Joan Acocella

‘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.

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