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Maria Papapavlou

Flamenco Dance and the negotiation of Oral History.

Papapavlou, Maria (Greece): "Flamenco dance and the negotiation of Oral History", 15th International Congress on Dance Research, Ioannina, Greece, 7-11/11, 2001.


The flamenco tradition of Andalusia has been in the recent past and continues till today to present an inevitable link to settled groups of Gitanos (Spanish Gypsies) living in the area. Although a lot of non-Gitanos perform flamenco dance and music or sing the passionate cante flamenco, this paper will show how and why the Gitanos try to incorporate the whole flamenco art as their own symbolic capital and differentiate their selves from the local population. The symbolic negotiation of flamenco ‘ownership’ is realized with the use of oral history. I will discuss how the discourse of history appears to be the main reference and justification of social identity. The need to sustain the Gitano identity is in this case of major importance and flamenco presents an opportunity for it. As the ethnographic data of the field research in Andalusia has shown, the Gitanos manage to realize their intendment in several ways. I will argue that this is possible because of the common cultural setting that both Gitanos and non-Gitanos live in. This shared culture is a highly oral and performative one. As it will be shown, this is the reason why flamenco dance is interrelated with oral history and presents a case worth to demonstrate the link between art and society.

1. Introduction / Theoretical frame

In order to approach the concept of oral history we need to make same basic clarifications regarding two other related notions, time and literacy. The category of oral history falls in the broader discussion among the anthropological literature on oral and written cultures. The duality between these to different kinds of living and perceiving the world has been discussed in detail from earlier anthropologists (i.e. British School) who were up to talk as representatives of ‘their people’, meaning the non-European societies where they conducted their field researches. The striking difference between the researched cultures and this of the anthropologist his/her self has led to conclusions and preconditioned understanding of the ‘others’ in a dualistic way of thinking. What is particularly interesting is the tendency of those anthropologists to hold aboriginal tribes as the opposite of western civilization. Even if their intention was not to undermine the non-western cultures they could not avoid seeing them as ‘insufficient’ cultures, because they had no writing, no technology, no state, no rationality, no history. The well known discussion about the Levi-Straussian notions of ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ societies’, societies without history or with illustrates this dualistic way of interpretation. The critic came later on when anthropological researches began to take place in complex societies of the so-called western world. The concept of time and the production of history, the coexistence of oral and written practices in social life, or the reproduction of power relations have been re-addressed and a new problem has risen concerning the interpretation of local categories. The emic side of view brought into the light multiple answers about the organization of time or power far beyond the dualistic model of interpretation.

In particular, the new stream of constructivism in social sciences discusses the concept of time in a new dimension. Time and history are actively related and mediated by local organizational principles. History can be written, can be oral or both. In all cases, the members of a society produce history. The way that society sees its past, evaluates, categorizes, classifies important of non important events, persons, objects, activities determines the content of the recorded time, either in personal or collective memory (oral history) or on papers (written history), or both. From this aspect, it is very important for a social scientist to examine how society interprets history. The case of the oral transmission of history is even more illuminate because the living people can reproduce orally the history of their society or their ethnic group according to the priorities or accents that the present sets upon it.

This is especially applicable to wanderers, immigrants or ethnic minorities without the official background of an organized state and written historical records. Although these groups could not be named illiterate cultures, the accent is set on the oral transmission of knowledge and history. In these cases ethnomusicologists have discussed artistic expressions like lyric poetry, music and song as one important way to record the past and sustain the group identity (Marti 2000).

The case of nomads like the Gypsies around the world presents one good example for the importance of music and dance as a generator of the gypsy identity. The Gypsies of south Spain the so-called Gitanos have been always presented in connection with the flamenco tradition. In order for further detailed exploration, this relation we need to make a special reference to their social and cultural profile as settled population in Andalusia. Our group of reference will be the Gitanos of a western andalusian city, Jerez de la Frontera.

2. Social and cultural profile of the Gitanos in Jerez de la Frontera

This research based on a fieldwork [1] in Jerez de la Frontera, a city of about 200.000 inhabitants offers new insights into the relationships between the Gitanos and the rest of the population, especially those involved with flamenco activities. The rich network of professionals, amateurs, live performers of flamenco song, dance and guitar, situated in a cultural context of a highly performance oriented andalusian society invited an anthropological analysis based on the new stream of performance studies. This kind of approach has not yet been used in any relevant sociological or anthropological literature of the topic. Gitanos were mainly presented from a sociological point of view, i.e. as a minority suffered under difficult historical and social circumstances (Gronenmeyer 1988, Sanchez Ortega 1993).

