Revealing Flamenco’s Mystical Muslim Roots

Flamenco Sufism Alhambra Spain Muslim
From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY JASON WEBSTER

In his groundbreaking book The Sufis (1964), Sufism authority Idries Shah mentions several Western cultural phenomena which were influenced or inspired by that mystical current of Islam. They include such diverse things as the Troubadour movement, the figure of the Jester, the writings of Cervantes and Goethe (among others), and the development of the Tarot. There is also, in Shah’s view, a clear relationship between Sufism and flamenco.

That an Eastern mystical tradition might have any impact at all on the folk music of southern Spain would appear curious if not for the fact that for eight centuries the Iberian peninsula was the western extreme of the Islamic empire. And nowhere more so than the area we now refer to as Andalusia—whose etymology lies in the Arabic name for the peninsula, Al-Andalus. Spain was conquered for Islam in 711, at about the same time that Sindh—roughly today’s Pakistan—was also coming under Muslim rule. Communications within the Islamic Empire were relatively quick and easy: In the space of a few generations, what had been Hispania became an integral part of a cultural environment stretching as far east as the Indies.

And the impact of the Islamic world on Spain—and the rest of Europe—was vast. The Alhambra at Granada and the Great Mosque at Cordoba are merely the more visible and obvious manifestations of this heritage. Everything from food to language, art, literature, religion, science, medicine and philosophy were all influenced by centuries-long exposure to Islam.

So what does this have to do with flamenco? Spanish folk music as a whole was hugely influenced by the sounds brought from across the Strait of Gibraltar. You only have to listen to an Aragonese jota or an albá from the Valencia area and the similarity to a muezzin’s chant is immediate and powerful. And flamenco is no less an example. For instance, common “nonsense” words used in the cante include Lelelelele, or Lailo lailo. These are a garbled form of the Islamic creed La ilaha illa Allah (“No god but Allah”). And anyone familiar with Moroccan and North African music will have heard a common rhythm that is the same as a flamenco tanguillo. In fact, the great flamenco singer El Lebrijano often performed with Moroccan musicians, insisting that flamenco and the music of North Africa were essentially the same.

So much for an Islamic influence on flamenco, but what about Sufism specifically? Idries Shah was not the only one to spot the connection. In the 1930s, a student from Pakistan named Aziz Balouch travelled to Spain, and as soon as he heard flamenco he recognized it as almost identical to the Sufi music that he played and sang at home. Indeed, the very next night he sang the same songs back to the original performer—none other than Pepe Marchena—only this time in Urdu. Marchena and his guitarist, Ramón Montoya, were gobsmacked by the foreigner who had just arrived in Andalusia, yet could sing perfect cante jondo as though he had been born and raised in a Spanish village. On the spot, Marchena took the young man on as his fellow performer, and Balouch would go on to record under the name Marchenita (“little Marchena”).


In time, Balouch went on to write about flamenco and his experiences in cante jondosu orígen y evolución, published in Madrid in 1955. In it, he set out his ideas, drawing up a family tree in which he demonstrated the link between Sufi music and flamenco. He described vocal exercises and even a way of life that he saw as ideal for producing the flamenco “deep song.” However, his views on sexual abstinence and alcohol  did not sit well with the hedonistic flamenco environment of the day, and the book was—perhaps not surprisingly—somewhat short of being a bestseller.

There are plenty of reasons, however, for believing that both he and Shah were correct in pointing out the Sufi-flamenco connection. When my own book on flamenco (Duende) first appeared, many readers wrote that they had experienced something very similar to duende when listening to music from the Islamic mystical tradition—an altered state known in Arabic and Persian as hal (literally “state.”) The sense of other-worldliness that the best flamenco can produce hints in itself at origins within some kind of metaphysical framework. The Gypsy connection between the Indian sub-continent and Spain is also reason to give credence to the link that Balouch was proposing. And then there is the word “duende” itself. Spanish etymologists insist it comes from dueño de casa—the “master of the house,” a reference to the invisible spirits who were meant to inhabit a home. But many Spanish intellectuals prefer a Latin-based word origin to an Arabic-based one, and the Arabic word for “spirit”—jinn—is as likely the root. According to the Quran, these beings created of “smokeless fire” not only exist, but can have a powerful influence on human lives, appearing without warning and effecting change on our destiny.

Watch this video to see some explicit connections between flamenco and Middle Eastern music forms:

What better description of duende itself?

Awakening Duende: The Dark, Creative Force of Flamenco