Spain: A Mosaic of Musical Practice

Touristic fantasies of Spain conjure images of untouched mountain pueblos, of toreros and toros, of fierce flamenco dance. Yet, despite its success in repositioning la cultura andaluza as national culture, and especially flamenco music and dance as national tradition, Spain remains a highly localised country where its mosaic of musical practices and cultural traditions virtually number its communities. In the context of World Music, flamenco music offers exotic fusions of East and West, nurtured across the currents of the Mediterranean, and Spain boasts a whole host of local music and dance traditions which recreate the country’s past through the eyes of its ever-changing present.

Country Profile

Located on the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest of Europe, Spain is one of the largest countries in Southern Europe. It has a population of more than 45 million and is devolved into fifty provinces governed by nineteen devolved autonomous communities. Catholicism is the main religion in Spain and its national language is Spanish, also referred to as castellano, but it also has four co-official languages: Euskera(Basque), Catalan, Galician and Occitan(Aranese). Ethnically, native Spaniards are relatively hegemonic, though it has diversity in terms of distinctions between the Castilian majority and the Catalonian, Galician, Basque and Aragonese regional groupings, and it has a small Gitano (Roma) minority. Despite its strong agricultural sector, Spain is an increasingly urbanised society, with around 80% of its population living in urban towns or cities, although social and cultural life is still very much organised around rural milieus.

Cultural History

For centuries, Iberia was a relatively peaceful patchwork of cultural coexistence between indigenous peoples, the mercantile Phoenicians who established trading points along the coast, the Celts who settled in the north, Jewish exiles and seafaring Greeks who brought not only trade but also their culture to the peninsula (10thC BCE-3rdC BCE). As the forces of Carthage, a (Semitic) Punic province, rose to power and fought all-out war with the Romans (3rdC BCE), the Carthaginians increased their influence in Spain and founded the state of New Carthage in the southeast of Iberia (in modern-day Cartagena and Murcia). As the Carthaginians’ state started to swell, the Romans intervened and sent forces that gradually expunged the Carthaginians from the peninsula. The Romans expanded their foothold and, despite nearly 200 years continuous Iberian resistance and rebellion, they eventually annexed all of modern-day Spain into the Roman Empire (1stC BCE). The Romans built their trademark infrastructure of towns, roads and aqueducts across their new territory and some areas became very prosperous through gold mining and agricultural exports of olives, grapes and grains. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, it became a dominant religion in Iberia, although Judaism was also prominent as Romans granted safe passage for Jews to move to the peninsula (3rdC CE).

As the Roman Empire disintegrated and raids from the north and south increased (5thC), the Germanic Visigoths took Iberia from their Roman allies. However, under their poor stewardship (5th-8thC), Iberia fell into decline and internal divisions, including a rapacious persecution of Jews, weakened the kingdom. Backed by the powerful Arab Empire, the Moors of the North African Maghreb crossed the Mediterranean and, annihilating the Visigothic armies, established the Muslim Kingdom of Al-Andalus (8th-13thC). The Arab rulers pumped life back in the country and the Andalusperiod made a distinctly Arabic imprint on Spanish culture that persists to this day, especially in its power centre of the south (modern-day Andalucía).

Al-Andalus became a prosperous centre of trade and it was a cosmopolitan society that managed to maintain unprecedented peace and tolerance, nurturing cultural interaction and exchange, between its Muslims, Christians and Jews. However, rival Christian kingdoms began to emerge in northern Spain: Aragon, Castile and Navarre. It was during this time that one of the most iconic cultural activities of Spain, the bullfight, was first attested in its modern form, celebrating the accession of King Alfonso VIII (1133). Strengthened by the ascent of militant Christianity in the form of the Crusades (12thC), they launched the reconquistaof Spain, advancing against the Moors and pushing them all the way back to Granada, which, as its own Muslim Emirate, was the last stronghold of Al-Andalus (13th-15thC). Moorish cosmopolitanism gave way to suppression, religion intolerance and monoculturalism in Medieval Spain and, following increasing global tensions between the religions and unrest that resulted from the decimation of Spain by the Black Death, violent persecution of other religious groups, especially Jews, became the norm. As King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabel of Castile ascended the throne and captured Granada (1492), they unified the Iberian states into a united nation of Spain. They then launched the Spanish Inquisition (1480), outlawing all religions other than Roman Catholicism and persecuting all those who attempted to practise in secret through forced conversation, torture and execution; and subsequently expelled all Jews from Spain (1492). In the same year, they supported Christopher Columbus’s first voyage West, marking the start of the Spanish presence in the New World.

Over the next century, Spain increased its colonisation efforts. The Papal Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which aimed to avoid conflict between its Catholic Portuguese and Spanish expansionists by literally drawing a map of where each nation had permission to occupy, encouraged the Spanish to focus on the West Indies and South America where, unlike the Portuguese heading for Africa and East Asia, they met little indigenous resistance and had far less colonial competition from the Dutch, French and British. They soon established vast colonies in these regions (16th-17thC), where they wiped out or enslaved the indigenous population and spread Christianity across the Americas through forced conversion. Plundering the riches and resources of their new possessions abroad, Spain’s trade and commerce boomed at home, and the Spanish arts experienced a renaissance through writers like Miguel Cervantes. However, wars against the Turks, French, Netherlands, English and Portuguese, further expulsions of Moriscos(Muslims who had converted to Christianity) and Jesuits and poor harvests and outbreaks of plague led to a sharp decline in Spain’s fortunes (18thC). As the Enlightenment and social progressivism started to gather pace in other European countries, Spain rejected social reform and persecuted those who espoused it as heretics. After the French Revolution (1789) and the rise of Napoleon, the French took over swathes of Spain (1808), including Madrid, but, with support from Britain, the Spanish fought a guerrilla war (a term meaning ‘little war’, coined for this very conflict) that drove the French out of the peninsula (1808-1813). After widespread rebellions, many Spanish colonies in the Americas were granted independence (early 19thC) and the Industrial Revolution started to transform Spanish society, although the south remained predominantly agricultural and very poor (mid-19thC). After King Ferdinand died (1833), waves of social unrest, including a civil war and uprisings, eventually resulted in a constitution (1876) and universal male suffrage (1892).

Forces of traditionalism and progressivism remained at loggerheads and civil unrest continued, especially driven by the conscription of exclusively working class poor Spaniards into a war against Morocco, rising socialism and anti-clerical sentiments. A general strike (1917) erupted into sustained widespread violence that was put down by a military coup led by General Primo de Riviera (1923) that did restore order and introduced policies that improved living standards. Nevertheless, the regime gradually lost support and Spain became a republic (1931).

Undermined by the disapproval of the Catholic Church and the economic woes of the worldwide Great Depression, the republic failed to hold back a rising tide of conservative nationalism which exploded into the terrible Guerra Civil(1936-1939): a military coup of Nationalist rebels, led by GeneralissimoFrancisco Franco, rose up against the leftist Republican government, and the vehement conflict pitted pueblo against pueblo and neighbour against neighbour along the faultlines of Nationalist versus Republican. Catalysed by interventions both from fascist leaders Hitler and Mussolini and from communist leader Stalin, the war became increasingly bloody and marred by atrocities. In the end, the Nationalists prevailed and inaugurated an authoritarian dictatorship with Franco as its caudillo(Head of State)(1939-1975). Franco’s regime brought violent suppression and economic hardship to the people of Spain and, though officially neutral in World War II, Spanish troops were forced to fight on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union. In the climate of the Cold War between the US and Russia, Franco’s regime was tolerated by the Allies as a buffer to communism and, as a result, its political and economic links grew and it became a relatively affluent country (1960s-1970s). After Franco’s death, democracy and liberalism were restored and much of the centralised State was devolved to the regions via the creation of the autonomous communities. Since then, cultural traditions and regional identities that had been suppressed under Franco’s regime have been revived and reinstituted and globalisation, especially since Spain joined the EU (1986), has started to diversify its major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valènciaand Sevilla.

Music Culture

Living Traditions: Local, Regional, National

The traditional music of Spain is remarkably abundant and resilient; its song and dance forms have been pervasively and determinedly maintained as organic living traditions long after many correspondingly ‘modern’ European countries have relegated their customs to little more than ‘heritage’. This is perhaps because Spanish traditional music has long been developed, maintained and nurtured at local, regional and national levels: traditional music is upheld at a local level in the customs of the pueblos (the community villages and towns of the countryside); regional trends are sustained by each comunidad autónoma (‘autonomous community’, province); and national musics, forms that have come to symbolise the contemporary Spanish identity, are cultivated in the ciudades (‘cities’) like Madrid, Barcelona,, València, Sevillaand Málaga. Indeed, flamencoitself embodies this multidimensionality: it started as a local Gitano tradition, ascended into a regional trend across Andalucía and was cultivated into a nationwide form also used to represent Spanish identity on an international level; and, yet, it is still today enjoyed in multifaceted ways on all three levels.

Spanish tradition was also well prepared to endure modernisation due to its ambiguity between, and blurring of, the sacred and the profane: the concept of the fiesta (‘party’) embodies its merging of holy feasts with ecstatic parties, devotional customs with rapturous celebrations; and traditional music, song and dance play a key role in negotiating the two at the local summer fiestas of each particular pueblo, at regional fiestas like La Feria de Abril in Sevilla, San Fermin in Pamplona, Moros y Christianos in Comunitat Valencianaand Castellers de Vilafranca in Catalunya and at national fiestas like Semana Santa (‘Holy Week’) and Los Santos (‘All Saints Day’). Of course, the last few decades of mass urbanisation, agricultural mechanisation, unrelenting touristification and the rise of Anglophone popular music in Spain have affected the position, influence and function of traditional culture in Spain, but traditional music is still living, perhaps in some respects reinvented through the gaze of the present, but nevertheless retaining an important role in the mosaic of Spanish culture and society.

Local: Party in the Pueblos

Traditional culture in Spain has historically been centered in the pueblos. Local oral song and dance performance, though drawing influences from traditions as far back as the Visigoth (5th-8thC) and Al-Andalus (8th-13thC) periods, were predominantly developed during Spain’s Medieval Age(13th-15thC); and are mainly structured around a cycle of sacred and profane customary activities. Despite the emergence of common traditional forms, the musical and textual content and the cultural purposes differed from pueblo to pueblo, such that each claims a distinct cultural identity. The community link between a pueblo and its people remains remarkably enduring: people who have moved, for example from a pueblo into the nearest major city, still generally consider themselves members of that pueblo community and identify strongly with its particular cultural traditions, even after a couple of generations; often families still habitually return to participate in these traditions at ritual and festive times throughout the year. Thus, though the prominence of the pueblosin culture at large may have diminished, their role in sustaining these traditional customs and their traditional musics is paramount.

In terms of musical infrastructure, each pueblohas its own traditional civic music ensembles. The precise nature and scope of this musical infrastructure depends on the traditions and the talents of each pueblo at any given time, but they usually include at least a coro(choir), a banda de música (a wind, brass and percussion band, mainly for procesiónes(parades)) and a rondalla (guitar group consisting of various types of guitars and lutes, especially the Spanish guitar and bandurria (a small lute), which can all be played punteando (plucked) or rasgueado (strummed)).

Historically, each pueblo would also have a pregonero (‘town crier’), who would sing the time, local news and religious lessons in the main plaza (square)every day to inform and educate the community. The pregonerowould also sing relevant religious stories during particular sacred festivals with improvised melodies that, depending on their musicality and vocality, could encompass anything from simple declamatory recitations to elaborate tuneful inventions. However, this custom is now rare even in more traditional pueblos. Still, alongside individual semi-professional and amateur community musicians, the civic ensembles play traditional music for entertainment and to express religious devotion at community events and religious festivals. The rondalla serves mainly to facilitate traditional dances such asboleros, fandangos, flamenco, jotas, ruedasand sevillanas. Coros, bandas, rondallas and other grupos and musicians play an important role in bringing together the social community and uniting it through a common cultural identity. They also act as musical ambassadors of the pueblo, for example by competing in national competiciones (formal tournaments) and regional concursos (informal contests); success in these contexts can bring considerable cultural attention and prestige to a pueblo, and winners are typically revered with celebrations in their honour upon their return.

As mentioned above, local traditional music in the pueblos tended to be organised around a cycle of sacred and profane customary activities. Throughout the year, devotional songs, ceremonial music, work songs and social dance music were amongst the most common traditional forms, but, as they were traditionally embedded in everyday life, their content and function generally changed with the seasons. The Spanishromance (‘ballad’) is a prime example: this song form has its own annual cycle, with songs that correlate specifically to each religious and seasonal period. The romancederives from the epic song traditions of the trovadores (troubadours), which voiced stories of love and chivalry, often in a poetic and intellectual manner. There is no scholarly consensus on the origins of the troubadour: some theories trace it to the influence of Islamic Arab, and especially mystical Sufi, customs in Al-Andalus; others place it as an offshoot of Christian liturgical traditions; while others still frame it as a secular folk tradition that developed in Iberia independently from direct religious practice. Regardless, the music of the troubadourbecame prevalent in folk tradition amongst ordinary people in the pueblos of Medieval Spain.

The romancesthemselves comprise: a diatonic melody, usually symmetrical in contours, sung monophonically; a musical structure organised by the copla (‘union’, a poetic form of octosyllabic quatrain, four verses of eight syllables to a line); text that combines stories of love and chivalry with Biblical verse and fable; and musicopoetic techniques such ‘word painting’ where musical and textual phrases have a symbiotic relationship (e.g. soaring up to a sustained high note for the word alto, ‘high’). In pueblos with greater Arabic influences, such as those in Andalucía, the romances are sometimes also accompanied by a rabel (rustic Iberian fiddle derived from the Arab rababinstrument that, like the rabab, is played on the lap rather than the shoulder), which heterogeneously imitated and decorated the sung melody. Elsewhere, it is more likely to be sung by a soloist alone, a small coroin unison, or by a soloist accompanied by a combination of guitar, zanfona(hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument played by turning a crank and pressing keys on chromatic keyboard) and vihuela (small guitar-shaped chordophone), offering harmonic and rhythmic texture with responsive countermelodic inflections. Historically, songs would be performed only at their customary time, so that the stories would speak to and reflect on the time of year appropriately. Now, romances are still popular in the pueblos, but songs from different cycles tend to be loosely mixed together in traditional performance contexts, and are especially common in Christmas performances.

Traditional music in late summer, autumn and winter tends to focus on love and courtship and on the life of LaVirgen María (‘The Virgin Mary’) and El Niño Jesús (‘The Baby Jesus’). Specifically associated with this time are the lyric song forms: romerías (literally ‘pilgrimage’, pious devotional songs), rondas (‘round songs’, courtship songs),villancico (‘carols’) and nanas (‘lullabies’). During late summer and autumn, Catholic priests would ritually make pilgrimages to religious sites across Spain, such as the Camino de Santiago which ends at the shrine of the apostle St. James, but, the majority of the community, who needed to keep the pueblo up and running, could also perform their own romerías to a nearby shrine dedicated to their local patron saint. These ‘pilgrims’ would sing romeríason their journey to the shrine, similar in musical form toromances or rondas (see below) but set to serious poetic texts full of religious verse and motifs that reflected piously on religious devotion; once at the shrine itself, people would sing specific romeríasdesigned to exult the particular patron saint. Despite their sacred content and purpose, romeríascan also be subtly amorous in mood and purpose, with poems in which the journey is the pretext for meeting a lover, and it was not uncommon for the real journey to result in the same.

For canciónes de ronda (‘round songs’), known simply as rondas,a young man performed the songs as part of the tradition of rondado (‘rounding’, courtship), where he would gather a small group of other young men to help him serenade the woman of his dreams with the expressive melodies and amorous confessionsof the rondasfrom outside her window. The purpose of this was win the heart of his desired lover, and it is worth noting that the act was a regarded as form of gift-giving (hence, to serenade isdar una serenata, literally ‘to give a serenade’), but, if the young man was unsuccessful in his courtship, the tradition also meant he was surrounded by his peers who could offer him camaraderie and drink to numb the heartache. Rondas, alongside other lyric song forms, were also used as part of nuptial celebrations: theywould often be used to invite the guests to the wedding and, on the day of the wedding itself, they would be sung by the groom and other young men to honour the couple and their parents. The rondasthemselves consisted of estrofas (‘stanzas’, verses) in the coplas form (with its octosyllabic quatrain), sung solo as a call by the suitor, and estribillos(‘refrains’, choruses), sung in response by his companions. Today, rondasare still a common song form but are now sung by groups of male, female and mixed groups in the plazas of pueblos as a form of entertainment, though it is still often conceptualised as bestowing a gift unto the community, and the community coro will often sing rondasas a means of raising money for the Church and specifically for forthcoming sacred spectacles like Semana Santa (‘Holy Week’).

