Gerhard Steingress/University of Seville



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by Gerhard Steingress [University of Seville]

I. The ethnicitarian bias of Orientalism

On the occasion of the previous Hydra Conference in 2004, I was invited to talk about the sociological similarities between Andalusian flamenco and Greek-oriental rebetika. In that case I tried to emphasize a series of social and cultural elements and tendencies that characterised both musical styles since their appearance towards the end of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. The phenomenology I offered by then was based on two main elements or processes.

 – The first element refers to the transition from traditional agrarian to urban society and its social and cultural consequences. These consisted mainly in the rise of a modern social class structure and culture with its ethnic peculiarities, that means, the emergence of a certainly marginalised subcultural and suburban underground with its peculiar related life style, poetry and music. Due to the social dynamics induced by social mobility, migration and ethnic entanglement, these music styles not only received the influence of different regional musical traditions, they also became the expression of a peculiar idiosyncrasy of the new lower class urban environment, mainly represented by the taverns, cafes, prisons and brothels, where tradition and nostalgic sentiments were melted with the traumatic experience of cultural eradication and social exclusion as consequences of modernization. The social and cultural changes led to the forced and precipitated de-territorialisation and de-traditionalisation of the musical heritage and these became important factors what to the social construction of flamenco and rebetika as new musical genres refers to.

– The second element I mentioned last year refers to the ethnicitarian, that means, identity-making aspects of both music styles: “Unlike the traditional ethnic culture resigned to be a ‘natural’, ritualized expression of the everyday’s life of the popular classes, modern ethnicitarian music-styles turned into an element of symbolic identity-construction of the lower classes within a society exposed to social change and mobility.”

It is surprising to what extent certain of these music styles became related with nationalism and the identification either with the Orient or the Occident. What to the amanedhes as the most distinguished style of the café-aman songs refers to, Gail Holst has underlined the importance of this song-style in the debates on the “double descended” character of Greekness since the 19th century (Holst, 1998: 113-115). In the case of flamenco, it was quite similar (Steingress, 1998a, 1998b). From today’s perspective we could say, that neither flamenco nor rebetika are still identified exclusively with its lower-class origin. They became part of each of their representative national culture that emerged as the consequence of modern self-identity, as it was constructed in spite of the projective view of the cultural “others”. [1] As highly emotional loaded national music-styles both flamenco and rebetika became objects of artistic interpretation. Notwithstanding, this peculiar ideological peculiarity is not only an effect of the efforts that artists and intellectuals have made in order to dignify the former marginalised music-styles, ascribed to delinquents, scamps, pimps, or simply gypsies and Turks as the idealized “others”. It is not only the appearance of modern mass culture, music industry, leisure society and the trend towards democratic cultural standards and habits in music. Both music-styles refer to a common musical evolution, to a shared social and cultural context.

But, are these similarities really related to the historical, cultural and musicological connections of both implicated music-styles, or are we simple victims of a series of false conclusions as the consequence of a mere spontaneous and “epidermic” impression, our listening to the Greek-oriental rebetika and Andalusian flamenco has seduced us? [2] There is no doubt that on this subjective level any affirmative or negative evaluation of its similarities must be admitted. For that reason it is necessary to strengthen our comparative analysis by a more elaborated and abstract proceeding that takes into account the complexity of these music-styles. That means, in spite of a point of view based on the semblance of rebetika and flamenco, we have to strengthen the scientific aspect in order to contrast our subjective perception as it is determined by our more or less qualified musical experience and to replace the intuitive understanding by an objective examination that bears in mind the complex character of musical influences and cultural conditions, both music-styles have been exposed to in their evolution. [3]

As the consequence of these circumstances, our hypothesis says, that even if on the subjective level of perception both music-styles may be associated by any occidental listener as “oriental-ones”, the scientific analysis might lead to the contrary in the sense that even if the structures of the mentioned music-styles are based on the same repertoire of the Byzantine liturgy, this would not bring about necessarily a similar melodic outward shape. Quite as well it has to be taken into account that the influences of the Arabic, Moresque or Ottoman repertoires might be based on similar musical structures, but at the same time demonstrate important differences.

Hence, the musical and semantic complexity of what is commonly called “Byzantine” and “Oriental” does not allow its unreflected application to the analysis of rebetika and flamenco. For that reason, our comparative proceeding claims for a structural analysis of “Oriental” style music from a historical and geographical point of view.

