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Between Two Waters

February 25th is the anniversary of the death of Paco de Lucía, the greatest flamenco guitarist of modern times and, for many, the greatest who ever lived. I wrote the following essay a couple of years ago about Paco de Lucía, the modernist and traditionalist tensions in his music and how that conflict can still be seen in flamenco today:

 

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

The brother-in-law

The brother-in-law, or cuñado, holds a prominent, yet unenviable, position in Spanish society, transcending the realms of the family tree to become something more than just a relative. He’s a symbol, a social phenomenon, a state of mind.

The exact characteristics of the archetypal cuñado are up for debate, but they tend to be negative. He is an extroverted, matey, slightly boorish, know-it-all who greets you effusively but doesn’t really listen to what you have to say. On the contrary, he loudly broadcasts his own opinions, often political, over Christmas dinner.

Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera: first in line in the conga.

“For the brother-in-law, everything is communism, everything is Venezuela, everything is Eta,” Lorena G. Maldonado, of El Español newspaper, has written. “In his holiday photo album he’s pretending to hold up the Tower of Pisa, he’s first in line when there’s a conga at a wedding, he stirs the Sunday paella and smiles as he says: ‘I’m Spanish, what do you want me to beat you at?’ He saw the property bubble coming a long way off, he was there, he already knew, he told you so…”

For many (Maldonado included), Spain’s highest-profile cuñado is Albert Rivera. That’s in great part because in 2016, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, in one of those finely calculated moves that he specialises in, cast the leader of Ciudadanos as such during a parliamentary debate. The slightly comic accusation was based on Iglesias’s claim that Rivera’s ideology derived from the same family as the right-wing Popular Party (PP). But there was also a hint of the more personal use of the term – the smug paella-stirrer – which has since stuck to Rivera like rice to a pan.

In some ways he does indeed fit the cuñado stereotype, if only in terms of aesthetics and style. There is the clean-cut-but-casual attire, the bumptious self-confidence, the apparent knowledge about any subject and ready response to every problem, which can both impress and grate. But even his critics now have to take Spain’s most popular national party leader seriously.

In recent months, Ciudadanos has been riding high in voter intention polls, even proving to be the most popular party in Spain, according to Metroscopia. Rivera, meanwhile, is regarded less and less as a mere opposition upstart who bangs on about corruption and Catalonia and more and more as a potential prime minister.

But while that possibility becomes increasingly feasible, the place Ciudadanos occupies on the political spectrum has remained somewhat fuzzy.

The brother-in-law, Maldonado explains, with a large dose of irony, “is neither on the left or the right; instead he’s straight up, salt-of-the-earth, genuine.” What Maldonado means is: that’s how he presents himself, although after a few glasses of La Rioja he’ll start on about communism and Eta.

Rivera, meanwhile, in a very cuñado-esque bit of rhetoric, told The Economist recently: “We have to move away from the old left-right axis”. Not so long ago, his party was describing itself as “centre-left”, its business-friendliness offset by mostly liberal social policies. But almost exactly a year ago, Ciudadanos redefined its ideology, removing “social democracy” from its statutes, leaving a definition of it as “constitutionalist, liberal, democratic and progressive”, which does little to clarify the issue (after all, who would suggest that being “unconstitutional, illiberal, undemocratic and regressive” was a good idea?). A dig into the archives further muddies matters, with Rivera flip-flopping on gay marriage, opposing abortion as a right, showing an ambivalent take on historical memory, announcing a refusal to support Rajoy as head of a new government in 2015, forming a putative governing pact with the Socialists in 2016, then supporting a new PP government (with Rajoy at its head) a few months later.

Confused? Understandably so. But then again, Spanish politics is a weird, many-mirrored place at the moment and similar charges of inconsistency could also be levelled at the Socialists or the Catalan secessionists.

