On the Blackness of Flamenco: an Interview with phyllis akinyi

Inma Naima Zanoguera

 

phyllis akinyi in “G.R.I.E.F.” New York, May 2021. by Olga Rabetskaya.

 

Blackness, says Fred Moten, “is enthusiastic social vision, given in (non) performance, as the surrealization of space and time, the inseparability of gravity and matter […] in caressive sound and anachoreographic sounding,” and that makes sense to me in some ungraspable sense.

Blackness is hard, almost impossible to define. This is why my curiosity ran wild when I encountered K. Meira Goldberg’s Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco.

“Blackness” of flamenco. Huh…

Meira Goldberg, a Flamenco dancer as well as Flamenco scholar from the U.S., argues that the processes of racialization beginning with the colonization of the Portuguese and the Spanish in the 15th century remain notoriously contested, exploring this idea in the cultural scene of post-Enlightenment Europe. From the 18th century onward, during what was a bleak time for Spain, an identity beyond its decaying empire was needed. Spanishness was, as is, a murky term. Is it European? Moor? African… ish?

Not unlike in present times, a racially ambiguous Spain was struggling to settle itself in the echelons of Europe’s internal and later exported racial order. Border nation par excellence, known for its mestizaje at home and abroad, “Spanish blood” became the main object of discursive demonization by competing European powers in an effort to differentiate, and racialize, this mixed population whose dominion overseas was, at the time, unrivaled.

After long enough, this demonization congealed into the mythological “Black legend,” which upheld that, after centuries of contact with Moors and Jews, Spanish blood was at best half-brethren, bastard child, which would explain why they seemed only to be able to manage their colonies by the rule of the iron fist. As the legend went, Spain was just too African, too Semite to earn the badge of Whiteness. In turn that made the Spanish character too brutish and barbarous to deserve their Empire, as the brutality witnessed in their colonies evidenced. They were, in short, too much like their own colonial subjects and thus, the legend goes, unfit to establish a civilized colonial order (unlike the French or British whose civilizing mission was of course just a gift to the world). As the French empire began to pose a serious threat to Spain’s colonies, then, and with the help of the Black legend, the demonization of Spanishness as off-White gained traction as its own racial project.

Naturally, an anxious awareness of the Black legend made Spaniards obsessed with (policing) blood purity. It also forced them to adopt different strategies for integration into Europeanness. This is why Goldberg concludes that Spaniards had always embraced an externally imposed association with “equivocations of race,” and that conclusion, as an African descendent Spaniard, also makes sense to me. It makes sense to me because my whole life—while being, always, reminded of the out-of-placeness, the inherent alterity of my body within Spanish territory—I have seen firsthand the places where Spanishness, whatever that means, falters and fails to impose its own illusory uniformity upon its people and upon its history. Spanishness is murkiness itself.

Juana “La Macarrona” performed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. She was “one of the first sallies of emerging flamenco artists, and in particular of a Roma performer, onto the international stage” (Goldberg, 149).

 

It was around the time when Spain was losing its last American colonies that they (we, I guess) embraced this murkiness—helplessly, probably—and integrated it into a then-emerging cultural phenomenon that was becoming popular in the European scene. That cultural phenomenon, the socially silenced but indefatigable outcry of sorrow/joy associated with Spain’s Romani people, was Flamenco.

Just why this art form gained currency on the European stage at that time, is impossible to say conclusively, but the argument that Goldberg and others have formulated is easy to defend. Europeans, at once existentially terrified and irremediably infatuated with their Others, were attracted to Flamenco as an approximation to that most coveted liminal space between Blackness and Whiteness. As Europe’s cultural scene was transitioning from Romanticism to Modernism, Flamenco signified all that modern art sought to evoke and all the voyeuristic experiences with which decades of orientalist propaganda had furnished the imagination of the “Modern Man”: the spiritual freedom of the bohemian; the seductive, embodied self-mastery of the belly-dancer; the “surrealization of space and time” of Blackness. Europeans were attracted to the associative black aesthetic in Flamenco’s exotic element. In the vibrant, shifting cultural landscape of 18th-century Europe, Romani people, metonymically associated with Spain, “danced Blackness for Europe” (Goldberg, 49). As a proto-modernist project, Spaniards accepted the association with their Romanis as a meal ticket, paradoxically appropriating the Blackness of the very legend that haunted their reputation from the deep-seated level of hemoglobin composition.

Though in some ways this was a glorious time for the popularization of Flamenco in the international arena, the metonymic embrace of the Spanish to its Romani community’s Flamenco was double-edged. A Spaniard’s embrace was, after all, that of an uneased colonizer being bullied by its rivals. The promise of integration was, and is, never anything but guaranteed violence. Like a dye, integration bleaches all that comes into contact with its poison. From then onward, a homogenized image of the Flamenco artist began to take form in whiteface.

Today, Spain’s Blackness shows its seams in and through an ongoing socio-epistemic mission that relentlessly seeks the homogenization of the whole European continent. Spanish Moorishness/Semitic roots go unacknowledged as a result, or if they are, they become at best a cliché—employed mostly as a touristic, self-orientalizing marketing scheme.

But unacknowledged is not the same as disappeared. And invisible is not the same as unperceivable.

***

I just finished writing a book review for the anthology that Meira Goldberg edited after Sonidos Negros—an excellent collection subtitled Celebrating Flamenco’s Tangled Roots where a range of scholars—dancers and non-dancers alike—demonstrate that engaging Flamenco as a force that refuses homogenization can expand our perspectives on the performative and manipulable nature of racial categories. It is also, maybe necessarily so, a massive volume: it takes a whole five hundred-plus pages of articles to try to decipher the “tangled roots of Flamenco.”

***

Tangled roots: echoes, black sounds from the rhizome.

Flamenco: that artform of artforms, that soul of souls.

Like Blackness, Flamenco is “enthusiastic social vision,” bewildering in its endemic equivocations. And like Blackness, it is also almost impossible to define. But since it is likely some readers will be unfamiliar with Flamenco, and in lieu of Fred Moten-like poeticity on my part, I will simply submit the following fragments as a patchwork-definition:

As a vocal expression—called cante in the tradition—Flamenco “is a soulful sound rooted in the pain and sorrow of the lament; elusive but distinctive, a vocal sonority […] rooted in feminine emotionality, physicality, sociality, and spirituality” (Vales Hills, 185).

As an embodied practice, Flamenco is baile. When Garcia Lorca, a 20th century Andalusian poet, sought to criticize what he saw as an excessively rationalist engagement with the arts, he took inspiration from the Gitanos of Spain, masters of “duende,” and concluded, against that tyrannical, moribund rationalism of his age, that “El duende es un poder y no un obrar, es un luchar y no un pensar […] Es decir, no es cuestión de facultad, sino de verdadero estilo vivo; es decir, de sangre; es decir, de viejísima cultura, de creación en acto.”[1] And this defines baile—the dance element of Flamenco.

Guitar (toque) and percussion (Peruvian cajon and palmas, or clapping) accompany cante and baile, closing the Flamenco circle, opening the infinite sonic possibilities of Flamenco performance.

phyllis akinyi. by North Waveland

 

In recent years, the African and Afro-American lineage of Flamenco has swept through Flamenco scholarship in that signature belatedness of academic discourse—as if Flamenco dancers hadn’t known this forever—known, that is, not rhetorically but in and with their dancing bodies. The rest of us are catching up. To recognize the Blackness in Flamenco is also a commitment against abstraction: to embrace all that Flamenco is: to pay homage to the mystery, to not leave anything out. This also means that we must always also embrace the fact that, no matter who Flamenco belongs to, it is the Romani community of southern Spain that most strongly identifies with this art form. A 1:1 equivalence does not exist, but the legacy of Spain’s gitanos is the beating heart of Flamenco.

So/but, I read and wrote about the anthology, which very much emphasizes the mystery of it all, and I still wouldn’t know where to begin tracing the tangled roots of Flamenco. But I found reassurance reading this book. You can’t trace the roots of Flamenco conclusively any more than you can define it. Flamenco is an elusive, fugitive artform—if you look at it straight in the eyes, your retina will burn, or you will turn to stone, or the mountain split in two and the earth itself will have to swallow you. Everyone else knows this. I was reassured to learn that Flamenco’s fugitivity is not a dead end, it’s the beginning of everything. Where self-assuredness falters, Flamenco’s “caressive sound and anachoreographic sounding” thrives.

***

 

I sat down with Afro-Flamenco dancer phyllis akinyi not long ago. I had watched a few of her Flamenco performances online and had thought, she doesn’t just dance Flamenco, she knows it. Which is to say: she knows everything I am trying to write about in my Ph.D. dissertation.

Eventually, I got connected with her. We talked over zoom about her experience as a Danish-Kenyan dancer, about what Afro-Flamenco is and who Afro-Flamenco is, and its place in the industry at large. We talked about phyllis’ political commitments, the BLM movement in Europe, about Santería.

Santería? Yes, Santería and the sea. Flamenco, spirit, and/in the sea:

Espuma del mar.

That’s the name given to one of phylli’s latest projects. She and her peers define it as an interactive dance performance, featuring Yemaya—Santeria’s Mother Goddess of the Sea—Sabar drumming, and Flamenco.

