As we saw in my previous posts, the soul of flamenco is cante jondo (“deep singing”). It may be nourished by the toques of the guitar, and may lead into dancing; but at its heart is anguished solo singing and palmas. Besides Washabaugh’s social analysis, I’m also much taken by
- Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song (1994).
While recognizing the power of cante jondo, Mitchell takes a refreshingly detached, even jaundiced view:
A decoding of flamenco from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.
Again, as a counterpoint to the wholesome family revamp subtly promoted in the Rito series, Mitchell shows that the moods and musical techniques of cante jondo
are inseparable from alcohol abuse. […] Flamenco creativity sought to recover Catholicism’s lost catharsis in saloons, bordellos, and prisons. At the behest of playboy-philanthropists, the haunting cries and brash guitars of a stigmatized underclass were harnessed to explore every aspect of co-dependency. To be worthy of deep song, male performers needed to get their hearts trampled by some dark-skinned dancer; female singers needed to be abandoned or battered by their men. Flamenco artistry as we know it today makes sublime psychodrama out of alcoholism, fatalism, masochism, and ethnic rivalry.
Music can convey the most profound expressions of anguish, from the arias of the Bach Passions to the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Cante jondo has long entranced outsiders, from Lorca and Falla’s 1922 festival to the films of Carlos Saura. But Mitchell confronts the crucial question:
Why does flamenco deep song appeal to people who never shared the traumas that precipitated its birth?
—one that we might ask about our esteem for the ravings of mad women and men in WAM opera, for that matter.
He reflects (evoking jazz, and reminding me of China—I plead guilty on all counts),
All forms of human expressive culture may be intrinsically or potentially artistic. In practice only a small range of creative endeavours come to be designated as Art with a capital A. […] A given expressive behaviour becomes art because the right people rally to redefine it as such in accordance with their needs at a given historical moment and usually in conscious opposition to some other group’s standards. Forms of creativity that originated with the “wrong” people can always be redeemed (and thereby transformed) by talking or writing about them in ways associated with established genres.
He is critical of scholars like Demófilo in the 1880s:
With his selective compassion, unabashed elitism, neoromantic primitivism, spurious notions of purity and contamination, classificatory compulsion, lack of sociological acumen, nostalgia, and racialist aesthetics, he paved the way for numerous 20th-century flamencologists.
As Mitchell observes, the performance style
can strike even the most open-minded as brazen, overwrought, tortured, or histrionic.
Male-female relationships […] contained considerable amounts of codependency, sado-masochism, self-destruction, and (in compensation) large amounts of transgressive ecstasy.
He gives a nice parallel with reactions to the waltz from an 1816 article in the Times:
So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now it is attempted to be forced on respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing their daughter to so fatal a contagion.
Still, he concludes:
The flamenco style is not only about trauma but about the quest to recover from trauma; it is about distress and discharge too; it is about taking pain, expressing it, playing with it, and possibly working through it.
* * *
Near the base of the flamenco treetrunk (for full tree, see here), the cluster of tonás (cantes a palo seco, solo songs without guitar, often even without palmas) includes the unaccompanied saeta ritual songs, as well as no-less-intense secular deblas (“goddess”), carceleras (jailhouse songs; there were even penitential jailhouse saeta), martinetes, and seguiriyas.
Melodically, in their narrow range and in the frequent cadences on do, most of these songs show a contrast with the common minor descending phrygian tetrachord of other flamenco palos.
I’ve already featured the saeta solo ritual songs in honour of the Virgin as her statue passes—alternating with percussion, and wind ensemble with piercing trumpets. Mitchell’s discussion is illuminating as ever (pp.100–103, 137–42).
Here are some more examples, starting with Niña de los Peines in 1920:
This early programme in the Rito series, clearly explained as ever, includes searing instances of martinetes, as well as rare deblas and carceleras, from Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena, Aguejetas with Tio Borrico, Tia Anica de la Piriñaca, Rafael Romero, and José Menese:
These stark solo songs are literally forged—in forges, with hammer and anvil. Here’s Agujetas el viejo:
And his son:
A la puertecita de la fragua At the little door of the forge
tú a mí no me vengas a buscar don’t come looking for me
con el fango a las roillas with the mud on your hem,
y las enagüitas remangás. rolling up your petticoat.
