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Flamenco, the heritage of the Roma

The collective consciousness of the Roma, their sense of belonging, is based more than anything else on a feeling, emotionality and an ethical commitment that binds us to our past and calls on us to pass it on to the new generations. Being Roma does not mean dressing in one way or another, having one trade or another, living in one place or another, or even expressing yourself in a certain way, because all this depends on the time and environmental and educational conditions of each family and individual. Furthermore, this vision of Romani identity is based on a racist prejudice imposed on us from the outside. Being Roma, therefore, is an attitude of life, a “state of being” rather than a “way of being”. The difficulty that many of us often have to set a Romani cultural standard through which we can externalise and make visible our collective identity, on our own terms which cannot be manipulated and distorted from the outside by racist prejudices, is among other reasons precisely a direct result of this intangibility, this abstraction of the Romani essence which each Rom expresses based on their own reality of life and their sensitivity, but which has this common bond that Antonio Mairena called “disembodied reasoning” and which he defined as follows:

“Disembodied reasoning is an impalpable and indefinable something that has to be felt and respected to be a good Rom. Disembodied reasoning is our honour, the foundation for Romani culture, our traditions and ancient rituals; it is something that only a Rom can understand as it should be and which only Roma experience. Disembodied reasoning is something non-transferable and unintelligible to outsiders, because you cannot truly understand something you cannot feel. We can only express it through metaphors. Disembodied reasoning is the source of our inspiration for Romani song and the Romani singer, and he expresses it in an intuitive way, through the spirit of evocation…”

Therefore Romani song or flamenco is not only the cultural heritage of Andalusian and Spanish Roma; it is above all the vehicle through which a real and clean spirit of being Romani is expressed, devoid of everything that is insubstantial and spurious which prejudice and discrimination have cast on it over the centuries.

Flamenco is the audio book in which the history of a people is written. It is a book written in the pages of the air by thousands of Romani voices throughout time. This book includes the lyrics of our songs which speak of pain and poverty, love and joy, the struggle of men to overcome the fate of a destiny that is imposed on them solely for having been born of a Romani mother. It is for this reason that pure Roma songs never speak of all men or an abstract man, but rather of a particular man, a Romani man who speaks of himself.

This is the secret of the greatness of music which today is considered worldwide as the unique, genuine and admirable cultural identity sign of our country. Flamenco’s ability to fascinate audiences of any culture and any language comes from its authenticity and credibility. Flamenco reaches people’s hearts because it is the truth of a people.

Granada, Nº24, Danza de Gitanos. - The old curiosity shop, Enrique Linares, Granada.

Granada, Nº24, Danza de Gitanos. – The old curiosity shop, Enrique Linares, Granada.

The wrench of Romani songs is not feigned or invented pain. Their complaint is not a complaint learned as a trinket to decorate a musical note. Romani song expresses complaint and pain because that is its raison d’être, because pain and sorrow were the pure fountain which its creators drank from to externalise feelings drowning in silence and impotence. Flamenco and Roma have been synonymous throughout history. The different styles and nuances constituting the fundamental flamenco songs respond to the Romani families who created and spread them. If we call them bulerias from Jerez, tangos from Extremadura, or solea from Alcalà, to differentiate them from other styles, we are actually talking about the way in which the Roma of these places make these songs.

From the first singers of whom we have written testimony, such as el Tío Luis de la Juliana, el Planeta and el Fillo in the mid-19th century, followed by el Nitri, Enrique el Mellizo, Manuel Torre, Tomás Pavón, his sister, la Niña de Los Peines, Antonio Mairena, Manolo Caracol, Antonio Núñez el Chocolate, Manuel Agujeta, Terremoto de Jerez, Fernanda de Utrera and Porrina de Badajoz up to Camarón de la Isla, the entire history of flamenco is a continuum of named Romani families and lineages. Every seguiriya, every soleá, every pol and every canya having a nuance that distinguishes itself from the rest bears the name of a family or Romani singer or singers that gave it this nuance. In fact, flamenco is the soundtrack to the history of Spanish Roma. It was born in the warmth of Roma families from Jerez, Seville and Plaza Alta in Badajoz, and with them it has travelled the roads mounted on mares, forged bars and hook wrenches in forges, and harvested the farms of Andalusia.

