flamenco in granada

words & images tania flores

Granada bears a number of similarities to its accidental namesake, the pomegranate—both wear a protective shell and neither gives itself away easily. I knew that I would have to invent my own way of coaxing out the seeds of this city.

On a warm afternoon last September, at a café in the plaza behind the cathedral, Richard was gesticulating excitedly, telling me how wonderful it was that I was in Granada. I had arrived in Spain to begin my research on flamenco historiography only a week before, and I wasn’t yet feeling settled. It was reassuring to spend a day with Richard; he was the first flamenco guitarist I had ever known. It had been in his living room, nearly twelve years before and more than 5,000 miles away, that I first danced flamenco.

            “Ah, this is just so great, sweetheart,” Richard said, his fingers curled around the stem of a wine glass. “Being here will do you so much good.” He leaned toward me, lowering his voice to a loud whisper. “To be a flamenca, you have to be an andaluza. You have to understand Andalucía.”

I nodded. He was right, of course. Flamenco appeals to universal human emotions, but it also evokes the distinctiveness of its birthplace, the region of southern Spain known as Andalucía. And because many Andalusian towns and cities have cultivated particular styles of the art form, place is etched into flamenco’s muscle memory.

As Richard ruminated on the differences between the flamenco traditions of Jerez de la Frontera and Sevilla, traditions that have long overshadowed those of Granada, it occurred to me that perhaps more urgent than understanding Andalucía was understanding Granada. The city to which my research had taken me, Granada, was the place that would shape my way of dancing and thinking about flamenco. I had been in town long enough to know understanding it would not be easy. 

That night, Richard, his friends and I made our way to a flamenco bar on Carrera del Darro, an iconic cobblestone street that winds alongside the river. It was the first show I had been to since arriving in Spain. No sooner had the singer taken the stage than his voice filled with a staggering emotional power. After the second song, he paused to introduce the guitarist and the dancer and to mention la magia, the magic, that flamenco is capable of creating when the conditions are right. He took a drink of water. “Esta noche, la hay,” he said. Tonight, it’s here.

The guitarist’s solo that night was a granaína, perhaps the most famous flamenco style to have originated in this province. Known for the exquisiteness of its guitar-playing, the granaína has traditionally been accompanied by singing, and its lyrics often reference the beauty and history of Granada. More recently, however, the granaína has become a popular solo for guitarists, especially for those based in this city.

Until that night, I had never heard a granaína performed live. I was stunned by the elegance of the piece, by the way it recalled the crisp air of the region, the cascading bougainvillea of the old Moorish neighborhood known as the Albaicín, the rivers that drift quietly through the city. As I sat there listening, however, I felt an all-too-familiar sadness press in on the small, cave-like room.

I had experienced the same sensation more than once since arriving in Granada, always while walking alone, often at night: it’s a kind of inescapable melancholy, a quietness, a private pain that seeps into the streets but can’t be seen. As I walked home that night, attempting to articulate to myself what I had heard in the granaína, the word ‘haunted’ came to mind. That word alone seemed to capture the turbulent history that never lets the city rest. The last stronghold of Islamic Spain to be captured by Ferdinand and Isabella in the Reconquista, Granada remains something of an embattled city. It is a place perpetually in the shadow of the Alhambra.

These tensions are distilled in Granadan flamenco, which is full of references to the Alhambra, the Albaicín, moros, and religiosity. One prominent historian, Faustino Núñez, attributes the frequent allusions to Christianity in flamenco lyrics to the fact that the community out of which this art form arose—that of the Spanish Roma, or gitanos—was under significant pressure to prove its Christian faith between the 16th and 19th centuries. These verses often contain implicit references to accusations of heresy; Núnez points to one case in which the singer follows an affirmation of Christianity with the defiant lines, “Y si no es verdad / que Dios me mande un castigo muy grande / si me lo quiere mandar,” or “And if it’s not true / may God send me a harsh punishment / if He wants to send me one.

The cradle of flamenco granadino—Sacromonte, the historic gitano quarter of the city—was built on the hillside opposite the Alhambra. Known for the whitewashed caves in which its residents live, Sacromonte was home to the founders of the zambra, a type of flamenco performance that consists of traditional gitano wedding songs and dances. The term zambra, however, has a long history in Granada, one that predates flamenco. In Islamic Spain, the word referred to festivities with music and dance, and the Moorish zambra was not outlawed until the mid-16th century. That in the 19th century a gitano known as El Cujón chose to call flamenco performances in Sacromonte zambras is interesting, especially in light of the theory that Muslims, Muslim converts to Christianity, and gitanos lived together in parts of the Albaicín and Sacromonte following the conquest of Granada in 1492.

The zambra sacromontana thrived until 1963, when a series of floods destroyed the homes of hundreds of families, many of whom were displaced to other cities or to other parts of Granada. Nevertheless, flamenco granadino had by then become synonymous with flamenco sacromontano and the zambra, and as a result, it had garnered a reputation as distinctly gitano, less influenced by classical European genres of music and dance. To this day, the raw Granadan style of flamenco has been thought of as gritty and spirited; the Sevillian school, in contrast, is associated with sensuality and effortlessness. Because dancers in the caves of Sacromonte have often not had the luxury of dancing on wood floors, and because greater force is needed when one is dancing on the ground, physical strength has also become an important part of flamenco granadino.

The emotional dimension of flamenco I understood instinctively even as a child, but neither its technique nor its complex rhythms have ever come easily to me. When I began dancing at the age of twelve, there were days when I left class in tears, and even now there are times when it feels like I’m throwing every last scrap of effort and power I have at flamenco, and it’s still not enough. Of the physical demands that flamenco has made of me, strength has been the only one that I haven’t had to develop from scratch; it sometimes feels like I was born knowing I had to figure out something to do with my energy and force. For me, flamenco has been an ongoing process of learning how to control that strength, measure it, dominate it, wield it.

Somehow, fittingly, I ended up in the part of Andalucía that does this best. When they speak to me, my dance teachers in Granada often begin by saying, “Tania, you have a lot of strength. That’s a good, thing, but...” They want me to let the strength takes its circular course through my body. That way it will be evenly distributed, not just concentrated in the footwork; that way my movements will be continuous and fluid rather than tense and mechanized. They want me to learn the importance of soundlessness, and of the soundless parts of the dance. They want me to learn the difference between a golpe and a footfall. They want me to learn how to allow the strength to run a little wild.

And they want me to dance differently with the Granadan ground. They show me the same footwork sequence twice, first directed down into the earth and then directed up out of the earth. The first sounds like a clunky sentence ending in a period; the second sounds like an elegant question. They want me to stop grinding downward with all my strength; they want me to let the surfaces I perform on echo me, respond to me. Flamenco dance is a two-way conversation between place and dancer. I’m talking to Granada, learning to listen to it talk back.

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