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Whites passing for Blacks and Gypsies…

We do not believe that the Black influence in flamenco is simply African music transplanted into Andalusian music culture and, by extension, to flamenco, but it is rather a translation, often done by artists who, playing specific foreign characters, managed to recreate those faraway places and show them to their fellow countrymen.


When I started organizing the archive of Antonio Gades after his death in July 2004, I pored over hundreds of articles kept by the brilliant choreographer, bailaor and dancer from Elda (Alicante), and I came across a piece in the New York Times — from 1958 if I remember well — about one of the tours of the Ballet de Pilar López, which featured the renowned bailaores Mario Maya and El Güito, among many other great flamenco artists. I found quite interesting what the author wrote: “I was surprised by the sober and lively baile of El Güito, but that was nothing compared with the archetypal Gypsy performance of Antonio Gades”. I could not help but laughing, as El Güito was (is) Gypsy while Gades was not.  Yet, that brought to mind a topic that I have been discussing for a long time with friends, colleagues and students: the huge importance of artists who, for centuries, have been molding the stereotypes of Black, Moorish, White, Mulato or Gypsy characters. Artists who often portrayed cultures foreign to them, singing and dancing their likeness the best they could. I also remember the many times when, browsing notes about the members of dance companies that performed in the theaters of Madrid in the late 1700s, I would come across comments such as “she plays the role of a Gypsy very well” or “he is ideal for the role of majo de rumbo”. This is an important matter that those who research the origins of flamenco music must take in account.

 

For example, the influence of Black music in flamenco is something that has been studied for several years (I recommend the book Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco, by my friend and great researcher Meira Goldberg). It turns out that many authors seem convinced that musical elements of African or Afro-American origin entered flamenco directly from those musical traditions, without intermediaries. But this was not always the case.

 

In Europe, when it comes to artistic matters, we have been very imaginative and fanciful, some may even say arrogant. We have been prone to always mold the image of the Other to our own tastes, adapting their ways and mannerisms, imitating what we have seen in our travels around the world for centuries. Europeans have been, above all, travellers, and since antiquity we have taken pleasure in telling our travelling tales when we come back, as can be attested by our extensive travel literature. Musicians have always attempted to recreate the foreign world, and that is the crux of the matter, as they adapt it to the liking of their audience. I have already mentioned elsewhere the paradigm of Puccini, who managed to create a whole universe that was not quite Japanese, but rather Japanese-inspired, with his immortal Madama Butterfly, doing the same with the Chinese-inspired Turandot and the Western-inspired musical atmosphere of La fanciulla del West. Verdi had done that before with Othelo, Trovador, Traviata and La forza del destino, and the same goes for Rossini, Mozart, Haydn, Rameau and Lully. In Spain we have Falla and before him Albéniz, Trinidad Huertas, Santiago de Murcia and Gaspar Sanz. The list of composers whose pieces attempt to recreate non-European music on a European key would be endless.

 

We Spaniards, veritable globetrotters like we are, have recreated what we find exotic in various forms. The morisca is not Moorish music, but “Moorish-like” music, as happened with the African cumbé, the Mexican petenera, and the Cuban tangos and guajiras. It is more a matter of recreating the musical ambiance, instead of recreating the music itself, achieving sounds that work well as stereotypes to the ears of the audience listening to the music in theaters, cafes, variety shows, comic sketches or parties. I wrote elsewhere about the case of Esteban del Río, who is mentioned in a newspaper chronicle from 1829 as singing and dancing a tango del chorote dressed as a “fake black” (“negro fingido”) in Cádiz.

 

«Cante flamenco, more than being directly inherited from Andalusian musical culture is a recreation in Gypsy key of the Moorish chants that were so prevalent in the streets, minarets, zambras and palaces of Al Andalus, although after Ferdinand the Saint retook Seville and Cadiz in 1200s, those chants were replaced by Mozarabic, Christian music which, although heavily influenced by Moorish aromas, was something else»

 

I have also commented, not long ago, on the theory of the so-called “cantar en camelo”, topic of my lecture at my beloved Flamencology Chair at the University of Córdoba, where I said that cante flamenco, more than being directly inherited from Andalusian musical culture — as proposed by my friend Antonio Manuel — is a recreation in Gypsy key of the Moorish chants that were so prevalent in the streets, minarets, zambras and palaces of Al Andalus, although after Ferdinand the Saint retook Seville and Cadiz in 1200s those chants were replaced by Mozarabic, Christian music which, although heavily influenced by Moorish aromas, was something else.

 

Thus was flamenco weaved, with all of this and everything else that the Andalusian people gathered for centuries, travelling around the world and preserving foreign cultural essences that they made their own, translating into “Christian” the most exotic sounds to adapt them to the ears of whoever wanted to listen.

 

Summarizing, we don’t believe that the Black influence in flamenco is simply African music transplanted into Andalusian music culture and, by extension, to flamenco, but it is rather a translation, often done by artists who, playing specific foreign characters, managed to recreate those faraway places and show them to their fellow countrymen, entertaining audiences in yards, streets and theaters.

 

This is a topic that deserves to be studied with patience and depth, and I plan to undertake this task even if my work barely leaves me any time to research a project that requires to disassemble cliches firmly established in the collective consciousness and engraved with fire in the minds of aficionados. Health permitting, it will come to fruition.

 

 

Image above: Ferdinand III the Saint – Real Academia de Historia

 

Translated by P. Young

 


Musicólogo de Vigo (Galicia). Investigador y profesor. Amante de la música. Enamorado del flamenco. Y apasionado de La Viña gaditana.

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