But recent events in Catalonia, where Rivera’s party has been hogging the unionist limelight, have, finally, appeared to nail it down as a party of the right. With Rajoy’s PP still mired in a smorgasboard of corruption scandals and having failed to solve the territorial crisis, Ciudadanos has benefitted, winning the Catalan election under the candidacy of Inés Arrimadas and cheerfully surfing the wave of Spanish neo-nationalism. To put it crassly, the Catalan crisis has been kind to Ciudadanos.

Conspiracy-prone supporters of independence regularly claim Ciudadanos are right-wing extremists and rabid independentistas tend to portray them as fascist, a term that has lost its currency in this age of the easy insult and which really isn’t relevant in this debate. (One thuggish wag painted “Neo-fachas” on the doorstep of the party in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat recently; one twitter user accused me of receiving funding from Ciudadanos the other day for suggesting in an article that the party was moving away from the PP on the historical memory issue).

But no, they are not the crypto-Francoist, goose-stepping loonies their enemies desperately try to portray them as.

Yet it does seem that Ciudadanos finds itself in a rum, rather disturbing, position – let’s call it Rivera’s Conundrum.

Created as a nationwide force in 2014 with the promise of introducing a centrist, transition-style statesmanship to Spain’s tribal politics, in Catalonia the party has become precisely the opposite, doing as much as any other to rattle the cage of tribalism. The more polarised the territorial crisis has become, the more Ciudadanos has hoovered up anti-independence votes. And it has heartily contributed to that polarisation, positioning itself as yin to Carles Puigdemont’s exiled yang, with the PP often a hapless bystander.

One of my favourite cartoons of recent months was a picture of Rivera marching along, bashing a drum marked “Article 155” – the clause in the constitution allowing Madrid to implement direct rule. His insistence throughout much of last year that this drastic measure be introduced often left Rajoy looking timid and, dare I say it, moderate, in comparison.

Ciudadanos’s approach to this issue was on display recently in Madrid during a BBC World Questions debate, panelled by representatives of Ciudadanos, the PP, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and journalist Ana Romero. The most belligerent voice in the room was not that of the PP’s Francisco Martínez or ERC’s Alfred Bosch. It was Begoña Villacis, of Ciudadanos, whose insistence on attacking the Catalan independence movement at every turn – even, bizarrely, when the debate had moved on to Gibraltar – which gave the event a slightly sour aftertaste.

And there are signs that, in its determination to keep stealing voters from the PP, Ciudadanos’s hard-line playing to the gallery is seeping out of Catalonia, into its national politics (see its attempts to remove the Basque government’s historic right to controlling its own taxes, or its U-turn on the issue of life imprisonment).

So where does this leave Spain’s best-known brother-in-law? After years of shifting around, and with the corridors of power apparently beckoning, it’s time he made clear where exactly on the political right he and his party stand as a government-in-waiting.

Worryingly, Rivera’s Conundrum dictates that if he shows any willingness to step back, to make concessions – to stop banging the drum – he’ll lose votes. Given that Puigdemont’s Conundrum dictates similar terms for the ousted Catalan president, don’t expect to see much bridge-building any time soon.

Spain’s people of the year

5. Irene Montero.

It’s been a funny old year for Podemos. The party began 2017 hobbled by infighting as its two most prominent figures, Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, battled for its soul. Iglesias emerged as the winner and his deputy was banished to a lesser role, with Irene Montero taking his place as the party’s parliamentary spokesperson. Amid the sound and fury in Catalonia, Podemos struggled to make itself heard at times this year as it carefully trod a path between unionism and separatism. But in the spring, it did manage to hog the headlines when it presented a no-confidence motion against prime minister Mariano Rajoy. The proposal failed but it allowed the 29-year-old Montero to deliver a withering parliamentary attack on Rajoy and his party and to announce her own arrival as a political player.

