This is the third piece in 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 requires 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 is 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 fashion aspect of flamenco, the art form’s accoutrements, such as castanets and cajons, and the concept of sello proprio. —MP
Renowned artist & up-and-coming dress designer share the stories behind their love of flamenco
The taxi driver inserted a cd into the player on his dashboard and the car flooded with the evocative sounds of flamenco guitar. The music offered a fitting score for our drive toward the studio of renowned flamenco dancer, or bailaor, known simply as Antoñete, located in the neighborhood of La Macarena. As I watched the barrio’s street lamps begin to twinkle in the dusk, the husky voice of a singer rose in a melancholy melody to the chords.
I asked the name of the singer. “Pansequito,” said the taxi driver with a smile. He explained that the nickname means “Dried Bread,” an affectionate reference to the singer’s rough voice, perfectly suited for conveying the raw emotion of flamenco’s many moods.
This barrio’s name comes from the Arabic meaning “gate,” and the medieval wall that runs through it is punctuated by several major arches. The neighborhood is best known as being home to the Virgen de la Macarena, a wooden statue of which dates from the 17th century and can be found in the Basilica.
I was told that during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the revered figure is outfitted in new, specially-designed robes and transported from the church on a solid silver platform in a procession attended by thousands of the faithful. In fact, it is one of many processions made throughout the week, when the streets of Seville teem with parades of penitents following elaborate floats adorned with icons.
After reaching Antoñete’s flamenco studio, inside I found a half-dozen women following in his footsteps, mimicking his movements as he counted off beats, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro!” With the last syllables uttered, all heels slammed on the floor, hitting it hard. He invited them to repeat the footwork again and again, moving from one woman to the next to adjust their posture, their arms, their hands, their waists.
“A teacher needs to be able to transmit his tranquility,” Antoñete said later. “If he is too demanding, the students become demoralized. A person doesn’t need to learn quickly; some have more faculty than others. The principal thing is to like it.”
Maite Sedarra, a woman in her thirties, had been taking lessons for 1 ½ months.
“I have been unemployed since August and I’ve always wanted to study flamenco,” she said. “Now seemed like the time to do for myself what I have always wanted. It’s very difficult for me, but I love it — it’s the only kind of exercise I enjoy.”
Antoñete has operated his studio for two years. He accepts a maximum of 14 people for the beginner’s class, which starts in September and goes until June. For private lessons, held twice a week for a month, the cost is fifty-five euro.
Antoñete was raised in Cadiz ; he is the only person in his family involved with flamenco. He said it was “complicated” for any young man who liked ballet or dancing. When he was nine years old and in grammar school, he would watch a class through a window. Looking longingly through its iron bars, he learned to dance the Sevillenas. One day the teacher saw him and invited him in. He began dancing with a girl who became his partner for many years.
Antoñete became a professional at age 15 and has been in Seville now for 16 years, 12 as an El Arenal artist. One of the pieces I saw him perform had been with a partner of another sort — a pair of castanets. I had marveled at his concentration and ability to focus on creating one beat with his footwork and another with these hand-held instruments.
Keeping the Flamenco Beat: Castanets & Cajon
“The history of castanets comes from the early times of Andalucia’s history,” explained Manuel Macias, Director of Seville Congress & Convention Bureau. “In Roman times, the writer Pliny the Elder wrote about Cádiz female dancers, who went to Rome to dance with crotalos, or a kind of castanets made of clamshells. Later, there were castanets crafted of special wood and ebony. Now most of them are made of fiberglass. The only castanet factories are located in Seville.”
“It’s a percussión instrument and there was a period in which it was used by almost all dancers, male and female,” he continued. “Later, use of castanets declined and now they are used again and accepted as a virtuose musical instrument. In fact, there are some castanets concertists, such as Lucero Tena, and currently, one of the producers of castanets in Seville, Pepe Vela is very good performer.”
“A recent evolution in the music is the cajon, a wooden percussion box brought to Andalucia in the 1970s by Paco De Lucia who saw it in Lima,” Macias asid. “He thought it was a good instrument to stress the rhythm of flamenco. In fact it was the percussionist Ruben Dantas, who played with Paco de Lucía who realized the use of this instrument as a way to amplify the palmas, or hand clapping.”
“There are flamenco artists that do not like to use the cajon as they say it is not a pure flamenco instrument and the percussion must be performed by just hand clapping or with the dancer’s shoes,” He continued. “We cannot say that use of the cajon is a significant evolution in flamenco music but we can say that it represents an open door to dialogue with other music and cultures. This is one of the most significant keys about current flamenco: it is still under development thanks to the inclusion and experience with all kind of music and dances. It is truly open art.”
Mother-Daughter Dressmakers Elevate Regional Costume to Art Form
That openness extends beyond the music itself to encompass an entire fashion movement –- one that is based on styles in which Andalucian peasants dressed centuries ago, that today is haute couture created for clients on other continents.
“There is a common factor in women’s style of a long skirt with ruffles,” Macias told me. “It is a big industry, with handcrafted special clothes for big artists but it is also popular fashion. If you walk along the streets of Seville, you will see the windows of many shops offering flamenco clothes for regular people.”
Indeed, as I wandered through a commercial area not far from Plaza del Triunfo in the heart of Seville’s historic center, my eye was drawn to a storefront named Aurora, festooned with flamenco finery. The garments on display seemed to dare me to walk past without slowing down for a closer look. The colors and cut of the dresses sang out with a gypsy riff that was sassy, boisterous and provocative. Not being able to resist the invitation, I opened the door and met Aurora.
