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The Truth about Zambra Mora

The Truth about Zambra Mora

By Ana Ruiz

Copyright 2008

For years I have been researching this enigmatic and obscure form of Flamenco music that some claim is a medieval fusion dance combining Flamenco and Belly Dance or Oriental moves. I have travelled my homeland of Spain many times researching in Granada, home of the Zambras, and Jerez de la Frontera, one of the birthplaces of Flamenco.

I dedicate an entire chapter to this subject in my book, "Vibrant Andalusia.

See more information through my publishers:Algora Publishing

I am also the author of "Medina Mayrit; the Origins of Madrid." I am thrilled to say that this cover and book was illustrated by my father, Manuel Ruiz. These and more be found at: my page on amazon.com

I spent several afternoons researching this subject at the following educational institutions:

1. Biblioteca del Centro de Documentacion de Musica y Danza (Casa Castril), Granada.

2. Centro de Documentacion Musical de Andalucia, (Biblioteca de Andalucia), Granada.

3. Escuela de Estudios Arabes (Casa de Chapiz), Granada.

4. Centro de Documentacion de Musica y Danza, Madrid.

(You can actually find my book, "Vibrant Andalusia" in these centers and libraries of Granada.)

5. Biblioteca Hispanica e Islamica, Madrid.

6. Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, (Palacio de Penmartin)in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz (Andalusia.)

This research center in Jerez de la Frontera is housed in an 18th century former palace and provides to the public an extensive video and book library, archives, lithographs, museum, art exhibit, and small theater. I asked the librarian if she had any information on Zambra Mora. She went into the back and came out with three books that I had already studied. In it were described the Zambra Gitanas of the 19th and 20th centuries. I then decided to propose the question of its existence as a dance to her. She let out a long sigh and responded, "This subject is controversial, there is no proof of it ever having existed in this form."

In order to explore this so-called dance form, we need to go back about 500 years to the Middle Ages of Spain. The term itself means 'Moorish party' or 'Moorish celebration.' Originally the Arabic term 'Zambra' was used to describe the noises made by the sounds of lively crowds and certain musical instruments, such as in a party or celebration. The term was applied during the 15th century in Spain when the Moriscos (forcibly converted Muslims into Christianity after the Reconquest) continuted their famous and traditional Moorish celebrations of song, dance, music, joke, and story telling or "Zamr." Documents dated to the 1600's describe the Zambra as festivities with the music of wind instruments such as the sounds of pipes and flutes. The popular music of the Moriscos between the 16th and 18th centuries were the Zambras and Leilas. The Zambras of al-Andalus (Andalusia) were passed down to the Moriscos who kept the tradition alive. These Zambras were deeply rooted in the Moorish influence of nearly eight centuries in Spain. It is interesting to note that in no other Muslim countries did these Zambras exist as they are a product of Andalusian influences.

When the Gypsies began migrating to Spain, they easily identified with the Oriental dance style of the Spanish Moors, incorporating some of their music and dance forms that could have been Flamenco in its early stages and not yet fully defined. The Zambras of Granada united the persecuted Moriscos and Gypsies in song and dance during such turbulent times in the history of the country, (think "Spanish Inquisition.")The Gypsies not only borrowed the term ‘Zambra’ from the Moors by incorporated it into their Zambra Gitana, but played the Zambra Por Moro with a pulsating, earthy rhythm somewhat similar to the Tangos and Tarantos. Of all the forms of Flamenco, it is the Zambra Mora that contains the strongest Arabic feel. It is not to be confused with the medieval sounding Zambra Granadína composed by Isaac Albeníz and Andres Segovia.

Although all that was Arabic was forbidden after the Reconquest, the Zambras were able to persist. The Moriscos preserved the Zambra adapting it to the demands of the Catholic church and these Moorish celebrations became quite popular within the Christian courts during the 16th to 18th centuries, however they were met with certain restrictions.

In 1524, the first evidence of the Arabic word ‘Zambra’ appeared in reference to the religious celebrations of the Christians. The document stated that the Moors were requested, hired and paid eight royal coins or 'reales' to perform and bring their Zambras to their Christian festivals. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, Arab and Jewish musicians from the south were being recruited for the Christian courts of northern Spain and by the 16th century, these musicians known as 'Zambreros' were frequently hired to perform.

According to Ginés Pérez de Hita, one night during the 16th century, at a particular Zambra that was held at the home of Zayda, “They danced the Zambra, all holding hands with each other as it was the custom with that particular dance.”

During the 16th century, Spanish folk music continued to merge with Arabic sounds and styles such as the Zambra, Fandango, Zorongo, Chacona and the Zarabanda (meaning ‘noise’ in Arabic), that was danced with castanets and tambourines.

