A few years ago I was in Seville, Spain. I was sitting at a cafe looking over brochures for flamenco. I’ve always gotten very lucky when traveling, with locals guiding me, always someone there to help. This was one of those times, and the waiter looked at my brochures and said, no no no. That is not flamenco. He drew a map, directing me to Triana, the city across the river from Seville, historically known as home to many gypsies. He told me I’d find real flamenco, and there, I would experience the Duende.
The place was packed with locals. My friend and I stood to the side against a wall where we could find a little space. It was hot. There were five men seated in a semi circle on the small wooden stage. A few different locals took turns dancing. The crowd created the jaleo, the hell-raising of clapping, stomping and shouts of encouragement. It was one of the most magical nights of my life.
Flamenco is an art form based on the various folkloric music traditions of Southern Spain, in the autonomous communities of Andalusia, Extremadura, and Murcia. It includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (hell-raising, which means clapping, finger snapping, stomping and shouts of encouragement), and duende. Duende, a word shrouded in as much mystery as the dance itself. Poets and writers have given it a magical and mysterious meaning, a spiritual significance that goes beyond human understanding. Many say duende can only be experienced in certain surroundings like an intimate flamenco session where the singer becomes possessed by the darkness of the song. It’s said that when this occurs, a spirit will enter the mind and soul of anyone who opens to it.
In its original form, centuries ago, however, it was only voice. A primitive cry or chant accompanied only by a rhythm which was beaten out on the floor by a wooden cane or staff.
Often believed to be an invention of the Gitanos, or Gypsies. Although they may have been the main protagonists, they are not its sole creators.
When the Gypsies arrived in Andalusia in 1425, they brought with them strong Indian connections including style, art, dance and song. At this time Andalusia was still under Arab rule and along with the Jews and the Moors, the Gypsies were soon to be persecuted by the Catholic Monarchs of the Inquisition.
The Moors were forced to convert to Christianity, and failure to comply forced them into exile. The Jews suffered a similar fate, and the Gypsies were subjected to some of the worst atrocities in an attempt to exterminate them as a race. Their style of dress was forbidden, it became illegal to speak their Romany language, they were no longer allowed their wanderings and were forced to seek steady employment, and prohibited to attain money by usual gypsy traits such as horse dealing, trading at fairs, and sorcery.
These laws resulted in bands of gypsies, Moors and Jews taking refuge in treacherous mountainous areas, which were too desolate for authorities to pursue them. The three cultures lived in relative harmony for years, and the fusion of their music and dances are what we know today as Flamenco.
There’s a scene in an American movie called ‘Happy Go Lucky,’ where the heroine is learning flamenco. The instructor is from Seville, Spain and stops the class to remind her American students that this dance is one of passion, and it’s about reclaiming their space. It comes from pain, from the suffering of los gitanos, the gypsies. They’ve been squashed down by society for centuries until finally they say, we don’t need this. We got pride. We got dignity. We got art. We got, flamenco. The Spanish instructor stomps the ground and says This is my space. She gets the class to stomp twice in rhythm to her clapping while they shout out the words, my space. Over and over, My space as they stomp. Loud, with expression. Passion. Revenge. Blood.
I believe that art is an expression, a vehicle to reclaim our identities, the parts worth reclaiming. Art moves us into a new state of consciousness, where the old is integrated with the new. I’ve heard crisis explained as a sifting, a moment in time when the world feels like it’s all falling out beneath you. But if you can hang on, what’s left at the end of that sifting process will be what really mattered all along.
Lately I’ve been reclaiming my space in this world, integrating into a new identity. Carving out a new life for myself and my new little daughter, and I’ve been playing a lot of Flamenco. It makes me smile to think of an ancient tradition of stomping on the ground saying ‘We’ve had enough… this is my space.’ An art form created out of sifting, and holding tightly to our deepest Truth, even in exile. There are some things others just can’t take.