«When you practice flamenco, you practice a culture and you become an ambassador, a representative of Andalusia. And when you work abroad you don’t get away with your DNI, you get nationality, and there you are no longer Andalusian, you are Spanish,» says José Suárez El Torombo, dancer and teacher. Years ago, Torombo changed his chalet in the municipality of Bormujos to return to the Tres Mil Viviendas neighborhood in Seville, where he leads the Out of Series project, which empowers children through flamenco.
Spain under the Franco regime is different from the Spain brand of democracy, flamenco continues to sell the image of flamenco abroad. But Spain sells something that it does not control, since much of the sector operates in the depths of the underground economy. The consequence is obvious: a system of precarious hiring leads hundreds of artists to a non-contributory pension or, in the worst case, nothing. The list of flamencos who have ended their lives in poverty is long, from Perlo de Triana to Chano Lobato. How many suffer today? Many will never admit it.
«I have been working since I was 16 years old, and I have not stopped even for military service. I have four years left to turn 65 and I have nine years of contributions, so I will only have 400 euros,» laments Miguel Pérez. The main economic support of the Sevillian guitarist has been tablaos, which during his youth alternated with comings and goings to Japan. Thus a small piece of land was bought. «The tablao was our permanent job. Now we only go on single days. Formerly they gave you a six-month contract.»
The tablaos and tourism have been two wings of the same bird that has never stopped living in the center of cities. When the Zambra opened in Madrid–one of the first venues in the capital–it had the Ritz Hotel as a neighbor. In 2020, the health crisis put an end to tourism and, behind it, to tablaos.
The National Association of Flamenco Tablaos (ANTFES) assures that six million tourists visited them annually and that among the 96 tablaos that were in Spain before the pandemic, they billed 340 million euros a year. In other words: double the budget for culture of the Junta de Andalucía. According to the Unión Flamenca union, these businesses employed 95% of the artists before the pandemic. However, the union published in November 2020 a report that revealed that 62.7% of its nearly 500 members had not received any type of subsidy and that only 2.8% had received the special artist unemployment benefit.
Sara Mora, labor lawyer for Confederation of Artists of the Show (ConArte), locates the problem: as the Artists Scheme is more expensive, many employers register artists for part-time work and in other Social Security schemes, for example, as an entertainer. «This is not correct since the branch of artists of the General Social Security Scheme that corresponds to the workers of the show only contemplates registrations for full days. To contract them partially, employers resort to other Social Security regimes that do not correspond. By not contributing for all that they work, their unemployment benefits are lower and their pensions are greatly affected,» he says.
César Casares, President of the Association of Dance Professionals in Madrid, claims to have seen cases of artists receiving benefits of 70 cents for having worked with warehouse porter contracts. For this reason, in order to survive, many are forced to turn to other professions.
This is the case of Palmira Durán, a 33-year-old vocational dancer, focused since her childhood on an artistic career. Despite her talent, Palmira has not been able to make a living from dance, so she has had to combine flamenco and nursing. Then came motherhood. «Since I stopped dancing and until I was able to rejoin, I had an income thanks to working as a nurse. As an artist I had no right to request anything. The moment you have to stop, you run out of rights and in the case of women that is very serious, because how many artists have been left without becoming mothers because they cannot afford to stop being productive?»
Flamenco is a prosperous sector that, paradoxically, is difficult to live on. There are established salary guidelines in the state collective bargaining agreement for nightclub, dance, and club personnel, but the provisions are not always met with the excuse of “artistic opportunities.” The union is competitive and getting into a good tablao is synonymous with prestige, not with correct quotes.
Rafael Campallo is 47 years old, he is a member of a long family of artists and one of the most important figures in dance today. He has been self-employed for almost two decades, but the pandemic has led him to work as a bricklayer. «My rings don’t fall off,» he says, before advising young artists to have a parallel trade. «Formerly the cantaor was a fisherman, a blacksmith … and despite their fatigue they were very happy. Today there are more bitter artists than happy ones, but people put a good face on the internet. They brag a lot, but what we have to do is be more human and earn a living. Artists today are always rehearsing but all those hours of study are not going to give you anything to eat.»
Durán, Campallo, Pérez, and Torombo feel abandoned by the State, but they also criticize themselves. «For public administrations it is as if we do not exist and it is our fault, there is no community. What good is it if we go on strike if someone else is going to work?» Says Miguel Pérez. «You have to go on strike when there is a lot of work, not now. It must be said: I will not work for 30 euros.»
For Álvaro Blázquez, actor and law graduate, the situation is complex, since the weight of the complaint falls on the artists, something that in a small union means “bearing the stigma of the troubled worker and not going back to work,” he says. “Entrepreneurs take advantage.”
That is why flamencos are afraid of blacklists. “We are the first to pay tribute to someone with an homenaje, but when it comes time to unite to defend our rights everyone stays home,” laments Torombo. The flamenco artists’ guild has only been unionized in key periods in the history of Spain. In 1931, the guitarist Luis Maravillas and the singer José Cepero created the Flamenco Union of the Second Republic, which lasted as little time as the Republic. The union of flamencos was dissolved until, in 1980, guitarist Sami Martín created the Professional Union of Shows of Seville (SPES).
Then, as a result of the pandemic, the Flamenco Union was created, led by bailaora Eva Yerbabuena. Their demands are the same as those of the last 100 years: institutional commitment to dignify their profession and guarantee contributions and social protections. But both artists and businessmen complain that the institutions ignore them: “We are Intangible Heritage of ‘Inhumanity.’ This is all a sham, because we have nothing. When a building is a World Heritage Site, they fix it,” Campallo complains.
What can the Administration do? Look out. But labor inspections are rare in flamenco. Francisco Pérez, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, explains that for tablaos “there are no specific inspection campaigns since, despite their visibility, they are a small and specific sector.” Meanwhile, the legislative projects that could help the union–the Flamenco Law and the Artist’s Statute–advance to the beat of soleá.
Miguel Pérez remembers that the artists of the past were less educated and that he had his expectations set on a future in which the youth of today, who are “more prepared,” could change the situation of the union. I have realized that no. It’s a shame that I can’t retire, that I have to be 75 years old giving guitar lessons.”
Durán, Campallo, Pérez, and Torombo agree that if they are not the ones who demand rights, no one will grant them. “I don’t want to see any of my colleagues lying in the street, that would be for me one of the biggest heartbreaks this art could give me,” says Campallo.