Reflexiones Sobre… The Word Flamenco And What It Means To “Be” Flamenco

This post marks the start of a new series of posts entitled “Reflexiones Sobre…” (“Reflections On…”). These will be published intermittently and will explore a single interview question or theme. Rather than move through an individual interview sequentially, the reader will gain a deeper understanding of the breadth of opinions and perspectives on a specific topic. 

This initial post explores the word flamenco itself and what it means to be flamenco. There are several repeating themes that arise, including flamenco as a life philosophy, flamenco as a professional community, the misuse of the word as a marketing tool, and various attitudes toward authenticity.      

What do you think about the word flamenco? What does it mean to you and how has it been abused or misunderstood?


Flamenco is my life, my way of living. That’s my way of seeing it. Maybe for others it’s their work and a way to earn money. But that gets projected outward and the audience can see it. There’s a connection there and your way of being is what the public is going to receive. Because of that there are flamencos and flamencos.


For me, it’s as if flamenco was a ritual. It’s my way of life and my way of eating and earning money. I don’t know how everyone else sees flamenco, but when I was seven or eight years old I was already performing with people and earning money from it. I’ve been around this ritual my whole life, because my father danced and my mother sings.


The word flamenco provides a lot of marketing power these days. Outside of Spain, if you use the word flamenco it attracts attention right away. In Spain as well, but outside of Spain it’s really attractive. It’s all a marketing strategy, and the Gypsy Kings, for example, do this a lot. People do flamenco-pop or simple songs stylized by flamenco or Andalucían songs. But these flamenco-styled songs, what the hell is this stuff! Flamenco-pop doesn’t have any attitude or life, it’s all just stylized. The word flamenco has an identity and so it’s used as a product. The word flamenco is what sells, what grabs attention, and is what has swing. Although, the truth is that, with all that’s out there that’s poorly done, the blame should be put on the people who buy it, not the people who sell it. The more cultured people, the people with knowledge, those who care enough to find out what’s real, they know how to differentiate it though. This happens in flamenco, in contemporary art, and with a million other things. When I was younger this infuriated me. You can’t just disparage flamenco like this.


As Manuel Molina would say, flamenco is a bird with long legs (laughing). Nah, I don’t know, and I’ve never really worried about it either, nor have I studied the roots of the word. I think that we all know what that word means when someone sings, dances, or plays the guitar. Today, you can present your art in many ways because people are doing such modern shows, but we all know when something is flamenco and when it is not. I don’t think we’ll ever come up with a clear concept though. If I tell you that a show isn’t flamenco, the person who did it will say that for them it is flamenco. Fine. After the Festival Flamenco de Jerez there were many people complaining that the shows there weren’t flamenco. There are then people who will say that flamenco must evolve. Okay, well that’s another conversation that could take two thousand years. What must evolve? I think that everything has already been created. What happens is that fashions change, trends change, times change. It’s the same as with politics. The Senate is the same as when the Romans were around with their white robes. The concept is the same. It’s corruption. Today they just wear ties and modern suits. What should change never does. What changes is the way people try to make money or become famous. They search for different avenues. If I had to dance with a big tortilla made of potatoes on my head, I’d tell you its innovation! There will always be this discussion though because there’s a lot going on within the same [artistic] space. It can be a way of living. That definition is part of it, but it’s not exactly a way of living. Rather, it’s that a way of living can also be flamenco, but flamenco is not simply a way of living.


The truth is that flamenco is more of a professional community than it is a social group or that sort of thing. You know what I mean? There are various points of view on flamenco, but flamenco is something made by professionals. The professionals used to have lots of contact with each other. Today there’s less. But the idea of flamenco as something in the streets of Sevilla or whatever, of a town’s community, it’s not that. It has roots in that and has been nourished by that, but ultimately, it’s something that professional artists have created. And each one has tried to do it in their way. I’m not one of those people who say that flamenco is a way of life. Why do I say this? Because anyone who loves their work lives their work. It’s their way of life. If a butcher truly loves his work, being a butcher is his way of life, right! How can you say flamenco is a way of life and that other trades or jobs aren’t? Does a classical musician not live classical music? He lives inside a classical society, of course! Flamenco is a music that has its origins and its evolution. It’s not folklore, because it’s not fixed music, it changes constantly. One of the important differences is [that it changes], especially when comparing flamenco to the folklore of Andalucía. It’s created by professionals, not by laymen. The professionals take from the layman’s music, just as classical musicians do. Classical composers have used many, many melodies from folk music. Also, other types of artists have realized that throwing some flamenco flavor into their music sells well, and so they’ve used it. I think this is fine. This doesn’t seem like an abuse to me because it all serves the listener. But, it’s also true that, for example, McDonald’s is shit, right?! The world would be a better place if McDonald’s didn’t exist, but you can’t tell people not to eat McDonald’s. You can’t prohibit it. There are people that say they’d rather eat McDonald’s and die earlier because they enjoy it. And they have a point, don’t they?


