World 101: Flamenco
Passionate and heartbreaking, wild and fiercely governed by centuries of tradition, flamenco is a quintessentially Spanish music. In its purest, most basic form, it is performed by a guitarist, a vocalist and a dancer. But flurries of ferocious hand-claps and stomps, virtuosic finger work and exquisitely theatrical twists, turns and, especially, just-barely-contained poses by the dancer mean that, in practice, that combination is never a calm, tame experience.
Flamenco's origins are murky and mysterious, but it's commonly thought to have originated in Andalucia in the 1500s. Like much of Spanish culture, it's a mix of Arabic, Jewish, Christian and, especially, Roma (Gypsy, known as Gitano in Spain) traditions. Over the centuries, flamenco has been through many high and low phases, heavily influenced by the politics of the time (and by racist stereotypes of the Gitano musicians who have honed the craft). Famed poet Federico Garcia Lorca was a fan (and even made his own flamenco recording with singer La Argentinita), as was president/dictator Franco, who promoted it as a national music. But the music had been reduced to tourist fodder by the 1960s -- until a creative revival in the 1970s and 80s, led by luminaries like Camaron de la Isla, Paco de Lucia and Carmen Linares, gave it new life. (That same period also introduced the world to flamenco's most famous group, who, ironically, aren't even from Spain: Arles, France's Gipsy Kings are a group of Gitano heritage who play a cousin of flamenco, rumba catalana.)
Today, flamenco's flames are fanned by a new generation of musicians. Artists like Estrella Morente, Diego El Cigala, Concha Buika, Ojos de Brujo and Chambao at once pay homage to this prolific tradition's history and nudge it in new directions, pairing it with everything from jazz to rock to electronic music.