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How musicological and ethnomusicological is Spanish Flamenco?

Joaquina Labajo


Como concepto, el flamenco es una construcción selectiva, dirigida y levantada en la convergencia de un gran número de circunstancias singulares pero no estáticas como lo son el concepto de nacionalismo o el de pueblo. Como género, estereotipa y simplifica una realidad diversa. Uno de los modos posibles de acercarnos hoy al estudio del flamenco, como medio de prospección de las dinámicas de cambio e intercambio que tienen lugar entre culturas, es intentar su deconstrucción. En esta breve reflexión trataré de señalar la compleja dinámica que desde dentro y fuera de España ha colaborado a la construcción del género y de los principales pilares que, en mi opinión, sostienen y alimentan lo que podríamos denominar, -en términos algo exóticos- su "heroica resistencia" al análisis musicológico.

How musicological and ethnomusicological is Spanish Flamenco?

In the first pages of How musical is man ?, John Blacking (1973) stated that, above every ethnocentric and arbitrary classification made between "classical" and "popular" music, there are the constructions built within the cultures by what is musical, always irresistibly "popular", for only in community can the musical element get its meaning.

As a concept, flamenco is a selective construction, directed at and arisen in the convergence of a great number of specific determinants that are not static; as a genre, it stereotypes and simplifies a multiple reality.

However, when dealing with musical genres, that like flamenco have gone on for more than a hundred years, it is not an easy task for responsible research to determine its features without defining other space-time categories. On the contrary with flamenco the first thing that strikes the eye is its accepted indivisibility as a concept. Spain-Andalusia, romanticism-present time become a unit whose unfathomable resistance to analysis is attributed to its mysterious and arcane origins in the life side by side of Arabs and Gypsies. The mystery and the myth continue, even nowadays, for the delight and benefit of many, used by some politically in the past (Washabaugh: 1996), and by others economically in the present. (Poutet: 1995)

The 19th-century saw the construction of many genres and of many concepts. At the end of the 20th-century, the trend is reversed and we are witnessing many disconstructions. - What remains then ? We are all well aware that the new political identities recede back to former cultural concepts, justified by criteria that associate individuals in more basic religious, ethnic or historical units. But if we trace flamenco back to its sources we find its involvement in certain stereotypes of the Spanish national folklore, but never the purity of a local Andalusian music nor the pure expression of the Gypsy people. We find a thick soup of transcultural musical elements, emerging from migrations and emigrations all over the Iberian Peninsula that date back to the 18th-century. Their patterns wander about theatre and instrumental paper music as well as in the oral tradition of many Spanish areas. Before going back to the Arab legacy -recurrent in the memory of the travellers of the 19th-century and in that of American businessmen and doctors-to-be a century later (Sender 1969)- and to the no less important Jewish legacy- as vivid in our history as the Arab one despite that it is currently being deliberately ignored on non musicogical grounds- there is in any case a long stretch in the Spanish history that we must ponder and value rightly.

Today one of the possible approaches to flamenco, as a means of prospecting the dynamics of change and exchange between cultures, is to attempt its discontruction. In this presentation I shall review the various complex currents of influence that, from the outside of Spain as well as in the inside, helped to construct this genre, and to define the major pillars that support and nurture what we could call -to use a somewhat exotic expression- its "heroic resistance" to musicological analysis.

Although for a long time musicology overlooked the sources from which emerged the materials used by the composer of the scholarly musical tradition, the fact is that both from musicology as well as from anthropological studies on flamenco this task of interconnecting both disciplines is now successfully launched even if shyly for the time being (G. Matos, Pérez, García Gómez, Steingress ...). Thus the question lies not in confirming the agile and obvious interrelations existing between popular and scholarly music at any given time. The question is to what extent the various attempts to purify and direct creation and investigation of popular music help to disorient those who intend to apprehend comprehensively the processes of change experienced by its structures and their social signification.

Southern Europe taken on the whole has been since Romanticism a privileged destination for English, French and German travellers in search of distant exoticisms. In these countries, less developed industrially, they found a past still full -for them- of cultural reminiscences of far-off times. In the specific case of Spain we note that as the first political power it contributed actively to the European Renaissance, but remained silent after it lost echo in international politics, taking no part in the evolutionary construction of the history of western music. Against this background, for these travellers to adapt the theories of "cultural freeze" to the prevailing social behaviours came as a natural step.

