The singing contest that made history

As the audience filed out at the end of the second night, many soaked after a thunderous rainstorm, most were more than satisfied. It had been an exuberant event. But, as the last stragglers hastened away from the great Nasrid palace, the debate about the concert’s wider meaning – and ultimately the meaning of flamenco – was only just beginning.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to pick up a book about flamenco that doesn’t acknowledge the influence – both good and bad – of the Concurso de Cante Jondo. The legacy of the event in the flamenco world looms large in the same way as the 1969 Woodstock festival preoccupies rock historians. Although the two events were markedly different in size and tone, both helped define their eras, spawned a cavalcade of similar events, but failed in some ways to live up to their more ambitious promises.

Like Woodstock, much of the Concurso’s enduring fame lies in who was there.

“The power of 1922 resides in the weight of the great names that directed and supported it, above all Falla and a very young Lorca,” says José Javier León, a writer and professor, and author of a 2021 book about the Concurso called Burlas y Veras del 22.

Saved from extinction

As for its positive benefits, the 1922 concert inspired a number of subsequent concursos all over Spain, most notably the Concurso de Córdoba in 1956, and others in Seville, Huelva, and Madrid. Falla’s event also succeeded in uncovering new talent (including the flamenco legend that was to become El Caracol) and saved several old flamenco styles – notably the martinete and liviana – from almost certain extinction.

“I think that the Concurso set a precedent for competitions in the profession which definitely changed the way we perceive flamenco and to a degree how we value it,” says Magdalena Mannion, a flamenco dancer who trained at the Amor de Dios dance school in Madrid. “Was it successful in its attempt to preserve the purity of the art? I don’t think so – I think what it did was start a process in which to quantify and compare something that is so personal it should be difficult to judge by numbers.”

These days, modern observers are prone to question some of Falla’s and Lorca’s historical assumptions, in particular that flamenco in the 1920s was decadent and dying.

“Flamenco from its origins was an urban manifestation,” states León, “Not rural and secret, as the promoters of the Concurso believed, not a handmade product of any aficionado, but a complex artistic discipline. They divided the flamenco tree in two, on one side cante jondo with only positive connotations, and on the other “flamenco” – derivative, adulterated, and commercialised. This division was pernicious.”

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