Flamenco: Duende

This is the second 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, while I was travelling through Spain. 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 features the history of flamenco and the magical phenomenon of duende. —MP

Stepping out onto the sunlit cobblestones of the narrow street, I heard the unmistakable sound of a glorious day being heralded.  Trumpets blared, drums rolled and cymbals clashed — literally.  I recognized the brassy strains of a parade in progress and kicked up my heels, hurriedly heading to face the music.  Sevillanos in blue uniforms I sometimes have a knack for stumbling upon unexpected celebrations when travelling and Sevilla was smiling upon me.

With my ears as my guide, I trotted through maze-like lanes until I caught up with the tail end of a long line of marching band clubs at the broad boulevard of Paseo de Colon on the banks of the river Guadalquivir.  The troop, a cross-section of Sevillanos, took a breather in front of Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, and enjoyed a few moments of camaraderie, many of them lighting up cigarettes.  Their crisp navy uniforms stood in contrast to the golden hues of the bullring’s Neoclassical façade looming behind them.

Whatever one might think about the Spanish bullfighting ritual, the elegant architecture of these plazas feels inspired.  Sevilla’s bullring dates from 1762 -1881 and was immortalized in Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” which centers on a fiery gypsy whose free-spirited ways hasten her end.

Horse and carriage The gypsy community is alive and well in Sevilla today, an important part of the city’s cultural fabric and history.  Indeed, the gitanos are credited with being the catalytic force behind the creation of flamenco, of which Sevilla has long been considered the epicenter.


Blacksmith painting“The gypsies left India in the 6th century and were wanderers through Africa and Europe,” Manuel Macías, Director of Sevilla Congress & Convention Bureau told me. “It is said that gypsies travelled in one huge caravan to Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq, where they split into two routes.  There is evidence one group came through the east, and Hungary, Romania and Central Europe, then crossed through France and the Pyrenees into Spain.”

“While there is no proven history on this, it is said that a second branch of this caravan came through Egypt, where they worked in the mines,” he continued. “The reference of the gypsies working in Egyptian mines is very weak and comes from some flamenco lyrics.  Nowadays it is said by experts that current gypsies coming from this flow have blonde hair and blue or green eyes.  These were known as the gitanos béticos–Baetica was the name of Andalucia in Roman times.”

Flamenco Gypsy posterDuring my own wanderings in Sevilla and other parts of Andalucia, I got glimpses of the lore behind the renowned gypsy roaming.  These stories were often shared with cautionary caveats that many were without evidence and could just as easily be manufactured myth.  Yet the people passing on these legends did so with obvious delight.  I was only too pleased to receive the tales in the same spirit.  There is no denying the appeal for the romantic rebel in all of us of a mysterious, eternal existence in exile, one with few responsibilities–and perhaps royal roots.

One story I heard claimed the gypsies descend from the Egyptian pharaohs; the term gitano is said to derive from “egipciano” or “egiptano.”  Another explained that their nomadic lifestyle resulted from refusing to help Mary and Joseph.  Yet another legend tells of a gypsy blacksmith being asked to fashion four nails.  While forging the fourth, he was told they were to be used for Christ’s crucifixion.  The flaming-hot nail was dropped and has ever since pursued and haunted the gypsies.

Man and horseAccording to Macias, the gitanos béticos are well-integrated among Andalucian natives, many with jobs in agriculture or related to animals, mainly horses–where they are regarded as highly-skilled.

“The important point is that gypsies are all over the world–but only in Andalucía did they perform flamenco!” Macias exclaimed.   “When they arrived in Spain in 1475 a special mixture occurred, with the gypsy rhythms combining with the influences of many civilizations that had left their seal on Andalucía — Greeks, from ancient Crete, Romans, Phoenicians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.”

Throughout my travels, it was easy to see how Andalucía had enticed all these cultures, even the wandering gitanos béticos, to call this region home.  Most believe like Macias that it was the gypsies who stirred the cultural pot, adding more than a dash of their own spices, to create the artistic gazpacho of flamenco, today consider as the quintessential emblem of Andalucia.

Feteagrenade“Flamenco music is Andalucian history,” declared Judy A. Cotter, a professor of Spanish culture and art history in Sevilla. “When the gypsies arrived from their ancestral home of India in 1477, they encountered almost eight centuries of Arabic musical tradition and over 10 centuries of Jewish musical elements.    Both the Arabic muecin who called the faithful to prayer and the Jewish cantor intoned the “Oriental scale” based upon quarter-tones and eighth-tones, which still today give the flamenco song its “wailing” quality.  It also lends flamenco cante, or song, its great emotive and creative quality.”

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