Nevertheless, the primary difficulty for field ethnomusicologists is that the construction of Spanish popular music cannot be credibly approached disregarding its written musical or literary sources, in spite of all the distortions this review may entail. The very existence of written sources comes sometimes to limit and "embarrass" the fantasy shown by certain investigators of foreign urban or country genres belonging to other latitudes and that remained, until quite recently, untouched by scholarly music or, in any case, by written sources as a whole.

To this we must add the great number of sound registers that allow us today to trace the evolution of the genre throughout a century. This abundance on the other hand is most likely to confuse even the most coherent of classifications in subgenres (seguidillas soleares, tangos, malagueñas ...). These difficulties were aggravated when in 1922 a group of intellectuals, driven by the authority of Manuel de Falla and García Lorca, isolated flamenco from another aesthetic expression incarnating "the old and pure" flamenco that came to be canonized as cante jondo (deep song).

 Contradictions of the myth

"Aflamencar" is a verb used in current Spanish language that has also been adopted by certain researchers to express the adaptation of any song to the spirit peculiar to the musical production classified as flamenca. In so doing, they aim at preserving the "traditional" repertoire from innovation. However, we must ask ourselves whether it was this double trend of "preservation" and "adaptation" of foreign elements that led a sector of Andalusian musical expression to become a specific musical genre in its own right. Let's now look into certain examples taken from today's reality that illustrate this process.

In the fourth movement of the Fantasia de cante jondo by the cantaor Enrique Morente and the German composer Armin Hassen -performed for the first time in Madrid in 1986- cante borrows timbre and melodic elements not only from Falla's work for harpsichord, that betrays reminiscences from Stravinsky's Russia, but also to Bartok's Hungary, in addition to Caribbean rhythms.

It could be argued that this is "New Flamenco", which would lead us to one of the most conventional polemics of the 19th-century , that is to distinguish "pure" from "contaminated" flamenco (Rodríguez : 1996). However, in any case, neither the evolutionary process is quite different from that undergone in former times, nor are the referred aesthetic stereotypes around Falla, Russia, Hungary or the Caribbean beside the historical evolution of the construction of flamenco.

A careful listening to, for example, a guajira (Cátedra del Cante, 1996) by the cantaor Juan Breva (Málaga 1844-1918) reveals the inclusion of modulations originated from Grave contradanza of French characteristics, that belongs to the popular zarzuela (Spanish comic opera) Pan y Toros by Barbieri, first performed in 1864 and located in lower class surroundings in Madrid during its occupation by Napoleon's troops. This confirms that, even if it is one of the oldest existing recordings, the borrowings from cante go well beyond the geographical limits of Andalusia.

Much more significant and irreverent towards the canonized theories on its origins is the fact that even the melodic patterns of various old recordings by the mythic king of purism in cante, Antonio Chacón himself, in the shape of malagueñas , cartageneras and other palos are organised according to schemas which we can recognise as characteristic of coplas belonging to the jota navarra that gained popularity all over the country at least during the 19-century, according to the archetype left us by the virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate in Danzas españolas and as pointed out in its day by Julián Ribera (1928).

This example is not fortuitous, it follows and continues a long oral tradition: La Niña de los Peines -in a recording borrowed from Lorca's collection- organises her "Alegrías gitanas" on the schemas of a five-verse standard copla -just as the former- followed by a potpourri of popular themes that are far from being exclusive to Andalusia. One of such themes Yo le dí un duro al barquero (Sonifolk: 1997) alludes specifically to crossing the river Ebro, the natural border line between the fields of Castile and those of northern Spain.

There are also Portuguese fandangos that even nowadays could easily be danced by Castilians on jota steps, malagueñas that follow what composers of the Enlightenment such as Padre Soler and Boccherini called in their scores fandangos and that Gluck, Mozart and Beethoven used in theirs (Etzion: 1996). We can readily understand the perplexity felt by whom, with unending patience and enthusiasm, has approached this world with the wish to organise its repertoire. Bernard Leblon in the last pages of his Musiques tsiganes et flamenco (Leblon: 1990) concludes his work with a certain note of skepticism as to ever achieving such a task:

"Une étude sérieuse du cante se doit de rejeter systématiquement toute association abusive établie sur les bases telles que la similitude de nom, la présence de coplas identiques ou l'existence de traits communs. Ces considérations ont pour but d'éviter toute équivoque et toute erreur de méthode mais nous ramènent à notre point de départ...".

