Flamenco 33 – The Origins

Carretas Gitanas

We can’t end our exploration of Flamenco without going back to the beginning and talking about the music and cultures that have come together to make Flamenco one of the best known artistic and cultural movements in the world. So we’re going to take a short trip through time trying to find out a little about all the factors that over the ages have influenced and contributed to what today we know as Flamenco. The origins are hard to trace and pin down – a lot of what has been written is based on oral tradition and tales handed from generation to generation (no doubt getting embellished and twisted over the years) – but this is what we’ve found out and we want to share it with you.

Leaving archaeological data aside, the Greek historian Strabo mentions that in the second century BC the Egyptian Eudoxus sent female musical performers (dancers, singers, musicians, dancers with castanets) from Cadiz to other Atlantic ports, probably in Africa. This seems to be the first historical reference to female dancers from the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

The etymological origins of the word Flamenco lie in Fala-mengus, which means “oppressed or fleeing non-Arab peasant” and didn’t refer to the music which was catalogued variously by non Hispano-arab historians as Rons, Romí or Latini. The origins therefore appear to be linked to peoples who fled, peoples who were often expelled from their place of origin, peoples who weren’t welcome. Flamenco as the music of the displaced rings true if we look at the history of those who contributed to its evolution.

It is curious and hard to believe, given the Arabic origins of some of the forms, but some Muslim clerics from the tenth to the fourteenth century attacked and persecuted the Laila, Nuba and Zambra song formats believing them to be non Islamic, Christian and Latin customs. Conversely, the Castilian conquistadores did the same, believing them to be Muslim or quasi Islamic customs.

The anonymous Calendar of Cordoba (tenth century), the first known text to use terms from the D’Alyamia Language (the original language of the Arabs) and the Calendar of Granada (fourteenth century), as well as confirming the existence of innumerable terms and lexical items that would be handed down to modern day Spanish, provide us with valuable information regarding the music and customs of the population of Al-Ándalus.

The origins of Flamenco surely lie in the Nubas and eastern Zyryáb music although the creator of the Nuba was Kurdish and educated in Byzantium. Consequently, the origins of Flamenco have to be sought in the Rewí (narrators or story tellers) who sang Moaxajas, Lailas, Zambra and Zéjeles in the squares and marketplaces.

The love poetry collected in the Baábe (the Andalusí songbook) has both rhyme and metre that are strongly related to both Gallician-Portuguese and Catalan-Provençal poetry of the time. The Moaxajas and Romances were the origin of the Zambras, Lailas and Tonás that were accompanied on the lute or rebec (a type of fiddle). This type of songs, recited by merchants, cattle traders, beggars and blind people, were the precursors of the now disappeared “songs of the blind” that were sung right up to the beginning of the twentieth century. And of the Tonás, the different singing styles or palos.

Wallada bint al-Mustakfi or Wallada al-Mostacfi, also known simply as Wallada, was born in Cordoba in 994 and was the daughter of the Omeya caliph Muhammad Mustakfi. She was famous for her great poetic talent and was the best known of the Andalusí female writers, but she was just as famous for her beauty – tall, slim, fair-skinned with blue eyes and red hair – the ideal of the time.

Here is a clip of Andalusí music which tells her story:

Wallada bint al-Mustakfi – The Princess of Cordoba

And here is a clip in which one of her poems is sung:

Música andalusí – Ave Veloz (Wallada bint al-Mustakfi)

Andalusí music (also known as Arab-Andalusí music) is an Arab music style that was prevalent in Al-Ándalus between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. It is still popular in North Africa. One of the most famous poets was Ibn Zamrak. He was a poet and politician in fourteenth century Al-Ándalus. Some of his poems decorate the fountains and the palaces in the Alhambra in Granada. His life story was told by a collection of works published by al-Maqqari in the seventeenth century.
His family was originally from the Levante area on the Mediterranean Coast but had settled in the Albaicín in Granada when he was born in 1333 – the same year that Yusuf I became Caliph of Granada. The Madraza of Granada (the precursor of the modern day university) was opened in 1349 and Ibn Zamrak was one its first students. He was found a position in the administration of Granada when Mohammed V succeeded Yusuf I as Caliph.
In this clip, in which one of his poems is sung, we can see some great scenes of the Alhambra and the Generalife Gardens: a prime example of both the artistic splendour and ingenuity of this fine culture – their love and use of water as a decorative element has rarely been matched.

Música Andalusí – Mi Agua Es Perlas Fundidas (Ibn Zamrak, 1333 – 1393)

Here is a contemporary example of Andalusí Music from Al Andaluz Project a contemporary music collective who specialise in recreations of both Arab and Sephardic Music from this time:

Al Andaluz Project – Nassam Alaina Lhawa


Sefarad was the Hebrew name given to the lands of the Western Mediterranean and this is why the Jews who once lived in Spain were known as Sephardi. Sephardic music arose amongst the Jews living in Castile and Aragon who adapted popular Castilian songs in a style that mixed Christian and Arab elements. The rhythms and instrumentation were Arab, the words of the songs were from the Castilian Christian culture despite being sung in Ladino – a dialect that mixed Spanish and Hebrew and was spoken by the Jewish community in Spain at that time. It is still used in Sephardic music to this day. Sephardic Jews resident in Eastern Mediterranean countries have preserved the language and can converse with modern day Spanish speakers with relatively little difficulty. Sephardic songs were typically love songs, wedding songs and lullabies.
Here is an example:

Al Andaluz Project- Los Caminos

As a result, when talking of Sephardic music, we cannot speak of a separate genre but more an adaptation of existing melodies that were enriched by the arrival in Spain of the Jews, who added more complex instrumentation and rhythms.

