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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Critic Chris Nickson says Spain is not a country known for its music. Once you get past flamenco, a handful of opera stars, and men with the surname Iglesias, he says, there's not much that makes a Spanish splash on the world stage. Nickson says some of that may be due to the fact that Spain has stayed pretty conservative when it comes to musical tastes. But he says that is slowly changing.

CHRIS NICKSON: A few things strike you when you glance at the Spanish album charts. One is that the big acts - the ones whose records lodge near the top from weeks on end - are veteran performers, not newcomers.

Singer Alejandro Sanz is typical.

(Soundbite of song "A La Primera Persona")

Mr. ALEJANDRO SANZ (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

NICKSON: The Madrid native has been a huge seller for well over a decade. He's one of the few Spanish artists to achieve real international fame, with a small but fiercely dedicated American audience for his music. He also illustrates something common in Spanish pop: its fondness for lush, full arrangements that make for a romantic sound.

(Soundbite of song "A La Primera Persona")

Mr. SANZ: (Singing in Spanish)

NICKSON: That conservative musical sensibility is reflected throughout the charts. You'll find very little hip-hop among the big sellers, for instance. But there are some small signs of change as a few young acts begin to emerge.

(Soundbite of song "Puede")

Ms. RAQUEL del ROSARIO MACIAS (Vocalist, El Sueno de Morfeo): (Singing in Spanish)

NICKSON: El Sueno de Morfeo, an example. Although not exactly radical, they're still perhaps slowly pulling Spanish music from the center to the edge with a mix of pop and rhythmic rock.

(Soundbite of song "Puede")

Ms. MACIAS: (Singing Spanish)

NICKSON: The other intriguing aspect of Spanish popular music is the way it embraces non-native, Spanish-speaking artists. So, as well as Jennifer Lopez, you'll find several Mexican acts high on the charts.

The band, Mana, emerged from Mexico's rock and Espanol scene. The Spain has embraced them. It's almost a natural fit since their rock sound is far more to the past than to the present or future. It sounds good without ever becoming dangerous.

(Soundbite of song "Labios Compartidos")

MANA (Rock Band): (Singing in Spanish)

NICKSON: If one music seems emblematic of Spain, though, it's flamenco. But it really came from outside the country. It's a mix of influences from the air of Islam and also from the gypsies, who settled around Cadiz and Seville in the south of the country. With the spirit of duende or transcendence, its beauty is in its raw emotional connection, and it remains a vital part of Spanish culture. Among the younger, more traditional flamenco singers, Estrella Morente is a standout.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ESTRELLA MORENTE (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

NICKSON: Morente's voice has the power usually found in flamenco, but is tempered by a rare delicacy. Her work is uncompromising. But as flamenco should, it brings an emotional catharsis.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MORENTE: (Singing in Spanish)

NICKSON: Much of the regional music of Spain was repressed during the years the dictator General Franco ruled the country. Since the return of democracy, there's been a flowering of Spain's folk music, which now has the freedom to reclaim its past.

Nowhere is that been more evident than in Galicia, in the northwest of the country. Historically, Galicia is as much a part of the Celtic world as it is of Spain. In the music, you can hear melodies that echo Ireland, Scotland and Britain.

(Soundbite of music)

NICKSON: Galicia's trademark instrument is the gaita, a bagpipe. And one of the most accomplished young players is Carlos Nunez, who's been called the Jimi Hendrix of the pipes for his remarkably fluent skill.

(Soundbite of music)

NICKSON: Spain remains a conservative nation. It's perhaps still finding its new identity. But that's only to be expected after just three decades of democracy.

Spain's music reflects what's happening in the country. For now, there are small, tentative steps to the future. What will prove interesting will be to look at the Spanish musical landscape in another 10 years to see how it's progressed.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Our critic is Chris Nickson.

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