As I try to get to grips with the wonderfully varied palmas patterns of flamenco, I’m going to keep updating my introductory post—an aural, rhythmical equivalent of the blind leading the blind (cf. my “Turning a blind ear”), perhaps useful for those (like me) hampered by a WAM (or even simply “Western”) background…
In that post I featured both female and male performers—but gender and power relations in genres like flamenco are complex. I’ll begin by outlining the study of flamenco politics.
Though flamenco and fado (for the latter see here, and here) are remarkably different musically, their social history has some similarities—with shared underworld origins, an early commercial strand alongside popular activity in a still very poor society, misleading associations with regressive political conservatism, and then the fascist state gradually forced to open out, partly through tourism.
- William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics, and popular culture (1996)
is worth reading whole, but here I’ll focus on his chapters on Women and on a major documentary series.
In Franco’s Spain between 1939 and 1975, following the physical devastation and lasting psychological scars from the civil war,
the diverse traditions, customs, practices and, of course, musics of different regions were represented as elements of the integral body of Spain, analogous to the “Mystical Body” of the Roman Church.
Indeed, the reactionary role of the church recalls that in Salazar’s Portugal.
This motto (Washabaugh, p.viii) might be inscribed above the portals of Daoist and Chinese music studies:
As Michael Bakhtin and his colleagues have noted, something is wrong with any interpretative method that reifies genres and objectifies abstractions to the point that events in the present are reduced to reflections of the past.
In 1959 a law was enacted requiring bars in Andalucia to close by 12.30am, just as flamenco events would have been just beginning—a thinly-veiled attempt “to silence musical events that would normally have bred local loyalty and stimulated political debate” (see also Don Pohren’s A way of life, pp.16–17). At the same time, staged flamenco was becoming a tool of propaganda.
But just as in China, the commodified spectacles are merely the tip of the iceberg of activity among local folk communities. And dissident artists and scholars expressed their opposition to Franco’s nacionalflamenquismo—“the promotion of meretricious spectacles that celebrated the richness of Spanish art while hiding both the poverty and the regional allegiances of the artists” [again, shades of China and the whole heritage flapdoodle!].
Flamenco clearly survived under Franco, even before tourism—not merely in the form of the peña spectacles instituted in the 1950s, but “among the people”. And nostalgia for the regime still lives on.
Washabaugh has a stimulating chapter discussing the important documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco—one hundred half-hour programmes made from 1971 to 1973 in the declining years of franquismo, at once representing and resisting the images of the flamenco scene of the time: “a political statement rather than a nostalgic review”. He even unpacks the concepts underlying the title sequence (150–57). While expressing reservations about the “realism”of the series, he is full of admiration for its subtle juxtaposition of the “front” and (more “authentic”) “back” regions of flamenco.
Reminding me of Guo Yuhua‘s Narratives of the sufferers, Washabaugh comments:
The fact that the filmmakers made liberal use of selective emphases in presenting these remembrances should not render the series particularly liable to claims that it is unfaithful as a document of history. On the contrary, these Rito films embody the principle only lately popularized among social scientists, that documents of memory often make inventive uses of the past for the purposes of “willing backward” the future.
Citing Horkheimer and Adorno’s motto “All reification is forgetting”, Washabaugh observes the process whereby the sounds of daily life came to acquire fixed genre names in flamenco, detached from their the social relations in which they arose—like the way that songs for selling wares (Rito #72) evolved into pregones (#79).
Some scenes from the “back region”:
- The potter Oliver de Triana:
- MarÍa Sabina from Cadiz—who with her blacksmith son Santiago Donday, “if there were ever a pair who would qualify as puro, that pair would be certainly be Sabina and son”:
- Some fascinating ethnographic scenes from Extremadura bordering Portugal, including tangos, jaleos, and alboreá wedding song:
As if tourism wasn’t bad enough, later, inevitably, the Intangible Cultural Heritage came along to muscle in on the act; but as in China, it hardly affects the beating heart of local traditions. Rather like nanyin in south Fujian, flamenco has long experience of commodification, though this will only be a minor aspect of its life; indeed, their whole history is one of utilizing commodification while maintaining grassroots social practice.
