chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

Intro to Flamenco

Posted by Jason on February 6, 2009

Most people have heard of flamenco music at some point in their lives, but many truly do not understand what this wonderful music is all about. As many people know, flamenco music comes from Spain and includes guitar, singing and dance. However, one thing that is not well known is that all Spanish music is not flamenco. Furthermore, all Spanish music played on the guitar is not necessarily flamenco. In fact, most Spanish guitar music that we hear in the United States is NOT flamenco, but rather classical music.

So what do most of us know about flamenco music over here in the good ol’ U.S. of A? Gypsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert, and Jesse Cook are probably a few of the names that come to mind when we start talking about flamenco. All guitar players, none of them quite play flamenco music. The Gypsy Kings are probably the closest thing to flamenco, but they take only one tiny sliver of flamenco styles (the rumba flamenca) and use that winning formula like crazy to make some big bucks. Ottmar Liebert is basically a smooth jazz guitarist that has taken some scales to make his “jazz” sound a little Spanish and PRESTO! We have “flamenco nuevo,” which is pretty much crap. Jesse Cook makes me want to puke. If Gypsy Kings and Ottmar Liebert had a bastard musical love child, it would be this guy. He’s a watered down version of already watered down versions of flamenco. It’s pop jacuzzi jazz rumba fusion-lite, and above all it’s NOT flamenco. Don’t be fooled, people.

So what is flamenco, then? At the very core of flamenco is singing, or cante. Flamenco singing is not largely known about in the states because it’s not very marketable. It is gutteral, loud, and uses a lot of notes between notes that sound like they’re off-key to most western ears. It is a singing born out of suffering and oppression; it is raw and harsh. Flamenco started out as marginalized gypsies bore inhumane working conditions in a foreign land. They had to work in mines or fields for little pay and no say in how they were treated. The first songs were work songs or fiesta songs, similar to those of the African-American tradition here in the U.S.

Eventually guitars were added to accompany the singing and they had to cut through the din of tavern patrons and noisy friends. In order to do this, flamenco players mostly strummed and tapped on the tops of their guitars in order for the compound, driving rhythms of flamenco to be heard. From the mid-1800’s to about the 1950’s or 60’s, the guitar was never thought of as a solo instrument, except for little sections and fills called falsetas in between verses of the cante. Sabicas was the first guitarist to really make waves as a solo flamenco player, and others like Manolo Sanlucar and the now-famous Paco de Lucia soon followed. Tomatito and Pepe Habichuela are also in the same vein as the earlier guitarists, and Vicente Amigo is a more modern and less traditional continuation of true flamenco guitarists.

Dance came out as a natural response to the rhythmic complexities and depth in flamenco music, and it is one of the more marketable aspects of the art. Americans would much rather go see a dance and guitar show than singing and guitar. Both the baile (dance) and the toque (guitar) are flashy and exotic sounding. Flamenco singing appeals only to a small group of people that are interested in the emotions and the pain that are at the foundation of the deep song or cante jondo. I don’t think American ears will ever enjoy flamenco singing on a large scale. It’s too raw, too honest. Guitar and dance are much more easily commercialized and watered down with our preferred varieties of easy listening. Even pure flamenco (which is really not quite pure without the song) can be appreciated in the U.S. if it’s guitar and dance.

So, at its core, flamenco is a tradition of folk song born out of a suffering of a marginalized people. Guitars and dance are very important to the art form, but they are not the heart of it. Over here in America, we have embraced the guitar and the dance, as well as corrupted, watered-down versions of each, but we have yet to welcome a strident and raw style of singing. I don’t know that any culture really appreciates the cante very much; even mainstream Spain can’t seem to stomach it in large quantities. Maybe that’s the beauty of it. Nobody has really tried to adopt it and morph it into something sellable, thereby leaving at least some of the flamenco tradition intact.


