‘In France, we do it lying down,’ a French minister is reported to have said on first seeing the tango. He was not far wrong. The tango crystallised at the end of the 19th century in the brothels of Buenos Aires. It was a dance of prostitutes and pimps, and in its ineluctable rhythms, its belly-to-belly stance, its interlacing of legs, it reflected their professional concerns. Yet by the 1910s, it was the newest Parisian dance craze. Argentine whores were no doubt still doing it, but so was the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre.
The history of popular song and dance is almost invariably a story of poor people’s entertainment being taken up by people less poor, and changing in the process. Jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, mambo, samba, tap dance, breakdancing: by the time most of us hear about it, it is not what it was before. And by that time, in most cases, there are people lamenting the change, claiming that the form has lost its purity, its ‘soul’ – that the boys on the street corner wouldn’t recognise it.
No popular art has occasioned more gnashing of teeth than flamenco, the supposedly Gypsy song-and-dance style that emerged in southern Spain in the late 18th century. Particularly in its cante jondo, or ‘deep song’ mode, flamenco is rough gutty art, both in its vocal style, which one flamencologist likened to ‘the howl of a trapped beast’, and in its lyrics, which generally have to do with poverty, hunger, imprisonment, insanity and the like. By the mid-19th century, however, flamenco was already coming under the influence of opera and musical comedy. At the same time, with urbanisation, flamenco singers were moving out of the scruffy taverns of Andalusia and into the so-called cafés cantantes of Madrid. Accordingly, cante jondo became more ‘civilised’, whereupon the purists rose up, protesting against its civilisation.
The battle has continued unabated ever since. A high point was the Twenties, when Iberian intellectuals were gripped by españolismo, the artistic nationalism that accompanied Spain’s late entry into European industrial culture. ‘Gentlemen, the musical soul of the people is in the gravest danger!’ Lorca announced in a famous lecture of 1922. In his view, cante jondo was a racial property: it was created by and belonged to the Gypsies of Andalusia – a primitive people, as he admiringly saw them – and in their hands it conveyed ‘the naked and spine-chilling emotion of the first oriental races’. (It was Lorca who popularised the concept of duende, or quasi-religious ‘soul’, that today’s music and dance critics profess to find in any flamenco artist they admire.) But this pure spring, Lorca warned, was now being ‘stained with the dark wine of the professional pimp’: in other words, the café singers who were experimenting with its vocal techniques, mixing its forms, toning down its rawness, and thereby gaining for it a large popular audience. Lorca’s arguments – minus, perhaps, their naive racism – can still be heard even now. Meanwhile, in their transit from café to nightclub to recording studio, singers of flamenco have carried forward the dreaded contamination of its Andalusian soul. Today’s most popular flamenco group, the Gipsy Kings, are not only not Andalusian; they are French, and they use synthesisers, and they are topping the charts.
This aggrieved history is the subject of Flamenco Deep Song, a short, lively and tendentious book by Timothy Mitchell, the author of several works on Spanish folk culture. Basically, Mitchell sides with the Gipsy Kings. Flamenco studies, he says, are rife with mystagogy. He has had a bellyful and is here to set the record straight. He first attacks the idea that flamenco is a pure Gypsy product. As he tells the story, the Andalusian slums in which flamenco forked off from mainstream Spanish folk song housed many different groups – not just Gypsies, but a multi-ethnic assortment of peddlers, prostitutes, hoodlums and other indigent people trying to get along in one way or another. Mulattos were there; Jews too. And all these people can be said to have contributed to flamenco. If the Gypsies have any special claim, it is that they capitalised on the form. But in Mitchell’s view, the Andalusian Gypsies were not much more racially pure than flamenco. Gypsy-hood, as he describes it, was in some measure a social construction. One could become a ‘gypsy’ by associating with Gypsies and, above all, by plying Gypsy trades: tin-smithing, mule-trading – indeed, flamenco-singing.
Having taken care of the racial myth, Mitchell proceeds to the economic myth: the claim, often put forward by Marxist historians, that flamenco is the pure cry of the downtrodden. The situation is more complicated than that, he argues. Flamenco developed out of juergas, drunken hootenannies organised and paid for by rich young wastrels known as señoritos. At the juergas, which also included dancing prostitutes, the highest and lowest classes of society came together, each meeting the other’s needs. The señoritos got to hear music, have sex and drink themselves senseless; the singers got to drink just as much, make some money and, in their music, discharge the stresses of poverty. In this structured interaction of ‘co-dependency’ – Mitchell does not mind jargon – each group was momentarily relieved of the pressures imposed by an unjust society and thereby discouraged from doing anything about them. The cante jondo song lyrics, which dwelt not just on misfortune but on the power of fate and the futility of action, were merely the subtitles, as it were, of what was going on at the juerga: the reinforcement of the social system.
