Born Ramón Jiménez Salazar outside of Madrid in Spain, the artist now known internationally as Diego El Cigala has won wide acclaim as one of the world’s foremost flamenco singer. Known for his distinctive voice along with his flare and stage presence, check out his Duke Performances page for a brief description of the show and information on tickets.
Musically, El Cigala is perhaps most noteworthy for constantly pushing the limits of genres and taking on new styles of music and expression drawn from cultures all across the Atlantic. Born into a Romani (commonly called gypsy) family with an Andalusian father, from an early age he was exposed to the flamenco tradition. His first album won him recognition for his Flamenco talent. He quickly expanded beyond flamenco and began working with Latin jazz musicians, including Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdes. He also traveled to Argentina to produce a Tango-infused flamenco album. His most recent project, which culminated in his most recent album Indestructible, sought to reinterpret the salsa. See his website for his bio and the list of these albums.
This page will provide a brief background on the styles that inspire El Cigala’s work. Most importantly, it will show the interconnected musical Atlantic world which he moves through and uses to create new and unique sounds.
The most important musical tradition for El Cigala is flamenco, which remains the basis for his songs and vocal style. Flamenco is often characterized as expressive, emotional, and passionate, reliant as much on the tone of voice as the pitch or volume. The base of almost all flamenco songs is the guitar, generally accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments like drums or tambourines. The early performance of the title track of el Cigala’s first album, Entre vareta y canasta, illustrates the style well. It is often accompanied by dance, which is equally expressive and fluid, moving to the music of the guitar.
The roots of Flamenco are in the mixing of cultures in medieval into early modern southern Spain, in the region of Andalusia. It is most intrinsically tied to the Romani. The Romani left northwestern India in the medieval period and migrated to southern Spain, where they interacted with the already present traditions of the Muslim Moors and the Sephardic Jews of Spain. The musical traditions resulting from this culture intermixing, particularly of Roma percussion instruments with the Spanish classical guitar, resulted in what is now recognized as flamenco. The more formalized tradition has developed most prominently in the since the 19th century in southern Spain, often as a point of regional pride for Andalusia.
El Cigala’s first notable extension beyond flamenco was the incorporation of Spanish jazz into his Andalusian style. While the resulting style was unique, he was not the first to do combine the genres (this NPR article features earlier examples). El Cigala’s most prominant jazz collaboration was with Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdes. Born outside of Havana in 1918, he illustrates in many ways the rise of the Afro-Cuban jazz genre, and the styles it draws from. Valdes was trained in traditional European and Cuban musical genres in Havana’s Municipal Conservatory. In his professional life, he made a name for himself as a big band leader that adapted the traditional Cuban son into big band and jazz arrangements, joining a movement that flourished in the 1950s that blended American jazz with Cuban rhythms and styles. He left the country following a falling out with the Castro government, and after a long life in Sweden as a performer, began a second life of fame travelling the U.S. and appearing on award winning albums. The video below is his largely improvised performance of Con Poco Coco, which illustrates the blending of Cuban rhythms with classical jazz piano.
Atlantic internationalism and blending of styles is indicative of all of the aspects of Afro-Cuban jazz, which seems obvious from the name itself. The son from which it is based is a uniquely Cuban genre, but combines many percussion instruments of African origin with Spanish musical traditions. Often played publicly with guitar and percussion like the flamenco, it developed out of black resistance and forced interaction with Europeans in the Caribbean. The specifically Cuban style that emerged from these roots developed in black Cuban communities in urban barrios of eastern Cuba in the nineteenth century, though many there credited the son style to the mountain regions around those cities. It had solidified as a national Cuban genre by the time that Valdes and others had begun to mix its driving rhythms with American jazz in the 1940s. While the roots of jazz are beyond the scope of this post, the mixture of Eastern Cuba and America brought the son in contact with another black Atlantic art, and created a uniquely Cuban genre built on many overlapping styles. El Cigala further adds to this blending as he sings flamenco with an Afro-Cuban jazz pianist, embodied in the performance below.
Cigala’s most recent album, Indestructible, takes on another American Atlantic musical style: salsa. Salsa is both a broader and more elusive form to describe in style or origins. Some would call it a blend of many Latin Caribbean styles, others an umbrella to describe those many styles. Like Afro-Cuban jazz, its most important influence is the son styles of Cuba, though it draws heavily from other Cuban forms like mambo and rumba as well as the music of Puerto Rica, Columbia, and Dominican Republic. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the album also pays tribute to Bebo Valdes with a number of songs, who died in 2013. While its style draws from the music of the Caribbean and Latin American, most agree that salsa came together as its own form in the Latin neighborhoods of New York City in the 1970s.
For Cigala, his foray into salsa has thoroughly embraced its varied roots. The album was recorded in or inspired by visits to New York City, Miami, San Juan, Havana, Punta Cana, and Cali. One track dedicated to Valdes uses a Cuban Boleros inspired sound (Conversación en tiempo de bolero). Others embrace the more grandiose upbeat feel more frequently associated with New York and Miami salsa. While it is beyond the scope of this page to address every style that Cigala uses related to salsa, each derive from some combination of European, African, and Caribbean sounds. Cuban boleros, for instance, has Spanish Flamenco and Andalusian roots combined with African traditions in colonial Cuba. Salsa’s varied forms embodies the constant mixture and trans-Atlantic roots of the Latin music scene from which El Cigala draws his inspiration.
Diego el Cigala comes from a flamenco tradition that, like essentially all modern musical styles, has no one single origin point. Forged from cultural encounters between Roma, Moors, and Jews in a European setting, it both is and is not a uniquely Andalusian entity. His entire career shows how these musical boundaries and traditions continue to develop in broader Atlantic traditions. As he works with Cuban music that already developed out of forced contact between Carib, African, and European cultures, and the Caribbean styles that coalesced in the Latin neighborhoods of New York City, his work continues the process of forging new sounds out of traditions already blended in unique cultural spaces and moments.