Body and Voice: the Construction of Gender in Flamenco

by Joaquina Labajo

One of the most striking questions which emerge from flamenco performances is the apparent rigidity with which, in voice and gesture, both men and women perform and recreate their own stereotypes. In this paper, I will try to analyze the most basic elements of staging, including role distribution, the actual nature of the interacting voices, and the resources of the protagonists' corporal expression. My aim is to explore the demystification of images laden with exotic and romantic references that have come down to us through the years, confronting them with other social, political, religious and economic realities and strategies of both the past and the present.


The Stereotypes of the Gypsy Legend

Since the middle of the 19th century, flamenco has generated an extensive legacy of references in literature, poetry, plastic arts, photography, cinema and even advertising, in various media. A quick overall look at this corpus confirms that, despite its heterogeneous character and the distance in time among certain images and accounts, a certain mythical aspect - created from a distance and replete with symbolic elements - can be detected throughout it.

Without claiming to champion flamenco's multicultural roots in Spain, or to attribute a greater or lesser role to the Roma community for its construction (Mitchell 1994), it is nevertheless obvious that the Roma people have played an essential part in its development and evolution, and that they have been, and continue to be, identified as the most profound incarnation of flamenco expression among both Gypsies and "payos" (non-Gypsies).

For centuries, Roma culture has been identified in both oral tradition and literary texts with legends (the ancestral character of their "primitive" customs; their supernatural powers; their biblical origin; their pride and their love of freedom and also their passionate love life, the product of the extreme virility of their men and the exaggerated sensuality of their women) which the Roma community itself has helped perpetuate for many and diverse reasons. Myths about their magical powers, mystery, aristocracy and independence were used by the Roma to construct various strategies of resistance in Spanish society, to confront their exclusion to some degree, and to safeguard their self-respect and cultural differences, threatened by the frequent stamp of poverty which has characterized their settlements, both inside and outside cities.

Leaving aside the existence of a complex of musical expressions which led to what in the mid-nineteenth century began to be called "estilo flamenco" (Steingress, 1990: 135), the practice of flamenco has had a different existence among the Spanish people since that time and up to the present. Together with the commercialized "espectaculos" (flamenco show) and their own forms of evolution, there has always been another, more private, type of musical expression, among both "Gypsies" and "payos".

However, it is in its performance form that, both in the nineteenth-century Café Cantantes and in today's theatres or films, that stereotyped images have flourished, in their turn nourishing flamenco, making way for new forms and styles. One might even say that in the flamenco "espectaculo" above and beyond its heterogeneous and circumstantial manifestations, a prototype in oral,written and graphic memory prevails: the image of an amalgamated Gypsy artistic presence from "Moorish Andalusia" - linked in someway to the south of Spain - whose distribution within the "espectaculo" favours men for singing and instrumental performance, and women fordancing.


1. Embodied voices

Scanning the lists of professional singers in books on flamenco, it would appear that only one of every four or five singers is a woman. This estimate, subject to several possible revisions, interpretations and conditions, is nevertheless important in that it represents a significant percentage molded in written memory. This memory also corresponds to other, differing types of accounts, sometimes expressed in rather strong terms:

It is easy to observe - C. and P. Cabalanda have written - that the "Cante Jondo" (Deep Song) reaches its full expression in bass and baritone voices; women who have practiced a good"cante" owe their success largely to their naturally thick, dark and heavy voices, which give them virility. This means that the"Cante Jondo" is only appropriate for men's performance. Or, as often said by fans moved by this marked virility: "it's just right for machos" (1988: 118).

Comparing general listings of singers with listings devoted to thepresent, we can observe a slight increase of 4% in entries of professional women . The accuracy of data from these bibliographies, must be handled with great caution. Nevertheless, they are important because of their significance as a disquieting element in today's social reality. It is interesting to observe how, since the 1960's, authors have felt it necessary to offer explanations for this "apparent" and"proven" scarcity of women's presence.

In 1967, José Monleón offered the following opinion about the problem: ... At first glance, and given the way of life of Gypsy families and the dramatic meanings of their song, it appears that women have had to remain at the margins of the processes which developed it. Perhaps women have been able to express themselves where life conditions have been less harsh (1967: 35.).

But the slight increase of women in "cante" (flamenco song) cannot be discussed within this simple line of reasoning, deducing from it a vocation for "cante" among women of our day. Rather, it is due to the preoccupation which has arisen in media and marketing circles with balancing the ratio of feminine presence among professionals, thus correcting a memory which is uncomfortable to assume today in a lively and increasingly disseminated art. It is no coincidence that in response to the reproaches of machismo which have been levelled against flamenco circles both from inside and outside the country, certain responses have recently been improvised, directed at recovering the history of women in "cante" .


