Posts in Category:

Reading Iberian Music through the Lens of #BlackLivesMatter

By Meira Goldberg & Antoni Pizà

Recent events in the USA, including the deaths of Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and a devastating number of others, sparking waves of peaceful protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and many initiatives to remove monuments celebrating the controversial (to say the least) leaders of the Confederacy prompt us to reconsider how these looming issues affect our own work in music and dance studies.

The Foundation for Iberian Music aspires to be a place for reflection on the past and present of the music and dance of the Iberian world, and on the Latin American, Caribbean, Native, and African cultures that have contributed to these art forms.  In a previous post we reflected on how not only the fundamental structures of racism which evolved in Spain and Portugal, but also the cultures of enslaved African people and their descendants were retained across many centuries, and how music and dance materialize the processes of transmission and syncretization of these performance cultures.

In recent months, even before the rising movement to push icons of the Confederacy off their pedestals, some of the most emblematic performances of Spanish identity have been interrogated in terms of their racist content and colonial past.  For instance, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt recently published an essay in the New York Review of Books calling for a reconsideration of the Misteri d’Elx (Misterio de Elche).  Considered to be the oldest mystery play in the world and recognized by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” it has been uninterruptedly performed for six hundred years (due to COVID19 this summer it will not be presented).  This ritual performance celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary each August 14 and 15 and the conversion of Jews to Christianity in the presence of this event. According to Greenblatt, the “Judiada” (the Jewish episode in the play) is a vicious recapitulation of demeaning Jewish stereotypes.

Another respected American scholar, David Nirenberg, author of a well-documented monograph Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013), in an online essay, has argued that Facebook, if it is to be consistent with its own policies on hate speech, should probably ban the Misteri page. Antoni Pizà’s essay in L’Avenç, covering some of the same issues, calls for the need for audience education and contextualization.  The essay has been widely reprinted and abridged.

The celebrated Cantigas de Santa María, about four hundred songs praising the Virgin Mary, which are a staple of Iberian medieval music, poetry, and visual art, contain at least one excerpt referencing a well-known and often-repeated storyline:  a Jew attempting to desecrate a Holy Host (though never achieving his evil intentions).  Similarly, the romancero and the cancionero, repositories of lyrics and songs that have come to form Iberian identity, reflect the Iberian side of Christian anti-Judaism.  Some Holy Week street parades still torment an effigy or ragdoll (monigote), which in one instance is called “Peropalo,” representing Judas as standing in for all Jews.  Also, during the famed procesiones de Semana Santa, in many towns the executioners (sayones) who escort Jesus along the Via Crucis to his death are represented as repugnant Jewish figures.  In Catalonia, until the 1950s on Holy Friday children in villages celebrated “to go to kill Jews,” a noise-making performance using a contraption called carraus (or in Spanish carrasquetas).

Christian proselytism has had many ramifications, of course.  As the figure of Christopher Columbus is debated, so are those of Junípero Serra, composer, arranger, and compiler of many religious works, who perfectly understood the uses of music in the Spanish colonial enterprise.  Another, lesser known, Franciscan friar, J. B. Sancho, a very competent composer who introduced “modern” European compositional resources to North America, including that of basso continuo, was also an accidental part in this colonial enterprise.  Needless to say, to debate and contextualize their musical legacy is not to deny it or suppress it.

Offensive music and dance performances are not limited to anti-Semitic instances or colonial musical utterances. Spanish Roma (Gitanos, or so-called “Gypsies”), and Afro-descended Spaniards and Latin Americans have long been demeaned and dehumanized in music, dance, folk poetry, painting, and other forms of representation. In fact, as K. Meira Goldberg has argued in her book Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco, Spain’s transposition of “raza,” religious difference, onto the surface of the skin as “race” constructs far more of our culture than we realize—from turnout in ballet to the sign, branded on people’s faces, for slave, or esclavo, as an “S” and a clavo (nail) in this matter: $.

