A Brief Pre-History of Flamenco
The word Flamenco was not a term used for music or dance until the late 18th century. Today most of us relate the term to the Spanish word flama, meaning "fire" or "flame" as represented in the fiery art of Flamenco players and performers. But the actual backstory of the art form’s development is much more nuanced and wrought with sadness.
Andalusian historian and nationalist Blas Infante proposed in his 1933 book Orígenes de lo Flamenco y Secreto del Cante Jondo that the word flamenco comes from the Hispano-Arabic term fellah mengu, meaning "expelled peasant", a term which referred to the many Andalusians of other non-catholic faiths, the Moriscos (Islamic followers), Gitanos (Roma people) and Jews who were all expelled by the Spanish Inquisition or the periods of oppression that followed. Many songs do reflect a spirit of desperation, struggle, hope, and pride of the people that may well have carried these communities through times of persecution.
Recent research has revealed another major influence on flamenco's prehistory, Sub-Saharan African music and dance which arrived via African slaves held by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th century. It is easy to recognize the relationship between classical flamenco compositions and African folk forms, such as negrillas, zarambeques, and chaconas even though the reason for that correlation is so despairing.
We also find mention of the “Fandango Indiano”, a Native American art form that explorers encountered in the New World, as well as obvious rhythmic influences from Cuban traditions. It is fairly safe to say that many of the dance steps and rhythms brought from the Americas were deemed inappropriate for European tastes until the 18th century. In fact many early forms of Flamenco were banned at one time or another because of their lack of restraint and modesty.
Because of this, the period from 1780 to 1850 was probably a fairly private stage for the art form. According to flamencologists, flamenco at this time, was something like a private ritual, secretly kept towns in the Seville and Cádiz. By most accounts it consisted of unaccompanied singing (cante) and dancing (baile), and later, the songs were accompanied by guitar (toque), rhythmic hand clapping (palmas), rhythmic feet stomping (zapateado) bandurria and tambourine.
Public acceptance and the so-called “Golden Age of Flamenco” did not come until the late 1800s, when the art form developed rapidly in “cafés cantantes”, a new type of venue for public performances. Flamenco dancers became a major public attraction, and guitar players supporting the dancers increasingly gained a reputation; this is in fact how flamenco guitar as an art form itself was born.
The years that follow are much easier to define in terms of influence and development, and we invite you to listen to this free local radio broadcast to check out our hypothesis for yourself:
Canal Flamenco Radio
Be sure to leave us your insights and opinions in the comments below, and check out our Flamenco Experience box for even more inspiration!