August 31, 2022

Flamenco: A Gypsy-Andalusian Love Affair

Oye, hijo mío, el silencio. 

Es un silencio ondulado,
un silencio,
donde resbalan valles y ecos
y que inclinan las frentes
hacia el suelo.

Listen, my child, to the silence.
It is a silence that comes in waves,
a silence
where valleys and echoes slide
and brows incline
towards the ground.

El silencio, Federico Garcia Lorca

Music has to be one of the most enjoyable ways of bringing history to life.

Although the Muslim period in Spain officially ended in 1492 with the handover of the Granada emirate to the Castilians King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Islamic culture miraculously managed to survive, hidden in many forms, over the following five centuries. One of the ways that Muslim culture left its mark was through its influence on Spanish folk music.

Flamenco, the impassioned musical form that is the polka-dotted hallmark of gipsies in Southern Spain, provides us with a fascinating window into the relationship between Moriscos and Gitanos, Spain’s branch of the Roma people. It is not hard, on listening to Camarón de la Isla, La Paquera, Manolo Caracol, Enrique Morente, Estrella Morente or Concha Buika, to hear something of the vocal dexterity and sorrow present in much of Arabic songs.

While flamenco is generally associated with the Gitanos, it is in fact fairer to say that it is an Andalusian music form, a product of the encounter between Gitano and Andalusian folk music. Even the term ‘gypsy’ is a misnomer; originating among the Jatt clan from present-day India and Pakistan, the nomadic people now called Romanis began their long odyssey West in the 11th century, moving gradually through Persia before branching into Northern and Southern Europe. Upon arriving at France’s border with Spain in the 1400s, some were given passports mistakenly naming them as the “Princes and Counts of Little Egypt”. However, in meeting the Muslim elements still present in Andalusia, these two marginal cultures formed a circle that embraced East and West and cast an echo into each other that would emerge as a song.

Cante jondo, the most ancient of the flamenco styles, preserves most clearly the “primitive songs of the oriental people”, according to the poet Lorca. It is characterised by a narrow vocal range, and repetition of notes in a way that is reminiscent of spoken word (or even rap), interspersed with the dramatic embellishment that makes flamenco singing so distinctive. It also used semi- and micro-tones, which are also used in Persian and Arabic music, and a complicated rhythm that famously cannot be notated but must be felt. This group of styles are strikingly similar to the sound of Qur’anic recitation.

When compared to gipsy music from more northerly areas such as Bulgaria or Croatia, it becomes clear that flamenco bears more than a passing resemblance to North African folk music. Certain flamenco melodies, such as Camarón de la Isla’s la Tarara, are plainly the same as North African melodies, while the zambra style of flamenco dance, performed at gipsy weddings, evolved from older Moorish styles and has many similarities to belly dancing. The word ‘zambra’ in Moroccan Arabic simply means ‘party’.

T.B. Irving writes in The World of Islam that “Gypsy music and cante jondo go back to the zajal [sung Arabic lyric poetry] and the five-tone scale.” Musicologists even trace the ubiquitous flamenco cries ‘Ay ay ay!’ and ‘Ay li li!’ to the calls of blind Arab mendicants, ‘Ya ‘ain!’ (O, eye!) and ‘Ya, taeel!’ (O, night!). Most quintessentially ‘flamenquito‘ of all, however, is the exultant ‘¡Olé!’ shouted whenever a musician (or, for that matter, bullfighter) pulls off some crowd-pleasing trick, which almost certainly originates in the Muslim cry ‘Wa’Llah!’ (By Allah!) made during poetry recitals.

A Brief History of ‘¡Olé!’s

In the medieval period, Moriscos (forcibly baptised Moors who were often suspected – with good reason – of continuing their Islamic faith in secret) found themselves thrown together with two other persecuted groups within Spain’s melting pot of ethnicities: the Gypsies and the (crypto-)Jews. The meeting of cante gitano (gipsy song) and Andalusian folk music as early as the 16th century seems to have been the starting point that would, very gradually, lead to the development of flamenco.

But it was not until the late 19th century that flamenco would start to garner public interest as a performance art, with the opening of a new type of café, the ‘café cantante‘. Though the first one to open, in Seville in 1842, attracted little attention, by the 1860s similar cafés were springing up all across Andalusia and as far afield as Madrid. Two guitarists, one or two singers and a handful of male and female dancers would appear on stage to entertain the crowd, bringing together the three basic elements of flamenco: dance, song and guitar.

The latter half of the 19th century was flamenco’s golden age of performance. Up until this point, flamenco songs were accompanied by violins, tambourines and/or bandourrias (a 10-stringed instrument similar to a mandolin), but now the guitar – and particularly the solo – became enshrined as a vital component of flamenco. It was at these cafés that the founder of the modern school of flamenco, Ramón Montoya (1880-1940) found acclaim.

The years preceding and following the Civil War (1936-9) saw flamenco’s nadir, with paid performances hard to come by and morale low; Spain preferred the light-hearted croonings of popular singers such as Antonio Chacón, and the more operatic or balletic flamenco performances such as the zarzuelas popularised by Manuel de Falla.

