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Olé and Divine Possession

Historical depiction of oud playing

It’s well known that many Spanish words come from Arabic: azúcar (sugar), aciete (oil), naranja (orange) ... Of course, many place names in Spain are Arabic or adapted from Arabic: Almeria, Guadalajara, Jaèn … the list runs into the thousands. But what about that most common of flamenco jaleos the word ‘olé’? A jaleo is a word or phrase shouted out during a flamenco performance to encourage the dancer or musician. You might for example hear, ‘Agua!’ (which means ‘water!’) or ‘Que bailas bien!’ (‘you dance so well!’). But a flamenco performance just wouldn’t be a flamenco performance without an ‘olé’ or two. The word doesn’t seem to mean anything in Spanish. Where does it come from?

If you listen so some of the recordings of old oud masters you might realize that they were taped in the company of a small group of people. It’s not just the creaky chairs, the occasionally cough or the general background sound that reveals the presence of listeners. Occasionally after the oud virtuoso has plucked out a particularly inspired phrase one of the members of the small audience will say – it often comes out like a sigh of pleasure – ‘Allah’ which in Arabic means God. It is as if there was something in the music that transcended human abilities. The Spanish olé is derived precisely from the name of the all-powerful. This history of audience participation in both Arabic and Flamenco music reveals something which unites both of these styles of art. In spite of the enormously complex technical content of both of these art forms they are ultimately far from any classicism where beauty and artistic success is about proportion and measure.

In Arabic and Flamenco music and dance the artist must go beyond technique and even the self to get in touch with something transcending all of this.

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