Still, below we’ll see how Washabaugh warns against the fiction of “authentic” flamenco (cf. the musos’ touring game).
Gender studies, and power relations, are a major and growing theme of ethnomusicology (so far on this blog I’ve subheaded the gender tag under the basic themes of China, music, and other). Just a little selection of some of the major works:
- Ellen Koskoff (ed.) Women and music in cross-cultural perspective (1987), and her
- A feminist ethnomusicology: writings on music and gender (2014);
- Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond, Music and gender (2000),
- including Marcia Herndon’s article there, and others by her;
- Susan Cusick, “Gender, musicology, and feminism” , in Cooke and Everist, Rethinking music (1999).
Among many studies of women’s musicking in particular cultures, I love
- Veronica Doubleday, Three women of Herat (1999).
For a typically articulate and reader-friendly overview of the field, see
- Bruno Nettl, “I’m a stranger here myself: women’s music, women in music”, ch.27 of his canonical The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions.
As always, he also reflects with insight on gender relations in WAM (for which there’s a parallel field of study—one might start with Susan McClary, also featured in my post on Ute Lemper in discussing the diva–femme fatale–prima donna complex).
In my post on a wonderful Swedish psalm (just about as far as one could get from flamenco) I cited a relevant observation on gender and vocal timbre from Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics project.
There’s a fine collection of essays on Mediterranean musics:
- Tullia Magrini (ed.), Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).
Gender in flamenco
Among fine essays on Corsica, Calabria, Eastern Europe, Greece, and the Maghreb, the latter volume contains a useful article on flamenco:
- Joaquina Labajo, “Body and voice: the construction of gender in flamenco” (variant here),
analyzing the most basic elements of staging, including role distribution, the actual nature of the interacting voices, and the resources of the protagonists’ corporal expression; and exploring the demystification of images laden with exotic and romantic references that have come down to us through the years, confronting them with other social, political, religious and economic realities and strategies of both the past and the present.
Articles elsewhere include
I must read the book
- Loren Chuse, The cantaoras: music, gender and identity in flamenco song (2003).
But here, again, here I’ll mainly cite Washabaugh’s chapter on “Women” in his Flamenco: passion, politics, and popular culture. He observes that the Rito compilers’ resistance to nacionalflamenquismo
could consist of nothing more spectacular than disturbing the overly neat franquista portrayal of men as public, women as detached, confined, and, except in the absolute privacy of the family, untouchable.
He notes the widespread, and early, “Manichean” dichotomy of madonna and whore, and the “male-dominated music of the streets”, “a noise that made it possible for people to deal with the confusions of urban life”, “the music of the brawling popular religiosity of men, the music of boisterous binges carried on in the name of the Virgin”. Citing Christopher Small, he notes.
Such music inevitably included the component of percussion that had been banished from the reasoned music of the 17th century because percussive tones elude rational control—”It was not until late in the 17th century that the first percussion instruments were readmitted, the timpani,* which could be tuned to a pitch”.
Urban spaces became increasingly associated with images of “pleasure, excitement, the carnivalesque and disorder”.
While I have reservations about any such portrayal of popular culture through the prism of the educated elite, flamenco artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries “lived in a lowbrow [sic] underworld dominated by males, a flamenco bar-and-party circuit”, with flamenco song riding on “waves of alcohol to reach peaks of dubious ecstasy”.
Such ecstatic catharsis mediated by sodden singers may have been acceptable for men, but women were singled out and inevitably relegated to the category of the shameless and the whore. Proper women were said to be out of place in a juerga— an all-night binge of song and drink.
