The Voices of Flamenco
by Brian Grosjean

Latin music spans some of the most diverse cultures in the World Music repertoire. Cuban son and Caribbean Soca seem connected at the hip with Argentinean Tangos or the Celtic-sounds of Basque Spain. But lately, the resurgence of Flamenco has taken center stage in the back-to-the-roots movement in Spain.


Flamenco has its roots in Andalusia (southern Spain) among the influences of the various cultures that settled in that part of the Iberian peninsula throughout the centuries. The native kingdom of Tartessos, the ancient Phoenician and Greek traders, the Carthaginian and Roman Empires, Visigoth conquerors, Hebrews and nomadic Gypsies and especially the Arabs and Berbers (also known as Moors) all added their influence to the polyglot culture of Andalusia. It was here that knowledge and learning of the ancient world was archived by the Arabs as the rest of Europe stumbled through the period known as the Dark Ages. Out of this melt came a new musical form originating first with the gitanerias (Gypsy slums), and passed down from generation to generation, thanks to the patriarchal family clans of the gypsies.

By the early 19th century, Flamenco was part of the entertainment at Andalusian Inns. The early artists were mostly poor gypsies and payos (non-Gypsies) who performed as a pastime. As the popularity of Flamenco grew, some of the artists became professionals.

The experienced cantaores (singers) who accompanied themselves on guitar, were sometimes hired with dancers to perform at private parties, trade fairs and festivals for foreign visitors seeking a glimpse of Spanish culture. The popularity of Flamenco soared until the beginning of this century when playing to bigger audiences led to a deterioration of pure Flamenco.

In the 1950's, a revival of Flamenco was supported by poets, writers and numerous followers, resulting in the resurgence of the style and new appreciation. Today, Flamenco artists are well respected. Numerous young Gypsy musicians who grew up listening to rock are now rediscovering their families' Flamenco roots, creating new hybrid forms.

Flamenco lyrics contain an enormous diversity of subjects from the satirical to the social. For the most part, it is the great enigmas of life, death, and love, which dominate the short verses of the songs. Originating in the repression of past empires, and with its emphasis of individuality, Flamenco styles suit those tortured souls yearning for freedom and expression. So it is when first heard. It is the passion of the artists that ignites the soul of the listener.

Flamenco seems to overcome the despair and hopelessness of the life of a gypsy. They survive on the margins of a society from which they earn a living, but even today, affords them little or no social standing. Flamenco reflects their need to preserve, and aggressively, their self-esteem.

Classical Traditions

The greatest living Flamenco guitarist is, without a doubt, Paco de Lucia. His many albums on Phillips and his collaborations with John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell and many others makes his a household name among Flamenco artists. A recent compilation called "10 de Paco" is available on Milestone Records. But other artists such as Tomatito, Gerardo Núñez, and the Flamenco genius Ramon Montoya have also recorded significant solo and collaborative works. Much "classical" Flamenco can be found on classical labels such as Phillips, Le Chant du Monde, and Polydor.

Tango, Rumba, and Gypsy Rock

The continual evolution of Flamenco only underscores its strength in Iberian culture. Groups such as Jaleo, Amalgama, and a local favorite Val Ramos continue to combine Flamenco with rock, jazz, and north African and Turkish music. Their music is difficult to find on this side of the globe, but can be sampled on the three-CD set Duende by Ellipsis Arts (see below). Duende is a college level course in Flamenco, guiding you through the classical, and sung (cante) flamenco to a variety of fusion. Since it came out several years ago, I have yet to tire of the diversity and quality of the tracks. Val Ramos' album Barriculas Flamenco (Self Published) shows the quality and variety of rigorous training in the basics of the art. Except for the original title song which is a swinging rhumba, the album is the best of classical flamenco brought to modern standards. Also on his own is Oscar Lopez. His album Dancing on the Moon (Redwood Records) exudes life and love. Jose Angel Navarros's album Miel introduces Flamenco, Cuban style. The original music is rich and varied treatments of rumba, bolero, Carnival camparsa, and the complex rhythms of Afro-Cuban drummers.

The album by Compania Flamenco Alhama, a renowned Flamenco music and dance troupe, have a wonderful album devoted to Seville, "the place where Flamenco is lived to the fullest". The music is recorded live and is as exciting as any recorded anywhere. Look for their Miramar album "Viva Sevilla". And I have to mention Jorge Parido, who played with the Paco de Lucia group for many years, plays Flamenco Jazz on Las Cigarras Son Quiza Sorda (Perhaps the Cicadas are deaf). The album deftly mixes traditional elements with the new edge of jazz.

The Gypsy rock group Ketama shows why they are on the leading edge of Flamenco fusion. Their collaborations with Malian Kora player Toumani Diabete, and the bassist Danny Thompson has produced two incredible albums named Songhai and Songhai 2 (on Hannibal). Pata Negra offer a particularly fine sort of meld of blues and Flamenco on their early album Blues De La Frontera for Polygram and Hannibal. The group Curandero explores the far reaches of Flamenco, combining tabla and banjo (by, of course, Bela Fleck) into extended mostly instrumental songs. The music is challenging and interesting, but nothing to stamp by shoes to.

As with every other genre, Flamenco is susceptable to the dreaded New Age disease. This scourge saps the energy out of the music and replaces it with dreamy synths and bloodless machine created music. Avoid some of the music of Strunz and Farah such as "Heat of the Sun" (though their early recordings such as Misterio, and Americas are quite good). The album Rain Dancer by Armik becomes smitten with this disease at times. His latest album is made in the similar vein.

No mention of Gypsy rock is complete without at least mentioning The Gypsy Kings. They are the most popular of the Young Flamenco artists with hit songs on European charts, but are probably also the most commercial, straying the farthest from their roots in search of popularity and its rewards. They have brought much commercial recognition to an overlooked art form, and it is hard to criticize their success. Their many albums have now been condensed into a recent Best Of recording.

A Little of Everything

Another recording not to be missed is a sampler of Young Flamencos out in 1991on Rykodisk. It includes such groups as Pata Negra, Ketama, La Macanita and Ramon El Portugues. This is a great beginning to a lifelong love of Flamenco and focuses on all styles. Going one better is the three CD compilation "Duende: The Passion and Dazzling Virtuosity of Flamenco" by Ellipsis Arts. There is a very informative booklet included. The music includes a lot of styles of singing, which is where Flamenco takes its power. Of Ellipsis Art's many boxed sets, I must admit this is one of my all time favorites.

Saving the best for last, a sampler by Arc Music called The Best of Flamenco, and one by Miramar called Viva Espana include more of the driving rhythms and singing which define the love and loss of a people denied access to "proper" culture.

For you web spinners, there is a Dutch Flamenco web page. And here's a page of flamenco links.

New and traditional Flamenco is but a CD away from your ears. Centuries of art are contained in every song. Sink in. Relish. And bang those heels on the floor!

Much of the above was drawn from the booklet with the three-CD set "Duende: The Passion and Dazzling Virtuosity of Flamenco" by Ellipsis Arts /20 Lumber Road, Roswell, N.Y. , 11576/ (800) 788-6670

see also: Gipsy Music, Europe

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