The new streams of sociological and anthropological studies though proposed the change of the theoretical focus on minorities in general (Barth 1969, Sutherland 1975, Okely 1985, Streck 1996). The formation of minority-identities is according to them strongly tied with the relation of the minority group to majority norms and values.

Under this light I have approached the Gitanos of Jerez the la Frontera and tried to understand their interaction with the local population and the role of it in the formation of the ‘Gitano’ identity (Papapavlou 2000). In contrast to the relevant literature on Spanish and Andalusian Gitanos (Quintana and Floyd 1972, Heredia et al. 1980, Leblon 1985, Maclane 1996), the case of Jerez de la Frontera presents another profile of the Gitano group. The Gitanos in Jerez are not nomadic, they permanently live together with the local population, in the same neighbourhoods and often in the same house. Since endogamy is not so much the case, intermarriage is a quiet common practice. The Gitanos in Jerez do not speak a distinct language, they communicate in the Spanish dialect of Jerez. They do not practice traditional “gypsy” occupations, they belong rather to the under class and are often unemployed like many non-Gitanos members of the same class. They do not share a common myth of origin, they all believe that they come from Jerez de la Frontera, neither do they share other religious practices than the local population. They are all Christian Catholics who attend school and raise their children together with the non-Gitanos children of the neighbourhoods. At first glance, we can not talk about a separated cultural group of Gypsies in Jerez de la Frontera, they seem to live in harmony with the locals, not suffering an open discrimination and been integrated to the broader society legally and socially. If this is really the case, why do they insist on the gitano identity (yo soy gitano puro y verdadero means I am a pure and real Gitano), on what ground do they build their difference to the rest of Jerezanos ? This question could only be answered if one appraises the existence of flamenco.

Flamenco is not simply an art, a kind of common entertainment and a way to celebrate. It is much more. It is a realm of multiple expression of opposite interests, of the need to be different in a way that has been left open to do so. Gitanos do not have the possibility to express and realize their identity, means their difference from the local population in other branches of the common life with non-Gitanos. Flamenco is the ‘royal’ way to show the difference, to build the Gitano identity and to talk about it with an aesthetic vocabulary. This is why it is very central to talk about aesthetics if we are up to understand the Gitano identity in Jerez de la Frontera.

3. Gitano history and Flamenco origin

If we turn our attendance briefly to the issue of Gitano history we will easily understand that flamenco is inevitably connected to their existence in Jerez de la Frontera. During the field research, informants both Gitanos and non-Gitanos referred to the history of the Gitanos in the city in terms of transmitted oral experiences. The older generation spoke of the coexistence of Gitanos and the rest of the people in Jerez, members of the under class as daily labourers (jornaleros), employed by rich Jerezanos the so-called Senoritos. The Senoritos were rich landowners usually of wine fields who had poor Gitanos and non-Gitanos working en el campo. The Senoritos owned - and still do - some wine cellars the so-called bodegas where they gather from time to time to celebrate. During these occasions they invited Gitanos to sing and dance the flamenco. This happened also to some other entertainment places the so-called ventas where the rich Senoritos amused themselves with prostitutes, wine and flamenco music and dance. Because of their love of flamenco, Senoritos became a kind of protectors of the pure Gitanos and generally of those people involved with this musical tradition.

Trying to trace back the history of the Gitanos as wandering nomads who entered the Spanish peninsula and settled down in the South of the country was not a common interest of the Gitanos in Jerez de la Frontera. When they were asked to answer the question of the “Gitano” origin they showed either a kind of ignorance or absence of interest. Some spoke of the Hungarian origin of Gitanos tribes, some of the Indian. Nobody had fixed ideas about it, on the contrary a cloudy picture of the past was the case. This is particularly interesting if one considers that there are plenty of written records also in Spanish about the history of the Gitanos. The majority of the authors are non-Gitanos [2].

This indifference towards books on Gitano history shows us that oral history in Jerez de la Frontera weights much more than written records. Probably the Gitanos at least in Andalusia did not feel the need to write down their history, it was not important for them. Of course the great rate of illiteracy was decisive for that choice, but it is interesting that till now, when all children know how to write and read there is no need for that. No Gitano in Jerez de la Frontera searches in the libraries for the history of “his” people. If there might be a question about it, family members and the broader community are there to give their answers and to tell their stories.

Generally we could say that the majority of people in Jerez de la Frontera Gitanos and non-Gitanos members of the under class share a dominant oral culture and not a written one. Orality is the main way of communication and the ground of sociability. To be human in Andalusia is to be social. There is little or almost no desire for one person to be alone and find its piece in a private atmosphere. To be alone means to be ill or to be disturbed. It is a kind of social anomaly. Joy and pain, everyday life problems have to be shared, in other words to be communicated orally.

