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Miguel Ángel Vargas Rubio

The Broken Shield of Perseus

Flamenco and Gitanos in the 1860s

It has been a while since research into the origins of flamenco as a genre and a topic moved beyond the need to resort to historical sources beyond the oral tradition. However, although there are ever more frequent studies on flamenco based on press and archival research, collated with national and foreign literary references and the reinterpretation of contemporary folklore studies, we need to continue looking for ways to connect these references and data with others that allow us to understand the complexity of the Gitano element in the genesis of flamenco and how it is perceived historically by Gitanos themselves.

A large part of all the Gitano artistic movements in nineteenth-century Spain directly relate being Gitano to being flamenco, which complicates the task of studying the history of the Roma people in Spain, for this is indelibly linked to research on flamenco.

We will use the myth of Perseus and Medusa as a metaphor for the difficulty in accessing a direct impression of the reality of Spanish Roma of the time. Perseus needs the shield to be able to face the Gorgon and thus avoid the perverse, petrifying gaze. Perseus would be the Western gaze, while Medusa is the Gitanos and the reflection of the shield is the Western view of Gitanos, in this case the Gitanismo of the wealthy classes and of content creators (artists, the press, legislators, researchers) from the second half of the eighteenth century essentially until the present day. There are few moments when the Gitano reality is in direct view. Even scarcer, strange as it may seem, is a direct view in art.

Following the hypothesis that what was already known as flamenco crystallised in the 1860s, we will analyse some historical data to understand what real life might have been like for the Gitano peoples of Spain, how this relates to flamenco and the extent to which their lives were recorded or made invisible.

Reactionary and Patriotic Political Gitanismo

After the disastrous Great Raid in 1749, which almost erased the Gitano population from Spain, legal equality was declared for Gitanos in 1783. This did bring about a less coercive era, but one in which still there was a debate about the form that equality should take in a Spain characterised by slaves, colonies and a rather rigid social structure. In 1812, the constitution of Cádiz proclaimed that ‘Spaniards are free men born and settled in the domains of Spain’ but it was not until the constitution of 1837 that new Roma citizens were no longer required to have a fixed abode in order to be granted Spanish nationality. However, Art and the State move in very different directions. Since the second half of the eighteenth century, Spain had undergone an anti-enlightened and anti-European reaction, for which it used a constructed image of the Gitano that got translated into the fashion for afición a lo gitano, or ‘love of Gitanos’. The game of mirrors made it almost impossible for reality to appear, and the limits were consciously diffuse. At that moment, the concept of the Gitano was transposed as Spanish, simply because it was not European, not illustrated, and belonged to the Ancien Régime.

As a prelude to the birth of flamenco, around 1845 – at a point when Gitanos lived under suspicion thanks to a law addressing the causes of vagrancy – the Teatro Gitanesco, the Andalusian genre and the popular genres of a thousand names reigned in the country’s main cities, while the programmes of theatres and assembly halls contained the names of Gitano artists such as El Planeta, El Fillo, Maria Borrico, Lazaro Quintana, Pepa Vargas and many others who struggled to be seen among the reflections of Perseus’s shield.

1860: The Most Famous Gitanas

News arrived of bloody battles in the Spanish–Morocco colonial war. The former Spanish empire cracked irrevocably. However, in cities such as Seville, Cádiz, Málaga and Madrid, bohemians congregated at a new type of nocturnal establishment where they could forget the bloodshed and the losses. Let us look at the press of the day:

Gaudeamus: Saturday 29, the day of San Miguel, is to be celebrated by the director of the Salón de Oriente, Miguel Barrera, with a treat of a dance which will be attended by the leading singers, the most famous guillabaoras [female flamenco dancers], the most notable boleras and also the Gitanas, who are so animated with their skirt movements, their special dances and their inimitable grace. 28 September, Andalusia, Seville.

Faced with the exalted memory of great names, businesses promoted the Gitanas as anonymous beings: they were famous, yes, but they did not have names.

1861: The Revolution of Jamancia; The Bread War; Gitanos in the Sun

Everyone sees what they want to see. Here we have three published sources from the period which talk about Gitanos. The first concerns the participation of Gitanos in the urban revolts of Barcelona, which resulted from social tension. The name is critical here: it was the Jamància revolutionary movement, which means ‘hunger’ in Caló.

It is believed that the military authority has at last taken some precautions to repress the excesses of the wayward types and that it is a matter of disarming the battalion of Jamància, composed mostly of the scum of the neighbouring villages, convicted criminals, Gitanos, foreign sharpeners of razors and scissors, minors, old men and some graduates. Corresponsal, 4 September 1843

The second article is set in Andalusia during the revolutionary struggles for an equitable distribution of land, where a riot of rebellious peasants in Loja, Granada, was led by Rafael Pérez del Álamo, the author of the booklet La Democracia, el Socialismo y el Comunismo, según la Filosofía y la Historia [Democracy, Socialism and Communism, According to Philosophy and History]. He found the enthusiastic support of a Gitano militia company, and all together they marched to the shout of slogans like ‘Long live the Republic!’, ‘Death to the Queen!’, ‘Long live Garibaldi!’, ‘Death to the Pope!’, ‘Long live freedom!’ and ‘Long live democracy!’ Once the participants had been defeated and either dispersed or imprisoned, the press could not avoid spewing out its aversion to the revolting peasants:

These fools, like most, wanted to take their five bushels of land from the common wealth, and they went with all the Gitanos, armed with long sticks and a piece of sharpened iron at the end which they called a spear.