In "Madrid Viejo" by R. Sepulveda and J. Comba, the authors illustrates the birth of the future queen Ana of Austria in Valladolid, Spain in the year 1601, where there were three days of festivities; "During the second night, the Marquis Mondejar, accompanied by many Gentile men, upon a horse with axes, and 40 Moriscos on foot dressed in their traditional Moorish habits, with rattles and tambourines and a wagon with music of violins and other instruments, proceeded to the palace and in the plaza, did the Zambra, that everyone enjoyed."

After the Christian conquest and up to the 18th century, Moorish music and dance of the Moriscos continued to flourish in southern Spain finding its way into liturgical celebrations. However certain conditions were implemented in its use as the faith of the Christians had to be honored rather than that of the Muslims. Absolutely no mention was to be made to Muhammad during these festivities as it was not to be a Moorish celebration but a Christian festival with hired Morisco musicians, singers, dancers, and other performers.

Unfortunately, we do not know what the music sounded like and few records exist of how they danced at the Zambras of the Moriscos. One source states that "they dance with another, making castanets sounds with their fingers at the same time while making shrieking sounds like animals." They wore sandals and silk blouses of two colors decorated in gold and silver under a shorter overcoat of yellow and blue adorned in gold and silver.

Zambra also meant a band of musicians and may have derived from the Arabic word 'samra' that meant an 'evening party that went on all night' or 'zamara' meaning 'musicians.' The word was also been used to describe an 'uproar' or 'sound of certain instruments and muffled voices with merry-making.'

When the Gypsies migrated to Spain about the same time that the Muslims and Jews who did not convert to Christianity were being persecuted and expelled, they easily assimilated with Arabic or Oriental styles of music and dance. Remember that the Moors had occupied Spain for nearly eight centuries. Here lies one part of the origins of Flamenco. From the Zambras of the Moriscos we get the custom of shouting 'ole' which is derived from the Arabic expression wa'Allah ("by God," or "by Allah") as well as the art and tradition of 'palmas' or rhythmic clapping while verbally encouraging the performer.

The Gypsies and Moors who could not afford to relocate and therefore remained in Spain after the Christian conquest, began to blend among each other as their skin tones were somewhat similar. Granada, the last stronghold of Moorish Spain, was taken by the Christians the same year that Columbus supposedly discovered America in 1492. The Zambras of the Moriscos continued to be performed in Granada and eventually integrated or evolved into the popular Zambras of the Spanish Gypsies of Granada during the 19th century. This celebration or party is known as a 'Zambra Gitana'(Gypsy Zambra) that replaced the Medieval Zambras. After the Reconquest, the celebrations of the Gypsies of Granada became known as Zambras and remain to this day

In the celebrations of the Moriscos of Granada, or Zambras, the performers joyfully danced to the music of bagpipes and kettledrums. Zambra also referred to the group of musicians and any festival where dancing and singing was accompanied by palmas and such instruments as the mizhar (lute), vihuela, rababa (Arabic fiddle), kemanjah (violin), pandereta (tambourine), tar (small tambourine), darbouka (Arabic clay drum), atabal (base drum), sunuy (finger cymbals or sany in singular form), and from the flute family, the zomalí, xabeba, qassaba, as well as bracelets and anklets with little jingling bells or cymbals known as 'jalajil' that the dancers wore. Often, small high-pitched brass finger cymbals known in Spanish as chinchines (for the sound they emitted) or platillos (meaning ‘little disks’ that they resembled) were used to accompany the dance. There are a few references that indicate that the Moriscos often danced in pairs at their Zambras.

At this time in history between the 16th and 18th centuries, all that was Moorish was banned by the Catholic Church, such as their language, clothing, religion, festivals, dance, bath houses, mosques, and Arabic musical instruments. However the Zambras continued as long as it was an actual Christian festival with hired Moorish musicians, dancers, and entertainers, as opposed to being a Moorish festival honoring Allah as had been in the past.

