Voyage 5. A HYBRID’S HYBRIS…
THE PARABLE OF FLAMENCO
THE CULTURAL “WEIGHT” of the Orient can have extremely important consequences in a land of the Occident, as we have seen already (see the previous Voyage) in the case of Spain, especially Andalusia: Phoenicians and Hellenes, Punics and Romans, Berbers and barbarians, Arabs and Moors, Jews and Roma, along, of course, with the local Iberians, who had been the result of other intermarriages, created a complex and diverse racial and cultural blend full of vitality and dynamism.
It goes without saying that Andalusia, Iberia as a whole, is not a unique case: there are similar ethno-cultural mosaics in each and every crossroad of space and time, of geography and history. If Iberia is the bridge between Europe and Africa, the Balkans and Asia Minor form an infinitely more important passage connecting the “old” world of Europe with the even “older” and “wiser” Asia. It is as clear as a sunny day, “brighter than the sun”, as the Greeks used to say, that a “passage” between Scandinavia and Greenland, e.g. Iceland, would be of interest to almost no-one – except the Vikings! This is the destiny of those areas where, among other things, the sun is anything but bright…
If Iberia is the bridge between Europe and Africa, the Balkans and Asia Minor form an infinitely more important passage connecting the “old” world of Europe with the even “older” and “wiser” Asia.
“The lack of racial purity has had crucially beneficial resonances” in such crossroads, Bartók has already told us. “A complete separation from foreign influences means stagnation: well assimilated foreign impulses offer possibilities of enrichment.” Yet, a positive process ends up regarded as negative and everyone’s in a hurry to obtain exclusive rights on common, undivided heritage. Thus e.g. rebetiko is “authentically Hellenic, free from outside influence”; flamenco is equally “free and purely Andalusian”. If we had politicians talking, we would pay no attention; but here we have musicians and musicologists, the “experts”. The flamencologist Donn Pohren, as an American, is not obsessed to see everything… pure as the driven snow:
“In their patriotic insistence on regional purity of expression I cannot help but think that these Andalusian musicologists have overlooked one thing: that Andalusia is a fabulous blend of races and cultures, and as such has only relatively recently developed a culture it can call its own. If they would only permit themselves to think of their blood mixture: Phoenician, Greek, Celtic, Roman, Vandal,(a) Visigothic, Moorish, Negro (Negroes were first introduced into Spain as Moorish slaves and soldiers), Jewish, Syrian, Indian, and so forth. And as much as both sides might wish to deny the fact, there has certainly been a strong intermixing of gypsy and andaluz blood in Andalusia. There are few pure gypsies left in Andalusia, and as for pure andaluces; just what is a pure andaluz?” (Lives and Legends of Flamenco, A Biographical History, in The Dance Introduction).
“There are few pure gypsies left in Andalusia, and as for pure andaluces; just what is a pure andaluz?” (Donn Pohren)
Artistic creation at these Mediterranean crossroads is highly attractive – for the additional reason that during the last centuries it is strongly influenced by external factors: mainly by developments in northern Europe and across the Atlantic. However, the components of such hybrids, born through a natural process, are anything but stable: they may vary depending on the circumstances. The fragile equilibrium of these heterogeneous components that imbues them with irresistible charm is sometimes in danger of being upset. Their advantage may well turn into a disadvantage.
We can see, therefore, that conditions similar to those which made these hybrids be born can now wipe them out. When new political conditions emerge and frontiers are surpassed or redrawn the situation changes most radically. Such a radical change has been the creation of the European Union or of the so-called “global village” – as it was equally radical on Iberian scale centuries ago when the Castilians became dominant throughout the peninsula except Portugal, with the expulsion of the Moors, Arabs or Berbers, that brought about the end of Muslim rule in Iberia.
Flamenco began to take shape in those new circumstances, in the midst of the persecutions the Castilians unleashed against all non-Catholics, spearheaded by the hated “Holy” Inquisition. Thus, flamenco is only indirectly related to the Andalusian music that flourished during the preceding centuries on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, being restricted later just in Maghreb: the two arts never coexisted.
This fact, however, does not seem to bother those who, either in search of their cultural identity (a romantic quest) or commercial gain (a cynical quest), try to create new hybrids, cloned or not, hoping that under the new “globalized” conditions they will be sustainable and – most importantly – profitable. Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately), viable hybrids are born in real life rather than in a test tube, bottom-up and not top-down, through a long coexistence of ordinary people from different ethnicities, not through some initiatives, noble or not, by individual artists however distinguished and talented they are.
