It seems unbelievable now, but I have not always been in love with flamenco. Frankly, until I was 25, I didn’t even know about the existence of flamenco. The opera and the ballet though, have always been present in my life. My mother’s love for opera arias have introduced me to this magical world. Listening to the heartbreaking solo of Madame Butterfly – when she realises her love will not return – let’s just say, it leaves its mark in a teenager’s heart. Plus the school trips to the Hungarian capital: standing mesmerised in front of the Opera House on Andrassy, staring at the facade and the sculptures in front of the building, thinking what on earth is going on inside this building? So I have a long history of being fascinated by this world. And surprisingly, I have not been to the opera much. Until now. I only needed two children and A. Although A. doesn’t agree with calling it “me time” – he doesn’t believe in labelling things in general – but he does agree with the need to get away from the daily routine of BBB – Bed, Bath, Book for beginners – and from each other sometimes. On these occasions, I go to the Opera. I go see operas and ballets, mostly in the Royal Opera House, mostly by myself. For once, my thoughts are not around bath and dinner; they are mine to wander (off to the moon and back): how is it possible that music created centuries ago is still around and still enjoyed? The world, people and life itself have changed so much, and yet, the operas of Mozart, Puccini and Wagner are still sold out every single night in the ROH in London. How is it possible that ballet has become so universal that dancers from Japan, England, Russia and Argentina dance together in the same show and none of them claims ballet their local art form?
As my thoughts keep wandering, I remember that A. and I had a long discussion once about jazz and flamenco, differences, similarities, trying to understand why jazz has spread around the globe and is played by musicians from all over the planet with the same genius, and flamenco isn’t. Flamenco is different. But why? Is it a younger music genre? Is it more complicated? Is it more restrictive? Is it more local? What is it with flamenco that it has not allowed it to spread its wings and conquer the world?
Looking at jazz (and without wanting to provide a full analysis), we did say, that jazz and flamenco are both native art forms, music originated in the roots, expressing emotions of suppressed people in America and Spain, respectively, going back centuries. Flamenco is neither more complicated nor more complex to enjoy or follow. Jazz can actually get really difficult with the improvisations and the lack of structure to beginners’ ears.
Flamenco is not younger than jazz, the roots go back to the 15th century, when Jewish, Moorish and Gypsy influence mixing with the Andalusian folk music have laid the foundations of what we call today: flamenco. Perhaps jazz started the journey of globalisation earlier? According to an article in the New York Times in 2001 (only in 2001, not earlier!) “jazz is in the process of becoming the musica franca, the one language spoken everywhere, a glue in the global village, the musical common denominator; like English”. The language! As the United States has become a world power over the past 100 years or so, so has English become the dominant language around the world. This clearly favours jazz, where there is either no singing, or they sing in English. In flamenco there is lots of singing, all in Spanish, expressing deep emotions and feelings. You may like the moves and the rhythm, but if you don’t understand the words, you will always be a step behind.
It also has to be mentioned that the culture around flamenco has always been quite restrictive. The so called “purists” in flamenco have always said that authentic flamenco can only be performed by gypsies from Spain, and they have always protected the original forms of singing, dancing and playing, beyond everything. The purist “movement”, among them Antonio Mairena, a famous gipsy singer from the twentieth century, has cut the wings and denied the acceptance of many musicians, who tried to modernise, change or add anything to flamenco. Thankfully no one could stop Paco de Lucía. Camarón de la Isla and Enrique Morente, and their new additions to flamenco. To be fair, protection of some kind must have served flamenco to a certain extent throughout the centuries, because it did not allow it to get lost or diluted, but the importance and art of the gypsies cannot be denied. Protection has to be chosen wisely.
Last, but not least, the ‘duende’. I have never heard anything similar in jazz or in opera; in flamenco, it is essential. It’s everything. Some people say it is the hardest word to translate from Spanish… Originally, it only existed in plural, duendes, meaning elf, elves. Until Federico García Lorca created the singular version in the 1930’s, describing magic or “fiery spirit what makes great performance stir the emotions”. Since then it describes the essence of flamenco: the aficionados (fans) say that all you need to be a great flamenco musician, is ‘duende’. It must have been along these lines what Paco de Lucía meant, when he said that to play flamenco well, one must have lived in Andalusia once. Difficult to imagine that one of the biggest innovators of flamenco would want to put limitations ahead of flamenco, but to me, this phrase makes flamenco a very local folk music. Perhaps he just wanted to say that you do need to experience the local spirit, the ‘duende’ to understand where those emotions and expressions really come from. Who knows…
I do know that in economy, the protectionist approach never resulted in the desired success. The same may be true for music. So I say: let flamenco spread its wings and fly. Along the way, it may change to some extent, but there will always be people representing the original forms. Do not fear change. Fear will be your enemy (as grandpa troll so wisely said in Frozen).
There is still time until flamenco gets where jazz, ballet and opera are in the international music scene.
Until we get there, let the Hungarian fan of Spanish flamenco entertain you from the UK with more flamenco stories!