In 2010, Unesco made three declarations of world intangible cultural heritage applicable to Spain. One was the Cant de la Sibil la, the Song of the Sibyl, in Majorca. Another was human towers, a phenomenon of Catalan culture in particular. The third was flamenco, most obviously associated with Andalusia.
There is a connection between the latter two in that a proposal has been on the table for several years for a new statement linking Catalan culture to flamenco.
In March 2015, a meeting of representatives of various musical associations, musicologists and the European Commission was held in Barcelona. It was a question of examining the claims of the Catalan rumba to obtain the statute of Unesco. In addition to support at European level, there was support from the French Ministry of Culture and the National Council for Culture and the Arts of Catalonia. In July of that year, the parliament of Catalonia approved the declaration of rumba as being in the interest of the cultural and musical heritage of Catalonia.
Great attention was therefore given to the Catalan rumba and the search for the Unesco declaration. Since then, and apart from reminders of the proposal, such as the additional support expressed by figures like Catalan national rumba Symposium in 2017, there was no official word. Why not? Wasn’t the Spanish government supportive? Why would it never be, whatever the political color? No, I can’t believe that’s the case. Perhaps the necessary documentation has not been prepared.
The application for recognition must be made in the form of a declaration. Uniqueness, or a strong sense of it, is usually required. La Sibil·la was not unique to Mallorca, but it was Mallorca (and Alghero in Sardinia) that kept it alive, hence the claim for recognition. The Sibil·la is also old. Centuries old. Antiquity helps when applying to Unesco.
A group called La Rumbanera played at CaixaForum in Palma earlier this week, their concert being part of a tour to present the historical and geographical evolution of the Catalan rumba genre. A review spoke of a “broad genre”, and this breadth is perhaps what slows it down vis-à-vis Unesco: its breadth and its relative recentness.
In 1933, Andalusian historian Blas Infante wrote that the first stage in the development of flamenco was in the second quarter of the 16th century. He insisted that the word flamenco came from Arabic. This link is quite important in the history of flamenco because it represented the alliance of Muslim Andalusians with the Roma. As such, he firmly establishes the Andalusian origin of flamenco and rejects a theory that flamenco had anything to do with Flanders; the word flamenco can mean Flemish.
So flamenco is old; its roots anyway. It’s Andalusian, and unfortunately for supporters of Catalan rumba, the connection to Andalusian flamenco challenges some of what can be said of its authenticity. In his book “A Poet in New York”, written between 1929 and 1930, Federico García Lorca observed that “the Habana” of Cuba contained rhythms typical of the “great Andalusian people”.
La Habana was the music of Cuba, and the rumba was born there, although strictly speaking its origins were African. A hybrid of Afro-Cuban music (rumba) became popular in Cuba in the first half of the 19th century. The associated dance was so wild that the authorities banned it. This ban didn’t really last, and by the 1920s rumba had become hugely popular again, so they tried to ban it again.
The crossover in Spain was to take place at the end of the 19th century, and it occurred in Andalusia with the rumba flamenca. the Cuban music popularity in Spain first appeared in Andalusia, and it is this ‘flamenco rumba’, it is said, that led to a derivative – the ‘rumba catalana’. And what García Lorca could hear in Cuba was an influence imported from Andalusia.
Catalan rumba began with the Romani gypsy community of Barcelona in the 1950s. It developed into a distinct genre, but the breadth of its origins influences claims of a certain uniqueness. There were few disputes with the flamenco or with the Sibil·la.
Catalan rumba is less clear cut, an example of this being that the La Rumbañera concert featured “La Paloma”, considered Cuba’s original “havanera”, even though it was written by Sebastián de Iradier of the Basque Country around 1863. Havaneres are immensely popular in Mallorca, but couldn’t we say that it is a specific genre?
A Unesco declaration was requested in 2015 so that the original Catalan rumba was recognized and therefore granted sa protection. But defining the original was not easy. It was derivative, and its relative newness in the 1950s meant that it was exposed almost from the start to a dynamic of alteration and experimentation.