Washabaugh notes the exception of the feria, seasonal celebrations of the fair and the carnival providing “occasions for women to flaunt their culturally defined wildness, their seductive physicality, their passion”.
Men were, and are, in the driver’s seat, and they typically use their power to marginalize, exclude, and subordinate women.
In Andalucia, as elsewhere, men control popular culture regardless of the significance of women’s contributions.
Moving on to the Franco regime, Washabaugh comments:
More than merely discriminating against women, franquista practices virtually annihilated women. In public affairs, the identity of women was systematically denied.
Catholic traditionalism, underwritten by the state, severely limited the place of women, relegating them to a sphere defined as narrowly, and perhaps more so, than the women’s sphere of the 19th century. Women could aspire to marriage and motherhood but little more. The Franco regime literally [sic] turned back the clock on the legal position of women.
Flamenco bars were nudged out of existence. […] The peña fraternities [sic] [now a welcome relief from the touristy tablau] came into being in the 1950s—formalized, licenced, and, one must suppose, subjected to surveillance, […] a forum in which flamenco aesthetes could pursue issues of artistic purity wholly detached from any practical public interests. Such sterile estheticism in flamenco circles was passively complicit with franquismo. On the other hand, franquista policies encouraged the development of flamenco spectacles that presented women as examples of detached femininity and untouchable beauty, and in these respects, women became powerful magnets for tourist dollars.
Discussing the image of women in the Rito series of the early 70s, Washabaugh observes how the compilers
picked up on some of the tentative and largely unnoticed innovations in both content and style made by female artists in flamenco circles during the Franco years, [… advancing] a picture of women deeply involved in flamenco while still consummately honorable. The documentarians produced this effect by emphasizing the family as a common and fertile site for musical activity, an emphasis that weakened the longstanding association of flamenco with “booze-bars-and-babes” while strengthening associations of flamenco with women, wine, and Andalucian family life.
While many of the films do show tablaos and peñas where women are absent or subordinate, or “caught somewhere between participant, witness, and decoration”, “nevertheless they never venture into that often parodied domain that includes shameless women”. The films deliberately refrain from showing juergas (“notorious occasions for excessive drinking and shameless womanizing”).
(In a lapse from ethnographic empathy, Washabaugh seems to concur with the elite view of the “ugliness, the grotesque vulgarity, the lewdness, and the obscenity of the debauched juergas of the past?!)
Instead, women are presented a pivotal figures, as matriarchs of song. Some examples:
- Cristobalina Suarez—note the tangos from 16.01! In her introduction she refers to the bulerías featured in my first post:
Paradoxically, the shrewdness of this resistant response lay in its complicity with so many other aspects of Franco’s cultural politics. […] By using family to cloak their revisionary images of flamenco, the Rito filmmakers managed to oppose franquismo while seeming to comply.
- Having admired Bernarda and Fernanda de Utrera in my previous post, here’s a wonderful soleares from them in their youth, from the 1952 Duende y Misterio del Flamenco (punctuated by the great torero Juan Belmonte):
- From the same film is a gorgeous bulerías showing the familial basis of flamenco, yet tinged by tragedy—the singer Pastora Amaya, first wife of the great Farrucco, died in a car crash later that year, aged 15:
And here’s a stunning clip of La Negra (born in Algeria) and her daughter Lole Montaya singing an Umm Kulthum song as a tangos (duple rhythm!), partly in Arabic (see the comments to the video)!
Leading on from his discussion of the role of women, Washabaugh notes the somewhat sanitized treatment of alcohol in the Rito series’ :
Wine […] never suggested debauchery, nor did it operate as a component of a “drinking subculture”. Instead, quite to the contrary, wine symbolized home and family.
Wine drinking was discussed in the soberest of terms, as a stimulant to song, as a catalyst to artistry, and as a lubricant for performances.
Transformed in the Rito films, wine became a rite (a rito) of Andalucian family life rather than a stain left over from Andalucian bar life.