And so onto the third source. In the same year, Impressions de voyage de Paris à Cadix by Alexandre Dumas was published in Paris. In this work, the reflection of the shield of Perseus is cruel and completely distorted:

[...] Couturier had hung up some fabric which shadowed a portion of the terrace and left the other part in the sun. The Gitanos, accustomed to an almost tropical heat, had to remain in the sun; Couturier and his daguerreotype needed to operate in the shade. Giraud, Desbarolles and Boulanger were sitting in the shade to draw, Maquet and I to update our notes, and Alexandre to write some verses in response to other verses that had been dedicated to us. The Gitanos were grouped in the part of the terrace exposed to the sun, the father smoking and playing the guitar, the daughters sitting at his feet and braiding his hair, the children standing and caressing a dog [...].

Nothing was allowed spoil the reality that travellers or journalists had created and assumed, and that some Gitanos exploited to escape the misery. Of course Gitanos had to stay in the sun – or in the shade, or in prison.

1862: Who Is the King of the Gitanos?

The relationship between Gitanos and the Spanish nobility and monarchy in the nineteenth-century world of the Gitanismo imaginary functioned as a reminder. It allowed them to continue building the story of local relations at a moment of high-voltage revolution. The well-known painting in Francesco da Urbino’s social chronicles presented Gitano actors in Córdoba during the visit of Isabella II as happy, haughty and dismissive. To that we can add much of the work of the actor and producer José María Dardalla y Gutiérrez, the authentic ‘king’ of the Gitanesco genre, who was acclaimed throughout the country for his fame in playing Gitano roles.

His oeuvre was extensive, and there are numerous references to him in the press. It is difficult to calculate the level of exposure to the Gitano stereotype that Gitano artists and other Gitanos had to face as a consequence not only of the hundreds of works in the Gitanesco genre, but also of the iconography of foreign artists. There is an urgent need to draw a clear distinction between Gitanesco and what was being produced by Gitano artists. The beauty of the image of the shield obscures our view.

1863: The Look of Those Who Do Not Look at You

Photographic realism would allow us in theory to be able to observe reality almost in its total materiality. In this 1863 photograph by Robert Peter Napper the photographer’s gaze captures the absence of the gaze of those being portrayed. It is far from the happy image of Gitanismo, far from the subtlety of the engraving and the nights of alcohol and tobacco in the café. Perhaps we are close to the truth, or maybe the shield tricks us again, because the Gitanos are in the sun, and they are posing for those who are looking for savages in this Europe far removed from the cities. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the photographic gaze still follows the principle of artistic composition, seeking the harmonious form of the group.

1864: Silverio Franconetti and the Quicksilver of the Mirror

In a text like this, which tries to focus on the complexity of being able to get a direct view of the history of Spanish Gitanos in order to understand the role that flamenco plays in its conscious image, we cannot avoid mentioning a figure who is considered one of the main reasons why flamenco was born at that time: the cantaor Silverio Franconetti, who had just returned to Spain after a period in the Americas. Franconetti, the great and noble gadjo who was admired by Gitano artists, largely inspired the use of individual expression and launched the journey away from the distorted view of the mirror of Gitanismo that so imprisoned Gitano artists. Yes, it was a gadjo who helped to break – or at least scratch – the shield.

The systematisation that he promoted in organising the show allowed him to create a new genre that loosened up the theatrical musical narrative of the Gitanesco genre. Individualised expression was imposed, and flamenco emerged both as a genre and as a battle zone.

1865: The Gitanesco Poetry of the Gadje

The year when Roma slavery was abolished in Romania serves to let us reflect on another of the areas in which the Gitanesco shield showed its double edge: Caló, which was then considered to be the language of Spanish Gitanos, and today is assumed as a Gitano ethnolect in Spain. Its use, whether by the police or by poetry, was ambivalent. In Crónicas ilustradas de la Guardia Civil [Illustrated Chronicles of the Civil Guard], written by Marzo y Fernández in 1864, we can read:

[...] a urchin does not become a malignant and terrible being until he learns Caló, a language that brings to his infamous intelligence the knowledge of an entire art of social warfare [...].

This suspicion contrasts with the fondness for the use of Caló –although it was invented most of the time – as a traditional seasoning for Gitanesco poetry and the comedies and speech of what was now flamenco. It is the language of la afición, the circle of those who wrote and distributed flamenco poetry, giving it a sometimes falsely popular and anonymous air. It is the same bohemianism that we see in the slang of Argentinian tango, Portuguese fado and perhaps the love for blues in the United States.