4. Garbiñe Muguruza.

Although Garbiñe Muguruza only won two tournaments in 2017, the fact that one of them was Wimbledon made this a year to remember for the Caracas-born tennis player. Her high-energy game, built on powerful groundstrokes, helped the 24-year-old beat Venus Williams in straight sets in the final at the All England Club. She also held the world number one ranking (before losing it to Simona Halep) and took a WTA Player of the Year award. “Muguruza should win another Slam in 2018, and maybe even two,” warned Baseline website. With Rafa Nadal back at the pinnacle of the men’s game, it has been a year to celebrate for Spanish tennis.

3. Inés Arrimadas.

Inés Arrimadas has long been a thorn in the side of the Catalan independence movement. As the Popular Party (PP) and Socialists lost ground in the region, her Ciudadanos party emerged as the leading unionist voice and Arrimadas as an aggressive and effective critic of separatism. But this year, the 36-year-old has been even more in the news, assuming her new dual role as leader of the party in Catalonia and its national spokeswoman with aplomb. Arrimadas ended 2017 by delivering an historic electoral result: she secured 37 seats in the regional chamber, making Ciudadanos the first non-nationalist party ever to come first in a Catalan election. That remarkable result will almost certainly not be enough to make her the new regional premier, but it did highlight how unionist Catalans finally found their voice after a tumultuous few months.

2. Javier Martínez.

Amid all the political histrionics in Catalonia this year, a genuine tragedy did take place in the region: a terrorist rampage along Barcelona’s Ramblas on August 17th, followed by a similar attack in Cambrils the next day, leaving a total of 16 people dead. The official response ranged from the impressive to the petty and to their immense shame, a number of public figures saw the aftermath as an opportunity to advance their political agenda. But in a year when clumsiness and mediocrity was so often on display from national leaders, others showed a remarkable degree of integrity. Among them was Javier Martínez, father of a three-year-old boy, Xavi, who died on the Ramblas in the first terror attack. Just days afterwards, he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí, in a gesture of unity that was as astonishing as it was rational.

1.The “injured woman”.

Long billed as the day the Catalan government would hold its outlawed referendum on independence, October 1st always looked like a day of reckoning for Spain’s territorial crisis. But the vote itself was overshadowed by the behaviour of the national police and civil guard, who were deployed to several polling stations where they proceeded to attack voters and seize ballot boxes. Both sides of this conflict have been guilty at various times of a crass disrespect for democracy, but as footage and pictures of this violence travelled around the world (along with other, fake, footage), it became apparent that this had been a monumental error of judgement by the Spanish state, whose efforts did not even manage to halt the referendum. Catalan separatists were handed another grievance against Spain, one that will no doubt stick in their minds for years to come. I have chosen the (unidentified) woman in this picture as Spain’s person of the year, not because of anything she has consciously set out to do, but because she represents the entrenchment and polarisation that the Catalan dispute has caused and the senseless violence it provoked.

What they think of us (part 2)

 

1 Oct Pic

“Because we are right! And because we are strong!” – Lluís Companys

“Let’s not go to sleep dreaming of Scotland only to wake up in Ulster.” Lluís Rabell

In early October I met up with a Catalan friend in a café in Barcelona. It had been a while since I had seen him and although the last time we had spoken he’d been a supporter of independence, he had also expressed a certain scepticism about the whole process and was able to laugh at its more absurd manifestations. This time, however, his opinion had hardened and his mood darkened. The October 1st independence referendum, which had taken place just a few days earlier, was still fresh in his mind. Friends and members of his family had been in polling stations that had been set upon by the civil guard and national police as they attempted to stop Catalans from voting that day.

My friend recounted what had happened in disbelief, becoming increasingly distraught as he did so. Eventually, he blurted out: “They won’t even let us fucking vote!” and there, in the middle of the café, he started sobbing.

A few minutes later he left and as I was finishing my coffee, a woman at the next table came over and asked if I was journalist. Yes, I said, cagily.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation,” she said, barely able to contain her outrage. “That man was telling some terrible lies.”

