What is Flamenco?

The best place to see flamenco is in a tablao. That’s where artists improvise, create, and express themselves, and where the public can witness their art. Yet although flamenco is improvised, improvisation requires many years of study and practice. Each artist has a code and a language, and knows the different flamenco forms and the structure corresponding to the singing in each of them. The code and language allow dancers to improvise while on stage.

Flamenco is not folklore

Flamenco is a form of artistic expression that arose from the mixing of many cultures: Moorish, Jewish, and Gypsy (a group that arrived in Spain in the XV century, of whom many remained in Andalucia): and the Andalucian culture itself. Flamenco was born from this unique assortment of cultures. Andalucia was the birthplace of flamenco, and it was here that the art began and developed, until it became a universal manifestation of artistry and skill.

We may know where flamenco was born, but we do not know exactly when. It did not begin on a particular date, but emerged gradually from this mixture of cultures. As we know it today, it dates to about two centuries ago. We could say that flamenco is a very young music, because two centuries is a very short time in musical history. We do have documented sources of around 1770 that describe festivals and meetings when the Gypsies danced and sang in celebratory fashion, and this was certainly the precursor of the flamenco we now know.

Singing: the “cante”

La cantaora Elena Morales fotografiada por Alberto Romo

Cante jondo: According to the dictionary published by the Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy), the cante jondo is “the most genuine form of Andalucian song, expressing deep feelings.” The dictionary notes as equivalent terms both cante jondo and cante hondo, which supports the premise that the term jondo is a form of the word hondo (deep). The Andalucian dialect characteristically aspirates the h, which derives from the root of words beginning with an initial f.

However, Máximo José Kahn alleges that the term jondo comes from the Hebrew term jom-tob or yom-tob, and is rooted in synagogue chanting. According to García Matos and Hipólito Rossy, not all flamenco cante is cante jondo. Manuel de Falla believed cante jondo to be the older form of chanting, whereas cante flamenco was the modern version.

The term cante refers to the “action or effect of singing any Andalucian song,” defining cante flamenco as Gypsy-like Andalucian singing” and cante jondo as “the most genuine Andalucian singing, expressing profound feelings.” The singer of cante flamenco is called cantaor (flamenco singer) as opposed to cantante (singer), the intervocalic sound being dropped, as is characteristic of the Andalusian dialect.

Fandango, which in the XVII century was the most popular form of singing and dancing all over Spain, generated local and regional variants, particularly in the province of Huelva.

In High Andalucia and its adjacent regions, fandangos were accompanied by the mandolin, which followed a regular beat for dancers. Its name gave rise to a style referred to as abandolao. The same process gave rise to fandangos de Lucena, zánganos de Puente Genil, malagueñas primitivas, rondeñas, jaberas, jabegotes, verdiales, chacarrá, granaína, taranto and taranta. Due to the spread of sevillanas in Low Andalucia, the fandango slowly lost its distinct character as dance music, which allowed cantaores to exhibit their skills more freely. This, in turn, resulted in numerous fandangos with personal touches in the XX century.

Likewise, thousands of Andalucian farmers emigrated to mining towns in Murcia, especially those from the eastern part of the region. This is where tarantos and tarantas evolved. The Linares Taranta evolved into the minera de la Unión, cartagenera and levantica. In the period of the café cantante, a venue where these forms were performed, some of the songs separated from the dances and took on a freer beat, allowing the singers to display their art. A driving force behind this process was Antonio Chacón, who developed refined forms of malagueñas, granaínas and cantes mineros.

El cantaor Juan Debel retratado por el fotógrafo Alberto Romo

Stylizing of the romance (a combination of different flamenco lyrics and styles) and string sheets gave rise to the corrido (ballad). The 4 or 3 verse romances lead to the primitive tonás, the caña and polo, which share the same meter and melody, but have different renditions. The guitar accompaniment lent them a beat or rhythm that made them danceable. Their origin is believed to be in Ronda, a town in High Andalucia but close to Low Andalucia and very interrelated with it. From there, it was easy to reach Triana, a neighborhood in Seville with a long tradition of corridos, where the form was transformed into soleá. The jaleos emerged in Triana from the festive interpretation of corridos and soleares, transported to Extremadura. In Jerez and Utrera they evolved into bulerías, and these spread all over Low Andalucia, generating local varieties.

Tangos and tientos sprang up in the great Andalucian ports of Cádiz, Málaga and Sevilla, and were to have a wide-ranging impact on Afroamerican music. Cádiz also gave rise to cantinas, the principal form of which was the alegría.

Some of the popular Andalucian tunes, such as the pregones, nanas and campesinos cantos de trilla, follow the same meter as the flamenco seguidillas. They, in turn, gave birth to the liviana and the serrana, which is a melodramatic, virtuoso form of the liviana: in fact, they are generally performed together. This group of rhythms also includes the alboreá and the antigua playera, imbued with the melody of the tonás and leading to the siguiriya, which incorporated guitar accompaniment.