Flamenco is a musical genre, but I think it’s a lifestyle, a way of living, a whole life. You choose to become a flamenco guitarist, but you must know all that comes with that concept of a life. There are a lot of things, a lot of experiences to be had, things to see and feel. There’s a lot of knowledge to be acquired and a lot of tradition. Flamenco is tradition, it is something that was created a long time ago.


The word flamenco defines an art, a discipline. That much is clear, although there are various theories about the word’s origins. But concretely, flamenco identifies a musical tradition of a country, and of a specific part of a country, of Andalucía, along with parts of Extremadura and the Levante. The incorrect use is that which I mentioned earlier, that flamenco is often associated with informal people, people who aren’t serious about anything, but I think little by little that is disappearing. We need to arrive at a point where flamenco is respected on the level of jazz or classical music. But flamenco artists still have a lot of work to do to get there.


Flamenco is flamenco, but I don’t know, flamenco-pop is not flamenco. It’s good to make something unique, but it’s sad that flamenco is dying. For example, I was talking to my cousins and they said, “I like flamenco, let’s listen to flamenco,” then they put on this music by El Barrio, which is flamenco-pop. So, I put some Juana de Revuelto and she sings some bulerías.  I put that on YouTube and they got bored. “We don’t like this, this is so Gitana.” This is flamenco, you know! Flamenco is getting really misunderstood because of flamenco-pop. I like to hear Niña Pastori and El Barrio too, but the real flamenco, it’s not that. I guess it’s being forgotten and misinterpreted.

So many people get into drugs and go that way. I want to think that, if they knew what flamenco really was for them, they wouldn’t get lost in all that. So, I want to know what flamenco is for every person. Why are they doing it? Why do they like it? Are they doing if for money? What’s in their head and how do they feel while they’re doing it?


For me flamenco is tierra (earth/ground/soil). Personally, I don’t think it should ever lose the sensation of tierra. The discussion of the word’s misuse comes when something is programmed that isn’t completely flamenco. The word gets used to sell, even though it represents something that’s really not flamenco. I don’t know, this is all personal. What for me is flamenco might not be flamenco for another. I don’t worry about it too much though. At times it can bother me, okay it’s true. There’s a guy on the internet that has a ton of views. It’s disgusting that he plays the guitar, he comes on screen with his little stick of incense in the guitar and dressed like a hippie. He has millions and millions of views though and he sells what he does as flamenco. I don’t know why, but this bothers me. It’s cheesy, obvious, and cliché, and he lies a lot about what he does. He tries to give the feeling of something big and profound and emotional, but it’s poorly done and cheap. That does bother me, but there’s little within flamenco that upsets me.


Well as I understand it, in the past parents wouldn’t let their daughters dance flamenco because it was viewed as something ugly, you know. Of course, flamenco had always been a late-night thing, men and women, drinking, drugs. But, now flamenco has expanded throughout the world. The whole world now has what flamenco had for a long time, that transparency of drinking, drugs, and a dirty lifestyle. Flamenco went through that a long time ago because it thrived at night. And what do people think of the night? The worst of everything. I didn’t catch that time period though. My parents did, as well as the generation of artists that lived during the seventies and eighties. During the nineties all that started to change. Flamenco is seen differently now. It’s performed in important theaters. Today we don’t have the señorito, the typical rich guy, that contracted artists to come entertain him at his home to make him feel big and special. That’s changed, and it makes me happy. Flamenco is an art. It’s not there to just entertain you. Of course, you can have fun, clearly.


I do think the word flamenco has been misused. I often use the word cante grande (grand song) instead of saying flamenco. Actually, it’s even better to call it cante jondo (deep song) and then flamenco. They are two distinct things. Flamenco is all the bulerías that are out there that sound like flamenquito (little flamenco), that have drum sets and all that stuff. Cante jondo is something else. It is profound. It has deep roots and it has a history. It’s as if we take an onion, the center of the onion is cante jondo. Once you’ve peeled it for a while from the outside, that’s flamenco. The worthless outer layer, that’s the flamenquito (laughing).