When the Sephardi were expelled from Spain they took their music and traditions to Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria and other countries where they settled. Despite the passing of the centuries, they have preserved the old Castilian songs they inherited from their Iberian ancestors and have added words from the languages of the countries they settled in.
Modern day Sephardic music, which is played in the Eastern Mediterranean region, can give us an idea of what this music sounded like in the Middle Ages.

Here is a Sephardic Dance:

Sephardic Dance – Morenika

Mor Karbasi is a singer-songwriter born in Jerusalem, and now based in London.
One of her main projects is Ladino music, also known as Judezmo, Spanyolit, or Sephardic – the ancient language and music of the exiled Jews of Spain. She writes original material, as well as singing traditional songs. She has been compared to Mariza and Yasmin Levy, but has a strongly individual sound, whichever type of music she sings.

Mor Karbasi – Kantiga de la madres

Karbasi’s heritage is mixed Moroccan and Persian, and according to her Moroccan grandfather, “the blood remembers,” meaning that before this her ancestors came from Spain. Her connection to this culture is expressed passionately through her music.

Mor Karbasi – Puncha Puncha (trad)

Yasmin Levy (Jerusalem 1975) sings Sephardic music. Her father, Yitzhak Levy, was a pioneering researcher of Sephardic History, the music and culture of the Jews who lived in Spain and the diaspora. Yasmin has brought Medieval Spanish Jewish music into the twenty first century, adding more modern instrumentation taken from Spanish Flamenco to the traditional arrangements of the music that are based around the oud, the violin, the cello and the piano.
Here she is singing a Sephardic Bulería:

Yasmin Levy – La Serena – Bulería

Her first album, Romance & Yasmin (2000) gained her a nomination for Best Newcomer in the World Music Category at the BBC Radio Three Music Awards. Her second album, La Judería, was nominated in the Culture Crossing category in 2005. Mano Suave came out in 2007 and she has just recorded her fourth album, Sentir, which is produced by Javier Limón.
Here she is singing in Ladino – the language spoken by the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula over 500 years ago.

Yasmin Levy – Naci En Alamo


Even today the origins of the Gypsy people – also known as Rom, Roma or Romaní – is unclear and a subject of no little controversy. There are a number of factors that explain this lack of clarity. First of all, Gypsy culture was until recently oral and there are no written records of either its history or origins. Moreover, when their history has been studied, it has been by non-Roma historians and all too often through a pronounced ethnocentric filter. The first migrations happened in the tenth century and consequently little or no record of them remains. It is also worth mentioning that the first groups of Gypsies to arrive in Western Europe told wondrous tales and legends of their origins and deliberately kept them shrouded in mystery, partly no doubt to protect themselves from the peoples they moved amongst.

The Gypsy songs, the songs that came from the forges, the Martinetes and Tonás are sung a capella and tell the tale of their suffering through the centuries.
Here is an example from José Mercé:

José Mercé por Martinete y Toná

Another problem that has to be borne in mind is that quite who does (and doesn’t) belong to the Gitano community is also a matter of some controversy. The Spanish term “Gitano” seems to be a corruption of “Egiptano” which was used to describe this people in the mistaken belief that they originated in Egypt. In the eighteenth century a linguistic study of the Romaní language spoken by the Gypsies found that it was of Indian origin, sharing not only worlds but grammatical structures and complexities that suggest a strong relationship with Punjabi and Western Hindi dialects. This suggested that the origins of the Gypsy people lay in the North West of the Indian Subcontinent somewhere near the modern day border between India and Pakistan. This conclusion has more recently been supported by genetic and DNA research.

Here is a clip from the Farruco family’s production Bodas de Gloria. Upon returning from a recent first tour of India, Farruquito said he was blown away by the strong similarities he encountered between his Gitano culture and art and those of the artists and people he met there.

Familia Farruco – Bodas de Gloria – Parte 3

The caves are the typical dwellings in Sacromonte in Granada. Their origin is not clear although they were probably built in the sixteenth century by the Muslim and Jewish converts who had stayed after 1492 but had been thrown out of their homes. They were soon joined by the nomadic Gitanos. Thus the caves became home to the marginalised: those that lived outside the city walls and beyond the reach of the city’s administrative and ecclesiastical authorities. The caves were constructed by cutting a vertical slice off the mountainside. Once the façade had been cleared, a half point arch – which would serve as the front door – was cut and built into the rock and behind it the rooms were excavated as needed and as the composition of the rocks permitted. The design of the caves is determined by the lie of the land and no two are the same. This feature along with the paths carved into the rock, the ravines, the small squares, whitewashed façades and bare rock walls, coupled with the customs and lifestyle of its inhabitants give the place its unique character.
Here are Estrella Morente, the Habichuelas and other members of the extended family performing Tangos in one of the caves:

Estrella Morente, los Habichuela y más por tangos

We hope that with this series of posts on Flamenco we might have contributed in some small way to helping this art to be better understood in an informative but enjoyable way, and we would like to leave you with this reflection:

If through Flamenco, History has been able to unite the influences and cultural arts of several peoples who to this day continue to be at war, in such a way that they are recognised as a World Heritage Treasure by the UN, why can’t we follow the music’s example and bring an end to all this fighting?

We wish you all from the deepest recesses of our hearts Peace and Happiness for this New Year. In 2012 and well beyond.

One Response to Flamenco 33 – The Origins

  1. Pingback: The Flamenco Series « Casa Maki

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