Arte Regional

Paul Vernon's ever-expanding series on the history of roots recordings around the world gets to Spain.

Late nineteenth century Spain was a rural and underdeveloped country with very marked cultural differences between its regions. In 1891 a population of seventeen and a half million spread itself across an area of almost 198,000 square miles, producing a sparse average of 88 people to the square mile. Less than a quarter of those could read or write. Catalans and Basques saw themselves as separate then as they do today, jealously guarding their cultures. Aragonese and Andalusians produced significantly different musics. Mallorquins felt themselves to be just as special and different as did Castillians. Arguably, no single country other than the United States produced a wider range of regional styles. Yet for all that, the spirit that moved them all was essentially and unifyingly Iberian.

Flamenco, the most well-known and probably most deeply abused of these styles is often thought of as the 'typical' Spanish music. In fact, it is the native music of Andalusia, only one of the eleven major areas in the Iberia peninsula. Much has been written about the Flamenco and much of it is hopelessly romantic. Partly this is because Flamenco itself is often hopelessly romantic. Wrapped in a mythology that, at this remove, is difficult to unravel from reality, Flamenco remains emblematic of Spanish music to much of the outside world. Its origins are still in dispute, and two distinct theories still vie with one another; that it belongs to 'Wandering Spanish Jews', and that the influence is much more Arabic.

Both theories have some validity, given the migratory patterns of the Iberian Peninsula over the last several hundred years, but the most likely explanation is that by the turn of this century Flamenco was the product of a melting pot containing these and many other ingredients.

Some 65 different forms of Flamenco have been indentified by scholars, from the Alborea to the Zorongo. They have crossinfluenced each other, been traced, in some cases, to Judeo or Celtic origin, allocated to secular and sacred traditions and fostered by both Gitanos (gypsies) and Payos (nongypsies). The music is often heard outside Spain in less than ideal circumstances but it remains at the heart of Iberian culture both as dance and song.

The first Spanish recordings, 128 of them, were made in Madrid in the late summer of 1899 by Fred Gaisberg, the expatriate American recording expert, whose work for the English Gramophone Company was so seminal. A little over a year later W. Sinkler Darby, The Gramophone Company's other American expert, took 94 recordings in Barcelona. Stylistically, these early recordings were something of a mixed bag. Stiff stage performances rubbed shoulders with military and municipal brass bands. Little, if any, regional musics appear to have been recorded.

By 1904, however, with the participation of two German record companies, Favourit and Odeon, the gramophone industry began recording Spain's folk traditions in earnest. Odeon had recorded Antonio Chacon, a major Cante Hondo Flamenco artist, by 1905, and the Gramophone Company responded with further sessions in Barcelona and Madrid during 1907 and 1908. By 1912 Edison Bell joined the race and by 1914 the Gramophone Company was also marketing its newly- acquired Zonophone logo. What they were recording was more than just Flamenco.

As early as 1908 an example of the Aragonese Jota had appeared on the Gramophone label. The Jota is quite different from any form of Flamenco. It is essentially a street song with accompanying dance steps, found across the Aragon countryside in an assortment of regional variations. It has also travelled outside its presumed native area, reaching as far afield as the Canary Islands and the Basque country, and even, it has been claimed, Portugal. In doing so it has undergone some minor changes, but a classic Jota, as described in a 1930 article by Rodney Gallop in The Gramophone, is essentially the same wherever it is heard:

"First, we hear a rondalla, or band of guitars, thrumming the infectious strains of the Aragonese Jota in the traditional 3/8 time. Suddenly this accompaniment stops on an unresolved chord, and the soloist (first a woman and then a man) sings the traditional tonadilla or refrain with its characteristically Spanish cadences."

