Flamenco History, Part III
What made flamenco accepted by general public was the appearance of special coffee houses, café cantante, featuring various flamenco performers. First such coffee house was opened in Seville in 1842. The others followed, and by 1870’s many “café cantante” were established in the towns of Seville, Cadiz, Juarez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria, Malaga, Granada, Cartagena, La Union, to be followed, beyond the Andalusian borders – in Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao.
Flamenco spread out through café cantante acquiring new fans. The public appreciated the passionate delivery of the songs, the music was close to the hearts of people – it came up on the stage in order to allow larger number of people to get close to it.
The power and the attraction of café cantante were great. They blossomed because of the flamenco enthusiasts whose number was growing day-by-day. The more popular it was becoming, the more professional were the performers. For the singers it became requisite to master all styles and trends. They were striving for musical perfection. Café cantante was becoming kind of workshops where the artistic aspects of flamenco were sharpened and where they were raised to the highest levels.
The “Golden Age” of flamenco is closely connected to the name of the singer Silverio Franconetti (1829-1889), who became the center of the epoch, when flamenco has reached its apogee and when the most beautiful examples of the genre were created. Around Silverio gathered the most prominent singers and without question he was the maestro number one in the galaxy of these outstanding talents: La Josefa, Tío Martín, Vergara, Enrique el Gordo Viejo, Curro Dulce, El Loco Mateo, Paco de la Luz, Manuel Molina, El Nitri and multitude of others. Among the most prominent guitar players of that time were Maestro Patiño, Paco el Barbero and Paco Lucena, and among the dancers – Antonio de Bilbao and Juan la Macarrona.
Silverio’s voice was called “the honey from Alcarria”. His repertroir was unlimited. Polo, caña, siquiriyas and serranas – he made all the songs of the epoch his own. Furthermore, his café cantante was considered the best and the most famous.
Silverio Franconetti was instrumental in making flamenco mastery blossom. He facilitated progress of talented artists; some of them have started their careers at his cafe. He not only was unafraid of competition, but he was the first singer who intentionally created it around himself in order to soar even higher. Among his pupils he was developing his competitors. One of them, Antonio Chacon, turned out to be a real discovery of the time. He started out his career performing at the Silverio Franconetti’s cafe, and a little later Silverio was facing the problem how to pull the public to his performances away from the neighboring cafe that was featuring Antonio Chacon.
Competition among singers, dancers and the guitar players was facilitating within flamenco development of different performance styles, genres and forms. Those were the years during which the term “hondo” designated particularly emotionally expressive, dramatic songs (siquiriya, and somewhat later, solea, caña, polo, martinete, carcelera). At that same time there appeared the name “cante grande” – great song, applied to profound songs of great length and with melodies covering wide range, and “cante chico” – small song, designating songs devoid of these qualities. Dancing in cante flamingo was gaining in importance and the songs were distinguished by their function: the “alante” songs were only for listening and “atrás” songs were accompanying dancing.
The epoch of café cantante represents the golden age of flamenco. That was the sparkling time of the greatest creators of flamenco. Everything that was created then serves as the standard, everything that was created later is not considered pure.
However, despite flowering of flamenco in the mid-XIX century, by the end of the century the café cantate have begun to decline. Gradually, a situation was developing whereby the greatest income was generated at the cafe’s where spectators themselves were dictating the program according to the principle: he who pays gets to order the music, which eventually led to restrictions of the café cantante programs. Song themes were confined to the most popular songs among the cafe customers – songs of love and death. The aesthetic content of the songs cante hondo was depressed, sometimes becoming outright vulgar. Cante hondo ceased to be the voice of the soul and began to be dictated by the interests of those, who paid. Gone were the times when the singer owed only to himself and his heart. Now his repertoir is subjugated to his profession. Subjects of songs become melodramatic, all about unrequited love. Singers learn to put on a mask and imitate their passion and sorrow.
Furthermore, spectators liked to listen to specific singers – coarse and harsh voices disappeared, having been were replaced by more melodic and pleasant voices. Artists performing to please the audience and dependent on audience’s desires replaced singers, who were singing mostly for their own pleasure rather than that of their audiences. This transition occurred during the last years of the XIX century. Caf? cantante spread out across all of Spain, reaching Madrid and even Bilbao. Gradually, audiences also change. Flamenco gains popularity among the rich youth who appreciate only its aesthetic content, as a genre without history or drama. Having spread out throughout large cities flamenco is transformed into a consumer product, into entertainment industry.
There are still few places remaining where one could hear the faithful to the tradition cante hondo. There were performers, who tended to retain the style purity. They were not professionals and have retained their skills only for their own pleasure and that of the narrow circle of the aficionados. These people were convinced that cante hondo could not exist in cafe or at tablao (clubs with stage for flamenco shows). Many professionals gladly attended these small sessions to learn the secrets of these modest maestros. The real Fiesta Flamenco, not attended by outsiders, usually took place in some small tavern where the participants would gather, drink wine, sing and dance. Even if a guitar was not available the singers would be accompanied by hand clapping and foot taping. In such places and in such atmosphere the real cante hondo was retained and its power come from the singer’s ability to enjoy his own singing and to pass to his audience giving up in the process a part of himself. Thanks to these singers the cante hondo was retained in its primeval, pristine state to this day.