II. The Mediterranean Heritage

Independently of the multiple musical influences from “outside”, flamenco and rebetika represent musical traditions deeply and firmly established in the historical musical traditions of the Mediterranean. In other words: just because of their apparent nostalgic reinterpretation of the past, both represent the millenary cultural background of the Mediterranean basin. Now, in what sense can we talk about “Mediterraneanity” as an empirical fact and without any mystification and/or ideological distortion? What to rebetika refers to, Emery gives a quite reasonable orientation: “A complex coming-together of musical modes and rhythms, combined with a distinctive argot that borrows from all the languages of the Mediterranean seaboard” (Emery: 2000: 13). Music in the Mediterranean is, therefore, the expression of a mostly unconscious desire for continuity of that “coming-together”, that is, of the undeniable social and cultural relationship preserved in the regions history. Now, the important fact is, that this desire is expressed in two opposite, but related manners: first, the intention to preserve and defend the supposed “authenticity” or “purity” of the ethnicitarian music styles in spite of musical transgression; second, their use as elements of musical fusion and blending. Whilst the first attitude leads to cultural and social exclusion, to musical nationalism and the petrification of the own musical heritage, the second, transgressive one makes use of it in order to produce new hybrid forms and styles. As it seems, the social attitude towards these music styles includes both elements, although it seems to be fusion and hybridization that explain the evolution of music on a general cultural level and as a process, where local traditions reconcile with the claim for universal recognition that is inherent to any music. [4] For that reason, flamenco and rebetika represent the urbanized version of traditional song-styles characterized by a multiethnic, oriental-occidental profile. This is the point I would like to emphasize today, and it also was the central idea that inspired the musical encounter of flamencos and rebetes, organised past June in Granada. As I wrote in the paper that designed that meeting, the Mediterranean cultural background may serve us to understand the highly universal character of certain shared cultural values that flamenco and rebetika are able to express, at least in two ways:

First – Music always is an individual and local aesthetic and cultural expression of what men feel and think independently of the place they live. In the case of rebetika and flamenco, this universal dimension is narrowly related with the historical and cultural background of the Mediterranean as a space of pluriethnical and pluricultural, both peaceful and conflictive experiences of people. It was and still is this space, with its peculiar cultural conditioning, that became the object of the construction of a Euro-Mediterranean integration (Balta, 2005), initiated by the Declaration of Barcelona in 1995. It is the shared historical and cultural background, that made appear musical and poetic styles of a very singular expression, of communication and comprehension, shared by the people of the region. There is no doubt that there are many reasons to mistrust general concepts like that of “Mediterraneanity” (“Mediterraneaness”) , especially when we analyse the construction of what we could call the Mediterranean life-style or civilization with its important religious and/or social division. Notwithstanding, the peculiarities of the Mediterranean region have to be taken into account, if we want to understand how different voices and sounds found together, generating the hybrid character of its music styles.

French ethnomusicologist Bernard Lortat-Jacob, from the University of Paris-Sorbonne, writes that albeit the reasonable doubt referring to any Mediterranean identity, there do exist some singular characteristics of what he calls “Mediterranean voice”, that is, first, the strength of the voice close to the cry; second, the nasalisation which allows its harmonic enrichment and the hoarse, broken voice without any over-exertion; third, the capacity of an extensive ornamentation and melismata; and, fourth, the register that allows to strengthen the voice until close to its rupture (Léothaud/ Lortat, 2002: 11-12). And, as Holst-Warhaft remembers, rebetika singers use to start their songs with an improvised introduction, the taximia (Holst-Warhaft, 1994: 2), the same like in flamenco. From this point of view, rebetika and flamenco could be considered two singular voices sharing the same techniques, voices that sound from both extreme parts of the Mediterranean, two manifestations of the grief, the pain and the sorrow, but also those of happiness and delirious excitation; in other words: a vital sensuality that always – as far as we know – has characterised popular music. The following two songs are good examples:

Manolo Caracol: Cuando yo me muera (siguiriya)

“Whenever I’ll dy,

do it for my sake

and with the plaits of your dark hair

tie my hands together.”


Rita Abadzi: Gazeli Nevá Sabáh (amané)

“Let each man stop and think

of how the hour of death grows near,

into the deep black earth he’ll sink;

his name will disappear.”


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Manolo Caracol (1910-1973). Famous cantaor from Sevilla. As a child, he participated in the Concurso de Cante Jondo in Granada.

That means that the common background of Mediterranean culture consists in its capacity do express in a very sensual way the vital experience of men, at the same time as it is the place of the aesthetic construction of that experience by means of musical fusion. For that reason, the musical encounter in Granada aimed to demonstrate in the case of rebetika and flamenco, that the reality and the value of the idea of Mediterraneanity consist in the recognition of the power of hybridisation as the basic expression of the cultural diversity of a region narrowly related with the History and the future development of Europe.

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Rita Abadzi (1913-1969). Famous rebetissa

Second – Both music-styles share a series of structural characteristics that invite to its comparative analysis within the frame-work of Mediterranean culture and the social change that enabled the transformation of the type of traditional, agrarian society into modern, urban and industrial society. Both music-styles were the results of fusion, and its musical peculiarities and ideological connotations within the culture of the Nation-State in order to respond to the need for cultural identity permitted its aesthetic diversification as local manifestations with a high degree of universal value and recognition. Today we can say: neither flamenco nor rebetika are only and exclusive national manifestations since they became part of the global musical patrimony shared by an international audience. Today, both music-styles belong to a legacy firmly established in their own culture, but due to their universal expressiveness they represent an artistic link of social and cultural connection that demonstrates the still existing and resisting capacity of integration of the Mediterranean culture in the era of globalization. For the moment, flamenco has been able to preserve its musical descent marked by the influence of early Christian, Jewish and Arabic music, of the so called “música andalusí”, that emerged all these musical traditions spread all over the Mediterranean, from Morocco to Israel, due to the continuing expulsion of the Muslim and Jewish population of Andalusia between 1492 and the first decades of the 17th century. As we see also in the case of the Smyrnaic school of rebetika, in many cases the historic tragedies of man produce non-intended cultural effects, and the History of the Mediterranean is full of them.

