and styles of flamenco song’). For decades, many had voiced the views contained within it, but this hugely influential book was the first instance of flamenco literature written from the gypsy point of view. In it, Mairena emphasised a division that some payo intellectuals had already pointed out before between “gypsy flamenco” and “non-gypsy flamenco”. His assertion that the mysterious codes and inspiration that fuel the very finest flamenco music are “something only a gypsy can understand” may have been based on little more than his own semi-mythological beliefs and gypsy pride, but it is an idea that some still cling to half a century later.
And yet, most experts agree that the characteristics of the Andalusia region – with its social culture, climate and agricultural economy – are as important in flamenco’s creation as the gypsy people. The non-gypsies of Andalusia, a traditionally poor region, have faced more hardship than most Spaniards and they have also played a role in flamenco’s development. The mining belt in Andalusia and neighbouring Murcia to the east have long been a rich source of flamenco songs, with gypsies and non-gypsies working in the industry for generations. The lyric of one particular taranta – the flamenco palo associated with miners – has one passerby ask another what is in the cart he is pushing. “I am carrying my poor brother,” comes the reply. “A drill in the mines / Has cut off his hands.” Today, the lámpara minera, or miner’s lamp, is a highly prestigious award for up-and-coming flamenco artists who triumph at the annual festival in La Unión, in Murcia.
Such was Mairena’s influence that his admonishing insistence that artists should obey the traditional boundaries of flamenco was strictly adhered to. The rigid formality of mairenismo flourished and experimentalism was deemed frivolous and cast into the shadows.
The musician and author Diana Pérez Custodio writes of Mairena’s “dogmatic work” in spreading his philosophy. But interestingly, she also casts doubt on the authenticity of this supposedly ultra-authentic school of thought: “The creators of the mairenista canon […] felt the need to preserve an art which, they believed, was losing its ancient roots and with an encyclopaedic vision they set about the compilation of supposedly ancient songs and ‘pure’ styles of song which, in fact, were themselves no more than the product of the fusion of multiple musical currents from a particular period, in this case, the late 19th century and early 20th century.”
Pérez Custodio, like many others, believes that flamenco has always changed with the times. Like white-hot iron being fashioned on the anvil by a gypsy farrier, social and cultural circumstances gradually hammered it into different shapes.
But there were other forces influencing flamenco at this time, most notably Francoism. The regime’s artlessness and suspicion of gypsy culture led to a government-friendly, lightweight version of the music, that ran parallel to the purist school. This tamed flamenco took on the rather sinister name of Nacional flamenquismo and included over-the-top mannerisms on the part of performers, as well as garish attire and mise-en-scène. Historian Sandie Holguín has written that “the Franco regime had decided to show, on the one hand, a Spanish identity with a rural, timeless, folkloric character […] and on the other a national identity that the regime imagined (rightly) would please the tourists: that of the Spain of Andalusian roots, with exotic flamenco dancers and cantaores.”
By the end of the sixties, therefore, flamenco was in a confused, almost schizophrenic state: in danger of stagnating in a pool of purist fundamentalism at the same time that it was prancing about for tourists with a flower behind its ear.
So when Paco de Lucía, a virtuoso with no allegiance to such ideas, arrived on the scene, it was hardly surprising that he and Camarón would turn flamenco on its head.
“Flamenco was yawning with the boredom of its rigidity and solemn self-importance,” observed the writer Paco Sevilla. “Is it any wonder that the flamenco world eagerly followed Paco de Lucía and Camarón de la Isla into an era of explosive and uncontrolled creativity?”
Entre dos aguas had been released two years before Franco’s death and as the singer and guitarist’s stars soared, their music became not just a shot in the arm for a traditional form of music, it was the backing track to a tumultuous era. Their songs were not overtly political, but they were a mirror for a country whose social foundations had been violently shaken and were yet to settle. On one occasion, Paco de Lucía paid the price for the political uncertainty of the time, when a gang of right-wing extremists beat him up because of comments he had made in the media expressing leftist sympathies.
“At the historical and political moment that Spain was going through in 1973, two years away from the coming of democracy,” wrote Pérez Custodio, “Entre dos aguas worked as a manifesto, a declaration of intent, showing that flamenco can and should change, and that it is able to connect with the young.”
But in this day and age, how can flamenco connect with youngsters? And equally, how can it remain relevant and reflect the world around it? Spain has changed almost beyond recognition over the last three or four decades and so have the lives of gypsies, the people most closely associated with the music. Admittedly, they are still marginalised, with a higher-than-average rate of school drop-outs and teenage pregnancies, but the Roma, like all Spaniards, have benefitted enormously from the education system, national healthcare, social housing and other areas of the welfare state which has been built in the democratic era. In 1978, three-quarters of Spain’s Roma lived in sub-standard housing; today just over 10 percent do. “The welfare state has been good for gypsies because it’s been very inclusive,” says Isidro Rodríguez, the director of the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG), which helps gypsies find work.
