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Sep 18, 2022
Spanish flamenco-pop singer Rosalía will perform today and tomorrow at New York’s Radio City Music Hall before joining forces with Metallica, the Jonas Brothers and Mariah Carey for the Sept. 24 Global Citizen concert to eradicate extreme poverty and fight climate change. The artist whose songs were on President Obama’s summer playlist is, to her fans, a musical genius and style guru, currently Spain’s greatest musical ambassador. To detractors, however, she is profiting off the creativity of artists who are little known beyond her country’s borders.
– with reporting by Duncan Wheeler from Barcelona, Spain
You likely won’t be impressed with the wine at the intimate Tablao de Carmen in Barcelona’s Poble Espanyol complex, but tourists don’t come here for the drinks. Some of Spain’s finest flamenco musicians perform in this cozy venue, because it’s a steady gig for those who work in one of music’s poorest paid genres. Before her rise to fame, Rosalía sang at this staple of Barcelona’s music scene. Yet, even then, other musicians were wary of her.
Today, Rosalía is a global star, melding flamenco with urban sounds. A musical magpie, she resembles David Bowie in her ability to nail unexpected collaborations and render avant-garde concepts in a pop-friendly format. Her latest album, “Motomami,” debuted at number one on Spotify’s global album chart, a first for a Spanish-language artist. She has collaborated with Billie Eilish and The Weeknd, and Madonna has invited her to perform at a private birthday party.
Yet her beginnings were modest. Rosalía was raised in the Barcelona hinterlands of Baix Llobregat, a working-class area to which thousands of Spaniards from the economically depressed region of Andalusia flocked in the 20th century, hoping to find work in recently-opened factories. A voracious listener of music from a young age, Rosalía was especially captivated by Camarón de la Isla, the flamenco singer who would become her inspiration. Briefly the toast of 1980s New York, Camarón had a remarkably expressive voice and incorporated rock rhythms into his music. A tragic figure who had once sought a career as a bullfighter, he was a romantic hero whose lyrics of despair were rooted in personal experience. Camarón battled alcoholism and heroin addiction, and he was a heavy smoker; he died of lung cancer in 1992, the year Rosalía was born. Despite constant touring, he had always returned to his native San Fernando, in Andalusia, the region credited with the birth of flamenco.
Rosalía was, in a sense, raised to the sounds of flamenco, which was regularly played by the adults in her life who were first- and second-generation migrants from the southern part of the country. She later studied at the Catalonia College of Music, Barcelona’s premier conservatory.
Ever since, she has melded flamenco with pop, rock and urban sounds to establish herself as Spain’s foremost musical export since the reign of Julio Iglesias. What international fans are unlikely to hear, however, are the cries of foul play from artists back home.
Mimo Agüero is the proprietor of Tablao de Carmen. I popped in to speak with her several months ago as part of a self-designed Rosalía tour of the Catalan capital. On the day I visited, workmen were preparing flooring for Tablao de Carmen’s new stage. Flamenco relies on wooden floors as well as good acoustics for dance moves to be audibly as well as visually stunning.
Agüero told me that the musicians often go out together for drinks after wrapping up the evening’s program. But, she said, Rosalía was never a part of that crew. Unlike the genre’s traditional artists, Rosalía is not of the ethnic group Romani, known in Spain as “gitano,” which translates as Gypsy. (In English, the term Gypsy is often considered offensive.) According to Agüero, fellow flamenco musicians, who were primarily Romani, avoided Rosalía because they believed she was corrupting the medium by failing to respect its rules and by incorporating foreign influences.
In a sense, this is a new iteration of a perennial debate. Rosalía’s idol Camarón, who today is the object of posthumous deification across Spain, was criticized during his lifetime for his innovations in the flamenco genre, as was the now similarly venerated artist Enrique Morente, who died in 2010. (Camarón was Romani; Morente was not.)
Today, Rosalía stands accused of stealing the sounds of Romani musicians who were adored by fans and respected as artists in their lifetimes but, for all their talents, earned little in the way of income.
Noelia Cortés has been Rosalía’s most influential and articulate critic to date. A Romani activist and poet who self-identifies as “gitana,” Cortés has kept a detailed list of uncredited appropriations. Rosalía’s debut single “Catalina,” for instance, melded “La Catalina: Quítate de Mí Presencia,” by flamenco vocalist Manuel Vallejo, with the opening of “El Testamento Gitano” by Miguel de Molina, a gay artist who was forced into exile by the Francoist dictatorship due to his sexuality. Spotify lists the songwriting credits as being in the public domain.
Rosalía does not cross the boundaries of copyright law. But, while her debut album properly credits her cover of Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness,” she seems to have concluded that it’s unnecessary to provide attribution when using non-copyrighted works by Romani artists. That is, her appropriations are legal; the question is whether they are ethical.
Cortés, who says that Rosalía is stealing from a legacy that does not belong to her, has been attacked on social media, sometimes with anti-gitana slurs. Meanwhile, some Rosalía fans claim Cortés is merely jealous of the singer’s meteoric rise, while others say she is a misogynist who would rather credit genius to dead men than a young successful woman. Rosalía’s U.S. record company did not respond to OZY’s request for comment.
Rosalía’s 2017 debut album was dismissed by flamenco purists, but it is her only release to date that can be categorized as flamenco at all. Follow-up “El Mal Querer” is a concept album inspired by a thirteenth-century novel that adopts a more urban aesthetic and was largely co-written with then-boyfriend and emerging rap-flamenco star C. Tangana. That album’s single, “Malamente,” catapulted to global flame with an iconic video overflowing with religious and bullfighting imagery.
This year, Rosalía released “Motomami,” which consolidates her electronic turn and has been declared a masterpiece by industry heavyweights, such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea. Tickets for the accompanying tour sold out instantly for shows in relatively wealthy metropolitan areas, such as Madrid and Barcelona, while many working-class fans were excluded by what were, by Spain’s standards, steep ticket prices.
Rosalía may be accused of profiting off the work of impoverished artists, but she remains an idol for many working-class Spaniards. The receptionist at the hotel where I stayed in provincial Ciudad Real had opted to skip a beach holiday in order to travel to see the singer perform.
As I looked around an under-half-full stadium in Seville from my favorable position of the $100-per-head standing section up front, it was difficult to understand why the empty nosebleed seats — in an arena that can accommodate 45,000 — weren’t made accessible to cash-poor fans through dynamic pricing. “Motomami” has become the soundtrack for middle-aged Spaniards’ dinner parties, but the demographic at her concerts is disproportionately young women.
The “Motomami” tour is a tightly-scripted visual and technological spectacle, even dispensing with a live band in favor of electronic backup sounds. Gifted with world-class vocals, Rosalía’s decision to bring technology to the fore has been done out of choice, not necessity. In this way, her tour adds fodder to critics’ long-held suspicion that creativity in pop music has shifted from composition to production.
But Rosalía has few rivals when it comes to embodying the cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps it is unfair that she is set to become flamenco’s first global superstar, but it is fast becoming a reality. Resistance appears futile.
What are your thoughts on not formally crediting music that is in the public domain with no copyright associated?
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