Mitchell obviously enjoys popping the flamencologists’ balloons, and this iconoclastic glee enlivens his prose. But it is when he gets to the subject of duende, flamenco’s vaunted ‘soul’, that he really starts to have fun. The juergas, he says, were less an expression of soul than of ‘institutionalised puerility’. As he describes them, they sound like something out of Animal House. One señorito ‘liked to preside over a group of artists and three or four prostitutes, locked up in a room together for several days with two or three cases of wine, a ham, a bucket and a mattress. No one was allowed to leave.’ Knife fights were common; women were thrown off balconies. Mitchell quotes the cantaor Pericón de Cádiz telling how, one night, his singing so moved a wealthy widower that the man came over, weeping, and smacked him in the face:
I said: ‘But don’t you know what you’ve done, man? You gave me such a slap that you almost split my face in two!’
‘Forgive me, but I am emocionado. Sing those words again! Sing those words again!’
And I said to him: ‘Sure, with pleasure, but wait till I climb up on the roof.’
The singers, in Mitchell’s account, were almost as brutish as the audience. In telling the stories of these men, so sainted by other flamencologists, he is careful to note who was syphilitic; who knifed whom; who, while singing, always kept a bucket between his feet so that when he got too drunk, he could just lean over, vomit between his knees, and then sit up and sing once more. Nor does Mitchell exempt their art. Their lyrics, he says, were self-pitying, their vocal techniques ‘tear-jerking’, their famed hoarseness the product not of soul but of alcoholism. Alcohol, indeed, is a major theme of this book. Obviously a light drinker himself, Mitchell regards alcohol use as a product of the need to quell ‘dependency anxiety’. Hence its importance at the juerga, that co-dependency ritual.
As for the intellectuals who sought to protect the artistic product of these sodden revels from revision by more sober cantaores, the charges that Mitchell brings against the originator of the purist argument, the 19th-century folklorist Antonio Machado y Alvarez – ‘unabashed élitism, Neo-Romantic primitivism, spurious notions of purity and contamination ... lack of sociological acumen, nostalgia and racialist aesthetics’ – he levels equally at Machado’s heirs. Yes, he says, the purists were the first to point out that flamenco was an art. But in their opposition to any refinement of the art, they merely confused its history and retarded its development. The true, pure, original flamenco that they sought to restore never existed; like all art forms, flamenco had been changing since its inception.
The alterations flamenco underwent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the product, in part, of political reform, the long-delayed dismantling of Spain’s essentially feudal social system. If cante jondo lost its primal scream, that is because there was less to scream about. This connection, Mitchell notes, does not seem to have occurred to the largely well-born purists. (He quotes one modern scholar, Anselmo González Climent, warning that flamenco singers, to retain their bardic force, need to be protected from encroaching literacy.) Nor, in their rush to guard this art of the people from polluters, have they stopped to notice that the people are the polluters’ biggest fans. It is not folklorists who are standing in line to get into the Gipsy Kings’ concerts. As Mitchell remarks, European intellectuals rarely let the tastes of the masses get in the way of their rescue of the masses.
Flamenco is only one case, however. ¡Tango! primarily a picture book, but with essays by various scholars – tells a similar story. Like flamenco, tango is a song-and-dance form born of a multi-ethnic underclass, the Italian, Spanish and African Argentines of the outer barrios of Buenos Aires. Probably because it arose later than flamenco and also, no doubt, because it was a social dance – something you did, not, like flamenco dancing, something you watched – tango made a faster transit into the nightclubs, and as a result the music changed rapidly. Its tempos slowed; it acquired new instrumentation; its lyrics took a new turn. Ironically, as long as tango was the property of the underclass, the lyrics were rather upbeat. Only when the form entered the larger culture did tango singers hit on the doleful theme – basically, ‘my girlfriend left me; my heart is bleeding; so I’m going to drink this whole bottle of whisky’ – that has since been regarded as their immemorial subject.
Soon the tango spread. In the years before World War One it was the new social dance in Europe and North America. At this point, not surprisingly, musicians back in Buenos Aires began to worry that the form was becoming diluted by the gringos – agringado. By the Twenties Argentine tango bands had split into two factions: the ‘traditionalists’and the ‘evolutionists’. In time, the latter won, helped as usual by the public, but there were some nasty fights along the way. A late but instructive example is the career of Astor Piazzolla, the most distinguished tango composer of the mid-century and an agringador if ever there was one. Argentine by birth, Piazzolla spent part of his childhood in New York, where he became a jazz fan. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. When he returned to Argentina, he created a sort of avant-garde, jazz-influenced concert tango. The public adored it. In 1969 Piazzolla’s‘Ballad for a Madman’ sold 200,000 records in its first four days. But when Piazzolla premiered the song in a public concert, traditionalists in the audience threw coins at him as a mark of their scorn.
