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Transnational Flamenco. Exchange and the Individual in British and Spanish Flamenco Culture   You are logged in as Guest
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Transnational Flamenco. Exchange and... 

To appear in Flamenco News:

Transnational Flamenco. Exchange and the Individual in British and Spanish Flamenco Culture
Tenley Martin
Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

Finally! Someone has written a book about us. Books about flamenco are usually about flamenco communities in the Andalusian heartlands or biographies of famous figures. If a foreigner appears in such books, it is as an intrepid explorer of the heartlands, participant-observer in a Spanish flamenco community or drinking pal of the great artist—and is almost always the author of the book. Even books that examine the reach of flamenco beyond Spain focus on Spanish artists. Tenley Martin’s book is about the non-Spanish culture-carriers who take a passion for flamenco from Britain to Spain, where they train in schools in Seville or Madrid before returning to the UK to teach. It is about the contrast in status between being a foreign student in Spain, close to the bottom of the authenticity hierarchy, just one step up from package tourists, and being a revered teacher and flamenco guru of a community of aficionados in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester or Hebden Bridge. It is about the adjustments that British flamenco teachers have to make, to transform the art and culture they discover in Spain into a commercially viable leisure activity that hobbyists can enjoy on a weekday evening. It is about the individuals who drive British flamenco.

This is an academic book that started life as a PhD thesis, and it includes the necessary and necessarily dry formal sections one would expect: survey of existing research, careful argument to show that this is an original contribution to knowledge, postulation of novel cultural model, etc.. Happily, Martin’s research-method is ethnographic, which means that she goes to flamenco places, chats to flamenco people, and writes up what she has seen and heard in vivid passages without academic jargon. She devotes the third, fourth and fifth chapters to studies of non-Spanish flamencos in Seville, Madrid and the UK respectively.

Seville and Madrid offer different challenges to foreign dance students hoping to train to a professional standard. Flamenco in Seville lives in peñas and juergas, where foreigners might eventually gain entrance but must endlessly negotiate the local conviction that foreigners can never really get flamenco in their bones. No amount of technique or artistry can ever, in the eyes of Andalusian chauvinists, compensate for the misfortune of not being a child of the soil and the sun. Foreign dance students, faced with this attitude, struggle to find performance opportunities and band together, forming a parallel flamenco community of their own. They do that in Madrid too, but for a different reason. In Madrid, there are no peñas, and flamenco lives in tablaos as part of the live entertainment industry. Madrid is a cosmopolitan capital city where purity and provenance—of blood and art—are less important because everyone is from somewhere else and looking out for something new. Foreigners are more easily accepted, but, because it is the centre of Spanish cultural and commercial life, competition is fiercer than anywhere else and again they can find themselves struggling. The difference between Seville and Madrid is vividly illustrated by the experience of the Norwegian tocaora, Bettina Flater. In Seville, she was lonely. As a blond, vegetarian, female, foreign guitar player, she was marginalised and only performed once in six years of study visits. In Madrid, she didn’t have to chase work—gigs came to her and a professional career blossomed (pp. 156-9).

Back in Britain, Martin interviewed flamenco dance teachers in various places between Chester and Leeds, as well as in London and Banbury. To make a business out of teaching flamenco, these culture-carriers must make changes to the art that they learned in Madrid or Seville. The version of flamenco they offer to British evening class students must be dance-centric, must not require stronger technique than can be gained from weekly classes, and must not require any knowledge of Spanish language and culture. The peñas and juergas they organise must be enjoyable for audiences unfamiliar with the conventions of jaleos. Several of Martin’s interviewees suggest that the British are uncomfortable with audience participation, because British flamenco events lack audience interventions. If they go to a pantomime or pop concert, they’ll see British audiences participating with, er, gusto, because in those contexts they know what is expected of them. There are some lazy ideas about Britishness floating about in this discourse to match the creaking stereotypes about flamenco and flamencos. Curiously, these informants were themselves British, albeit with hard-earned flamenco identities overlaying and perhaps displacing their original nationalities.

One thing that is the same in Britain and Spain is that flamencos, and flamenco dancers especially, should look stereotypically Spanish if they want to convince audiences that they perform ‘authentic’ flamenco. There is some discussion of the commercial importance of dark hair dye and a poignant interview with the Black dancer Yinka Esi Graves (p. 254). Martin explains that students arrive at dance classes in the UK with requirements and expectations, and suggests that this is why, outside London, it is only British teachers who manage to keep classes going. Visiting Spanish teachers, though they have greater cultural capital and authority, tend to want to push technique harder, teach the fundamentals that ultimately permit dancers to improvise, and assume familiarity with at least the more popular palos. For all but the most dedicated British students, this makes flamenco class a baffling ordeal and they quickly choose to spend their evenings doing something else. Therefore, necessarily, flamenco changes as it travels, and these changes shape the meaning of flamenco in Britain.

Sketching the argument of this book makes it seem drier than it really is. In her write-ups of visits and interviews, Martin sets the scenes like a novelist and picks out telling details like a journalist. Her aim is to demonstrate the importance of individuals in the creation of flamenco in the UK—the teachers who first live the marginal lives of foreign students in Seville or Madrid and then, by sheer force of will and work, create flamenco scenes in damp corners of England. The individualism and drive of these culture-carriers shines out of these pages. Her interviews include almost ten pages (pp. 180-190) given over to just one character: the late and sorely lamented El Chino. Martin gave pseudonyms to most of her interviewees, except for three who are too well known for this device to have any point. Ron Hitchens was one of the three. One might wonder at the scientific value of interviewing Ron as he was in so many ways an outlier. On the other hand, this is a book about individuals, and his house was a meeting place between Spanish and London flamenco for decades. If you want to hear the voices of the people who create flamenco in Britain and to think about what that creative action involves and achieves, Tenley Martin’s book is the best available guide.

  REPORT THIS POST AS INAPPROPRIATE |  Date Nov. 15 2020 11:18:30


Post has been moved to the Recycle Bin at Feb. 20 2021 10:24:09
  REPORT THIS POST AS INAPPROPRIATE |  Date Nov. 15 2020 21:41:19

Posts: 1551
Joined: Dec. 4 2012

RE: Transnational Flamenco. Exchange... (in reply to Guest


ORIGINAL: rasqeo77

Nice write up. Sounds like it would be an interesting read. Just a shame it’s so expensive.

Martin's dissertation would be legally available for free starting Aug 1, 2021, here:

You can also request and get it before that, if you have a good reason.


  REPORT THIS POST AS INAPPROPRIATE |  Date Nov. 15 2020 21:55:14


Post has been moved to the Recycle Bin at Feb. 20 2021 10:24:05
  REPORT THIS POST AS INAPPROPRIATE |  Date Nov. 17 2020 23:36:54
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