1866: Colonial Gitanismo

Gitanismo was a creation not only at the service of Spain, but of all European countries avid for oriental fantasy; however, Spanish entertainment and an escapist Gitanismo did play a decisive role here. It was an emphatically European product directed more at the upper classes than the ‘popular’ classes, and as such it was exported to America.

There are many examples of Spanish dancers who interpreted the bolero versions of Gitano dances throughout the nineteenth century on tours abroad. ‘Gypsiness’ was viewed as a mark of racial authenticity in the open war against belcanto, whether in Havana, Mexico or Venezuela. The surprising thing about this period is that while in Spain the cafés cantantes already offered a purely flamenco repertoire, the presence of Gitanos in operas, concerts of Andalusian dances and bolero overseas had more to do with what the new flamenco had been reacting against. But distance softens the monster’s vision; the memories contained in travel books about Spain ensure that we do not forget the horrible side of Gorgona.

1867: Spanish ‘Gypsylorism’

As the members of the Gypsy Lore Society – founded in Great Britain in 1888 – would later do, intellectuals and educated aficionados devoted themselves to the objective of researching Gitanos. Encyclopaedias everywhere strove to supply the truth. El Gitanismo: Historia, costumbres y dialecto de los gitanos by Don Francisco de Sales Mayo became the most important academic reference work, complete with its own introduction, grammar and dictionary. And it warned:

Caló is not a ruffian language; it is not what in ancient times was called Germania, examples of which are in the Dictionary of the Academy; it is not the particular speech of prisons and jails, as many believe: it is, yes, a dialect derived from others that are still used today in Hindustan, from where Gitanos come.

1868: The Seville Fair, or the Bourgeois Dress of the Assimilated Gitano

The iconography that represented Spanish Gitanos internationally had its turning point at the 1868 Feria de Sevilla, the Seville fair which introduced the large-scale reproduction of images via photography, the first ever marketing for the sherries of Jerez, and the consolidation of the quasi-choral form of flamenco concert that would be exported to the world’s fairs.

The Seville Fair, as a space for the symbolic representation of power relations, allowed the wealthy classes to practise their Gitanismo freely; the gentlemen dressed as Gitanos and the ladies as Gitanas, temporarily reproducing the intimacy of the flamenco party, while ‘true Gitanos’ entertained them as they spoke about business. It was as if a traditional cattle fair, with its characteristic compartments and structures, had become an exhibition of humans, complete with rigid social stratification.

Spain was preparing for the 1868 revolution, known as ‘La Gloriosa’, in which the territorial structure of the state was at stake. Meanwhile, cardboard Gitanos drank Jerez sherry with foreign visitors and real Gitanos dressed like gentlemen, sang, danced and presented themselves in the booths of the cattle fair waiting for new jobs.

1869: The Reaction of Artistic Proletarian Gitanos and Agitanados

We would venture that in the 1860s many Gitano and non-Gitano artists alike were weary of being forced into the straitjacket of Gitanismo. Flamenco, as an art of individual expression, could be understood as an alternative approach to the direct vision of the Gitanos’ life experience. You sing what you know, which potentially includes everything that has happened in the past, but you value the personal approach; art is like a still that purifies the known. In his Sociología del Cante Flamenco [Sociology of Cante Flamenco], Gerhard Steingress defines this artistic reaction as follows:

Cante was popularised in theatres and cafés but it had been created in another setting: probably in the marginalised and subcultural circles [tabernaires] of young artists and fans confronted with the ‘good taste’ of bourgeois society. Singing ‘was born’ as an artistic antithesis against a levelled and repressive mass culture. The ‘shout’ of the cantaor and the content of the lyrics that he performed uniquely was a protest against an entire saturated and hypocritical society. The ‘Gitano’ character served as a symbol of this cultural resistance, as a personification of freedom in the face of repression, of the individual confronted with levelling, and of marginalisation in the face of forced social integration. That is to say, cante was created as an artistic product of urban subcultures and of the artistic proletariat, a very typical phenomenon of romanticism.

In spite of this, the flamenco that was being born as a social construct, as a result of the still of marginalised and subcultural circles of young artists and fans, continued to face and assume all the Gitanismo imaginary. At the time of this reaction, we continue to see examples of the converse of this, such as the case of the anonymous Gitana letter that reached the Congreso de los Diputados [Congress of Deputies] in the heat of a parliamentary discussion on religious freedom.

[...] Letter from the Gitanas of Madrid to Mr Suñer y Capdevila: ‘Do not forget that Gitana predictions are usually fulfilled; and that they still pray to God for the conversion of you and of all the faithless [...]’.

Who builds the narration of Gitanismo that allows Spanish authenticity of the image of Gitanos to be recognised? Who builds the shield?

A Conclusion and A Wish

We need time to understand how all the cultural constructions surrounding Gitanos or claiming to be Gitanos are related, how that affected the crystallisation of the Spanish Gitano identity and to what extent the individual professionalisation of Gitano flamenco artists was a means of cultural empowerment in the face of the different forms of Gitanismo, and in the face of the different views of the shield of Perseus.