it's in the blood, the gypsies claim their precedence in flamenco
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It's in the blood...

the gypsies claim their precedence in flamenco


The blood myth

back to gypsy

for an interesting discussion of flamenco prizes....



















Much that has been written about flamenco in the Spanish language is both emotive and speculative. Some foreign writers, such as George Borrow or Washington Irving, are equally to blame but they can be excused as travel writers, not researchers. A few quasi-academic studies exist but they were until recently not so well publicised.

It is not hard to understand why, when your blood boils with every passionate and sensual gesture made by the local gypsy girl gyrating her hips and stamping out her soul to the relentless rhythms of the guitar and song before your very eyes, as only gypsies know how..... Sorry, there we go again... being emotive...and being elitist.

This familiar scenario fuels the idea fostered by the gypsies themselves, that only they can be true flamencos. I would call this a half-truth, but one that is clearly in their interest to propagate, and most gypsies (and many other payos or non-gypsies) will agree with it. A gypsy will not subconsciously know why he proudly insists that it's in the blood, but he is being protectionist. On the one hand it is a cultural brainwashing, a sort of self-congratulation for just being the real McCoy. On the other, the ability to perform flamenco well stems from both the family and exposure to flamenco since childhood.

Why do the flamenco gypsies claim precedence in flamenco? Quite simply they had to survive. In the past they were persecuted as a minority, so had to struggle more for their own existence and recognition. The state wants to organise all our lives and document us, but gypsies somehow did not fit into the system. Them and us almost created the mystery. But there is much more. Their way of life is so appealing... just feel the freedom of wandering with minimal responsibilities! Live off the land and under the stars and sing your heart out in flamenco song.... Or was it more down to earth, a cry in the dark about their hard life, their poverty and where to feed their child next? Such human struggle does allow the soul to throw up musical and poetic inspiration (compare the blues to the flamenco, both the music of an oppressed people). It also allows the gypsy to suggest that he is more in touch with his ancestors on a spiritual level, thereby enabling a personal communication of his soul through the flamenco artform which in turn creates the concept of purity in flamenco. And so the story and justification goes on...

We are all as much to blame for propagating the myth (it's in the blood) that gypsies are the only true interpreters of flamenco. Yet it must be said that many of the best flamenco singers, dancers and guitarists are gypsies.

Does it matter? Well to many gypsies it is important, because it becomes an issue of heritage. To Andalusians in general it is often a favourite topic of discussion especially in the peñas or flamenco clubs. But many Spaniards and most foreigners will not really be aware of the hegemony of the undercurrent bloodline. They will be entertained more by the flamenco spectacle as a whole, than worry about a question of gipsy authenticity. The foreigners in particular will be drawn more by the flamenco dance and guitar than the duende (soul) of the flamenco singer. The dancer Joaquin Cortes enjoys enormous popularity in foreign countries, but most flamencos in Andalusia would prefer to ignore his commercial theatrical flamenco antics. Well what does he care?! He and his agressive promoters are making money. And he, too, is a gypsy!

Yet it is the song that is the source of flamenco's inspiration in Andalusia, and thankfully family ties have always created the seed of its regeneration. The cante (flamenco song) is actually what counts in Andalusia.


Prejudice within prejudice


















Foreigners in flamenco are at the bottom of the pile. The flamenco order of things is roughly as follows:

        Andalusians (payos or non-gypsies)
The argument is based upon the erroneous belief that it's in the blood. If only gypsies who are born and bred in a flamenco environment can interpret flamenco, what are you supposed to do? Stop playing flamenco on your guitar and take up singing the opera? You might call it gypsy snobbery in flamenco but today's persecution in flamenco is more subtle and directed at the foreign element.

I have heard and seen many good foreign guitarists and dancers (but not singers). In fact in my experience not all gypsies have good rhythm. Yet another myth! Nevertheless the majority of the top rhythmical singers in flamenco today are gypsy. Arguably the most famous combination of gypsy singer and non-gypsy guitarist in recent times is Camaron de la Isla and Paco de Lucia. (Later the gypsy guitarist Tomatito took over the role of accompanist until Camaron died in 1992.)

There is also a flamenco type mafia that is self-propagating. It is mainly the promoters of artists and the elitist body of flamencologos (flamencologists) and, significantly, the judges of national and regional flamenco competitions, be they singers, dancers or just aficionados (enthusiasts) who tacitly will exclude consideration of an artist who is foreign. In the mid 1980s (I cannot recall the exact date) I remember reading an article in the newspaper in Cordoba by Augustin Gomez (a well known flamencologo) on the occasion of the finals of the Concurso Nacional which is held in Cordoba every two years. That year there was an unusually large number of Japanese contestants, most of whom got nowhere, although one girl did eventually win a dance prize for her interpretation of Guajiras. This of itself caused an outrage within the flamenco community, but Augustin Gomez' solution was to suggest a separate competition staged just for foreigners! So foreigners do stay at the bottom of the pile after all! It is one thing to assert that flamenco is nuestro arte (our art) as so many presenters say in their introductions to festivals, but another to publically discriminate. No doubt he meant well.

Even the gypsies want to discriminate between themselves and fellow performers. The gypsy singer Agujetas from Rota (though now in Jerez), was heard to say to guitarist Ramon de Algeciras (brother of Paco de Lucia) when drawing lots to decide who played for whom at a festival in Zamora: "!A mi ese gachó tan rubio no me toca!" - that blond non-gypsy won't play for me! (quoted from page 36 Paco de Lucia and Family: D.E. Pohren)


Secrets revealed







The recent Cordoba flamenco competition (May 2001) still has its own select group. More winners came from Córdoba than anywhere else and four prizes were left unawarded for insufficient level in the opinion of the (yes Córdoba) judges... As they say there: "en Córdoba, el que no tiene padrino, no se bautiza" (In Córdoba, if you are not connected, you won't get anywhere.)

But even well known teachers like El Guito from Madrid propagate the division between foreign and Spanish: While teaching during the Festival de Jerez in March 2001, he admitted to a local newspaper that the Japanese are the best students, but will never achieve dancing the way the Spanish do. "Eso es algo que va en la sangre." So there we have it. It's in the blood!

There is actually no secret in flamenco, just hard work, some talent and a familiarity with the palos (the various flamenco rhythms). Of course I still believe you have to be born in or live a long time in Andalusia to be able to reproduce and be authentic flamenco yourself. But as a foreigner it is still not impossible! Even if it's not in the blood...


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© Simon Zolan 2001
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