Flamenco - History

Flamenco is an integral part of Andalucian culture. © Michelle Chaplow
Flamenco is an integral part of Andalucian culture.

Evolution | The 19th and 20th century | Flamenco territories | The last 50 years

Flamenco History

by Tony Bryant


Flamenco history has only been documented for the past 200 years or so, and anything before this time is open to debate and speculation.

Much of what we know from before this time comes from stories and legends that have been passed down through family dynasties, in a similar way to the flamenco song itself.



One thing we can be sure of is that flamenco in its original form was only voice, a primitive cry or chant accompanied only by the rhythm which would be beaten out on the floor by a wooden staff or cane.

These styles are known as Palo Secos, or dry styles, and they are the oldest forms of song known today.

The Toñas are the family of songs which represent these style and they include the toña, one of the oldest known styles, the martinetes, which are the songs of the blacksmiths, the rhythm being supplied by the hammer beating on the anvil, the carceleras or prison songs, and the debla, which at one time was thought to have had connections with a gypsy religious rite.

The saeta is a song of ardent devotion, which is sung to the scenes of the passion during Semana Santa, and is thought to have Jewish origins. Although the saeta is not strictly flamenco, it has all the spontaneity of flamenco, and has been added to the flamenco repertoire of many jondo singers.

Cante jondo means “deep song,” and these are the styles of which most of the other forms derive.

Flamenco is made up of four elements, Cante-Voice, Baile-Dance, Toque-Guitar, and the Jaleo, which roughly translated means “hell raising” and involves the handclapping, foot stomping, and shouts of encouragement.

It whichever way jaleo presents itself, it is performed by the audience as well as the artiste and anyone else who feels the urge to participate.

The handclapping or Palmas is an art in itself, and although it may look easy, it is not, and the palmeros will weave intricate rhythms around the bases of the song, and in the tablaos this is used in conjunction with the zapateado.

The zapateado is the tap dance style of footwork, the dancers show piece where he will demonstrate his skill with his feet, and the noise created by this and the palmeros will be ringing in your ears long after you have left the tablao.

The addition of the guitar is surrounded in apparent mystery as the exact date is not known, but gradually the guitar was introduced as an accompanying instrument for flamenco.

Another important component of flamenco is the element known as duende, and this is shrouded in as much mystery as flamenco itself.

Writers and poets over the years have given duende a magical and mysterious

meaning, a spiritual significance that goes beyond human understanding.

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca romanticized duende saying, “Duende could only be present when one sensed that death is possible.”

Many will say that duende can only be experienced in certain surroundings like an intimate flamenco session where a singer will be possessed by the dark tones of the song and the spirit will enter the mind and soul of anyone who opens up to it.

“Duende a strange presence that everybody senses but no philosopher can explain , or, “All that has dark sounds has duende.”

What ever you believe, duende does exist, and to experience it, is one of the wonders of this mystical art.

Many believe flamenco to be the invention of the gypsies, and although they have been the main protagonists of the art, they are not its sole creators.

Flamenco song can be broken down into two categories- Cante gitano, gypsy songs, and Cante andaluz, andalucian songs.

When the gypsies arrived in Andalucia from India around 1425, they brought with them many song and dance styles that have strong Indian connections. At this time Andalucía was still under Arab rule, and along with the Jews and the moors, the gypsies were soon to be persecuted by the Catholic monarchs and the inquisition.

The moors were forced to convert to Christianity, and failure to do so resulted in expulsion from Spain, the Jews suffered a similar fate, and the gypsies were subjected to some of the worst atrocities in an attempt to exterminate them as a race. Many laws were passed by various monarchs, which forbid them anything to do with their identity.

They were to stop wearing their style of dress, cease speaking in the Romany language, and to stop their wanderings and seek steady employment, which prohibited them obtaining money by the usual gypsy traits like horse dealing, trading at fairs, and sorcery.

These laws and restrictions resulted in bands of gypsies, moors, and Jews taking refuge in treacherous mountainous areas, which were too desolate for the authorities to pursue them.

These different cultures lived in relative harmony for many years, and the fusion of their music and dances are what we know today as flamenco.

In the eighteenth century attitude towards the gypsies changed considerably,which resulted in numerous bands of gypsies descending on the small villages and towns, bringing with them their exciting, seductive music- flamenco.