In an interview he gave to “Mercantil Valenciano” in 1933, Federico García Lorca left for history some marvellous words that define the unquestionable Romani heritage of flamenco a thousand times better than we can here: “From Cadiz to Seville, 10 families of the most impenetrable pure caste jealously preserved the glorious tradition of flamenco.” The testimony of Lorca is joined by that of some of the finest musicians in the history of Spain such as Falla, Albeniz and Turina, and today from writers and poets of the stature of Félix Grande, Juan Manuel Caballero Bonald, Ricardo Molina and Francisco Vallecillo among many others, who have clearly advocated the Romani essence and integrity of flamenco.

It is true there are non-Romani singers of great artistic merit such as Silverio Franconetti, Antonio Chacón, Manuel Vallejo, Pepe Pinto, and other more recent ones such as José Menese and Miguel Poveda who should be recognised and respected, but almost all, and of course the most important ones, learned their singing due to their close relationship with Roma, some even through matrimonial ties. However, those who remain in the memory are an insignificant number compared to the distinguished group of great Romani artists of all time who can be counted in their thousands.

If folk music is that which is created and performed habitually by a majority of the people without having to go to any school or being taught how to do it, then flamenco is not the folk music of Andalusia and much less of Spain. The vast majority of Andalusians, of whom there are many more than the residents of Seville, Cadiz and Jerez, not only do not sing or dance flamenco, but they do not even listen to it on a regular basis. Neither sevillanas nor the fandangos of Huelva nor the cantos of Rocío can be considered pure flamenco, but rather are Andalusian folklore; very beautiful and dignified but quite another thing, in spite of which this music is also in a minority and performing it is limited to very specific festivities as everyone knows.

But flamenco is the music of the Roma. Not only of the people of Andalusia and Extremadura, but of the whole of Spain. Roma children can sing the songs practically even before they can talk, and can stamp in the bulería rhythm before they can walk with ease. They have not yet had time to learn it, but they can do it because they are carriers of a natural sense of rhythm that comes from the mists of time. They have acquired it from their parents before and after having been born, who also inherited it from theirs and in the same way for generations. We Roma live flamenco as you might live the air or sunlight. For us singing and dancing is the same as being what we are. We do not do flamenco; we are flamenco. It is in our DNA. It is our heritage and our legacy. Flamenco is the flag of the culture of Spanish Roma. It is the most authentic, what most belongs to us and what most identifies us. Romani culture is incomprehensible without flamenco and flamenco is unthinkable without the Roma. This is indisputable and hence those who insist on denying this fact can only be motivated by spurious reasons drawn from outside our culture.

Camaron_vive_frontal

Over recent years the emergence of iconic figures such as Camarón de la Isla, Diego El Cigala, José Mercé and other artists, the vast majority of them Roma, combined with the mass media revolution and enormous institutional and economic support have meant that flamenco has entered a new period in which the number of its fans and followers is growing every day in our country and abroad and it is very much present on the great stages of Spain and worldwide.

However, the absolute control of production and distribution or of what might be called “the flamenco industry” by people who are not Roma, most of them with clear animosity toward Romani artists, who are supported by political institutions often guided by interests outside music and often also impregnated with prejudice, is leading to de-Romanification of professional flamenco, a real “artistic ethnic cleansing” based on marginalisation and ostracism of Romani professionals and empowerment a new generation of non-Romani performers, many of them emerging from TV game shows, clubs and flamenco academies, who without wishing to deny them any merit they may have are recreating a new flamenco devoid of the intuitive and true strength that makes this music what it is.

Flamenco is a Romani contribution to the common culture of our country, as decisive in shaping its ethics and aesthetics as Arab or Jewish influence has been. And it is precisely the current recognition of the importance of flamenco in Spanish culture which motivates this desire to “purify it”, to exonerate it of the “original sin” of being Romani. Hence at the bottom of all this lies a shameful attitude on the part of certain political, cultural and artistic sectors that refuse to recognise that one of the main standards, and certainly the most representative abroad, of Spanish culture is Romani, a term that racism has made synonymous with marginalisation, crime and conflict.

