Flamenco in Barcelona: “Arte Jondo” in the 19th Century

Juli Vallmitjana in the gypsy neighborhoods of Barcelona between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Flamenco did not arrive in Catalonia in the 1950s through Murcian and Andalusian migration, as widely assumed in much of Spain. It happened much earlier: the first mention of the word “flamenco” in any document in the region was on January 26, 1794, in the Diario de Barcelona, in verses sent by J.M.A. ‘el Madrileño’ to Álvaro María Guerrero. He writes: “Yo era cantador / tú hacías los versos / y también tocabas / algún instrumento” [“I was a singer / you made the verses / and also played / some instrument”]. In the same poem, he mentions Xavier ‘el Flamenco’, indicating that some “proto-flamenco” artistic expression already existed and had a connection with Barcelona.

Researchers and flamenco experts generally agree that flamenco originated in Andalusia, specifically in the provinces of Cádiz and Sevilla, after the gypsies (after a centuries-long journey from northern India, now Pakistan) settled in that area for two hundred years. Something resembling flamenco as we know it today emerged in the 18th century. In the 19th century, it became popular in Barcelona, as well as in Madrid and Sevilla. However, this deep-rooted history of flamenco from its beginnings in Barcelona is unknown to the general public.

Majismo, industrialization, and new entertainment

Several factors contributed to bringing flamenco out of the private sphere and onto the stages of Barcelona in the early 19th century: the cultural movement known as “majismo,” which defended Spanish songs and dances against foreign influences; the attraction to the folklore of Andalusia and its muslim past; and the romanticization of the gypsy world and its musical heritage.

But it was also essential a social transformation that brought the necessary incentive: money. Barcelona was undergoing industrialization and urban population growth, increasing the demand for entertainment. Flamenco found its place among the new leisure offerings, initially appearing during intermissions of long theatrical performances. The audience liked it, and it gradually became a part of the final acts. In the early stages, rather than flamenco as we know it, it consisted of pieces of Spanish folklore: boleros, jotas, tangos, rondeñas, seguidillas, zapateados, and malagueñas, featuring castañuelas [castanet] and tambourines as percussion instruments. This marked the beginning of flamenco in Barcelona, as noted by historian Eloy Martín Corrales, who emphasizes that at that time, it was still “disguised and manipulated.”

From distant Andalusia to Catalonia

How did flamenco from Andalusia reach Catalonia? According to the historian in his lecture on flamenco in Barcelona in the early 19th century,flamenco came through Andalusian singing and dancing professionals who traveled or moved to Barcelona, and succeeded for “more reasons than we currently understand”, recognizes.

One can assume, continues Martín Corrales, that artists, once familiar with this art form and wanted to learn and solidify it, either traveled to Andalusia or approached the flamenco communities and gypsy communities in and around Barcelona. Catalan gypsies, as evidenced by several documentary sources, were already familiar with flamenco in the first half of the 19th century. The French writer Prosper Merimée, for example, attended the baptism of a gypsy girl in 1846 and wrote: “The songs, which were unintelligible to me, had the merit of reminding me of Andalusia.”

The heyday of flamenco in Barcelona’s “cafés cantantes”

In 1847, the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona opened, and although it later became a temple of opera, it initially supported Spanish folklore in general and Andalusian folklore in particular. The programming included the ballet “La Rondeña,” seguidillas, malagueñas, or even cachuchas, a dance now forgotten from the Escuela bolera and Andalusian tradition.

The Liceo was joined by the proliferation of “cafés cantantes” in the streets of Paralel, Barceloneta, and El Raval (then known as Barrio Chino), marking the definitive step for the consolidation of flamenco in Barcelona’s nightlife. In 1901, there were 74 “cafés cantantes” in these three neighborhoods, entirely dedicated to this art form, as advertised in tourist guides: “Cafés cantantes. Flamenco singing and dancing”, they promoted.

“So lovely, so graceful, so Andalusian”

One of the most talked-about was the Villa Rosa, in Drassanes, founded by guitarist Miguel Borrull, born in Castellón, and father of a family crucial for the beginnings of flamenco in Barcelona: his daughters Isabel and Julia formed the successful duo “Las hermanas Borrull”, known as “Las Egipcias”; and his son, Miguel Borrull Jiménez, also a guitarist, founded the Bodega Andaluza in Plaza Cataluña in 1929, where the aristocracy used to go to listen to flamenco after the opera at the Liceo.

Another flamenco personality in that Barcelona was Manuela Perea, ‘la Nena’, originally from Andalusia, a dancer who made a career in the 1850s and 1860s with a repertoire of Andalusian and gypsy dances and songs (as they were called at the time). “So lovely, so graceful, so Andalusian”, the chronicles recounted about her.

Carmen Amaya: “Feeling in the flesh”

Returning to the singing cafes, “at the Villa Rosa”, as recounted by researcher and music history doctor Montse Madridejos for La Vanguardia,“a sort of performance of gypsy jealousy was staged, which those involved took a long time to forget”. It was in one of those singing cafes in the Barrio Chino, at La Taurina, where writer and music critic Sebastián Gasch saw Carmen Amaya dance for the first time: “In a tremendously hieratic attitude, allowing the soul to rise to inaccessible regions. Suddenly, a leap. And the little gypsy dances. Indescribable. Soul. Pure soul. Feeling in the flesh”. Gasch wrote in 1931 in the Mirador Magazine. Carmen Amaya, the dancer we pay tribute to at the Tablao de Carmen since 1988, grew up in Somorrostro, a district of shacks on the beach where many gypsy families lived until its demolition in 1966. In Somorrostro, another figure of Barcelona’s flamenco dance was also born: La Singla.

“The history of flamenco in Barcelona is still to be written”

When Carmen Amaya began to triumph in the singing cafes, Barcelona had already risen as one of the capitals of deep art, thanks in large part to the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona in 1929. According to Gasch himself: “Flamenco perhaps had as much relevance as in Andalusian cities, and there were many places where you could see dance and listen to singing”. All this splendor was forgotten with the arrival of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) and the post-war period. According to Cants Oblidats research and album from the Taller de Músics from Barcelona, the nacionalflamenquismo [flamenco-nacionalism and Catalanism], as well as the success of Catalan rumba,cast a shadow over this entire history of proto-flamenco and Catalan flamenco in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the words of Montse Madridejos in the previously mentioned article: “The history of flamenco in Barcelona is still to be written”.