This was not just an artistic quarrel, but a social quarrel, a ‘brow’ quarrel. (Piazzolla did not hang out in the cafés; he was not one of the boys.) It was also a quarrel over national identity, with parallels in many other countries entering the European-dominated marketplace of ideas in the early 20th century. On one side, typically, were artists loyal to the old ‘national’ styles; on the other, artists seeking to develop the local product, to make it new. Both sides regarded themselves as patriots – the true Argentines or Russians or Andalusians or whatever.
The story of the Cuban rumba would probably have followed a similar course had it not been for the Cuban Revolution. In Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba, the American anthropologist Yvonne Daniel tells how Fidel Castro and his ministers, in their effort to bring Cuban art into line with revolutionary goals, decided that they needed to single out a national dance. There were several likely candidates – conga, for example, or casino, both of them widely popular, and across class lines. Instead, to show its solidarity with the lower classes, the Government chose rumba, a sexy Afro-Cuban form that had developed in the slums of Havana in the mid-19th century and was still the nearly exclusive property of the poorest and darkest-skinned Cubans – the dance they did on Saturday night, on the street corners, with plenty of rum-drinking in between. (Daniel notes that in choosing the rumba the Ministry of Culture may also have been influenced by the fact that, unlike conga and casino, which are danced by everyone, rumba is performed by only one couple or one person, while everyone else watches. This makes it easier to control.)
So whereas rumba had once been done by ordinary people, the Government now made it the property of professional ‘folkloric’ companies. Whereas it had once occurred spontaneously, beginning when people felt like dancing and ending when they got tired or the police came, now rumba events – Rumba Saturdays, as they were called – were scheduled: twice a month, for three hours, in the afternoon (before the serious drinking started, in other words). Finally, this form that had once been wholly improvised was now composed – its music and lyrics set, its dance steps choreographed – and in such a way as to support the Revolution. Religious imagery was deleted from the dances. The subversive political commentary that had once informed the song lyrics was eliminated. Daniel quotes one of the newer rumba songs, ‘I Bring a Story to the People’:
I’m Cuban and I love Cuba and I die for my flag ... Havana is the leader as the blessed Capital. There you can find everything you need, from a fine, hot flirtatious babe who can turn you on, to the highest authority in the country. Education of the people is the first thing you have to learn.
Other new songs told tales of national heroes. The dance, meanwhile, was made faster, sexier and more athletic, presumably to help drive the message home. Having undergone these changes, the rumba was then frozen. The dancers and musicians of the national companies were not allowed to introduce any new (or old) elements. Their job was to ‘guard and protect the established representations of Cuban folkloric traditions’ – that is, the representations established by the Government.
Daniel describes all this in a very tight-lipped manner. It is hard to tell what she thinks. ‘As a US citizen in Cuba,’ she writes, ‘I constantly feared that my work would be subject to counter-revolutionary charges.’ Furthermore, she was a member of one of the ‘folkloric’ dance companies – in other words, a government employee. But once home, and writing, she seems still to have felt some constraint. There are hard truths in her book: for example, that freezing a dance form is the surest route to ‘performance death’ and that Cuba’s rumba musicians are indeed starting to look rather bored. But the essential irony of her story – that to honour the ‘people’, the Government took their favourite dance away, filled it full of propaganda and put it on display by professionals as the dance of the people – is nowhere addressed. When, at times, she seems to sense its unwelcome presence, she hurries to excuse the Government. ‘The use of rumba to gather and maintain commitment to values,’ she writes, ‘is simply part of the thorough thinking and dedication to a more egalitarian society that exists at the core of Cuban ideology.’ We have seen this kind of thinking before.
Buried deep in the book is a greater irony: now that rumba has been fixed up, nobody likes it any more. Posited as a symbol of the Revolution’s uniting of black and white, rich and poor, rumba is still performed almost exclusively by dark-skinned Cubans. As for the audience, ‘officials, white-collar workers, and light-skinned Cubans ... exit quickly and politely when they arc coerced to attend a rumba event.’ Still, Daniel says, ‘it is more often white-collar workers who appear at rumba performances, not the masses of Cubans, either light or dark-skinned, who are supposed to embody the more enlightened and changed values of the Revolution.’ In other words, almost nobody wants to come to Rumba Saturday. The spectators usually number between twenty and sixty, and many are tourists. So forget revolutionary reeducation – the primary function of Rumba Saturday is to feed hard currency into the distressed Cuban economy.
