How to explain the flamenco experience? It is profoundly individual, based on emotion and sensation. And its history is as deep and mysterious as the music, dance and passions that define it.
Flamenco had its beginnings in the 8th to the 15th centuries, when Spain was under Arab dominion — a time when music was impacted by Jewish and Moorish traditions. In the 15th century, a new influence was introduced by Nomad Romani, known as Romas, or, in general parlance, Gitanos (gypsies). They trace their roots to Northern India and roamed widely in Europe and Northern Africa. A large number of Gitanos settled in the Andalusia region in southern Spain, where virtually all historians agree that flamenco began. In fact, there are references to the music as being “the gypsy blues.”
Even today, flamenco remains an art form “of the people” and, although there are scores of schools and courses offered, many of the most popular artists — dancers, singers and guitarists — are self-taught. It is not unusual to see young musicians strumming flamenco guitars on streets and in doorways, or to hear the plaintive sound of a cantaor (singer) echoing through an ancient alley at night. This, perhaps, is because flamenco is as much about emotion in the moment as it is about training.
Originally, flamenco was primarily singing, often accompanied by rhythmic hand-clapping, beating sticks or wooden castanets. Later, dance was incorporated as part of the musical expression and now flamenco comprises three forms: cante, the song; baile, the dance; and guitarra, guitar playing. It also has three styles, termed “profound,” “intermediate” and “light,” which reflect how the haunting artistry of flamenco can evoke despair, love, grief or anguish, but can also be lighthearted and festive. No matter what the style, the music and dance are wrought with passion and tell stories of day-to-day life: lost love, jealousy, disappointment and death.
As the nation’s signature art form, flamenco can be enjoyed all over Spain. But there is no better place than Madrid to experience it.
Where to experience flamenco
Corral de la Morería (at Calle de la Morería, 17)
In Patricia Schultz’s “1000 Places to Go Before You Die” (Workman Publishing Co., 2003) , seeing flamenco at Corral del la Morería ranks among the top 10 sights in Madrid. Home to what is often called the best tablao show in the city — and certainly the oldest — it is a wildly colorful nightclub that features top talent and a great deal of foot-stomping. To be sure, this is a major tourist spot. Yet the flamenco here is authentic and full of tradition, and you can enjoy an amazing meal here, too. www.corraldelamoreria.com
Casa Patas (at Calle Cañizares, 10) Roughly translated as “house of legs,” this is a loud and fun taberna, often playing host to local musicians and artists and true flamenco aficionados (not just tourists). They serve good tapas, as well as house-made and very traditional meals. But, more important, their flamenco is top-notch. Casa Patas is known for occasional performances that erupt spontaneously when some of the guests at the restaurant — themselves flamenco performers — are inspired to begin dancing, singing or playing instruments. What fun to be there then! www.casapatas.com
Café de Chinitas (at Calle Torrija, 7) In this elegant building that was originally an 18th-century palace, the flamenco tablao is less flashy than others, but it’s perhaps the most authentic. The restaurant (really more of a club, where the performances — not the food — are the focus) is set one floor above street level. The artists — many of whom consider themselves to be Roma, related to the original gypsy people who came to Spain — bring the passion and energy of their heritage to their art. This is a great spot for a post-dinner show and a late-night snack. www.chinitas.com
Torres Bermejas (at Mesonero Romanos, 11) Just two minutes from the Plaza Mayor — the central plaza of the city — is this visually spectacular restaurant that is a replica of the famous Alhambra fortress in Granada, with its ornate architecture, Moorish décor and intricate mosaic tiles. With dances representing flamenco styles throughout Spain, the performance troupe here is composed of more than 20 artists, and the show includes guitar-tapping, hand-clapping and tap-dancing. www.torresbermejas.com
Las Carboneras (at Plaza Conde de Miranda, 1) presents a stylized, modern approach to the world of flamenco. The restaurant has a sleek black, red and white décor and even the menu includes updated traditional fare made with a gourmet twist. There is also an exhibition hall for fine art and exhibitions by varying artists. The flamenco performance, too, is modern, called Nuevo Flamenco, that combines contemporary influences like jazz, salsa and even rock into the flamenco performance. Definitely a high-end venue, the tablao is in the Andalusian style, with some of Madrid’s top performers taking the stage. Although a newer venue, Las Carboneras has made its mark as a hip place to enjoy flamenco.
– Carla White, Brand Publishing Writer