Flamenco is an individualistic (yet structured) folk art which originated in Adalucia, a region of Southern Spain which is credited with being the geographical birthplace of flamenco. Flamenco is often improvised and spontaneous...a mix of song, dance and guitar blended with passionate rhythms. Although the Gypsy culture is often named as the sole originator of flamenco, many of the development details of the art are lost in the depths of history. The popular songs and dances of old Andalucia almost certainly influenced early flamenco to a great extent, but it seems highly likely that the Rom did indeed play an important part in the creation of this art form, along with the Mores (or Arabs) who occupied Spain (in particular, the South of Spain) for approximately 800 years in a relatively civilized manner. It was during this time that the predecessor of the chief instrument employed in flamenco...the flamenco guitar...was introduced and developed. Most flamenco forms which originally existed continue to exist today, although the art has changed quite drastically in many respects over the years and flamenco in its present form has only been in existence for approximately two centuries.
The art of flamenco is essentially a Spanish one. It exists in three forms: Cante or "song;" Baile or "dance;" and "Guitarra or "guitar playing." The first literary report which made mention of flamenco is in the "Cartas Marruecas" of Cadalso in 1774 and the first flamenco schools were created between 1765 and 1860 in the Southern Spanish towns of Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera and Triana (Seville). During this time, flamenco dance began to appear in the ballrooms, with the earliest version apparently purely vocal and accompanied only by rhythmic clapping of the hands (known as toque de palmas). Some time during the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, flamenco song and dance began to be performed in the courtyards and private rooms of Andalucian tabernas, accompanied by guitar and tambourines.
The years from 1869 through 1910 are generally considered to be the era of flamenco's "golden age." Numerous music cafes (cafes cantantes which literally means "cafes for singing") appeared, where the art was developed to its definitive form, as well as the development of the more serious forms which are said to express deep feeling and which are known as cante jondo. As flamenco became fashionable and garnered popularity with the public who frequented such cafes (often being the major attraction), guitar players and featured dancers gained an increasing reputation.
Descended from the cafes cantantes was the opera flamenco, whose popularity was at its highest from 1910 until 1955. The concentration of this form was the cante bonito, songs with more melody but which contained little of the passion and committment found during the earlier periods. It was an easier type of music and one which included the fandangos and cantes de ida y vuetla of modern times, with the latter clearly displaying South American influences. Around 1915, flamenco took to the road with organized performances playing to people all around the globe. What is commonly referred to as the Flamenco Renaissance occurred in 1955 when outstanding dancers and soloists began to make their way out of the small tablaos (successors to the early cafes cantantes) into the larger theaters and concert halls. It was at this time that the guitarists began to prosper and ply their art with greater mastery.
The origin of the name "flamenco" is somewhat obscure. According to some sources, it is a corruption of the Arabic felag mengu, which means either "itinerant peasant" or "farmer from your group" or "laborer who sings" (dependent upon the source), a term which was possibly applied to Spanish Moslems who may have taken refuge with the wandering Rom to avoid persecution. In some dictionaries, "flamenco" is defined as meaning "Flemish" and was originally a somewhat derogatory term used to describe the courtiers of Charles V, such courtiers having been recruited from Flanders by the Spanish monarch in the early Sixteenth Century and renowned for their self-confidence, style of bright clothing and ostentatious pride. Yet another theory is that the word could possibly have Jewish roots. Many Jews who left Spain rather than convert their faith migrated to Flanders and were allowed to freely sing their religious chants. These songs are believed to have been referred to as "flamenco" songs by their kinfolk who remained behind in Spain and the term later applied to anything which was deemed scandalous, loud, libertarian and bordering on bad taste. Whatever its roots, however, "flamenco" is recorded as having been used to identify the gypsies of Cadiz in the early 1800s and subsequently adopted to describe the art form as it is known today.
Andalucia, the historical area of Southern Spain which is the regional birthplace of flamenco, consists of eight provinces. The origin of the name, rather like flamenco itself, is rather obscure. The Arabs who invaded Spain in the Eighth Century called their newly-acquired territory Al-Andalus. At that time, the land taken by the Arabs covered most of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal. The name given to this territory by the conquerors apparently had several meanings...one of them being "to become green after a long summer or drought." The name Al-Andalus has been loosely interpreted by some sources to mean "Land of the Vandals." In the Fifth Century, the Vandals were a Germanic barbarian tribe who effectively ended five centuries of Roman rule in Spain and were active in the region for approximately 20 years, literally "vandalzing" the country. The theory associated with this invasion suggests that "Vandals" evolved into V-Andalus or possibly Vandalusia, later becoming known as Al-Andalus and eventually, Andalucia.
Although the advent of mass media has brought flamenco to the world stage, it has always been (and continues to be) an intimate type of music. Modern flamenco is performed professionally today by at least as many non-gypsy artists as there are gypsy performers and in every era, there have been major figures who have not been of gypsy heritage. However, the contribution of the Rom (particularly in terms of interpretation) has been significant in each age of the art, which is first and foremost an expression of the human heart and a passion for life. In Spain, where flamenco was given life, the cante remains the main focus of any true performance.