This healthy peace of advice -although it does no solve what actually cannot be solved in exclusively formalistic and timeless approaches- can help us to understand and corroborate, on the field, that musical behaviours cannot possibly be explained by an autonomy of form.


Thus, in the same way that the construction of the musical fact is not self-explanatory irrespective of its meaning in a given socio-cultural context, it is impossible to define its disconstruction and analyze it without such reference. Nothing proves more disturbing than establishing "intempore" patterns either of musical structures or of performing prototypes. If we understand musical creation as a process, not as a repertory of objects, we must conclude, for the same reasons, that its evolutionary process can likewise re-focus our attention on different spaces as we move back or forth in history.

The importance of "La Mancha" has not, in my opinion, been suitably emphasised by musicology, for "La Mancha" is not only the geographical centre of the Iberian Peninsula, it is known since the Middle-ages for its large village-towns protected by the mighty military orders (Órdenes Militares: www) and its industrious activity : as the production centre of wool to be sent to Flanders  and as a trade route expanding to the North of Spain, marked out by inter-cultural encounters at market places and seasonal harvests in Castile. Undoubtedly, it would contribute to explain, from a more appropriate perspective than that of Andalusia, the paradox of a consequential and badly accepted hybridisation of flamenco. Nevertheless it is not surprising that a learned compiler as Iza Zamácola in his Colección de Seguidillas... clarified that seguidillas "according to the testimony of the elder" were sung and danced in the Mancha in the 18th-century before "their simplicity was corrupted by disgraceful jumps and tumbles" (Zámacola :1982), or that Gottchalk entitled his travel souvenirs La Manchega, or even that Barbieri -as prominent a composer as a musicologist- remembered them in his zarzuelas as seguidillas manchegas, as part of the popular tradition of urban emigrants in Madrid.

If we understand by seguidillas gitanas, soleares and martinetes the ones sung by Manuel Torre and Diego Bermúdez, these are truly way apart from the rhythmic structure of the scholarly fandango of the Enlightenment period. Before discussing the oriental liturgical origin of its vocal embellishments, defended preferentially by Falla, there is yet to examine the proximity of these songs with "cantos de arada" (plough songs) compiled and recorded by García Matos in La Mancha, Extremadura and Castile, that richly deserve reviewing.

On the other hand, only a wide-spread sedimentation of its most basic elements all over the peninsula can explain its fast and popular acceptation nation-wide. The opening of flamenco cafés was far from being an occurrence limited to Andalusia, nor was the capital of the realm (Madrid) the only other place were such cafés were to be found (Sneeuw :1989). Its presence can also be evidenced by the press of other Spanish towns during the second half of the 19th-century. So when a call was made from Granada in 1922 to preserve and dignify the old cante, the "pure" cante, the cante "jondo" unprostituted by café mercantilism, the goal aimed at was to protect and localise its tradition in Andalusia. Tradition however was neither "pure" nor Andalusian in essence.

The concept of cante jondo could not be defined from the "intellectuals" standards, but from ambiguity and the sole distinction of the peculiar performing styles of the past and the present. Its uncertain meaning, that gained world-wide recognition (Mitchel,1994) was derided by many at that time (Persia, 1992) as the Sevillian composer Joaquin Turina wrote in 1945 :

"A few years ago, immediately after a flamenco contest flamenco was held in Granada, a group of intellectuals rushing into the unknown as one dives into the void called cante jondo all that ; these words prospered, for no one inquired further into their meaning ... Even musicologists accepted this expression without even knowing why (Turina, 1982).

Undoubtedly, the international popularity achieved by this first contest of Granada helped to dignify both cante jondo and the genre as a whole, adding fuel to the fire of the myth of a Spain "de guitarra y pandereta".

It is not strange then that the prevailing image of a flamenco adapted to echo around the Alhambra originated the stereotype of a genre and of a whole country when popular song repertoires from other regions of Spain (Pérez : 1996) and from other cultures, were fed to the Andalusian landscape by the works of Spanish composers and Spanish orchestras themselves. Gypsies, Arabs, Christians, Jews, Africans and half-castes, Andalusians, Castilians, Extremadurans, Madrilenians, and so on, could just have acted likewise, for innovation and creation are not aptitudes exclusive to "educated" composers (Labajo : 1996). Why are we then so surprised in finding that the construction of the flamenco genre is even now attributed to the nationalist school of composers? Falla's death was described by French musicology in the Revue Musicale as "the loss of the first Gypsy composer" (Collet : 1947) ; a few years later, during a tour of the USA, Carmen Amaya organised her dancing around dances by Granados, conducted by the folklorist Manuel Garcia Matos. More recently too, in 1991, "La Orquestra de Cambra del Teatre Lliure de Barcelona" together with Ginesa Ortega gave the Gypsy touch to the Amor Brujo by Falla, and did the same in 1995 to Canciones populares antiguas de Lorca (Lorca's popular old songs) even if such an idea never crossed neither composer's mind (Gallego : 1990).

