The Romani Influence on Spanish Flamenco

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Flamenco dancing has incorporated a number of different elements into its form over the centuries, making it one of the most spectacular and passionate dances of all time. One of these forms was the Romani (or Gypsy) style of spontaneous music known as ‘juerga’ (‘spree’).

The juerga starts by the singers singing one song after another, full of melancholy and suffering, clearly showing the Indian origins. In the Siguiriya Gitana is full of descriptions of prisons, crimes of passion and vendetta. After singing such songs, the dancer parodies the melancholy of the singer, but it is more intense and wilder than the Spanish elements. Not only this, but the dancers use graceful movements of their hands and arms, just as they did in their Indian homeland.

The Spanish people have described flamenco, both in terms of vocal style and text content-as a “cry of pain” – pain, most explicitly, of the persecuted Romani, but also to the Spanish people who lived under the rule of the Moors. The oppression and the persecution of the Romani is a central theme in flamenco music, intensifying the use of flamenco as a vehicle for social commentary.

The Romani first arrived in Spain via France in the 15th century CE from India where they originated from. Thousands of Romani settled in the Andalusia region, sharing the poverty of the Spanish people, whilst being seen as outcasts and feared. This was a time when authorities needed to scapegoats for many reasons and the Romani fulfilled this role.

However, by the 1700’s, the Romani started to become more respected. Settled communities of these Romani rose up and were known as casero (‘house-owning’). It was these Romani, as opposed to their nomadic andarrio and canastero kin, which promoted and developed flamenco in an intricate practice of syncretic, dialectic communication with non-Romani audiences and music.

During the mid-20th century, the Romani experienced displacement and their normal jobs became obsolete. In this period, casero Romani were able to capitalize upon and further promote the spread of flamenco by becoming professional musicians.

Many flamenco texts clearly show their Romani origins – celebrating gypsy-style freedom from au-thority, and, more pathetically, the innumerable verses narrating persecution and prison life. One flamenco text reads, “The horsemen on the corners, with lanterns and torches/ Were shouting “Kill him, he’s a gypsy!” Another text reads, “Miner, why do you work, if the profits aren’t for you?/ For the boss are the jewels, for your family, mourning/ And for you, the funeral shroud”.

Such explicit politicization of flamenco lyrics intensified in the 20th century, as Marxist thinking spread across Andalusia and impoverished workers abandoned their conventional fatalism for radical mobilization. At the same time, flamenco singers’ use of stylish lyrics became routine, and many esteemed poets were content to write verse specially intended for flamenco shows.

In contemporary society, Romani still make up a large portion of leading flamenco singers and continues to be an important focus and inspiration for the Romani society. Romani vocalists appear to be receptive to their significance and meaning to their community, acknowledging that they are the most noticeable and even prominent ambassadors of their people.

Bibliography:

Manuel, Peter (1989) Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity in Contemporary Flamenco Complex, Ethnomusicology, University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology.

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