When it comes to Barcelona’s dynamic cultural scene, flamenco is seen by some as a recent import. María Rosa Pérez Casares knows it’s anything but.

“In Barcelona, there’s a long tradition of flamenco dating from the 19th century,” she says. “That’s the flamenco we know today.”

Passionate about this form of artistic expression, Pérez Casares comes from a flamenco performing family. Starting in the mid-1970s, her parents — her father was a guitarist and her mother a dancer — managed Tablao Flamenco Cordobes, a local performance space in Barcelona’s La Rambla neighbourhood. Pérez Casares was herself a bailaora, a female dancer, when she was younger. While she became a lawyer, she made the decision to return to flamenco in 2000 and became the CEO of the space her parents once ran.

While many of the visuals and sounds of flamenco are recognizable — the passionate movements and dramatic clicks of the castanet — other aspects may be less so. Based on folk music from different parts of southern Spain, flamenco is made up of some 50 palos, musical styles that vary by rhythm and origin. Along with bailaoras, performances feature male dancers, bailaors, singers (cantaors and cantaoras) and guitarists (tocaors and tocaoras). Improvisation happens during a performance, but it occurs within rules set by the specific palos.

“People associate flamenco with laughter, clapping, shouting and the such. In reality, flamenco is more dramatic than festive,” says Pérez Casares. The lyrics and music, she explains, are often full of suffering and are based on life experiences. “What they’re singing are like small poems, often popular works by great poets,” she says. “They have tremendous depth.”

Illustration by Rui Ricardo.

Although flamenco’s origins can be found in Andalusia, a region of southwest Spain, the cities were where artists could make a living, says Montse Madridejos, a historian and longtime student of flamenco guitar.

“Barcelona was the pioneer in setting up cafés cantantes, in the style of the cafés chantants in Paris. That’s where the artists started singing flamenco, dancing flamenco, finding success and audiences,” she says.

Industrialization, its busy port and the rise of tourism in the last century contributed to Barcelona’s role in making flamenco known to the world. It also secured the city’s place, along with Seville and Madrid, as one of the capitals of flamenco.

The flamenco boom in Barcelona continued into the early 20th century—led by figures like the iconic bailaora Carmen Amaya and the Borrull family.

“The Borrulls always performed with the most important figures in flamenco,” says Madridejos. “They founded a famous tablao here, Villa Rosa. Until the 1940s, they were very important. I always refer to them because nobody knows them nowadays.”

Civil war shattered the country in the mid 1930s, followed by Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975. Flamenco continued to be performed in the city during these periods, but the atmosphere was not the same as before. The 1960s and 1970s saw a huge influx of people from other parts of Spain who were looking for work, and this helped give a fresh boost to Barcelona’s flamenco culture. A new generation of bailaoras emerged, including Antoñita Singla and Antonia Santiago Amador, who is known as La Chana.

Illustration by Rui Ricardo.

Flamenco peñas (cultural associations) also played a crucial role in keeping the art form thriving during this time. Many were set up in the towns and cities in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, where new immigrants to the city often lived.

Despite its somewhat minority status on the city’s cultural landscape, Pérez Casares and Madridejos see a lot to be positive about when it comes to the future of flamenco. She points to recent Grammy Award-winner Rosalía, a young singer-songwriter from the Barcelona area, who has drawn on flamenco for both her sound and style.

“[People say,] ‘Rosalía, that’s not flamenco!’ OK, but it’s her flamenco and other things will come out,” says Madridejos.

She also points to the Research laboratory of Flamenco created by bailaor Juan Carlos Lerida and artists from the Institut del Teatre, which brainstorms innovative, new approaches to dancing and palo structures. “This kind of modern flamenco activity is very typical of Barcelona,” says Madridejos.

“Here, flamenco has never had power, but it has kept going, fighting,” she says. “I’m happy that visitors come to Barcelona and can enjoy flamenco. And they’re going to enjoy good flamenco.”