Villancicos (‘Christmas carols’), which were sung as devotional songs during the Christmas period, extoled Christ as Saviour, normalised Christian teachings and recounted Christian stories, especially the nativity tale. Originally, the villancico actually covered a significantly larger song tradition, including a polyphonic repertoire which merged folk and art song practices, but, as this repertoire faded, the term has come to represent simply the ‘Christmas carols’. Villancicos remain a highly popular traditional music today, and, beyond their presence in Church services, they are widely performed in public spaces and at community events to rouse festive cheer and encourage charity and goodwill. The villancico has similarities to the rondasin its use of alternating coplas and estribillos, but it also has its own trademark procedures which overlap music and text: for instance, when the fourth line of the coplarhymes with the second, as in all coplas, it changes its tune to that of the upcoming estribillo, thereby creating a sense of melodic anticipation. In areas with a strong Arab lineage, villancicosare often accompanied by frame drums and cymbal-like idiophones. Like the romerías, villancicos are primarily sacred in content and purpose, but they can also be subtly amorous and some are even somewhat comic and satirical.

Canciónes de cuna(‘cradle songs’), or nanas(‘lullabies’), were traditionally sung by new mothers or grandmothers using soft, simple melodies, soothing words and non-lexical baby-talk syllables like arroró and arrolo, to lull their baby to sleep, to express the parent’s love and to bless them by likening them to the baby Jesus. Gifted singers would also often draw on Arabic vocality to sing highly decorated melismatic improvisations between the verses that would bring aesthetic pleasure for the singer themself. The nanas were valued as an important cultural skill for women and the oral transmission of the nanas from mother to daughter was thus an important rite of passage. The songs were delivered with the baby and so, in one sense, they constitute a yearlong tradition, but they were also sung amongst families at Christmas time as a symbolic gesture of love for the baby Jesús. Due to their emotive and nurturing associations, the singing of nanasremains a popular tradition in the pueblos, and, adapting to new labour patterns, young men have reportedly started to learn them so they can sing them for their new-borns too, though it is now less common for families to sing it at Christmas without a baby as an act of devotion to Jesús.

In spring and summer, traditional music revolves around the life of the Virgin Mary and serves to pray for a good harvest and, if all goes well, to bask in a summer of plenty. Work songs were rife throughout rural Medieval Spain, and specific songs were developed locally for all different kinds of labour, including digging, seeding, picking, gathering, hunting, fishing, shearing, milling, threshing, mining, cooking and cleaning. Agricultural songs tended to be quite slow, loose, sombre and melismatic, influenced by Arabic maqam melody and modality, while mining, milling and domestic were often more responsorial and metric. The work songs provided a form of recreation that made the time pass faster and was also proven to increase productivity and promote teamwork. In some contexts, song appeared to become a professional tool in itself: songs consolidated and accelerated the ‘beat’ of the labour in the fields and mills; in the mines, song was used as a channel of dialogue with which to communicate updates, relay orders, trade jokes and so on because singing carried further and truer than a shout as it echoed spectacularly around the cavernous pits; and, in the mountains, a roaring song, accompanied by the swinging of the bramadera (bull-roarer), would be used by shepherds to scare wolves away from their flocks.

In the lead-up to the harvest, therogativas (sung recitative prayers) were a spiritual vehicle that farmers, and the entire community, used to seek blessings from the local patron saint of the pueblo to steady the weather and protect the crop from the scourge of disease. As the flowers started to enter full bloom, crosses decorated with blossom and other local symbols of spring would be marched around the pueblo to lively and upbeat processional music to celebrate the season of new life. Once the harvest was over, the pueblos enjoyed perhaps their most local celebration: las fiestas.

While the word fiesta refers to a host of local, regional and national festivities, as outlined before, las fiestas indicates the particular summer celebration hosted by each and every pueblo. Traditionally, they were held primarily to give thanks to God for a good harvest, often with a symbolic tribute like the sacrifice of a toro (bull); but they have since evolved into a festive party, a performance of local cultural customs (e.g. forms of bull-running, mud-slinging, martial arts-based stick-fighting and the building of human towers) and thus the most spectacular manifestation of the pueblo and its community and identity, featuring a vast variety of local, as well as regional and national, traditional music, song and dance. Each year, the community would elect a new group of young people as the festeroswho, under the auspices of their elders, would take charge of organising the celebrations for lasfiestas, including year-round civic duties and fundraising; in passing this key rite of passage, they would be ceremonially ‘married’ into the community and gain a great deal of recognition for their civic commitment. Las fiestas are still strongly upheld in pueblos across Spain, as is the festeros tradition, and it is for these celebrations that those who have moved to the city are certainly expected to return, to affirm the belief that no one ever truly leaves their pueblo.

Regional: Autonomous Regions, Autonomous Traditions

Beyond this local cyclical level, traditional music in Spain is highly regionalised. Regional groupings have identifiable musical trends that are worth highlighting: in Central Spain, the most traditional Spanish forms, like the lyric songs, predominate; in the North, traditions draw more influence from other European folk and dance customs; in the East, there is an emphasis on formal songs and dances; and, in the South, song and dance draws more on Arabic and other extraneous influences, setting its regional traditions as patently distinct from the others in its melismatic vocality, asymmetrical melodies and maqam-derived modality. Beneath these trends, regionalised music traditions number more than the comunidades autónomas, who, themselves, promote the maintenance and celebration of regional culture and identity, with musical traditions serving as emblematic symbols of their province. During his decades of rule, Franco attempted to force monocultural nationalism on the country by suppressing and even outlawing a huge number of regional cultural traditions but the resilience of their cultural practitioners meant that these traditions, and their music, survived these policies and have outlived Franco’s rule.