2."Dancing is for women"

Veterano is a man's thing... with this motto and an "aflamencada" (performed in flamenco style) melody interpreted by a women's choir, one of the best-known wine cellars in Jerez maintained its advertising during the last decades of the Franco era. Once again, it was a question of uniting in one image flamencoand the bull, the bull-fighting world and wine.

Nevertheless, up till then, and in contrast to the paltry role attributed to women in "cante", what Gypsy woman would not know how to dance? Prosper Merimee's wicked and corrupt heroine, subsequently reduced by Bizet's librettists to a devourer of "machos", dances in point-shoes in the opera, and with strange movements in Cecil Blount's mythical 1915 film. But, in each case, she dances provocatively. There is no doubt that if there has been any one defined role for women in the image of flamenco that it has been in the area of dance:

While the sound of the ovations was still caught in the high towers of the Arabic fortifications, - Molina Fajardo poeticized - Juana La Macarrona went out to dance, while an extraordinary trio of guitarists (Montoya, El Niño de Huelva and Cuellar) created an energetic musical base: Manuel Ortega (Manolo Caracol) sang Alegrías and a dozen Gypsy women from Sacromonte provided the "palmas" (clapping of flamenco rhythms). La Macarrona, as flexible as if she had remained frozen at her unforgettable age of sixteen, became the goddess of an ancient rite, a model of temperance and mystery, which then took on fervor and frenzied rhythm....(Molina Fajardo, 1962:137).

As Bernard Leblon (1991) has emphasised, one can definitely speak of a specific Gypsy dance style in the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries: for a long time one of the main sources of income which women brought to the Gypsy community came from her dance skills, demonstrated at country festivals and market fairs. Nevertheless, later on, toward the 18th century -and nearer to the birth of flamenco- we know that some dances included in today's repertoire, such as "seguidillas" and "fandangos", were danced in many places in the Iberian Peninsula by men and women whose ethnic origins were not exclusively Gypsy and whose social originswere not only of the lower or working classes (Labajo, 1998).

The stereotype of the Gypsy woman who dances Flamenco was not created in the villages, nor in Gypsy fiestas, nor in the private salons of the middle class. Rather, it is in the Café Cantante - with the disappearance of the violins and tambourines of the old engravings, along with everybody's laughter and the improvisationsof children and old people, now replaced by a theatrical solemnity, by pain transmitted to the ears of strangers, by the mystery and the passion for the incomprehensible which informs the woman dancer'smovements - this is where the legend was constructed. The demand for realism, "verismo", in a show put together for outsidersthirsty for exoticism, and the easy availability of Gypsy candidates for the role at that time, was to lead to the "Jaleo" of Seville captured by the American John Sargent in 1882 becoming the paradigm which established, for an entire century, the image of fascination andscandal which Carmen had already provoked in Paris sevenyears earlier (Castro: 8).

As formen's role in the image of flamenco dance, one must observe that it emerges as a necessary element of the inversion of biblical history with respect to the creation of gender. Here it could be said that it was Adam who was born of Eve's rib as a necessary contrast to hermovements in stage space. His subsequent independence remains outside this classic image and is the result of recent, complex transgressions.


3. A gendered guitar player

While in "cante" recognition of women has been scarce, for her presence has been measured only in relationship to her participation and appreciation in performances, it must be said that in the world of guitar, it is non-existent. Nevertheless, one cannot offer any historical precedent to justify this absence. Both oral and written memory of the 19th century document the presence of women guitarists connected to flamenco "cante". In 1926, La Macarrona - a Gypsy "bailaora" (woman flamenco dancer) highly regarded in the cafés - declared:

Today there are barely half a dozen Sevillian girls who play the guitar, when the guitar is so beautiful! Today in Seville the poet could not have written this couplet: "Don't play the guitar anymore / because it makes me jealous / seeing it always on your skirt."

(Pineda, 1996: 64).

Press articles published in the last decades of the 19th century even point out how the boom of flamenco in private parties among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy led young ladies to replace their piano lessons with guitar lessons (Cobo, 1997: 35-38).

However, the orchestral style which the guitars began to use in the 20th century to accompany dance in "tablaos"(flamenco stages) and theatres, in order to dramatize and enlarge their stage presence,would lead to women abandoning the guitar entirely. The dynamics of gender contrast which underlie images of flamenco force artists into greater musical specialization. The guitar then ceases to be a skill associated with personal accompaniment of song, as informer times, and becomes a specific professionalization geared towards the "espectaculo".

Flamenco has now gone through an entire century with the guitar removed from women's hands. But the question "why?" has no short and simple answer. The reasons given to today's critical and concerned press by professional artists are ambiguous: : I don't know... that is true.. I hope that perhaps will come about some spirited girl.... Actually, there have been some timid advances, but accepting women in guitar playing within the flamenco image implies certain problems; her presence could reverse the established gender relationships that still support the symbolism of the "traditional" stage. In the longrun, the Gypsy woman has never been regarded as a symbol of contained provocation, of listening, or as a central conciliatory element to use in establishing and correcting the basis of men's discourse.


4. Gender relationships between voices and bodies

However, it is in the relationships established between men and women, within the framework of flamenco expression, that the construction of gender is most clearly defined. Through the corpus of gestures and dynamics which its images represent, it is possible to observe a clear hierarchy of roles which has been only somewhat modified, during this last decade.

A stereotyped reading of the images which have reached us can reveal how the man who sings represents the main figure of the group. Until the 1960s only he has only been able to play a solo role on stage. However, his voice is usually supported by the discourse of another man: the guitarist. Both artists, in seated positions, establish a dialogue of mutual and attentive listening in which the guitarist assumes a secondary role as an active confidant, dependent upon the initiatives taken by the "cantaor" (flamenco singer). Consequently, the evaluation of the guitarist in this classic role is measured not only by his ingenuity and his technique but also by his capacity to follow the "cantaor"'s improvisations adequately. This is, then, is an unequal dialogue between two men, a dialogue which the guitarists have always been aware of (Frayssinet: 26). But the relationship of "osmosis" established between these two men, who tend to replace the rigid parallel shown to the public with an implied face-off, does not have a counterpart in the case of a woman singer. In this case, a major physical and emotional distance is set up between the two performers, in which the concept of mutual confidence is replaced by a mere professional relationship and a neutral attitude of respect forthe "cantaora"'s discourse on the part of the guitarists.

The dance itself is also subordinate to the "cantaor", especially when performed by a woman.She must express the discourse of the man's "cante", interiorizing it and making it her own. In the film by Gonzalo Delgrás El Café de Chinitas (1960) after the rebellion of a"bailaora" (woman dancer) who refuses to interpret the song of her unfaithful "cantaor" lover, a friend of hers keeps on insisting: Rocío will dance the song that El Rondeño sings to her. It is her fate!. This is a situation which has frequently been interpreted in romantic flamenco literature as part of the legend of the "pride of the Gypsy woman". The guitarist on stage acts as a witness, without an opinion, detached from the conflict and entirely at the disposition of the "cantaor". With the woman's presence, the intimacy between the two male figures disappears. The guitar-man plays a yet more secondary role in the scene and becomes more of an instrument, more of an object. Men, usually younger than the "cantaor", may also appear dancing. Their gestures must strictly follow the words and the expressions of the "cantaor", but once again, when the"cantaora" plays the lead in the scene, the situation is not the same. It is extremely unusual for the "cantaora" to initiate the dance. Only in the case in which the woman is presented as well advanced in years (a symbol of matriarchal power) is it possible to see youths of both sexes dance her song. However, the woman will never be able to induce a man of her own age or older to dance what she is expressing. If this were to happen, it would be taken to mean: she does whatever she wants with him; he is no longer a man, but her puppet.

The guitar-man's incorporeal and de-gendered nature nevertheless allows the dancer, man or woman, to assume the role of protagonist on stage when the"cantaor" is not present. Furthermore, as the number of guitarists used for different sections of the dance grows larger, the depersonalization of the guitarist also becomes more marked, so that the"guitar orchestra" becomes the ideal basis for men and women to arrange their discourse of gesture in space. The man will reinforce the virile and independent aspects of his character, autonomously developing his control of the stage. However, the woman will be interpreted on two levels: her love for freedom and her firmness when faced with the whims of men but also her misfortune, having no-one to sing of it".