To dance (with) death, transformation, and the afterlife, you need spirit, soul, full embodiment. You need duende, attunement to earth-rhythms.

phyllis talks about rhythm as an invitation: “There is a rhythm train that’s going… and if you are capable, that will open up a vessel for you.” That vessel is where the spirit and the body no longer appear as different things. That is duende’s dwelling place—there, phyllis says, dance “becomes spiritual.” And, she says, giving words to a nebulous thought I’d held for a while: “the notion of duende is the legacy of the Africans in Flamenco.”

Like Santeria, Flamenco has roots in the ocean. Black and Roma, Moor and Maroon, Flamenco is an endless triangulation of transatlantic exchanges that goes on, always, folding and unfolding like espuma del mar through the folds of time.

phyllis learned Flamenco in Spain, where she currently lives. But she’s been around. One of her first temporary living experiences was in a pueblo in the mountains of Nicaragua, when she was five (with her family). She wasn’t dancing Flamenco then, but an emergent global sensibility was beginning to form in her. As a kid among other kids, she observed and documented: “how is the life of a kid different in Nicaragua?” Her writings about that experience made the news when she returned to Denmark.

At 21, she lived in El Salvador, then Buenos Aires, where one would naturally go to learn Tango, and talking with her one gets the unequivocal sense that all these places are African diasporic places. They are lands of mestizaje, too, and of air that smells “sweet, and burned” but mostly sweet, like bread baked afresh at any given time of the day. These are the places phylli’s politicized body has inhabited, rejoiced and danced in, places where her diasporic subjectivity has found a plethora of obstacles and opportunities.

A cartography of these movements tells a story of the black Atlantic founded on ancient rhythms, on the invisible but ever-perceivable ontologies and cosmologies of the sonic. Like espuma del mar, African diasporic subjectivity must reinvent itself ceaselessly, as a condition of possibility for its own becoming.

What better defines African diasporic subjectivity, then, than making oneself be at home in the world? In Seville, in Havana, in Copenhagen—the dancer takes her art with her. When phyllis dances Flamenco, she isn’t just performing the movements of a dance style with exemplary precision and grace (though she is, no doubt, doing that also)—by dancing her Flamenco, phyllis is redefining Flamenco itself. Or rather: she’s facilitating Flamenco’s ever-unfolding transformations. She is the vessel. Flamenco—whatever it is—becomes through her dancing body. And what else defines an African diasporic experience than being told your body is not in its proper place? That you don’t belong?

“Songs of Freedom” by Michael Aboya @aboya.8

 

The black aesthetic, too, becomes through Flamenco. But decades of bleaching regimes of representation have whitened the conventional image of the Flamenco dancer.  phyllis’ black body disrupts, dislocates, exposes the white lie, but not without pushback. Flamenco racial profiling is a real thing. But it fails, again and again, because for phyllis as for other afro-Flamenco dancers, Flamenco is simply what their bodies know and have always known. phyllis’ response to Flamenco’s racial gatekeepers is unwilled, effortless, impeccable: “how are you telling me that I don’t belong here,” she said to me, emulating a conversation she’s had to have too many times, “when my body is telling me that there is ancient movement knowledge here, that belongs to me too?”

But this is only half of the story. The other half is the reality faced by African-descendant performers in the Flamenco industry. phyllis, I think, would say that she isn’t “dancing Blackness” for anyone. Her art is her own, but she understands and navigates the double-consciousness of Blackness, and she fights for things to be different so “other artists of color and their work will not be political.” But, as black people, she says, “our existence is resistance, and resistance is political.” Shying away from the sociopolitical reality of what it means to be a black artist isn’t in the plans for phyllis, but it also doesn’t define her experience. In her words, “I own that my works are political, because my being is political. But I don’t create political works.”

Black Flamenco dancers continue to have to do double the work—artistic and political—in attempting to fairly and freely practice a dance style that is inherently theirs. Or it would be, if only partially, if Flamenco could be said to belong to anyone. What makes Flamenco dancing from the margins so special is that it allows anybody to embody and give life to Flamenco’s own double consciousness. K. Meira Goldberg calls it Flamenco’s agnosticism to the surface—an intimate friend to the idea of black people’s double-consciousness. Flamenco’s Blackness can be danced by anyone, any time—it’s neither a race nor a heritage, nor a specific flavor of movement. It’s the “train that’s going,” and the ticket is duende.

____________________

[1] Duende is prowess, not action, it is fight, not thought. […] Which is to say, it is not a matter of skill, but of truth and aliveness of style; which is to say, of blood; which is to say, ancestral culture, creation as action”

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