Recently recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and increasingly used by communities in southern Spain to attract tourism, flamenco music and dance seem to enjoy an unprecedented revival all around the world. But the public spaces and social centers that play a major role in the formation of flamenco culture are increasingly threatened by gentrification, newly legislated municipal ordinances and heavy policing.
On a rainy Friday this March in front of Seville’s city hall, more than 50 people, most of them middle-aged, circled a man playing guitar, joining with accompanying hand-clapping, while women of all ages occasionally entered the circle and broke into dance.
Although many of the tourists passing the square had mistaken the gathering for another street spectacle, this public Tertulia was in fact a political demonstration organized by members of the Peña de los Torres Macarena, an association dedicated to the performance of flamenco in response to being shut down by the police for noise violations.
Flamenco Peñas such as the Torres Macarena are a relatively new phenomena in the history of flamenco. These neighborhood associations of flamenco adherents popped up all around Andalusia as Spain transformed into a democracy in the ’70s, and since then they have played a significant role in teaching the traditions of music and dance to younger generations, providing crucial space to rising artists and strengthening the social fabric of flamenco in a noncommercial way.
Small Cultural Clubs for Preservation
Although sometimes criticized by younger artists for being conservative and resistant to new styles, these small, voluntary clubs are more commonly viewed as indispensable for the preservation of flamenco culture.
Located in the working-class neighborhood of Macarena for more than 40 years, the Peña de los Torres Macarena is the oldest to exist in Seville and is praised by flamenco aficionados from all around the world for its open atmosphere. Its local and international fame notwithstanding, the Peña was the target of constant complaints by a neighbor who moved to the vicinity a few years ago and who since then has frequently called the police because of the noise. Even expensive sound-blockers, paid for by the association, didn’t stop his complaints. Although commercial venues can pay their way around the law, this was impossible for the Peña.
Now denied the right to assemble in their own space, members of the Peña started a campaign to fight the decision of the police. They have called for numerous actions in front of the mayor’s office, bringing their community’s music and dance to the streets, in what is for many members their first political demonstration. Furthermore, with the help of younger activists, they have produced a YouTube clip featuring some of the most well-known flamenco artists, such as Israel Galvan, Cristina Hoyos and Ricardo Miño, among others, all protesting the closure of the Peña.
The story of the Peña Torres Macarena is not an isolated one. As members of the federation of Peñas in Andalusia confirmed, many such associations were forced to close down in recent years due to newly passed municipal noise ordinances. A suggested readjustment for the law to exempt live and non-amplified shows played in non-commercial venues is still being tossed around between the regional government of Andalusia and the municipality of Seville, while more Peñas and other cultural centers are confronted with steep fines and police repression. This fight is especially difficult for some of the elderly Peñ -members who, since the worsening economic crisis, have found themselves struggling to make ends meet.
Noise ordinances are not the only challenges put on non-commercial flamenco by the newly-enacted municipal laws. Passed with the declared aim to rid the streets of noise, criminality, alcoholism and prostitution, to make cities safer and more tourist-friendly, the very basic social interactions that enabled flamenco to exist in public space have come under scrutiny by the state.
So, for example, the regulation against drinking alcohol in public has set out to destroy one of the most popular rituals of Spanish youth, known as the botellon: sitting with friends, chatting and playing music while sharing bottles of alcoholic beverages, usually bought in the nearest corner shop.
Seen as highly hypocritical by many, this new regulation has led to fines and police violence against people simply sitting on a public bench in the street with a bottle of beer, while excluding bar patrons who are taking over the very same public spaces (often privatized for sole usage of such establishments).
Nowadays, several years after the enforcement of this regulation, it is still common to see such gatherings of youngsters and anyone else who lacks money to drink in a bar (of which there are many since the crisis). Yet fear of the police and the need to not bring attention to oneself have made such gatherings less lively and much less musical.
Consider other recent regulations against street musicians, for example, empowering cops to confiscate musical instruments and levy aggressive fines for playing or even just singing in public, and one can begin to appreciate the rising concern that the squares of Andalusian cities are gradually losing their musical vitality.