At first this music was not considered worthy of attention, and flamenco was only performed in the homes and private get together of the gypsies. Their mysterious music and stimulating dances were soon to catch the attention of the romantic writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Stories abound of these strange people performing their wild and erotic dances and of the harsh unusual tones of their songs. It wasn’t long before the gachó, those not of gypsy lineage, became intrigued by this music, and gypsy singers were hired to entertain the señoritos, or “toffs” in private parties, know as Juergas, where the rich would entertain themselves with prostitutes, alcohol, and flamenco.

Around this time, there were many flamenco singers who were making a name for themselves as flamenco was suddenly becoming popular.

The 19th and 20th century

Of the first documented singers are Tio Luis, El Planeta, and El Fillo, who were the ones who laid the foundations for the future Cantaores, the singers of flamenco.

Diego el Fillo is remembered for his coarse, gravel type voice which seems hereditary to the gypsies, and today this style of voice is still known as Voz Afilla, after Diego el Fillo.

Soon flamenco clubs called Café Cantantes began to spring up in most of the main cities, and the most famous was the café Silverio’s in Seville, which was the idea of the flamenco singer, Silverio Franconetti.

The café cantante period, 1850-1910, was known as the “Golden age,” but this was also a period when cante jondo started its decline. Many gypsy singers refused to perform in these establishments, forcing a wave of non-gypsy singers to take to the stages to perform a lighter and milder form of flamenco, the Fandangos, which were andalucían folk songs.

Graceful hand movements
Graceful hand movements

We must remember that flamenco is spontaneous, and the gypsies would not perform at a set time, and even worse be told what styles they were to sing.

The fandangos swept across Andalucía gaining hundreds of interpreters, and suddenly cante jondo was no longer popular in the cafes. Flamenco troupes were created, and the dance became choreographed, and a new aspect of flamenco appeared for the first time, the birth of solo flamenco guitarist.

These flamenco cafes became cabaret style clubs, and the jondo flamenco suffered as a result. The singers and dancers of the purer styles of flamenco were no longer in demand, and they were faced with the option of diluting their art and joining the hoards of fandango style singers, or return to their villages to continue their art virtually unnoticed by the outside world.

A few of the café cantantes survived into the 1920s, but by then flamenco had been far removed from its original structure, and with the exception of a few singers like Manuel Torre, Don Antonio Chacón and Juan Breva, flamenco was at its worst period ever.

In 1922, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and the composer Manuel de Falla, along with a collection of other aficionados, decided to hold a competition, the aim being to reinstate cante jondo which had been pushed into near extinction by the “New Flamenco.”

They invited singers from all over Andalucia to participate in a competition that would be judged by some of the most influential artistes of the time.

The Concurso de Cante Jondo was set for the 13 th and 14 th of June 1922, and it was to be held in the gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, and judged by Manuel Torre, Pastora Pavón, and Don Antonio Chacón.

Although it produced two winners, one by the name of El Tenazas from Puente Genil, Cordoba, and a twelve-year-old phenomenon by the name of Manuel Ortega, it did little to save jondo flamenco from its downslide.

El Tenazas, who had a punctured lung, is reported to have walked for three days from his village to perform in the competition, and the twelve year old winner went on to become one of the greatest singers in the history of flamenco, the legendary Manolo Caracol.

During the 1930s and 40s flamenco was fast becoming obsolete partly due to the civil war which wreaked havoc on the country between 1936 and 1939, and then the second world war which continued until 1945.

During this time Andalucía was at the hands of poverty and starvation, and with the exception of the “Flamenco Opera” where large flamenco dance troupes took flamenco into the theaters, flamenco seemed to be sliding into oblivion.

The arrival of the 1950s saw a renewed interest in flamenco, instigated by a few die hard artistes who decided to reintroduce some of the traditional elements of cante flamenco, and a some even recorded anthologies of flamenco for posterity which included styles that had almost vanished from the repertoire.

1956 was a watershed year for flamenco. Cordoba held a Concurso de Cante Jondo, the first of its kind since the 1922 competition in Granada, which produced by sheer coincidence a winner from Puente Genil, Fosforito, one of the most influential singers of the twentieth century.

