The sound of whiskey-voiced singers and the sight of soulful women with snaking arms and electrifying footwork epitomize the fiery Gypsy art of flamenco. But few people realize that flamenco emerged not only from Gypsy passion, but also from Sephardic Jewish roots. In fact, the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, probably because Jews and other minorities targeted by the Spanish Inquisition fled to Flanders to avoid persecution. Their religious songs were referred to as “flamenco,” a term later applied to anything noisy, flashy or scandalous.
Martin Santangelo, the director and founder of Noche Flamenca, the superb Madrid-based troupe performing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City through November 30, has strongly advocated the placement of flamenco’s history in the right context. “The corporeal part of flamenco is from the Gypsies. And the rhythm is from the Moors. But the singing is from the Jews,” Santangelo explained in an interview with the Forward. An important example of the Jewish connection is the similarity of the nomenclature of Jewish synagogue singers and lead flamenco vocalists. “It’s no accident that they are called cantor and cantaor,” Santangelo said.
A child born of New York hippie parents in the 1960s, Santangelo’s birth name was Marty Goldin. His father, a Jewish scientist and sculptor, and his mother, an Argentine dancer, often housed artists at their apartment, including the world-famous flamenco dancer Mario Mayer. But flamenco didn’t capture Santangelo’s soul until early adulthood, when he traveled to Spain to study flamenco dance technique. In Madrid, he discovered both his life’s passion and his future wife, Soledad Barrio, now the incomparable lead dancer of Noche Flamenca. He then adopted his mother’s surname, Santangelo, an admittedly better flamenco marquee headliner than Goldin.
From the get-go, Santangelo felt a Jewish presence in Spanish culture. “When I was in Spain, I started getting these little intuitions of, ‘There’s something very Jewish here.’ In the faces, in the humor, in the food. You could see it and hear it. There is the same kind of harsh humor that Jews have in New York and the Sephardic Jews have in Spain.” That’s not surprising, because Jews, including intellectuals, businessmen and governmental advisors, integrated themselves comfortably into Spanish society until the Inquisition of the 15th century.
Santangelo has traced one of flamenco’s roots to a pre-Inquisition song called “Romance,” whose melody and rhythm are still performed regularly on flamenco stages. “A Sephardic Jew would go into the town square and give a sing-song tale of what happened yesterday or today,” Santangelo said. “It had to be a strong call for attention to get the town to listen to you at 8 o’clock in the morning.”
When oppressed Jews, Gypsies and Arabs later hid in nocturnal caves, flamenco developed a richer, diverse underground identity, but kept the same Jewish tonalities. “There is a mathematical logic to the tonality, and those rules we use in flamenco are the same rules that the Sephardic Jews and even today’s cantors use,” Santangelo said. “The use of the voice — the breath, the throat, whether the voice is nasal or comes out of the cheekbones — is the same.” The percussive dancing, often the most identifiable aspect of flamenco, was not introduced to the art form until 175 years ago.
When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain imposed exclusive Catholic rule on the Iberian peninsula, the mournful wailing of conversos (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity) became the secular “aaiieee!” now familiar in flamenco singing. A historical connection also exists between the emotional texture of the synagogue chants of the Kol Nidrei and Kaddish prayers and early forms of the flamenco song known as siguiriyas. And the word jaleo, meaning the flamenco practice of inspirational clapping and shouting, derives from the Hebrew word hallel (“to praise”).
The 39-year-old Santangelo, who retired from dancing due to a back injury, has striven to present Noche Flamenca as authentically as possible, although he admits that by nature flamenco is an impure art form. The unique quality of the 10-year-old company rests in the fluid melding of song and dance — there are three female dancers and six male musicians onstage — so that the emotional center of gravity doesn’t vacillate between the vocalists and the dancers. The musicians are never relegated to the background, and the dancers intermingle with them.
Above all, flamenco embodies the visceral call for attention, whether through plaintive wails, pleading arms, furious stamping or ecstatic shouts; that call has a historical precedent in the dehumanization of people — Gypsies, Moors and Jews. “What is important to me in flamenco — and why it began — is the way people wanted to express themselves personally,” said Santangelo, who also serves as Noche Flamenca’s principal choreographer. “Onstage what we do is to reproduce that individuality, which results in some kind of honesty. We see the guts of that person.”