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What is Flamenco?

 
 
 
What is Flamenco?

What a question! There are whole books written about the subject and even those aren't all in agreement. Let's start with what isn't in doubt - Flamenco is a form of artistic expression born from a melting pot of influences and cultures which were thrown together in Andalusia. The Gypsy people who moved to the area at the beginning of the 1400's (who, it is now believed are descended from Indian ancestry), are often given the most credit for the origins of Flamenco, but without the influence of other peoples living in the Andalusian region (of Bizantine, Jewish, Muslim & Arabic origins), Flamenco would likely never have evolved as we know it.

As an art form born of the common people, many of them illiterate and without social standing, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint a point of origin as we are forced to rely on verbal tradition and the odd mention in early contemporary accounts. It is widely accepted that the origins of Flamenco were in el Cante (Flamenco song) long before dance and guitar were introduced. However there are those that argue that, based on historical works such as Bachiller Revoltoso (1740) and perhaps even the lesser known work by Cervantes, The Little Gypsy Girl (early 1600's), there is evidence that a uniquely Andalusian dance form existed from the earliest mentions of this art. Perhaps el Cante & el Baile (Flamenco dance) evolved together, perhaps they evolved separately and later merged - what we know for sure is that by the early 1800's Flamenco was recognised as an art form in its own right - similar to that which we know and love today.

 
 
 

Where Does the Word Flamenco Come From?

 
 
 

But what about the word Flamenco? That is in and of itself a separate and no less intriguing mystery. The most well know and accepted theory today, expounded by Blas Infante, is that the word is a corruption of the Arabic term Felah-Mengus, meaning wandering peasant. Until recently however, the most popular theory was that the name was derived from the word Flemish - the people of the Flanders region of Belgium. The argument affirms that it was originally believed that gypsies were of Germanic origin and that the term may have been used in error to describe this ancestry. Lesser known theories are fun to consider - there is some evidence that a Flamenco was another word for knife or dagger; while others have said that the word was ancient slang for anything ostentatious or showy (and one would have to agree that in many ways Flamenco fits the bill for that!). There is of course the fact that Flamenco is a Spanish homonym for Flamingo (don't get us started on the people who mix the two words up in English!) and there are those that have argued that the early Flamenco singers in their short jackets were reminiscent of the flamboyant pink birds (yes, that really was a serious theory by the respected Folklorist & poet Rodríguez Marin).

At the end of the day, you may take your pick as your guess is as good as anyone else's! But perhaps Demófilo (author of the seminal work Collección de Cantes Flamencos - 1881) put it best when he said The Gypsies call the Andalusians Gachós and the Andalusians call the Gypsies Flamencos, with neither knowing why or where the names came from.

Where does Flamenco Come From?
 
 
 

A Short History of Flamenco

 
 
 
A Short History of Flamenco

Flamenco has been in a constant state of evolution over the centuries. As we mentioned, most Flamencologists point to el Cante being the most important facet in the beginnings of the art form, with the most influential early singers hailing from Seville (specifically Triana), Jerez and Cadiz. The earliest song forms are what we know today as Cante Jondo (deep song), which include the Toná, Polo, & later the Caña, Seguiriya & Soleá. The Soleá is considered to be the first of the Flamenco song forms to be accompanied by dance & from these roots grew the enormous range of song and dance styles or Palos that we know today. (You can find a selection of the most common ones on our Palos resources page).

As Flamenco's evolution continued, the art form grew in popularity throughout Andalusia and entered what is know as The Golden Age at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. It was during this period that the Cafe Cantantes (early forerunners of today's Tablaos) reached their peak popularity and the guitar took its rightful place in the holy trinity of Flamenco. During this period Flamenco evolved at an astounding pace under the influence of geniuses such as Antonio Mariena, La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol, Ramón Montoya Salazar, Antonia Mercé La Argentina, and many others. It is also during this Golden Age that we have the first recordings of Flamenco song - invaluable records of the earlier period of this living art form.

As the popularity of the Cafe Cantantes grew, so did Flamenco itself - and a number of popular touring groups were formed to bring Flamenco to the rest of Spain and worldwide. Perhaps it was during this period that el Baile began to gain prominence - the international language of dance proved much easier to translate to a wider audience. Popularity surged internationally thanks to the genius and star quality of artists such as Antonio el Bailarín and the legendary Carmen Amaya. Technology embraced the ancient Andalusian art and in the early 30's and 40's the first movies starring Flamenco dancers were made.

 
 
 

Flamenco and Franco

 
 
 

The emergence of Franco and the Civil War years were a difficult time for Flamenco. On one hand Franco promoted Flamenco to serve his own agenda - an example of the Real Spain (the Folkloric Spanish brand he wanted to present to the world). On the other, the originators of Flamenco - the Gypsy population - were persecuted throughout the Franco dictatorship, while the purer forms of Flamenco - the Cante Jondo - were suppressed in order to promote a more attractive image. But perhaps ironically, Franco's influence may have contributed to the survival of the older, deeper forms of Flamenco. The general public has always tended to prefer the more easy listening version of Flamenco - the Rumbas, Sevillanas, Alegrías and Bulerías - and perhaps over time the more traditional forms of Flamenco would have simply died out due to lack of popularity. But by forbidding the Cante Jondo Franco created a rebellion among the artists who subversively fought to protect the original forms behind closed doors, and they are still a vital and very active part of Flamenco today.

Flamenco and Franco
 
 
 

Flamenco Today

 
 
 
Flamenco Today

And so the evolution continues. The watershed moment for modern Flamenco is considered by many to be 1979, with the release of Camarón's La Leyenda del Tiempo. With one foot firmly in the past he revolutionised Flamenco by incorporating new musical styles and instruments. Considered blasphemy by certain traditionalists and the cause of great controversy at the time of its release, it is now considered one of the most important, if not THE most important Flamenco album ever released. Camarón was clearly ahead of his time - since then Flamenco has continued to draw on both its deepest roots and external influences to maintain itself alive and relevant to audiences throughout the world. The worldwide influence of this art form was recognised by UNESCO on 16th November 2010 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Quite an achievement for a local style of expression created over 200 years ago by the poorest and most marginalised of society.

 
 
 

Flamenco and You

 
 
 

So what's next for you? Whether you are planning to travel to Spain, take up Flamenco yourself, or find out more about Flamenco happening near you, you're in the right place! This website was created to provide the most extensive information about Flamenco as possible. And if you'd like to support us in supporting Flamenco near you, you can find out how here.