From Sevilla to Spanish Harlem: Science, Society and Songs of Persecution

Flamenco dancing and singing in Casa Anselma

In early February of 2005 I found myself in the Andalusian city of Sevilla, Spain with a friend, Dr. José Morales. I was documenting and assisting him on a presentation during the 2nd Living Knowledge Conference: Advancing Science and Society Interactions. The conference was part of the Intergenerational Knowledge Sharing and Networking in Science & Technology, a project funded by the European Commission and aimed to improve the flow of knowledge between generations of scientists and technologists, and to promote public engagement with science and technology. ‘This is the way to Star Trek in real life’, I thought. 

Almost two decades later we can easily say that José and the rest of the scientists and technologist at the conference were right. We simply didn’t do enough, especially governments. Our elected officials never really made science and society a thing. It’s been science and corporations, for the most part, most of the time. There is likely some balance between free market economies, survival of the fittest, and human evolution that we aspire toward. The details of what is possible is somewhere between science and society, or maybe we should put society first? It is, after all, our culture that gives us human and spiritual pause to examine the wellbeing of our society.

But we need to re-examine the relationship. We still look at science as our tool, or our weapon. And now we’re screaming at science to save us, and not take our jobs away. The details are in the relationship, and the constant adjustments we need to make as we grow. It applies to buying children different size clothes every year, to shifting entire social constructs to better adapt to a higher level of human evolution. Many cultures draw a map, in one colorful scenery or another, that our goal is a higher level of existence. This is as much spiritual, as it is scientific.

Our thinking has been too wrapped up in the struggle within the lower levels of Maslow’s human needs. And we have mass created frustration for ourselves through compartmentalization, segregation, and disenfranchisement of people. This is one of the reasons we’re playing catch-up to things like renewable energy, and facing threats like climate change and artificial intelligence. 

Woman charging her electric car, in 1917. Big Oil said internal combustion was better, until it wasn’t anymore. Now we’re going back to electric. At the same time, would muscle cars have been as cool as they were in the 60s and 70s?

Being in Spain and absorbing the spectrum of themes in the conference created another marker pointing toward my aspirations in cultural preservation, media, and technology. After the conference, we carved out a few days to explore the “society” part of our journey close up. Southern Spain is filled with a lot of love, color and warmth, and it was a joy to share in it. 

There was a street where almost every storefront was a tile artisan. It’s as if all the beautiful Moorish-style tiles that decorate the façades and interiors of some of the buildings all came from here. We went to a tapas bar where, of all things, a narrow bleachers-style seating setup at the back of the bar really caught my eye. I can’t remember what I had, but I’m sure there was chorizo involved.   

The photo of the woman dancing flamenco, however, was taken in the famous Casa Anselma, a small, intimate tablao bar restaurant that was known for its traditional flamenco shows. A tablao is a place where wooden floors or stage are made to compliment the ferocious stomping sometimes associated with traditional dance, known as the baile. The shows were performed by local artists, and they were often impromptu. The man and woman in the image are engaged in a baile, as the guitarist plays his toque. I believe the man in the white shirt, sitting next the guitarist, was doing the singing, known as el cante. The others accompanied in clapping and jaleos, words or phrase shouted out during a flamenco performance to encourage the dancer or musician, the most famous of which is, “‘olé!”.

Flamenco is a genre of music and dance that originated in Andalucia, the southern-most region of Spain, where you not only find Sevilla but Cádiz, Granada, Málaga, the British-occupied territory of Gibraltar, and other cities and towns with rich, deep roots stretching from Rome to Northern Africa. Flamenco itself is a mix of Roma culture, with Moorish, Jewish, and Christian influences. The flamenco cante is often characterized by its emotional intensity and its use of melismatic singing. If the cante sounds gut-wrenching at times, there’s good reason. 

When the Roma first arrived to the Iberian Peninsula in the early 15th Century, they were welcomed with open arms for the most part. In the early 1400s, the idea of a unified Spain was just starting to take form, and there were many cultures living and trading together in the region.

The term and style of bohemian originally referred to the Romani people, who were mistakenly believed to have originated from Bohemia, a region in the Czech Republic. The Romani people were known for their nomadic lifestyle, their unconventional dress, and their artistic talents. In the 19th century, the term “bohemian” came to be used more broadly to refer to anyone who lived an unconventional or non-conformist lifestyle. This included artists, writers, musicians, and other creative individuals who rejected the norms of mainstream society.

In addition to bohemian, The term gypsy was also applied to the Roma starting in the 16th century, stemming from the also mistaken belief that its members came from Egypt. Today, both erroneous labels are considered derogatory for the most part, although they both have become popular fashion trends and lifestyle adapted (or co-opted) by other cultures.