!957 saw the first flamenco festival, El Potaje Gitano, which was held in Utrera, and soon most small towns and villages followed suit and organized festivals where local artistes could perform their very personal styles of flamenco.

By 1959 the concurso in Cordoba was becoming well established, and in this year produced another two of flamencos most renowned singers, Juan Talega, and the undisputed queen of the soleá, La Fernanda de Utrera.

Suddenly things were looking up for flamenco, and artistes from the small towns like Moron de la Frontera and Alcalá de Guadaira were again in great demand.

Many will put the reason for this renewed interest in the hands of Antonio Mairena, a singer of the purer styles of flamenco who dedicated his life to reinstating and promoting cante jondo. He also saved many old styles of cante from extinction by traveling to remote villages to hear these old songs sung by their creators.

Manolo Caracol opened what was to become the most famous tablao, Los Canasteros in Madrid, and just about every artiste of the time past through its doors.

Many of these singers and guitarists were not artistes, and they had no intensions of ever becoming one, they sang and performed purely for their own enjoyment at family celebrations and get togethers.

Juan Talega was in his seventies when he first set foot on a stage, and it was thanks to Antonio Mairena who discovered this copper skinned, gravel voiced singer who before only ever sang in his hometown of Dos Hermanas in Seville.

Between the years of the fifties and through until the late seventies flamenco found its second golden age, and gypsy artistes along with the gachós enjoyed probably the best period this art has ever experienced.

Every town, village, and city could boast a healthy stock of singers, guitarists and dancers, who would appear at the town’s festivals during the summer months, and these family dynasties were producing some of the most orthodox artistes whose roots could be traced back to the days of El Planeta and El Fillo.

Jerez de la Frontera produced the biggest crop of flamenco artistes, and the area of Santiago seemed to be the very center of it, and the small back streets like Calle Nueva and Calle Cantararia are believed, by the gypsies, to have been the area were the very first seed of cante jondo was sown.

With a list of artistes that read like a who’s who of flamenco, Jerez was certainly responsible for producing some of the most influential artistes that included, Manuel Torre, Don Antonio Chacón, Terremoto, El Sordera, El Chocolate, and La Paquera de Jerez. Many of the small villages that are spread between Cádiz and Seville have also produced artistes of great worth, and the Peña’s and Bacán’s of Lebrija, and the Peñas and Soto’s of Utrera are a large gypsy clan that are linked through one singer from the nineteenth century, Fernando Peña Soto-El Pinini.

This family can boast such artistes as La Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, their cousin El Perrate and his sister, Maria La Perrata, her sons El Lebrijano and Guitarist Pedro Peña, and their cousins, Inés and Pedro Bacán.

If you were to look at a genealogical tree of flamenco artistes, you would find that many are related, and whether it is by blood link or by marriage these dynasties are almost just one big family.

Flamenco territories

There is an area of land known as the “Holy Trinity” or golden triangle of flamenco, which is thought to be the area where all the major styles of cante jondo originated.

The points of this triangle are Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera, and Triana in Seville, and it is believed that this area of land is where the flamenco song began.

If you visit some of the small areas like the Barrio Santiago in Jerez or Utrera in Seville you will find that they still hold on very dearly to their age-old flamenco tradition.

As we have seen, this area was also responsible for a good proportion of the flamenco artistes, and with the addition of dancers like El Farruco, Christina Hoyos, Manuela Carassco, and guitarists Diego del Gastor and Melchor de Marchena we can see why it is respected with so much importance.

Further south in cities like Málaga, flamenco was also on the up, especially with the fandangos. Granada was the birthplace of the granaina, and in Málaga the malagueña, which was an offshoot of the verdiales, was fast becoming one of the most popular styles in the flamenco repertoire.

Almeria and Jaen was responsible for the Cantes de levante, which are the “songs of the east” and include the tarantas and the catageneras This era also paved way for a new interest in Andalucía, thousands of white skinned tourists arrived here in search of the warm climate and a little bit of andalucian culture, and flamenco with its colour and pretty dancing gitanas was just the thing to tempt them.

General Franco’s government soon realized flamencos potential as a moneymaker, and soon flamenco clubs were sprouting up along the Costa del Sol to give these new visitors their fix of authentic andalucian custom.

