Among COVID’s Victims in Spain: Flamenco

Flamenco, the plaintive music of Spain, faces the worst crisis since the Civil War. The thundering stomp of the dancers – called zapateando – has been silenced across the nation, another casualty of the pandemic. Although Spain has been open for tourists since June, only a trickle of foreign visitors have arrived during what is normally the busiest season.  Their absence is a death knell for flamenco halls – called tablaos – which depend on holidaymakers who provide 90% of their income. The tablaos, which take their name from the raised wooden floor on which dancers stamp their feet, remain closed. FILE – A street artist wearing a flamenco dress performs in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid, Sept. 8, 2017.Calls for help The owners of flamenco halls across Spain have begged the government for money but are still waiting. “Since March 13, we have not had any income at all and every day it is tougher to pay bills that we have with the tablaos,” Federico Escudero, president of the national association of flamenco halls, told VOA.  “We have received some financial help to pay the rent from local councils in Madrid, Andalusia and there is a possibility of this in Barcelona. But the central government has not given us anything,” he said.  Escudero added: “If they do not support us, the flamenco tablaos will disappear. It seems they have forgotten what flamenco means for Spain. It is not just an art form but part of our national identity.” Even a plea from Rosalía, the singer who has become an international star, appears to have fallen on deaf ears. “The tablaos are sacred places which help flamenco to stay alive. I give all my support to all the artists and support to the people who want flamenco to remain alive,” she said in a post on Facebook. Rosalía, who took flamenco and fused it with reggae, became a huge star who has toured the world. Until the COVID-19 epidemic, the spectacle of flamenco dancing, singing and guitar playing, which developed over centuries and was popularized by the gypsies of the southern region of Andalusia, was staged at more than 100 halls across Spain. FILE – Martin Guerrero, general director of tavern-restaurant and flamenco tablao Casa Patas, climbs a ladder to change a light bulb at Casa Patas, which is closed due to the coronavirus lockdown, in Madrid, Spain, June 2, 2020.Death of an art The first to close was Casa Patas in Madrid, which for over 40 years had hosted star performers including Diego el Cigala, Sara Baras and Tomatito. Martin Guerrero, the owner, said: “We have no international clients and without that and with earnings amounting to between 10 and 20 percent of normal levels, it makes it impossible to open.” He said he had been forced to lay off his 25 workers, some of whom had been employed at the hall for more than two decades. As Spain emerged from one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe last month, there has been a surge in the number of coronavirus cases. The number of outbreaks tripled in the past three weeks as young people partying in discos or drinking in groups were linked to over 200 outbreaks.  More than 2,000 COVID-19 cases were diagnosed on Thursday, as Spain once again struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus. These figures have done nothing to encourage tourists to return. The halls, which usually pack tables and chairs close together near the artists, will struggle to open under restrictions that demand 1.5 meters between guests. The sector is asking for the extension of furloughs and subsidies. The pandemic has also affected performers. El Yiyo, a flamenco dancer from Barcelona whose real name is Miguel Fernández Ribas, has worked around the world for the past seven years. “I am going to appear in Italy on television this month and it is the first time that I have worked since the coronavirus epidemic started,” he told VOA in an interview. “All the other artists that I know have been affected in the same way. It is desperate. Without the tourists all is lost.” UNESCO declared flamenco a world treasure by adding it to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Since the epidemic, it has been declared an item of national heritage in Spain, which means it is entitled to special government grants. Nevertheless, for Escudero, this is not enough. He said that if the government does not help the tablaos, which employ 90% of the country’s 3,500 professional performers, the entire tradition of flamenco may be in danger. “We have no income,” he said. “If we disappear, part of flamenco will die with us.” FILE – Mariana Collado, dancer at tavern-restaurant and flamenco tablao Casa Patas, performs at Casa Patas, which is closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown in Madrid, Spain, June 2, 2020.Government’s role  “Of course we want to help flamenco,” said a spokeswoman for the Spanish culture ministry, who asked not to be named as per the ministry’s policy.  She said the ministry plans to hold a meeting of leading artists; however, the official said the central government’s ability to help is limited. “Financial aid for the sector is mainly the responsibility of local councils,” she said, adding that many of the tablao employees technically count as tourism sector workers.  The Spanish government is considering extending temporary unemployment assistance for many workers in the tourism industry until later in the year. 

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