Amongst the best known regional traditions are the fandango(Andalucía), muñeira (Galicia), sardana (Catalonia/Catalunya) and trikitixa (País Vasco/Euskadi Herria), and, of course, flamenco (Andalucía and Murcia) and the jota(Aragón)(which will both be discussed under ‘National’). The fandango, muiñeira, sardanaand trikitixa are all regional dances derived from longstanding rural folk music and dance traditions. Prior to the ascent offlamenco, the fandango dominated Andalucía. Its origins are ambiguous, with possible references to its existence as an Iberian folk dance in Roman writings, though its musical style evidences its absorption of Moorish influences and even tendencies from indigenous traditions of Spain’s colonies in the New World. It is a dynamic couple dance of sensual courtship, and it was primarily a form of entertainment amongst the working poor at dance socials, community parties and other events; the couple dance face to face but without touching, and so the dancers use hand

gestures, body movements, turns, accented foot stamps and laughter and cries to dramatise their interplay. The 6/8, 3/4 or 3/8 dance begins slowly, with its rhythm (XxxXxxXX) accented by palmas (patterns of rhythmic hand-clapping),castañuelas(castanets, paired concave wooden clappers of Arabic origin) and zapateo(flamboyant stamping footwork from the dancers themselves), and it gradually accelerates into a frenzy. The music is usually performed by an ensemble of voice, guitar, accordion and the aforementioned rhythm section, though a guitar or accordion can take up the melody in lieu of a singer, and its melody is semi-improvised melodies based on coplas of octosyllabic lines. It is harmonically complex for a folk dance, with a basic harmonic sequence of I-VII-VI-V, elaborated through added notes. Sudden pauses, accented by strike chords on the guitar and stamps, are an idiomatic feature of the dance, and the dancers stay frozen in dramatic poses during such pauses.

The sardana is a circle dance closed by holding hands. Originating as a form of recreation in the Empordá area, this 6/8 medium-tempo dance is played by the cobla, a distinctive 11-piece Catalan band made up of six different types of wind and brass instruments: (theflabiol(a small flute); the tenora and tipple (oboe variants); the fiscorn(a saxhorn); the conventional trumpet and trombone; a double bass; and a tamborí (a small Catalan drum). The flabiol plays an introit (introduction) until the tamborí taps its first beat, signalling the start of the dance, in which the sardanistes’dance is choreographed around two tirades (waves),curts (short steps with the arms at shoulder height) and llargs (long steps with the arms up), which repeat and alternate in set patterns; the flabiol improvises a contrapunt (intermission), after which there is one final set of llargs until the cop final (‘final beat’) where thesardanistes stop in one unified movement.

The muiñeira (‘the miller’) of Galicia was an agricultural dance based on milling work, which was danced as the millers waited for the grain to grind into flour. Galicia was settled by the Celts and Galician culture is regarded as significantly linked to ‘Celtic culture’; indeed, this dance is often labelled as the ‘Galician jig’. It is a fast and playful 6/8 dance led by the gaita (Galician bagpipes) with pounding rhythms on percussion instruments like tambores(snare drums), but in more austere settings, the muiñeira can also be danced to the singing of the cantareiras(a group of female singers) accompanied only by their panderetas (tambourines). Its choreography mixes group couple dancing with circle dancing and jumps, which are led and accented by the percussion.

The Basque trikitixa is a dance music tradition played by the instrument of the same name, which is a small diatonic button accordion, and a pandereta. The trikitixa was inspired by Central European musical instruments, and the music derives from these traditions as well as preceding Basque folk musics, drawing on the music of the txistu(a small Palaeolithic whistle more than 10,000 years old), thealboka (a double hornpipe that, using circular breathing, can play two simultaneous notes in unison or fifths) and the tamorileros (martial drum troupes who played processional music for parades). As such, the trikitixa music has rapid, sequence-based, symmetrical melodies on the trikitixa,set in a fast duple or triple meter, elaborated by sparkling percussive rhythms of the pandereta. Its dance is divided into two main styles: baile a lo agarrado (‘dancing cheek-to-cheek’, dancing in closed position i.e. in hold) and baile suelto (‘dancing free’, dancing in open position i.e. out of hold), the former an elegant couples dance resembling ballroom choreographies like the waltz and the latter a lively, acrobatic dance that has affinities with Central European folk dances; the suelto normally emerges as a joyful culmination after an ordered series of the a lo agarradodances. Thetrikitixaand pandereta were played in rural communities for entertainment and thetrikitixawas danced at social events, though the instrument was at first vehemently ridiculed by the Catholic Church, which labelled it ‘hell’s bellows’.

All four of these dances have been transformed from their humble rural community function into a regional symbol of cultural identity, and thus are now also performed at important cultural events and festivals in the cities: the fandangois now performed across the country alongside flamenco performance though, in Andalucíaitself, it is still also performed by itself as a marker of traditional Andalusian culture; the muiñeira has become a symbol with which to negotiate and represent the ‘Celtic’ aspects of Galician identity; the sardana has come to embody Catalan nationalism after the Renaixença (‘Renaissance’) and so is performed as an act of independence at cultural celebrations but also as an act of protest and defiance at political rallies; and the trikitixa has become a vehicle for expressing regional patriotism in a peaceful and cooperate setting in a context where, given the legacy of the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) militant separatists, Basque nationalism is still treated with suspicion. Beyond these four, there are of course a whole range of other regional song, dance, musical and cultural traditions, each a distinct piece in the mosaic of España.

National: Locating España in Music

Just as the autonomous communities have sought to position certain cultural traditions as symbolic of their regional cultural identity, other cultural forms have been placed as representative of the Spanish nation itself. Though all inevitably started as local and regional traditions, some forms have transcended such trends, especially those symbolic of Spain’s intercultural exchanges between Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. National cultural forms include major ritual events, such as the Carnival celebrations and the Semana Santa (‘Holy Week’) ceremonies, which involve their own traditional musics, as well as specific music traditions, including the jota and flamenco.