La Chunga is often mentioned as having performed the Zambra Mora "dance." La Chunga, born as Micaela Flores Amaya in 1938 to Gypsy parents in Marseilles, was raised in Barcelona. Her mother's aunt was none other than the great Carmen Amaya. La Chunga danced barefoot since she was six years old wearing modest clothes that became her trademark. Back in the 1950's my parents remember seeing her dance barefoot in the streets of downtown Madrid for money wearing a simple housecoat or housedress. I contacted her manager, Britt Jeppsson and she confirmed she danced barefoot and bared her midriff, but never with finger cymbals. She danced pure Flamenco Rumba and never performed a type of Belly Dance and Flamenco fusion as you can see her performing here: La Chunga

When it is said that the great Carmen Amaya danced a Zambra, it meant that she performed her unique style of Flamenco to the guitar rythym of Zambra Mora. I contacted Carmen Amaya's great niece Omayra Amaya, who is a Flamenco performer and instructor who confirmed to me that her great aunt never danced anything but pure and exceptional Flamenco dance. Take a look at this incredible footage as she dances to the rythmn of Zambra Mora: Carmen Amaya

Carmen Amaya was also a Flamenco singer but not recognized as much in this genre because of her overpowering and electrifying dance skills. In one version of the song (and a favorite of mine) named "La Tana" (short for La Gitana) she begins singing in a low, raspy, Gypsy voice to the haunting guitar rhythm of Zambra Mora and the clanking rhythmic sound of two pieces of bronze striking together that sound like finger cymbals.

Carmen Amaya

The above photograph is of Carmen Amaya (far right) and Maria la Canastera (center) when they worked together in the film "Maria de la O." Both at 16 years of age when this was taken in 1929.

Watch Carmen here again dancing to Sabicas' Zambra Mora rhythm: Carmen Amaya

Zambra and Zambra Mora are not the same thing. Both are Moorish in origin but are not the same thing, here is my version of the various definitions:

a) Zambra is pure Gypsy Flamenco parties and performances with song, music, and dance held exclusively in the caves of Sacromonte Hills of Granada by various artists usually of the same family. Also known as a Zambra Gitana, it remains quite popular with the tourists of Granada today. Here is a video of Gitanos performing today at a Zambra at the Cave of Maria La Canastera

The sign above is found on the entrance door to the cave of the Gypsy Amaya Family and proudly reads: "Cueva de los Amayas, fundadores de las Zambras en el Sacromonte"(Cave of the Amayas, founders of the first Zambras in the Sacromonte.)The Amayas are a true-blooded Gypsy family of Flamenco entertainers that for generations have been performing at Zambras

b) Zambra is also a trilogy of traditional Andalusian/Gypsy prenuptial songs that have been performed in Sacromonte weddings since the mid 19th century. This trilogy is composed of three different parts that represent the different stages of a Gypsy wedding; La Alborea (or Albolea, performed once a handkerchief proves the legitimacy of the bride's virtue), La Cachucha (the first dance of the new couple), and the ceremony is closed with La Mosca.

The Gitanos of Granada also perform a type of Flamenco strongly inspired by the Moors called Zambra Por Moro that has a pulsating, somber, dramatic feel. One of my favorite is an old version of "Ah Ya Zein" sung in Spanish by the Gypsies of the Sacromonte that fellow researcher and dancer, Maria Amaya was kind enough to send me.

The first Zambra in Sacromonte that I attended a few years back was the cave of Maria La Canastera. My enthusiasm must have shown as one of the dancers chose me to join them in a short little impromptu dance that they do for tourists at every show. As I am a native of Spain as well as a student of Flamenco, I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget! After the show I decided to interview the son of Maria la Canastera, Enrique "El Canastero" Carmona Cortez, who had retired as a dancer. I asked him about Zambra Mora and he gave me a quizzical look and went on to explain that a Zambra is simply a traditional wedding dance composed of the three stages (that I mentioned above.)

The author inside the cave of Maria La Canastera

c) Zambra is also used to describe a style of theatrical music and song performed by a full orchestra that was popular during the mid 20th century. These Zambras were popularized by the duet of Lola Flores and Manolo Caracol, such as "La Nina de Fuego" and "La Salvaora" written by Quintero, Leon, and Quiroga. Spanish-born Pilar Sanchez known professionally as Puella Lunaris, has an instructional video out titled "Zambra Flamenca" where she talks about the history of the Zambras and teaches a full Flamenco choreography to the music of Quintero, Leon, and Quiroga. (Curiously, I won't say who, one of these artists asked my mother out on a date in 1949!)

Listen to the Arabesque vocal style of the great Manolo Caracol (1910-1973) performing to the rhythm of Zambra Mora to "Gitana Blanca" with Melchor de Marchena on guitar. Note that this is a different style from the theatrical music and song of the 1950's that he and Lola Flora performed: Manolo Caracol

Zambra Mora is a distinct form of Flamenco with Oriental melodies and rhythm that is sung or played on guitar. If one wished to dance to the Zambra Mora style, it would be somewhat challenging and interesting as it has a monotonous, somber, and slow rhythm. It really has to be felt. Its tone is earthy, hypnotic, and dramatic accompanied by a slow and steady beat that tends to speed up in tempo as the song progresses. It is the Zambra Mora that has the strongest Oriental feel of the 60 or more palos of Flamenco that exist. This style was popularized by master guitarist Sabicas (1912-1990) who named this musical form after the celebrations of the Moors of long ago. Sabicas, known as the 'King of Flamenco', composed such music under the titles, “Danza Mora” and “Danza Arabe.”

