In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe - artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe's complex past - how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. In the second instalment, Ziemowit Jozwik lets himself be sucked into the hypnotic rhythm of flamenco, and carried to a place where several cultures mix - somewhere on the Iberian peninsula, North Africans, Romans, Arabs and Romany mingled their talents to create this powerful Spanish music.

Painting: Fabian Perez (see his website)
"The girl starts to dance...The Duende arrives."

Castanets. Their rattling sound began the history of flamenco. That simple instrument, usually consisting of a pair of shells joined on one edge by a string, created the rhythmical space in which flamenco was born.

It is the turn of 1st and 2nd centuries in Cádiz. The parched port city used to be a Phoenician stronghold; later it was the military base of the famous Carthaginian Hannibal. Now it is a commercial centre of the Roman Empire. White walls are whipped by the sea breeze, seagulls shriek and people of all sorts are hurrying past. We can easily hear Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic dialects, as well as the forgotten oriental languages whose last traces rustle in a few modern Spanish words or even tones, sounds. Among the poor people who squint with bloodshot eyes to spy out some prosaic profit, there is also a Roman poet named Martial.

Then suddenly from disordered noise, sound's tangle, and the babble of market haggling emerges the rattling rhythm. Uno-dos-tres, uno-dos-tres, a regular clatter, a swelling pitter-patter. Puella Gaditana, the girl from Cádiz, preserved for posterity by Martial, starts to dance. Flamenco begins. The Duende arrives.

Duende is a mysterious, inexplicable power. A demonic earth spirit embodying passionate irrationality, earthiness and heightened awareness of death. Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca wrote that "there are no maps nor disciplines to help us find the Duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned…"

The Music of the BlackBird

In the 9th century, Hispania Baetica became part of the Arab empire - it was known as Al-Andalus. Ruled by the Umayyad Dynasty, Iberia was still a place of many cultures where remote civilizations met. In 822, a stranger from far away appeared on the peninsula. He was tall and slim, his hair was raven black and he had olive skin. Wherever he appeared he aroused admiration. But it was not only the outstanding beauty of the demigod that caused such excitement. Ziryab - the Blackbird as he was called - had a beautiful voice which crushed hearts and pervaded souls.

Photo: copyright free
A 16th century miniature showing Ziryab in his garden

Ziryab was also a master of playing instruments. By adding another pair of strings he improved and ennobled the sound of the oud – the Arabic equivalent of the European lute. He believed that these strings gave the soul to the instrument. This soul, which had been chained down before, could now be freed in a new kind of music: finger strumming, recklessly rapid, rhythmically precise patterns, simultaneous downstrokes and beats accented by tapping on the wood.

The Deep Song of the Romani

Long after Ziryab's day, the peninsula became a homeland for the Romani. Hounded out of their native Punjab by the iron leader Tamerlane and pursued by a hundred thousand horsemen of the Golden Horde, they landed in Spain at the beginning of 14th century. Local people tended to call them "fellahmengu" or "flemenc" which meant "expelled peasant."

Cante jondo – the deep song. The fellahmengu had a special way of singing. Condemned by fate to a life of wandering, they brought the song which was much older than anything in Europe. It had the shiver of the emotions of the first oriental peoples. Their primitive song of pure form breathed life into civilisations which were forgotten, eaten by sand, covered with ruins. As Lorca wrote: "[the song] is truly deep, deeper than all the wells and seas that surround the world, much deeper than the present heart that creates it or the voice that sings it, because it is almost infinite. It comes from remote races and crosses the graveyard of the years and the fronds of parched winds. It comes from the first sob and the first kiss."

This is flamenco. A mystery revived by mighty Duende. The music which expresses irrational earthiness, passion. Sounds which arouse stormy whirlwinds, ignite souls, light the blood and finally in almost religious ritual burn down and extinguish themselves in the face of spine-chilling death. It is the music of poor people torn between emotions, where torrid love resonates with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief.

Painting: Fabian Perez (see his website)
Portrait of the guitarist Moraito Chico

On the Threshold of Europe?

Flamenco confuses our idea of European borders: it is located on a threshold, questioning the boundaries we draw around our culture. In combining the Spanish with the Arabic, the Roman with the Punjabi, flamenco draws us into a cultural whirlpool and frees us from categories. It insists that we remember those people with burquas, hijabs, airy caftans who nowadays are sometimes seen as strangers but who took part in building the essence of the Old Continent.

Because flamenco is not only part of our history - its burning passion still ignites people. Listening to flamenco guitar or cante jondo singing, or watching a flamenco dance always give us a shiver of its phenomenal antiquity which is fascinatingly contemporary.

Be it the subtly jazzing alzapúa of Carles Benavent, the sensual virtuosity of the legendary Paco de Lucia's guitar or just an amateur artist who happens to appear during a refreshing evening stroll after a stifling summer Spanish day, the Duende will get you.

Did the Iberians have an innate sense of rhythm like the girl from Cádiz or was it an effect of coexistence with Phoenicians or Carthaginians? Was the flamenco dance influenced by some hindu rituals or Indian kathak, with elements of Greek choreography or was it brought with the expelled Romani? What was the origin of the cante jondo, in which we can hear the deep song (seguiriyas) of the Punjabi Romani as well as the plaintive adhan of the muezzin, the melody and minor scale of Byzantine-Christian canticles or Mozarabic jarcha? And somewhere amid all those we can also find wandering Jews with their canciones and makam melodies…

There is no answer. Because the Duende who is the spirit of flamenco remains the "mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains".

Paintings by Fabian Perez: www.fabianperez.com

A flamenco performance with Adrian Galia

Extract from the soundtrack of the documentary "Iberia" (2005)

Paco de Lucía plays a guitar solo with a fast "bulerias" rhythm

Modern "flamenco jazz" performance by Carles Benavent with Jorge Pardo and the band Ziriab

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