By 1926, when electric recording processes had replaced the old acoustic method, the marketing of Spanish folk music was in full swing. The reason that so much regional variety was captured can be traced to the practices of the recording companies themselves. At that time Spain had no permanent recording studios, and no facilities to manufacture records. In consequence, the Spanish recording industry was controlled by the British, the Germans and, to a lesser extent, the French - that is, those who possessed the technology. Throughout the ten years prior to Spain's civil war a small group of technicians roamed the countryside with their portable equipment conducting recordings on location. They set up this equipment in hotels and caves, in concert halls and wine cellars. The Gramophone Company's chief engineer in Spain was H E Davidson, an apparently acerbic character who constantly traversed the countryside, recording not only professional musicians but also peasants, qypsies, local amateurs and capturing what is probably the first truly'live' recording of a folk tradition, a Saeta sung in the street at Seville during the 1930 Easter celebrations. Again, Rodney Gallop furnishes us with a contemporary description:

"It is the custom during the great Good Friday procession at Seville for persons in the crowd suddenly to break out into songs (called saetas) improvised on a verse of the Gospel. This record was made actually during the passage of the procession, and as it starts one hears the stir and chatter of the crowd."

"Suddenly, quite near at hand a long high- pitched note is heard. The air which follows is quite oriental in character and full of twists and ornaments. It closes amid a burst of applause. Then far away in the distance a second saeta soars up into the air like an arrow (the literal meaning of the name). Presently the first singer starts again, and for a moment before the record closes the two are heard together mingling with the distant strains of a band and the syren of a steamer on the Guadalqivir: an amazing example of gramophonic realism."

Davidson achieved this "gramophonic realism" by suspending an omnidirectional moving coil microphone from the open bell tower of the church, allowing the sounds to rise and mix naturally. Almost certainly it was an experiment on his part, and it worked beautifully. In another experiment, Davidson recorded the atmospheric music of Cuadro Gitano de la Coja, a gypsy Flamenco group, in a hotel room by laying down wooden planks for them to dance on. The results are astonishing. "The clack of castanets, the dry taconeo of dancing heels on a wooden floor, the acrid voices and throaty interjections come through with wonderful effect" wrote Rodney Gallop.

By early 1930 the Spanish public could choose from hundreds of different regional recordings on a variety of labels. That they did so is a mark of the esteem in which the Spanish have always held their own culture. Like the Portuguese, they supported a significant catalogue of music, enthusiastically buying records in large quantities. In 1932, by which time Columbia and Polydor records had also entered the Spanish market, there were over S,000 records in catalogue, reflecting almost every style of Spanish music including Basque, Castillian, Catalunian and Mallorquin.

There were, by this time, some stars also, not the least of which was La Niha De Los Pienes, a remarkable Flamenco singer whose first recordings, around 1924, display a deep and vibrant understanding of the genre. Her career was a long one - she was still recording 25 years later- and she remains today a much loved artist. Her records were issued outside Spain in many different countries, and if you junk a Spanish 78 today it's a good chance you'll find one of La Nina's. If you do, be glad, for you will have found an authentic Flamenco record.

As well as Spanish music, the public were also exposed to a variety of nonSpanish product, including American jazz, Argentinian tangos, Hawaiian hulas, Cuban sons, Portuguese fados, American film hits, English dance bands and even yodelling cowpersons, the Girls Of The Golden West appeared in catalogue alongside Jimmie Rodgers.

All this music also found its way onto the radio. In 1930 Spain had only six radio stations, all of them operating in major cities with low wattage and generally poor reception. However, in October of that year a consortium consisting of two companies - Telmar, the agents for Marconi radios, and S.l.C.E., the Iberian Society of Electrical Companies - submitted proposals to the Spanish government for a radio broadcast network to cover the whole of Spain. By 1932 the details had been agreed and construction was under way. From the six original stations, which were absorbed into the new network, the consortium expanded to 51 stations.

Through this new medium came a wide variety of music. The ubiquitous Tango, sung naturally in Spanish, was an immediate and obvious success, but so too was the Hawaiian guitar Records by King Benny Nawahi, Kalama's Quartet and other very genuine Hawaiian guitarists appeared both in record catalogues and on radio playlists; but the other thing that started to appear on the radio was political propaganda.

The long and complex series of events that preceded and culminated in the Spanish Civil War are well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that it brought about a hiatus in recording that lasted almost a decade. During the period following Franco's victory, Spain remained closed to an outside world that itself soon became engulfed in war. It was not until 1945, when the EMI group started recording in Barcelona that any significant activity took place.

