Flamenco – The Gypsy Blues – Rob Kenyon

Trying to define where and when a particular form of music began has always been a dangerous game. New evidence is always emerging which makes muesli of finely tuned theories. And at the end of the day, where do you stop?

Ultimately, doesn’t all music derive from the hairy discovery that the noise of a bone rapped on a log in time with the human heart makes the body move of its own accord? Or was it from the joy of being able to still a noisy baby by singing to it? Predicting the future of an art form is even more precarious.
The list of extinct cultural species would make an interesting encyclopedia if only any evidence still remained of their existence. Nevertheless, some things are true, and some things are predictable – if only by comparison with established precedent.

Case Study – Rock Music
The evolution of rock music is a case study which is almost too well documented to bother repeating. What it shows us is that while there may not be much similarity between, say, the music of the African Slaves and Bjõrk, there is an inevitability in the development of one from the other. With hindsight, it is quite possible to see how The Blues gave birth to Bjõrk. Socially, the lineage is fairly clear.

* Step One : Take millions of Africans away from their homes.

* Step Two: Persecute them for generations, only allowing them status as entertainers, and grant them liberty only to interpret the forms of art they see before them in their own style.

* Step Three: When those interpretations become more popular and universal than the original forms, disseminate them as widely as possible on the new systems of mass communication (the radio and hi-fi) to influence people all over the world. At some point, some bunch of scruffy white youths will fall in love with the product and try to imitate it in their own way. If those kids happen to be called John, Paul, George and Ringo, so much the better. If not, don’t worry, the virus is released and will surely spread and breed and mutate given the right conditions.

It is therefore theoretically possible to at least see the potential for development in a particular style of music from generation to generation. All that is required is the ability to turn hindsight into foresight. What could be simpler? So before you can say Step Four-and-a-Bit, a crazy Icelandic genius becomes infected by a descendant of that Liverpudlian strain, and the Bjõrk phenomenon is upon us.

Flamenco Development

Flamenco is undergoing the same process, and at the moment is roughly at Step Three. The music of the Gypsies was not always called Flamenco, and has not always been recognisable as the Flamenco we know today. In fact, the Gypsies came from India. Why they had to leave, and why they developed the culture they did is a serious matter for discussion elsewhere, but the fact is that for hundreds of years they were squeezed ever westward like a bar of soap by the suspicious native populations they encountered along the way.

The great journey took them across the Middle East, divided them north and south around the Mediterranean, until finally, in Spain, they hit the Atlantic and could go no further. By then the Spanish Gypsies, that is the ones who had made the full trip, had absorbed influences as various as Persian, Greek, Ottoman, Catholic, Jewish, Egyptian, Moorish, Balkan and Russian. This diversity was invariably reflected in their music and dance, and their reputation as musicians was established very early. In some countries, Greece for example, the word for Gypsy and musician are still the same. This almost unique combination of cultural origins, combined with a social context of persecution and insecurity is what makes Flamenco the incredibly complex roots art form it is today.

The Blues has a similar story to tell. When it arrived in Britain it provided the musical focus for a creative era which will always be remembered for its championship, however flawed, of the idea of freedom. What could be more fitting than for the music of the gypsies, a nation whose history embodies both the myth of free-roaming liberty and the reality of ruthless persecution, to lead the artistic world into a more idealistic, human, 21st Century?

Modern Flamenco

From its origins in northern India, the art of the Spanish Gypsies has come a long way. And could now be the basis for a new popular music. All it needs is for the right people to see the real thing, and for society to be open to change. It should be as inevitable as New Orleans Jazz after the American Civil War, or Duke Ellington after Prohibition, or Elvis after the Second World War. This process happened in Flamenco as each generation absorbed other cultures to express its individuality, and by doing so, changed into something new. It is still happening now, only more so, as Spanish artists are able to exchange ideas freely with the world. The future should be a matter of unanimous anticipation among Flamencos the world over. If only life was that simple. If only Flamenco was that simple.

In the towns and villages of Andalucia, where the Gypsy cultural stew was richest, Flamenco gave hope and a good time to a hard-working, hard-driven, people. It still celebrates the same basic human values, but like Spain it has escaped from the past and is talking to a new, modern, international audience. But it never lost its essence, its soul – the ‘Duendé’ – because the culture of ‘Duendé’ survived everything a hostile world could throw at it. That is the whole point: the triumph over adversity.