A Twisted History
The actions of the local government and municipalities toward flamenco, promoting professional artists and institutions and using it as a tourist attraction, all the while suppressing its local and non-commercial variations, is especially cynical considering the origins of flamenco as a cultural expression of the racially marginalized and the poor. This fact is still evident in the content and style of its songs, which typically express the hardness and violence of life in poverty, especially associated with the Gitanos – the Romani people of Spain.
Yet the split between communal and commercial flamenco and its ironic twists have actually existed ever since the genre rose to fame in the 19th century, as aristocrats and tourists paid Gitanos to perform their deep songs and exotic dances. Later, Café Cantante, Flamenco Operas and Tablaos presented flamenco aesthetics to middle-class audiences all around Spain, while still claiming popular and “gypsy” authenticity, which many have disputed.
Under the Franco regime, flamenco gained the status of a Spanish national symbol, while secret police simultaneously repressed any form of cultural dissent in lower-class neighborhoods, illegalizing many flamenco concerts and gatherings. And through the rise of tourism (which included the marketing of flamenco) and its impact on inner-city real estate prices, Gitano communities were expelled and thrown out of their houses and neighborhoods all over Andalusia.
The most famous example of such policies is the neighborhood of Triana, which lies on the opposite side of the river from Seville. It is still touted in many tourist books as a “Barrio Gitano,” while most visitors are unaware that the majority of the area’s indigenous Gitano community was forcibly kicked out without compensation in the beginning of the 1970s, in a brutal eviction campaign that led to the disappearance of a vast musical tradition. Unaware of that loss, tourists now walk through the picturesque allies to the river and gain easier access to the authenticity of the neighborhood by paying entry to packed flamenco bars serving expensive drinks.
Nevertheless, the story of flamenco is much more than just its appropriation and commercialization. Some claim it is exactly out of this contradictory position that it could have survived and developed, even though Spanish society has radically changed since it first appeared. Commercial and professional expressions of flamenco have fed back into its communal practices and vice versa, and both would have been unimaginable today without the other. But sadly, exactly the richness of praxis and spaces that evoked so many conflicting meanings of this art are now under attack by the laws of the state, which criminalize dissent and persecute non-consumerist ways of living in the midst of an economic crisis. As this dialectical process is being shaken out of balance by the politics of social and cultural repression, flamenco also rediscovered its fighting spirit as part of the rise of a popular anticapitalist movement throughout Spain in the last couple of years.
Most notable are the actions of the group Flo6x8, an activist collective that decided to use the language of flamenco in political protests. The members of the collective, many of them professional flamenco artists, dance, sing and play inside financial institutions like banks, which symbolize the highly corrupted crisis management in Spain. Documenting themselves entering banks around Seville while breaking into song and dance, the group has reached millions of viewers in YouTube and received national and international media coverage. An anti-protest law, passed just a few days ago in the Spanish parliament with the aim to criminalize most protest forms associated with the Indignados popular protest movement, will additionally threaten the continuation of Flo6x8 activities with fines reaching more than $40,000.
Changing the words of known bulerias, fandangos and tangos to decry the crimes of the financial elite, these artists might mock the bankers; but at the same time, they take their political performances very seriously and consider themselves a part of a long tradition of flamenco condemning injustice and prejudice. Challenging the normative spatiality of flamenco by occupying the lobbies of banks or even the building of the local parliament, they also defy the legal and financial frames into which neoliberalism attempts to confine artistic expression.
Although their actions might irritate conservative flamenco aficionados, who vow to keep the true art of flamenco outside of the realms of politics, they have aroused interest in flamenco among younger political activists alienated from its old-fashioned and conservative aura. By putting flamenco to clear political use, they have transformed not only protest forms, but also flamenco itself, adding a new audacious and revolutionary form of expression to its multilayered manifestations. Their actions give hope for the survival of flamenco as a popular art that finds its way to the daily lives of a generation of young Andalusians.
Against the processes of artistic commercialization and gentrification, their performances seem to declare the known lines of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem: The weeping of the guitar begins. Useless to silence it. Impossible to silence it.