Ultimately, I live in a world that needs to sell stuff. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t move forward. This happens with everything, not just flamenco, everything. What’s going on right now in the world of music is that flamenco is fashionable. Not to the masses, but it’s out there and is getting more and more exposure. Some of the coolest festivals have featured flamenco. They’re labeling projects that aren’t flamenco as such to help them sell. That’s the abuse of the word right there. What happens with my shows, and this is necessary because this is how things are, is that I’m considered a jazz artist. A type of music with certain characteristics must be jazz, right. But, what I do is flamenco. If we’re talking about the strict definition of the word flamenco and you ask me if do flamenco, I would say that I do, because the word encompasses a lot. For many people it’s not flamenco, or it might be less flamenco. Because of this, in my position, I’m part of the second or third tier of artists. I’m talking about the instrumentalists and instrumentalists with vocals. We’re always second when it comes time to program us or consider us for something. If you’re a singer they’re going to prioritize you and they’re going to give you a push before they’ll help the instrumentalists. We have to fight against this. The word flamenco, what does it mean to me? The pure definition is that it’s the memory of Andalucía, the memory of my country, and it’s the music I make. It’s one more musical style. It’s a broad question. What Rocio Molina does is flamenco, whether people like it or not. She does the most contemporary flamenco, but it’s flamenco. It’s the evolution of the art, and art must be alive. What Rocio Molina does is just as flamenco as Juan Moneo dancing soleá por bulería. She does know how to dance straight-up flamenco, for sure, but she is investigating now and is lucky that she has a product that sells. Before premiering a show, she has a full tour booked. They just put it down on paper and sell it before anyone knows what it is. Only time will tell if what she is doing will become classic. It’s impossible to know now. When Enrique Morente did Omega, was that a classic? No. Is it a classic now? Yes, after 20 years. It’s a classic because after 20 years it still sounds new, and after 40 years it will still sound new because that album is a beast! But in the moment people didn’t see it with perspective. Camarón and La Leyenda del Tiempo, during that time was that flamenco? No, and so Camarón shouldn’t have been able to go to the Festival de Jerez with La Leyenda del Tiempo, because it wasn’t flamenco! After 20 years, is it flamenco? Yes, so now he could go to the Festival de Jerez. Artists have to be given the opportunity to investigate.


The word flamenco is disputed. It’s a word that’s continually disputed. Those of us who dedicate ourselves to this, we guitarists, singers, and dancers place a certain significance on the word and for others who aren’t aficionados it means something different. I demonstrate this in my classes at the institute when I ask who likes flamenco. The four students that raise their hands say they like El Barrio. They like musical offerings that professionals don’t consider to be flamenco. However, they are the majority. There are many more of them than us. When we hear something come on the radio and they say, “let’s listen to a little flamenco,” and out comes some pop-fusion the flamencos always protest and say it isn’t flamenco. Then the public says, “well it’s well done and well sung.” The flamenco says, “that’s fine, but just don’t call it flamenco.” That fight is always there and I don’t think we should be having it. I think from here on the word should have multiple meanings. It can be both things, we can share the word flamenco. It’s not a big deal.

So why is this word disputed? It’s a matter of identities. It’s as if it belonged to a certain soccer team. It’s as if someone was saying: don’t touch this, this is mine and it’s sacred, it’s something I’ve fought for my entire life and it’s also a community to which I belong. If you’re not part of this community you don’t get it, so please respect us. So there you have a topic for some sort of social psychoanalysis or something [laughing]. Why is the word flamenco so important? I don’t think it is; I think we could be more generous with its use.


Flamenco is a style of music. It’s a music that has certain characteristics, that was formed in certain places under particular conditions. Has the word been misused? Yeah, I’d say so, but there’s no judge either. Flamenco is an art form, and, like any art, it’s there to inspire people and to give hope. You see this today because people are doing new things and introducing new elements. No one has the absolute truth as to what flamenco is or is not. One should have a certain base and knowledge that everyone shares. But from there each artist can express things and see things in their own way.

IMG_20171230_171800230People often use the word flamenco to help define their identity, so for you what does it mean to be flamenco? 


For me, Tina Turner is flamenco. Great blues artists are flamenco. I think that term is given to things that seem authentic, that some way or another approach what is basic and natural, natural to the land and to life in general. Therefore, a way of behaving can be flamenco. A certain lifestyle can be flamenco. A Native American Indian from Oklahoma can be flamenco. Inside that term is a way of expressing your feelings and being as authentic as possible, which is being in contact with the earth and with nature. Behaving like a little animal is as well. There’s a certain difference, because we have other concepts, but ultimately we’re all just little animals.


To be flamenco is to understand the pillars of the art between all the various threads it has, because there is a difference between being and enjoying. There are people who like flamenco, but they often don’t understand it. You don’t have to understand it all or know everything by memory either. Being flamenco is also about being an artist, which is something else that it’s losing. Traditionally, you could tell who an artist was or not by their way of dressing, their way of being, of walking. That was closely connected to being flamenco. It’s like playing the guitar or being a guitarist. There is a difference. There are people who play the guitar and others who are guitarists. There are people who like flamenco and people who are flamencos. Ultimately, it’s a lifestyle. Although, you don’t have to get out of bed doing palmas (rhythmic clapping) or go to bed doing palmas. But, when you choose this life you learn how to think like a flamenco. You know how to distinguish between what is flamenco and what is not. It’s a complicated definition.