Posted in flamenco, music, Musings, Spain | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Yet More on the Don Juan Myth

Posted by Jason on December 21, 2008

In my previous posts on this topic, I’ve explored -very briefly- the possibility of Don Juan being a Spanish iteration of Zeus and his philandering exploits from Greek mythology and literature. 



I’ve done some researching and it seems that most of the Arab literati that came into Spain really had little use for Greek literature and mythology. John Walbridge, in his book Wisdom of the Mystic East, asserts that most of the translators that brought Greek knowledge to the Arabs were not interested in Greek literature per se. Most of the emphasis was placed on philosophy and scientific writings, rather than drama and mythology. According to Walbridge, “…the Greek gods appeared even to the best informed medieval Muslims as little more than names…”

So, apparently the Arabs brought only philosophy and science with them from the Greeks. Some scholars like Gustav Grunebaum say the Muslims were quite aware of Greek literature and literary forms, citing formal similarities between some stories in The Arabian Nights and some Greek novels. It’s probable that this knowledge was floating around in those days, but identifying a viable link could be difficult.

There is still the possibility that stories Zeus and his exploits were brought to Spain in the 6th to 8th centuries B.C. when the Greeks and Phoenicians had several trading posts and villages along the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Could this oral tradition have endured and evolved in some way through for almost 2000 years in the hearts of the common people until Tirso de Molina codified the legend of Don Juan in 1630? I don’t know. I’m not very smart in the ways oral history and folk history.

I also saw a bit that Greek literature really came into Europe in the early Renaissance through Italy, etc. If Don Juan is a Spanish corruption of some Zeus mythology, it might have come from Spanish contact in the Italian campaigns of the Spanish Habsburg rulers. More info later…

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Did you know…?

Posted by Jason on December 9, 2008

… that the word granada means “pomegranate” in Spanish, in addition to meaning “hand-grenade?”

Also, in the Spanish city of Granada, all of the little sidewalk posts that keep cars from running over pedestrians have little pomegranates on the top of them?

Look, it's a pomegranate!

Look, it's a pomegranate!

Just thought you all would enjoy that little tidbit of trivia…

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More pieces to the Don Juan mystery…

Posted by Jason on December 7, 2008

So I’m reading Spain: the Root and the Flower by John A. Crow, and he mentions that Peter the Cruel (King of Castile from 1350-1369) prided himself in being a Don Juan. The next sentences follow:

The famous Don Juan de Mañara, upon whose grave appear these words: “Here lie the ashes of the greatest sinner who ever lived,” epitomized the attitude. Perhaps rooted in such histories the Don Juan legend became a part of medieval folklore. (109-110)

Could Crow have found the origin of the Don Juan myth? I checked out this supposedly famous Don Juan de Mañara, and it turns out that this man really lived in Sevilla, but his name was Don Miguel de Mañara. Apparently this guy was quite the drinker and quite the playboy until he had a religious conversion and became a pious, upstanding philanthropist. The only problem with this? Mañara was born in 1627, which was right about the time when Tirso de Molina’s play “El Burlador de Sevilla” was first published. Don’t think the myth could have come from this dude.

So my hypothesis of Don Juan being a Spanish distillation of Zeus’ and his womanizing exploits is not completely blown out of the water, yet. In Crow’s book, which doesn’t exactly ooze premium scholarship, I have been reading that the Greeks were in Spain starting around 600 B.C., and that their largest contributions to early Spanish culture were music and drama, including some musical instruments and song styles. This supports my theory since many of the tall tales of Zeus and his philandering were most certainly passed down via song and poetic odes, which have a tendency to morph throughout the ages. 

I don’t know which is more plausible: the folk tale of Don Juan is the remnant of Zeus myths from 600 B.C., passed down through ancient song; OR Don Juan is the dregs which captivated the Spanish populous from the classic literature and mythology brought to Spain from Muslim and Jewish scholars throughout 700 years of occupation. 

Regarding the second scenario, would the Muslims and Jews even have bothered with the Greek pantheon and its related stories, given that both cultures were so dominantly monotheistic? More searching to do…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »