Spanish Flamenco, Islamic Influences & an idea about Indian Fusion Music

I watched my first Flamenco performance yesterday at the Tablao Cordobes in Barcelona. Until yesterday, my only knowledge of any kind of Spanish dancing was from watching ladies swirl around at country fairs in swishy clothes and music that I felt resembled banjo and guitar more than anything else.

Yesterday’s performance was a revelation. First off, it was a small tiny stage—the tablao—and performed entirely without mics and with a very small audience of perhaps < 100 folks. I love intimate stages and soft music but this was loud, vibrant, and to my amateur eye, had a lot of improvisation.

Forgive my abysmal photography, but you probably get the idea

The men mostly sang (except for one performer), and the women danced. The first thing that struck me about the songs were its definite Islamic character. I had seen a bunch of Sufi songs performed at large venues in Old Delhi and the songs were almost a match. I honestly thought I was crazy and imagining things at first and then I read this article about revealing Flamenco’s Islamic roots:

In the 1930s, a student from Pakistan named Aziz Balouch travelled to Spain, and as soon as he heard flamenco he recognized it as almost identical to the Sufi music that he played and sang at home. Indeed, the very next night he sang the same songs back to the original performer—none other than Pepe Marchena—only this time in Urdu. Marchena and his guitarist, Ramón Montoya, were gobsmacked by the foreigner who had just arrived in Andalusia, yet could sing perfect cante jondo as though he had been born and raised in a Spanish village. On the spot, Marchena took the young man on as his fellow performer, and Balouch would go on to record under the name Marchenita (“little Marchena”).

I mean this is just really crazy: Sufism is just about as distant an inspiration of Spanish music as I could’ve thought about, but it’s not really a mystery when you realize that most of Spain was an Islamic country way back.

The second thing that struck me was how similar the actual tap dance was to the fast-paced Carnatic music (& dance) that’s performed in South India. This resemblance is not as obvious as the previous one and came to slowly, especially during a few stretches where the performers combined the staccato clapping of the backstage singers and the rhythmic tap dance that’s usually associated with Flamenco dance. Watch this performance by TM Krishna (at an Afghan church no less):

This thari kida thom style invocation was very similar to the music beats of the performance I watched yesterday. The drums of South India have similar dynamics and seem to be from the same school of music.

And so finally, I thought about why as Indians we don’t really combine these two schools of music. Imagine Sufi musicians in the background singing their strong, loud, expressive hymns and South Indian drums and music in the foreground perhaps combined with an expressive and fast form of dance like Kathak. And both schools of music riffing off each other. Think that’d be lovely to watch 🙂

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