See and hear Sabicas playing Danza Arabe in the Zambra Mora palo: Sabicas

Oriental/Flamenco dancer and historian Morocco (Rocky)was kind enough to inform me that while she was a professional Flamenco dancer in the late 1950's, her guitarist was none other than Sabicas' brother, Diego Castellon. Rocky tells me that she had learned from Diego that his (and Sabicas') grandfather played and learned this style from family members of their generation who had been to Tangiers, Morocco, and Ceuta.

Sabicas did not 'invent' this style of Flamenco music but certainly developed and popularized it. Others say that it was Carmen Amaya's father "El Chino" who was the first to perform Zambra Mora on guitar about 15 years before Sabicas. Guitarists Esteban de Sanlucar (1910-1989), Carlos Montoya (1903-1993), Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909), Juan Serrano (b. 1934, and Paco Pena (b. 1942) as well also recorded similar pieces. Liona Boyd also plays homage to the Zambra Mora in her piece titled "Moorish Dance." Even the popular Flamenco/hip hop band from Barcelona, "Ojos de Brujo" recorded a song in 2002 that begins with the Zambra Mora rhythm aptly titled "Zambra."

One day as I was walking up the Cuesta de Gomerez in Granada on the way to visit the majestic Alhambra, I stopped to hear the sound of a Flamenco guitar playing at a shop nearby. I decided to go in and investigate as I could tell that it was being played live. It was a customer playing the guitar and the man behind the counter introduced himself as Francisco Manuel Diaz, owner of the shop. As it turns out he has been playing guitar at Zambras in the Sacromonte for over 30 years. I then decided to ask him if he has ever seen the Zambra Mora dance or danced in the Sacromonte. He turned around, picked up his guitar and began strumming a few chords of this palo brilliantly. Then he said, "This was not Spanish, it was Moorish; a fantasy, and Sabicas invented it." What I think he meant by his comment is that by not being Spanish it was not true, authentic Flamenco. He, like most Spaniards are very proud and especially of their culture and heritage. Then he immediately changed the subject and began telling me about the days of long ago when he played for the Gitanas or Abuelitas (little grandmothers) who danced in the Zambras of the Sacromonte. He then proceeded to pop a VHS casette into his VCR and showed me footage of a Zambra in Sacromonte that took place during the sixties. "Oh, the things they would say", he laughed out loud and continued, "the abuelitas often improvised and sang many 'off colour' lyrics to the great amusement of all." I was fascinated as he began pointing to his sister dancing, his brother singing, and then pointed to a young man and told me that it was him playing the guitar. Then sadly told me, "But they are all gone now."

La Guitarreria, Granada

Zambra Mora can be described as a Tango with Oriental feel. To get the distinct sound, the guitarist detunes his 6th sting to D and plays with one note in the upper register and another in the lower. One is similar to a base line while the other does the intricate and fast strumming. Its rhythm is 4/4 and can be somewhat repetitive. It sounds like this: "tum tata tum tata tum tata tum" and "tum ta-ta-ta tum ta-ta-ta" also considered as a 2/4 rhythm like this: "tum ta tum ta tum ta." The Zambra Mora rhythm is an Arabic melody over an underlying repetitive base-like guitar structure.

Although it is not often heard in Flamenco shows today and is considered a rare form of Flamenco, I had the pleasure of being quite surprised one summer in Cordoba a few years back while attending an outdoor concert at the gardens of the Alcazar in the old quarter. The guitarist introduced his next piece as a 'Zambra Solo' and when he began to detune his 6th string and I knew I was in for the real thing. The crowd and especially I were not disappointed.

{I have compiled a double audio CD of Zambra Mora songs that I have collected over the years for $25.00. You can email me for more information}

Therefore in conclusion; A)"Zambra" means many things as listed above and Zambra Mora means only one thing; a 'palo' of Flamenco named after the Moorish celebrations. B)Fellow Oriental Dancers will discover that there was no specific or actual dance per se, called Zambra Mora or Zambra; that is to say, yes the Moriscos danced at their Zambras in very conservative Medieval Spain, but we have very little information on what it consisted. And yes, Flamenco dancers perform to the rhythm of Zambra Mora (as seen with Carmen Amaya) but always remaining within the framework of the repertoire of Flamenco dance. Neither she nor La Chunga ever danced Oriental, but strictly Flamenco. Nor did either women dance with finger cymbals. La Chunga's manager confirmed that she dance pure Flamenco from her heart.In the caves of Sacromonte, the performers may have drawn some Arabic moves from their soul, memory, or education, that they may have incorporated into their Flamenco repertoire of dance.

