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Seville, Home of Flamenco

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Seville, Home of Flamenco

This is part of a four-part series on flamenco, an art form that was named to UNESCO’s Representative List of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010. The criteria for that designation require that the practice must be transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity. It is something traditional that is passed on from the past but also alive and constantly evolving.

This series is intended to share my experience of flamenco as embodying Andalusia’s heart and soul, with its people as a prism, offering glimmers of the art’s history and future. This installment in the series focuses on the diversity of flamenco and that of the city in which many believe it came alive — Sevilla. —MP

Perhaps to the tinkling of mules’ bells or the steady clip-clop of horses’ hooves or the rhythmic rolling of wagon wheels, all roads led to Sevilla for an eclectic mix of future Andalusians.  Those wanderers who found a home here included Semitic traders of silver, ivory and apes at the time of Solomon, North African Arabs seeking to spread the fledgling Muslim faith in the 8th century, and nomadic gypsies arriving in caravans from India in the early 15th century.  These cultural ambassadors converged in Andalusia carrying with them the music of their homelands–Jewish psalmodic melodies, Byzantine and Muslim chants, and ancient Hindu chords.

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Just as the sounds of these diverse people blended here to create flamenco, so too the imprint of their influences is etched in stone, ceramics and spires in Sevilla, said to be the birthplace of the performance art.

Some of these cultural legacies take shape in the form of Real Alcazar, the oldest European royal residence, which has been in constant use for more than 1,000 years.  The complex of adjoining buildings and gardens are a concrete manifestation of the Spanish term convivencia, or “living together.”  A maze of structures that is a delight to dally in, the fortress was built in the 10th century by Arabs, enlarged in Gothic and Renaissance styles during the reigns of Ferdinand  and Isabel and their grandson, the Emperor Charles V and restored in the 14th century Hispano-Arabic, or Mudejar, style by the Christian King Peter I, with the help of his advisor, Samuel Levi, a Jew.

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I enjoyed a contented half-hour contemplating the palace’s exterior from a sunny curbside seat in the Plaza del Triunfo, in the heart of Sevilla’s historic center.  The Real Alcazar is one of three architectural wonders that enclose the plaza, the others being the Archives of the Indies and the Cathedral of Sevilla.  The square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was alive with more ephemeral fixtures — orange trees bearing fruit in November, a street vendor selling roasted chestnuts and the boisterous drivers of horse-drawn carriages enjoying a raucous break together.  In a glamorous flourish to the old world tableau, a bride and groom posed for pictures on the rim of a fountain, serenaded by a grey-haired man seated at the base of the fortress wall, strumming a ballad that resonated with longing.

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While the facade of each of the three buildings surrounding the plaza is ornate, the facade of the palace is especially eye-catching.  Set within an immense crenellated defensive wall is the Lion’s Gate, plastered in a shade of strawberry sherbet, and adorned with ceramic tile work, known as azulejos, depicting a heraldic lion.

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Heeding El Alcazar’s call, I spent several peaceful hours soaking up its ambience, buzzing like a bumble bee from one exquisite bloom to the next, absorbed by vignettes of palace life — walls of hand-painted tiles lavishly embroidered with delicate Islamic designs, luminous peacocks parading past corridors of reflecting pools, keystone arches in the shade of swaying palm trees.

A range of architectural periods co-exist side-by-side here, where adjoining palaces in Gothic and Mudéjar styles each present a unique face to the world, yet somehow seem meant to be together, like generations in an extended family.  The Mudéjar manner is an Andalusian phenomenon — a fusion of Christian and Islamic art created by the Arabs who remained in Spain after the Reconquest, and derived from the Arabic mudajjin, meaning “those staying behind.”

Sevilla seems to have that effect on its visitors — exiting the palace grounds through the Lion’s Gate, I stopped to admire an artist’s open air gallery.  As I purchased a whimsical watercolor of the scene, the painter told me in a brogue that she had arrived from Ireland eight years ago on what she laughingly described as the world’s longest vacation.

I made my way to the nearby Plaza de la Virgin de los Reyes, where I met a new friend, Judy Cotter, a university professor originally from California who has made Sevilla home for more than two decades. She had suggested we rendez-vous at the Hotel Dona Maria so I could admire the spectacular view from its rooftop terrace.  I was grateful to be the beneficiary of both her recommendation and good timing–the Cathedral’s Giralda was backlit by a dramatic sky swirling in pink and lavender.