Under this light, the consonance between oral culture and oral history finds its best correspondence with flamenco. Flamenco music is based exclusively in an oral tradition. No flamenco guitarist plays his guitar by reading the notes, no flamenco singer has to read the text of his song. Everybody, either flamenco performers or the flamenco audience communicate with each other and with their music orally. Therefore the debate on the flamenco origin and the flamenco history is among the living people of Jerez de la Frontera an oral one. This comes as a strong contradiction to thousands of written documents, books, journals etc. that are gathered in the library of the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, a cultural center devoted to the flamenco art, situated in Jerez de la Frontera. This kind of written documentation of the flamenco tradition is critically seen by a lot of informants mostly Gitanos as a state manipulation of “their’ art in order to appropriate flamenco as a pure andalusian art and not as a gitano art. In their conduct to resist this kind of domination, Gitanos try in terms of performance and orally transmitted knowledge to defend their beliefs.

This research aimed to re-address the debate on the flamenco origin from the emic side, the “native point” of view. Time and space has been given both to Gitanos and non-Gitanos to express their thoughts and feelings, to articulate their arguments and to claim their thesis about the gitano or andalusian origin of flamenco. In the course of exploring the debate on flamenco origin from the Gitano’s or non-Gitano’s side, it became obvious that the argumentation from both sides is based on the same logic: if there is a possibility to prove who created “flamenco” then we are able to recognize its ‘owner’. If the Gitanos have created it, then flamenco is theirs and vice versa. This invites for an etic point of interpretation that considers the overlapping of the discourses of history, ethic and aesthetics.

4. Flamenco and the discourses of Oral History, ethics and aesthetics

Next, I will argue that these three discursive levels meet each other in the case of flamenco and frame the debate of native interpreters about the flamenco puro and flamenco jondo. The discourse of oral history meets these ethics in two senses: i) the past is always better that the present and ii) the past can legitimate the very existence of the present. The latter is taken almost biologically, since there can not be any “I” if there was no creator of the “I”, i.e. parents, mother and father, ancestors in general. The agony to find legitimate traits of the past in the present can be seen by the birth of a child. The whole family gathers around the newborn child and disputes to whom the child looks alike. Generalizations though are not satisfactory, there is always the need to the reference of special details of the appearance. Discussions whether the eyebrow of the child looks like the one of his father or of his mother’s sister, or whether the child has the smile of his grandfather or of his first cousin are very common. The placement of the newborn child in a kinship network makes up his or her identity. This identity is legitimate because of its past evidences. Without a past there can not be a present, and the kind of past determines the kind of present.

The same schema of thinking is activated in the case of the flamenco origin debate. The talks and words, the phrases and metaphors used by both sides, gitano and non-gitano to legitimate the creator of flamenco are very similar to those used in the case of a child. Flamenco ‘is born’ (flamenco nacio en Jerez /flamenco sale a la luz), has a soul (alma) has a ‘cradle’ (Jerez es la cuna del cante) which can be a gitana or an andaluza one, ‘evolves’ (se desarollo) and can die (el flamenco: vida y muerte) exactly like a human being. The analogy between culture and nature is apparent. The belief of biological affinity of the people with flamenco comes more to the light, when informants both gitanos and non-gitanos start talking about their personal relationship with the art. Flamenco, lo tienes en tu sangre, en las veinas (you have it in your blood, in your veins) is a biological part of the people - lo tienes con tu nacimiento - (you are born with it), can be naturally inherited to the next generations exactly like the color of the eyes or the way of smiling.

The logical result of this debate is that both groups try to prove flamenco as their own biological characteristic and hence their own cultural tradition using the same arguments. This is understandable in the sense that the discourse of oral history and in this case of family history holds its bonds to the discourse of ethics. The traceable trajectory of the past and its crystallization in the present legitimates the present as it is. So, if flamenco is born in a cuna gitana (a gitana cradle) flows in the blood of Gitanos and is their cultural property. On the other side, if flamenco is born en esa tierra (in this place) belongs to the local people, i.e. the people of Jerez de la Frontera. The non-Gitanos in their majority do not deny the role of the Gitanos in the enriching and developing process of the art of flamenco, but they are very absolute when it comes to the origin. The origin of flamenco, according to them is Andalusia and specially Jerez the la Frontera. In order to strongly prove their thesis, they often refer to a non-Gitano flamenco singer of the town of the last century, Don Antonio Chacon as the father of flamenco. As a miracle figure, Gitanos mention always a famous Gitano singer of the same period Manuel Torre. It is interesting that the city of Jerez has placed two statues in central squares of the old town, where the ‘most’ flamenco active neighborhoods are concentrated.