Well, resuming our argument of transcultural hybridisation of ethnic music styles, the Granada event was intended to demonstrate not so the social and cultural relations between rebetika and flamenco, but either its musical aspects. The lessons we learned from the musicians are quite interesting. First of all, I shortly will describe the meeting. It consisted of two elements: an academic and a musical encounter. The academic part consisted of three key notes and a round table talk. It was realized by Gail Holst who spoke of the historical, cultural and musical aspects of Greek-Oriental rebetika, by Faustino Nuñez who compared flamenco and rebetika in an musicological perspective, and me, who focussed on structural homologies of both music-styles. The artistic part was realized by two configurations of flamencos and rebetes: at the one hand, a group of rebetes directed by Andreas Tsekouras played together with Gerardo Nuñez, one of the most important modern and international flamenco-guitarists. Their performance together was a great exit due to the sensibility of both components that reached its climax in the interpretation by Sofia Papazoglou of an amané perfectly fused with the siguiriya played by Gerardo Nuñez together with Cepillo (percussion), Pablo Martín (double-bass) and accompanied by Andreas Tsekouras and his band, that is Kyriakos Gouventas (violin), Marios Papadeas (santouri), Georgios Kontogiannis (bouzouki). The standing ovation of the audience, composed by Greeks and Spaniards, made clear, that the message had arrived and both communities recognized their music in the fusion that took place on the stage. When Tsekouras abandoned his instruments and danced one of these old-style zeibekikos, he only made perfect what already was done before.

The second combination of flamencos and rebetes consisted of the performance of two stars: Mariza Koch and Enrique Morente. Independently of their incredible capacity as singers, and despite of their strong personality, they were not able to synthesize their music and voices. But the musical parallelism they demonstrated did allow a comparative view of both styles, and when Enrique Morente finished his part with a combination of saeta and toná, accompanied by Niño Josele, which in this case changed his guitar for a bouzouki, the entire Auditorio Manuel de Falla, situated right beside the Alhambra, was stirred by an incredible tension that made the goose-pimples grow.

III. The evolutionist view of cante jondo (Falla, Pedrell, Turina)

Now, the encounter was organised in Granada, exactly 73 years after the start of the eliminatory contest of the famous Concurso de Cante Jondo, organised by Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca, that is, June 10th and 11th 1922. This was not casual at all, because the peculiar aim was to discuss and demonstrate the value of the hypothesis, shared by the Spanish composers and musicologists Manuel de Falla, Felipe Pedrell and Joaquín Turina, on the importance of the Byzantine liturgy as the basic model of latter cante jondo. It was Pedrell who towards the end of the 19th century explained the popular songs of Spain as the rest of an “infinity of songs inspired in ancient scales” (Pedrell, 1985: 43), which later on became the object of harmonization. The principles of this “primitive chant”, he concluded, cannot be analysed “without a profound knowledge of the construction of the diatonic scales and its use in the ancient music, in the plain song, in the Greek and Roman liturgic music, as the basis of those principles, and without knowing the diatonic and chromatic genres as well as the historical process of the development of each one of those systems, the Spanish Arabic modes (1), the Mozarabic melodies, the Jewish psalms, typical of our ancient synagogues, and, in general, all the Gallic, Celtic and Basque melodies and rhythms, etc. such as those that we can find as curious and admirable examples in certain regions of our country.” (Ibid.: 44-45) Forty-three years later, in 1934, Turina insisted that it were the “oriental chants of the primitive civilizations that penetrated the liturgic music and later influenced the songs of the troubadours and minstrels, offering them the profile of their melodies and the characteristic modes of their scales.” (Turina, 1982: 42). And two years later he concluded: “The medieval liturgic chant, and more precisely the Eugenian chant, called Mozarabic, genuinely Spanish, is undoubtedly the origin of our songs of the South.” (Ibid.: 49) But it was Falla, who in 1922 had already given the most restrictive formula with respect to the character of the Andalusian “primitive song”, the cante jondo, referring himself to three historical facts: “In Spanish history, there are three facts of very different transcendency for our cultural life in general, but of evident relevancy for our musical history, that we have to reconsider; these are: a) the adoption by the Spanish Church of the Byzantine chant; b) the invasion by the Arabs, and c) the immigration and the settlement of numerous groups of gypsies in Spain.” (Falla, 1988: 165) By this way, the three composers and musicologists connected Spain and articularly Andalusia with an ancient heritage in music and it was Falla who considered the siguiriya the most emblematic and pure manifestation of the primitive chant of the cultures of the Orient, called cante jondo, “deep song”.

