Flamenco Documentaries of the Franco Era

William Washabaugh

1997. The Journal of Flamenco Artistry 3(2).

"No...Do" is scrawled across my guitar case where it serves to remind me of the promises, problems, joys, and jeopardies that pervade this passionate style called flamenco. Most folks probably miss the point of my "No...Do," but most aficionados are attuned to some of its meaning.

If you're travelling in Seville, you're bumping into "No...Do" at almost every turn. Fitted out with a 8, figure-eight-like skein of yarn in its midsection, it adorns the backs of buses and the covers of manholes; it appears on city buildings and in official documents. This No8do insignia is a word puzzle - really a rebus - that recalls old hopes of the people of this city, and the promises made to them when Seville was an outpost of Christianity in the Muslim world of the south. No8do speaks of a city not to be abandoned: The Spanish for the 8, the skein, is madeja, and so the motto reads No ma dejado or roughly "I have not been abandoned," a phrase that plays off the disconsolate cry of Jesus on the cross. This "No...Do" insignia prompts Sevillanos to raise their heads high and puff out their chests with pride. Theirs is a city that has been crucified and resurrected, seen the worst of times but rebounded and clawed its way back into the best of times. Theirs is a city of distinction, a city that marches to the beat of its own drummers and buglers. Of course, besides marching, it also dances, and, as ever, it dances to a beat all its own - the sevillanas that many consider a flamenco oddity. The pride that a Sevillano takes in his music, like the parallel prides of Jerezanos, Gaditanos, and Malagueños, is an indication of an intensely felt sense of independence, just as "No...Do" suggests.

It is well to keep this sense of independence in mind when thinking about flamenco, when playing the music, and, more to the point of this essay, when interpreting documentary films about flamenco. Here I will talk about three such films: "Duende y Misterio del Flamenco" by Edgar Neville (1952), "A Través del Flamenco" by Claudio Guerín and Romualdo Molina (1972), and "Rito y Geografía del Cante" by Mario Gomez, Pedro Turbica, and José María Velázquez (1971-73). The first is readily available. I bought my copy of "Duende" in a department store in Madrid for about eight bucks. It has English subtitles - American collectors maintained a healthy version of this film while copies elsewhere were deteriorating and disappearing. The second film "A Través" is a rarity. Originally shown on the primary channel of national television in 1972, it was widely praised in newspaper reviews as the first serious handling of flamenco on television for a vast viewing audience. To my knowledge, it is currently available only at the archives of Spanish National television. The third film "Rito y Geografía del Cante" is not one film, but one hundred, each of which explores and illustrates a flamenco form, a flamenco region, a flamenco artist, or a topic closely related to the flamenco style. Produced and aired for national educational television - generally regarded as stuffy, if not snobbish - it was seen by a comparatively miniscule viewing audience and was then squirreled away in the archives of Spanish National television where it remained until the mid-1980s when it was unearthed, thanks in part to the indefatigable efforts of Brook Zern. It is now available for viewing in the elegant surroundings of the Centro Andaluz in Jerez, and in the somewhat less exotic settings of Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Each of these film projects bears witness - some more than others - to the emphasis on cultural and musical independence that is so characteristic of flamenco artistry. Each is a testament to Andalusian No8do spirit which is so much a part of the flamenco style. Edgar Neville's film is tour through flamencoland, a merry waltz through the bright and joyful south of Spain overflowing with beautiful women and eager dancers. The beautiful María Luz Galicia, a dancer whose sun has long since set, is showcased - too much I think. She shown in one scene, distracting the local police with a coquettish dance so as to divert their attentions from smugglers sneaking behind. La Fernanda and La Bernarda in their youths are shown too briefly. If only Neville had had the foresight to know that, while Maria would fade, these two wispy young women from Utrera would become the flamenco matriarchs of our time (as shown in this photo taken a couple years ago by Peter Holloway and used here with his permission). Near the end of the film, a young Gitana decked out in all her flashy finery sings bulerías while her young husband, with his arms encircling their infant, provides palmas for her cante. Qué maravilla! The final scene is monumental in every respect: Antonio breaks the mold of flamenco traditionalism with a martinete danced at the foot of the soaring cliffs of Ronda.

José Blas Vega has described Duende as the "the most important filmic work on this theme that has been produced to date" but when I discussed the film with Romualdo Molina he sneered. That sneer peaks through Romualdo's commentary in a recent issue of La Caña: "Maligned for years within our borders, it (Duende) now enjoys unmerited prestige." Professional rivalry must certainly explain some of his negativity. After all, Molina, rose from Seville's renegade radio station, Radio Vida, in the early 1960s to occupy a prominent position in Madrid's national television industry. There, in Madrid, he codirected "A Través del Flamenco" in 1972 and oversaw the production of the documentary series "Rito y Geografía del Cante" between 1971 and 73. With these projects completed, no one could blame him for feeling that he had outstripped all earlier efforts including Neville's. After all, he was instrumental in ushering flamenco documentary into its golden years.