The point I mentioned earlier, where the discourses of oral history and ethics meet again is the ethical priority of the past. The past bears higher moral qualities than the present. En aquellos tiempos todo era bueno (those times everything was good) is a very common generalization that characterizes the relationship of the local culture to time. This is an admission that is shared both by Gitanos and non-Gitanos. The past is always highly praised for its qualities in lifestyle, people’s honest relations, and authenticity of feelings and behaviours. Lo puro, that means purity, genuineness, authenticity can be seen as a moral quality that characterize positively a number of different situations, persons, objects, places. The adjective puro can be used in a variety of cases: gitano puro, vino puro, Santa Maria Purissima, raza pura, Jerez pura, Triana pura y pura ! (people, wine, Goodness, animals, places). In all these uses the defined noun becomes positive and undisputed for its high quality. The moral power of the notion puro lies in its affinity to the discourse of oral history.

We have seen, if the course of time, the clear consequence of events is apparent, then the present is justified for its very existence. There is no need then for any further clarifications. This clear presentation of the course of time speaks of, we could say, a transparency of history. If the history of a person, of a group of people, of an art of an object is evidently transparent: then it is automatically justified. The transparency of the discourse of history makes it moral.

When the discussion comes to flamenco then the word puro becomes an aesthetic criterion of the art. And exactly here is the meeting point of the discourses of ethics and aesthetics. When a flamenco song is characterized as puro, cante puro has reached one of its highest aesthetic qualities. Additionally to this one could mention also the uses of the phrases, flamenco de verdad, cantaor verdadero, bailaor verdadero etc. In Spanish, verdad means true. Truthful is the opposite of mentira which means lie, falsehood. Morally the two devises are opposites. La verdad is positive, is better, is according to the correct ethical code whilst la mentira is negative and not acceptable. Curiously enough these notions are in the flamenco context aesthetic criteria. Therefore we can hear by the characterization of a flamenco song, or a flamenco performer the uses of other ethical notions like derecho means right, or legitimo means legitimate, justifiable. Aesthetic evaluations like cante pro derecho, baile pro derecho, arte puro y legitimo are often expressed and reveal the linking point between the discourses of ethics and aesthetics.

Another one and very common quality regularly used in the flamenco context is the quality of jondo. Jondo means deep, serious, sincere feeling that the flamenco artist a cantaor, bailaor or guitarrista can evoke to their audiences/spectators by performing flamenco. This can happen only under one condition: that the artist exposes his inner and deepest feelings to the people. He is able to make visible the invisible, to share the darkest and most hidden part of his feelings. In a depicting sense, this is to be seen on the face of every flamenco performer, be a guitarist, a singer or a dancer. The mimic of the expressed feelings and the gestures used speak of an extroverted route of feelings, from the artists to the people.

Very interesting at this point is that the success of a flamenco performance is counted on the emotional reaction of the audience. Phrases like todos estaban con los ojos mojados (everybody had wet eyes) fueron saetas que trajeros lagrimas (they were ‘saetas’ that brought tears) approve the high quality of the performances. This capability of the artist to bring out hidden sentiments to and of his audience is seen as power and strength. Phrases like “la fuerza del sentimiento (the force of emotions), voz poderosa (powerful voice), que fuerza tiene, que dominio (what a power he has, how he dominated –the scene-) illustrate the praised capacity of the artist. If we consider again the moral justification of the discourse of history, through the notion of transparency, then we see that the notion of lo jondo bears the virtue of the transparency of emotions. The capability of a person to open his heart and his soul and let the others see directly into it is exactly the promise of sincerity and clarity. In other words the transparency of the emotional world.

The two basic aesthetic criteria that are used in the flamenco art, lo puro and lo jondo are so powerful and meaningful because they comprise values of the three discourses mentioned above, this of history, ethics and aesthetics. This meeting is not coincidental, it roots in the local culture and is shared by all, Gitanos and non-Gitanos. This common cultural reference of the two counter groups in the terrain of flamenco art is what makes the discussion even more interesting. When it comes to the flamenco origin debate or when it comes to its temporary interpretation, as we shall shortly see after, the flamenco performance is judged by the same cultural and aesthetic criteria but for different aims. Gitanos want to keep the flamenco art for themselves, and claim the gitano historical and cultural roots. On the other side, the other Jerezanos artists or aficionados of flamenco art can not accept the gitano claim and promote the andalusian origin of flamenco and their equal competence to perform flamenco puro y jondo.

