Magazine article The New Yorker

Stamp Your Feet

Magazine article The New Yorker

Stamp Your Feet

Article excerpt

Flamenco is one of a number of great lyric forms (jazz, tap, tango, and others) that grew up not in the official venues--the church, the court--but in the bars and the whorehouses. According to the historian Timothy Mitchell, flamenco owes its development, in large measure, to private music parties put on by wealthy playboys in southern Spain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were not genteel gatherings. One grandee, Mitchell reports, "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." The artists were poor gypsies, and their art was about their lives--specifically, to quote Mitchell, about "poverty, hunger, prisons, jails, hospitals, prostitution, alcohol consumption, taverns, insanity, violent death, the caprices of cruel fate, and the futility of effort." When, in dwelling on these matters, they became emocionado, they would rip their clothes and throw their chairs. Elsewhere, the violence was confined to the vocal style. Cante jondo, flamenco's "deep song," was a sort of a cross between singing and howling. The voice, usually hoarse, burst and broke, and burst out again, in long cascades of anguished melisma: "Ay-ay-ay!"

Then, as so often happens, the main culture got wind of the subculture, and vice versa. Already by the mid-nineteenth century, flamenco was showing the influence of operetta. At the same time, mainstream theatres and cafes were hiring flamencos. The singing and dancing became more refined, more complicated, whereupon the connoisseurs began complaining that the art was being destroyed by commercialization. They were soon joined by the intellectuals. In a 1922 lecture, Federico Garcia Lorca warned that the pure spring of cante jondo, the matrix of "the naked and spine-chilling emotion of the first oriental races," was being "stained with the dark wine of the professional pimp." Such denunciations of modernization have continued up to the present, and they have had some effect. Periodically, old, forgotten flamencos would be hunted down, hosed off, and taken to recording studios and dance festivals. The thrilling show "Flamenco Puro," which played on Broadway in 1986, was motivated by the same preservationist spirit.

Other flamencos went on modernizing, however, because they knew that there was an entertainment industry out there that they could be a part of if they miked their floors and got some cooler clothes. They succeeded. As the flamenco expert Brook Zern said at a 1997 conference, "It used to be we could go to these artists and say, 'Here's ten bucks--sing all night,' and they were kind enough and poor enough to do it." That is no longer the case--a fact reflected in the scheduling of the World Music Institute's four-night "Flamenco Festival" at City Center and Town Hall. The series included a number of the most important people in contemporary flamenco, yet each program was given only one night. When I asked someone at the World Music Institute why, she answered, "Gypsies are expensive."

The festival showed us both the traditionalists and the modernizers, and the latter were something else, believe me. I'm glad Garcia Lorca didn't live to see Israel Galvan, who opened the festivities. According to the program notes, people call Galvan the "Nijinsky of flamenco," by which, I presume, they don't mean that he's a good dancer (though he certainly is) but that he is an experimentalist, in the modernist tradition, the tradition that gave us "ugly" instead of "pretty." Galvan appeared onstage in a black shirt, tails out, and black pants. (I thought he was a stagehand until I saw his shoes.) Then he did a series of dances in which he always stopped before we thought he would, always held his arms in a stiff, poking-out way--as opposed to the curved arms of traditional flamenco--and basically drove us nuts and made us think. I respected him, and he was a good, cold-water-in-the-face introduction to the festival's modernismo. …

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