Culture has a way to persist across spacetime, especially when stories of struggle and survival are at the root. In flamenco music, like in rock & roll, the source is usually a broken heart. This is where the Spanish monarchs and the Catholic Church come in.

Decades after the Roma arrived, the Church would play a major role in the unification of Spain. This would not go well for the Roma — nor for Jews, Muslims, Protestants, witches and even those who had converted to Christianity, like the Conversos (former Jews) and Moriscos (former Muslims). 

The Church began to view Roma culture with suspicion, filled with pagan-like influences (that’s part of what made it cool, tho’). Soon, it was frowned upon by the powers that be (were) for Gypsies to openly express their ways, as it was seen as a threat to the Catholic faith and following (not unlike the views against the gay community today). The Romani began to face discrimination, marginalization, and hatred. After the Spanish monarchs of Ferdinand and Isabella requested a papal bull establishing an inquisition in Spain in 1478, the Church-and-state-sponsored ill-will toward Romani culture would turn into full-blown persecution. This suppression and suffering would turn into song that, ironically enough, would eventually become “Spanish” folk music. Some may view it with the same side-eye when white folk sing the blues, a genre of music founded by African Americans rooted in spiritual and work songs based on the suffering caused by slavery and segregation in the South. Many broken hearts, followed by song and dance. 

Sevda, a Gyspy woman in Spain. Photo: Michael Damanti

“There is an accepted amount of racism towards them [Roma] that nobody disputes”, said Michael Damanti, an American street photographer documenting Roma society in Spain back in 2019. Melissa Kitson wrote more about it here.

For two Puerto Rican guys, the history of the Roma (and blacks in the South) may be something different, but the theme is very familiar. Jibaro roots music of Puerto Rico, including bomba y plena, have similar history of oppression — also thanks to the Spanish and the Catholic Church. The folk music of Puerto Rico has roots in West African music, as well as Taino and Spanish. 

When the Euro-American Slave Trade began, African slaves were mostly taken to South America and the Caribbean (over 80% of all African slaves, actually). The Catholic Church would also soon frown upon them openly expressing their culture, like the Romani in Spain (and dozens of other cultures around the world). This would also grow into full-blown persecution, and forced indoctrination into the Catholic faith. These experiences would make their way along the coastline and into the mountains of Puerto Rico, where the Taino (and their culture) had fled to escape Spanish enslavement before the Africans were brought to the Caribbean. Jibaro folk music would be born from these tragic experiences, which is what much of modern Puerto Rican music is based on. 

After the Spanish-American War, it was the United States’ turn to colonize Puerto Rico. The oppression against native culture and cries for freedom continued, again followed by song and dance.    

The flamenco culture and the working-class vibe of Casa Anselma had brought a deep sense of connection to not just the history and society of Andalucia, but also back home. Other friends of mine, Orlando Plaza and Raúl Rivera, were spearheading another establishment with the same mission to meld culture, history and society. Camaradas El Barrio was doing for the Puerto Rican community back in New York City what Casa Anselma had been doing in Sevilla for years. I was thousands of kilometers [or thousands of .62, or 31/50ths of a mile) away from both, NYC and Puerto Rico, but feeling very much at home. If jibaros and gitanos were the past, and Casa Anselma and Camaradas were the present day places of that intersection between culture and history, then somewhere back in that conference I saw a window to the future.

Having been a science and engineering buff since forever, the conference and its ideas had a lasting impression. The concept of society were already deeply ingrained and ever-evolving for me, something I got from the Puerto Rican experience in NYC, and learning about the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico. But “advancing science and society interaction”, that planted a seed in me. Although I still had years of graphic design ahead, I began to design other things, all pointing toward more science in my society.  

Among the many projects that have brewed over the years, there is one I wish to return to, and it’s not just because it is a biological and technological project richly entwined with human evolution, but also because it’s cool. About a decade after the conference, José and I would find ourselves once again working on a science and society project: brewing craft beer in the cellar of Camaradas. 

Unfortunately, both Casa Anselma and Camaradas El Barrio closed, both casualties of crushing economies for local businesses around the world with little to no science or society to back them. “I have lived more for Sevilla than I have for myself”, exclaimed Anselma Giménez of her 36 years keeping the doors open. 

Looking back, the conference foresaw today’s crossroads, where progress must serve people, not only profits and power. Like flamenco and bomba, the deepest human creations are those embracing identity and rising above suffering. The journey spanning Sevilla to Spanish Harlem reaffirmed not just how important culture and the human need for creativity is, but also the need for science to build with society, not above it. If we listen to melodies born of struggle, they remind us that our shared humanity must shape the future.

For further reading, you can visit this page from the Smithsonian: New Archive Reclaims the Narrative of the Roma. You can also check this cool piece in The New York Times on María José Llergo, a young Andalusian singer channeling flamenco roots into new music.