Spain’s flamenco named world heritage treasure

Published On Tue Nov 16 2010 in The Toronto Star

Daniel Woolls

Associated Press

Spanish flamenco dancer Isabel Bayon

Spanish flamenco dancer Isabel Bayon performs in October 2010. MARCELO DEL POZO/REUTERS

MADRID—Spain’s flamenco world is stomping its heels with joy now that UNESCO has declared the quintessential Spanish genre of music and dance an art form the world should treasure.

Performers of the booming style of song and guitar-strumming accompanied by rapid-fire clapping and heel-clicking called the honour long overdue. Flamenco got the nod as an intangible piece of cultural heritage at a UNESCO meeting Tuesday in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The news was welcomed with an explosion of joy here,” said flamenco singer Chiquetete — whose full name is Antonio Jose Cortes Pantoja — speaking from Seville, capital of the southern Andalusia region where flamenco is more deeply entrenched than in any other part of Spain.

Flamenco historians say the genre, with roots in centuries of Moorish presence in Spain, first emerged in the 18th century as an outlet for poor people to express everything from sorrow to happiness to faith in God.

They would perform at home or while doing menial labour, and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th century that it became a commercial form of entertainment. It is Spain’s Gypsy community that has done most to make it popular.

Over the years it has developed myriad variations, spreading into pop, rock and jazz, and is also wildly popular abroad — as far away as Japan and the United States. Spain first nominated flamenco for the UNESCO honour in 2005 but lost out.

In Spain, a flamenco singer named Miguel Poveda won Spain’s equivalent of the Grammy for best album last year.

“I think we deserved it and finally we made it. Long live flamenco,” said Jose Merce, one of Spain’s best-known flamenco singers.

Sara Baras, a flamenco dancer, said the genre has gone through periods when some in Spain looked down on it as entertainment for the lower classes.

“Even though it had incredibly talented artists, there were many people who did not consider it an art form. I think it always has been,” Baras told the Europa Press news agency.

Flamenco’s candidacy in Nairobi was supported by the Spanish government and regional administrations in Andalusia and Extremadura, both of which provide a small amount of subsidy money each year for flamenco schools, cultural associations and travelling flamenco troupes.

Jose Manuel Gamboa, a flamenco expert who has written some 20 books on the subject, said that while flamenco is most often associated with Gypsy culture, it draws its flavour from all of Spain.

“The grandeur of flamenco is that it is an art that has managed to bring in influence from every corner of our culture and recreate it with a language that is more powerful and newer,” said Gamboa.

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