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.