CarnivalandSemana Santa are two of the major national fiestas in Spain, the former a week of profane revelry and the latter a week of sacred asceticism. They involve huge cultural effort and economic investment, and they also function on multiple levels, with discrete celebrations taking place at local (pueblos), regional (comunidades) and national (major cities) levels; yet, unlike others, these fiestas have a great deal of commonality in terms of cultural practice and purpose.

Carnival, a ‘farewell to the flesh’, acts as a week of partying, indulgence and hedonism in the lead up to the sombre austerity of Lent. Its origins are unclear, with some theories suggesting Iberian festivities and others pointing to roots in Roman Saturnaliasolstice rituals, but it is now a longstanding tradition in the Spanish world. Traditional music and song underpin this convivial atmosphere at parades, masquerades, participatory games and burlesque performances. At parades featuring extravagant costumes and artistic floats, the banda de música, complemented by customary noisy idiomatic percussion like cencerros (cowbells), play loud and lively processional music to whip up an exuberant mood of dancing and partying, while, for masquerades, they play more subdued ceremonial styles that provide the flow for elegant movements. In participatory games played by children and adults alike, infantiles (children’s songs) facilitate circle games, hand-clapping games and so on by prescribing the gestures, movements and sequences through their words and their simple but catchy melodies. Carnivalregularly include bullfighting, and the pasa doble, which developed as a music and dance form during the 19thC based on a French infantry march (the pas redoublé), embodies the drama of the bullfight and is a regular feature for the entrance of the matador(bullfighter) to the ring in Act One of the fight’s choreography. Along with other burlesque activities, the chirigota is a tradition of comic songs which, utilising a high degree of musical and textual improvisation, offer satirical, often bawdy, comment on local gossip, and ridicule the clergy, politicians and celebrities

to entertain and, if sufficiently witty and astute, to encourage community reflection. During Medieval Spain, the chirigota served as an important vehicle for voicing public grievances as, while the layman would be severely punished for direct criticisms of the political or religious leadership, the chirigota was tolerated and could therefore voice their concerns on a highly public platform.

The tradition derives from the Comunidad Cádiz, and the gaditanos (people from Cádiz) are nationally revered for their sense of humour; even today, they nurture this musical tradition, and by extension their cultural reputation and prestige. At Carnival, chirigotassing their comic songs in the pueblos throughout the celebrations and, on particular days, the best chirigota of each pueblo brings their most side-splittingly shrewd songs to the Gran Teatro Falla of Cádiz itself, where they engage in an interpueblo competition to be crowned the best comic in the region and, by convention, the country.

In early Medieval Spain, the Semana Santa, which falls on the last week of Lent leading up to Easter, involved musical prohibition, along with other forms of asceticism.

However, this fundamentalism did not endure and so, over time, a host of pious music traditions associated with the fiesta have been cultivated. The main event of the Semana Santa is the procesión (parade) of the confradías (holy Catholic brotherhoods), which includes: the Cruz de Guía (‘Guiding Cross’); the penitentes (also known as Nazarenos) marching in silence wearing customary religious attire such as the capa (cape), capirote (cone-shaped head dress) and capuz (face-cover) and often holding velas blancas (long white candles); the costaleros (bearers, chosen from the Penitente) who carry large and heavy ornately decorated pasos (religious floats) that hold imagen (life-size statues of Jesúsand Santa María and depictions of scenes from the Passion of Christ); and finally more penitentes carrying wooden crosses as a symbol of atonement. This procesión incorporates sombre chapel music, including hymns and serenades sung bychoirs a capella, as well as specific religiousmarchas music played by bandas with idiomatic strident trumpet melodies and martial-style drumming. Apart from the procesión, a song form particularly associated with Semana Santa is the saeta(arrow), which, drawing on Moorish musical traditions, involve passionate and full-throated melismatic improvisations using the melodic modes of the Arabic maqam. Saetasare sung in the streets as symbolic emotional cries of Catholic repentance throughout ‘Holy Week’ and, traditionally, they would especially be spontaneously ‘shot’ by individuals at representatives of their confradía (holy brotherhood) leaving the home church, processing along the parade route or returning to the home church as affirmation of community solidarity. Today, theSemana Santa in major cities like Sevillaoften involve over fifty confradías, all with their own pasos and bandas, and draw audiences of thousands, but the pueblos also continue to maintain their distinct local procesióneswhich, even in small villages like Riogordo near Málaga, usually encompass sizeable festivities involving the whole community.

The jota and flamenco are two music and dance forms that can be regarded as ‘national’ music traditions due to their prevalence and relative uniformity across the country and because of the way they have been used to locate, negotiate, symbolise and represent la cualidad española (‘Spanishness’); thejotaon a national platform and flamenco on both a national and international scale.

The jota is a quick 3/4 couple courtship dance. It embodies many of the idiomatic traits that have come to characterise Spanish dance, including vocal soloist and chorus and a small instrumental ensemble (usually a rondalla with some added tambores) on accompaniment; a variaciones (introduction)followed by alternation between coplas (octosyllabic quatrain solo verses), estribillos (refrain group choruses) and vivacious instrumental interludes; the use of lyrical poetic texts about love or faith, often with a dash of humour; musicopoetic effects (e.g. ‘layering’, where musical phrases and textual lines start together for the first four lines but then get out of sync for the next lines, thus having to be corrected by a musical device such as faster successive phrases within a line or syncopated melody, to finish together, producing a climactic effect at the end of the verse); and elements of rhythmic syncopation (e.g. the melodic phrase entering on the offbeat against the strong accompaniment downbeat and the sesquiáltera polyrhythm, the vertical alteration of 6/8 and 3/4 meters for a 3-3-2-2-2 beat; X..X..X.X.X.). The choreography involves lively, bouncing steps executed while the dancers hold their arms up high and click castañuelas. It is derived from Aragonese fertility dances fused with Moorish tradition as well as some influences from the indigenous dances of Spain’s colonies, though its performance style today, which is far more choreographed than improvisatory, was consolidated during the late 18th-early 19thC in the Eastern Comunidad Aragón. The jota is known as the ‘mother dance’ of Spain for its influence on later Spanish styles and for its recognition as a national symbol across all the regions of the country.