5. Dancing the Gitano history

In order to illustrate the case even further, we will now turn our attention to a particular flamenco performance in Jerez de la Frontera that took place in April of 1997. A well known Gitano flamenco dancer of Jerez de la Frontera Antonio “el Pipa” presented a piece named “Vivencias” (experiences), at the Teatro de Villamarta. The show was dedicated to his aunt, a famous Gitana dancer (Tia Juana la del Pipa). All the artists that took part even the palmeros (these who keep the rhythm by clapping their hands) were Gitanos. Antonio was the protagonist dancer as well as the director of the show. In the advertisements of the performance, he wrote a very illuminative paragraph for the claim of this article. It worth’s to read it:

“Aun recuerdo, por suerte para mi, cuando me hablaba mi abuela de sus tiempos, de aquellos tiempos (…) Esos donde la mayor diversion era una fiesta por bulerias, cantar y bailar en medio de la calle, en el patio o en la ganania, lugar donde se daban citan tantas vivencias despues de la larga jornada del dia, cuando el azote del trabajo duro del campo solo podia ser aliviado por el agua fresca y el arte, el arte de esos gitanos, que veces te quitaban hasta el hambre (…)”.

“I have the luck to remember my grandmother telling me the story (underlining mine) of her times, when the best entertainment was a feast with bulerias. Singing and dancing in the middle of the street, in the yard of the house, in places where people experienced so many things after a long hard working day in the fields. This could only be relieved with cold water and the art of those Gitanos, who could even make you forget your hunger (…)”.

Here we can point out how the discourse of oral history is used to justify the identification of the Gitanos with the flamenco not only in a manner of speaking but of acting and directing the performance as well. The reference to the past and the Gitano origin of flamenco was accentuated during the performance by projecting on the background of the stage a huge slide of Tia Juana la del Pipa. She was the grandmother of Antonio, she was a kind of representative of those times when the Gitanos were singing and dancing their flamenco after hard working days. Besides, she was herself a flamenco dancer, something that could also guarantee for the artistic potential of her grandson Antonio. His second name was the nickname of his grandfather “el Pipa” (the pipe) upholding and emphasizing his blood bonds to his Gitanos ancestors.

In terms of the performance, one could easily notice how Antonio attempted to put “his” people, the Gitanos on the stage by showing them working in the fields or making baskets (another traditional occupation of the canasteros Gitanoscanastra means the basket). At the end of the day, he presented them singing, dancing and clapping flamenco rhythms as an integrated part of their daily life. In this way it remained no doubt that flamenco is a part of the Gitanos’ past and consequently of the present an indisputable component of their life. Art and life are inevitably connected and justified by the existence of the past. The discourse of history, lo jondo y lo puro is activated here again to give meaning in a pure aesthetic context like a music and dance performance. The story of the Gitanos as Antonio directed and performed was presented in a public theater of Jerez de la Frontera for the audience of the people of Jerez. The majority who attended the show were the people of the town and among them a lot of Gitanos who were fascinated by the performance. The whole event shows us not only on a social level but also within a pure artistic setting, a staged performance, the Gitanos themselves as the cultural owners and guardians of the flamenco art; an art which differs to the arts of the local population. The “significant’ difference is chosen and cultivated by the actors themselves and is performed in public every time when there is a suitable occasion. In this sense, the phrase yo soy gitano puro y verdadero (I am a pure and real Gitano) is vital and has to be proved again and again. Flamenco does nothing else but define the difference and offer the performative tools to present the Gitano identity. In conclusion we could say that oral history is used to negotiate the Gitano identity in terms of the flamenco dance, music and song. The Gitanos of Jerez de la Frontera bring to light a good example of the interrelations between art and society in a variety of ways far beyond the pure artistic setting.


1.The data of this article is part of the Ph.D. dissertation (Papapavlou 2000) and was collected during a field research in 1997 in Jerez de la Frontera.

2. This is the case for most Gypsy groups around Europe, Middle East or Africa. The constitution of the so-called Gypsy Studies was made by non-Gypsies such as linguistic researches or historical questions on the Gypsy origin as well (see for a similar critic Okely 1985).


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The author

Maria Papapavlou teaches at the Democritus University of Trace in Greece. She started studying Anthropology at the University of Leiden in Holland. She completed her doctoral research in Leipzig University of Germany and conducted field research in South Spain. She is the author of the book Der Flamenco als Präsentation von Differenz. Gitanos und Mehrheitsbevölkerung Westandalusiens in ethnologischer Perspektive (2000). Her main research interests are in the study of the performative aspects of social life and the Anthropology of Dance and Music in the Mediterranean.

Dr. Maria Papapavlou



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