I chatted with Señor Romualdo on a couple of occasions. Even now as I recall those long conversations, I find myself squinting my memory and stretching my consciousness so as to reconstruct the fullness of his warm personhood. Even if one were endowed with all divine power, still it would be a great challenge to create a more intelligent, effervescent, and hospitable person than Romualdo Molina. The only thing that persists longer that his non-stop discourse is his smile. On one occasion we went up to his apartment to explore his personal archives. After interrupting his elderly mother who was at that moment wrapping herself up and giving herself over to the enchantments of a bullfight on television, her daily fix, we inched our way through tight quarters to get to Romualdo's study, itself tighter than tight because it was packed full from floor to ceiling with books, papers, disks, and tapes. He ransaked his files for me with an eye to his golden projects, "A Través" and "Rito," and I came away well versed on their background, and loaded me down with commentaries and reviews.

"A Través del Flamenco," filmed in 35 mm. color, is an award-winning tour de force of both music and cinematography. Like Saura's recent film Flamenco, this film consists of one performance after another, each filmed in a distinctive setting, each introduced with its form name and song title. After an initial section of sevillanas, a solo guitar granainas "Agua," rendered by Manolo Sanlucar, exploits the historic fascination of Andalusians with water. Shot almost entirely inside a dripping limestone cave, the camera captures water as it drips and ripples and swirls in tandem with the rhythm, as if it were resonating with the strings of Sanlucar's guitar. Captivating cinematography! In taranto "Hombre," Rafael de Córdoba is shown dancing across the sierras as if he to anticipate the recent Coors beer commercials with its young blond gargantuans frolicking across the Rocky Mountains leaping from peak to peak in single bounds. For bamberas "Aire," the camera displays red tile roofs and whitewashed walls of an Andalusian town. And here too, and again in the concluding frames of this film, viewers gaze out across the endless fields plied by workers who struggle to fend off the blistering sun as they labor through the heat of the day. The most satisfying footage, from my point of view, offers Pepe El de la Matrona with serranias and seguiriyas "Soldedad" and then Pedro Peña accompanying his brother Juan Lebrijano as they sit in a bar filled with smoking, drinking men only half-attending to their soleares "Pensamiento." These snippets of Andalusian cultural life stands out from all the other images in "A Través del Flamenco" because they are so uncultivated and, as Miguel Espín noted, "menacingly regionalist" in their deviation from the conventions of No-Do, taken now in its second sense which I should stop to consider.

Not long into his 35-year-long regime, Generalísimo Francisco Franco put his censorship machinery into full swing, strangling all discordant words and images, yes, but also inventing and promoting those that were favorable his regime. The operative word for this manner of censorship is propaganda. In 1942 his notorious arm of documentary film production went into operation, "Noticiario Cinematográfico Español," an agency charged with the responsibility for developing the newsreels to be shown at the movies, "Noticias Documentales" or "NO-DO" films, all of which were bent and shaped so as to accentuate the positives of the Franco regime. The impact of these No-Do films is pervasive. They were the only documentary films produced in the 1940s, and their style wormed its way into popular documentary film produced thereafter. Heavy-handed voice-over commentary and celebratory landscapes, de riguer for officially approved films, are featured in both "Duende" and "A Través del Flamenco." With "Rito y Geografía del Cante," Romualdo Molina, along with his three project principals, struggled to escape out from under the heavy arm of official censorship, aiming for a fresh take on flamenco music. The series that resulted from their efforts was praised in left-leaning journals of the day as an accurate presentation of flamenco in its natural social context, all code words for propaganda-free film.

Interestingly, both the director of the "Rito" series, Mario Gómez Martín, and his primary assistant, Pedro Turbica, are Madrileños. But they were vigorously supportive of this Andalucía-centered project. José María Velázquez Gaztelú, the on-screen interviewer and author of the voice-overs, hailed from Arcos de la Frontera (Cádiz) where he grew up amdist cante. He embraced this project as an occasion for both salvaging and celebrating the threatened musical styles of his youth. Not accidentally, he made sure that "Rito" footage was packed with his heros, Antonio Mairena, Juan Talega, Añica la Periñaca, María La Perrata, Diego del Gastor, Manolo de Huelva and on and on through the flamenco hall of fame of the sixties. To ensure documentary candor, the three authors traveled the dusty roads of the south, visiting artists in their homes, drinking with them in their bars, and capturing them on film 16 mm. black and white, the best that these young Spanish Charles Kuraults could do on their shoe-string budget, which, by the way, was cut by a third once its independent approach became apparent to franquista officialdom. Thanks to the energy of these three, their persistence, and their insight into flamenco, we have a treasure trove of examples of the old style in its fading moments and of the new style when it was still new. We can witness Juan Talega and Diego del Gastor in their final performances and Camarón, Enrique Morente, Paco de Lucía just as they were beginning to peak. The details of these films are bound to generate squeals of delight at every turn, Pedro Bacán with hair, Pepe Marchena in his smoking jacket, Pepe Martinez in his bathrobe, Vincente Peña cooling himself off after some very hot bulerías by pouring a glass of vino over his head.