Intensity and diversity of origins

Is flamenco a genre reminiscent of the Arab world that occupied the Peninsula, even of the Asian or Indian worlds ? We say positively yes. But in no greater extent that other musical expressions in Spain, located in places where the historical presence for centuries on end of Arab communities was confirmed; positively yes, but in degrees hard to estimate when compared with other powerful and attractive influences to musical creation as those of the Jewish communities (Noel: 1964), oriental as well. In no lesser proportion we must account for the presence of Caribbean elements, contribution that in modern times can be easily identified since the 19th-century by its constant renovation above the more compact and complex fibre of the cultural corpus of flamenco.

The past is tightening around itself in the historical tradition of every culture with or without a musical written tradition. The socio-political and religious interests selectively re-paint, re-create or re-invent the most useful elements of the genre in the sense pointed out by Hobsbawn (1983). The situation in Spain at the end of the past century, at war with Morocco, induced many to carry out a cultural purification to rid it of any Arab contribution. This lead Pedrell to declare "their influence did not touch anything essential. They were the ones to be influenced" (Pedrell : 1987), while the Arabist Julián Ribera was silenced (Labajo : 1993). Against Borrow's passionate defence of the Gypsy people (Steingress : 1990) and his admiration of the "almost natural" pride (Borrow : 1970) shown by the lower classes of a nation that had defeated Napoleon, who also threatened Britain with commercial blockade, there is Schuchardt's harshness in Los cantes flamencos in 1881 :

"The Gypsy people have scarce poetic talent, and the primitive tracks of this art... emphasise the influence on them of the nations with which they live side by side". In addition, his energetic disqualification of Borrow (Schuchardt : 1990)

cannot be understood otherwise than in the light of the open hostility between Germany and Britain at Bismark's fall and the tensions in Germany itself regarding ethnic minorities in Central Europe. As regards Falla, his deep religious and independent mind explains his concern to suggest the proximity of Russian and Spanish popular music, justifying that "the popular, traditional, religious elements... are the same that inspired songs and dances to our people" (Stoianova : 1989) and his insistence in attributing Byzantine liturgical ingredients to cante jondo as a basic substance previous to Arab and Gypsy presence in the Iberian Peninsula (Falla : 1972), following the line of Menéndez Pelayo's religious-nationalist thought. As pointed out by Michael Christophoridis (1997) Falla's action was twofold : he defended and promoted cante jondo and emphasised the significance and weight of its contribution to universal art. This position was to be strengthened in Francoist Spain by Aziz Balouch's thesis (1955) that re-opened the defence of spirituality in cante jondo, linking it to the Indian-Pakistani "sufi" song diffused by the Arab-Muslim people, once more reduced to a mere channel of transmission of culture.

There are, unquestionably, objective reasons for us to accept the multiethnic and multicultural contributions to flamenco that have been defended up to now, but the crucial question remains to what extent and how deeply these diverse ethnic groups shared its construction. Against the difficulty of clarifying this issue, there stands, in a more practical approach, the myth well directed at the defence and support of many different causes, among which politics, in the past, and economy, in the present, were and are far from being the least important.

Besides the construction process of the musical creation of today on the basis of "elements of identity in the shape of stereotypes" (as evidenced by the phenomenon of "World Music"), perhaps, as it always happened in every process of musical creation, there is, at the same time, a disconstructive impulse in people to show a non-hermetic and mysterious identity, identity shaped with all its shades and complexities resulting from an intercultural meeting with poorer nations (which generally are readier to welcome the emigrant together with his musical heritage).

No doubt, there are in every musical expression, to a lesser or larger degree, the "untalkables" pointed out by Mantle Hood (Hood : 1993). However, the constant reference to the "mystery" made by most of the literature on flamenco is apparently due more to the evolution of its construction on the basis of fragmentary and unconnected studies by musicology and sister disciplines, than to the ill-understood "embrujo" of its "untalkable" origins.

Joaquina Labajo

[An abridged version of this work was read at the 16th Congress of the International Musicological Society in London as a free paper]


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