But during the 1950s an avalanche of musicological and anthropological books began to appear on the subject of flamenco, paralleling a revival of the art form. From the 1970s on, there have been fusions with rock, blues, funk, pop, electro, house and chill-out through artists such as Smash, Pata Negra, Ojos de Brujo, O’funk’illo and Chambao. From the 1960s onwards, ‘tablaos‘ began to replace to ‘café cantantes‘ as establishments specifically offering flamenco spectacles. In modern times, flamenco has seen something of a return to its roots, led by musicians who are also known for great innovations in flamenco, such as the late Enrique Morente and his daughter Estrella. Concha Buika has also united traditional styles with African, blues and jazz influences:

Andalusi Impact on Flamenco

Al-Andalus, the period of Iberian history from 711 to 1496 CE during which much of the Iberian Peninsula was Muslim, is renowned for its role in the cultural flourishment of Western Europe. One important aspect of this cultural exchange was music. Moorish Spain and Portugal had, by the 11th century, become an important centre for the manufacture of musical instruments, which gradually began arriving in Provence. The first contribution that Muslims might be said to have made to flamenco is simply by providing the guitar.

William VIII brought Moorish music into European courtly life with the transfer of hundreds of Muslim prisoners to Poitiers from Andalusia, captured during the so-called Reconquista. Many of the instruments used in medieval France passed through to England and the rest of Europe, leaving an imprint on the French troubadour tradition as well. Thus the European terms for dozens of medieval instruments are derived from Arabic, the most common of which are the guitar (from qitara), lute (from ‘oud), rebec, the predecessor of the violin, (from rebab), and naker, a small drum which was the forebear of the kettledrum (from naqara).

Andalusian classical music is thought to have originated in Córdoba in the 9th century, possibly invented by the Persian musician, trendsetter and general man-about town Ziryab, or ‘Blackbird’ (d. 857), who arrived at ‘Abd ar-Rahman II’s court in Córdoba from Baghdad around 800 CE. Ziryab was also an inventor, adding a fifth string to the oud and dying the strings colours to signify the humours; he also established one of the first conservatoires in Spain, which influenced the singing and instrumental styles of Cordoban music for two generations. Later, the poet, composer and philosopher Ibn Bajjah of Zaragoza (d. 1139) is believed to have fused Western styles with those invented by Ziryab to formulate a new musical style than then spread across al-Andalus and beyond.

When most of the Muslims and Jews of al-Andalus were expelled after the Reconquista, the exiled Andalusis carried their musical styles to Morocco and Algeria, where Andalusian classical music would develop more fully. This is a form of music composed of suites, a little like ragas, each one of which is called a nubah, which is itself subdivided into 5 mizans. It is said that there were originally twenty-four nubahs, one for each hour of the day; however, only 11 have survived in Morocco, while 16 have survived in Algeria.

Meanwhile in Spain, flamenco was developing along its own lines, though strikingly similar in some ways to the sister culture that influenced it centuries before. It does not take a musicologist’s knowledge to hear the similarities which resonate across the vast space of time that separates, and yet somehow also unites them:

Flamenco has also become hugely popular in Turkey and Iran:

And the feeling’s mutual. Numerous Spanish musicians have performed Andalusi in collaboration with Moroccan musicians. One example is the group Cálamus, led by the Paniagua brothers, who perform

North African nubahs:

Both flamenco and Middle Eastern vocal styles are rich in floridly ornamented vocals, complicated rhythms, and impassioned voices expressing the depths of sorrow or loss – largely in the Phrygian scale, the minor scale with a distinctive augmented second interval that makes flamenco, Arabic and Persian music seem like long lost siblings. The late Lois Lamya al-Faruqi wrote that “The ornamental melodic style, the improvisatory rhythmic freedom, the sometimes ‘strange’ (to Western ears) intervals, the segmental structure, and the repeated excursions from and returns to a tonal center are some of the features that indicate Arab influence on cante flamenco.”

In 1922, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla organised a Cante Jondo competition for Granada, which many classical musicians and popular literary figures – such as the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca – contributed to, the results of which were presented in the Alhambra in June of that year. Lorca went on to present an entire conference on Cante Jondo, in the conference notes of which he writes:

‘”Cante jondo” approaches the rhythm of the birds and the natural music of the black poplar and the waves; it is simple in oldness and style. It is also a rare example of primitive song, the oldest of all Europe, where the ruins of history, the lyrical fragment eaten by the sand, appear live like the first morning of its life.’


Written by Medina Tenour Whiteman
for Al-Andalus Experience in 2014.

Al-Andalus Experience recommends:

Tablao La Maestranza in Córdoba, beside the Cathedral (old Mosque)

Los Gallos, Barranco de los Negros, Sacromonte, Granada

El Museo de Flamenco, Sacromonte, Granada

Museo del baile flamenco, Sevilla

Contact us for information about cultural tours and custom trips in Andalusia, Spain.


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