The flamenco history is fascinating. From the original performers, repudiated farmworkers to international stars, flamenco enthusiasts have played a key role in transmitting it. It’s the victory of sensibility over sense.
How far back can we trace the flamenco origin? This is actually a controversial question because experts don’t seem to agree.
Flamenco history is certainly not old. While some point out that its origins date much more ago, it’s commonly assumed that flamenco arise some 200 years ago.
Flamenco art is the result of a melting pot based on the many music styles that have evolved in Andalucía and have been transmitted generation after generation. These styles include Jewish, Arab, Castilian, old Andalusian and, of course, gypsy music.
Obviously, gypsies were the most important influencers on the Andalusian folklore base. They arrived to Spain at the beginning of the 15th century although flamenco wasn’t associated with regional singing and dancing until the 19th century.
Flamenco started in the countryside
The flamenco history dates back from the 18th century, despite some scholars claim that it existed long before that. It’s said that it has roots from all the medieval cultures that inhabited Spain. Thus, it’s a dance that intermingles features from the local musical culture and many others thanks to the influences travellers brought back to Spain from the colonies.
Nevertheless, gypsies were the major spreading actors of the flamenco dance. They were able to successfully merge such a wide variety of rhythms in one.
Until the end of the 18th century, gypsies were part of the lower social classes. They were marginalized and chased for centuries. This sentiment of suffering and rejection is one of the bases of the drama surrounding flamenco dancing.
But soon became extremely popular
In 1783, King Charles III regulated the social exclusion of the gypsy community. Little by little, they began to integrate -not without difficulty- to the Spanish society. As their visibility increased, gypsies performed their songs and dances not only privately but also for larger audiences.
During the first half of the 19th century, Andalucía and the gypsy character caused fascination among Spaniards and young European Romantics. This character was a synonym of independence and uniqueness. The description of flamenco parties written by these travellers resulted in the massive expansion of flamenco.
Thanks to this, flamenco dancing was publicly performed in cafés cantantes first (during a period also known as ópera flamenca), and in larger venues later on. As a result, it became so popular that there were flamenco shows everywhere. The excess was such that spectators stopped attending and flamenco almost
Fortunately, new influences and major artists of the 1950s recover the original spirit of flamenco and from then on it has been considered an art.
From amateurs to virtuous performers
The flamenco history has had a constant evolution for the past 250 years. According to the experts, there have been 4 different periods:
- Initially, flamenco artists weren’t professionals. Quite the contrary, actually! Dancers generally performed at the tavern patios or at a relative’s house. One or several guitar players accompanied the dancers and late night parties lighted by candles were organized.
- From the 1850s flamenco dancers were more professional. Wooden platforms were introduced to enhance the taconeo and zapateado. However, the repertory was scarce and only a few palos were known.
- With the arrival of the ópera flamenca, dancing lost the leading role compared to singing.
- In the mid-20th century, flamenco dancing emerged back from darkness and it was integrated in innovative choreographies called ballets flamencos. These were the result of mixing traditional flamenco and new musical waves. From then on, great flamenco dancers have contributed to the dancing style’s evolution and its international recognition.
The rise of flamenco (1750s-1850s)
At that time, gypsy settlements started blossoming relatively fast around Seville, Granada, Jerez, Cádiz and other towns (e.g. Utrera). Gypsies were usually employed as seasonal workers in the countryside and they often gathered after a long day in the fields. During their parties, they sang and danced. Actually, they still do.
The cafés cantantes (1850s-1920s)
Up until then, flamenco was only performed privately. However, over this period it was highly disseminated and became quite popular. As a matter of fact, flamenco dancing was also acclaimed and very much appreciated.
The main reason behind such a spectacular diffusion was the creation of the cafés cantantes. Here, food and drinks were served while flamenco was performed as a clients’ entertainment. Seville and Cádiz were the forerunners but other capitals such as Madrid or even Barcelona were soon full of these cafes.
It was the first time that people was willing to pay for the performances. As a result, competition rose dramatically and schools were created to improve the cante, the baile and the toque. Flamenco was not an amateur art but rather professional instead.
The ópera flamenca (1920s-1950s)
This period is known as ópera flamenca because at the time lower taxes were offered to opera performances. Consequently, the cafés cantantes were little by little replaced by larger venues. At the same time, flamenco’s popularity soared and many tours were held in bullrings all over Spain.
Experts consider this period to be disastrous. Pure singing was rejected, the taste for the authentic was lost and only superficial performances were appreciated. Traditionalists claim that flamenco almost disappeared during that period.
Flamenco as we know it (1950s-today)
In the 1950s, flamenco starts to be considered an art and valued accordingly. It reached the general public without loosing its essence thanks to open-air music festivals.
With the massive arrival of visitors from other parts of Europe and the world, the tablaos spread almost everywhere. They became the modern version of the cafés cantantes and they currently contribute to flamenco’s fame abroad.
In the 1970s the flamenco fusión was born, opposed to the flamenco puro. The influence of other musical styles (jazz, rock, samba, blues and many more) was in vogue.
Nowadays, the classic trend coexist with other less purist styles where performers use the compás of certain traditional palos with other rhythms and lyrics.
This article is part of a complete tutorial about flamenco in Spain where you can read all the information you need to enjoy this typical Andalusian folklore.
Here is a complete summary of all the guide:
1. What is flamenco?
2. Where to see flamenco in Spain?
3. The best flamenco show in Spain
4. How to enjoy flamenco dancing in Spain
5. Where to take flamenco dance classes in Spain
6. Flamenco history and origins
7. Understanding flamenco singing (cante)
8. Understanding flamenco dance (baile)
9. Understanding flamenco guitar (toque)
10. The different flamenco styles
11. A flamenco glossary