Gibraltarian Dr. Stefan Williamson Fa is an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist currently working as a
Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and has been responsible for researching and promoting the story of a talented young Sindhi singer and Sufi devotee in the 1930’s who dedicated his life to the exploration of deep connections which he found between Andalucian Flamenco music and an Islamic past.
Aziz Balouch moved to Gibraltar in the 1930’s and worked here in an Indian shop until he exposed himself to Flamenco music by listening to and meeting the legendary Pepe Marchena in La Linea. He later toured Spain with Marchena in what must have seemed like a novelty act if you can imagine a fusion of the Sindhi religious laments accompanied by Flamenco guitar.
It’s this fascinating theory uncovered by Dr Fa, about the origins of Flamenco and the discovering of books and recordings by Aziz Balouch which has caught the imagination of scholars and brought Dr. Williamson Fa to the attention of the Ajam Media Collective in London, who dedicated a forty minute podcast featuring Stefan and his research only few weeks ago. We reached out to Dr Williamson Fa to explore his take on the local connection in this fascinating story:
I asked him first whether Flamenco scholars accepted the theory put forward by Aziz Baluch.
“His own theory remains relatively unknown as he provided little evidence for his claims. However, I think few would argue against at least some influence from the Islamic period or the East/Islamic world. The origins of flamenco are still quite contested. Like everything, people will emphasise different features and come up with theories to fit their agendas. Nationalists have tended to downplay non-European influences in an attempt to ‘purify’ flamenco from ‘foreign’ influence. Others, such as Blas Infante, have emphasised the Arabic origins to reclaim the Islamic past of Anadalucia. Luckily today I think most scholars recognise the multiple origins of the genre, and include the possible Islamic roots alongside many other influences.”
Are you considering publishing a book about your own research (and crusade) to bring the work of Balouch to the attention of other ethnomusicologists?
“I don’t have a plan to publish a book for now, although I am considering other ways of promoting his work and music. This has been a bit of a side project to my other work (I had been busy working on my PhD in Anthropology at UCL which was on a totally different topic and now have a job as a researcher at University of Birmingham). It has been a few years now that I have been researching his life and the connection to Gibraltar has made it quite a personal journey. I have managed to gather most of his publications and recordings and spoken to the few people left who knew him. So far I have written about this in a few articles and papers which I have presented at public events and conferences, including in Karachi, Pakistan. Last year I collaborated with a record label in the UK to reissue his music for the first time. It has been great seeing him receive attention and admiration again after being almost forgotten entirely.”
Did you manage to trace any other local connection to Balouch whilst he was here….where he worked, who for, and if any of the Pepe Marchena shows that may have featured Balouch as an artist ever came to play at the Theatre Royal?
“Aziz Balouch had first come to Gibraltar to work at Hotu Mahtani’s shop. They had been friends in Hyderabad in Sindh (now present-day Pakistan) because of their shared interest in theosophy and spirituality. I managed to contact Monica Mahtani Bhojwani, Hotu’s daughter (who had also been my mum’s neighbour in Irish Town as a child) and she told me that Aziz Balouch and her father had lived together in Hyderabad, Karachi and Gibraltar and were such close friends that her grandfather Khemchand Mahtani had considered him an adopted son- a beautiful friendship considering Balouch was Muslim and Mahtani was Hindu.”
“While he was living in Gibraltar he became good friends with the singer Imperio Argentina, and her father Antonio Nile (who was from Gibraltar and also a musician). There is not too much more information on his time in Gibraltar. He worked in the shop for a couple of years before he started to focus on his music. I have found reports of his performances in La Linea in the local newspaper ‘El Anunciador’ but nothing relating to any concerts at Theatre Royal. I still need to look into this more and see if there is anything in the local archives”.
Having listened to the podcast and read the recent articles by Dr Stefan Williamson Fa, I would venture that this is not the last time that we shall read about his research as he may yet uncover even more local connections to the cultural bridge that he helped establish here nearly 90 years ago. Aziz Balouch and his passion for Flamenco music was fired by his Sindhi musical roots going back to Islam. It’s certainly worth listening to Balouch singing flamenco in his native language as well as in Spanish using the link below.