To my relief, that was as far as the conversation went. But both episodes spoke volumes to me about this dispute and how it has taken a disturbingly visceral hold of those on both sides.

One of the striking, and at times laughable, fallouts of the Catalan crisis has been how it has reduced apparently rational, adult intellectuals to the level of teenage trolls. It has become fertile ground for a particularly alarming brand of echo-chambered ranting and name-calling, not just between everyday twitter users, but also at the supposedly highest level.

This has presented us with some sights I never imagined I’d witness – such as Julian Assange tweeting in Catalan and then embarking on a very public sandpit exchange with novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. That spat told us little more than how easily a couple of grown men could tumble into a pit of infantile gobbledygook. But other, apparently similar, fracas generated by the Catalan situation have been more interesting and perhaps more informative.

In the wake of October 1st, the The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson wrote an account of what had happened that day, putting the police violence at the heart of his relatively short article.

“Whatever the avowed legality of the action, it was not only a shocking display of official violence employed against mostly peaceful and unarmed civilians but an extraordinary expression of cognitive dissonance,” wrote Anderson. “Since when did European governments prevent their citizens from voting?”

That article, and others in the international media, have drawn an irate response from within Spain, at least from the unionist side. The novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina was particularly irked, furiously taking issue with Anderson’s description of the civil guard as a “paramilitary” force. The use of that word alone, Muñoz Molina suggested in El País, showed that this journalist “is deliberately lying, with no qualms he is aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have…”

Earlier, in a paragraph that should be pored over for years by those seeking to understand the complex, barbed, psychology of modern Spain, Muñoz Molina had written:

They want us to be bullfighters, heroic guerrillas, inquisitors, and victims. They love us so much that they hate it when we question the wilful blindness upon which they build their love. They love the idea of a rebellious, fascism-fighting Spain so much that they are not ready to accept that fascism ended many years ago. They love what they see as our quaint backwardness so much that they feel insulted if we explain to them how much we have changed in the last 40 years…

Several similar articles followed that of Muñoz Molina, many of them published by El País, which seems to have become the standard-bearer for Spanish democracy’s wounded pride. The newspaper’s op-ed department head, José Ignacio Torreblanca, even invented a new word – Anglocondescension – to describe “the insufferable sentiment of Anglo American superiority that we have been suffering since the October 1st referendum in Catalonia.”

Like many of his colleagues, he cited bullfights, flamenco and paella as tropes that lazy foreign journalists apparently lean on when writing about – and talking down to – Spain. In another article – yes, another one – in El País, Maite Rico took issue with foreign observers’ obsession with “bullfighters-civil war-García Lorca-paella” (where does this thing about paella come from?).

I won’t go into how accurate or not the foreign media has been about Catalonia over the last few weeks – after all, the sheer volume of coverage has been overwhelming. But the crisis has opened Spain up to a level of international scrutiny that it has probably never experienced before, given the impact of social media and 24-hour news.

As for the response of Spanish commentators to what the foreign press has been saying about their country over the last few weeks, they seem very much in line with what I call The-New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Shit Syndrome (TNYTTWSS) – a serious but little understood pathology that is particularly prevalent in the Iberian Peninsula. Previously, TNYTTWSS manifested itself as a kind of enthusiastic curiosity about what foreign media thought about Spain. But in recent weeks it has curdled into a spiky defensiveness.

Much of the anger of Messrs Muñoz Molina and Torreblanca and others seems to be focused on the constant referencing of the Franco era in coverage (Muñoz Molina’s article was headlined “In Francoland”). Can’t you just forget about our past, they are saying, it has nothing to do with our present. It’s a fair point and their frustration is palpable. But ignoring Spain’s recent past when trying to understand its current political/constitutional/territorial/democratic (take your pick) crisis makes little sense. The country has made huge strides forward in the last four decades, but even its blithest champion would have to agree, for example, that its judiciary has a credibility problem, or that the governing Popular Party’s torrent of corruption scandals go beyond the realms of embarrassment, and that Spanish voters have a disturbing habit of ignoring such aberrations when casting their vote. Do we just write off these phenomena as anomalies, existing without historical background? No, we look for reasons, many – but not all – of which can be found in the hectic years of the democratic transition, or beyond, in the democratic vacuum of the dictatorship.

