Eastern roots of Spanish passion

Gypsies and Flamenco - Flamenco
March 19, 2004

More than 20 years ago, while on holiday in Spain, I went to see a group of flamenco dancers in Granada. At the end of the dance, as is the custom, one of the dancers picked me from the front row and invited me to join them on the stage. Although a little self-conscious initially, within less than a minute I found myself swaying my arms gracefully and tapping my feet appropriately to the intoxicating cante rhythm.

At that time, I did not know that flamenco had its roots in north India. Unwittingly and spontaneously I responded to its inherent Indian elements: the hand gestures and rhythmic footwork.

Although flamenco is now quite often performed internationally on professional stages, there is very little material available in English for readers interested in its history and technique. So these two books should serve as a welcome resource. Judging by my discussion with some people at the Sadler's Wells flamenco festival last month, flamenco is still perceived mainly as a form of visual entertainment. At the end of the show I noticed that more people were queueing up to buy castanets and floral hair decorations than CDs or books on the subject.

Flamenco has been fertilised by the rich oral traditions of Arabic, Indian and Jewish music and movement spread by nomadic gypsies (Roma) originating in northern India and migrating to Europe via Afghanistan, Persia and Egypt. There are a few literary references to their presence in the writing of the Arab historian Hamza and the 11th-century Persian poet Firdausi. The earliest record of their arrival in Europe dates from the 15th century. But it was not until 1901, with the advent of gramophone recordings, that flamenco music went public and dancers were seen performing openly in Andalucia. The University of Jerez de la Frontera now has a department of flamencology and the genre is successfully branching out by mixing with pop and blues.

Not surprisingly, flamenco music has cadences reminiscent of Arabic music, while the concurrent foot clicking can sound almost like the bol of the Indian tabla, and the melancholic intermittent melody recalls the Mozarabic liturgy of Moorish Spain. It is an exciting and intuitive fusion with an instant appeal deriving from the picturesque movement of the upper body combined with the deftness of foot and heel clicking to guitar and vocal accompaniment.

The sincere anguish conveyed in the music, similar to Negro spirituals, juxtaposed with the body movement, brings to my mind the controlled fury of Shiva Nataraja, the Hindu god of the cosmic dance of creation and destruction. The combined effect is mesmerising.

Bernard Leblon's revised edition of his earlier book is a useful short guide to the cultural history of flamenco. It also contains short biographies of the 200 best-known Gitano flamenco artists, who have sustained the art. Leblon delves into the similarities between the music of the Andalucian gypsies and the gypsies of central Europe. In spite of concerted efforts to eliminate their distinctive cultural ways, European gypsies have survived as an ethnic group, reinventing their art to suit local popular taste yet managing to retain its essential nature.

Lena Herzog's beautifully produced book contains 100 stunning black-and-white photographs of a flamenco dance class based in San Francisco. They were taken over four years and show the dancers at all stages of their development. They capture the eloquence of the body in motion in all its concentration and ecstasy. A short introductory essay discusses the history and lyrical tradition of flamenco.

Armed with the accessible and informed writing of Leblon and Herzog's rigorous photographic documentation of dancers in training, western audiences for flamenco may be able to get more out of this sophisticated art from Andalucia.

Krishna Dutta is a freelance writer and scholar, specialising in Indian culture.

Gypsies and Flamenco

Author - Bernard Leblon
Publisher - University of Hertfordshire Press
Pages - 160
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 902806 05 0

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