Built in 1184-96 as a mosque, the tower is considered the finest of the three great minarets created by the Almohad Muslim dynasty.  Topped with four copper spheres that could be seen for miles around, the Moorish tower was used both to call the faithful to prayer and as an observatory from which the horizon could be scanned.  The Giralda,  named for the giraldillo, or weather vane, at its heights became the bell tower of what now is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral — and the third-largest church in the world.  Begun 1402 after the Catholic Reconquista, the cathedral was intended to demonstrate Sevilla’s wealth as a major trading center.  According to oral tradition, the builders’ aspiration was: “Let us build a church so beautiful and so great that all posterity will take us for madmen.”

With the giddy grandiosity of the Giralda as our launching pad, we set off for the Museum of Flamenco Dance, winding our way through the eccentric labyrinth that is Sevilla’s Barrio Santa Cruz.  Without my resident guide, I would have been hopelessly — although probably quite happily — lost in the neighborhood’s maze of colorful and quirky cobblestone lanes.

Crumbling white-washed buildings leaned in over narrow streets, their walls like stretched canvases daubed in the corners with radiant shrines to favored saints.  The Plaza Alfaro here is said to have inspired the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet;” most buildings were adorned with these artful appendages, crafted by artisans who took care to tile even their undersides with brightly-patterned tiles, the better for voyeurs like me to take in with tilted heads.  Behind the elaborate scrollwork of wrought-iron gates, scores of leafy ferns and fichus trees were symmetrically spaced in secret courtyards, like botanic pieces on a giant chessboard.

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Despite the votive offerings in niches embedded in walls along each block, the Barrio Santa Cruz in fact is the city’s old judería or Jewish quarter.  When Ferdinand III of Castile conquered the city from Muslim rule, he concentrated the city’s Jewish population — second in the Iberian Peninsula only to that of Toledo — in this single neighborhood.  After the Alhambra Decree of 1492 expelled the Jews from Spain, the neighborhood declined, eventually undergoing urban renewal in the 18th century.

The Museum of Flamenco Dance is housed in a building from this era known as a Casa de Palacio, and showcases the art form with a dramatic flair befitting its flamboyant style.  The renowned flamenco dancer Cristina Hoyos was the mastermind behind the museum, which opened in 2006.  Cristina, one of the most important and respected dancers of late, grew up in the very same streets where the museum is now located.  She has worked with many of the legends of flamenco dance, and different areas of the museum are dedicated to her teachers and associates, including Antonio Gades, Enrique el Cojo and Pilar Lopez.

According to anthropologist and flamenco dancer Clara Chinoy, in an earlier era, artists of flamenco frequently stayed in their pueblo, and if someone wanted to hear or see them, they had to go there. Chinoy noted these performers didn’t have recordings or television or video, as they do today, and thus they didn’t see a lot of other dance or music styles, and so the variety of influences on their art was kept to a minimum. At the same time, the pool of artists was smaller and from a more homogeneous community, meaning that the aesthetic and canons of the art form were more generally taken for granted than they might be now.

Manuel Macias, Director of Sevilla Congress & Convention Bureau, explained to me that today flamenco encompasses a range of diverse styles — with some 73 distinct genres.  There is a base, which is the rhythm and from that, there are many variations. For instance, one style is the Fandango — of which there are more than 60 different types.

Chinoy pointed to Belen Maya as a flamenco artist of the modern generation.  She said that Belen, who grew up in part in the United States, has had extensive training in flamenco, and has also been strongly influenced by other dance styles. Chinoy believes Belen’s process of finding her personal style has been characteristic of her generation and very influential for those dancing today.

Victor Bravo, photo by Richard Torres

Victor Bravo, photo by Richard Torres

“Belen says that personal stamp in flamenco is different, because in other types of dance it is very difficult to stand out from a mass of people, you must be very brilliant, or have a great deal of talent,” Chinoy told me.  “In flamenco the personality of each person comes out easily, right away, and in fact that helps you.  Belen also commented that in the current day, there are so many influences and such extensive training in flamenco that it has been harder for young artists to find their own style.”

According to Chinoy, when she asked Belen how she would describe her own personal style, she cited her use of theatrical elements, in the sense that her dances always have a story, a beginning and an end, as if she were a character. Belen suggested to Chinoy that this theatricality is in part a heritage from her mother, Carmen Mora, and particularly her father, Mario Maya, saying she received from her mother a certain theatrical presence and from her father, the way of understanding the structure of a dance, something a little more cerebral.

