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The tragicomic verses of flamenco

Life, death, love and unlove are the standard topics. There are also verses that allude unapologetically to domestic violence, poverty, racism and other difficult social issues.

The wealth of verses of flamenco singing is incredibly varied and vast. From authored poetry to traditional, numerous fragments from folklore and epic ballads, a sort of Andalusian haiku form that is rarely longer than three or four lines.


Life, death, love and unlove are the standard topics. There are also verses that allude unapologetically to domestic violence, poverty, racism and other difficult social issues that become more manageable when passed through the prism of flamenco singing. The forms employed? It hardly matters, with minor modification most verses can be adapted to any of the song-styles, and anyhow, that’s the essence of cante: the challenge, the bravery to turn emotion inside out to assuage wounds that may not heal but which become tolerable.


Look at this micro drama represented in a brief coda known to all flamenco followers:


Quieras o no quieras

te vas a venir conmigo

por las malas o por las buenas


(Like it or not, you’re coming with me, even if it’s against your will)


The customary major key of this common ending gives a frivolous air, but consider the scene: this is a man warning a woman that she better obey his will if she knows what’s good for her, because “las malas” sounds like a blatant threat. Without meaning to promote political correctness (so easily ridiculed), I think the choice of words is unfortunate, and less aggressive vocabulary could be employed.


Our much-missed Juana la del Revuelo (Seville, 1952-2016) often sang the following verse for bulerías, triggering giggles, but the target of the referred beating might not have appreciated the humor:


Mi marío me ha pegao

porque quiere que le haga

patatas con bacalao


(My husband gave me a beating because he wants me to make potatoes with cod)


There are also verses that employ a humorous tone to allude to extreme poverty. The following, sung by Torre and others, is one of the best-known:


Cómprame por dios

una camisita

que siquiera me tape

la barriguita


(For God’s sake, buy me a shirt that at least covers my belly!)


My much-admired Cañeta de Málaga, often sang the following verse with comic intent, a complete soap-opera in barely four lines, the tragedy of a young girl who gives herself to a rich old man in order not to go hungry, but it doesn’t end well. Don’t tell me this isn’t a perfect jewel:


Te casaste con aquel viejo

por las moneas

Ahora se acaban las moneas

y el viejo se quea


(You married that rich old goat for his money, now the money’s gone but the old goat is still there)


The topic of racism in flamenco is an impossible labyrinth with no real resolution, while at the same time verses such as the following, sung by José de la Tomasa, have a certain charm, there’s no point denying it:


Había una gallinita 
en medio de un llano 
a ver quién se resiste

siendo gitano


(There was a little chicken in the middle of a field…what gypsy could resist?)


Or this one, equally light-hearted, that appears to suggest that gypsies are clever businessmen, or possibly even tricksters:


Graciosos son los gitanos

que se van en borrico

y vuelven en aeroplano


(Gypsies are so clever, they leave on a donkey, and return in an airplane)


The following verse is an alternative version of a more dramatic one that was popularized by Joselero de Morón (Puebla de Cazalla, 1910-Morón de la Frontera, 1985), and which that singer ended with the words “que lleva el ferrocarril”.  The version cited here is from El alma de Andalucía (1929) by Rodríguez Marín, and again, it’s dark humor is unmistakable.


Yo te estoy a ti queriendo

con la misma violencia

que lleva un muerto corriendo


(I love you with the same power as a dead man running)


With a disdainful tone similar to that of the previous verse, José Calles includes the following one in his Cancionero Popular (2001) with the odd reference to pounds rather than kilograms:


El día que tú te fuiste

fue tan grande mi dolor

que me comí dos gallinas

y tres libras de jamón


(The day you left it hurt so bad, I ate two chickens and three pounds of ham)


Top image: Juana la del Revuelo – Photo: Estela Zatania


Jerezana de adopción. Cantaora, guitarrista, bailaora y escritora. Flamenca por los cuatro costados. Sus artículos han sido publicados en numerosas revistas especializadas y es conferenciante bilingüe en Europa, Estados Unidos y Canadá.