mon 15/07/2024

Flamenco: Gypsy Soul, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Flamenco: Gypsy Soul, BBC Four

Flamenco: Gypsy Soul, BBC Four

Our investigator is told exactly what she wants to hear

Postcard from the edge: gypsy children love flamenco, even when a camera's aroundImages BBC

Here's an association test - what's next in the sequence: flamenco, gypsy, soul? Yes, you win the free tourist trip to Andalucía along with writer Elizabeth Kinder, with whom you will almost certainly enjoy weak sangria and tapas while stumbling amusingly in bad Spanish, and you won't be troubled by a single unfamiliar thought about this alluring form of dance, music and poetic song.

Flamenco is so hackneyed a part of the Spanish package that it's certainly time to chisel through the candy to seek the bitter heart of the real thing. But there's always something hokum when a presenter declares her mission to penetrate an ancient mystery and find its relevance today. It's a fair bet that the intention is to do no more than buff the said mystery tantalisingly up. Even when a good part of the mystery is the kind of social oppression all can be glad to have seen the back of.

estrella morente elizabeth kinderThis was an infuriatingly fluffy documentary. Directed by Ben Whalley, Kinder promised to reveal “a glimpse of a timeless gypsy way of life as it has been preserved down the centuries”. (Right, Kinder with singer Estrella Morente.) But the “way of life” for flamenco has, for decades at least, largely been in the frills and olés of tourist cafés and professional dance circuits, with legends colourfully manufactured and loud rows about who's a real gypsy and who isn't.

The challenge is that flamenco eludes categories, its origins being so turbulent and various, and yet its product so focused and distinctive. A gift for TV, you would think.

 The goatherd sang with vivid, regretful pain. We weren't told that he is a world-renowned professional singer

Kinder duly trotted round summer beautyspots, Seville, the Alhambra, Cadiz, Jerez, beaches, bars, palaces and fiestas, reiterating how she hoped to find "ancient gypsy culture" still "relevant". Did she still hope to find oppressed minorities and stateless troubadours? She seemed inclined to read an inordinate amount into some Spanish women's admission that they sing while they're cleaning the house.

But flamenco's social relevance stretches far beyond Spain in any case. It's a fusion produced communally between desperate and disparate travelling peoples, migrants from Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Persia, peoples divided by languages but united by the outsiders' need to stay alive. We were told the interesting supposition that flamenco's unpredictable and tricky rhythms may have emerged from gypsy blacksmiths singing as they hammered horseshoes - there was some artful filming of, supposedly, the "last of the gypsy blacksmiths" working today.

flamenco paco penaWe sped past the politics: Federico García Lorca's watershed rediscovery of flamenco in 1922 and General Franco's 1970s manipulation of an art of dispossession into a sugary saviour of the national economy. We lingered in the safe harbour of showbusiness, with the guitars and art-flamenco stars (pictured, the splendid Paco Peña). We could have done instead with much more of the intriguingly raw bits of early 20th-century film of gypsy field-workers and big-bottomed grannies shaking down a rhythm as if settling down the grain in a sack.

It was extraordinary that no attention was paid to the real mystery of flamenco, the part that the English listener can't take hold of, its language and fabulously concise poetry. It's the bleak lyrics that plant the afilla cracks and gravel in the voices, and the honeyed verbal sensuality that puts the skittishness into some of the music and dancing.

Flamenco poetry has been sung for more than 200 years, compacted, explosive pillules of emotion. A typical lyric lingers on the eroticism of a girl's hair comb, or stops the world for two agonised minutes just to deliver the line: “In the corner I find you crying.” So why the blazes no English subtitles?

That latter song was delivered by the grizzled goatherd El Cabrero, who was filmed in his goat shed picturesquely haloed in half-light. You can’t sing siguiriyas softly like chocolate in the sun, he said pointedly; a siguiriya is about a situation in which you find yourself not wanted or not loved.

He looked tough and worn. He sang with vivid, regretful pain. Kinder wept. As we might have, if we'd been shown the words. We weren't told that the grizzled goatherd is a deservedly world-renowned professional singer, even though that would have prompted some genuinely relevant questions about where flamenco and gypsy culture are now. It was much of a piece with the Seville housing estate where unemployed men assured Kinder with a grin that they had no money for food but hey, they were happy, they had their flamenco. I guess she was being told what she wanted to hear and what she wanted us to hear. It comes to something when you find out more on YouTube than in an hour on the Beeb.

A true flamenco song stops the world for two minutes just to deliver the line: 'In the corner I find you crying'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Couldn't agree's not like you can enjoy Flamenco if you don't speak Spanish is it?

I agree with most of this. Generally BBC4 music docs are great, but this was just annoying. A few more basic facts and dates about Flamenco would have helped. Instead Kinder kept implying Flamenco was 'ancient' which it isn't. Also the soundtrack featured 'Sketches of Spain' several times. Great music of course, but why not use some real Flamenco?

I had really been looking forward to watching this program and was Extremely Disappointed! The Presenter was Rubbish! There so many scenes of her traipsing around...Another documentary where the presenter intends to be on screen as much as possible,Annoying! Also the Camerwork was also Rubbish, to film Flamenco Dancers from the waist up and not see how their feet are moving is Totally Pointless!! Also showing El Cabrero as a goatherd and not informing the viewers that he was a World Renowned singer...What! Why?

Entirely agree with review. Poor show. The BBC used to do this sort of thing well. Cabrero sequence rightly ridiculed: "a rumour about an old goatherd" had come to the ears of the sleuthette, did I hear? Doubtless the same rumour transmitted to me 25 years ago by all the record shop sales staff directing me to the racks of El C's successful LPs. And not another mindless repetition of the old canard that flamenco under Franco was poor quality, or the new one that it was Camaron who introduced flamenco to the world. Welcome news, however that it's still possible to have your horse shod to live music. Good theme for a tapas bar. Unless it was a tapas bar.

Where the hell was Nuevo Flamenco? Nina Pastori? Lole y Manuel? Really badly researched and was just a tourist ad

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