In order to understand the significance of the event in 1922, we must understand the cultural and ideological background of the attempt to reveal the origins of what was considered the soul of the Andalusian music. Towards the end of the 19th century, and particularly after the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Spanish intellectuals felt the necessity to reconstruct Spanish identity, reconsidering either its European future or its historical past, its cultural mission within Christianity and the popular culture as the supposed deposit of the so-called Spanish character. That is why the mentioned composers and musicologists considered the cante jondo as the peculiar musical expression of the ancient, millenary Andalusia, as a cultural manifestation built up since the early dawn of the Peninsula’s history and the result of the influence of ancient cultures, especially the Byzantine, the Arabic and Jewish. But, the Spanish intellectuals and musicologists differed what to the supposed origin of the cante jondo and flamenco refers to: there were those who claimed an Arabic, an Egyptian, Jewish and even Pakistani or Hindu origin. The common basis was the supposed “oriental” character of many flamenco chants and finally it was said that it was the proper expression of the gypsies who came to Spain towards the end of the 14th century. Well, the gypsy-hypothesis of the so-called cante gitano became dominant after World-War 2 and still is maintained in spite of the facts. But there is no doubt, that the opinion of Pedrell, Turina and de Falla referring to the importance of the influence of the early Christian liturgy in latter cante jondo has survived, and it was especially the latter generation of musicologists, like for example Hipolito Rossy (1966), that began to investigate on it.

To be brief: In my investigations I applied the so called Byzantine-hypothesis, but one thing is to insist on the important influence of the Byzantine music in cante flamenco and the other is to demonstrate how byzantine music, that means, a music-style that flourished between the 4th and 11th century, influenced in Spanish flamenco, that appeared in the second half of the 19th century. It was a problem, I would say, of the missing link between both traditions in music.

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Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922). Spanish composer and musicologist.

The point of view of Pedrell, Falla and Turina seems not to be wrong, but sudden. Let me quote the essential part of their hypothesis: Pedrell considers the personalized version of the popular song as the quintessence of modern composition, as it is expressed in the Lied and the romanzas as manifestations of the lyrical national drama. He also insists in the importance of the harmonization of the former ancient music of the Greek and Roman liturgy, represented particularly by the canto llano, with its diatonic and chromatic oriental origins. With respect to these, he wrote in his famous Cancionero Musical Español: “The fact that in Spain persists in certain folk songs the musical orientalism is the consequence of the deep-rooted influences in our nation of the very ancient byzantine civilization which was assimilated by the Spanish Church since it became Christian until the 11th century, when the proper Roman liturgy was introduced.” (Pedrell, 1958) This influence is manifest above all in its enharmonic structure, the lack of metric rhythm and a rich modulation, reinforced later on by the influence of the Arab and Moorish music, and converted after the 15th century by the Gypsies in the emblematic siguiriya. It was Falla who continued in this sense, saying that the elements of the chant of Byzantine liturgy are still present in the siguiriya as the most essential style of cante jondo.

Well, we must take into account, that –similar like in the case of Greekness and its relation with the Turkish influence– the search for a new Spanish identity had very important ideological and political implications: to defend the Byzantine-thesis against those who claimed an Arabic and/or Jewish origin of cante jondo as the supposed soul of the Andalusian music, was to defend the Christian character of Spain against those (for example, Blas Infante) who were dreaming of a kind of New Andalusia (that included even the Northern Maghreb), reconstructed with the help of its multicultural elements ascribed in a romantic manner to the ancient Al-Andalus that had definitely disappeared in 1492 after the conquest of Granada. To accept the Byzantine origin of cante jondo meant to accept the Christian or even Catholic character of the Spanish culture and geography.

Falla and the other musicologists could not and would not deny the importance of the influence of the Muslim and Hebrew elements in Spanish cante jondo, but they only accepted them as additional influences, as intervening variables that transformed the original model in the sense of its diversification until the Spanish gypsies, they said, made themselves familiar with this “oriental” music and transformed it to their own one, the cante gitano. Concluding: Pedrell and Falla offered an evolutionist explication of cante jondo as a kind of historical acumulation in Andalusian music that began with the Byzantine chant and ended with the gypsy-siguiriya.

Well, the “Byzantine-hypothesis” – independently of its ideological background – is commonly accepted today by part of the experts, and there is no peculiar reason to reject it. But there are doubts:

First: the term “Byzantine music” or “Byzantine chant” is very inexact and puffy as it refers to a widely unknown because undocumented music that existed in different forms between the 4th and the 11th century, when the Roman liturgy was definitely imposed in Europe. Due to the lack of reliable documents, we only know that it’s origins are probably less Ancient Greek than Assyrian, Hebrew, Armenian and Coptic, that is: “oriental”, and that these elements became adopted and transformed in accordance with the needs of the Byzantine Church and State, as well as used in other, occidental liturgies.

