Flamenco tablaos: when was this tradition born?

There was a time when flamenco was a family art, which was practiced in the privacy of homes and in the streets of Jerez de la Frontera, San Fernando, Seville.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
04 June 2023 Sunday 04:28
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Flamenco tablaos: when was this tradition born?

There was a time when flamenco was a family art, which was practiced in the privacy of homes and in the streets of Jerez de la Frontera, San Fernando, Seville... It was done just to have fun, there were still no professionals. At most, some who for a few reals performed in taverns, sales or for Andalusian gentlemen.

After the War of Independence (1808-1814), and in a nationalist and anti-French environment, the elite had become accustomed to the traditional. He preferred dressing like the majos to dolling himself up like a fop, bullfighting to the theater, and popular music to ballroom dancing.

In this context, in the mid-19th century, cantaores began to be seen in cafés cantantes. As their name indicates, they were cafeterias enlivened with musical and variety shows, generally frivolous and light.

It went well for them, because for the first time they were able to dedicate themselves professionally to their art. Silverio Franconetti (1831-1889) belonged to this first generation, a Sevillian of Italian origin and a gypsy soul. At the age of ten he used to escape to the Sevillian forges, which were Calé territory, to see those people play. Thus he met Antonio Ortega Heredia El Fillo (1806-1854), the patriarch of gypsy singing in Jerez, Cádiz and Seville. He taught her the old sticks, the ones that had emerged on horseback from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The writer Fernando Quiñones (1930-1998) called that time the “dark archaic period”. Obscure, because little is known about the origins of flamenco, and archaic due to its remoteness. It comes from the traditional Andalusian dances, from which it separated to crystallize in a differentiated singing, dancing and playing. The guitarists, for example, rested the guitar on crossed legs, instead of on the left, and played the picado, the strumming, the tremolo and the alzapúa.

For Quiñones, it was the most fruitful moment, when there were neither flamencologists nor norms. Franconetti learned the styles with encyclopedic precision, and in 1881 he decided to open an exclusively flamenco singing café, the first of all. It was a meeting place for the best performers, where they could learn from each other and challenge each other on stage.

It was in cafes like the one in Silverio where this art was configured as we know it today. The tambourine and violin were removed, as well as the more sober sticks. By doing this, a golden age of the genre was inaugurated.

This began with flamenco opera, when from 1920 the singers left the somewhat rogue atmosphere of the cafes to fill bullrings and theaters. They did not call it “opera” because they wanted to give it away, but because of a simple fiscal strategy of the promoters: the opera was taxed at 3%, and the variety shows at 10.

Already then the first purists arose, who believed that professionalization had bastardized an art that was essentially folkloric. Since they now had an audience to please, the performers had been abandoning the dark styles in favor of festive ones, such as fandangos or cantiñas. In the opinion of Federico García Lorca and the composer Manuel de Falla, cante jondo was being lost.

For this reason, in 1922 they organized a cante jondo contest in Granada, one in which only amateurs could participate. It was a failure, as some historians have pointed out, because it is a futile effort to seek the purity of a genre born from miscegenation and improvisation.

It was not until the fifties that their origin and peculiarities began to be studied from an academic point of view. The poet Ricardo Molina (1916-1968) and the singer Antonio Mairena (1909-1983) were among the first to do so. His thesis was that it was a gypsy invention. They differentiated the “cante grande”, purely calé, from the “cante chico”, born from the flamenco style of traditional Andalusian music.

In response to the gypsy thesis, the Andalusian one appeared. Not without reason, its defenders argued that, if it were something merely gypsy, it would exist in other parts of the world. But no, flamenco is Andalusian, because it was there that the circumstances that created it arose. Today the most accepted hypothesis among flamencologists is a mixture of the two.

The irruption of the academicians, in the fifties, coincided with the revaluation of the singing cafés. Although they were no longer called that, but tablaos. From the previous era they preserved the traditional aesthetic, with bullfighting paraphernalia and costumbrist posters hanging on the walls.

At that point, with Lola Flores (1923-1995) filling amphitheaters all over the world, the truth is that flamenco was already going far beyond tablaos. Even so, these survived as a place to maintain their essence.

Outside of them, from the seventies, the genre entered a new phase. Rocío Jurado (1944-2006) changed the bata de cola for an evening dress, and Paco de Lucía (1947-2014) opened up to Brazilian music and jazz, among others. It was flamenco fusion, which flirted with pop, rock and other currents.

Today, there are many singers that the public identifies with flamenco and that sometimes only maintain a similar technique and aesthetic. To a greater or lesser extent, they form part of the new flamenco, the one that fills football stadiums, that coexists with the old, more of a tablao.