In 1991, Ballet Flamenco La Rosa premiered Sefarad, an original work exploring the Jewish influence on Flamenco in the Middle Ages, during what has become known as the Golden Age of cultural splendor, shared by the Moors, Gypsies, Jews and Europeans, and culminating with the Spanish Inquisition. Created in honor of the Quincentennial Anniversary of the Spanish Inquisition, this is a piece exploring the Jewish experience in Spain in the middle ages and how it relates to Flamenco.
In Spain, the Gypsies, who are largely responsible for the development of Flamenco, like the Jews, suffered discrimination, oppression, and persecution in a land that was not their own. Music and dance served as a catharsis as they expressed their feelings of pain, suffering, pride, perseverance, and hope. The Gypsies were influenced by all of the cultures present in Spain, including the rich Semitic music, to develop the art of Flamenco. Most notably, the wailing, chanting vocals, and the guitar, which is said to have developed from the Middle Eastern instrument called the “oud”. During the Spanish Inquisition, the secret Jews, or Marranos, who remained Jewish while pretending to convert to Christianity to save their lives, used flamenco lyrics to sing of their true beliefs, disguised in the complex vocal runs and symbolic verses.
“Flamenco is no more gypsy than it is Indian, Jewish, or Arab,” says Barbara Thompson in World of Music. The relationship between the Jews and Flamenco’s development as an art form has been continuous and essential. Jewish music is one of the main roots of flamenco, and the Jewish position in Spain is one of the major catalysts in Flamenco’s early development.
The Gypsies arrived in the southern region of Spain, called Andalucia, in the early 15th Century. They brought with them a folklore which mingled in this their new home with other musical influences, namely Jewish, Moorish, and Christian. These widely varying cultures blended, or rather were forced together, in the late 15th Century and in the 16th, when Christian leaders ordered the expulsion from Spain of all “undesireables “(Gypsies, Moors, and Jews). Many of them refused to leave and took refuge in mountain wildernesses, banding together for strength. “The musical union of these cultures formed the first foundation of Flamenco as we know it today,” says author Don Pohren.
The Marranos (Jews forced to convert to Christianity) had secret ways of keeping their faith. The pained lyrics of flamenco speak of homelessness, persecution, losing one’s stature, keeping secrets, and trusting no one. They look to David and Solomon as ideals and heroes.
The Flamenco song of La Cana, considered to be the mother of Cante Jondo ( the deep song of Flamenco), has been traced to Spanish synagogal music of the Golden Age. This link is clear as one listens to the melodic progression of its opening chant like verse.
A traditional Flamenco song called Petenera is considered to this day by many Gypsies to be bad luck. This superstition can be traced to the song’s origins in Paterna de la Rivera, which was part of the dominions of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, a Jew and a protector of Jews. To sing it during the Inquisition was tantamount to admitting one’s Jewishness, and was therefore imminently dangerous. One if its verses begins, “Donde vas, bella Judia?” – (Where are you going, beautiful Jewess?) She responds that she is going to pray.
Sephardic families have settled all over the world and still retain old Spanish customs, language, and music. Like the Gypsies, many Jews were troubadours, traveling salesmen, fixers, and players, who left their musical influence on the places they passed through as well as absorbing elements from them. Like the Gypsies, Jews had been away from their homeland for centuries, transient and persecuted. The diaspora took both groups to many parts of the world, where their cultures developed with influences of the various surrounding cultures. Thus, the Jews are divided into Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and the Gypsies into Romani and Calo, or Gitanos, depending on which part of Europe they settled in. With Jews and Gypsies coinciding as they did in medieval Andalucía, it is clear that Flamenco found its way into their music, and that their music is in Flamenco.