As different as Flamenco is from Belly Dance, the two combined make for an excellent fusion dance when done properly. Very little, if anything in Flamenco resembles that of Oriental or Belly Dance. The origins of Flamenco are primarily Hindi as it developed from the Gypsies that migrated to Spain during the 15th century. A strong resemblance in the arm and leg work of Flamenco can be seen in the Kathak Dance. This particular style combined with the local Andalusia folk dances at that time, led to Flamenco dance.

Both Arabic and Flamenco music, dance, and costume blend together superbly when done well. Proud upper torso, slightly raised head, circling hands, heavier travel steps, and many distinctive turns are borrowed from Flamenco that are combined with undulations, shimmies, chest and hip circles borrowed from the Orient. The intricate, rhythmic foot and heelwork of Flamenco is omitted as the dancer performs barefoot. Maria Amaya's award winning documentary titled "Gypsy Fire" teaches Belly Dance and Flamenco fusion and explains the history of the Zambras of Granada. There are many fusion artists out there to select for the appropriate music with an Oriental and Flamenco flavor. As for the costume, a ruffled and colorful flared skirt that can be manipulated as a cape, with large hooped earrings and a flower in the hair can be worn for the Flamenco touch. A top baring the midriff, a hip or coin belt, and playing the finger cymbals gives it the Oriental touch.

Here I am a few years back performing a Belly Dance fusion with Flamenco.

Two other points that I wish to mention are as follows: Zambra Mora was never a dance, there were no specific moves or steps one would perform to the music of Zambra Mora. In my years of research, there is no evidence of this existing as a specific dance. Unless it is proven otherwise, I believe that the palo or style of Zambra Mora music and song was danced within the repertoire of Flamenco dance and nothing more.

The second point I wish to make concerns the origins of the term 'flamenco.' Some are too 'out there' to be mentioned or let alone be considered. The two most accepted theories are that the term evolved from the Arabic term "Fellah Mengu." "Fellah" means 'peasant' or 'farmer' while 'mengu' has been translated as 'fugitive'. This has never been confirmed to my satisfaction, just often re-quoted over and over again remaining a huge mystery. No Arabic speaking person that I know can confirm the translation of this term. Flamenco evolved from the Gypsies who migrated to Spain during the early 15th century, about the same time that the Moors were expelled from the country. During the early 16th century, Emperor Charles V of Flanders became King Carlos I of Spain. His people (from Flanders) were naturally considered foreigners as were the Gypsies. The Flemish soldiers were known for their flashy and colorful garments and were perceived as being dashing, proud, and boisterous, traits also associated with the Spanish Gypsies. The Castilian term for a native of Flanders is 'Flamenco.' By the 17th century, the Gypsies were also known as Flamencos and so their music was also named. Once again, this theory makes most sense to me.

I have been receiving many interesting emails in response to this article and I would like to share those with additional insight into Zambra and Zambra Mora. So, please check in from time to time to see the date of my last update at the bottom of my page as I will be updating whenever possible.

Christiane from Phildaelphia has made two very good comments:

"...I find "Danza Arabe" and a lot of the zambra mora guitar pieces are very reflective of oud-based taxims. There are echoes of maqams in Sabicas' piece, and the tuning of the low sixth string to D also reflects the habit of oud players who play a six-string oud and use Arabic tuning to tune that lowest string to D. Sabicas may have been inventing a fantasy, but his fantasy was grounded on what went before him."

"...In the Middle Ages dancers would have never bared their midriffs in the first place, nor would they have worn fringed hip scarves. They would have worn the fashions of the time, their best party clothes. The gitane also would never have run around with bare bellies. The bare midriff idea comes from Orientalist art and Hollywood conceptions of what Middle Eastern dancers and "gypsies" dressed like."

To use my article or any part of it, please contact me for permission at: zambra-mora@hotmail.com

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Also, you will find a biography in English and Spanish here

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Here is my latest article on www.travelthruhistory.com The Gypsies of Spain

iSaludos! Hablo espanol y si quieres contactarme, escribeme aqui: alahabibi@yahoo.es

My father and I in Paris 2007. Manuel Ruiz (Feb. 1920 - Jan. 2010)

Please take a moment to visit his site: Manuel Ruiz

Last update: May 2013