Origins of Flamenco

Cadiz, Spain
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Flamenco is a musical style that originated in Andalucia, the southern region of Spain. There are at least two centuries of documented proof of existence, and its roots are many centuries old. Traditional instrumentation includes guitar, percussion (particularly, the cajon), hand claps, and voice. Dance is an integral part of the genre, and dancers typically contribute stamping/tap sounds and additional percussion sounds (such as castanets) to the music.

The origins of flamenco are complex. There are many social, geographical, historical and cultural events that took part in the equation that resulted in a wonderful form of art, rich in originality, expression and variety.

Prior to the 18th Century, there was a lack of historical documentation about flamenco, and because of that, there is currently not an agreement on many aspects related to the origins of the name and of the art itself, which perhaps makes it even more mysterious and attractive. Theories regarding the origins of the word “flamenco” include words that translate to mean exiled person, flame colored (referring to the costumes), flamingo (referring to the dancer’s postures), Flemish (i.e., coming from Flanders), and others.

Its music carries the expression of the Romani (Gitano/Gypsy) people and their struggles among history. It is therefore analogous to the spirit of the blues in United States.

In the 15th century, the Roma population traveled to Spain from India, while incorporating folkloric and artistic elements found in the countries where they temporarily settled.

The Arab musical heritage (after eight centuries of living in Spain), the Jewish Sephardic traditions, and Byzantine chants by the Catholic Church are essential ingredients in the creation and evolution of the flamenco style.

This form of art is today a way of living for a minority in Spain. Singing, dancing and amazing guitar and percussion accompaniments make up an art that is internationally recognized as World Heritage by Unesco.

One of the most accepted theories defends that the voice (“cante”) was the first discipline to appear, in Triana, Jerez and Cádiz, (Andalucía) in the 18th century. However, there are some literary references that described the existence of dancers that apparently were dancing to music played by voice, guitar, and percussion in the 17th century, in a very similar way to how flamenco music is performed (see Miguel de Cervantes in La Gitanilla and Bachiller Revoltoso, 1740).

The voice, guitar, and the dance are the main disciplines, and they all have very rich rhythm as the common denominator. These rhythms give Flamenco a very particular identity with strong African and Latin American influences, where claps, the dancers footwork, the guitar, and the rhythm of the melodies make up a unique and strong rhythm section.

The poetical component, present in the lyrics, is a very important element in this music. The emotion and passion with what the singers interpret their melodies make possible for anyone—even for those who don’t speak the language—to relate to the spirit and the message of its beautiful poetry.

Flamenco music is admired worldwide and it has served as inspiration to composers in other music styles and artists from other forms of art, such as painting and literature.

This primitive music is evolving and adapting to the requirements of the music industry in the 21st century. It is totally worth exploring for any musician, and something you should not miss if you travel to Spain.

 

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Sergio Martìnez is a percussionist from Madrid who specializes in flamenco and world music traditions. He has performed and/or recorded with with Paul Simon, Danilo Perez, and many other artists. Sergio teaches at Berklee College of Music's campus in Valencia, Spain.