Post war commercial recording picked up where it had left off ten years earlier. The continuing public taste for regional music ensured that Flamenco and Jota both remained in catalogue, as did songs of the Basques and the remarkable Catalan Sardanas. Played by'Coblas'- instrumental quartets comprising pipe, tabor and a pair of rustic reed instruments that give the group its name - Sardanas are, in pure terms, a version of the ancient chain dance widely found elsewhere in Europe. Their charm is handsomely described by Constant Lambert who, in 1938, wrote:

"Nothing is more exhilarating than the crisp sonority, the unselfconscious gaiety, the uncomplaining sentiment of these dances. One of their most pleasing features is their lack of precocity or 'artiness'. They are so strong a tradition that they can afford to admit alien influences without succumbing ".

Flamenco gained recognition in the 1950s in a way that both legitimised it and, according to some purists, sowed the seeds of its destruction. In 1954 the Spanish Hispavox label undertook an extensive project to record every important Flamenco artist for a series entitled 'Antologia de Cante Flamenco'. Issued at first on a set of 10" and later 12" vinyl records, this massively important cultural exercise remains in catalogue to this day and has been widely exported. Probably more than any other single factor, it has helped to establish Flamenco around the world. Two years later the first national Cante Jondo contest was held in Cordoba. By the time Jerez University established a 'Chair of Flamencology' in 1958 the music was safely established as a national treasure. Given the events that would shortly follow, this was probably a blessing.

1929 HMV Catalogue

At about the same time UNESCO underwrote a folkoric research project that enabled a long series of Panlberian field recordings to be made. These included not just previously recognised styles but the hitherto unrecorded vaqueiro and shepherds' songs, religious chants, ring dances from the Balearics, folias from Valencia, malaguenas from Tenerife and much more. More importantly, it caught the music just before a major event - tourism and its effects radically altered the culture of Spain.

Spain's tourist industry did wonders for a stagnant economy but little for the preservation of folk music. Most tourists insisted on hearing what they thought of as Flamenco and the Spanish tourist industry willingly supplied it. Amid a million drunken Anglo shouts of "Ore" genuine Spanish music slipped quietly over the horizon.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, possibly genuine, of Franco, a few months before his death, cruising the Costa Brava on a Spanish naval vessel, surveying the high rise hotels and neon highways and asking, quietly and sadly, to be taken home, mumbling that the battle had ultimately been lost.

With Franco's death and the subsequent democratising of Spain a resurgence of interest has taken place. Much of this currently focuses on Flamenco, which like any real folk music has and will continue to evolve. Nuevo Flamenco is very much a reality in Spain and across the world. It has crossed over to merge with rock and neoclassical; it has re-asserted itself, once again, as an emblem of Spanish culture. Little, however, is heard of the delicious and wide variety of other regional musics. Let us hope that they are not lost to us forever.

With thanks to EMI-Archives, Nigel Gallop, National Sound Archive, San Francisco Public Library.

Further Reading The Rough Guide To World Music contains an excellent potted history of Flamenco that is worth perusal, and Peter Manuel's seminal Popular Musics Of The NonWestern World also contains a chapter worth reading. Anne Livermore's A Short History Of Spanish Music (Duckworth Press, 1973) is exactly what it says it is and very clearly written.

Recommended Recordings For starters, there's an excellent CD on Arhoolie 326, Early Cante Flamenco, presenting classic recordings from the 1930s. Try to find the Fandango label, with eight volumes of CDs, each devoted to an artist of major stature; La Nina de los Peines, Manuel Vallejo, Manolo Caracol, etc. The classic Hispavox flamenco recordings from 1952 are available on 10 CDs and Spanish EMI's 25-CD series 'Antologia del Cantares' contains much that is important also. Avoid, at all costs, the Planet reissues of La Nina De Los Peines and others. They are poorly mastered and have criminally short running times. The live Saeta recordings mentioned above, and other material from the 1930s are due for release later this year on The Voice of Spain - Regional Spanish Folk Music 1926-36 on the Heritage label. I can find no current reissue of the UNESCO recordings, but try finding the original vinyl - it was issued as a four-LP box set with notes.

This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997