When I was 4, my family and I went to Barcelona in the summer. One evening, we ate a meal on the restaurant-terrace and watched a flamenco performance on the stage. I was mesmerised by the female dancers with their dramatic red gowns and flowers in their black hair. After the show, they let me go on stage and play with the castanets. For 13 years after that, I remembered Flamenco as a mystical dance- much rosier than I could ever have expected. Only when I got to 17, I realised there is more.


People often think of one particular Spanish gem when they think of Spain: The famous music and dance of Flamenco. One can find its passion through the expression of themes such as distress, anguish and poverty, performed in music and dance on the streets of Spain as well as in Spanish cafés or a ‘tablao’ venue which is the name for a Flamenco club/venue. What’s more, many people tend to know of this dance and music genre as so typically Spanish. We commonly don’t realise that Flamenco goes much deeper into the roots of Andalusian culture. 

To start, there is the Arab influence from when the North African Muslim population, known as the ‘Moors’, ruled southern Spain from 711 until the 2nd of January 1492. That was when, famously, Queen Isabel of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon conquered the last of Moorish rule in Andalusia and the Muslims were banished or forced to convert to Christianity. Flamenco also has Jewish influence as the Jews coexisted with the Muslims in Andalusia until 1492 when they too got banished or forced to convert. 


Further roots found in Flamenco date back to the Romani migrations to the south of Spain from Rajasthan (a state in northern India) in the 14th century. Roma or Romani people are an ethnic group living mostly in Europe originating from India. These gypsies brought with them to Andalusia their music, dance and instruments. For example, they brought castanets- a small, hand instrument that is held between the thumb and fingers and struck together to make a clicking noise and is something Flamenco fully adopted. The ‘bailaora’ (female Flamenco dancer), is known for dancing while simultaneously playing the instrument. After the Jew and Moorish expulsion in 1492, the Andalusian gypsies would get tortured or killed if they did not conform to the Spaniard, Christian society. Therefore, they would move from town to town trying to make a small earning performing their gypsy music. It was a way for them to express their anguish. They were poor, disfavoured and victims of prejudice. The art of Flamenco was born from the targeted people in an unfair society. Interested Spaniards known as ‘Payos’, the Flamenco term-given to a non-gypsy, would often watch their performances and soon began to imitate as well. Then, they would perform in cafés. At least their presence was accepted. That can explain why so many people only know Flamenco to be typically Spanish- its true history was not brought to the light for many years.


Me, I knew Flamenco to directly connote only to all that is Spain and Spanish without realising there is so much more in the mix. I may never have come to this realisation until I started listening to a popular singer from Barcelona named Rosalía who is trained in both Flamenco dance and singing such as in the style of ‘Cante Jondo’, a Flamenco vocal style known for its difficulty to train in and its passion. ‘Jondo’ is an Andalusian variation of the Spanish word ‘hondo’ which means ‘deep’. In the singer’s pop hits, Flamenco is the base through rhythms and also a sense of extreme emotion. However, Rosalía is not Andalusian and so has been criticised for appropriating Gypsy and Roma culture. These accusations particularly interested me because, as to my prior knowledge, I thought Flamenco was all-Spanish. I couldn’t understand the outrage some people had over a Spanish girl singing Flamenco. This Catalan singer said in an interview with Late Motiv in 2018 'music doesn't have borders', which I agree with but, it does have roots. While I still love Rosalía and still believe her to be a grand talent, I at least have a new perspective. I can see more clearly where the criticisms are coming from, knowing what pop music stands for versus the torture the Gypsies went through in Andalusia during the 1400s 1500s and 1600s after their land being taken away from them.


Gradually, Flamenco was taken away from them too. In the 19th century, many aristocrats would pay Gypsies to perform Flamenco at their banquets. A more middle class audience became interested. The bars and cafés that promoted the genredidn’t necessarily pay respects to its background and perhaps covered a surface representation. In the 70s, once Spain became a democracy, gypsy communities were forced out of their neighbourhoods of Andalusia. Marketing Flamenco was used to attract tourists to Spain and so it, arguably, lost its authenticity as it became a way to make money when it was never about that before- the music is about anything but capitalism and money: It is a voice for the marginalised.However, for 40 years, police have been trying more and more to shut down Flamenco performances in the streets as they are loud, energetic and apparently can encourage chaos like the Spanish custom of drinking parties in the street known as ‘Botellón’. Yet, certain charities and groups are rebelling against this today. They perform in the streets in order to protest. In an article I read by Yossi Bartal called ‘Flamenco’s Repression and Resistance in Southern Spain’, I heard about an association called the ‘Peña de los Torres Macarena’ of Seville that protest against police repression. In the 60s, under Franco’s regime, performing Flamenco was a sign of rebellionwhile communities were being banished from their homes. So, Flamenco has always been rebellious. It has always given a voice to those who do not have one but certainly have something to fight for. It is about justice and is much, much more meaningful than what many tourists see at first-glance.


When I was 4, I thought it was just pretty polka dot dresses. When I took Spanish in secondary school, I thought it was just a pretty part of Spain, but now, I know that Flamenco is so much more.

By Nadya Porokhnya