Palos (Musical forms)

Palos are “each of the traditional varieties of flamenco cante.” The basic flamenco palos are:

  • Alegrías: These constitute the flamenco style that most exactly expresses the sentiments of the environment around Cádiz.
  • Bulerías: They are celebratory styles, with a rapid and double rhythm, which is more suited than other forms to cheering and clapping. It is the dance that usually rounds off a flamenco celebration, and in which the dancers, usually one by one, go to the center of a semicircle and dance part of the musical piece.
  • Fandangos: From the beginning of the XIX century, flamenco adopted features of the Andalusian fandangos, thus giving rise to the so-clalled “flamenco-style fandangos,” which today are considered one of the fundamental flamenco forms.
  • Tangos: Tangos are considered one of the basic flamenco styles, and there are several different kinds.
  • Sevillanas: This form of dance and song is typical of Seville. The dance is one of the most popular and well-known in Spain. It is usually danced by couples, to the sound of the four verses into which it is divided.

El toque (Flamenco guitar)

El Ñoño, guitarrista, fotografiado por Alberto Romo

The position and technique of flamenco guitarists, who are called tocaores, is different from that of classical guitar players. Classical players will lean the guitar on their left leg, whereas flamenco guitarists usually cross their legs and support the guitar on the uppermost leg, with the neck of the instrument in an almost horizontal position.

Modern tocaores usually use classical guitars, although there is a specific instrument for this gentre, called the flamenco guitar. It is not as heavy, and it has a body that is more narrow than the classical guitar, optimizing its acoustics so that the cantaor’s contribution is not overshadowed.

The guitars are usually made of cypress, with cedar necks and bodies made of spruce. Cypress gives it a bright sound, which perfectly matches the characteristics of flamenco music. In the past, the “Holy Tree” Bursera graveolens from Río or India was used, the first having the highest quality, but today it is no longer used, because of its scarcity. This wood gave the guitars a wide range of sound, especially suited for soloists. Today, the most commonly used headstock is made of metal, because wooden varieties make tuning more problematic.

The main guitar makers were Manuel Ramírez de Galarreta, el Gran Ramírez (Madrid, 1864-1920), and disciples Santos Hernández (Madrid, 1873-1943), who made several guitars for masters Sabicas, Domingo Esteso and Modesto Borreguero. We must likewise emphasize the contributions of the Conde brothers, Faustino (1913-1988), Mariano (1916-1989) y Julio (1918-1996), nephews of Domingo Esteso, whose children and family continue the tradition.

The tocaores use the alzapúa, an ancient technique; the picado, using mainly the index and middle fingers in an alternating fashion; the rasgueo, a strumming technique, and the trémolo, or “an arpeggio on a single string,” among others. The rasgueo can use 5, 4, or 3 fingers, the latter technique being invented by Sabicas.

Flamenco guitar also characteristically uses the thumb. The guitar players lean their thumb on the harmonic body of the guitar and the first and middle fingers on the string above the one they are playing, thus achieving a stronger, more sonorous note than a classical guitar. The middle finger is also placed on the scratchplate to allow for more power and precision on the strings. Likewise, the use of the scratchplate as a percussion element provides flamenco guitarists with great strength. The melodic flourishes between the chord successions which accompany the stanzas are called falsetas. Notes can be played above (using the mi major chord fingering) or medium (major), whether or not the bridge has been used.

The accompaniment and solo playing of flamenco guitarists is based both on the harmonic and tonal modes, although it is more common to combine them. Some flamenco singers sing a capella, with no guitar accompaniment.

The type of delivery can be:

  • Toque airoso: lively, rhythmic and a brilliant, almost metallic sound.
  • Toque gitano or flamenco: deep and very expressive, using offbeats and the bass string.
  • Toque pastueño: slow and peaceful.
  • Toque sobrio: with no superfluous ornaments or boasts.
  • Toque virtuoso: with exceptional command of the technique, but avoiding excessive or sensational playing.
  • Toque corto: with exceptional command of the technique, but avoiding excessive or sensational playing.
  • Toque frío: with no depth or emotional expression..

El baile (Flamenco dancing)

Alejandra Gaudí, bailaora, fotografiada por Alberto Romo

Both flamenco music and dance have a high degree of personal improvisation, which can be seen in the spontaneous expressions of emotion of the performers. As flamenco music developed and flourished, flamenco dance evolved rapidly. It appeared for the first time as a recognizable and structured dance in the XVIII century.

The zapateado (tapping) is an essential part of flamenco dancing. This is when dancers (bailaores) become musicians: their musical instruments are their feet and flamenco tap shoes. The zapateado has a well defined technique including numerous dance principles, from the bodily posture to the rhythmic beat of each style, musicality, strength and speed.

The percussion of the zapateado consists of sounds produced by striking the floor with the shoes. They can be produced with different parts of the shoe: the sole, toe, or heel. The sound is created by the sole and the nails on the toe and heel.