Any who consider flamenco, in all its fiery guitar-driven glory, to be the epitome of all things Spanish would be in for a rude awakening if they were to spend time in the country’s northern half. During my year in Burgos, a small city about two hours north of Madrid, any attempts on my part to enquire about the existence of any kind of local flamenco scene were met with indignation and bemusement as to how or why an Irishman could possibly be interested in that crazy thing they do down south. Seemingly unaware of the genre’s increasingly international reach, many northern Spaniards regard flamenco as an abomination destined to remain within the southern gypsy circles from whence it came. Those seeking out the home and heartland of the arte jondo (a Spanish term for the true and pure essence of flamenco) should narrow their search down from Spain in its entirety to Andalucía, the nation’s most southerly autonomous community.
Much like the music and dance form which grew out of its gypsy communities, Andalucía itself divides opinion. Arguably the country’s main draw amongst tourists, largely due to its climate, the region is the prime instigator of many things which foreigners like to see as quintessentially Spanish (including flamenco, of course). Amongst its compatriots however, Andalucía is the butt of many jokes, its people receiving constant scorn from their northern neighbours and being labelled with a lazy and unrefined stereotype. But for those of us who consider flamenco to be among the most crucial factors in wanting to go to Spain to begin with, the comunidad autónoma which spans from Huelva on the Portuguese border to Almería on the east coast and includes cities as diverse as vibrant Cádiz, cosmopolitan Malaga, historical Cordoba, majestic Granada and its magnificent capital Seville will always be seen as the place where it all began.
The first question to be asked is, although flamenco started in Andalucía, to what extent does it continue there? Walking on the same soil once walked on by the likes of Rancapino and Antonio Mairena is all very well, but what about the prospects of actually seeing some dancers in action and hearing some live music? Well, the increased awareness, especially in the major cities such as Seville and Malaga, of flamenco’s touristic potential has made finding live performances both easier and harder at the same time. Wandering the streets of the aforementioned cities will undoubtedly reveal any number of posters and flyers advertising flamenco shows for rather extortionate admission fees, sometimes with dinner thrown in at a higher price. Sadly, the abundance of these types of show isn’t always matched by their quality, with a schedule of several renditions a night often resulting in performers who seem to lack passion and to be motivated by little other than the need to go through the motions a few more times until the pay-cheque rolls in.
Don’t let this put you off though; the tourism industry hasn’t destroyed the authenticity of an art form driven by raw emotion, despite what it might seem. Cash-collecting pale imitations have by no means replaced the real deal, they are simply more visible. A year living in Huelva has allowed me to take flamenco lessons from a local guitarist and see the ever-flourishing scene from the inside. Not only are more and more people of all ages continuing to devote their free time to learning to sing, dance and play in the southern Spanish style, but there are also ample opportunities to see the true masters in action. Evenings spent in the Peña Flamenca de Huelva in the city centre, the more intimate Peña Flamenca La Orden (which you can read more about here) slightly further out into the suburbs and the Peña Cultural Flamenca Punta Umbría in a nearby beach town have amounted to more than enough reassurance that Andalucía is in no danger of losing touch with its raw emotion-filled roots. A vocalist-guitarist duo who performed with sufficient expressive power to leave jaws on the floor and spines experiencing the descent of shivers more than lived up to the would-be-aficionado’s dream of Spain, with the enthusiasm of the enraptured congregation giving an unforgettable sense of how the musical tradition lives and breathes in these parts.
So the remaining issue is to how to find the real jondo performances rather than ending up in an underwhelming tourist trap. And it’s not an easy issue to overcome. The shows I attended at each of the aforementioned venues all involved my teacher’s contribution on guitar, and it was through my lessons with him that I found out about his gigs. On all occasions I was astounded that the presence of such musical excellence didn’t seem to be advertised with so much as a sign on the wall. At times it can seem as if the true flamenco peñas (a Spanish word for a club or association, often dedicated to a specific interest or topic), aware of the identity-compromising efforts made by some of their counterparts to sell out to tourists, are reluctant to publicise their goings-on for fear of estranging their loyal custom.
Now, it’s time for some useful tips as to how encounter some passionate, memorable flamenco renditions without having to personally know and be in regular contact with one of the people on stage. Obtaining information from the horse’s mouth isn’t always possible, especially on brief visits to a new city, but there’s no harm in seeing how close you can get. If you can work out where your nearest flamenco school-cum-venue is (a Google search for ‘peña flamenca’ followed by the name of the city you’re in should produce some results) the best option would probably be to turn up there and enquire in person as to when the next show is. Some peñas do make their schedules known on Facebook to some extent, but any bilingual adverts should be avoided. Furthermore, anything that starts before 9pm or that involves more than one performance a day is more likely than not to fall into the tourist-orientated imitation category, genuine andaluz culture not known for punctuality or for such a ferocious work rate. If you can find somewhere charging little or nothing in the way of an entrance fee, packed with people speaking heavily-accented Spanish and in which some live music is due to start sometime around 10:30pm but actually getting underway over half an hour later, there’s a very strong possibility that your efforts and the wait will be more than worthwhile!
