Flamenco, Spain’s soul-stirring gift to the world of music, provides the ever-present soundtrack to Spanish life. The passion of the genre is clear to anyone who has heard its melancholy strains in the background of a crowded Spanish bar or during an uplifting live performance. At the same time, flamenco can seem like an impenetrable world of knowledgeable yet taciturn initiates. Where these two worlds converge is in that rare yet famous, almost mystical flamenco moment known as duende, when a flamenco performer sends shivers down your spine, and you are oblivious to all else.
No one is quite sure where flamenco came from, although it probably owes its origins to a mosaic of ancient sources. Songs brought to Spain by the gitanos (Roma people) were almost certainly part of the mix, wedded to the music and verses of medieval Muslim Andalucía. Some historians argue that the Byzantine chant used in Visigothic churches prior to the Muslim arrival also played their part.
Wherever it came from, flamenco first took recognisable form in the late-18th and early 19th centuries among gitanos in the lower Guadalquivir Valley in western Andalucía. Suitably, for a place considered the cradle of the genre, the Seville–Jerez de la Frontera–Cádiz axis is still considered flamenco’s heartland and it’s here, purists believe, that you must go for the most authentic flamenco experience. Early flamenco was cante jondo (deep song), an anguished form of expression for a people on the margins of society. Jondura (depth) is still the essence of flamenco.
All flamenco performers aspire to the fame enjoyed by Manuel Torre (1878–1933); Torre’s singing, legend has it, could drive people to rip their shirts open and upturn tables. One man who undoubtedly achieved this aim was El Camarón de la Isla (whose real name was José Monge Cruz) from San Fernando near Cádiz. El Camarón’s incredible vocal and emotional range and his wayward lifestyle made him a legend well before his tragically early death in 1992 at the age of 42. As his great guitar accompanist Paco de Lucía observed, 'Camarón’s cracked voice could evoke, on its own, the desperation of a people'.
Paco de Lucía, born in Algeciras in 1947, is the doyen of flamenco guitarists with a virtuosity few can match. He is also almost single-handedly responsible for transforming the guitar, formerly the junior partner of the flamenco trinity, into an instrument of solo expression far beyond traditional limits. Such is his skill that de Lucía can sound like two or three people playing together and, for many in the flamenco world, he is the personification of duende.
Flamenco is enjoying something of a golden age, but part of its appeal lies in a new generation of artists broadening flamenco’s horizons. In the 1970s, musicians began mixing flamenco with jazz, rock, blues, rap and other genres. At the forefront of the transformation was Enrique Morente (1942-2010), referred to by one Madrid paper as 'the last bohemian', and a cult figure who enjoys rare popularity among both purists and the new generation of flamenco aficionados. While careful not to alienate flamenco purists, Morente, through his numerous collaborations across genres, helped lay the foundations for Nuevo Flamenco (New Flamenco) and Fusion.
Other genres to have made their way into the repertoire of Nuevo Flamenco include rock (Kiko Veneno and Raimundo Amador), jazz and blues (Pata Negra), Latin and African rhythms (Ketama and Diego El Cigala), reggae, Asian and dance rhythms (Ojos de Brujo), and electronica (Chambao). When it comes to dance, Joaquín Cortés fuses flamenco with contemporary dance, ballet and jazz, to music at rock-concert amplification.
For live flamenco while in Spain, Seville has the widest number of regular, high-quality shows, followed by Jerez de la Frontera, Granada and Madrid. Aside from widely advertised concerts held in large arenas, the best places for live performances are usually peñas, clubs where flamenco fans band together. The atmosphere in such places is authentic and at times very intimate and proof that the best flamenco feeds off an audience that knows their flamenco. Most Andalucian towns in particular have dozens of peñas and most tourist offices have a list.
The other option is to attend a performance at a tablao, which hosts regular shows put on for largely undiscriminating tourist audiences, usually with high prices and dinner included. The quality of the flamenco in tablaos can be top-notch, even if the atmosphere lacks the gritty authenticity of the peñas.