Whilst Antonio Mairena and the many jondo artistes were doing their best to preserve this age-old tradition, the tablaos, like the café cantantes before them, were destroying the art beyond recognition.

By the mid nineteen sixties commercial flamenco had given the art another facet, and the tourist tablao was again dividing the art of flamenco in two.

Fortunately today the image of the tablao is a little more serious, and gone are the gimmicks like playing the guitar from behind your neck, or overly acrobatic styles of dance that were in no way a representation of the art of flamenco.

The last fifty years

The 1960s also produced another aspect that was to change the face of flamenco, and this came in the shape of two youngsters, one from Algerciras, and the other from San Fernando, Cádiz.

Francisco Sánchez Gómez was to go on to become one of the biggest and most influential guitarists in Spanish history. Known artistically as Paco de Lucia, he was the accompanist to the biggest phenomenon that flamenco has ever, and is likely to ever produce, José Monge Cruz, Camerón de la Isla.

Cameron de la Isla was to become the most imitated cantaor in flamenco history, hoards of young singers looked to him as a god, as he was the first and nearest thing that they had had to a flamenco idol of rock star status. This young gypsy from San Fernando was to turn the flamenco scene on its head, and in 1992 when he died at the age of just forty-two, the legend was born.

Cameron de la Isla was to lead the new era of flamenco fusion in which his versatile gitano voice was fused with many different styles of music, including one disc recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Suddenly scores of new flamencos were created, most in the style of Cameron, and the nineteen eighties and nineties was an era when flamenco fusion dominated the charts with artistes like the Gypsy Kings, Remedios Amaya, and Ketama.

Also many of the more traditional singers of flamenco joined this new craze, and artistes of such importance as José Mercé, Pansequito, and Diego el Cigala, realized that there was money to be made, and plenty of it.

José Mercé is one of the best singers of cante jondo around at the moment, and to witness him on the festival circuit along with his loyal guitarist Moraito is a most pleasurable experience. But he also records many pop style Cds where he fuses flamenco using drums bass and keyboards, and his performances that promote the Cds are little less than a pop concert.

Whilst the fusion boom was going on, there were certain artistes like Fosforito and José Menese who refused to commercialise their art, and thankfully cante jondo is even more popular today, and the flamenco festivals that are held all over Andalucía are proof of this.

If you have ever listened to a twangy, tinny sounding old guitar, accompanying a gravel, almost out of tune, ancient style of voice, rusty and dry as if straining for its last breath and rhythmed only by the rapping of knuckles on a table top, then you will have probably witnessed Cante Jondo, which is flamenco in its purest form. If at some stage whilst listening to this ancient song you have felt as though death has passed over the top of you, making your skin tingle and your emotions clash, from joy and sheer excitement, to the depths of sorrow, and pain, then you could also have experienced duende.

Flamenco is a name that is used to describe a family of song and dance styles that were created in the huge melding pot of Andalucía, and there are many purists who scorn anything other than pure orthodox flamenco.

There are also many who believe that for flamenco to survive another two hundred years, it must move with the times, and fortunately we are able to make the decision as to which we prefer personally.

Whether it is the pure gypsy jondo or the commercial fusion, flamenco can be found in abundance, and with today’s recording technology, Cds and videos make it a lot more accessible than it was in the beginning.

Flamencos is still gaining scores of new aficionados in the twenty-first century, and with the addition of the new Bienal de Flamenco in Málaga, and of course, the bienal in Seville which has been running for more that twenty-five years, it shows that flamenco is as popular now as it has ever been.

There are many new young artistes, who like their ancestors, are continuing this fantastic art we call flamenco.

Artistes such as the dancer Farruquito, the grandson of the excellent gypsy dancer El Farruco, or Tomás de Perrate who performs the bulerías and soleares of his father El Perrate are just a few who are helping to continue this wonderful aspect of andalucian life.

Another sensation was born in Barcelona in 1973 by the name of Miguel Poveda, and this young singer has the echo the of ancient fathers when he sings his personal but orthodox style of cante.

He is a revelation not only because he was born outside of Andalucia, one of the qualifications necessary if you listen to the die hard critics, but he is also a gachó who has the ancient gypsy tone, a shattering jondo voice which I am sure will carry flamenco through the twenty first century, and hopefully into the twenty second