Flamenco guitarist Emma Martínez puts it another way: “How meaningful could the traditional complaints of a starving Gypsy, forced to beg for crusts of bread, be to a Gypsy clan whose patriarch received a social security payment and who owned a night club on the edge of town?” Perhaps not at all.
Meanwhile, the two titans of modern flamenco are dead. Camarón succumbed to cancer at the age of 41 in 1992, having also battled a heroin habit. Paco de Lucía passed away in 2014, at the age of 66.
Paco and Camarón’s trailblazing, along with Spain’s rapid economic and social development throughout the eighties, nineties and early noughties, go a long way to explaining the direction flamenco took during that time. It dabbled in – or at times leapt into bed with – jazz, rock, pop and hip-hop, with their relatively polished production values and heavily monetized worlds. This was not necessarily a negative phenomenon. Singer Enrique Morente, one of the most intellectually curious and divisive flamenco artists of recent times, made an album of Leonard Cohen covers, Omega, which deeply moved the Canadian singer. The band Ketama wrote and played first-class, euphoric, flamenco-pop and Paco de Lucía himself continued to experiment, playing classical music and teaming up with jazz guitar giants Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin.
These artists, and many others, all made compelling cases for the breaking down of flamenco’s barriers. But the argument against the wave of fusion that accompanied Spain’s modern development is that it also produced overly sleek hybrids like Pitingo, the singer mentioned earlier who has gleefully massacred the songs of Nirvana and Roberta Flack alike with over-produced aplomb. It is easy to see Pitingo as a product of pre-crisis Spain: smooth, untroubled and perhaps just a little complacent.
It is May, 2013 and a group of men and women, some in their twenties and thirties, others in middle age, walk into a branch of the lender Caixabank in Seville. They look for the most part like ordinary bank customers, although one man is carrying an acoustic guitar. And instead of queuing, they form a semi-circle inside the bank and start clapping a flamenco rhythm.
The guitarist starts to strum. A stern-looking woman resembling a widow – she is wearing a black trouser suit and dark glasses – struts up and down the floor of the small bank, striking flamenco poses. Two men who work in the bank mutter nervously to each other but there is little they can do except watch as a small, grey-haired man breaks into song:
They ordered the bailout: four swindlers got together
And they tied up the minister, my darling,
Or perhaps he let himself be tied up.
They indebted us for others, mother of my soul,
And now, who will pay?
The “four swindlers” are, apparently, the European Central Bank, the European Commission, the IMF and the German government. And the “bailout” is the rescue Spain requested from the EU in 2012 for its struggling banks. The woman is in full flow now and the singer raises his voice as the song comes to an end.
The performers are members of the artistic collective Flo6x8, and this was one of several bank raids they carried out in the heart of their home city to protest against the way Spain and the EU were managing the country’s finances.
Who said flamenco had lost its edge? Well, they did, actually.
“Flamenco has been living through a period during which it has been cosseted by the state, as has the world of culture in general,” one of Flo6x8’s members told a local newspaper. “We want to re-politicise flamenco.”
Flo6x8 are something of an enigma. They appear occasionally, out of the blue, to perform and protest, before disappearing again, seemingly without leaving a trace other than a series of skilfully produced videos on Youtube. Their members prefer anonymity or assume eccentric nicknames – The Ninja Girl, Skeleton Girl, María de las Deudas (or ‘María of the Debts’) – and they insist on pointing the spotlight not on themselves but on their eye-catching guerrilla art, which also includes cinema and theatre.
It’s an art driven by anger at the state of modern Spain. One woman who dances with the collective told a newspaper her very personal reasons for joining: “I decided to dance because two weeks earlier my mother had died. She had senile dementia and she was affected by the government cutbacks to spending on social care. They let her die. I couldn’t just sit and watch this social genocide without doing something and dancing is my weapon.”
When I spoke to one of their members, he politely refused to give me any personal details about himself, such as his age or profession, on the grounds that doing so would betray their collective ethos. ‘El Moody’s’ – his pseudonym – is hardly a typical Andalusian name. But it is a name for the times in which he is living, having been taken from the international credit rating agency Moody’s, which downgraded the debt category of southern European countries like Spain and Greece with distressing frequency during the height of the eurozone crisis.
As the name ‘El Moody’s’ suggests, humour informs Flo6x8’s art. And as it also suggests, the collective belong firmly on the political left, where the institutions and symbols of capitalism are seen as the enemy. For a leftist artistic movement from Andalusia, El Moody’s tells me, flamenco was the obvious vehicle of expression.
“Historically and culturally speaking, flamenco as an art form has long belonged to a subculture,” he said. “Flamenco has always had an element of outrage because it’s always had a background of marginalisation and it’s always been related to poverty.”
It’s almost certainly no coincidence that these flashmob activists are from Seville. The city and its nearby towns are one of the cradles of flamenco, where, if you can sidestep the perfunctory performances in the touristy tablaos, talented singers, musicians and dancers are constantly emerging in bars and backrooms. But just as importantly, the surrounding region, Andalusia, continues to lag behind the rest of the country in terms of economic development and the unemployment rate is often 10 percentage points above the national average.
El Moody’s is well-versed in the social history of flamenco, and he explained to me how its underdog image encouraged anarchists and trade unionists from the early 20th century to associate themselves with the music. He also cites the many flamenco artists who suffered during the civil war for having aligned themselves with the leftist Republican government against the forces of Franco.
“But as happened with the rest of our culture during the eighties and the nineties, as democracy progressed, flamenco became dependent on the state and it was depoliticized,” he said. “So people today say: ‘Politicized flamenco? What a surprise!’ No it’s no surprise, flamenco is a political art form. In that sense we’re not doing anything new. But people haven’t been used to hearing political flamenco over the last 30 years.”
Flo6x8 accept that they will never impress the music’s more reactionary wing. El Moody’s says that the idea of “paying your dues”, that is, learning and mastering the techniques of an art form before going out to perform in the outside world, is particularly strong in flamenco. But he insists that judging a flashmob flamenco show in a bank by the same yardstick as a rehearsed performance in a tablao is simply not fair. “We’re performing in a hostile environment – in a bank, with a security system, protected by law,” he says.
And he adds, with a chuckle: “If Antonio Mairena could see one of our performances, he’d go apeshit.”
Flamenco, said the highly respected expert on the genre, Félix Grande, “is an art that speaks of the radical emotions, such as fear, and it is always a reaction to unjust, humiliating situations.”
If Spaniards had been lulled into a sense of complacency during the country’s boom years, when the value of the property they had bought for a song was soaring, jobs seemed to grow on trees and state subsidies were taken for granted, the economic and social crisis of recent years has jolted them back to reality. And like every other area of Spanish culture, flamenco has lost investment and funding. Subsidies have been slashed. There are fewer festivals and those that are still staged can often not afford to attract the bigger names.
In a way this is something of a throwback to when flamenco was struggling for recognition. Paco de Lucía once complained that for much of his career it had been a “maltreated” musical form, which his country’s elites and powers-that-be had refused to take seriously – because, he seemed to imply, of its gypsy and working-class Andalusian roots. But by the turn of this century, that had changed. The guitarist received the Prince of Asturias prize for the arts, “flamencologists” such as Félix Grande were highly respected and the Culture Ministry had a department dedicated to the country’s gypsies.
And yet, as Flo6x8 point out, being “cosseted by the state” isn’t necessarily good for an art form that by its nature expresses despair and disharmony. A socio-economic crisis such as the one Spain has recently suffered is an echo – albeit a faint one – of the days when knives beat the rhythm on the bars of Seville jail and it is providing many performers with badly needed raw material. The Andalusian rapper Mala Rodríguez may have strayed far from her flamenco roots, but they can still be heard, faintly, in her music. And some of her lyrics might have been pulled directly from the chants of an anti-austerity demonstration. On her hit song, La rata, she sings: “The bastard prime minister is there because we voted for him!” Meanwhile, grizzled singer-songwriter Chico Ocaña is no spring chicken, but he insists he is “a child of the economic crisis” and that it informs many of his flamenco-influenced songs.
“Flamenco is the culture of the loser, not of the winner,” is how Joaquín San Juan, the director of Madrid’s legendary Amor de Dios flamenco academy explains it to me.
He has known many of flamenco’s greats – including Camarón, whose black-and-white portrait stares down from the wall of the academy as a reminder of what music can be capable of. Joaquín has watched flamenco carefully over the last four decades, as it has triumphed and fallen on its face, shifting styles, fusing genres, and both delighting and outraging the purists.
To my surprise, he says, “Personally, I don’t believe flamenco is from Spain.” At first I think I have misheard him, but he explains: “It was born, in concrete, somewhere in Spain. But for me, it’s a dialectical river that gathers sources and keeps gathering sources from many other different places. Flamenco’s true mother country is the human being: not the human being in a state of greatness, but the human being in a state of weakness.”
Spain is changing and so is the world. In recent years, as globalisation has accelerated and songs from the other side of the planet have become available with just one click of a mobile phone key, the music that emerged a couple of centuries ago in southern Spain is inevitably being affected.
But flamenco has always changed shape. Joaquín, who is in many ways a musical conservative, acknowledges this without a hint of opprobrium and offers a concrete example. “Flamenco is a great purloiner, a great consumer of diverse material,” he tells me. “Take an example: the dance steps of Fred Astaire aren’t all that far removed from those of present-day flamenco dancers.”
Flamenco, it seems, is big enough to take many forms. That is why today, in Madrid, a man strikes an anvil and sings a palo seco, defiantly harking back to the music’s deepest roots; and elsewhere, hundreds of miles away – in Málaga, perhaps – an unemployed youngster is rapping in Andalusian patois over a recording of a hip-hop beat and a flamenco guitar. Further away still, on another continent, someone finds an archive video on the internet of Paco de Lucía playing Entre dos aguas. His eyes are closed in concentration and the notes flow hypnotically out of his guitar, which he is holding in his lap with his legs crossed.