Chinoy noted that a major impetus in flamenco’s ongoing evolution is the process of creating out of one’s own idiosyncrasies — be they advantages or shortcomings. She singled out Juan Maya Marote, who invented a kind of rasgueado — a percussive strumming technique–which has become a basic part of the Flamenco guitar vocabulary.

“Marote told me that because his little finger is missing a joint, it’s shorter than everyone’s, so he started to play the guitar with three fingers, when everyone else was using four,” Chinoy explained.  “He did rasgueado with three fingers and it came out cojo — literally, ‘lame.’  But, with a great deal of hard work, that rasgueado eventually came out so round and even, that today it is a basic ingredient of flamenco guitar technique.”

“Marote didn’t decide that he couldn’t be a flamenco guitarist because he had a short little finger and therefore would never play a perfect four-fingered rasgueado, nor did he try to hide the defect — either of which would be likely to happen in the world of classical music,” Chinoy said.  “Rather, he took that idiosyncrasy and struggled with it, until he actually created something new that worked within the canons of flamenco sound.  And in spite of the increasing technicality and perfectionism of modern flamenco, this personal idiosyncracy generally is still an important ingredient in what makes a great flamenco artist.”

As I toured the Museum, the sounds of flamenco reverberated throughout its interior, where a monument to an unheralded feature of flamenco holds a place of prominence. Suspended from the ceiling of the four-story building’s atrium is a mobile-type sculpture of the high-backed Andalusian chairs commonly used by flamenco guitarists. These symbols of Andalusia float above the courtyard and are visible from throughout the building.  Other displays, both traditional and high tech, chronicle the art’s history from its earliest days to the present.  One exhibit simulates a dressing room, with a lavish collection of costumes, hats, shawls, castanets, fans and old posters; in another room, state-of-the-art interactive video depicts both flamenco’s ancient roots and current performers.

The Museum hosts performances after closing and I was privileged to be among an intentionally small audience enjoying the artistry from close proximity to the dramatically-lit stage. In the intimate setting and over the span of an hour, I felt the depth and spectrum of human emotion from soaring joy to profound sadness, through the expressiveness of the artists baring their souls on the stage.

In addition to its presentation of flamenco’s history, the Museum contributes to the art’s future by offering classes in dance, guitar and singing.  The evening’s finale featured a young Asian bailaora, who somewhat timidly joined the professionals onstage.  Any hint of insecurity vanished when she began to move to — and channel — the music.  Her zapateo, or footwork, and duende culminated in enthusiastic cries of “Ole,” “Arsa” and “Za, za, za” from her fellow artists on the tablao and those of us in the audience.

Photo courtesy of Victor Bravo

Photo courtesy of Victor Bravo

“Flamenco is savage, pure, a constant explosion of feelings that doesn’t lose its energy,” he declared. “Everything is channeled to create the magic — the ambience, the air, the walls, the public, the lights. There is an energetic communion of artist and the audience and it creates a world.”

That assessment of flamenco as a “world” was echoed by Ms. Maria Angeles Albert de Leon, Spain’s Director of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets.

“Flamenco reflects that respect for cultural diversity, for creativity and for other communities because it has turned into an element of cultural dialogue where there is room for everyone: from students and foreigner artists who fall in love with this art and leave everything to live it, know it and enjoy it in first person to the new generation of artists who experiment and mix with other cultural forms,” she said “It has always been this way: from the beginning of the exchange between Gypsies and Andalusia until today, when the dialogue is between different countries where the actors are Japanese, Mexican or Canadian.”

“In every spot of Andalusia you can feel and live flamenco in an authentic way–both the most orthodox singing recitals or the most avant-garde performances are equally genuine,” she continued.  “Today it has turned into a stronger link which has made a deep impression in the Andalusian society and which arouses the international community’s interest.  Flamenco does not only entertain with shows and it is not only a research and study subject: it’s is also an intercultural bridge bringing peoples closer.”

Indeed, I returned from Spain enriched by my flamenco immersion, and feeling a sense of connection with the kindred souls I had encountered in Andalusia, who shared a passion for creativity, expression and individuality.  The spirit of duende, the soul of flamenco, and principle of sello propio, or “personal stamp,” were in evidence throughout my travels — from the earnest exuberance of students at academy Amor de Dios to the virtuoso artistry of the Tablao El Arenal and the Museum of Flamenco Dance, as well as in the art form’s fashions and, most certainly, imbued in the essence of Sevilla.

Clara Chinoy’s parting words to me perhaps said it best.

“When flamenco is truly authentic, as the flamencos say, la verdad suena. ‘The truth speaks.’ ”