Flamencois a vast musical complex that comprises cante(song), toque (guitar) and baile (dance). It is regarded as a fiery, passionate artform drawing primarily on the cultural practices of the persecuted gitanos (‘Gypsies’, Roma peoples). The earliest recorded accounts of flamencodate from the early 19thC, but it is certainly possible that it had existed in some prototypal form amongst these closed and marginalised communities for a long time before then. It started out as a local expressive song and dance artform at social parties in the gitanominoritycommunities in the mountains of Andalucía. It then entered the juergas (‘parties’), which were essentially gitanojam sessions but patronised by wealthy payos (non-gitanos) who  wanted to discover, enjoy and occasionally participate in the authentic ‘folk’ music of the oppressed lower-classes. These juergas brought flamenco to regional prominence in Andalucía and, from there, flamencocame out of its embedded community context into the cafés cantantes(music clubs) of Sevilla, and later Madrid, where gitano musicians performed as resident musicians for the general concert-going populace. While purists have lambasted this professionalisation and urbanisation of flamenco, it is now widely accepted by musicians, aficionados and scholars as the ‘golden age’ of flamenco that not only brought recognition for this hidden artform but also, by providing security and stability for the gitano musicians and by bringing them into contact with other Andalusian folk and traditional music forms, nurtured new creativities and experimentations that were essential to the development of the tradition as we know it today.

This ‘golden period’ established the fundamentals of flamencotradition. It consolidated the synthesis of gitano traditions with influences from Spanish folk traditions.  From the gitano traditions came: the high, impassioned, melismatic singing and candidly introspective tragic poetics on lost love, pain, waning faith, despair and death; the compás, the highly complex twelve-beat rhythmic patterns which form the structure of a song, provided by a palo seco (hard stick) or palmas (claps); the intimate and participatory atmosphere in which the jaleo(shouts of appreciation and motivation from the audience) andpalmas (rhythmic claps from aficionadas who could join in the compás) were considered essential to performance practice). Spanish folk traditions brought: the incorporation of guitar into melody (falsetas, plucked melodic phrases), harmony (modal chord progressions) and rhythm (rasgueado, rhythmic strumming); the use of traditional Spanish dances like the fandango and the zambra and especially the inclusion of zapateo (stamping footwork); and the influence of Spanish folk song, like the rondas, which made thecoplasits poetic form. Flamencocame to revolve around three main cante forms:cante jondo(‘deep song’), the oldest and most serious form, famed for the intensity of its emotional introspection; cante chico (‘light song’), a later and lighter form, more influenced by Spanish folk song traditions and often comic, although still usually with a mood of impending tragedy; and cante intermedio (‘intermediate song’), the most commonly performed form (and thus the form usually referenced by the general use of the termflamenco) which mixes elements of cante jondo and cante chico.

From here, flamenco gained further national attention in the early 20thC when theatres started staging flamenco performances known as operismo (flamenco opera). It is at this point that the purist criticisms start to hold some water, as the performances became increasingly commercialised, trading its musical rigour for light song styles, its artistic practices for spectacle and its agonising passion for sentimentality. Fortunately, flamencowas ‘revived’ as an artistic form in the late 1920s, revealing the general view amongst musicians and aficionados that it had ‘died’ in the operismo period. Ironically, this artistic revival, in attempting to combat this commercialisation, propelled flamenco somewhat to the opposite extreme by reimagining flamenco as a quintessentially Andalusianand, beyond that Spanish, music tradition. The movement included poet Federico García Lorca, who devised a series of mystifying concepts to explain the transcendent communicative ‘power’ of flamenco, such as duende (‘soul’; the passionate and evocative outpouring of the soul in a heightened state of ‘meaningful’ emotional expression where artistic and aesthetic beauty and spine-chilling cathartic ‘power’ are inspired by the ‘authentic’ experiences of pain and hardship; the opposite to style, grace and charm of ‘work’).

Though this renaissance in flamenco had started to thrive by the early 1930s, but was subsequently derailed by Franco’s regime, which censored all potentially oppositional local and regional traditions and thus only permitted flamenco in its superficial operismoform. However, it was restored again once the dictatorship started to soften in the 1950s-1960s and once touring Spanish dance troupes had brought international attention to the country’s traditional music and dance. Certain tablaos (nightclubs) in the major cities across Spain started to book serious flamencomusicians again and, eventually, peñas(small flamenco clubs), festivals, concursos (contests) and flamenco institutes emerged to support the tradition, primarily in Andalucía but also in the major Spanish cities.

This encouraged and sustained a new generation of artistic flamenco musicians who not only revived the ‘golden age’ traditions but also, from the early 1970s, started to experiment with the genre. Nuevo flamenco (‘new flamenco’) introduced innovations in the guitar playing, including virtuoso melodic punteando (plucking), rapid arpegios(striking of bass followed by various patterns of other strings) and the five-finger trémolo (ostinato striking of bass followed by repeated plucks on one other string), as in the pioneering compositions of Paco de Lucía.  Later, flamenco fused with a whole range of different styles: jazz and Latin American rhythms (especially Cuban rumba), as with gitano singer Camarón de la Isla; Arab music, as by Lole y Manuel; salsa, e.g. Ketama; blues, with Pata Negra (1980s); new Latin trends, e.g. Barbería del Sur; rhythm and blues, through Navajita Plátea; rap, with Tomasito; and pop, e.g. Niña Pastori (1990s).

