Flamenco and Gypsy Guitar, an Evolution

Are you confused about the distinction between gypsy jazz and flamenco?  Well, you are not alone.  With the proliferation of groups playing music defined as gypsy jazz, gypsy rumba, flamenco, all of which we love listening to, we may be scratching our heads wondering what the difference is, if any.  I recently read a very informative and well-researched analysis of this question by Ronald Lee, a Canadian expert on the subject which I will try to paraphrase here. Lee is a Rumani translator, author and educator.

My question was “what is the difference between Gypsy music and Flamenco.  Mr. Lee, in his essay Roma and Flamenco, Myth and Reality, tells us that the myth of Flamenco deriving directly from Roma music is somewhat misleading.  First, during the Moorish rule of what is now Spain ending in 1492, Cordoba was an important center for music from many areas of the Near East, Africa and India was brought to the area by music students from all over the world.  This musical input was likely integrated into what was then the folk music of the area. The Roma people are not seen in Spain until the very end of the Moorish period.

Over the years, the Romas had moved from India, through Eastern Europe and eventually into Spain.  According to Lee, the instruments used during these periods, as well as the rhythms, were quite similar and the integration of influences gathered along the route produced the music brought by the Roma people to Spain when they arrived in the late 15th century.  They brought with them their music which merged into the local folk music at the time and became what is today known as Flamenco.

Early on Roma people lived freely in various parts of Spain but due to an edict by King Ferdinand V and Isabela I, requiring conversion to Christianity and cessation of nomadic practices, which was eventually enforced by Carlos I in 1593, those Romas who survived and remained were concentrated in gitanerías in Andalusia, specifically in the caves of Sacromonte.  By the way, the term Flamenco seems to have derived from the fact that the many Romas participated in the wars against the Moors as well as the Flemish wars of that earlier period. Those who returned from the wars were sometimes referred to as Flamencos and the music took on the name. Lee asks the question if Flamenco music would have existed if the Romas had not come to Spain.  His answer is that it would have been very different.

Lee describes the evolution of Flamenco as we know it today in its more sophisticated form.

“Like the blues in America or rembetiko music in Greece, it began as the esoteric music of the ghetto, slums or gitanerías, then travelled to the local honky-tonk frequented by its marginalized sub-culture of outcast creators, then to the cafés of the aficionados or fans who had suddenly discovered it, and finally to the concert stage. There it was stripped of its raw folk origin when adopted by the genteel sophisticates, stylised and made more acceptable to those who had never known the pain of rejection, jails, hunger and persecution.”

The Flamenco music that we hear in concert halls today often follows this pattern.  However, many modern interpreters have travelled and studied with Gypsies in Spain, specifically Sacromonte, and with those in Southern France (think Gypsy Kings) and from this exposure comes a more authentic Flamenco puro.

Flamenco music often has a very melancholic, tragic feeling, somewhat like the Portuguese Fado. This was especially true in its early form when canto (voice) and then dance were placed higher in importance than the guitar, which was considered an accompaniment. The 20th century brought the rise of the importance of the guitarist as virtuoso and popularity of the more spirited sound of Rumba, the music having traveled from Spain to Cuba and back, resulting in a more festive rhythm.  Django Reinhardt and others played a big role in popularizing the music in Europe, followed by the Gypsy Kings of the current period.

Hopefully some of this information helps to clarify our confusion regarding definitions.  However, it is not necessary to understand all of the history to enjoy the marvelous sounds being produced right here in Vallarta following the Flamenco tradition.  Happy listening!

By Christie Seeley, Vallartasounds.com