Second: There was not only one Byzantine liturgy that served as a general musical pattern of chanting in the Christian hemisphere. The Byzantine chant was, thus, only one peculiar style within a broad spectrum of Early Christian chant. In Spain, as it is known, once repelled the influence of the East Roman Empire, a peculiar variant of the Ambrosian chant was preserved by the Christians, which since 711 lived under the Muslim regime. It is called “Mozarabic [5] chant” and was basically the liturgy of the west-gothic Church, although, due to its original oriental character it might have been easily influenced by other oriental-style musics, as those of the mosques and synagogues. Another aspect to keep in mind refers to the rich heritage of Arabian music in Andalusia. [6] It is very interesting, that the origin of this mostly secular songs (muwashshah, zejel, kharjas and nuba) we still can listen to from Syria to Morrocco, is ascribe either to the Maghreb (Western parts of Northern Africa) or the Mashreq (Near East). That means, there exists an Arabic tradition that embraces the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, but there is also a non-arabic oriental background, that relates these songs to their Byzantine origin, as the mentioned Spanish composer underlined. French ethnomusicologist Christian Poché, in his book on the Arabic-Andalusian music, emphasizes that the oriental repertoire of the Mashreq, as it was sung in Andalusia during the Muslim period, was based on west-gothic musical structures that came from the Gregorian chant (Poché, 1995: 45), an observation that was already made in the 19th century by Francisco Salvador Daniel in his book La Musique arabe: ses rapports avec la musique grecque et le chant grégorien, as Poché points out (quoted by Poché, 1995: 46). This circumstance strengthens our hypothesis of the importance of musical hybridization of Greek-oriental, Arabic and autochthonous ancient music styles during the period of Al-Ándalus (8th - 15th century) for the latter cante jondo. The Christian Mozarabic and the Arabic-Andalusian chant were executed in different social and cultural ambiences, but they were narrowly related to each other due to the fact that they shared much of the common “oriental” musical structure. As Poché writes, referring himself to the extensive work of Al-Tifasi, a Tunisian lexicographer who lived during the 18th century, one of the most outstanding characteristics of the musical life in al-Ándalus was its preference for the slower and melismatic interpretation of the chants, as it was used in the west-gothic (Mozarabic) liturgy, whilst the Arabs preferred the sylabic interpretation. This observation coincides with the fact that the Spanish blind singers used to execute their romances in what was called the “Byzantine tone”, that is, in a very melismatic manner, just like later on in flamenco.

There is no doubt that the existence of the Mozarabic chant helped much to conserve the former traditions of the early, oriental Christian liturgy [6][1] due to the relative isolation of the Christian community in Muslim Spain, and it only became substituted towards the end of the 11th century, when the Gregorian chant was finally introduced into the Southern parts of Spain in accordance with the roll-back strategy of the Catholic Kings. In other words: in many parts of Spain, the chants of the early Christian liturgy, fused with the music from the Maghreb and Masreq, became the musical basis of the secularized popular music that was preserved until the 19th century when it became the object of the reinterpretation and reinvention of the musical heritage. This was the moment, when cante flamenco was born as a modern urban music-style, as it was the smyrnaica and rebetika in Asia Minor and the Greek homeland.

Third: the “Byzantine-hypothesis” only can be considered as an explanatory model if it is possible to find the missing link, that is to explain the evolution of it into the cante jondo. It seems reasonable, that the same doubts can be formulated with respect to the Byzantine character of the Greek-Oriental rebetika. In the case of the smyrnaica, the songs of Smyrna (Izmir), it is evident that the music of Byzantium received multiple influences, mainly form the Turkish (ottoman) music, but also from other music styles from the Near East and even Western Europe. It seems also quite obvious that the music related with Constantinople did influence in many manifestations of Asia-Minor music. That is why both, flamenco and rebetika, are not exclusively “oriental”, but either orientalised and occidentalised, traditional and modern music-styles at the same time: hybrid styles. [8] Its Byzantine origin is not deducible in a simple, in a direct way.

IV. Steps in musical hybridisation of cante jondo

I shall demonstrate this in the case of flamenco and with the help of some musical examples that allow to follow the steps of hybridisation as they were based on different musical influences, until the most essential expression in flamenco: the siguiriya [9].

In order to demonstrate the Byzantine influence in cante jondo, my point of departure is the peculiar situation of Andalusia between the 4th and the end of the 15th century. The early Christian and especially the Byzantine liturgy received, as it is known, less from the ancient Greek scales than by the poetry and melodies of oriental origin, namely that of the Syrian and Jewish chant. [10] Although our empirical knowledge of these early oriental melodies only goes back until the 10th century, the Ambrosian and later on the Gregorian chant are evidently adaptions and transformations of those primitive oriental styles of music. They also became assimilated and developed by the Byzantine liturgy, that is, its hymns, psalms and odes. For that reason, the evolution of this early music led to the construction, during the 10th century, of the four original ecclesiastic tunes which later one were completed by other four “plagiarized” ones, used in the Christian liturgy until the 16th century, when they became substituted by the modern major and minor scale-technique.

As Anton Mayer wrote in his History of Music, these liturgies were sung by the chorus using the original simple melodies. Only the priests acted like solo-singers enriching the melodic line with colourful ornamental figures. Later, the blind singers and finally the cantaores in flamenco would make use of this technique of virtuosity and, in this way, maintain the tradition. Now, we have to take into account the following facts: in Spain the transformation of the early Christian chant only became relevant since the 12th century together with the reconquista, that is, the Christian roll-back strategy of the Muslim presence and influence in culture and social life. But, during the almost eight centuries of Muslim hegemony in Spain, a peculiar, multicultural or hybrid kind of music was created which included the early occidental, West-gothic Christian liturgy, as well as the chant of the Synagogues and Mosques. The victory over the Muslims in Spain in 1492 and the definite imposition of the Roman liturgy and the modern music scales during the following 16th century, made disappear not only the Arabic-Andalusian music, but also the former Mozarabic. Notwithstanding, the tradition of the so-called canto llano survived in a certain manner once assimilated by the people in their religious and secular folk-songs and romances, recited especially by the professional blind singers and ambulant musicians, which converted them in a proper artistic genre (see Steingress, 1993: 323-326). This kind of chant, based on the traditional, neumic scales, became the basic model of the primitive saeta, the romances and other folk-style music. It is very striking and even significant, that until today the Spanish musicology has not paid any more serious attention to the relation of the primitive saeta and the former musical modes of the Mozarabic liturgy.


