While Rosalía is the genre’s breakout global star, a whole generation of artists are offering contemporary spins on the traditional Andalusian form
In Barcelona’s barrios, groups of lads who have rattail haircuts, wear tracksuits, and grow weed on their balconies stay up all night blasting music. You’ll hear trap, techno, and reggaeton, but also a more unexpected sound – flamenco. On the surface, these stark and angular paeans to universal pain and suffering, propulsed by traditional hand-clapped rhythms, may seem a world away from genres like grime in London or trap in Atlanta, but each is a homegrown sound acting as a vehicle for storytelling from the streets. In Spain, flamenco soundtracks ghetto life.
Rosalía, flamenco’s first global pop star, first encountered the sound blaring from boy racers’ tuners in the park growing up in her Barcelona suburb, Sant Esteve. Her combination of savvy social media, maximalist visuals, and Beyoncé-standard triple-threat of voice, face, and moves, have made her the genre’s most visible proponent on the international stage, but she didn’t get there alone. She’s just one of a slew of young artists for whom flamenco isn’t about novelty or nostalgia, but a modern and effective mode of expression and storytelling that’s a years-in-the-mastering discipline. For a song to qualify as flamenco, there are some basic elements needed: the caste (song), palos (styles or sub-genres), toque (guitar), palmas (rhythms built from hand clapping), pitos (finger snapping), knuckle-rapping and foot-tapping; castanets are strictly for tourists. Having a formal framework makes it ripe for innovation, giving artists the freedom to create whatever they want within the parameters of this unspoken brief.
It’s not unusual for Spain’s new slew of trap rap stars to cite flamenco as a source of inspiration and a precursor to their proud, working class, immigrant sound and aesthetic. Today, there’s a huge crossover between contemporary flamenco and Spain’s trap and reggaeton scenes, with artists from each genre often adding guest features to each other’s tracks, while trap supergroup PXXR GVNG overtly honoured Camarón da la Isla – modern flamenco’s GOAT, whose willingness to embrace other genres made way for the upsetters of today – on their track “Letra Camarón”, rapping: “Escuchando al Camarón con los gitanos / Dios bendiga a to’ los barrios bajos” (translation: “Listening to Camarón with the gypsies / God bless all the slums”). Of the youngers keeping it strictly flamenco, though, Andalusian artist María José Llergo is arguably the most loyal to the genre’s original sound, a timeless counterpart to Rosalía’s ghetto futurism. “What’s now a longstanding tradition was revolutionary in its time,” says José Llergo. “Flamenco is simply people in a conversation with the time they happen to live in. That’s why young artists have always found inspiration in it. And that’s why we experiment with it.”
José Llergo works with trap producers like $kyhook and hip hop beat makers like LOST TWIN, creating something a million miles from the sangria-soaked sounds of tourist flamenco, but the foundations are still in place – both José Llergo and Rosalía trained for many years with the legendary flamenco master, Chiqui de La Línea, or ‘El Chiqui’. “The essence of flamenco dates back hundreds of years, and the lyrics of every song encrypt our history,” she explains. “Andalusia has been a land occupied on multiple occasions by different cultures, and in the cante we perceive how people adapted to the changes brought by these invasions. There are lyrics about the Christian Reconquest, the Expulsion of the Muslims, the persecution of the gypsy people, the colonial era, slavery. Flamenco is a repository of popular wisdom, an encyclopaedia of those who inhabited southern Spain.”
Flamenco is not really a genre that you dabble in – its history and back catalogue is so complex and sprawling that it’s almost its own musical language – but if you’re looking to explore the new flamenco scene, then Camarón de la Isla should be your starting point. From there, José Llergo suggests that you educate yourself on the generation of experimentalists who preceded her: “Triana, Pata Negra, Lagartija Nick, Omega by Enrique Morente, Smash, Las Niñas or Los Planetas,” she says. That should take you up to 2019, and the new school of artists keeping flamenco full of life and energy.
MARÍA JOSÉ LLERGO
María José Llergo is as bona fide as they come, having grown up listening to her grandfather sing as he farmed Andalusian olive groves. Rosalía comparisons are inevitable, but José Llergo is a unique prospect – her 2017 single “Niña de las Dunas”, a slow-burn internet sensation, offered up an old soul in Manila shawl and pool slides. She mines suffering to make music with a to-the-marrow pain that characterises true flamenco, citing influences ranging from Camarón to La Niña de los Peines, Etta James to Billie Holiday. “For me, blues is black flamenco, and La Niña de los Peines is our Billie Holiday,” she says. José Llergo has a new release on the way with Barcelona trap producer $kyhook, who has previously worked with the likes of Bad Gyal and Yung Beef, and a seven-track EP due in September. She’s also recording a debut album for Sony with hip hop beatmaker LOST TWIN on production.
THE MORENTE CLAN
The Morente siblings are part of a flamenco lineage. Kiki Morente, the son of flamenco kingpin Enrique Morente, steers a more traditional path, collaborating with many of his father’s old buddies, like on his most recent album, Albayzin. Solea, Enrique’s daughter, never stops tinkering with the sound, with her latest project, Ole Lorelei, putting flamenco at its core while bathing it in Italo-disco synths and Gainsbourg-esque chanson. She also frequently references the influence that her Granada trap family – the likes of La Zowi and Yung Beef – have had on her sound.
Strictly speaking, this is trap, but Dellafuente is a proud Granadino, and his prolific output is dripping in flamenco cantico vibes. With vocalist Maka, he makes music that could only exist in pop’s current borderless universe. 2015’s “Consentia” saw him welcomed onto the trap landscape, and since then he’s worked with C.tangana, Spain’s answer to Drake, and rapper Mala Rodriguez, who mines her Gitana-heritage flamenco in her own right. And for any who fear that the clothing labels and rapper lifestyle may see him straying too far from his Andalusian roots, he recently dropped a track with flamenco bad boy Lin Cortes.
NIÑO DE ELCHE
This chameleonic singer is part-performance artist, part-modern pop star. His role within the scene is largely cultural commentator – he describes his 2018 album, Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo, as an aim to overcome “the schizophrenic debate that strives to differentiate between tradition and avant-garde”. Like José Llergo, he argues that flamenco, by its very nature, is modern and transgressive; it exists within its time. Niño de Elche collaborates with everyone from C.tangana to Raul Refree, Rosalía’s original guitarist and producer. He uses the medium to chime in (tongue firmly in cheek) on everything from cultural ownership to recreational drugs.
This project-cum-supergroup was born with almost the sole purpose of proving that flamenco experimentalism is not just acceptable, but truly essential. The Andalusian crew – comprised of S Curro, The Gardener, BSN Posse, Industrias 94, Lorenzo Soria, Digital Diogenes, and Esteban Bove – are labelmates first, all making sounds across footwork, hip hop, and drum & bass on the Breaking Bass label. They came together for just two days in a house in the Sevillan countryside to experiment with flamenco and its derivatives, creating an electronic record that would keep their region’s folklore alive while giving it a modern soundtrack. The result, L’ambôccá, achieves their goal with razor sharp precision.