What is "Flamenco?"

By Lawrence Bohme

Although flamenco music is now recognised as a marvellous and unique art form, this was not always so, as is demonstrated by the origin of the name itself. Flamenco, in fact, means... Flemish!

The story goes that when Felipe II's soldiers returned from their military occupation of the Netherlands, some Andalucians among them were one night heard singing and dancing and playing the guitar, and someone assumed that they must have picked it all up in Flanders, contemptuously dubbing the genre "Flemish music". The fact that no one ever bothered to rectify this absurdity is a measure of the disregard in which it was held - just like "jazz" (originally a synonym for sexual intercourse), before the genre was dignified in Chicago.

As for its origins, there is no reason to believe that flamenco is any more exclusively "gypsy" than is the violin music of Hungary or Russia - wherever they went, the gypsy people made their living telling fortunes, fixing pots and chairs, stealing, begging and playing the local music which people wanted to hear. [Picture of a Bridge] As for the Arab influence, there are undoubted similarities in the singing style, but the eastern influence in European music was generally much more prevalent in the Middle Ages and did not have to specifically stem from them. In fact, the origins of flamenco are much older than the arrival of the gypsies in the 15th century, going back even earlier than the invasion of the Moors in the 8th.

Musicologists currently believe that flamenco singing was, in the beginning, a profane version of early Christian liturgical "plain song" (Roman, Byzantine, Mozarabic), the direct descendant of which is what we now call "Gregorian chant". Of course, in a melting pot like Andalucia, every new race or tribe added its particular seasoning to the dish, and the gypsies, originating from northwestern India, did not fail to contribute the intricate rhythms of their native ragas. At best, flamenco is an incongruous patchwork of musical genres which is most accurately described as "the music which is played in southern Spain"...
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