History of Flamenco Music Chapter 1

This article is Chapter 1 in a series on Flamenco Music written for Guitarra Magazine in 1981 by Alain Gobin. This was translated from the French by Alfred Valario. Please see the end of this article for links to all the chapters in this exciting series!

To begin with, if flamenco awakens curiosity, it will often stumble rapidly upon underground rules which are presented helter-skelter. It will also clash swifty with obscure precepts to which an accented esotericism is added. These obstacles are truly more apparent than real. It is easy to understand flamenco as long as we proceed by stages which makes the approach become very simple.

Also, according to this view, some particulars and definitions are necessary as a preamble to future developments.

As we begin, we notice that the most complete confusion reigns over the exact meaning of this music. Should we speak of “flamenco,” “Andalusian Song” “gypsy song,” or of “cante jondo?”

For the layman, all these names have the same meaning. Yet, they each cover precise distinctions.

1. Some natural differences.

The Andalusian song is made up of various musical forms directly traced to specific folklore of Andalusia. It should not at all be confused with the “gypsy song.”

Andalusian folklore had established itself long before the coming of the gypsies to Spain. It had its roots very deep in the multiple sedimentation contributed by the Indus through the Arabs and going from the Celts to the jews.

It is from this common background that early in the fourteenth century a number of songs called “flamenco” sprang — especially the Fan- dangos, Tarantos, Villancicos, Livisnas, Serranas, Nanas, Sevillanas and the Petenera.

The “gypsy song” distinguishes itself from the “Andalusian Song” in two different ways. It is a matter of either complete original mentions by gypsies of good stock such as the Sorongo, the Aiboreas, the Sambra, or an interpretation of an Andalusian song, characteristically marked by the gypsy seal. The musical material utilized is specifically quite gypsy but there have been creative transformations. This fundamental duality often explains the parallel existence of two versions of the same song, one more “gypsy,” the other more “Andalusian,” yet both of them “flamenco.”

What does this “flamenco” term that reappears constantly mean?

The exact origin of the word remains unknown and many theories are being formulated on this point.

The question is, whether or not the name is that of the wader (longlegged bird), described as an eighteenth century singer with a long silhouette. Is it possnale to associate this with the word ‘flameante” which means flamboyant? These interpretations sem somewhat whimsical.

Even so, it is necessary to return to the Flemish (“fhe Flamencos”) who came to Spain with the influx of Charles V (Charles Quint’s army). This is the hypothesis strongly supported by Felipe Pedrell.

As it is, one must rely on the opinion of Father Garcia Matos. According to him, flamenco is a slang word of the seventeenth century that would have meant “to brag” or “to boast.” Indeed, it would ultimately be necessary to re- search Arabic etymology.According to P. Barrusio, flamenco would derive from a contraction of ‘fela mengu” (literally wandering man). But we cannot brush aside “falai khun” which means peasant, nor the word for singer, flahencon.”1

Whatever it may be and in spite of these ety- mological uncertainties the term “flamenco” includes the two traditions; namely gypsy and Andalusian.

The scholarly poet Ricardo Molina justly states in regard to this subject that “flamenco” was formed by the Andalusian gypsy song.2

2. Qualitative Gradations

The natural differences that separate the “gypsy song” and the “Andalusian song” are grafted and qualitative distinctions and can be applied to one as well as the other. Thus we can bring out three successive stages.

The “jondo song” still called “cante grande” (grand or great song) is the flower of flamenco art. It represents the summit of the qualitative hierarchies. The major part of the songs that form the repertoire are of liturgical origin.

The exact meaning of the word jondo remains somewhat ambiguous because it could be a distortion of the word “HONDO” which means profound, or on a contraction of the Hebrew term “JOM TOD” (day of joy to God).

The two etymologies are equally satisfying because they evoke the intense and internalized feelings that distinguish the “jondo songs” from the others.

The others! They divide into two great categories. The “intermediate song” (cante intermedio) and the “inferior song” (cante chico). The “cante intermedio” receives this title because it is situated half way between the complex techniques of “Cante Jondo” and the easiness of the “Cante Chico.” This latter is easily identifiable by light songs and dances, such as “Farrucas,” “Sevillanas” or “Bulerias.”

Credits to Presses Universitaires de France

Postscript 1: Etmological research can lead very far. Thus, a thirteenth century courtly novel of Provence entitled “Flamenca” tells of the misadventures of Sir Archabaud de Bourbon and his wife “Flamenca” who, irritated by his jealousy, ends up by actually cheating on him.

Postscript 2: However, such is not the opinion of Antonio Mairena, who, researching the forgotten styles and studying their original purity, describes “flamenco“as the “Andalusian Song” commercialized.