It’s the people who can really enjoy it while doing it. When I feel like saying olé, it’s when a person is really feeling it or when a person is really having fun, not those people who care about what others think or what they think would look nice. Even if their moves are really messy, if they’re like, “eh, eh, eh,” and they’re having fun, then I’m shouting olé! So, for me, being flamenco is to have taste, style, and wanting to have fun.


Sometimes there’s the need to be Gitano (Roma) and instead of saying, “I am Gitano,” people will say, “I am flamenco.” I don’t know why so many people want to be Gitano. This isn’t a snub at all, because I love their art and what they do. However, I don’t understand that necessity and why that romanticism exists — but that’s another question. This has caught my attention before because people used to say, “I am pure.” Now people use the word art. “Where there is art… let’s search for art,” things like that. That’s used now as a synonym for, “I am Gitano and I am flamenco.” These words are constantly evolving. These words are used to help people feel identified with and connected to a specific group within flamenco. They’re used by both Gitanos and non-Gitanos alike. To be flamenco is to love flamenco, love flamenco and treat it with the respect it deserves. I believe I do this, but surely there will be people that think I don’t. I’m recording right now with a girl of color that sings in English and we’re recording a siguiriya. I’m not preoccupied about whether it’s flamenco or not. I don’t care, but I love this art that we’re making. I’ve done many things to perhaps justify having my own space within flamenco. I don’t know, you’re going to ask this question to many people and they’re going to say different things. The responses to this won’t sound in unison.


It’s a prototype of a particular kind of person. When I was young, I used to see a torero (bullfighter) in the Alameda [de Hércules] and I knew he was a torero without knowing. He walked like the toreros, wore his suit and hat a certain way, so I knew. Fifty years ago, in the Feria de Sevilla there was a caseta (tent/pavilion) that was called Mal Traga and you knew which people there were singers and which were dancers. It’s a certain way of being alive, of facing life, of behaving. Today it’s not the same. Today singers emerge that don’t have experience, but they’ve had opportunities to listen to lots of recordings. Afterwards they copy what they’ve heard, because they don’t have that life experience. That’s another way of pursuing flamenco.


For me, being flamenco is about being on stage. I don’t wake up every morning with dramatic eyebrows and looking all Gitana [Roma]. No. Flamenco is for when the guitar and singing are present. I’m not the kind of person that watches flamenco videos all day. I rehearse every morning. It’s my work, even though I do like it. Maybe there are people out there working all day long on a computer and they don’t like it, but they don’t know how to do anything else. I’m lucky because, even though I don’t know how to do anything else either, I do like what I do! But, those hours I spend in the studio are my work. Once I get home, I disconnect. I like to go to the theater to see shows, but I’m not a person who listens to flamenco all day long. No.


It refers to a person’s way of being or to their spontaneity. But for me flamencos are those who sing, dance, and play. Someone can be really flamenco in their way of being, but later up on stage if they don’t play well they don’t play well, even if they’re the most flamenco person in the world.


Okay, let’s see. There are various ways of understanding this. I’m going to give you a straightforward example. “Eso viste mucho (you’ve seen a lot of that).” That’s the same as saying, “soy Gitano (I am Gitano (Roma or Gypsy). There are many people out there that aren’t Gitanos that go around saying they’re Gitanos. I think that’s the dumbest thing in the world. It is true that being flamenco has a certain history to it. To be flamenco is to be in love with your art, with your work, with the hours you spend studying. To be flamenco isn’t just being some dude who gets up out of bed saying he’s flamenco! To be a guitarist, you have to work a lot. To be a dancer, you have to work a lot. To be a singer, you have to work a lot. You have to study this. Being flamenco is a title that one earns with the passage of time. It’s also a way of seeing life. It’s a lifestyle that flamencos have, like when six or seven or twelve flamencos get together at the festivals. There’s a certain way we talk to each other, a certain grace. But, being flamenco is nothing more than being someone who works hard, that likes one’s art, and then gets up on stage to demonstrate it. Flamenco isn’t just, “ah ya, let’s go!” No. That stuff is all good, but being flamenco comes with responsibility, with many hours of study, with knowledge, with love of one’s work, and with a particular way of seeing life. We see many things in a way that’s not natural for most people. That doesn’t just happen with flamenco though, that happens in the world of art in general. Artists have a sensibility that others don’t have. This can be in flamenco, it can be in painting, in whatever. Because of this, certain people can be artists and others can’t. That’s what people are talking about when they say to be flamenco. It’s someone that dedicates his or her self, with body and soul, to their profession. This is a profession, after all. 

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