Real Life, Real Issues, Real Music

Occasionally, musicians become too comfortable, and as a result, too intellectual. At these points in the history of music, a shot of real life is essential to keep artists in touch with real issues of survival and mortality. Blues provided this in the sixties, Reggae did a similar job in the 1970s, and Flamenco is surely poised to be the same refresher course today, carrying as it does a huge armoury of tricks to fend off the centuries of oppression and hardship. And a depth of feeling and insight born of that same experience.

The success in London of Cumbre Flamenco, Antonio Gades, Paco Peña, Joaquin Cortés and now Cantanas Flamencas proves that Flamenco is a new vein of raw material for artists, and therefore a new and exciting prospect for audiences everywhere. In form Flamenco is closer to Jazz or Indian classical than to any European music. The same language of rhythm, gesture, and improvisation gives the performers the freedom to be whoever they want, to say whatever they want, and to convey that sense of freedom to whoever wants to feel it. Simply, it is the ‘Gypsy Blues’.

The Future of Flamenco

The world of Flamenco is currently as divided over its future as it is diverse in its cultural heritage. Leaving aside the traditional family rivalries, which are very entertaining, there are several debates on several issues. There is the division between those who want Flamenco to become more technical and symphonic and classical, and those who believe that its raw, primitive side will enable it to become more accessible and popular. There are the purists and the fusionists. The preservationists who are disturbed at the thought of some forms of Flamenco becoming extinct, and the adventurers like Blanca Li who see Flamenco as a fresh canvas ready for the brush.

Whatever their individual merits, the sheer bulk and intensity of the arguments goes to show how much is at stake, and how many different ways there are now of interpreting the thing we call Flamenco. Now that Spain is a democracy, and open to global exchange. Such a volume of debate surrounding a mere art form is surely a sign of immense diversity, depth and sheer creative power. If ever there was a cultural mother lode to be mined, this is it, and already there have been experiments in ‘Jazzmenko’, ‘Bluesmenko’, and even ‘Technomenko’. These gimcrack labels are causing blood to boil in peñas all over the world. People who care about Flamenco are bound to have strong opinions about the potential exploitation and destruction of their culture, and these views must be respected. But in the world today, trying to shackle an art as adaptable as Flamenco is like catching a butterfly with a pick axe.

Audiences and Performers

The real test of any art form is what people do with it, not its commercial excesses. How people react to other people expressing themselves. It doesn’t matter what you call the product so long as there are miracles on display. And in the case of Flamenco, whether those miracles make sense to an audience outside the native culture; to those who neither know nor care about the academic finer points. It is probably a mistake to even think of Flamenco as a single genre.

There is such promiscuous diversity that bits of flamenco are almost bound to break free and interbreed with other species of popular music without seeking parental consent. Any cultural matchmaker could foresee the fusion between the Tango and the gliding rhythm of Bhangra. When this mating happens, the circle will be complete and Flamenco would have returned to India. Anything is supposed to be possible in the ‘global’ world. We are told that more people are exposed to more cultural influences than ever before. Satellite technology has brought images and information to regions which still do not even have mains electricity or water. The long term consequences may well be less than palatable. Community identity is a likely first victim of a world in which Rupert Murdoch and Bill Pearly Gates actually own all the information. But in the meantime, for the artist, this is a uniquely interesting time to be alive, at least in terms of the range of influences on offer. What happens next, as ever, is the responsibility of those artists best able to respond to the new conditions and audiences.

The reactions of flamenco audiences in Britain supports the theory that people are still in need of something less manufactured than the products of Hollywood and the music business, less intellectualised than the self-loathing and motion sickness of ‘cutting-edge’ dance and music, and more vital and engaging than the museum pieces of the folk preservationists. So what’s new? People are amazing and have always needed art which exercises the substance between their ears and tingles the bits between their legs. Naturally there will always be those who prefer to be merely comforted. And there will always be those willing to market the more narcotic forms of entertainment, making every day ‘perfect’, and globalisation is a great help to those who wish to homogenise the cultures of the world into a single easily marketable product. Every advance in communication before and since the railway has threatened the integrity of every culture which happened to be in the way. But the steamroller never quite demolishes everything in its path. The triumph is never complete, and people always emerge from the ruins to insist on telling the world what they think of it. And nothing – not slavery, mechanisation, fascist dictatorships, exile, or born-again religious fundamentalism seem to be able to totally quench the flow of human creativity.

Choices Shape the Future

The choice facing Flamenco is the classic one of stagnation or change. Those who resist change and experiment should be aware that the cultural heritage they seek to preserve is itself the result of a process of continuous change. The only way to arrest that process is to prevent change in society itself, a task to which the dictator Franco dedicated his life. But Franco and his ideology are long dead. May they both stay that way.

1999

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