Let me demonstrate my hypothesis of the Byzantine origin of cante jondo in the secularization of the former Mozarabic chant with the help of a short musical demonstration. [11]

First step: The primitive saeta. This early form of today’s modern, popular urban saeta, as it is sung during the processions of the Holy Week, especially in Andalusia, refers to a musical manifestation of popular religiosity since the 17th century until the 19th century and is still preserved as tradition in some small towns in Seville and Cordoba by local “brotherhoods” (“hermandades”). The early, primitive saeta consisted of brief pieces of psalms sung by the friars and monks during their missions, and later became adopted by the people itself in order to express their religious feelings during the processions of the statues of the Virgin and Christ during the Holy Week. Now, meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church imposed the new liturgy based on the modern mayor and minor scales, the people maintained the old melodies in their own religious manifestations and later on the musical model became independent from its former religious content and the principal air of secular songs. In its origin, these chants were composed like the psalms and hymns of the liturgy, in the manner of odai pneumatikai, that is, “the free lyrical expression of religious enthusiasm” (Mayer, 1928: 29). As Nauman points out, these monotone compositions or one-tone recitatives (modus legendi choraliter), as they were used originally in the chant of the synagogues and in the Greek tradition, might have been the vehicle of the introduction of melodies from Syria an Asia Minor into the Christian liturgy. [12] Once introduced in the liturgy of the Church, they were originally based upon the Greek modes, but later on (towards the 6th century), these were corrupted, as they were substituted by the so-called “authentic modes”, and submitted to its melismatic adornment. This new “Ambrosian chant” (4th cent.), assimilated and reorganised by pope Gregor (590-604 a. d.) in the cantus choralis and cantus planus, known as “Gregorian chant” (Naumann, 1908: 29-35). But meanwhile the psalms were religious prose recited without any rhythm, with a final and characteristic flourish [13], the hymns were composed in the manner of songs with text, which made them more proper for its popular use. As we can see in the case of our demonstration of the different kinds of primitive saeta of Marchena, these still preserve the psalmodical interpretation based on the one-tone scale and with the final rasing of the voice.

It is the primitive saeta which preserved these musical traditions, and the most surprising fact is, that there still exists some examples of this music in today's Semana Santa. Not in the city of Sevilla, which only knows the modern saeta flamenca, but in Marchena, at only forty miles south of it, or in Puente Genil, in Córdoba, as well in some other Andalusian villages. These saetas are known as “cuartas” (four verses), “quintas” (five verses)  or “sextas” (six verses) from (Marchena) and as “ saetas cuarteleras”, still sung in Puente Genil.

My opinion is, that during the period between the 17th and 19th century this primitive, popular religious saeta, originated in the early Christian liturgy and the Byzantine chant, became the musical structure of the toná, which is one important base of cante jondo, that is: flamenco.

Second step: The toná. Now, let me show that there really exists a clear relation between the evolution of the traditional and popular, urban saeta on the one side, and the toná and its derivations on the other side – that means, the “carceleras”, “martinetes” and the “siguiriya”. For that reason, I will also try to demonstrate that the supposedly “mysterious origin” of flamenco-music is not “mysterious” at all, once given up the persuasive but erroneous hypothesis of Molina/Mairena of the “hermetic period”, the “gypsies home” or “camp-fire parties”.

My central hypothesis with regard to the toná is, that it was the main result of the transformation of the traditional saeta, as it was sung by the friars and monks during their processions and missions of penitence, into a popular kind of song used by the plain people during the Holy Week in order to express their deepest religious feelings in view of the statues of Mary and Jesus carried through the streets.

In the case of the primitive, traditional saeta we still recognize not only its narrow cultural and aesthetic relation with the old romance-style of the “blind singers”, but particularly its proximity to the tonás and derivations, especially the “carceleras”. In other words: the “toná flamenca” and especially the “carcel-eras” seem to be derivations and artistic re-elaborations of the traditional saeta, whose religious contents related to the passionate devotion of the Holy Week were replaced by profane ones, expressing mens pain and sorrow in a hostile society. With respect to the transformation of the religious saeta into the mournful “carcelera”, it was Emilio Lafuente y Alcántara which gave us an impressive description of the Holy Week in Archidona in the years before 1865 in his collection of popular songs. He writes:

“In Archidona, my home-town, during the Holy Week almost five processions pass through the streets near the jail where they stop for a moment so that the prisoners can see it. There is always one of them who, with sonorous and most sorrowful music, would sing three or four saetas dedicated to the Passion of Christ, and I remember having heard them before in different occasions.” [14]

Another contemporary observer, Benito Mas y Prat (1846-1892), gave us some examples of such a “jail-house-song” in the mode of a saeta:

“Pressed against the bars of the jail,

when the one from Nazareth passed by,

I shouted at him: Jesus of my soul!

and immediately I was free of guilt.” [15]

As we can see, both flamenco and rebetika share a very peculiar characteristic: the songs are based on the lyrical Me that expresses individual attitudes, feelings and sentiments towards other persons, situations and facts – they are highly biographical but in an abstract way. Nevertheless, in the case of the amané, sung by Rita Abadzi (see above), the kind of lyrics remembers of that of the primitive saeta: it is an almost philosophical, at least a moralizing reflection on death, more appropriate of religious penitence.

