Dancing in Spanish: Flamenco in Seville

A Musical Education
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 9 2004 5:16 PM

Dancing in Spanish: Flamenco in Seville

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David Morán
David Morán

I've signed up for clapping class with David Morán. We're in a small room on Taller Flamenco's second floor, and he's equipped with a boom box, a chalkboard, and a folder of compact disks. Some of the disks are compás-only, featuring whole tracks of clapping hands.

"What have you been doing in dance class?" David asks.

"Um, soleá por alegrias."

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"There's no such thing as soleá por alegrias."

David draws three long lines on the chalkboard, then makes 12 marks on each, denoting beats. Along each line, he draws a series of X's to show where the emphasis falls.

"There are three kinds of soleá," he says. He speaks Spanish with what I assume is some sort of deep Andalusian accent in which consonants are optional.

"This one is for old-fashioned, traditional songs. It can be irregular, speeding up and slowing down. This one we say is for dance teachers—it's very regular. And this one is more modern." The modern one looks extra-tricky, with X's not just on the beats but between them. He has already gone over the two ways in which to clap: Cupped palms produce sordos, which have a more muted sound, while flat palms produce secas, louder and dryer.

He puts on one of the clapping-only disks and I join in, keeping my eyes on the X's on the chalkboard.

"Relax," he says. "You're a perfectionist, aren't you?" I stop, shake my shoulders, and start again.

I move my hands a little closer to my head and try closing my eyes while I clap. And then suddenly I hear singing—a powerful, minor-key voice. David is producing a song like that of a particularly melodic muezzin. It's lovely, but I lose my thread.

David is from Jerez de la Frontera, the other Andalusian town with a claim to being the home and birthplace of flamenco. Raised in Santiago, Jerez's gypsy quarter, David has in the past made a living waiting tables and working as a laborer, but now he mainly sings and teaches compás.

Some 50 miles to the south of Seville, Jerez is one of the many towns across Andalusia that carry the "de la Frontera" tag, in reference to the once-shifting frontline between Christian and Muslim empires. Part of the great Islamic big bang, North Africans invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711, taking control of almost the whole region within five years. Muslim power was not driven entirely from Spain until 1492, and much of the skirmishing between civilizations took place in what is now Andalusia.

By 1499, the zealous new Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabella, had given remaining Muslims a choice of conversion or deportation to Africa. With the Spanish Inquisition ascendant, the state now also hunted Jews, who had been free under most of the caliphs. Meanwhile, gypsies, wanderers from a tribe that probably came from India via Europe, had arrived in Andalusia in the 15th century, and because of their suspiciously itinerant ways, they too faced official attempts at eradication.

The result of all this discrimination was that around 500 years ago, Muslims, Jews, and gypsies fled the cities—especially Granada, the last Muslim outpost—for the hills of Andalusia. And it was there, down-and-out and on the lam, that most experts think the flamenco sound germinated, fusing gypsy, Moorish, and Ladino (Spanish-Jewish) folk music, and later mingling in sounds from Christian Europe. The North African influence is especially evident in the deep, emotional riffs known as cante jondo, or deep song—the sort of thing David busts out with in class.

I leave the schoolroom with my 12-beat lines carefully copied into a notebook, quite sure that no gypsy from Jerez ever had to use pen and paper to get to the music. The origins of flamenco are so shrouded in gypsy mystique that some aficionados still debate whether a non-gypsy can perform flamenco at all. And even those who acknowledge the many excellent payo, or non-gypsy, artists performing today hold fast to the idea of musical inheritance: Flamenco is thought of as being in the blood.

Rafa Cuevas in his music store, Compás Sur
Rafa Cuevas

For more expertise on this and other questions of flamenco validity, I turned to Rafa Cuevas, owner of the music store Compás Sur. His shop carries everything from traditional artists like Manolo Caracol (whose statue decorates a Seville plaza) to Nuevo Flamenco, a sound that developed in the '90s and incorporates jazz, blues, and rock as well as Moroccan and Indian music. Still disdained by some purists, Nuevo Flamenco gained a huge new audience with bands like Ketama and Radio Tarifa. Compás Sur is packed with old records and new CDs, sheet music and instructional DVDs. When I arrive, a clerk is practicing guitar in a room behind the register.

Cheery and direct, Cuevas tells me that while nobody knows if gypsies actually invented flamenco, it's clear that it wouldn't exist without them. They kept it alive through generation after pre-electronic generation through their oral tradition, and most of the famous singers are to this day Andalusian gypsies.

But Cuevas is all for new and foreign influences.

"This question of what's real and what's not real is a bit of a fictional discussion," he tells me. "Who cares? Maybe four old men in a room somewhere, that's it. Flamenco has always evolved. And while everyone agrees that we shouldn't lose the roots, that's not in danger of happening."

To prove his point, he walks me over to a shelf and points out a slew of young artists who are writing and recording what he says is fabulous new flamenco: La Niña Pastori, Arcángel, Estrella Morente, Miguel Poveda, Mayte Martín.

"Martín is a woman?" I ask, peering at the CD cover.

"Yes, but you see, she's a lesbian, and she always dresses like a man."

Street musicians in Seville
Street musicians in Seville

"Like k.d. lang?" I ask, but he hasn't heard of her. Very nuevo, anyway. And only one of the bunch he has pointed out, La Niña Pastori, is a gypsy. Later, when I look up the names online, I find an article on whether una revolución paya—a non-gypsy revolution—is under way. The payos are quoted defending their right to embrace the form.

As it pertains to the mysteries of flamenco, this debate is clearly over my head. But it's not so different from claims that have been made about other musical genres at one time or another: You have to be from the bayou to sing the blues; you have to be a gangsta to rap.

I find it hard to take disputes like these seriously. Talent is talent is talent, and if you don't have it, it doesn't matter who your daddy was; nobody's going to listen. I think that in music, questions of lineage mainly interest a certain kind of fan and the record companies that cater to them with strenuously packaged back stories. For some listeners, it's not enough to hear a song about pain; they have to believe that the pain is real. The artist has to be seen as different—a special, more intense creature who will do the expressing for the rest of us as we get on with our daily lives. In comparison, practicing scales—or diagramming beats on a chalkboard—just doesn't have any cachet.

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