The Arab Roots of The Flamenco
It had been some years back, but I had never forgotten that entrancing flamenco evening in the Santa Cruz district of old Seville. The voice of the male singer seemed to hypnotize his audience into a state of ecstasy. Impressive in a traditional black suit, ruffled shirt and high-heeled boots, his penetrating songs took us on a journey to the haunting lands of the East. His voice vibrating inside the walls of Los Gallos entered my very soul. No different than the captivating cry of a bedouin singing a mawwal (emotional ballad) in the open desert, it gave me a feeling of exhilaration.
This thrilling vociferation appeared to inspire the fiery black haired women dancers as they stamped the stage floor with wild uncontrolled passion. Beautifully costumed, their tight-bodice multi-coloured dresses flaring at the hips and covering petticoats with countless ruffles matched the carnations in their hair. Turning, twisting and leaping up in a provocative fashion, they stirred, then inflamed my inner emotions.
Like purebred Arabian horses, sparks flew from their eyes as they held their heads high. Now coy, now inviting, they snapped and clicked their fingers as they twirled their erect bodies to the strains of the captivating music. Never did a dance before or after affect to such a degree my very being.
Now, almost a decade later in the same establishment in Seville, remembering that exciting evening, I felt a surge of joy and anticipation as I waited for the flamenco show to begin. The fire and fervour of yesteryear were there, but in a reduced way. In the same fashion as in most Spanish places of entertainment, to appeal to tourists, the authentic flamenco had been transformed into a somewhat modern commercial spectacle.
Yet, even in this modern version, it was an inspiring extravaganza - an exhibition of moving entertainment. The thrilling voices, stamping feet, lithe young bodies with their teasing graceful sway and clapping hands still seduced most of the audience. Even in its modernized form the flamenco still had its enchantment.
Although it is known as a gypsy dance, the flamenco has no historic connection with these artistic people. Perhaps, since the Andalusian gypsies have a virtual monopoly on this entertainment, people came to associate it with these world wanderers. Nevertheless, as to its name and origin it is a different story.
In spite of the fact that most dictionaries derive flamenco from the word Flemish, the name is probably a mispronunciation of the Arabic fallah manju (fugitive peasant). Some historians indicate that this epithet was likely applied to Andalusian persecuted farmers who fled to the mountains. To express their suffering these fugitives developed the cante jondo (deep song), the original heart of the dance. Through usage fallah manju could easily have been transformed into flamenco.
Even though elements of Greek, Indian, Persian and other Oriental music have been absorbed by this fiery spectacle, the Arab influences have been the most profound. All four components of the flamenco: cante (singing), bail (dancing), toque (guitar), and jaleo (rhythm accentuation and reciting) have been greatly influenced by the Moors - a term for the Muslim Arabs and Berbers who inhabited Spain. When, during a performance, these components are perfectly combined, a masterpiece which defuses an aura of the magical East is produced.
From the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabs brought their mawwals and qasidas (deep songs and epic poems), elements which were absorbed into the flamenco songs. These infused into the melodies complex Oriental halftones expressing profound emotion. A number of music historians have written that the passionate songs of the flamenco are only the ancient religious chants and lyrics of the Middle East. Some have even suggested that the moving voice of the singer had its origin in the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
When discussing Spanish folk songs such as the lyrics of the flamenco, N. B. Adams in the Heritage of Spain, writes that there is decidedly something Oriental, at least un-European about simple melodies heavily adorned, with distinctive rhythms.
More than the songs, the haughty dances with their sensuous lure which stir a wild feeling in the audience, are the main attractions of a flamenco performance. These were originally brought from India and embellished by the footwork of the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. The dancers' flaunting looks, rhythmical punctuation of the feet, flashing eyes and movements full of grace, all have their roots in the lands of the East and North Africa.
The guitar, to whose music the singers and dancers perform, is the qithara of the Arabs. The prototype of this most Spanish of all musical instruments was introduced into Spain by the famous Arab musician Ziryab in the 9th century and it evolved to become the modern guitar. In flamenco today, the guitar gives impetus to the dance and the guitar player is the hardest worker -the unsung hero. Like his brethren, the lute players in the Arab lands, he is, at times, a spontaneous composer. There is little doubt that this method of playing musical instruments, practised by Arab musicians since time immemorial, is a leftover from the Moors.
The jaleo, which is another intricate component of the flamenco, has a strong connection with the Arabs who inhabit the countries edging the Arabian Gulf. The beat of the rapid hand-clapping in flamenco is a carbon copy of the clapping in the folk melodies and dances of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, the recitations which punctuate the dance are no different than the poems with which many Arab singers include in their songs.
As to the shout of Ole!: it is of pure Arab origin. E. Sordo in his book Moorish Spain understood this connection when he wrote: "...The ole of the cante jondo is still the wa Allah (Oh God) with which the Arabs cheered every poetic recitation."
Visitors to Spain who enjoy the pleasures of the traditional flamenco, the pinnacle of Spanish folkloric art but now largely a tourist oriented folk extravaganza, as they mimic the Spaniards shouting olé, usually have no idea that it is saturated with many vestiges from Spain's Moorish past.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Habeeb Salloum is a Freelance Writer and Author
who writes from Don Mills (Toronto), Ontario, Canada. Tel: 416-445-4558, Fax: 416-510-2143.