On a trip through southern Spain, Erik Trinidad follows the sound of snapping fingers and stomping feet and gets a primer on flamenco culture.
ANDALUCÍA, Spain – She wailed amidst her three companions. Her voice lamented for a long, lost love.
“Although sometimes I try to forget it,” sang the cantaora in Spanish, “I can’t even begin.”
Her deep, raspy alto carried the heavy sorrows of generations of her gypsy people, who wandered the southern Spanish region of Andalucía for hundreds of years.
“¡Toma que toma!” A man cried out to the woman, encouraging her to let out her woes. The somber cante jondo was energized by the stomping of feet, in spurts that built into a mesmerizing rhythm. The stomping was a prelude to the energetic dancing by a man and a woman, fingers snapping at the ends of flowing, yet controlled arms. The passionate cries continued, now with an accompaniment of clapping hands. The spirit of flamenco grew stronger and stronger with each seductive twirl of their bodies, cranking like a machine — until one abrupt pose and one last stomp. The lights went out to conclude the dramatic and artful moment at Tablao Puro Arte, one of the most intimate flamenco performances I experienced during my time in the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía.
In southern Spain, the crossroads of Europe and northern Africa, flamenco performances like this thrive — and traveling there can get you front row. But flamenco is not just a dance, nor it is a just type of music, but a part of gypsy culture that has endured since 15th-century Moors and Romani immigrants from as far as Rajasthan, India, arrived to the Iberian Peninsula.
Flamenco wasn’t always popular in the Kingdom of Spain. In fact, it was considered a low-class, counterculture nuisance for centuries. The immigrant Romani gypsies that arrived were dispersed throughout Europe since they were considered heretics and pagans, especially during the Spanish Inquisition that lasted well into the 19th century. The people (and culture) persevered, along with other marginalized groups that included Sephardic Jews and Arabs, whose collective experiences — indirect influences from the Phoenicians, Celts, Greeks, and Carthaginians — contributed to the flamenco we know today.
In the early 20th century, flamenco started gaining popularity among visitors to Spain — so much so that the musical style inadvertently became associated with generalized Spanish culture. Flamenco music, like tunes by luminary guitarist Andrés Segovia, spread to other parts of the world, perpetuating this association of marginalized gypsy culture with the Spaniards that disregarded it. Ultimately, Spain was internationally recognized as a country that was home to flamenco, and Spaniards eventually embraced it as part of its multifaceted national identity. In fact, in 2010, it was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today, it is proudly celebrated in many parts of the country, including the capital city Madrid.
To really explore flamenco, you must travel through Andalucía in southern Spain, where it all began. The easiest and most effortless way to experience is to attend a performance in a tablao, a flamenco cabaret, which is common in Andalucía’s main cities like Sevilla, Cádiz, Málaga, and Córdoba. In Granada, in the neighborhood of Sacramonte, flamenco shows are performed in former gypsy cuevas (cave dwellings). Small dance troupes gather on a stage, typically, with two or more bailaores (dancers), accompanied by a tocaor (guitarist) and a cantaora (singer). The collective performs with rhythmic music, heartbreaking lyrics, and improvised dance intended to express angst and emotion as a performative art form. Of course, like many parts of private subculture exposed to the masses as a commodity (like the hula in Polynesian culture), some nightly performances are modes of tourist entertainment — folks who come for dinner and drinks and make a night out of it. Yet the quality and the impact are still high.
Admittedly, I attended several of these staged performances, but as my travels continued through Andalucía, I found flamenco in many places off stage and off the cuff. I made my way to a private recital of flamenco guitar and dance in the stairwell of the Palacio de Benamejí in the town of Écija; I watched a tocaor perform in a “sherry” winery in Jerez (the fortified wine is a bastardization of the spelling and pronunciation of Jerez, where it hails from). I was enthralled by flamenco buskers out in Sevilla’s grandiose Plaza de España, which was built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition.
I witnessed intimate flamenco performances at neighborhood peñas — gathering places for local community flamenco clubs — where singers, musicians, and dancers practice and share their talents with friends, family, and guests over potato chips and fortified Jerez wine, rather than in front of dining tourists in a tablao. Peñas, along with casas de vecinos (“homes of the neighbors”) — walled gypsy residences with small houses and shelters around a shared courtyard — are the true homes of flamenco. They’re almost always adorned with family photos of artists spanning generations.
It’s at these community peñas where talent develops over time, is celebrated as it flourishes, and is passed down to the next generation, particularly in the mastering of strumming and picking the six strings of the flamenco guitar. In the town of Marchena, musical talent seems to run in the blood of the Melchor family. During an arranged visit to their eponymous peña, prolific guitarist Melchor Jiménez Heredia, known on the stage as Melchor Chico, performed just as his grandfather, Melchor de Marchena, and uncle, Enrique de Melchor, did before him.
Meanwhile, another flamenco legend, guitarist Manuel Lozano Gómez — better known by fans as El Carbonero — taught his young grand-nephew the strings during my visit to Peña Los Cernícalos in Jerez de la Frontera. While the boy was able to follow instructions and play, it was yet to be determined if he would become one of the next greats.
Flamenco guitar takes years to master. It can feel celebratory or seductive. It is heavily improvised, and talent truly shines through that rapid improvisation. Guitarreros who specialize in making flamenco guitars know that materials and construction of the instruments must differ in order to support a faster, brighter sound. A well-constructed flamenco guitar, as well as lessons from a legendary tocaor can start a player on their way, but in no way guarantees success. “No one can teach you how to create,” said 81-year-old flamenco legend Paco Cepero, Prémio Nacional winner of several Spanish cities, having worked with the likes of Camarón and Julio Iglesias in his six-decade career. "It must come from inside."
During my own attempt at learning to play from a tocaor at one of Granada’s flamenco cuevas, my strumming and string picking left much to be desired. The same went for my dance lesson with Pilar Muñoz, accomplished flamenco performer and teacher of Compas De La Plazuela. Sure, anyone who can follow along with line dancing at a wedding can get the basic steps, but when the flamenco music builds momentum, it’s hard to keep up. I at least felt like I was getting somewhere with Sra. Muñoz’s instructions to twirl and slap my thighs — but that was clearly just a novelty for me.
Following Rhythm Off the Stage
Flamenco can always be found in a tablao, but if you’re looking for a more authentic performance, take to the streets. If you’re lucky, you may witness performances in public places like Sevilla’s Plaza de España. You can also see flamenco guitar recitals in Madrid or Cordoba, or in Linares at the Casa Museo Andrés Segovia — a museum and performance venue inspired by the luminary guitarist. Additionally, many peñas in the smaller towns like Marchena, Puebla de Cazalla, and Ejica typically have an open door policy for visitors (although it's advised to ask ahead of your visit to ensure that performers will be present).
There are also several flamenco festivals throughout Andalucía: Fiesta de la Guitarra in Marchena and Reunión de Cante Jondo in Puebla de Cazalla (July), Fiesta de la Buleria in Jerez de la Frontera and La Noche Flamenca in Écija (August). One of the most important flamenco festivals in Andalucía (and probably in all of Spain) takes place in September (the next being 2024): La Bienal de Flamenco in Sevilla.