historical engraving depicting the Spanish slave brand

Bóveda de San Ginés, Calle de los Bordadores, Madrid


Ironically, Spanish representations of Blackness, encompassing Jews and Muslims, Africans and Gitanos—and denoting what Dr. kihana miraya ross in her recent opinion piece in the New York Times, “Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness,” calls “slaveness”became emblems of identity for the Spanish nation as a whole. From Cervantes’s La Gitanilla (1613) to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875), to Carmen Amaya’s Original Gypsy Dances (1941) and all the way into the Grammy award-winning album El Mal Querer (2018) by Rosalía Vila Tobella, “Rosalía,” the imagined Gitano (or, more precisely, the imagined Gitana) has been commoditized. Spain’s post-Franco reemergence into Europe and into the neoliberal world order has entailed a metamorphosis of its long-fraught relationship with this unruly image. Yet even on Rosalía’s 2018 album, Spain figures its unadulterated national essence—its Whiteness—in the person of a racially confounded and socially marginal disruptor. Rosalía broke into the global commercial market with her song “Malamente,” in which she postures as an Andalusian Gitana from the projects (poligonera). Indeed, some on both sides of the Atlantic find Rosalía’s synthesis of flamenco and black American hip hop forms like trap jarring. Thus, Spanish Gitana activist Noelia Cortés writes that Rosalía puts on elements of Gitano culture “that have historically been used as resistance” as if they were “false eyelashes.”

Alleged offensive language in music and dance continues to be a battlefield for issues of freedom of speech—and its limits.  In recent times a Catalan-speaking rap artist Valtònyc (Josep Miquel Beltrán) had to leave Spain and lives now in exile in Belgium, because his lyrics were critical of the Spanish monarchy and allegedly incited terrorism, as Antoni Pizà argues in another September 2020 essay in L’Avenç.  All European courts and international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have sided with the artist, but in the Spanish democratic system, apparently, freedom of expression does not extend to language deemed offensive by the monarchy. Pablo Hasél, a recording artist accused of the same alleged crimes, has also been condemned for similar offences.  As a matter of fact, since 2015 the Spanish courts have taken issue with more than twenty recording artists and many others in the arts, including the actor Willy Toledo, the visual artist Santiago Sierra, the novel Fariña, and the puppet play Jerk, among many others. 

The Foundation’s mission is neither to promote censorship—nor is it to advocate absolute freedom of speech.  Our goal is not to take sides, but to create channels for debate and to create scholarly environments where all these issues can be discussed and historically contextualized.





Canceled: “Flamenco in the USA” (27 March) and Kiko Mora Talk (26 March)

As per the latest update to the Graduate Center’s COVID-19 response policy (10 March), events through March 29 with more than 20 people in attendance are not permitted.

The university is doing their best to enable live streaming for affected events, but unfortunately, many of our scheduled speakers are abroad or outside of NYC and will not be able to travel. As such, it is with great regret that we must cancel our events on 26 March, “Spanish Music in the US Recording Industry” with Kiko Mora, and 27 March, our “Flamenco in the USA” conference, as well as the film screenings scheduled for the evening of 27 March.

We are investigating publication options for the scheduled conference papers, in the hopes that we can still bring the excellent work of the speakers to the public. You can read the final program here.

Mora has already published the research upon which his talk was based, and we hope you will enjoy reading his book, De cera y goma-laca: La producción de música española en la industria fonográfica estadounidense “1896-1914”. It’s available for purchase here.

Pizà article on Guillem d’Efak in this month’s L’Avenç

Foundation for Iberian Music director Antoni Pizà published an article on Mallorcan singer-songwriter Guillem d’Efak in the March 2020 issue of L’Avenç. It was also selected as a cover feature by Ara, where you can read it online without a subscription. D’Efak (1930–1995) was born in Spanish Guinea but raised in Mallorca, where he became a well-known actor, songwriter, and poet. He was a leader of the Nova Cançó movement, Catalonia’s progressive folk scene of the early sixties.

New York Andalus Ensemble Video and Hunter College Presentation

New York Andalus Ensemble logoNew York Andalus Ensemble, one of the Foundation for Iberian Music’s ensembles in residence, has a free public performance and lecture, “Arab Inter-culturality in al-Andalus,” upcoming at NYC’s Hunter College on April 1st. Read more in their latest news letter; for time and venue information, please get in touch with

They also recently completed a successful west coast tour. You can watch some of their sold-out concert at Kuumba’s Santa Cruz on their YouTube channel below. 

Stay tuned for their annual spring concert with the large ensemble, to be scheduled in May, and help keep NYAE’s music and intercultural outreach going with a tax-deductible donation. The Foundation for Iberian Music is a non-profit educational organization supported entirely by grants and private donations.

Musica Oral del Sur to Publish “Transatlantic Rhythms” Conference Papers

A selection of papers from last year’s Natives, Africans, Roma and Europeans: Transatlantic Rhythms in Music, Song and Dance conference in Veracruz will be published in a special issue of journal Música oral del Sur

Música oral del Sur is published once a year. This year’s issue, No. 17, will be published in the summer. Música oral del Sur previously published papers from the initial conference of this series, The Global Reach of the Fandango, in issue No. 12, 2015.

Brook Zern (1941 – 2019): A Remembrance

by K. Meira Goldberg

The New York flamenco community is small and tight-knit. I got to know Brook Zern soon after I came to New York, hanging out together with the artists performing at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway in Claudio Segovia and Héctor Orezzoli’s legendary 1986 show, Flamenco Puro

to r.: Luis Suárez, Fernanda’s nephew, the author, Fernando Jiménez Peña, “La Fernanda de Utrera,” Jacinto Kantor. Photographer unknown.

Decades later, just the day before the 2013 exhibit 100 Years of Flamenco in New York City, which I co-curated with Ninotchka Bennahum, opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Brook came into the gallery with a suitcase full of treasures for the cases: records, programs, flyers, including a flyer of a 1965 concert of the legends Pete Seeger and flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya…

People’s Songs Inc presents “The Midnight Special at Town Hall,” featuring Pete Seeger and Carlos Montoya in “Strings at Midnight,” 1965. Courtesy of Brook Zern
Medal given to Sir Brook Zern by the King of Spain. Courtesy of Brook Zern

… and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Queen Isabella given to him in 2008 on the occasion of his being knighted by King Juan Carlos I of Spain for the dissemination of Spanish culture in the U.S., the highest honor, writes Brook’s friend, flamenco author and journalist Estela Zatania, that a non-Spaniard can receive.

Here’s what we wrote in medal’s exhibit text panel:

The series of television programs filmed in the 1960s and ’70s, Rito y Geografía del Cante, Rito y Geografía del Toque and Rito y Geografía del Baile (Rite and Geography of Flamenco song, guitar, and dance), precious records of major Flamenco artists, were forgotten and turning to dust.  Due to the persistent efforts of Brook Zern, they have been preserved for posterity.  In 2008, King Juan Carlos I of Spain knighted Brook Zern for his work in the dissemination of Spanish Culture in the U.S.  Zern received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Queen Isabella (Cruz de Oficiál de la Órden de Isabela la Católica), the highest honor that Spain can bestow on a foreigner.  This is the first time that this rare recognition has been given for the examination, explanation and illumination of the art of Flamenco in all its facets, within its cultural and historical context. Zern also wrote, at the request of Spanish Flamenco authority José Luis Ortíz Nuevo, the U. S. contribution to the Spanish petition to UNESCO in May 2004, documenting Flamenco’s long presence and continuing impact in the New World and requesting that Flamenco be declared an Intangible Heritage of Mankind, a status granted in 2010.

Brook wrote a chapter for the 100 Years catalog, “And Throughout its Remarkable History, Flamenco Dance had a Partner…”and two years later, when I co-edited Flamenco on the Global Stage: Historical, Critical, and Theoretical Perspectives (McFarland, 2015) with Bennahum and Michelle Heffner Hayes, Brook contributed a chapter,  “The Real Stories.”Here are some excerpts of the draft biography he sent us for the book, which reflect his passion for flamenco, his modesty, and dry wit: 

Brook Zern, who calls himself a Freelance Flamencologist, has no academic affiliations, though sometimes he wistfully wishes he did. 

His lifelong research project began in 1959, when as a Columbia freshman he took over his father’s fifteen-year obsession with the flamenco guitar and it gradually spread to the art as a whole. He has since spent many years studying flamenco in situ, in the smoky bars and ramshackle roadside ventas in southern Spain, mostly in Seville and Jerez.  Over there, he listens. Over here, he talks.

 He has talked about flamenco at scads of U.S. schools, colleges and universities including Harvard and Columbia.  (A recent lecture at the University of New Mexico, was titled:  “Sez Who? The Top Ten Flamenco Arguments and the Announcement of the Winning Sides.”)

He has played a vital and often lonely role in the conservation, restoration and ultimate public revelation of hundreds of hours of crucial Spanish audio recordings and documentary film including the 100 television programs of the 1972 masterpiece “Rito y Geografía del Flamenco”, very costly to preserve and now viewable on YouTube. He feels honored to have known and learned about flamenco directly from most of the now-legendary singers of the past half-century, as well as many great dancers.  He has also known and studied flamenco with virtually all important guitarists except Sabicas and Paco de Lucía, who did not give lessons (though Sabicas gave hints, which could be more than enough).  He suspects he may know more extraordinary music from the guitar tradition than anyone else alive – though he may never grasp the more recent material that relies on jazz and other outside traditions for its new sound.   He wrote the American contribution to the international petition that recently led UNESCO to declare flamenco an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity. 

In 1971, he taught what was likely the world’s first university course on “Flamenco: The Art and the Life” at the New School for Social Research. His 1973 article in a Spanish publication was the first to analyze the painful cultural parallels between the blues and flamenco, including the traumatic experiences of American blacks and the Spanish Gypsies whose respective contributions were central to each art. After the recent death of Paco de Lucía, he initiated an intensive effort to have Spain honor its greatest musician with a postage stamp – an extraordinary two-person campaign that led to the issuance of that stamp within just six weeks of the great artist’s passing.  (Who says you have to wait forever to get anything done at the Post Office?) 

He probably forgets a lot of other stuff that he probably did. 

But we do not forget, old friend. We miss you.

Brook Zern (left) with Sabicas, c. 1980. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Brook Zern

The Father of Flamenco in the US: José Molina (1936 – 2018)

We are dedicating our upcoming conference, Flamenco in the United States: From the Modernist Vanguard through the 21st Century (March 27), to two pillars of the New York flamenco community: José Molina and Brook Zern. Today, we would like to share Molina’s story.

Written by K. Meira Goldberg


José Molina Quijada said that the Billy Elliot story mirrors how he came to dance.[1] Born in Madrid to Murcian parents, José’s father fought for the Republicans, and was jailed when José was three years old. As for many Spaniards in the wake of the Civil War, times were hard. José’s mother moved them to the family home in Murcia and fought to get Jose’s father released from prison. When José was six his father found work in a fish market, and moved the family back to Madrid. At nine, he was enrolled in a boxing school but, much to his father’s chagrin the boxers shared space with Spanish dance classes, and here José found his vocation.

He saw Pilar López and José Greco perform in 1945, and knew this was his future. His father was adamantly opposed. But José’s mother convinced him to accept José’s ambition, as long as he paid for his own classes by working mornings in the fish market. For six years José labored, earning just enough to pay for classes with Pilar Monterde in neo-Classical Spanish dance, Escuela Bolera, a bit of ballet and a bit of Flamenco. He got his first break with Soledad Miralles, the well-to-do wife of an American doctor, touring Spain and dancing at the famous Madrid theater the Lope de Vega for two months as a soloist. From age sixteen to nineteen, he toured nightclubs throughout Europe and the Middle East as a soloist, dancing Classical Spanish and even Flamenco pieces like Farruca to piano and orchestra. Just after celebrating his nineteenth birthday in Cairo, in 1956, he was invited to New York to audition for Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan’s Tonight Show. He said goodbye to his mother, who had accompanied him for three long years of touring, and never danced in Europe again.

Steve Allen came with James Mason to audition José at the studio that had been and would continue to be a home to Spanish dancers for generations, then called Michael’s (later changed to Fazil’s). From The Tonight Show, José was asked to be José Greco’s first dancer, and he toured the world with Greco for five years before forming his own company, José Molina Bailes Españoles, in 1961. Molina was a frequent guest on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin television shows, and toured throughout the U.S. through the late 1990s. He was a devoted teacher with a devoted following, and he said, “I think I will teach until the day I die. And if one day I die, I want to die in the studio playing castañets ria ria pi ta, or doing footwork, and then, ‘Goodbye!’ I would be so happy, just there.” True to his wish, he taught for as long as he was physically able. Molina brought Spanish dance to the entire U.S., and his gift to New York was his invitation to many wonderful Spanish dancers such as Luis Montero, Antonia Martinez and Nelida Tirado, among many more. 

The evening of March 27, following our symposium, we will screen two documentaries related to Molina, FlameNYCo, a feature on Flamenco Festival NY’s 10th anniversary which includes a 2010 performance by Molina, and the short Ode to Fazil’s, about the legendary theater district dance studio where Molina gave lessons. (Reserve your seat for the screening and learn more about the films here.)

[1] Ninotchka Bennahum and K. Meira Goldberg, “A Modern Masculinity,” 100 Years of Flamenco in New York City, (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 2014), 104.