‘On the cliff edge’: Spain’s flamenco industry fears for its future amid Covid-19

Concerns raised that future of music genre in jeopardy as venues shut permanently

A bailaora, or flamenco dancer, performs ahead of the reopening of the Corral de la Morería, in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Rodrigo Jimenez/EPA

A bailaora, or flamenco dancer, performs ahead of the reopening of the Corral de la Morería, in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Rodrigo Jimenez/EPA

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The Corral de la Morería music venue in central Madrid has hosted many of flamenco’s finest singers, guitarists and dancers. Its reputation as the most renowned flamenco “tablao” in Spain has drawn a host of celebrities down the years. Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and, more recently, Hugh Grant and Michelle Obama have been among its clientele.

But for more than a year now, since Covid-19 hit Spain, the venue has been closed, like the majority of flamenco tablaos. With curfews in place over recent months, along with social distancing and limits on client numbers, most such establishments have chosen not to open. In addition, tourists – who are so crucial to flamenco – have been staying away.

Although restrictions linked to the pandemic are now easing – Spain recently lifted a six-month-long state of emergency – there are concerns that the future of this entire genre of music is in jeopardy.

“Over one-third of Spain’s tablaos have shut their doors permanently,” says Juanma del Rey, co-owner of the Corral de la Morería, of the pandemic’s impact on the industry. “The rest of us are on the cliff edge.”

“We are small businesses, family businesses,” adds Del Rey, who is also president of Spain’s association of flamenco tablaos (Antfes). “And a family business can’t make all these outlays every month without any income.”

He is standing in the middle of his venue. The small stage behind him has seen guitar virtuosos like Paco de Lucía and Tomatito play, while legends such as the singer Camarón de la Isla and the dancer La Chunga have also performed here.

The woes of the tablaos are directly affecting flamenco’s artists. Del Rey says that these venues provide work for almost all professional flamenco performers.

“If the tablaos disappear, then 95 per cent of artists will disappear and flamenco will virtually disappear too,” he says.

Charity effort

Such has been the impact of coronavirus on the industry’s singers, musicians and dancers that a group of flamenco artists in Madrid has set up a charity, Dona Flamenco, to help colleagues who are struggling. The Amor de Dios flamenco academy, which has managed to remain open in recent months, has supported the initiative, loaning a room to Dona Flamenco to store food which is then given to artists.

Miriam, one of the volunteers who co-ordinates the donations and who prefers not to give her full name, says there are many instances where many or all members of a family are performers and therefore depend on flamenco for their livelihood.

“There are cases where a husband and wife are out of work and so too is their son,” she says. “It’s terrible, terrible – not having enough money to eat. And there is no prospect of them getting work in the short or medium term.”

Most artists are not eligible for the government’s furlough scheme and so instead receive a €430 monthly handout.

Dona Flamenco also donates food in Seville, Malaga and Granada, in the southern region of Andalucía, flamenco’s traditional home. But Miriam says the pandemic has exposed the already vulnerable position of many flamenco artists, who, she says, often do not have formal labour contracts or social security coverage.

“What this has brought to light is the deplorable, regrettable situation in which flamenco artists – and artists in general – are having to live in Spain,” she says.

Remaining open

A small number of tablaos have remained open. Cafe Ziryab, in Madrid’s southern district of Palos de la Frontera, is one of them. On one Sunday evening, a guitarist, a singer and three dancers perform before a socially distanced public. There are only eight paying customers.

“My dream was always to own a flamenco tablao,” says Anya Vollhardt, the German-born owner of the venue, during an intermission. “Six years ago my dream came true, but it’s turned into a bit of a nightmare due to the pandemic.”

Coronavirus restrictions have meant that the limit for the number of customers has been reduced from 94 to 25, and even then the venue is never at full capacity.

“Before, we would put on two or three performances every day – but now it’s just Saturday and Sunday, some Fridays,” Vollhardt says. “Economically it’s not viable.”

She was close to closing down altogether recently, but decided to remain open after she was given permission to put tables outside on the street, where customers could drink. She is now considering introducing other types of activities in a bid to draw customers, such as roundtable cultural discussions and film projections. She, like many others in the flamenco industry, wants the government to provide direct support to prevent flamenco from going under.

There is optimism in Spain that normality is, finally, returning. The lifting of the state of emergency has meant that curfews are no longer in place and Spaniards can travel more freely. However, the economic impact of the pandemic continues and flamenco is bracing itself for an uncertain future.

“It’s one of the most important cultural heritages there is and an extremely important part of the cultural identity of this country,” says Juanma del Rey. The Corral de la Morería is going to reopen this month, albeit just one day a week.

“We mustn’t lose our cultural identity,” he adds. “We mustn’t lose what makes us different from the rest of the world.”

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