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A McGill professor has traced the history of flamenco music and come up with its rhythmic DNA. Godfried Toussaint has applied some cold calculations to the passionate and steamy dances of southern Spain and confirmed, with the use of some scientific tools, the origin of the celebrated music.
He is not the first person to look into the history of the music and its inherent dance form known for its quick hand clapping, forceful foot-stamping accents and multiple acoustic guitars. Flamenco enthusiasts have for years designed historical trees that show the roots and branches of the various dances that have led to the flamenco we hear and see today. Toussaint, a professor in the School of Computer Science, is the first, however, to successfully trace its history using bioinformatics, the same computer calculations used by scientists to trace the evolution of various species.
Toussaint turned the rhythms the guitarists keep in their heads as they play or those counted out by the hands and feet of the dancers into patterns. Since different flamenco rhythms have been born over the last five or six centuries, Toussaint compared the patterns of those different dances, the buleria, solea, seguiriya, guajira, and the purported granddaddy of the flamenco, the fandango, and tracked their evolution much as scientists use DNA to look at the different molecular patterns of species over millennia. Through his pattern matching, he found they all did, in fact, trace back to the fandango from the city of Huelva in Andalucia.
Bioinformatics is a boon for musicologists. Toussaint sees endless possibilities, such as being able to trace modern Western music to some of its African roots and to trace the routes that music has traveled though the ages.
Spain has responded to Toussaint's work. He was written up in the newspaper El Pais and his discovery has been welcomed by Spanish musicologists, who now have another way of looking at the history of their national music.
However, some flamenco musicians have disagreed with analyzing the strong and proud music through simple patterns. "They say to me 'This is very deep,'" he says of the musicians who seem to not want any calculations to take the stage. "They believe this is in their soul."