I remember very well a conversation with a long time mentor. Young, brash yet full of optimism in my early-twenties, I asked her, “I just want to do something positive in the world. I’d like to change it for the better.”
“How do you think you can make it better?” She asked, skeptical as I started explaining each of my decisions.
“I’m not sure – there’s so many options, science, technology, government…” I ended, “It seems there’s so many paths, and it’s so hard to tell where they’ll actually lead.”
“Art. You should make art,” she said definitively.
Timbre of Soul through Guitar, Song, and Dance
I’ll admit that when I first arrived in Andalusia, I knew very little about flamenco beyond a vague image of long, polka-dotted dresses, guitar, and somehow ignorantly confused it with the tango. It wasn’t until I started doing some research that I realized how embarrassingly wrong I was. After my research about and experience of flamenco, I learned a few things.
Flamenco is a distinct art form that emerged from Andalusia, and while it has transformed and evolved with the people living in the region, the heart of flamenco is the soul in the deeply moving and emotive storytelling. The Romani (or Gitano), Spain’s gypsy community, inherited the art as their own, created beautiful forms on top of it and have since merged it with their cultural identity. The expressive dance from heel to eyes, the clapping and percussion made by snapping, foot beats, drums and cymbals, merges with lyrical vocals (cante), guitar and in some cases, flute.
Flamenco is an incredible feat of harmony yet highlights each artist, demanding improvisation while keeping in stride with the unmatchable rhythm. It was music I have only felt in one other form: jazz.
When I was young, I spent hours practicing the piano. I remember summers were scheduled around my daily and weekly practice schedule, and if I traveled, I’d lug my 88 key keyboard on flights and to friends’ houses. Fifteen years later, and I probably haven’t touched a piano more than three times. While I was never going to be a professional, the process taught me to listen and – most importantly – to be moved when the music is good.
Good music, regardless of the form, tells a story. You hear it in the vibration the notes carry and see it in the honesty of the musician; it is both what is written in the music cues but also personalized, subtly, gently, and distinctly unique. Most importantly, it carries the fullness of all emotions. It is, at its best, an honest representation of us, of our identity from the spectrum of tragic to loving, through a medium that is created by strings, air, brass and/or lungs.
Watching the musicians in Sevilla and Granada while feeling the intense and distinct rhythm that I could not – even as I wanted to join – closely mirror, I felt that I could understand (without being able to place words on it) the deepness and richness of story, culture and history of the community I was visiting. I didn’t understand the words but I understood the song; I had none of the talents to clap in sync with the musicians, but I felt the beats; it moved me, and the expressive dancing that perfectly matched the beats vibrating off the room and onto my chest and in my head, shook my breath away.
The technical, precise and inexplicably fast footwork that somehow matched perfectly with the clapping, snapping, percussions and vocals gave me chills. I felt suddenly the world became a little smaller, and that the artists were sharing something deeply moving with me that I had never seen before yet could recognize.
Flamenco, as I experienced it in Andalusia, impromptu shows at a local flamenco club in Sevilla and then a formal show in the Gitano caves of Sacromonte, Granada, was pure artistry.
A Tale of Two Musical Forms
Any tiny bit of knowledge on music theory I may have once had is completely gone now. But when I sat in Cueva la Rocio and watched as the music changed forms, the chords first, then the tempo, and finally the improvisation of the dancers who seemed to flow with and drive the entire harmony, I could not help but think of jazz.
Like jazz – and you could find it on the streets of towns in Andalusia like you would in New Orleans. Some are fancy clubs that you would need to have a ticket for; some you would walk into the club and pay a cover fee or buy a drink; some happened right in front of your eyes as you walked along the river Guadalquivir at night. Also, like jazz, the moments of improvisation were the most exhilarating, and you could see the impressive balance of focus, control and freedom in each of the artist’s faces.
It was also a musical form that encouraged participation. Even sitting along the cave walls, I could not help but clap and tap my feet, trying to pick up subtle changes as the story continued.
In the caves of Sacramonte, Granada, the music brought me back to taking a walk down Frenchman Street in the winter during a visit to New Orleans, the sounds of the music coming from all directions out of bars, clubs and reflecting off and blending into the music from the streets. In mid-January, it was cold outside. You could see the steamed up bar windows,and feel the warmth of the buildings heating the streets. You could not walk down that street, stop to listen to the music at a bar, and not feel like you were part of the music. You could not help but tap your feet, maybe snap, or try to sway to the tunes. It was impossible to miss the immersion of multiple cultures, blended together – from West African beats, to European band music, to African American expression and story. The final result? A distinctly American form of music that has reached all corners of the world, telling the story of its people, proudly and beautifully.
