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Volume 45, Number 6November/December 1994

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Exploring Flamenco's Arab Roots

Written by Greg Noakes

Flamenco music was born, and still lives, among the scenic green hills of Andalusia in southern Spain.

In recent years, however, some performers have moved beyond both the geographical and the stylistic boundaries of traditional flamenco to incorporate a variety of new styles into their work. Paco de Lucia and Madrid's Ketama have garnered critical praise—and the wrath of purists—with their jazz-influenced recordings, while the Gipsy Kings have wedded pop to flamenco to win fans worldwide.

Other performers have turned inward, searching for the obscure origins of flamenco, in hope of inspiration. What they have found are pervasive Arab influences, touching everything from the style of performance to the very rhythms and scales of the songs themselves. And what they have produced as a result is a fusion of Spanish and Arab traditions that is both interesting and inspirational.

The Arab roots of flamenco run deep. Though some scholars believe the word flamenco means "Flemish," others think it is a corruption of the colloquial Arabic felag mangu, meaning "fugitive peasant" and derived from a root meaning "to flee." The term came into use in the 14th century, and was first applied to the Andalusian Gypsies themselves, who were called either gitanos or flamencos.

Flamenco music dates back to the Middle Ages, a time of turmoil in the Iberian peninsula. The once-mighty Muslim kingdoms of al-Andalus were in a state of slow but steady decline, while the Catholic powers of central and northern Spain steadily pushed south (See Aramco World, January-February 1993). The borderlands between the Muslim and Christian realms were the scene of vibrant cultural exchange and artistic cross-pollination. Flamenco was born in these marches where Arabs, Jews, Christians and gitanos mixed freely.

The cante flamenco, or "flamenco song," is characterized by lyric vocals, improvised dance and strongly rhythmic accompaniment. Although lighter forms later developed, classic cantes jondos ("profound songs") explore themes of sadness, pain and death. The cantes originally featured purely rhythmic instruments or were sung a cappella, but the guitar came to be the principal flamenco instrument during the 19th century, when gitanos began to sing and dance professionally in cafés and bodegas.

It was during this period that the term flamenco came to be applied to the gitanos' music, and the rules and forms of the classical flamenco tradition were established. Some 60 standard cantes from this period survive today, encompassing a variety of moods and themes.

Over time, however, a split developed between "classical" flamenco and the folk gitano style. Master musicians like Sabicas and Carlos Montoya raised classical flamenco to a true art form with their expressive virtuosity, but less gifted singers and guitarists often sacrificed emotion for technical precision. Carefully choreographed flamenco "spectacles" also narrowed the opportunity for improvised musical solos and dancing, leading some aficionados to charge that flamenco, as an art form, was stagnant.

In reaction, many turned to the gitano tradition. Looser, less polished and more open to change than their classical flamenco counterparts, gitano artists expressed the passion that is central to flamenco. Their style included fiery guitar improvisation, jaleo—complex rhythmic hand-clapping, guitar-slapping, finger-snapping and vocal outbursts—and the tradition of duende, the deep emotional participation of the performer.

As flamenco artists and critics began to explore the elements of gitano performance, they rediscovered the rich Arab influence in flamenco. The art form's basic building blocks—sung poetry and music—were borrowed from the Arabs and Berbers who ruled al-Andalus from 711 to 1492, when the Moors were expelled from Spain. T.B. Irving notes in his book The World of Islam, "Gypsy music and cante jondo go back to the zajal [sung Arabic lyric poetry] and the five-tone scale." The percussive elements of jaleo are still found in the folk music of North Africa and its reliance on drums, tambourines and hand-clapping. The vocal conventions of flamenco can also be traced back to Arab precursors. For example, the vocalizations "Ay-ay-ay!" and "Ay-li-li!" are found throughout gitano performance, usually in introductory or transitional passages, and come from the traditional refrains of blind Arab mendicants, "Ya 'ain!" ("O eye!") and "Ya tail!" ("O night!") respectively.

Indeed, cultural historian Lois Lamya' al-Faruqi found few elements of flamenco untouched by Arab music. "The ornamental melodic style, the improvisatory rhythmic freedom, the sometimes 'strange' (to Western ears) intervals, the segmental structure, and the repeated excursions from and returns to a tonal center are some of the features that indicate Arab influence on cante flamenco," according to al-Faruqi.

Exploration of flamenco's Arab ancestry was reinforced by the rise over the last six decades of andalucismo, or Andalusian cultural nationalism. The 1930"s saw the beginning of a re-evaluation of al-Andalus and the place of Arabs and Muslims in Spanish history and culture, as well as of Spanish ties to the Maghrib. "Previously, southern Spain had turned its back on North Africa," according to Khalid Duran of the Free University of Berlin. "Those few [Spaniards] who had an idea of the greatness of Islamic Spain liked to believe that it was due to some very special kind of noble Arab from somewhere in the East, perhaps Damascus. Moroccans [they believed] were nothing but uncouth tribals revolting against Spanish civilization." Andalucismo grew steadily during the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco and truly blossomed after his death in 1975. Since that time, Spaniards have come to a new appreciation of al-Andalus and of Arab and Islamic culture (See Aramco World, September-October 1992).

The search for the sources of flamenco, and the rise of andalucismo, bore fruit in the 1980's and 1990's with a series of stunning musical collaborations between Spanish and Moroccan artists. Most of the Spanish participants are individual performers, including some of the most prominent singers and guitarists working in the gitano style.

The Moroccans are mostly musical groups, principally the orquestas andalusi of northern Morocco. Like flamenco, Andalusi music has both classical and folk traditions. Classical Andalusi music, whose forms were set down in 11th-century Cordoba, came to North Africa with the exiles of al-Andalus (See  Aramco World, July-August 1991), and is characterized by  the nawba, a suite of music in a single melodic mode which 5 grows progressively faster and includes sung poems. While Andalusi orchestras are grounded in the classical nawbat, they also have been influenced heavily by Arab and Berber folk music, and often move easily between these "great" and "little" musical traditions.

Musicians from both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar find in these joint performances a way to discover their musical roots, remember their cultures' past triumphs and tragedies and explore their common heritage. The resulting Hispano-Arab music is extraordinary. Sinewy flamenco guitar lines weave between the plaintive tones of the kamanjeh, a kind of Moroccan violin, underpinned by the frenetic clatter of castanets and a bedrock of darabukkahs, or Arab hand drums. Lyrics are sung in both Spanish and Arabic, occasionally overlaid in a melding of languages and styles. For their selections, the artists have drawn on both the flamenco and Andalusi repertoires, and play cantes flamencos and traditional Maghribi folk songs with equal dexterity. Attempts at musical "fusion" often result in mere cacophony, but the roots common to flamenco and Andalusi music—and the abilities of the musicians involved—have allowed these Hispano-Arab crossover efforts to attain majestic heights.

While much of this cross-cultural exploration has been done in informal sessions or live performances, several flamenco-Andalusi recordings have been produced. Among the best are the collaborations of José Heredia Maya and Enrique Morente with the Orquesta Andalusi de Tetouan and Juan Peña El Lebrijano's powerful work with the Orquesta Andalusi de Tanger. All three recordings exhibit the beauty and passion that can flower when top artists meet to exchange musical ideas and inspiration.

While much ground remains to be covered within the Arabo-flamenco tradition, some folk musicians are striking out on a different tack. The Valencian folk group Al Tall has teamed up with the ensemble Muluk El-Hwa from Marrakech to explore the music of al-Andalus itself. The two groups have set Arabic and Catalonian poetry from the 11th to 13th centuries to the rhythms, melodies and instruments of the western Mediterranean to produce appealing and inventive music.

Hispano-Arab musical collaborations are both an attempt to revivify existing art forms and a reassertion of Andalusian-Arab-Mediterranean traditions. Vincent Torrent of Al Tall declares, "There is a special kind of Mediterranean sensibility and aesthetics. We believe...that a place must be found for this mode of expression, particularly since we're subjected to a veritable invasion by other aesthetics and sensibilities."

Though flamenco performers and Andalusi musicians began their collaboration as a way to explore their own artistic pasts, they also have charted a path to an exciting musical future. Along the way they have produced some outstanding music, broken down long-standing cultural and historical barriers and demonstrated—in an era where some see only a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West—that there is room for cooperation and creativity.

Greg Noakes is the news editor of the Washington report on Middle East Affairs.

This article appeared on pages 32-35 of the November/December 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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