Viable hybrids are born in real life rather than in a test tube, bottom-up and not top-down, through a long coexistence of ordinary people from different ethnicities, not through some initiatives by individual artists…
According to their genealogical tree, those “romantics” highlight either the Arabic or the Indian elements of flamenco, having related collaborations. There are, however, some… “realistically romantic” musicians suffused with “romantic realism” whose work, although not commercial, lies on a firm and sound basis. Their aim is not to combine two different – albeit akin – genres with an eye to… sex or marriage (i.e. mating or pairing them), but merely to revive a once live culture, such as the Andalusian, in Spain. The simplest and most reasonable quest is often the most marginal…
Whatever the case, the conditions favour such ventures: the Arab world is a next-door neighbour, and the revival of Arab-Spanish relations is a positive perspective – both economically and politically. The Indies, on the other hand, appear not only distant but also exotic. Even if the political motive is absent, such collaborations satisfy the public’s thirst for exoticism. This is one of the reasons that such hybrids proliferate – and are… sold out! The aficionados may turn their backs on such projects and thus the musicians alienate themselves from their best allies, but this seems hardly to bother them. Perhaps because they no longer depend on aficionados; they depend on the venues and the companies distributing music and organizing concerts. Living under a “market economy”, it’s natural for them to have “market behaviour”. The corrupting money…
“Money, not afición,(b) is today’s God, overwhelming both purity of expression and the flamenco way of life”, Pohren comments in the Foreword of his Lives and Legends of Flamenco. And in The Song Introduction, under the heading Creation, he explains:
“In recent years there have been various attempts at creativity within the cante.(b) One has been the movement to take flamenco back to its Arabic roots, the result being called Andalusí. Lole and Manuel started the movement when she began singing Moorish-sounding love songs to a bulerías beat. The result was interesting, but not considered flamenco by the serious aficionado.(b) Along the same lines Juan el Lebrijano and his guitar accompanist got together with a group of Moorish musicians, including an excellent Moorish singer, Mohamed Chkara, and alternated coplas.(b) The effect was much more Moorish than flamenco, exotic and catchy and a good seller of records… But el Lebrijano was tame compared to Enrique Morente, many of whose innovations were so unusual as to be nearly unrecognizable as flamenco. Some of Camarón de la Isla’s innovations carried more flamenco punch – others were based on crowd pleasing pop songs…
“I have tolerated El Turronero’s renditions of la caña and el polo to the accompaniment of a punk rock group and two sexy go-go girls.(c) I have witnessed La Bernarda de Utrera on stage in Madrid sing only cuplés por bulerías. This is truly sacrilege, for La Bernarda is capable of excellent, meaningful cante. I have watched such excellent flamenco dancers as El Güito and Merche Esmeralda merge flamenco with modern dancing to Emilio de Diego’s abstract guitar composition (taped) and the equally as abstract singing of a young cantaor.(b) The guitar composition was interesting if overly repetitious, but the dancing was simply dull and might be crossed off as a not-so-dazzling experiment. What was really maddening is that Güito and Merche, two of the finest flamenco dancers, were each permitted to dance only one authentic flamenco dance during the entire show. More subtly distressing was a performance of Enrique de Melchor, son of the late, great Melchor de Marchena. Enrique, in an accompanying role, proceeded to prove to the audience that he is without doubt one of flamenco’s top guitar virtuosos; he was simply bubbling over with technique… In the process, of course, he completely overshadowed the singers he accompanied, which used to be a major sin for accompanists. Oddly enough, if the singers realized what was happening (they must have) they didn’t seem to mind, for Enrique is much in demand as an accompanist. Perhaps the singers are getting used to it… Lastly, there are the many groups who have incorporated a variety of instruments into their pseudo-flamenco efforts…”
“Far more flamenco than theorists like to think had its origins in the Oriental music of Spain’s neighbors to the South.” (Donn Pohren)
It’s in such cases that those who consider a hybrid to be a bastard are justified. And it’s sad because, behind such characterizations and arguments, racist views may underlie. Unfortunately, it’s true: Although appealing with an irresistible charm, a hybrid may occasionally end up as ὕβρις–hybris…