Third step: Derivations from the primitive saeta:

We have to distinguish between the earlier saeta carcelera and the tonás with a religious content at the one hand, and the latter carcelera flamenca and the tonás in general, at the other one. In the case of the carcelera flamenca (also called “martinete” = song of the blacksmith), the religious background has disappeared and been substituted by the lament of the prisoner and his personal tragedy. In the case of the tonás flamencas, there only has been conserved few of them an only one of them demonstrates its connection with the religious content of the saeta, like for example the following one, called the “toná of Christ”, taken out of the “Magna Antología del Cante Flamenco”:

“Oh, Father of the souls

and servant of Christ,

pillar of our Holy Mother Church

and tree of Paradise!

Others, like the one ascribed to the legendary figure of Tío Luis el de la Juliana, the supposed first cantaor in flamenco-history (beginning of the 19th century), expresses the tragedy of human existence:

“I am like that good old man

that is left on the street;

I won’t pick a quarrel with anybody,

and let nobody do so with me.”

The first toná is full of religious ardour and hope, the second one is a manifestation of abandonment and solitude, both sung in the same “Byzantine” style...

Another derivation from the primitive saeta is the saeta aflamencada, that is, the saeta that is interpreted in the way of the flamenco-songs. The difference is astonishing and demonstrates the evolution of Andalusian music since the Medieval, although in both cases we are confronted with the same musical tradition: whilst the first one maintain the psalmodic, monotonous technique that claims for a precise repetition of the basic model, the second one allows a rich and flourishing melismatic interpretation and high degree of virtuosity of the flamenco singer.

Third step: The romances and other folk-songs

The Spanish musical tradition is rich of romances an popular songs from the rural area (villancicos), which in many cases are based on the plain-chant. Whilst the mostly epic romances are sung like psalms, that is, without musical accompaniment and in a one-tone style, many of the rural folk-songs are interpreted with melismatic flourishing. This is the case, for example, of the thresh-song (canto de trilla), the song of the shepherd in Asturias (asturianada) and the lullabies (nanas). Its latter “flamencisation” (aflamencamiento) has made some of them a part of the repertoire of flamenco, although at the price of a significant alienation of its primitive forms.

The fourth step: The siguiriya.

The siguiriya is considered today as the most emblematic style within cante jondo and narrowly related to the world and idiosyncrasy of the Andalusian gypsies. Beside that, Falla insisted in its value as the most important and essential manifestation of Andalusian cante jondo, that is, as the result of the historical evolution of the traditional music of the region and the influences that its primitive music has been exposed to along its history. Actually, its repertoire has become very differentiated in accordance to its geographical origin. One of them is the so-called “siguiriya from Triana”, the famous former gypsy quarter of Seville, with the title of “I have no door where to knock” (sung by Pepe el Culata), with a clear moral allusion to Christian values, used by the blind beggars in their chants:

“What a pain

I have in my heart,

everybody has a door where to knock

only me found them closed.


Why don’t you give

a charity to the poor,

do it for God’s sake, the beggar comes

sick for love.

Another, very famous example of siguiriya is one ascribed to Antonio Chacón, called “Always at the corners” (sung by Enrique Morente), whose words are:

“Always at the corners

I find you crying,

I won’t have freedom in my life

if I treat you badly.”


VI. Conclusions

Now, in the case of the Spanish cante jondo, I think, I have given some reasonable arguments which allow to establish an explanatory model of musical evolution from the peculiar kind of early Christian music to modern, oriental-like singing. As in the case of rebetika, in flamenco the resort to the gypsies and their supposed gypsy-songs justified the re-orientalisation of the folk-song-repertoire in view of the growing demand by the music-industry and/or the necessity of a reconstruction of the cultural identity of Spain. The Byzantine hypothesis of the mentioned Spanish composers gave us an orientation, although we have to be careful with the use of the concept of “Byzantine music”, as it is itself a very complex system of different styles and influences. Notwithstanding, my presentation might have made clear, that many music-styles from the Mediterranean region – including the Greek-Oriental rebetika tradition – still preserve those elements which belonged to the musical practice narrowly related with Constantinople due to the rich cultural influence that the East Roman Empire maintained during almost 1000 years.



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1. Ed Emery, in his “Introduction” to the English translation of Elias Petropoulos Songs of the Greek Underworld. The Rebetika Tradition (Emery 2000), speaks of Greece as an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1983) and of its culture as “a bastard culture” (p. 12). There is no doubt that something similar could be said referring also to Andalusia and flamenco. Nevertheless, the negative connotation of the term “bastard” may produce an unnecessary opposition to this fact. For this reason, it is better to speak of “hybrid cultures” (see Steingress, 2002).

2. It is not difficult to “discover” the Phrygian mode and the melismatic character of many rebetika and flamenco songs. But, are these elements really exclusive in oriental music?