Another aspect of andaluz culture is that they love a good festival. Various dates on the calendar are marked with a spectacular fair of some sort, many of which owe their ambience to the region’s musical traditions. It also comes as no surprise that more and more festivals continue to pop up devoted to flamenco itself, containing concerts from some of the world’s leading singers, guitarists and dancers. Having been lucky enough to attend one of each type, the contrasting experiences of both are something every enthusiast would be delighted to be immersed in.
The Festival de la Guitarra de Córdoba has had its place on the calendar for lovers of six strings for quite some time now, drawing in players of the highest calibre from various genres. Flamenco plays a central role in its programme, my own visit to the festival massively enhanced by a concert from Victor Monge, a Madrid-born guitarist who also goes by the nickname Serranito. Embracing modern trends towards experimentation and fusion with other genres, Monge’s fantastic group were a fine example of flamenco’s internationally-minded tendencies. Bringing in such giants of the genre as the veteran Paco Peña (arguably the most highly-regarded living flamenco guitarist since the 2014 death of Paco de Lucía) and rising star Daniel Casares (both of whom feature in the 2016 programme), the annual July festival is a treat for any looking to see an impressive show at a more-than-reasonable price. Other flamenco-dedicated occasions which remain on the bucket list include the Bienal de Flamenco which takes place in Seville in the September of even-numbered years and the Festival del Cante de Las Minas, a yearly affair in August in La Unión, Murcia.
However, such is the importance of flamenco in Andalucía’s cultural identity that it doesn’t have to be the prime topic of dedication in order to play an irreplaceable role in some of its quintessential fiestas. The Fería de Abril, an annual celebration of southern Spanish culture in Seville, simply wouldn’t be the same without its musical heartbeat, and neither would the incomparable Romería de El Rocío in a sandy-streeted village in Huelva province. Lasting the duration of its specially-designated long weekend, the latter transforms the normally peaceful El Rocío into a humming hive of activity. Humming, that is, to the distinct rhythm of the sevillana, a lively song and dance form whose origins lie in the folk traditions of Seville. The festival is religious in nature but draws a crowd greatly exceeding those whose sole purpose is to worship any powers above, and its unforgettably colourful processions are aided by extravagantly dressed choirs tirelessly giving many a sevillana their all.
Unlike festivals specifically designated to the music, El Rocío hosts more of a mass participation event. Street after street features numerous large family groups, all with several guitars, tambourines and large drums known as tambores. Through voices and handclaps, the sevillana rings out loud and clear throughout the village. Spending the day in a friend-of-a-friend’s house saw me try out the handclaps (known as palmas), tambor and tambourine – with some keen-eyed locals making sure they taught me the three-beat rhythm – and even have a go on a guitar or two, albeit with my left-handedness limiting my ability on their right-hander-strung-instruments.
Through two different types of festival, visitors to Andalucía can gain an invaluable insight into the role of flamenco in the region’s culture. If you want to see it played, sung and danced by the very best, you will be well served by any of the flamenco festivals on offer. If you want to truly feel how the music lives in this neck of the woods, and live in it yourself as you do so, there is no experience quite like attending one of the area’s traditional romerías, ferias or fiestas.
The history and cultural significance of flamenco is also on display in several museums in some of Andalucía’s larger cities, the Museo del Baile Flamenco (Museum of Flamenco Dance) in Seville and the Museo de Arte Flamenco in the Peña Juan Breva (named after a locally-born singer) in Malaga to name but two. The latter is housed on the upper two floors of an old-school peña, with the ground floor consisting of a bar-cum-reception area while events take place in the basement. With large collections of flamenco artwork including sculptures and paintings, memorabilia such as guitars and elaborate dresses and equipment ranging from gramophones to vinyl records, enthusiasts and those with curious minds would do well to include this museum in the itinerary for their Malaga trip. The posters and information boards located halfway up each flight of stairs detailing the development of flamenco’s different sub-genres and trends will also delight the knowledge seekers.
Just as Seville itself brilliantly combines its Moor-and-Christian-influenced history with a forward-thinking sense of internationalism, its flamenco dance museum details the genre’s roots in a terrifically modern style. Divided into sections respectively dealing with flamenco’s foreign and local influences, its sociological beginnings and development, the different styles of dance (known as palos) and its most important protagonists, the visit culminates in an audio-visual display of guitar-accompanied dance. Fantastically utilising video clips both for information and for dance examples and audio renditions of the different palos as well as static exhibits, the museum could arguably be considered one of Seville’s prime attractions. And, as I’m sure anyone who has ever had the fortune to set foot in Andalucía’s splendid capital will tell you, that really is saying something.
Just as jazz has long since moved beyond the African-American community of New Orleans, flamenco is becoming more and more of a global art form, but its roots are and always will be in Spain’s most southerly region. In order to truly learn about its past, present and future, there is no greater method of exploration than to travel through Andalucía taking in performances, experiencing festivals and perusing museums. Not only will venturing in these parts take you through the streets where the gypsy inventors once roamed, but finding the right places to go will make you feel closer than ever to the passion-fuelled fruit of their invention!