Flamenco’s Deep Roots

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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In the April issue of the magazine Moment there is a short item about the possible Jewish roots of flamenco or Spanish gypsy music. “Although not everybody finds Jewish overtones in the rhythmic dancing, the wailing style of songs, and the lush, intricate guitar playing,” writes Moment contributor Debra Bruno, “many believe that flamenco is closely linked to Sephardic synagogue music with its eastern influences and undercurrent of sadness…. The word ‘flamenco’ supposedly derives from the Spanish word for Flemish. Why? One theory is that the word came from the religious songs of those Jews who escaped the Inquisition by moving to the northern European region of Flanders.”

Actually, as musicologists have observed, flamenco is not so much related to Sephardic synagogue music as it is to Ashkenazi synagogue music, and specifically, to the hazzanut or high cantorial style of Eastern Europe, whose scales and modulations can at times remind one remarkably of flamenco singing. Hazzanut’s ultimate origins, of course, are Eastern. Whether or not, as some authorities have argued, they go all the way back to the singing of the Levites in the Temple, or simply share a single eastern Mediterranean source with Arabic music, whose influence on flamenco was enormous, they can be clearly heard in the cante jondo, the “deep song” that is flamenco as its purest.

Not that close parallels to flamenco can’t be detected in Sephardic music, too. As Ms. Bruno observes, there are Sephardic songs or romançeros, such as the well-known one called “La Petenera,” with its line “Dónde vas bella judía? (“Where are you going, you Jewish beauty?”), that have cante jondo elements. The fact that such a song was taken with them in their wanderings by Jewish exiles from Spain in 1492 demonstrates that it belongs to the earliest stage of flamenco singing, whose known history does not go back much further. That flamenco has a Jewish musical background as well as an Arab one is generally accepted by most scholars.

But does any of this justify the theory that the word “flamenco” itself has to do with Jews? I’m dubious.

Flamenco in Spanish has two meanings, “Flemish” and “flamingo.” Most likely these are related. The Spanish had close contact with the Flemings, because Flanders, the Dutch-speaking area of what today is Belgium, was under the occupation of the Spanish Hapsburgs for nearly 300 years until the French Revolution. Even earlier than that, however, flamenco in Spanish had taken on the sense of ruddy or fair-skinned, the Flemings, like other northerners, being lighter-complexioned than the generally darker Spaniards. And because a ruddy pink is the color of the flamingo’s under-wings, which flash spectacularly when the bird takes off and flies, it came to be called flamenco too.

But why should this word also have been used for the passionate, deep-throated singing of Spanish gypsies? The notion, found in various books and articles, that this usage came from Jewish exiles who took songs like “La Petenera” with them to the Netherlands strikes me as far-fetched. At a time when flamenco continued to be sung and to develop most vigorously in Spain itself, especially in the Andalusian south, why on earth would the Spanish have named it for songs sung by Jews in the distant north, even if they were the same as those they sang themselves? Much more sensible is the explanation given by the Catalonian lexicographer Joan Corominas in his Breve Diccionario Etimológico de la Lengua Castellana, in which — after tracing the earliest musical use of the word flamenco to 1870, hundreds of years too late for it to have anything to do with Jews in Flanders — he shows how it went from meaning “fair-skinned” to “fine-looking,” “attractive” and “dashing,” and from there, because of the colorful dress and appearance of many gypsies, to “gypsy-like.” Flamenco was simply music sung by gypsies.

Flamenco music has a vocabulary and words all its own, like duende, the sense of tragic emotion with which great flamenco is sung, or juerga, a spontaneous flamenco “jam session” at which singers improvise and pour their hearts out in a way rarely heard at scheduled performances. My wife and I once had the privilege of stumbling on a juerga while on a trip to Andalusia. We had driven to a small-town fiesta, a day of celebration with country dancing and music, only to discover to our dismay, upon arriving in the evening, that we were too late and that the fiesta had broken up and everyone was going home. Only a few, small groups of musicians and singers still stood in tight circles under the darkening sky, loath to end the clearly marvelous day we had missed. One of these circles was composed of gypsies singing cante jondo to each other, tolerantly oblivious to the handful of spectators who had gathered around them. They were not performing for anyone. They were talking to each other in song, making up the words as they went along: passionately, lovingly, sorrowfully, joyfully, gut-wrenchingly. I had never heard such singing before in my life and don’t expect ever to hear it again. I would be proud as a Jew to be connected to it in any way, even if the etymological rights aren’t mine.

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