Programme 97 is devoted to wine and flamenco:
Conversely, in the “Triana” programme Washabaugh notes the scene (from 26.47) filmed in the Morapio bar in a housing project outside Seville, the women’s dance subverting the traditional image:
Her antics as a dancer mocked the traditionally conceived “flamenco woman”, the beautiful but inactive, unthinking, and untouchable totally self-possessed woman.
Indeed, somewhat at odds with the Rito‘s mission to embed flamenco in respectable family life are the many stories of musicians’ deviant behaviour, evoking Merriam’s classic “license to deviate from behavioural norms”.
Any romanticizing tendencies are well corrected by reading Don Pohren‘s classic A way of life, a candid grassroots account based on his stay in Andalucia in the 1950s and 60s, a constant orgy of juerga.
As he makes the finishing touches to his flamenco bar in March 1966,
the town of Morón was absolutely sure of one thing: the finca was slated to be a cabaret featuring prostitutes and flamenco.
His vignettes on the “impish” Diego del Gastor (pp.103–21) are wonderful—such as his disciples’ ill-fated gift of a fine Santos guitar (WAM musos have similar stories!):
Diego was like a child with a new toy, and played and played and accompanied us like never before. Finally, late at night, he grew tired of playing and wanted to rest, but couldn’t find a safe place to put his guitar, as none of us had thought of buying a case for it. Diego solved the problem by locking it in the cab outside. He rejoined the gathering jubilantly, and amidst the ensuing drinks and merry-making completely forgot the existence of the guitar. At juerga’s end, still unusually exuberant for some reason he could not quite recall, Diego danced out to the car, hurled himself drunkenly into the back seat, lit atop his beloved Santos and smashed it into pieces.
Timothy Mitchell unpacks the myths of flamencology in his fine 1994 book Flamenco deep song:
A decoding of cante jondo from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.
Washabaugh encapsulates Mitchell’s approach to flamenco:
“maudlin music that lubricates the wheels of an essentially bipolar society and a culture of victimage”!
Mitchell notes the importance of alcohol, and gives telling instances of the mania for pranking (pp.182–8, cf. Pohren pp.41–3):
Flamencologists are thus presented with a difficult choice indeed. Whom are they to prefer, amoral señorito-pranksters or the humorless mystagogues who gathered in Granada in 1922?
For more on cante jondo, see the third post in this series!
* * *
The study of the Rito series is a worthy reminder that even filmed representations of which we may approve are just that—representations. The authors’ “realism” in filming the “authenticity” of the “back region”, and the back region itself, are also constructions. Authentic flamenco is a fiction:
The danger posed [by the Rito series] is that we will canonize this version of flamenco, and use it as a fixed standard for assaying contemporary performances, thereby surrendering ourselves to the very ideology that the Rito series so vigorously opposed, and, in the end, bailing out of our human responsibility to struggle with our own noise.
All this is very fine, but as in China,** what I miss is a diachronic grass-roots account of family milieux less subject to state control, and more free from academic representation; beyond Pohren’s A way of life, perhaps such accounts exist in Spanish or even English. Meanwhile the performers interviewed in the Rito series, both women and men, are articulate and perceptive.
Alongside the Rito‘s fine social documentation, it provides wonderful material to immerse ourselves in all the diverse song genres—so while I gradually begin to absorb the melodic contours of singing, the coplas lyrics, and the toques de guitarra, I’ll keep updating my original post on palmas.
At all events, whatever the class background of flamenco, there’s nothing “lowbrow” about this music. I just don’t get this false dichotomy between art and folk music (cf. China): the prestige that the elite claims for its own culture is notional.
And call me old-fashioned, but while I have no choice but to concede to listening to WAM in the sterile concert-hall, these videos illustrate a perfect setting for musicking, don’t you agree…
* I just have to direct you to two classic timpani stories, here and here.
** Another echo of Maoism: “if it isn’t prohibited, it is compulsory” (Washabaugh 161).