Pure flamenco: the origin of Singing Cafés

 In Flamenco en Sevilla, Flamenco in Seville
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Flamenco is an art form that is usually lived and enjoyed in flamenco tablaos. However, since it is part of our culture, the Andalusian one, you can meet the duende in any corner of our land: theatres, parties, festivals and even in the street itself.

In this article, we will take a look at the commercial beginnings of flamenco, when it went from the privacy of homes and a family atmosphere, to the stages of the whole world, to the delight of the public. We are talking about the singing cafés.

The name of these places already gives clues about what would be found inside. Derived from the French cafè chantant, the cafés cantantes were places where artists went to expose their art, especially the first flamenco singers.

They originated in the 19th century, more specifically in the second half, between 1847 and 1920. These places were the closest thing to today’s performance halls, where you can have a drink and enjoy a singing and dancing show at the same time.

History of singing cafés: bullfighting aesthetics and the proliferation of flamenco artists

Its interior consisted of a large room, called a salon, decorated with either Flemish or other arts that were related to this art at the time. We are talking about the bulls, whose posters announcing bullfights were wallpapered on the walls of the singing cafés.

flamenco tablao in seville
Silvio Franconetti’s Singing Café.

Apart from the direct relationship that has always existed between bullfighting and flamenco, it is well known that the Spring Festival, so popular in Andalusia even today, is when the three most emblematic festivities converge, especially in Seville: Holy Week, the April Fair and the start of the bullfighting season.

Alternating with the posters, the walls of the singing cafés also collected the reflections of each person passing by, artist and assistant as they were full of mirrors. This gave the space more amplitude and a dance hall look.

In the center of this large room was the tablao, where the artists climbed. Also, depending on the size of the venue, they had boxes and rooms that could be reserved for private parties.

The singing café became consolidated in Spain as a place to go to see a good show, although they were not only for flamenco. However, it was this genre that grew the most thanks to the appearance of these venues, as it allowed many cantaores, bailaores and guitarists (experts in flamenco playing) to make a living from their art, something that was unthinkable until that moment.

Thus, the singing cafés allowed:

  • To professionalize flamenco, as artists began to charge for their performances.
  • To introduce the dance as another element of the show: until then the main figure of flamenco was the cantaor (flamenco singer).
  • To expand the flamenco art: until then, as we have commented before, it was a type of singing and dancing reserved for the intimacy of certain family celebrations. Now it is open to the public, creating followers and enthusiasts.

It was the golden age of provinces like Cadiz, Seville, Granada and even some outside Andalusia, like Madrid.

flamenco in seville
Decoration of one of the anterooms to the flamenco theatre Cuna del Flamenco in Seville.

From Singing Café to Flamenco Opera

In the Andalusian capital, Silverio Franconetti’s singing café stood out, whose initiative to make artists compete and pay more to the one who did it best, gave a boost to flamenco creation. Artists like La Macarrona, Antonio Chacón, el Niño de Cabra, el Garrido de Jerez, La Niña de los Peines, or Fosforito el Viejo, had their moment of glory on stages created with Franconetti’s formula.

In fact, the singing cafés of Seville are considered to be the forerunners of many flamenco styles, as the frenetic and intense professional activity led to the proliferation of a wide repertoire of dance, singing and guitar playing.

It was the moment when the cantes pa’lante began to be heard, in which the cantaor (flamenco singer) would stand in front of the stage to sing for whatever flamenco style he wanted, taking on a greater role.

The cante was accompanied by the dance, which until then had been a secondary element of flamenco and ended up becoming the perfect complement, as it was an expression of one of the other. The guitar, which was just another instrument, became the preferred one, leaving aside the other accompanying instruments.

However, all this splendour began to decline around the 1920s for various reasons, including the proliferation of other shows such as the cinema. This, added to the complaints of neighbors who lived around the cafes, due to the noise, caused that in 1908 a Ministerial Order was issued to close them.

The best flamenco tablao ins eville
Marisa Risu, dancer from Cuna del Flamenco.

However, flamenco did not cease its activity and took another step in its evolution, moving to the theatres in a more professional and organized way known as ‘flamenco opera’.

In Cuna del Flamenco we make a return to this origin, both in aesthetics and in the form of our shows. Improvisation makes our artists create a unique show in each show, letting themselves be carried away by feelings.

So remember, flamenco is a living art, which accompanies society over time and is full of symbolism, culture and tradition. Olé!

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