Different as these three histories are, they converge on one point: the importance of race, and above all of Africa, in the popular dance and music of the West. Even flamenco, it seems, had input from the Moors. As for the Americas and the Caribbean, it is impossible to imagine what their dance and music would be like had there been no slave trade. But slavery didn’t just bring the dances: the psychology of slavery – people’s feelings about skin colour, about dominance and submission, about sex and ‘instinct’ – affected attitudes toward the dances. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Western people decided they had lost their ‘innocence’, this moral stew heated up. Hence the primitivist thinking of the period, the imputation of superior soul to the arts of the poor, the dark-skinned. (Isn’t there a tautology here? Isn’t soul the thing that we attribute to people who have suffered, because how otherwise could they have borne the suffering?) Lorca is an easy mark for Timothy Mitchell, but there are more striking examples. In his essay in ¡Tango! Richard Martin quotes the American writer Waldo Frank describing tango in 1917:
The body of tango is an embryon. That is why il stirs so larvally, why it repeats the ethnic stages of the past – Spanish, Indian, Negro – from which Argentina must emerge. That is why its dancers are enclosed by the embodying music, as the embryon by the womb ... The man and woman must move will-less yet strict through the phylogeny that holds and moulds them. The body of tango lives, yet is unborn.
So the Spanish, Indian and Negro peoples are embryonic; North Americans and Europeans (except the Spanish) are the mature organism, though if, now and then, they want to get back in touch with their larval selves, they can go to a tango bar. The logic is repellent, but it was shared by most educated people of the time, or most liberals. As for the conservatives, what they thought was worse.
Modern scholars rarely fall into such errors, but the terrain is still politically dangerous. As Mitchell points out, the art of underclass people tends to contain and celebrate the forces that keep them in the underclass: fatalism, religious woe, raptures about power and enthralment. How is a liberal to praise such art without endorsing its essentially conservative message? A subdivision of the problem is the extreme machismo of these old forms. In tango lyrics the ‘I’ is almost always male, and what he has to say about women is sometimes frightening. Here is a popular tango lyric from 1942:
This is how to dunce the tango!
Feel the blood
Rise to your face
With every beat
While an arm
Winds like a snake
Around u waist
That is about to break.
This is how to dance the tango!
A waist that is about to break: is the woman getting laid or getting killed? Rumba is gentler – the woman is only getting laid. In most rumbas, the man pursues the woman while she tries to escape him. An important feature of the dance is the so-called vacunao (same root as ‘vaccination’, and same meaning): the man makes a sharp pelvic thrust toward the woman, and she ‘protects’herself by covering her groin with her hands or the hem of her skirt. It is all done in fun, but the message is clear: women can only act defensively. One kind of rumba, the Columbia, is a solo form – a display of skill and force – but only men are allowed to perform it. Often they carry machetes or knives.
Yvonne Daniel and Richard Martin worry briefly about sexual politics, but only Timothy Mitchell is willing to go ahead and judge art on political grounds. Clearly, the reason the ‘polluters’ of flamenco are okay by him is that the changes they wrought in the music were, as he sees it, part and parcel of beneficial changes in Spanish society. And the reason the purists are not okay is that they are élitists. By ‘élitists’ he doesn’t just mean Lorca. When the contemporary American flamencologist Don Pohren laments that flamenco is becoming shallow – in his words, ‘a cold, technical art utterly without emotion’ – Mitchell accuses him of ‘using his own quasi-religious deep song dependency as a yardstick to preclude other emotional options’. Artistic judgment, then, is just religion or psychology (‘dependency’), and if the thrust of such judgment is to value one thing over another, it is undemocratic: it precludes other options. In Mitchell’s opinion, most flamenco studies are tainted by ideology – unlike his book, which is ‘ideology-free’, or trying to be. His argument is, in fact, based on the Post-Structuralist ideology that all art can be reduced to politics.
Attacks on novelty-rejecting highbrows are nothing new, of course. Typically they come studded with quotations from fogies of yore condemning innovations – the harmonics of Wagner, the prose of James Joyce – that have since achieved canonical status. Mitchell does not disappoint us on this score. He quotes Constant Lambert, in the Thirties, attacking jazz. Mitchell’s logic is slightly different from that of his predecessors. Their argument is aesthetic: ‘This new thing is interesting; only artistic conservatives oppose it.’ His argument is political: ‘This new thing is what the masses like; only political conservatives oppose it.’ But either way, there remains the question of whether it would be beneficial for us, in order to avoid embarrassment, to do away with evaluations and just jump on the bandwagon. It may be that a hundred years from now the Gipsy Kings – whose music, by the way, sounds like mediocre rock’n’roll – will be regarded as the classics of our time. Will people a hundred years from now like us better if we hedge our bets and embrace the Gipsy Kings? Do we care?
The notion of suspending taste, of being careful not to preclude other ‘options’, was born of multiculturalism: since values, based on education, cause people to ignore or disprize what was not part of their education – the arts of poor people, of ethnic minorities – values should therefore be eliminated. Such an idea could only have arisen in the universities. It is certainly not shared by poor people or ethnic minorities, who still feel free to like some things better than others. But then, intellectuals rarely let the masses get in the way of their rescue of the masses.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.