But while sampling these delightful details, viewers would do well to remember some important social and historical factors that accounts for the distinctive character of "Rito" footage. I myself became keenly aware of these factors after talking on numerous occasions to Gómez, Turbica, and Velázquez, all of whom gave freely of their warmth, their enthusiasm, their time...and their wine - I am greatly indebted to these three extraordinarily generous men. What they taught me during our many hours of conversation was that the music they were documenting was not what one should call entertainment, but rather a kind of blood music, suffering people singing to express their pains and their hopes. And clearly, the music they gathered was linked to the then current political scene - for some of these authors more consciously and deeply than for others. This was the time - in the late 1960s - when, up north, novo cançión was helping to strengthen Catalan opposition to Franco, and when, down south, Andalucía's Menese and Morente were singing flamenco subversiveness on university campuses, cantes with pointed fingers, singing - like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger - songs that jabbed at audiences, goading them into action. The "Rito" authors understood these singers and the challenges they faced, being themselves only too familiar with the business end of Franco's bayonets. In consequence, their "Rito" series ended up as much more than a collection of folk songs. It is a collection of souls that were bowed and bloodied but forever buoyant.

Still in all, the series had to be marketed as a folkloric collection. How else to get it aired on Franco's own television network? In consequence the "Rito" series is a paradox, a film project that is carefully cultivated as an uncultivated documentary so as to display the old while invisibly stimulating hopes for the new. It treated the music of Andalucía as folkore, but its little twists made it clear that this traditional music from the good old days had a power to influence the future. A good close look at a few of these programs will make it obvious that the flamenco music of the "Rito" series refuses to sit quietly, as if it were shelved in a museum, dead and stuffed and mounted. Consider, as a first example, the programs that focus on Manuel Soto "Sordera," one of which shows him in Madrid discussing his life as a tablao singer. Longfaced and lonely, he talks only of Jerez and his family and his eagerness to be back home. The other program profiles Sordera family festivities at Christmas time. Here a wholly transformed Manuel, with bright face and electric smile, lights up the screen as he encourages his kids to sing and dance. The cante builds with a rising intensity that peaks when the sound track morphs into La Niña de los Peines, thereby nudging viewers toward that quintessential flamenco response, goosebumps (escalofríos).1 What is clear and obvious is that Manuel's heart belongs to his family, and to his home, and that means Jerez. What is hidden from viewers is the fact that these Christmas scenes were shot not far from Madrid. A second example involving a young Lole Montoya, accompanied by Eduardo El de la Malena, is equally telling. In a humble kitchen packed tight with a motley crew of kids and teens and older folks, Lole breaks out in song and dance - this is her first major moment in the public eye. Dressed simply, in pants yet, a bit flustered, with hesitant gaze, wholly different from the wolf-eyed Carmens of her day, this engaging beauty sings tangos....in Arabic. The Arabic coplas not only eluded comprehension, they also flew in the face of Franco's cultivation of flamenco as a symbol of national Catholic Spain.

When I was in Madrid I stopped by José Blas Vega's bookstore, looking to get the skinny on "Rito" from this distinguish flamencologist, co-author of the Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado del Flamenco. To my surprise, he winced and sneered as he discussed the series, explaining that, besides depreciating the importance of Madrid, it played fast and loose with tradition when it emphasized the role of family and attributed such great importance to the contributions of Andalusian women...Lole singing Arabic; Cristobalina belting out tangos while her child slept at her breast; Maria La Perrata, the linchpin of the contemporary Perrate dynasty (see enclosed photo from the "Rito" program entitled "La Familia de los Perrate").2 Clearly the No8do spirit of the "Rito" series, deviating as it did from Franco's No-Do style of documentary film, rankled some aficionados as deeply as it pleased others. Such mixed and deeply felt reactions are a sign of the fact that the "Rito y Geografía del Cante Flamenco" is a pivotal documentary project, one that merits repeated watching, some imitation, and always our critical scrutiny.


1. Some of these "Sordera" kids now comprise Ketama. Their growth from the 1971 "Rito" program entitled "La Navidad" to the present has been beautifully profiled in one of Pedro Turbica's patchwork documentary series of nine televized programs, "Los Años Flamenco" (1994).

2. Not to say that Madrid never payed attention to women: Manolo Caracol, in a "Rito" interview, justified the ornate spectacle of a Madrileña ópera flamenca, claiming - with a porous if not sexist argument - that such enchanting delights were necessary to attract women who were otherwise bored by the serious art of cante!