Flamenco Deep Song.
The idea that traditions are invented has been explored by many scholars in the fields of history and cultural studies. Since Eric Hobsbawm coined the expression in his essay "Inventing Traditions" (The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983]) it seems that researchers have become suspicious of historical accounts of traditions, customs, heritages, and popular beliefs and folklore. Many scholarly studies have thus taken a course that involves not only a process of correcting sloppy research and hasty conclusions in order to revise a theory--which after all, are indispensable steps in all investigation--but also a direction whose main objective is to demystify the object of study and expose and lay open the biases that supported its assumptions, thus "undoing" its official history. Timothy Mitchell's Flamenco Deep Song certainly is not a flamenco handbook describing the genres, forms, instruments, and biographies of flamenco music, but a critical study questioning the accounts of flamenco (its histories, one could say) that have been set forward by historians, anthropologists, folklorists, and even flamenco artists themselves.
Mitchell's method draws on a variety of research fields encompassing sociology, psychology, and flamencology. Indeed, part of the book's value lies in its ability to combine apparently dissimilar fields of study in order to illuminate new theories about the object being investigated. Mitchell reviews the work of sociologists such as Remi Clignet and Pierre Bordieu and their studies about the relationship between taste and social distinction; he also bases some of his insights on J. L. Moreno's studies and his concept of psychodrama. Finally, the contribution of many flamencologists is also examined. One of Mitchell's goals is to scrutinize the ideology and method of these flamencologists. Flamencology is a field of research that involves ethnography, anthropology, and folklore studies, but (especially in the past) there has been a great deal of literary writing passing itself off as science, which has resulted in a romantic and mystified image of flamenco.
Broadly speaking, the theories about flamenco fall into two categories: on the one hand, we have the accounts influenced by Antonio Mairena; on the other, some studies follow Luis Lavaur's ideas. Of course, within each group there are many different nuances. Mairena was one of the most revered singers in flamenco's history. In his Mundo y formas del cante flamenco, written with Ricardo Molina (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1963), as well as in his autobiography, Las confesiones de Antonio Mairena (Seville: Secretariado de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Sevilla, 1976), the famous cantaor explained at length his ideas and experiences as a flamenco singer. He also attempted to give an account of the style's origins and history, thus providing the foundation of what has been termed Mairenismo. Briefly put, Mairena believed that the history of flamenco is not the history of the creation of Andalusian popular music, but the history of the corruption of ancient gypsy musical styles. Mairena emphasized the purity, secrecy, and what he called the "razon incorporea," or "incorporeal reason," of ancient gypsy singing. The crux of his argument was the binary set purity/pollution and it is not difficult to see that Mairena associated early gypsy singing with purity, whereas the new forms of flamenco were identified with corrupted versions of gypsy music. Thus, the origins of flamenco were thought to be ancient, obscure, and probably Oriental (with Jewish and Arab influences). Mairena, in short, was giving an idealized and primitivist account of flamenco, one that still holds sway in the media and among extremely partisan aficionados.
On the other hand, the theories of Lavaur can be described as demystifying. In his Teoria romantica del cante flamenco (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1976), Lavaur stated that flamenco as we know it is the result of romantic, revivalist ideologies and that, to a certain extent, flamenco had been the creation not of the gypsies, but of young Andalusian aristocrats (the kind known as senoritos) who, rejecting operatic styles in vogue in the nineteenth century, encouraged new, fashionable tastes and promoted the popular music of the Andalusian proletariat. The senoritos--a mix of playboy, art lover, and philanthropist frequently engaging in "good causes"--arrived at Andalusian music by what one might call a "radical chic" shift in taste: according to Clignet and Bordieu, elites tend to engage in a process of continuously changing their taste in order to differentiate themselves as well as avoid imitation by the masses. By declaring their affinity for flamenco, the senoritos were eluding the voracious imitative appetite of the bourgeoisie, which at the time had already assimilated opera and its Spanish popular versions (especially zarzuela, tonadilla, and sainete).
Mitchell takes Lavaur's ideas as a point of departure, but complements them with a psychological perspective. Whereas Lavaur's theory takes into account almost solely sociological factors, Mitchell's contribution includes the notion of flamenco as psychodrama. By that, he means that flamenco performances are used, with the help of large amounts of alcohol, to induce a sort of catharsis among the performers as well as the audience (ideally everyone is a performer). Mitchell summarizes his main point as follows: "The so-called gitano style, marked by alcoholic vocal effects, mock hysterics, and fatalistic Iyrics, is, among other things, the aesthetic result of the codependency syndrome that prevailed between power-abusing, substance-abusing libertines and their singing, dancing, guitar-strumming menials" (p. 215).
Thus, flamenco music is a multilayered phenomenon that cannot be reduced (just to give an example) to its Oriental influences (the scales are indeed similar to those of North African music and the cante can be compared with synagogue chanting) and the primitivist, unscientific approach of belletrists (even when they are first-class poets like Federico Garcia Lorca). Flamenco is the result of the interaction of gitano music (he considers the gitanos different from the gypsies) and the senoritos and literati who, infatuated with the espagnolade, shifted their taste from the concert hall to the tavern, from zarzuela singing to the excruciating chanting of marginal social groups in Andalusia. At any rate, Mitchell's ideas are enticing and they are presented quite convincingly. This book is an important contribution to flamenco studies; one can only hope it will soon be translated into Spanish so it can permeate the many mystified views of flamenco.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1996|
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