Where do the lyrics of flamenco come from?

Historical Origins of Flemish Literature

“Napoleon Bonaparte, / with his escorts, / did not reach the neighborhood / of La Victoria.” This verse, traditionally sung in the styles of alegrías and cantiñas, continues to resonate in today’s tablaos. Given the fluid nature of flamenco lyrics, variations abound: some sing “the beach of La Victoria” (there is indeed a beach by that name in Cádiz, though not a neighborhood), or “they did not step foot” instead of “they did not arrive.” But who originated this verse? And what inspired its creation?

According to Alfredo Grimaldos in his book ‘Social History of Flamenco’, the people of Cádiz invented this verse during the French invasion attempt in Cádiz in the early 19th century. The resistance against the French troops sparked a wave of ingenuity among the people of Cádiz, leading to the creation of this and other verses. One such verse tells the story of the grenades that fell in Cádiz but did not explode between 1810 and 1812: “With the bombs that the braggarts throw / the women of Cádiz make ringlets.” More than a century later, in 1951, Rocío Jurado interpreted it as a copla in the film ‘Lola la Piconera,’ and Lolita Sevilla recorded it in the anthology ’40 Coplas de España.’

In this second invasion attempt by Napoleon, the neighborhood that suffered the most violence from the enemy was the Santa María neighborhood. Another verse that is still sung today, and was recorded, also in alegrías, by Camarón de la Isla. “How unfortunate you were / Santa María neighborhood / how unfortunate you were / a neighborhood with so much grace, / how many bombs you received!” And even today, the connection between the resistance of Aragon and Cádiz against the French remains, as well as the connection between the jota and alegría: “From Aragon, Agustina / and in Cai, Lola / showed the world / they are Spanish.” These are some of the oldest verses that, two centuries later, are still interpreted by singers and have become popular in alegrías.


“The great anonymous poet”

Although someone had to invent them at some point, the lyrics in flamenco have historically been popular and passed down orally. The practice of recording a lyric is a relatively recent development. Antonio Machado Álvarez, “Demófilo,” published in 1881 the book ‘Collection of Flamenco Songs,’in which he wanted to reflect “the artistic conditions of the great anonymous poet.” The first verse of his collection goes like this: “Love takes away your senses / I say this from experience / because it has happened to me.”

On the other hand, in flamenco, there are no “songs” in the traditional sense. Although recordings on discs feature a certain number of tracks that can be distributed and consumed like the “songs” of other musical genres, flamenco singing (and dancing, and guitar playing) is organized into “palos” (styles). Each flamenco “palo” is a variation with specific characteristics of rhythm, melody, and typical lyrics. The singer links verses they know, verses of various lengths (4, 5, or 6 lines), leaves space for dance and guitar playing, and continues with another verse that doesn’t necessarily have a thematic connection with the rest of the verses sung before and after. This leaves a lot of freedom for the singer to pick up verses as they come to mind or to invent them on the spot.

Forge workers and basket weavers

Other roots of flamenco inspiration have been various trades. The forge, for example, traditionally located inside houses where metals were worked, has deeply influenced flamenco imagery. Camarón, the son of a blacksmith, recorded the verse “I am a blacksmith / I am a blacksmith / anvil, nail, and hook / anvil, nail, and hook” in bulerías. The work of basket weavers also left its mark on flamenco verses. They used to gather reeds on the riverbanks to make baskets. The singer from San Fernando, son of a basket weaver, also used this reference in his records, as in the song Canastera: “Little flamenco, you who make your little baskets on the bridges.” Camarón and Paco de Lucía elevated the word “canastera” and, using the rhythm of fandangos, created a style bearing this name. Legendary artists like El Torta, Diego el Cigala, and Parrita have recordings featuring the word “canastera” in their titles. Even 21st-century flamenco-influenced artists such as Canelita, La Húngara, and Moncho Chavea continue this tradition.

Influence of work in the mine

The profession that has inspired flamenco par excellence has been mining. The proliferation of mining operations in Jaén, Murcia, and Almería in the 19th century increased the population of the surrounding cities, linking “their men, their industry, their life, and their singing,” as Grimaldos writes in his book. “How badly wounded he fell / I have a brother in the mine / how badly wounded he fell / let me pass, for God’s sake / I bring mountain herbs and I want to heal him,” is one of the many verses that are still present in flamenco shows. Mining played such a pivotal role in the history of flamenco that it gave rise to a group of songs known as “minero-levantinos.” These songs, which evolved from the fandango, include the taranta, cartagenera, minera, levantica, and murciana.

Poetry in Flamenco

In the 20th century, flamenco artists turned to poetry for inspiration, incorporating verses into their compositions. Enrique Morente was particularly notable in this regard, interpreting works by poets like Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Rafael Alberti, and San Juan de la Cruz. Camarón, too, adapted poetry by Lorca and Omar Khayyam for his album ‘La leyenda del tiempo’. Others could even be said to have had their own poet. This was notably the case with José Menese, who collaborated with the painter and poet Francisco Moreno Galván, crafting lyrics with a strong social message for the Sevillian singer.

The sources of inspiration for flamenco are endless. As Faustino Núñez writes in “Flamencópolis” flamenco speaks of “life, death, love, misfortune, work, heartbreak, joy, loss, loneliness, encounter, wise advice, supplication, divinity, fear, ambition, anxiety, protest, persecution, historical events, mother, friend, brother, jailer, mine, field, sea, animals, nature.” Flamenco can convey the pain of losing a mother, the horror of Juan Simón burying his daughter, but also the beauty of the village where one was born. No matter what it tells, flamenco translates it into simple and direct words. Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer described flamenco lyricism like this: “Brief, dry, naked, free, and awake. It’s like a cut in the universe.”