3. With respect to some methodological clarifications, I would like to express my gratitude to the musicologist Georg Fredo Erber with whom I maintained a very productive correspondence on that matter during this year.

4. In Social Sciences, this coincidence of the global and the local has become called “glocalization” (see Robertson, 1994; also 1998). Nederveen Pieterse, referring himself to the plural character of globalization, speaks of “global melange” (Nederveen, 1998).

5. From musta'rib, (“would-be Arab”).

6. Its denomination still is ambiguous: “Andalusian music”, “Arabic-Andalusian music”, “Arabic-Muslim music”, “Hispano-Arabic music” (see Poché, 1997: 13-26).

7. The first document of Spanish liturgical music is the Libellus Orationem, written in west-gothic codes probably towards the end of the 7th century in Tarragona. But the musical notation in this document only appears as signs similar to the neumas (gr. for “signs”, used in the Occidental music between the 8th and 13th century in order to help to the singers to remind the melodies) in the margins of some of its pages. Complete musical codification (text and codes) only is usual from the 10th century. These documents refer almost exclusively to religious chants. There exist only two examples of profane music in this epoque: the code of Azagra which includes the Disticon Fiomelaicum or “Song of the Nightingale”, and the code of Roda, with a song dedicated to the queen Leodegundia, the wife of Fortún Garcés, king of Navarra.

8. For the rebetika, Holst-Warhaft (2001) has shown, to what extent the revival of the rebetika, introduced to it mainly by Vassilis Tsitsanis during the 1940s and '50s, was due to its orientalisation in combination with the emphasis of the exotic and erotic female imaginary: “Whatever is oriental about such songs is carefully distanced from reality” (ibid.: 3). As she writes, the following nostalgia for the old rebetika songs was a reaction against this ephemeral distortion by the so-called archondorebetiko (elafrolaiko) and favoured the Turko-gypsy-style rebetiko, considered as a “true” manifestation of the Eastern rebetika tradition. The same happened in the case of flamenco: after the years of the so-called flamenco-opera (a kind of commercialized, “light” version of flamenco made for the growing mass-consumption), in the 1950s a serious effort was made, mainly by Antonio Mairena, to reinvent “pure” flamenco or “gypsy-flamenco” (“cante gitano”). As we can see, the mostly female, erotic interpretation of the Orient was substituted by its more male, tough “gypsy” version, with (see Washabaugh 1996: also Steingress 1993: 96-98).

9. The term siguiriya is a linguistic derivation from seguidilla, a very popular style of the Spanish choral dance. During the 19th century, it became adopted to a peculiar song-style ascribed to the Andalusian gypsies and considered the most emblematic manifestation of “cante gitano” (“gypsy-chant”). Notwithstanding, their musical and poetic background is very different and the denomination quite casual. The metric form of the siguiriya seems to be a derivation of the medieval romances and normally consists of four verses of six syllables, except the third one which has eleven syllabus (6,6,5+6,6). Its mostly tragic content is sung in Dorian mode with a very expressive, painful voice, with melodic freedom and rhythmic accompaniment. That is why Hugo Schuchardt, in 1881, considered it in its origins as a kind of funeral song (span.:”plañidera”, “endecha”) (Schuchardt, 1990: 81), and Hipólito Rossy described it as a “lament without metric rhythm - similar to the toná, the martinete and other chants ad libitum” (Rossy, 1966: 161). In general, the siguiriya has much of the characteristics of the amané in the rebetika tradition.

10 This distinction needs to be specified, as it is also well known that the Hellenic culture expanded across the whole region of Near East and even until Persia, Central Asia and Afghanistan. The oriental influence that Byzantium received during the period of the East Roman Empire, might have been, thus, a reflex of its former cultural impact.

11. Each one of the following musical examples can be listened, using the links introduced in the scheme at the end of this article.

12. This affirmation is also accepted by Edwar MacDowell: “The hymns sung by the Christians were mainly Hebrew temple songs, strangely changed into an uncouth imitation of the ancient Greek drama or worship of Dionysus” (MacDowell, 1912: 95-96).

13. This kind of recitation is based on one tone and indicates the punctuations of the verses by a raising or lowering of the voice (see Naumann, 1908: 29).

14. Emilio Lafuente y Alcántara: Cancionero popular. Colección escogida de seguidillas y coplas. Vol I, “Seguidillas”, Madrid, 1865, pp. XXII f. (footnote).

15. Mas y Prat, Benito: La tierra de María Santísima. Cuadros flamencos. Sevilla, 1988, p. 77.





[1] The first document of Spanish liturgical music is the Libellus Orationem, written in west-gothic codes probably towards the end of the 7th century in Tarragona. But the musical notation in this document only appears as signs similar to the neumas (gr. for “signs”, used in the Occidental music between the 8th and 13th century in order to help to the singers to remind the melodies) in the margins of some of its pages. Complete musical codification (text and codes) only is usual from the 10th century. These documents refer almost exclusively to religious chants. There exist only two examples of profane music in this epoque: the code of Azagra which includes the Disticon Fiomelaicum o “song of the nightingale”, and the code of Roda, with a song dedicated to the queen Leodegundia, the wife of Fortún Garcés, king of Navarra.