It is for this and no other reason that the fact of being Romani of the hallmark Roma artists of the past and present has been concealed and omitted, along with the marginalisation and contempt for most of them shown by the large venues and the media. At the same time it can be seen how the artistic quality of non-Romani performers is promoted and magnified often to almost ridiculous extremes, and they are presented as if they were the greatest or the new parents of flamenco.

When the media ignore the fact that the leading flamenco artists are Roma, and present them simply as Andalusians, Extremadurans or Spaniards, they do not do so for reasons of cultural normalisation or integration, something which might be respectable, since these very same media when reporting about crime, fights or the inhabitants of the slums, which they call the “drugs supermarket”, spread to the four winds that the people involved are Roma. To put it another way, we are only Roma for the bad things; for anything that is good, that dignifies our image and makes us proud, they only say we are Spanish or Andalusian. The unfairness and cynicism of this attitude which is so common in the media is so patent that there is no need to dwell on it further.

This attempt to reinvent Romani music without the Roma is true cultural plundering of Spanish Roma, with the intention of stripping them of their most precious possession. Yet it is also a gigantic fraud on the public, which comes to flamenco music attracted by the authenticity and sincerity that flamenco would not have without the Roma because they are the soul of flamenco and they make it credible and give it the magic that has made it into sublime music. De-Romanifying flamenco is to take away its soul and reason for being. Without these two constituent parts, the sublime nature of flamenco music would become history and Spanish and Andalusian culture would lose one of their most unique and true hallmarks.

Sadly this process already began long ago with the determination of the media and artistic promoters to spread and popularise a mannered and fake type of flamenco, one in an overly ornate “regional” style which makes it strange and utterly changed, and also with stylistic pretensions and theatrical excesses which are alien to it, but which are intended to fill the emptiness of this brainless flamenco which is gaining more and more ground.

This whole process is based on a kind of cultural revisionism that is unfounded yet easily spread, according to which today and after such a long time of neglect, flamenco turns out to be “the folk music of Andalusia which was created over the centuries by the whole Andalusian people” with some “input” from “some marginalised social groups” according to the statement by the Parliament of Andalusia in the preamble to its motion asking UNESCO to declare flamenco to be Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is a statement on the genesis and nature of flamenco in which there is not a single reference to Andalusian or Spanish Roma, who are surely meant by the reference to “marginalised social groups”.

This statement by the Parliament of Andalusia is the clearest example of everything described above and is the culmination of a strategy to deny the Romani heritage of flamenco, which has been created over many years by certain circles of “flamencologists” driven more by racist than artistic motivations, but which now has been bought into by political institutions in a frivolous and populist way and which seem to be unaware of the consequences for Spanish culture of this trivialisation of flamenco music.

Preventing this strategy from being successful requires all Romani artists to resist marginalisation and claim their presence on stages and in the media, but also the Roma people as a whole must take on a greater commitment to preserve and enrich a valuable and unique cultural heritage of which they are the depository. Hence ethnic self-satisfaction and selfishness that leads us to settle for “sounding Romani” is not enough, but rather innate artistic faculties must be used for study and knowledge.

Current and future generations of Romani artists should never forget the great historical figures of the early decades of the 20th century, true revolutionaries of flamenco singing whose work is very hard to surpass. With just their voices and no accompaniment other than clapping and a guitar and based on the humility and simplicity of the great geniuses, they raised the vast cathedral of music called Romani song or flamenco as it has come down to us and of which we are the depositories.

It is therefore essential that today’s singers can harmoniously combine fidelity to their roots and mastery of pure and true songs with the innovations of modern times, just like the evolution inherent in any living culture, yet without spurious contemporary fads turning Romani music into a caricature of itself, because if we do it in this way we will be responsible for the process of cultural plundering we are condemning here.

Hence it would only be fair if before flamenco is recognised as world heritage it were first recognised as Romani heritage.

This article was published in issue 74 of the journal I Tchatchipen.
Written by Agustín Vega.

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