Also like jazz, flamenco is an immersion of multiple cultures, resulting in a distinctly Andalusian creation that the gitanos have spirited as their own. The cante, or song, along with the guitar is considered the heart of the flamenco. The traditional gitano cante in flamenco has Arabic song forms, Jewish synagogue chants and of course, the folk stories of the Spanish gypsies through time. I watched our singer, deeply moved, tell a story in words we did not know and yet, I still felt I understood: two families becoming one, the celebration of love, and later in the second half, a widow’s expression of sadness and loss displayed in the canto grande.
“You Should Make Art”
Like food, art – word, paint, song – tells a story about a place and its people. In Andalusia, it is impossible to experience the culture without seeing a story of migration – in its golden times, peaceful coexistence, and at its worst, the expulsion of entire communities and tribes. Yet what remains even when the people, the politics, the armies are gone are still the pescaito frito, gazpacho, jamon, and migas. What hasn’t disappeared are the columns of the Alhambra, the Mezquita, and the intricate blue and yellow tiles patterning every atrium. What still plays in homes after siesta and into sundown, and what can be heard from the Darro Valley is the canto grande, the tunes of this sad song vibrating off the cavernous rocks that have seen decades pass but their story remain, generation after generation.
Folk music, the most honest music of the people, leaves an especially strong impression on me. My own grandmothers did not (and currently do not) know how to read or write, their stories of the 1968 famines lost except through oral tradition (a long time ago, I wrote a rather long novel set in this time to try to continue the story). I imagine this is the same for many displaced, abandoned or impoverished communities; their traditions of song and story keeps their identity alive, even if their methods of transcribing this is taken away.
This appreciation for art, for story, fills me with the realization that how we will be remembered, how our story will live on and excavated by future beings, will be by the expressions of our lives we leave behind. Science and technology are forward looking, building us toward a future (and hopefully a better one), but expression is the present and the past, transcending into the future through influence of an unshakable human spirit. It explains who we are. It reminds us we have a place, a history, and an identity – that we are more than functional machines, driving from one day to the next, trying to extend our lives a little longer. It reminds us that we have a soul.
Art is life.
Seville (link here for more): Seville’s Triana district, the famous Gitano neighborhood for flamenco on the West side of the Guadalquivir River, has a number of shows and flamenco clubs, where you may be able to catch flamenco without buying tickets. Some clubs are primarily music focused, but friends will come to dance flamenco. This is often considered to be the “purest form” of flamenco: an impromptu, unplanned expression while a guitarist or singer is performing. We went to La Taberna, a purely accidental stumble. The doors were dark, and it was on an off-street to the main road along the river, but once we went in, we were well rewarded. There was no cover charge (though you do have to buy a drink), the music was fantastic and there was flamenco dancing – real, impromptu flamenco dancing (so no, you won’t get the costumes but the experience is worth it). Short sample video below (no dancing in this clip).
We also managed to catch flamenco at the Plaza de Espana and I not-so-subtly took a picture (see above). Apparently this sometimes happens on Sundays at the Plaza but it’s not guaranteed, which makes finding it even more memorable.
Other flamenco spots:
- La Carboneria in Santa Cruz district (this is very famous among tour groups, and we didn’t end up going) – no tickets needed
- Los Gallos in Santa Cruz district – tickets needed
- Casa de la Guittara – tickets needed
- T de Triana in Triana – no tickets needed
Granada: Granada’s Sacromonte neighborhood is famously the Gitano neighborhood and where most visitors (including some famous ones) go to see flamenco in the caves. These events are catered to tourists, but I affirm it is still worth it. After all, you’ll be watching trained artists who are equally as passionate about the form performing in front of visitors (many Spanish) versus locals.
I went to Cueva la Rocio for an hour performance, and it was breath taking. What I didn’t realize was how technical the footwork would be when you see it up close! I don’t know how they were able to move so precisely and quickly while having the energy to perform the rest of the dance.
Other well respected artists and clubs include:
- Museo de la Zambra
- La Chien Andalou
- Tablao Flamenco
Cordoba: I never ended up making it to flamenco in Cordoba, but I did do the research and Patio de la Judería Taberna Restaurant appears to have the best package with dinner and a show.
Malaga: It is very hard to catch flamenco in the “purest” or impromptu form in Malaga, but there is a flamenco festival every year that welcomes dancers from all over Spain (link here and also here). This would definitely be worth seeing. I didn’t catch it this time, but if you do, please report back!