Similarly, recent oddities such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump can only be fully understood with the benefit of historical context (whether that be Britain’s colonial past and waning international influence, the decline of the US rust belt and longstanding racial tensions, and so on). But looking hard at a country’s democratic credentials and recent history when it sends armed riot police in to deal with unarmed voters, or jails pro-independence leaders indefinitely as part of a probe into rebellion and sedition is not unreasonable or part of an international plot to diss Spain. It’s common sense.

Anderson’s article, it has to be said, did lack some more recent context. He didn’t mention the undemocratic behaviour of the Catalan pro-independence parties in late 2015, when, after failing to win 50 percent of votes in a plebiscite-election, they declared victory and handed themselves a mandate to push ahead towards secession. Nor did he mention the highly dubious behaviour of the Catalan parliament on September 6th and 7th of this year, when the speaker altered the order of the day in order to allow two contested laws paving the way for independence to be steam-rollered through the house.

But, for some time now, both sides in this dispute have been gleefully “spitting upwards”, as the Argentines would say.

For Carles Puigdemont and his Catalan government that meant using a series of legitimate grievances against the Spanish state and government to push on towards a hazily sketched-out independent republic, regardless of legality and the wishes of a majority of Catalans, even when it became clear that declaring independence would accelerate the flight of companies from the region and rob it temporarily of its existing devolved powers.

For Mariano Rajoy it has meant pandering to the basest instincts of the right wing of his party, the Madrid media and his voters, by refusing even to acknowledge that this was a political problem. For 24 hours – on October 1st – Rajoy was the prime minister of a country that resembled a banana republic. Since then he has found himself forced to resort to the most drastic response available: direct rule. This most unionist of politicians has done more long-term damage to the nation’s territorial unity than any Spanish leader in recent times. If Catalans still commemorate the fall of Barcelona to Bourbon troops three centuries ago, you can bet October 1st 2017 will stay fresh in their memory for some time to come.

The spit, as the Argentines might say, has only just started landing.

‘No tinc por’

Ramblas

Spain has suffered two jihadist terror attacks over the last 13 years. In March 2004, bombs planted on trains in Madrid killed 191 people and in the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards turned out onto the streets to express their condemnation of the attack and solidarity for the victims. Then, as it emerged that the government of José María Aznar had erroneously told the country that Eta had been responsible, the mood changed. Aznar’s desperate insistence that it was not Al-Qaeda (and therefore nothing to do with Spain’s presence in Iraq) failed to convince voters, who delivered a shock result in the general election three days after the attack, putting the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in power.

Many voters on the right would never accept that result as legitimate. Egged on by certain media (especially El Mundo) and politicians in Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP), the more gullible and conspiracy minded continued to believe that Eta – and even elements of the Spanish state or Socialist Party – had been involved in plotting the attack.

I would not wish on any country the poisonous atmosphere that Spain saw in the following months, during which the legitimacy of the new government was constantly undermined and relatives of some of those killed in the attack were insulted in the street for not accepting the cranks’ version of events.

The country has changed a great deal since then, in many ways for the better, and the so-called “11-M” conspiracy has more or less evaporated. Thankfully, we have not seen the same kind of collective madness in the wake of the Ramblas and Cambrils attacks of August 17-18.

However, other schisms have become apparent in recent days.

On the train from Madrid to Barcelona on August 18th, I bumped into a Catalan congresswoman from the Socialist Party and I asked her if she thought the recent attacks would have any effect on Catalonia’s plans to stage an illegal referendum on independence from Spain on October 1. The gist of her response was that it wouldn’t and that very soon, Spanish politics would be back to normal.

