How Flamenco Went Pop

The Spanish star Rosalía has made the harrowing music of Andalusia into a global phenomenon.

Illustration by Simon Montag; David M. Bennett / Getty

God must have made Camarón de la Isla weak for a purer display of glory. Camarón was small and pale—his name means “shrimp” in Spanish—and he sat on a wooden chair and sang. His pained and primitive voice roared through him, with no concern for his person; his fragility increased its power. Camarón was Romany and his art was flamenco, the elaborate and harrowing music chiefly associated with the Andalusian Romanies of southern Spain. In his lifetime he was flamenco’s first superstar, and a divinity to his people. Rock-and-roll habits depleted him; lung cancer finished him off at the age of 41. His body was taken back to his hometown of San Fernando, in Cádiz, where his coffin bobbed and tilted delicately on the surgings of a massive, stricken crowd.

Why am I telling you, now, about Camarón de la Isla, a heroin-snorting flamenco singer who died 28 years ago? Because of Rosalía: the Hispanic Beyoncé, the Iberian Björk, the Catalan Sinead O’Connor. A 26-year-old Spanish avant-pop artist with global reach, Rosalía is topping charts, winning awards, and finding a vast audience for her unique sound. And she loves Camarón. She was 13, and he was her first exposure to flamenco, his voice emanating hoarsely and shatteringly from a nearby car stereo. Me explotó la cabeza,” as she told El Mundo: My mind was blown.

Possessed of a daringly syncretic musical intelligence, Rosalía has inhaled flamenco. She has absorbed the moods and structures of this untraceably old Romany blues into her gleaming 21st-century pop. Polyrhythmic handclaps; wild, melismatic vocals; Phrygian scales—they’re all in there, right alongside the trap beats and the sonic future-flutters. Released in 2018, El Mal Querer—you could translate it as “Bad Loving” or even (hail Gaga) “Bad Romance”—is a concept album based on the anonymous 13th-century narrative poem Flamenca: jealous husband, ardent young knight, wife crammed in a cloister. Listen to “Que No Salga la Luna,” and you can hear Rosalía’s pop system metabolizing flamenco in real time: a classic bulería opening of shouts, fierce strummings, and spattering handclaps travels down an electronic tunnel, gets swallowed, and becomes a muffled pulse, like something heard underground or through the wall of a club.

There’s nothing haphazard or bolted-on about this. Rosalía’s encounter with Camarón launched an obsessive technical-emotional study of flamenco, years of apprenticeship and vocal coaching, a scholarly initiation from which she emerged with skills verging—in true flamenco style—on the uncanny. Nonetheless, her innovations have jolted the flamenco universe. Rupturista” is how a reviewer for El País saluted Rosalía on the occasion of her new album. “Imagino ya,” he wrote, “a los puristas rasgándose las vestiduras”: I can see them now, the purists rending their garments.

Camarón, in his day, had a similarly surplice-shredding effect. In 1979, at the height of his success, he outraged flamenco hard-liners and (temporarily) lost fans in droves by using snazzy rock instrumentation on his album La Leyenda del Tiempo. Of course, Camarón, unlike Rosalía, was working from inside the tradition, looking out. Also, La Leyenda del Tiempo was not a hit. “Those who have listened to it and don’t really like it,” he suggested at the time, with modest conviction, “I think that they should listen to it again, because it’s very well-conceived.”

It’s in his barer moments, in his stripped-down, classic style, that Camarón now sounds truly radical. Take the 1981 recording of “Como el Agua,” which he made with his most constant collaborator, the great guitarist Paco de Lucía. The song is a tango, one of the lighter and more celebratory flamenco forms. De Lucía’s guitar comes sidling in almost absently, humming a theme, rhythmically tucked-under, and then, with an abrupt fingernailed flurry, stops. A ringing silence. “Limpia va el agua del río,” calls out Camarón in his young-old voice, with crystalline authority, “como la estrella de la mañana.” The timbre and the elemental phrasing are one. It comes as if from a muezzin’s tower: Clear runs the water of the river, like the morning star.

Two recent documentaries now streaming on Netflix—Camarón: The Film and the six-part series Camarón Revolution—are superbly educational. For all his slightness, Camarón is an intense physical presence. His hands, with their many rings, are broad and eloquent, delicately clasping and unclasping in syncopated claps. He softly raps a table with his knuckles, keeping time, or—in one clip—lays a hand on the knee of his guitarist Paco Cepero. In traditional flamenco there is an exquisite rapport between singer and guitarist. The voice leads, and the guitar follows; on the nerves of the guitar, as it were, the voice measures its first effects. Tomatito is another of Camarón’s prime accompanists; he gazes at his partner with a telepathically stoned and sensual grin. Off goes Camarón, eyes shut, hair quivering, on one of his dizzying and wildly dramatic vocal runs. Netflix, via its subtitles, gives bathos to the lyrics: How joyful everyone is and what a harsh life I have  ; and My cigarette went out, I lost my way, I lost my way, mother. But the pain is real. “He’s cut me so deep, so many times,” testifies the bullfighter Curro Romero, one of Camarón’s greatest allies. “He really makes my body tremble.”

“A real flamenco artist pains the ears of the layperson” declares the old cantaor Melu in Camarón Revolution. One sees his point. Flamenco is street opera; an ecstatic mode of complaint; lamentation, some say, straight from the cavelike forges of the Romany blacksmiths. It is a profound combination of formal intricacy, ethnic memory, and soul-scooping urgency. And the singing, all that virtuosic wailing and sobbing, can be hard to take. But the thing, the spell, when it happens, is unmistakable. Duende is the Spanish word for it: the prickle on the skin, the ax-edge of experience, sublimity freeze-framed—even a shining closeness to death.

Camarón was dripping with duende : He only had to open his mouth, and the spirit was summoned. And Rosalía can do it too. With her hands on the live wire of tradition, she can produce the shock that is duende. In live performances of “De Plata,” she is seated next to her accompanist, Raül Refree. Two chairs: old school. But Refree is hipsterishly hunched over his instrument, head down, hacking out a minimal, grungy figure, a brief spiral of drone. Rosalía, knees wide and hands on her thighs, is braced and waiting; a sound, a frequency, is building inside her. The guitar figure repeats, repeats. Is this flamenco? It is when she starts singing. “Cuando yo me muera,” when I die—the angle at which her voice comes in will make your hair stand on end.

Rosalía—not Romany, and from the north of Spain rather than the south—has been predictably accused of cultural appropriation. The more interesting question is whether you can commodify duende—whether you can make the centuries-old neural voltage of flamenco part of your pop project. So far, for Rosalía, it’s working. Meanwhile, from smoke-filled flamenco heaven, the spirit of Camarón looks on—wondering whether this tough young woman, with her deep schooling and her shortwave commercial instincts, is his truest earthly inheritor.