A short history of flamenco

‘Flamenco is easy to understand, as long as you were born into it and were breastfed with it. It has nothing to do with the more than 2000 essays that have been written about it. It is much simpler than that. It’s like breathing.’

Much has been written about flamenco. It is a culture that developed over several centuries in southern Spain as a form of survival, and continues to evolve within and beyond Spain. The roots of flamenco were brought to Spain by Gypsies who arrived from India in the 1400′s, a time when Christianity established itself in the Iberian Peninsula.

Over the course of the next century, ‘pagan’ Gypsies who did not convert to Catholicism united with local Andalucíans, Muslims and Jews to flee persecution by the Christians during the Spanish Inquisition, taking refuge in the mountains of Andalucía. Some of the persecuted survived by hiding in caves in the mountains, and the art of flamenco that evolved in those caves is still passed on from generation to generation, expressed in the form of singing, dancing, and the guitar.

The origin of the name flamenco is unclear. It has been suggested that the word may be a fusion of the Arabic words felag (fugitive) and mengu (peasant), supported by the fact that Arabic was a common language in Spain at that time. Other theories have proposed that Spanish Jews escaped Spain to Flanders, where they were able to openly chant their religious songs, which became known as flamenco by the Jews who stayed behind in Spain. A third theory is that the word describes Gypsies who fought in the Spanish army in the war with Flanders who were later allowed to settle in Andalucía.

In the last 50 years, flamenco music has been disseminated throughout parts of the world by many artists, including Gypsies like Sabicas, Camaron de la Isla, and Carmen Amaya, and non-Gypsies like Paco de Lucía and Vicente Amigo. Despite the fact that flamenco culture derived from a mix of peoples, there is still debate over its ownership. There are Gypsies who believe that flamenco can only be understood if one is born into it, and that it is not authentic if attempted by a non-Gypsy, also referred to as a Payo.

Flamenco structure

The musical interpretation of flamenco is expressed through singing (cante), dancing (baile), and the guitar (toque). Depending on the song style, the singer delivers a song either alone (as in a martinete) or accompanied by a guitarist, with additional rhythmic accompaniment by hand clapping (palmas) and more recently hand-percussion instruments like the cajon. The overall expression is complemented by jaleo, spontaneous words of encouragement yelled out during a song that can be heard in many recordings. A dancer may also accompany the singer, or may be accompanied by a guitarist.

Although the role of the flamenco guitarist has traditionally been to accompany cante and baile, flamenco artists like Sabicas and Paco de Lucía have transformed the guitar style with rhythms that go well beyond accompaniment, a development that introduced flamenco to an audience beyond the followers of flamenco puro, or pure flamenco, spreading it’s popularity worldwide.

The more than 60 flamenco song styles, or palos, can be classified into 3 main types of cantes: cante jondo (seguiriyas, soleares), cante intermedio (fandangos, tientos, granainas), and cante chico (alegrias, bulerias, zambras). The rhythmic structure, or compas of each style is distinct, sometimes named according to the geographical region of it’s origin (Fandangos de Huelva, Granainas from Granada, Rondeñas from Ronda, Malagueñas from Malaga).

Semana Santa processions

Las doce acaban de dar
en el reloj de la Audiencia,
pendiente de mi sentencia,
Dios mio, que pasara.

Porque he nacio Gitano
no crean que soy malo,
que habemos malos y buenos
y tambien somos cristianos.

The clock has struck midnight
in the hearing,
awaiting my sentence,
my God, what will happen.

Just because I was born a gypsy
don’t think I am bad,
as there are good and bad ones of us
and we are also Christians.

Antonio Sanchez


Every spring, in the cities of the Spanish province of Andalucía, Semana Santa, or Easter week has a special importance for devout Christians. Hundreds of processions have marched through the streets since the fifteenth century, a time when Christianity established itself in the region that is now southern Spain. The impressive processions take place from the largest cities to the smallest towns in this Spanish province.

Each procession has a brotherhood specific to an area of the city that marches behind the Cruz de Guia, or large cross, and ahead of Pasos, richly carved life-like sculptures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary supported on large wooden floats. Members of the brotherhoods known as Nazarenos dress in penitential robes and conical hats and carry candles while marching through the streets for up to 15 hours. The people occasionally carry shackles and chains on their feet as penance while walking barefoot. Some processions may be accompanied by brass bands that play funereal religious hymns specifically written for the yearly occasion. The Pasos are carried on the neck and shoulders by 25-50 of the strongest members of the brotherhood.

The slow and rhythmic sound of the drums that mark the swaying pace of the bearers as they are showered with flowers, and the wailing of the flamenco Saeta (a sacred song dedicated to Mary and Jesus) create a powerful atmosphere, filled with the reminder of the Christian and Pagan heritage of this region of Spain.