The reputation acquired by the Spanish guitar within the "classical" repertoire, thanks to performers such as Andrés Segovia or Narciso Yepes, has encouraged some flamenco guitarists such as Paco de Lucía or Manolo Sanlúcar to achieve their own independence in the flamenco "espectaculo". The new stereotype of the man-guitarist in the 1960s is that of the man who sings, but with his guitar. The dialogue that he establishes with the "cantaor" is on the same level and without concessions. The two men are now protagonists of the same rank. Consequently, this freedom authorizes theguitarist to claim a privilege reserved for the cantaor: to carry the show as a soloist and to organize the composition of the stage according to his own discourse.


5.Flamenco and Gypsies locked into their own myths.

What "truth" is there in these attitudes? What convincing social symbolism can be found in the gendered hierarchization that these images show? "Verismo", realism, has been one of the most important concerns for those who have in performance have always tried to control their destines: they have been anxious to perform an art in which their lives and musical expressions were the same and would share one meaning, as in the following story:

The cantaora's profession was a dangerous one, surely, for an eighteen year old girl who appeared to be in the prime of her life...people accostumed to wild living and debauched life-styles eagerly arrived to win her heart. No one could do it... The Viscount listening to her felt a strange anxiety: that voice produced within his breast unknown passions, desires, bitterness and anxieties... After the song, María de Alcor went down to a group of women to chat... her speech must have been as sad as her songs, for the Viscount saw expressions of piety and even tears in the women's faces, which had bee ntainted a deep colour by misery and the sun (Fernanflor, 1904).

Theories about the performance which are based on Gypsy myths and legends have converted "bodies in pain" (Washabaugh, 1996: 97) into the most acclaimed and convincing expression for a marginalized and repressed social group such as that of the Roma. The persistence of the Gypsy "cantaor" Antonio Mairena in associating the origin of the expression of pain in the "cante" with the reality of his people's that misery and suffering, would lead him to construct a complete theory of that misery and suffering experienced by the Roma people. This idea would guide him to build a complete influential theory following Antonio Machado (1947: 17) on how to preserve the legacy received without tainting it, justas one does with a Gypsy woman's honour, as pointed out by Timothy Mitchell (1994: 206).

Despite the apparent opposition between "gitanistas" and "andalucistas", or between "purists" and "modernists" (disposed toward fusion with other styles), none of these will question flamenco's links with pain and misery: while from the modernist spirit of the Café de Chinitas (1960), in postwar Spanish cinematography,one might conclude: "How difficult it is to get away from the stage, from all this rubbish. Flamenco is pain, it is a lament, it is born only in misery." Jose Monleon, a partisan of Mairena's thesis, also points out: "without a specific and anguished set of rules, 'cante' remains inexplicable" (1967:26)

To this demand for the theatralization of pain, the Gypsy people have never hesitated to oblige by magnifying their response. Nevertheless, it is clear that the performance of this painful leitmotiv has been more difficult for women to play than for men - except forthe professional artist - since they rightly fill frequent private venues with songs and dances whose meanings and purpose are very different from those claimed in the "espectaculos". Furthermore, the"espectaculo" grants preference to males because "a woman cries over any trifle but when a man weeps, one falls apart..." (Pasqualino, 94: 83). A man's dramatic strength, then, is more highly valued for the corporalization of profound feeling, that is, of Cante Jondo.

The fact of the matter is that the social history of the Roma and of flamenco as a commercialized performance have not followed the same path, nor shared the same meanings.While in the 1960s, the world of art was discussing the influence of Romani culture, and was raising huge amounts of money to promote flamenco as a tourist attraction - tourism being developed during thattime as the country's main industry - only a minority of professional Gypsies took a long-term part in the world of commercialized"espectaculos". The rest of the Roma community, which had no access to social housing, organized ghettos and slums around large cities, mainly in Barcelona and Madrid. The industry needed cheap manpower inAndalusia, and a large number of Roma families ended up with the lower-paid aspects of this work with tenuous contracts or none at all. In those years the regular presence of "Gypsy" women begging in the streets helped reinforce the stereotype of their inability to enter the work force. At the same time, the "Gypsy" man, obliged to develop strategies for mobility and an alternative occupation in order to provide a certain economic stability for his people, falsely reinforced the old and worn stereotype of a wandering spirit eager for freedom as pointed out by Teresa San Román (1997: 163).

It is within this space between social reality and myth that a path is described, configuring gender stereotypes within the performance. However, this distance between social reality and myth is growing nowadays, for, while there are doubtless more professional Gypsies and more of "exclusiva dedication" within the world of commercial "espectaculos", the Roma community is now being threatened more than ever with its disintegration as a group.