Or one of them, at least. Aurora Gavino has owned the store for 20 years. While she has been a dressmaker for five decades, the store is filled with creations made by her daughter, also named Aurora.
“My first dress was a Fandango costume, people don’t wear them anymore,” mother Aurora told me. “The costume had little balls sewn on and only two ruffles at the bottom. There were hundreds made at the time, they were all in beige and everyone looked the same.”
“I made my first dress when I was 25 — a lot of women began sewing much sooner,” she continued. “In the olden days, making the dresses was just a part of life, you weren’t elevated to being called a ‘designer.’”
Nonetheless, she was very proud to say her daughter has been a designer for ten years, declaring “It is her passion, she studied another area academically but this is her calling.”
I was reminded of an exchange with anthropologist and flamenco dancer Clara Chinoy, in which she had recounted to me a conversation with Juan Maya Marote, a flamenco guitarist from Granada.
“He said ‘I believe that personal stamp is important in flamenco–and in painting and in anything which is art. Haven’t you heard a guitarist in a room behind a door, and you know who is playing? Sello propio…is something that comes out of the soul, from the heart. It is not the same to play the guitar by studying it without it mattering to you…as it is to play because your heart tells you to and because you are living it.’”
Aurora accompanied me around the shop, tugging on my arm to show me a particular dress, or point out a certain accessory. She explained that her daughter exhibits in an annual flamenco fashion show that has a new theme each year. Two years earlier, it had been Mexico; last year was “Flowers of Bach.”
Manuel Macias had told me about this regular event.
“Traje de flamenco is the only regional costume that each year renovates its designs,” he said. “Every year there is a new collection. In February, Salón Internacional de la moda flamenco is celebrated. This is an international flamenco fashion meeting, where the best designers display their best collections both for individual and private use as well as for flamenco performers. There are also flamenco performances along with the exhibition.”
Aurora told me that her daughter’s collections always revolve around a specific theme. One year it had been “tauro,” or bullfighting, images. Most recently, the line involved images of La Macarena, the venerated Virgin. Young Aurora called the line Alma, meaning “soul;” the inspiration behind the motif was her sister, who had died suddenly three years earlier. The elder Aurora told me that the imagery was represented with a great deal of respect but the concept was so revolutionary and shocking to such a devoutly religious community that her daughter was almost put in jail.
Flamenco’s ‘Sello Propio’ Celebrates Individuality
I was reminded of the concept of sello propio that Clara Chinoy had told me about. She had shared with me that one of the highest forms of praise from one flamenco artist about another is that they are tiene sello propio–that is, that they are very personal, they don’t resemble anyone else, and they have their own personal “stamp.” Conversely, Clara had said, one of the most frequent criticisms heard of young flamenco artists by the old-timers nowadays is that they are all they same, they all look like each other, and they imitate too much.
Clara also spoke of the notion of adversity as a catalyst for creativity.
“I remember hearing la Fernanda de Utrera say that it was her struggle with her voice and her art which made her so flamenca,”Chinoy recalled. “I remember it particularly vividly because it was the first time I had ever heard the term lucha, struggle or fight, used in the context of making art. I had always conceived of the more classical notion of hiding the struggle, making it appear easy.”
Chinoy also related that another flamenco singer, Sebastian Roman, had explained to her that it was seeking recursos or salidas–recourses or “ways out”–that made each singer find his or her individual style.
Aurora told me that despite the drama around the Alma collection, her daughter’s style has continued to grow in popularity. As flamenco fusión has filtered into the fashion world, the young Aurora has branched out into creating evening wear and wedding dresses, for which she has American as well as Spanish clients.
“The attire of flamenco is always evolving,” Macias observed. “The dress is changing and is not as stylized, it’s more natural. The clothes and shoes have evolved–there are better boots that are more comfortable for the artists. Men used to wear a short jacket and now it is often just pants, shirt and a vest. There is also an export business–Japan and the U.S. are two main markets for flamenco products.”
Nonetheless, Aurora told me that the busiest time of year is the approach of La Feria de abril de Seville. As this annual extravaganza nears, Aurora’s dresses are in high demand. Her creations range in price from 600 – 1,200 euros, with the more costly dresses using materials such as natural silk, gold thread and hand-painted designs. The most expensive dress she has designed carries a price tag of 8,000 euros.
The Seville Spring Festival starts two weeks following Semana Santa and is set up along the Guadalvivir River. The river bank is always crowded with rows of casetas–tents of varying sizes made of brightly-coloured canvas and decorated with thousands of paper lanterns. These tents are private, belonging to families, groups of friends, clubs, trade associations, or political parties.
Everyone is a gypsy during the Feria and los Sevillenos strut their stuff in exquisite flamenco attire, with the women pouring into the curve-hugging dresses and the men sporting the unique wide-brimmed “Cordobés” hats and short-cropped jackets typical of Andalucia. I was told the Fair is a celebration for the senses–the smell of fried fish, the sound of carriages being pulled by grey Jerezano horses, the taste of churros con chocolate, and endless dancing of the Sevillenas to the beat of flamenco music enlivening each caseta.
“Flamenco is present, in its way, in every party and public celebration, either civil or religious, making its own distinction and difference,” said Ms. Maria Angeles Albert de Leon, Spain’s Director of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets. “The art is part of Christmas with its carols and campanilleros, on popular parties and pilgrimages from South Spain with the fandangos and sevillenas, on Holy Week through the saetas sang from the balconies when the parades are passing, on weddings with the alboreás and bulerías.”
In my visit, I learned that just as flamenco is an art form at the core of crowded Andalucian annual events, it is also a cultural tradition passed down from mother to daughter, and teacher to student, with great care and feeling.