I agreed, but I think neither of us anticipated what followed: an impressive show of unity, followed by confusion and plenty of bile.

That unity was the gathering of politicians and King Felipe along with thousands of others in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya for a minute’s silence, the day after the van attack in the city. The chants of “No tinc por” (“I’m not afraid”) that followed were deeply moving and as businesses opened up again that day and tourists once again wandered the Ramblas en masse, it seemed that this was the best kind of response to a senseless act.

But barely had the candles been lit on the Ramblas’s improvised shrines to the victims (see photo above) than things started to sour.

Much of that curdling has been played out in the media. An ill-judged editorial in El País needlessly dragged the Catalan independence issue into the Barcelona attack fallout, lamenting the “flagrant breaking of laws, the games of deceit… and political opportunism” of the northeastern region’s government.

Meanwhile, a blame game has ensued, with many in the media and security forces apparently determined to highlight the failure of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to heed concerns which had apparently informally been expressed by Belgian authorities about the imam at the centre of the plot, Abdelbaki Es Satty.

The Mossos’s hogging of the headlines after shooting several of the terrorists appears to have bothered some in Madrid, as does the fact that the Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero, and the regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, offered updates on the investigation in Catalan rather than Spanish.

“Is it possible to offer a greater level of stupidity, meanness and provincialism (not to say necrophilia)?” fumed Pedro Pitarch, a retired lieutenant general, of a televised appearance by Puigdemont after the attacks, on his blog.

Meanwhile, others have been quick to blame Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, for the attack, for not having installed bollards at the top of the Ramblas (Alcorcón mayor David Pérez, of the PP, accused her of “paving the way” for the terrorists).

Such huffing and puffing from is perhaps inevitable after a tragedy of this kind. But the political context for all this is unprecedented, lending an extra layer of tension: the October 1 independence referendum is the culmination of half a decade of political crisis and deep uncertainty, undoubtedly fuelling much of the unnecessary behaviour of recent days on both “sides” of the territorial argument. It helps explain, for example, the determination of some supporters of independence to trumpet the rather unconvincing argument that their region’s response to the attack is proof in itself that they are ready to form a new state.

One fiercely pro-independence man I met on the Ramblas on August 18th told me that “it’s not the time to bring out the flags” because displays of nationalism at that moment would distract attention from the victims and he had no problem with the fact that the Spanish prime minister and king were in the city. But many others saw things differently, and the pro-independence estelada was a common feature of the anti-terror march a week later in Barcelona, as were boos and whistles for Rajoy and King Felipe (justified, supposedly, by the “hypocrisy” of a Spanish state that does business with Saudi Arabia).

What would Javier Martínez, the father of the three-year-old boy Xavi who was killed on the Ramblas, think of all this? Amid the flag-waving, political jockeying and finger-pointing he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí just days after losing his son in the attack in what has to be the ultimate act of unity and defiance.

So often in the wake of an attack like this we are told that we have to make sure our lives are not overly disrupted, because “that’s what the terrorists want”. Yes, but they also want us divided and unsure of who our allies are. In the last few days we have not seen the hateful delirium that gripped Spain in the spring of 2004. But the divisions are nonetheless there and everyone – politicians, police, retired military, newspaper editors, bloggers, unionists and separatists – would do well to step back from their agenda and glance at the bigger picture.

Abdalá makes it look easy

One of the most cogent definitions of populism I’ve ever heard is that it seeks to make the business of being a politician look easy. If that is indeed the case, Abdalá Bucaram, erstwhile president of Ecuador, fits the bill. He certainly makes handling a crowd look a good deal easier than the populists who have emerged in his wake in recent years.

An Ecuadorian friend recently showed me this clip of Bucaram in action on the campaign trail three years ago: