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Redefining Spanishness

New music in Spain offers an alternative sense of belonging in a polarized country.

From windmills on fire to flamenco fused with trap music, artists Rosalía and C. Tangana are using music to redefine Spanish tradition in a way that brings people together across borders and generations.

Demasiadas mujeres (“Too many women”) begins with footage of typical activities in a dusty Spanish village: women dyeing clothes black for a funeral, a child riding a bicycle through deserted streets, people going to church to confess their sins or celebrating processions in the middle of a field. This lifestyle, which is viewed by many young people as outdated, something from the time of our grandparents, is now the beginning of a music video with millions of views. But the presence of cell phones, surrealist fashion and an insistent synthetic beat tell us this is not your grandparents’ Spain.

The artists C. Tangana and Rosalía have built their artistry and images around traditional Spanish culture. In their new musical projects, they rely on imagery that I grew up with and which shaped my idea of Spanish culture and identity. El Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid, Don Quijote’s windmills, la mantilla (the lace shawl), polka-dots and las palmas (claps) populate their videos and sound- but I had never seen them used in this way before.

Just like many other countries around the world, Spain is struggling with questions of nationalism, identity and tradition. The youngest generation generally associates national pride with right-wing politics and a more traditional, conservative country.

The flag, Catholic symbolism and other national emblems and traditions have been politicized. However, these two voices rise above the political fray, separating traditional Spanish culture from its social and political implications. 

 

Cultural Shorthand

Ruffles, polka-dots, the color red, carnations and big gold hair clips are just some of the things the protagonists adorn themselves with in C. Tangana’s music videos Demasiadas Mujeres and me dejaste de querer. And of course, the abanico, the hand-held fan that Spain introduced to the rest of Europe in the 16th century.

For creative inspiration, Carla Paucar, the Styling Director for both of these music videos, looked to the flamenco aesthetic when deciding on fabrics and prints. Flamenco has a unique social and cultural importance, and in 2010 was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. 

Flamenco bestows communities, groups and people with identity, it offers rites and ceremonies for social and private life, and it creates a shared vocabulary and expressional lexicon.

UNESCO

She also stresses the importance of female leads in the videos, who serve as the physical manifestation of the fusion between traditional aesthetics and modern women from diverse backgrounds. These women feel real – in a departure from the typical beauty standard that we see in most music videos, these protagonists seem like women who could live in my neighborhood.

Windmills on Fire

Rosalia’s music also looks to the past to offer commentary on the status of women in modern Spain. The lyrics for her album El mal querer were inspired by a medieval Spanish novel called ‘Flamenca’ which spoke of sexist violence and unequal conditions for women. Rosalía reimagines a medieval problem that sadly continues in our society. Listening to her, you forget her historical inspiration, as she speaks of everlasting themes like jealousy and abuse, and the musical settings are unmistakably contemporary.

 

Imagery like windmills on fire transposed with women roaring across the landscape on motorcycles references the past while symbolizing a definitive break with the medieval structures that kept women in line. 

Songs like Ingobernable by C. Tangana, the Gypsy Kings, Nicolás Reyes and Tonino Baliardo, or Malamente by Rosalía, have clear flamenco influences and roots in the cultural minority of the Roma people. This has not been without controversy: Roma communities have publicly expressed their frustration of the cultural appropriation of their traditions and aesthetics by non-Roma people, saying that it is unjust that mainstream music labels are profiting off of a marginalized group.

Breaking tradition, bringing generations together

Musically speaking, these two artists have changed the sound of the entire industry by blending genres and introducing traditional instruments to mainstream listeners. However, they didn’t do this by themselves – their producers and collaborators had a big role in developing this new sound.

 

Tangana worked with his close friend and producer Cristian Quirante, better known as Alizzz, to add a modern touch to the traditional Spanish rhythms. Elaborating on his process, Alizz explains to LOS40

“They’ll bring me a traditional composition, and then I work with it and add instruments like a bouncer, synthetic bass or synthesizers to make it more vanguard.”

Alizz in LOS40

Bold collaborations with experienced musicians have made songs from the album El Madrileño hits. Eliades Ochoa, Toquinho, José Feliciano, Omar Apollo, Ed Maverick and even the Gypsy Kings are just some of the people C. Tangana developed his songs with. It wasn’t by chance that he chose to work with people from different musical genres: “I wanted it to sound like a Spanish album, but also be genreless. I also didn’t want the album to be stuck in nostalgia,” C. Tangana explained to Billboard.

These collaborations brought generations together and made songs that my grandmother, my mother and I could all enjoy.

While I didn’t know who some of these artists were, my grandmother knew them well, so we bonded by sharing in this new music together.

Similarly, Rosalía fused the traditional clapping sound of las palmas with an electronic keyboard to create the new-age flamenco sound in her album El mar querer. Producer Jaime Altozano explains that this technology blends two genres that would otherwise seem inconceivable together: flamenco and trap. Other instruments like Peruvian box, choral voices and an electric organ were interwoven throughout, creating Spanish songs with an intercultural twist.

Made in Spain

Music seems to be the glue that unites this trendy “Made in Spain” movement on a national and international level. When I listen to this new sound I’m able to connect different parts of my identity, not just from my life experiences, but from those of my parents and even grandparents. That could be because these new artists have given a platform to the experienced artists which are globally famous but unknown to Gen Z’ers. Both Rosalía and C. Tangana are guided by a common goal: using typical rhythms, places, dresses and dances to redefine Spanish traditions.

In that way, it’s just as much sharing the old as it is redefining the new. As a ‘madrileña’, when I see my city in a music video -Madrid’s landscape, the M-30 highway or the famous Riu hotel- it makes me feel like I’m included, that this video is just as much mine as it is theirs.

Spanish music sometimes strives to be so mainstream, to reach so many people, that it in the end doesn’t connect with its closest audience.

In Madrid, and in Spanish society in general, people feel more proud of their city than of their country. It is also very relevant that C. Tangana’s own stage name, El Madrileño, is literally a demonym. The artist becomes completely linked to the city, showing that he’s proud of his origins. And that’s contagious.

 

It seems the rest of the world likes it too: C. Tangana recently reached 12 million views on YouTube on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert version of El Madrileño. Meanwhile, Rosalía took home the 2020 Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album for El Mal Querer.

Whether you are proud to be Spanish or not, Spaniards can identify with these songs, dance and sing to them freely. The music disconnects from political issues and normalizes the use of patriotic elements, which appear as decorative, contextual and artistic choices, not as political statements. I imagine telling my future grandchildren that these albums were iconic to my generation, as we sit in the kitchen and listen to them together.

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