Like The Lives And Legends Of Flamenco, also by Donn Pohren, this is an intensely fascinating account of the distinctive music of Andalucía , in this case concentrating far more on the culture, history and techniques of the art than the biographies of the individual artistes.
In that sense yet again this is a book that takes some beating on its subject, being thorough in its treatment and giving the impression at least of having been written by an insider of sorts, though as Pohren readily hints, there are many layers of insiderdom in flamenco, and to be a true insider one has to have been born into it: the land, the culture and the music.
Pohren begins with an account of a visit to a village where a gypsy wedding is taking place, moves on to report on a juerga, a private flamenco party, and delves into the history of the gypsy journey to and presence in Andalucía , their oppression and marginalisation, and the way in which they, together with the many other cultural groups within the region, went on to adopt and adapt the musical traditions they possessed and came into contact with.
In three separate sections he explains the dance, song and playing of flamenco, giving a great deal of technical detail (though perhaps strangely not mentioning its modal forms). Within these sections he nominates the most celebrated and accomplished exponents, although in fact in the section on the Baile he comments that none of the dancers practising at the time of writing were actually worth mentioning (not even, it seems, his wife Luisa Maravilla).
He rounds off in the Appendices with sections on the flamenco palos, key recordings, the juerga, festivals and contests, flamenco tuition and, finally, the flamenco guitar itself.
Throughout Pohren is quite open in his disdain for commercialisation and the oversophisticated tricks associated with it. He is also, as in Lives And Legends, rather contemptuous of the way women’s performances were evolving at the time (around 1984 at the last revision), sometimes likely with justification, sometimes in a manner that at times verges on the contemptible in its own right. Likely most modern readers will have the faculties to distinguish between the two and will be able to see beyond the flaws and extract the abundant valuable content.
As with Lives And Legends, the writing style is stiff and at times irritating but, as with some of the unreconstructed paternalism, it is worth suspending critical faculties somewhat in that respect. Moreover, some of the malapropisms are entertaining in their own right, as for example with “Pakistanian”, “gaier” and “identifical”.
As I said of the former book, however, the typos and other quirks give The Art Of Flamenco the feel of a fanzine, which proffers it with an endearing quality which earns it a measure of forgiveness.
This is an absorbing and engaging work by an acknowledged authority. I found it fascinating but it is badly printed and organised unintuitively so potential buyers should beware. If you like your social and artistic literature tidy you may be disappointed. Persevere and you will find a store of lore to exhilarate your imagination.
This review applies to the 2005 edition of the book, with an update for that of 2014; but it may also appear in listings for other editions. In the latter case, only the remarks about "Background" and "Contents" apply. In particular, the remarks about photographic quality do not apply to editions earlier than 2005, and those about typos apply only to that of 2005. The dates of the editions are as follows:
Few books in the Arts can have had an impact on their subject matter to compare with that of this seminal opus. Since its first appearance in 1962, when it was unrivalled for authority, readability and depth of coverage, it must have been the passport to Flamenco for literally thousands of readers.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Donn Pohren is* an American who came to Spain in the 1950's and fell in love both with Flamenco and with the young dancer Luisa Maravilla, whose arresting picture has adorned the cover of most editions of this book, including the present one. The Art of Flamenco, which explains not only the art but the underlying culture, became an immediate success, garnering praise from such luminaries as Carmen Amaya and winning the Spanish National Flamenco Award from the Catedra de Flamencología. It was followed in due course by Lives and Legends of Flamenco — an encyclopædia, not so much of the art as of its artists (and still by far my favourite reference); and by A Way of Life. The latter is an autobiographical account of the author's involvement in Flamenco and of the artists he knew — especially the old-time guitarist Diego del Gastor. Diego was catapulted from purely local reputation to international celebrity by Pohren's citing him, in his accounts, as an exemplar of purity in a sea of commercialism, and by the author's subsequent hiring of him as a teacher for the flamenco courses at the Finca Espartero in Morón de la Frontera.
The present book is divided into four parts:
I. The Philosophy of Flamenco
contrasts, with many anecdotes, the traditional flamenco way of life with that of the encroaching modern civilisation.
II. The Art of Flamenco
describes its origin and background, and passes to descriptions of its components — song, guitar, dance, jaleo and so forth — and concludes with sections on Flamenco and the Non-Spaniard.
III. Encyclopedia of Flamenco
discusses the verses and genealogy of the cante (song), before presenting a description of each individual style, with typical verses. (It is perhaps worth noting that no attempt is made anywhere to present musical notation).
giving a breakdown of the song, dance and guitar; listings of recordings of interest and flamenco venues; a discussion of guitar construction; and advice on learning Flamenco, both in and outside of Spain.
THE 2005 EDITION
I don't have a first edition to hand here, so I use as a basis for comparison the third edition of 1972.
The proclamation "31 New Pages of Updates" on the cover may give the impression of a few tacked-on afterwords, but in fact this is a very thorough job of updating. There are indeed afterwords, and by and large the text follows that of previous editions, but where necessary it has been amended — for instance, in lists of artists, or where legal or social situations have changed. (I notice even that "gay, [or] dull" (p.266) has been altered to "sparkling, dull", in line with shifting usage.) The addenda are just as sharply observed and useful as the original text.
The new edition comprises 366 pages as opposed to the 232 of my 3rd edition, but the increase is due in part to the new one's being set in a larger typeface. However, many sections are new or completely revised: for instance that on learning Flamenco, to take account of the advent of video instruction. On the debit side, many of the best photographs (including those of Famous Artists of the Past) have disappeared (as, irritatingly, has the index to the Encyclopedia section).
The most obvious change is the replacement of the cover photograph of Donn's wife Luisa by a drawing taken from it. The drawing is skilful (and has the approval of Donn & Luisa), but it doesn't have the impact of the original, which I would guess helped the sales of the early editions considerably. A glance inside gives a possible reason for this substitution: the quality of all the photographs is very much lower than in older editions (although an enclosed note from the publisher says that they are attempting to remedy this for future editions). This is not entirely compensated by the replacement of the hand-drawn diagrams (such as the lineage of the Ortega dynasty) by tidy computer-generated graphics.
Even more annoying, however, are the typos — the book is riddled with them. The nature of many (such as "caj6n" for "cajón" (p.168), "compaiiera" for "compañera" (p.178) and "Alcalci" for "Alcalá", (p.192)) leads me to guess that they arise from scanning in a previous edition and then using a text-capture program such as Adobe Acrobat®. But be that as it may, while a computer spelling-checker may not catch mistakes like "tact" for "fact" (p.103), it should certainly catch "regretlully", and even "flameco" (!).
Although most such errors may be obvious in the English text, those who try, on the basis of the Bibliography, to purchase Paul Hecht's "The Wind Cries" are unlikely to succeed. And readers whose Spanish is less than fluent may get confused indeed: in the three verses of bamberas on p. 179 alone (for example), there are five spelling mistakes.
In terms of content, then, I have no hesitation in recommending this edition as a first-rate job. The poor proof-reading and photographs are another matter; whether you purchase or decide to wait until next time around may depend on how irritating you find such things.
In a letter printed in the July 2006 issue of "Classical Guitar" magazine, the publishers stated: "... we are currently discussing with the printer ways to improve the quality of the photographs and keep the price down. The typos were the result of a rushed production to meet the demands of our customers, and likewise will be dealt with at the next printing."
Let us hope this comes soon; as soon as I become aware of it, I will modify this review.
And the flyleaf says that this is the 1990 edition, but the blurb on the rear cover says 1984.
It does indeed seem to be a lower-quality copy of the 1990 edition. This is curious, because April 2011 I received an e-mail from Luisa expressing her dissatisfaction with the 2005 edition, and her intention of producing a new edition herself. One would therefore expect this new edition to be at least as up-to-date as the 2005, and I should be interested learn who authorised it.
The 2005 edition seems to have joined the earlier editions in the ranks of the out-of-print, the publisher now having (apparently) retired.
The 2014, then is the most up-to-date version free of major errors; and, being still in print (as I write), the most reasonably-priced. If you want the later information, however, at the moment you're going to have to get the 2005 and put up with the typos.
Hopefully, at some point someone will fix the 2005 edition and reissue it (I offered at the time to proof-read it for the next printing, but was never taken up on it).
Until then, you pays your money and takes your choice.
I received a free copy of the 2005 edition for review.