Nowadays, it is still possible to see images of the "traditional" Flamenco myth in all kinds of reports and performances . But stereotypes cannot be considered ahistoric and static creations. Therefore, is it even acceptable to think that there have been no changes in flamenco's behaviour and significance during all this time? I think that flamenco's history has been constructed upon many transgressions among the two main genders and their various stereotyped sub-categories.

Beyond certain techniques used by some professionals, many men today confess needing to "rajar" their voices, i.e. to make them hoarse, gravelly, by smoking and drinking, in order to prepare themselves for singing in the "pure" style. Is it perhaps because they need to demonstrate that they are living "like men", that is, that they frequent men's bars and indulge in behaviors reserved for men? While an artist's social life is irrelevant for his public during the performance: his voice, as a mere sonic support, can certainly be considered as the only proof of patrimony and customs with which the "cantaor" demonstrates/represents the signified elements of this type of musical expression. And so, with this established, it should not be amarginal factor in understanding why during the first Flamenco Encounter in 1922 - in which Manuel de Falla and Garcia Lorca tried to prove their theses about Deep Song's "natural" and religious nature - both decided to close the door to professional singers who performed in taverns and Café Cantante's (Gallego Morell 1992:32). Nor is it a coincidence , for the same reasons, that when the radio became one more piece of furniture in the middle-class living-room,with many house wives listening to it, that just then the new "cantaor" appeared, with a clear "throat" voice, and no trace of traditional "macho" characteristics. This type of man, who in mid-century postwar Spain represented the hard worker, thrifty, never frequenting "dens of iniquity", was, nevertheless, looked down on in traditional flamenco circles. He would constantly have to prove his virility, as in Café de Chinitas (1960), by defending his honour, by fighting "like a man". Is it because during his stage history the "cantaor" has always needed to carry on with the image ofa deep "Gypsy" voice that would never be able to be represented by a tenor less deep and, therefore, less virile? On the other hand, if we realize that, in the expression of "cante", there is more than only one prototype voice with which to represent different images of "man", will we also need to observe that at the same time, these different representative voices are organized around a clear hierarchy within the mentality of "peñas de aficcionados" (fan clubs) who have controlled flamenco's paths?

What does it mean that a woman's voice must be virile for "song", as it is frequently heard in certain flamenco circles? Why have the feminine voices most highly valued in the past been bass and strong, but not considered "broken"? Why was one of the most well-known clear, high voices, like that of La Argentinita, considered in early 20th century Madrid "intellectual" circles to be the best voice for the "aflamencadas" songs collected by Garcia Lorca and re-created as part of flamenco-Andalusian heritage by Manuel de Falla (Gallego 1990:101)? What meanings could a broken, torn woman's voice bury in a show to be separated from an "aesthetic" consideration? Today, professional women in "cante" have nothing to fear from the meaning of their voices, as today to be a singer of flamenco does not mean, as in the past, identifying oneself with a certain lifestyle. But in any case, if one considers the musical activity of women who have practiced flamenco in private, domestic settings, in or in today's Christian (Roma) churches; and at the same time take into account the nature of the kinds of voice involved, we must conclude that the stereotypes shown in flamenco"espectaculos" have no direct parallels in the roles and characteristics of these women's voices in social reality.

As far as dance goes, it is important to point out that since its first appearance on the flamenco stage, it has always shown greater freedom than "cante" in organizing its own transformations. The reason, however, is neither innocent nor casual. To a large extent it is the fruit of the different strategies of power,within gender relations, which emerged with a close dependence on political and economical circumstances. In any case, if we take as a reference the dance movements attributed as "typically feminine" by the traditional memory of the show, we will have to speak of "classic movements from the waist up". But, nevertheless, why has this type of movement been so frequently overridden by women of both the past and the present? Why have many women preferred to adapt the virtuoso"taconeo de hombre" (heel-tapping) to their movements? Is it because of the legend of the "passionate and virile behaviour" of the Gypsy-Flamenco woman, or might there be a more complex explanation for this attitude?

The importance of gender roles in the "espectaculo"also changes with the times and today it is no longer in song or dance that the power of flamenco is centered. In our world, connected by communications media, "cante", expressed in the Spanish language, but with Andalusian-Gypsy accents and expressions, contains several barriers which complicate its easy diffusion outside Spain. On the other hand, dance, as an image in movement, requires more live performance than does instrumental music. In consequence, the new guitarist, an independent protagonist on the stage, today is in the best position to negotiate his future in the world.And, in this future, will it be possible to modify the gender roles without first obliterating Gypsy myths and their deepest, most "jondo", stereotypes?



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