Over the course of one century, flamenco went from local artform, in gitano parties and community juergas, to regional trend, in its ‘golden age’ in the café cantantes, to national symbol, through the revival’s repositions of la cultura andaluza as national culture and the extension of this in the form of the national nuevo flamenco movement. Flamenco now serves as a national and international emblem of Spanish culture, though flamencotraditions still live on at local and regional levels too, with juergas still held in the mountains of Granada and deep traditions of cante jondo still performed at regional festivals and competitions in Andalucía. Of course, as we have seen, flamenco is just one piece of the diverse mosaic of Spanish culture, but it certainly is a unique, complex and stunning piece, and it has had no trouble in capturing the world’s imagination.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017


Sources & Reading Suggestions

Andalucian Journey: Gypsies and Flamenco [Documentary Film] (BBC, 1988).

Flamenco [Documentary Film] (Canal+ España, 1995).

Flamenco at 5:15 [Documentary Film] (NFB, 1983).

Flamenco, Flamenco [Documentary Film] (GPD, 2010).

Flamenco: Gypsy Soul [Documentary Film] (BBC, 2013).

Flamencopolis [Online Resource], <>. 

Los Tarantos [Cinematic Film] (Tecisa, 1967).

Paco de Lucía: la búsqueda[Documentary Film] (Acción Cultural Española, 2015).

The Great Songbook: Spain [Radio Broadcast] (BBC, 2015).

Triana Pura y Pura [Documentary Film] (La Zanfoña, 2013).

Baker, Trevor, ‘Spanish music now: from Alicante to Zaragoza’, The Guardian Online, 19 June 2012, <>.

Blitzer, Jonathan, ‘The Gypsies’ Dance’, The New York TimesOnline, 26 December 2012, <>.

Burckhardt, Titus, Moorish Culture in Spain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972).

Chase, Gilbert, ‘Spain: Flamenco Music of Andalusia’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, 1956, <>.

Chuse, Loren, ‘Anda Jaleo! Celebrating Creativity in Flamenco Song’, The Mediterranean in Music(Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005).

Fairley, Jan, ‘Spain’, in Simon Broughton, Mark Ellington and John Lusk (eds.), The Rough Guide to World Music (London: Penguin, 2006).

Hayes, Michelle, Flamenco: Conflicting Histories of the Dance (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014).

Labajo, Joaquina, ‘Body and Voice: The Construction of Gender in Flamenco’, in Tullia Magrini (ed.), Music and Gender Perspectives from the Mediterranean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Lifferth, Kaila, ‘An Exploration of Spanish Music and Dance Traditions’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, <>.

Llano, Samuel, ‘How Paco de Lucía transformed modern flamenco’, The Conversation, 4 March 2016, <>.

Machin-Autenrieth, Matthew, Flamenco, regionalism and musical heritage in southern Spain(London: Routledge, 2017).

Manuel, Peter, ‘Evolution and Structure in Flamenco Harmony’, Current Musicology, 42 (1986).

Martí, Jose, ‘Folk Music Studies and Ethnomusicology in Spain’, Yearbook for Traditional Music, 29 (1997).

Miles, Elizabeth and Loren Chuse, ‘Spain’, in Bruno Nettl et al., The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (London: Garland, 1998).

Mitchell, Timothy, Flamenco Deep Song (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Mitchell, Timothy,Passional Culture: Emotion, Religion and Society in Southern Spain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).

Morenda Rodríguez, Eva, Music criticism and music critics in early Francoist Spain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Pohren, Don, The Art of Flamenco, 3rdedn (Seville: Society for Spanish Studies, 1992).

Salloum, Habeeb, ‘Arabic Contributions to Spanish Music, Song and Dance’, Syria Today, <>.

Stevenson, Robert et al., ‘Spain’, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Stevenson, Robert, Spanish Music in the Age of Columbus (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964).

Totton, Robin, Song of the Outcasts: An Introduction to Flamenco (Portland: Amadeus, 2003).

Viguera, María et al., ‘Spain’, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2016, <>.

Washabaugh, William, Flamenco Music and National Identity in Spain (London: Routledge, 2016).

Washabaugh, William, Flamenco: Passion, Politics and Popular Culture (Oxford: Berg, 1996).

Washabaugh, William, The Passion of Music and Dance: Body, Gender and Sexuality (Oxford: Berg, 1998).

Webster, Jason, Duende: A Journey in Search of Flamenco (London: Black Swan, 2004).


Sources of Images

Header Image: Flickr

Map of Spain: Britannica

Map of Al Andalus: Jeremy Norman & Co.,

A Rondalla: Fernandez Music

Ronda Segoviana: Web Oficial de la Ronda Segoviana

Feria de Agosto de Malaga:

Fandango: Wikipedia

Sardana: Spanish Arts

Muneira dance:J. Albertos, Vigo en Fotos

Trikitixa: Aitor Arotzena, Noticias de Navarra

Los Chirgotas de Carnaval de Cádiz:

Semana Santa: José Galiana, ABCdesevilla

Jota dance:

Flamenco Juerga(ft. Bernarda de Utrera & Diego del Gastor): YouTube

Flamenco dance:

Paco de Lucia:

Flamenco Fusion in Havana (2017): James Nissen (2017)

Tomasito:El Volcan Musica

Flamenco musician performing on the streets of Granada (2016): James Nissen (2016)