Vinieron y me dijeron They came and told me
che tú habías hablao that you had been saying
muy mal de mí bad things about me
y mira mi buen pensamiento: and look at my good thoughts:
yo siempre pensando en ti. I am always thinking about you.
Ma fin tenga la persona May that person have a bad end
que anda llevando y trayendo who goes about gossiping,
poniéndole mal corazón giving a bad heart
a aquel que lo tiene bueno. to the one who is good.
La maresita de toítos los gitanos, The mother of all the gitanos,
toítos venian al tren. they were all coming by train.
La mía como estaba malita Mine, being so bad
no me ha poio venir a ver. could not come to see me.
La lunita crece y mengua The moon waxes and wanes
y yo me mantengo en mi ser, and I remain in my own being
yo soy un cuadro de triste I am a picture of sadness
pegaíto a la paré. I will stop being stuck to her.
Most often heard among the intense solo tonas, seguiriyas—like soleares and bulerías— have an underlying 12-beat metre, though it can take some concentration to detect it; as ever, the studioflamenco site is useful.
Especially in these more intense slow songs, non-lexical sounds are important, like the opening “ay“—”a knife-at-the-throat sound, a chain, a parched throat, a wound”, as Hecht describes it. Another integral aspect of the flamenco event is the jaleo—of which palmas are part—exclamations of encouragement, way beyond the familiar “¡Olé!” (cf. Indian raga).
The Rito series dedicates two programmes to seguiriyas. Framed as ever by perceptive comments, this first programme (based around Cádiz) opens with a precious sequence from Tia Anica de la Piriñaca, and concludes with brilliant seguiriyas from Aguejeta and Terremoto de Jerez:
The second programme is centred on Seville. Again it opens with the venerable cantaor Juan Talega, leading on to Chocolate, Louis de Cabellero, and Antonio Mairena:
Oh all right then, here’s the programme dedicated to Terremoto (with soleares from 8.00, a fantastic bulerías from 17.14, and siguiriyas from 24.20):
And more from Agujeta, father and son—with soleares (4.59), romance y alboreá (10.05), bulerías por soleá (21.07), culminating in a mesmerizing seguiriya (27.28)—how intently they listen!
And a complete concert from 1996:
And we just have to include a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:
The Rito series captured Camarón’s early career. Two excerpts:
Near the beginning of the second excerpt (from 1.37) is a wonderful bulería in which Camarón follows his mother:
Along with Pohren’s A way of life,
- Paul Hecht, The wind cried: an American discovery of the world of flamenco (1993)
is a fine ethnography of flamenco social life in the 1960s; and it also contains plentiful translations of coplas verses (or letras, lyrics).
Just a few examples:
A las rejas de la cárcel Don’t come and weep
no me vengas a llorar at the jailhouse gate;
ya que no me quitas pena since you can’t ease my sorrow,
no me la vengas a dar. don’t darken my fate.
Cuando yo me muera When I die,
te pido encargo in you I confide:
que con las trenzas with the braids
de tu pelo negro of your black hair
me amarren las manos. let my hands be tied.
The ¿Y a quién le voy a contar yo mis peñas? genre includes some intense gems of oedipal Catholic masochism (maudlin Andalucian haiku?)—one from Agujetas ticks all the boxes:
Que a nadie se las puedo contar I’ve got no-one to tell my woes
Yo tengo a mi mare loca My mother is crazy
La llevan pa un hospital They’re taking her to a hospital.
* * *
There’s a whole treasury of flamenco videos to explore on YouTube. The depth and artistry of flamenco never cease to amaze me—if we think we know European culture, or even flamenco, all this makes an ear-scouring awakening.
*Cf. the more stoic Chinese genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“.