Flamenco music refers to a genre of music that incorporates song and dance from the Andalusia region in modern Spain. Common amongst the poor and oppressed, Flamenco music has passed on through generations by oral tradition. According to Pohren (1968), it has vigor and involves singing, dancing, handclaps, as well as, playing the guitar simultaneously. While the flamenco culture originated in Spain, flamenco music has since attained world recognition and spread to other countries like Japan where it is largely cherished. Notably, it is now an icon of Spanish music and culture. In this research paper, I seek to explore the flamenco music and culture deeply, and follow its history since flamenco music first emerged.
Historically, different kings, under different religions, some brutal and other not, have ruled Spain. The themes of wars and oppression come out clearly in most of the flamenco songs. They still show the spirit of pride, struggle, desperation and hope. The word flamenco originally meant flamish in Spanish. One theory states that the word was used to distinguish gypsy’s music of the time since there was a clash between gipsy culture and flamish culture during the flamish kingdom. A large part of flamenco’s history has been lost due to a number of reasons. The people constituting the flamenco culture passed through numerous turbulent times. The Gitanos, the Moors and the Jews were all persecuted and expelled out of Spain at different times. The Gitanos on their part had an oral culture, which meant they passed their folk songs by repeated performances to new generations.
Thought to have originated from the sixteenth century, many different types of pieces within flamenco music mostly have melodic and rhythmic structures that harmonize quite clearly. The cante, another word for flamenco song, incorporate four cultures: the Arabs, the Jews, the gypsies, and the indigenous Andalusians. The fusion of Andalusian folk music with cante gitano is what resulted to flamenco music. It then became public in the nineteenth century when café cantante emerged. It picked up gradually, and by the 1860s, the music and performance of flamenco had gained reputation and attracted an audience from all occupations and classes. The mid nineteenth century was perhaps the greatest years for the performance of flamenco music. The cafes were extremely essential in developing flamenco music, in that, the Andaluz singers (cante andaluz) and the Gypsy singers (cante gitano) met in them and became masters of the different forms of flamenco music.
Moreover, the cafes increased the role played by the guitar. Two guitarists would accompany the many different forms of songs and dance, as well as, follow the styles shown by different singers of the flamenco. Good guitarists, therefore, were highly in demand as the competition gained momentum. However, the 1910s saw a decline in the original type of music as a more theatrical presentation of flamenco music took centre stage. Some of the great names of the time included Torre and Chacon. They sang extremely professionally. The 1950s came with remarkable news as flamenco music began reviving.
Notably, flamenco occurs in different types of settings. According to Pohren (1968), the Juerga, refers to an informal gathering that people can join the art of creating beautiful music freely. It usually includes hand-clapping, singing, dancing or playing the violin. This brings out the dynamic nature of the flamenco music, in that, it adapts to the available talent, instrumentation and the mood of the audience. However, singers are always the first priority, as they constitute a greater and essential part of the music. Modern flamenco music appears very formal and organized. More often than not, a performance usually has one or more instruments, most preferably guitars, then dancers are added, and finally singers.
Different music styles, known as palos, are based upon chord progression, rhythmic pattern, stanza as well as geographical location. There are forms that are traditionally sung with no accompaniments while others do have. There are those forms that are danced while others are not. There are those palos that are only performed by men or women while both can perform others. These palos are then classified into about three groups; the cante jondo, cante chico, and cante intermedio.
The mood of cante jondo
Similar to numerous American blue songs, the cante has a mood of despair as well as tortured emotions. According to Stanton (1978), the aspect of black sorrow is evident in many songs. One stanza of such song follows together with the translation;
“Detras del carrito
Iloraba mi madre
No iloraba aguita
Que iloraba sangre
Behind the funeral cart
Sobbed my mother
She did not weep tears
She wept blood”
Mostly, themes of cante jondo recur to emphasize the terror that comes with death, as well as the pain brought about by love. As time went by, the cante interacted with numerous other forms of Spanish music and resulted into two groups of music. The cante intermedio is music that describes death and tough working conditions. According to Stanton (1978), however, it is not as tragic as cante jondo. Cante Chico, on the other hand, is lighthearted, which makes it more popular than the other forms, especially when dancing to Sevillanas and Bulerias.
La voz afilla is a gypsy style of Flamenco music that employs the use of a cracked voice or split at will. It also has a rough quality, and many believe that a Cantaor of Gypsy can only attain this quality. If non-gypsy singers can inject coarseness in the voice, then they are capable of producing the best of Cante Gitano.
Flamenco music prides itself in the improvisation, as well as, a rhythmic and chord structure that is very basic. Flamenco Compas is the rhythmic structure characterized in the flamenco music. Compas refers to metre and time signature. It is a very fundamental aspect in the flamenco culture. If a guitarist is not available to give such metre, then the audience is to handclap or hit a table to fill the gap. Most guitarists usually strum or tap the soundboard to create the compass. While most flamenco forms uses the Binary, Ternary, and the twelve beat cycles, some forms are free to do their own thing.
The flamenco guitar
Pohren (1968) points out that, the modern flamenco guitar greatly resemble the modern, classical guitar in that share the same background. They are built in the same way by hand. The difference comes in the sound that comes out of them. The flamenco guitar has a distinctive sound and a different playing action from that of a modern, classical guitar. This may arise from the different timbers used to make the body. The flamenco guitar is made of cypress wood, hence lighter, while the classical guitar is made of rosewood and the top from cedar and spruce. The lightness of the flamenco guitar gives it a sound that is more percussive that the classical guitar’s.
The flamenco guitar also has golpeadores, plastic tapping plates, which are used to shield the guitar from taps from the right-hand fingernails. They also have push-pegs, used for tuning purposes. Geared machine-heads have since replaced those that were in the classical guitar.
Torres, in 1867, described the early flamenco guitar as that which has six strings, and tuned by wooden pegs. It had a smaller body when compared to the classical guitar. Most importantly, the internal construction of the flamenco guitar makes it have a distinctive sound and a different action from its counterpart. The flamenco guitar has its strings set closer to the frets to enhance quick fingering, and a narrower fingerboard, as well. Over time, the flamenco guitar has undergone a number of modifications as it has increased in size.
Contrary from the eighteenth century, most guitarists nowadays undergo professional training in musical academies to read or play Flamenco music. Dancers also undergo a number of courses in contemporary dance, ballet, and flamenco, as well. The flamenco music today has increased its settings to four. The Juerga, as discussed earlier takes place spontaneously. The professional concert is a more formal type of setting and is not spontaneous. However, it maintains the traditional singing performance of one singer and one guitarist. A dance concert, on the other hand, has two or three guitars, more singers, and more dancers. The new flamenco may include saxophones, flutes, keyboards, pianos, or electric and bass guitars. The theatrical presentation of the flamenco music is an extended and a more sophisticated performance.
Flamenco music uses the Phrygian mode just as modern music uses major and minor scales. The mode occurs in types of flamenco music such as tientos, tangos, and solea. The third degree of the scale is sharpened in the harmonic version of the Phrygian mode. As a result, a cadence is formed known as Andalusian cadence. Guitarists only use two basic positions for the tonic chord: A and E. However, they can choose to transpose using what is referred to as a capo.
However, there are a number of other palos that use the major mode, including some tonas and bulerias, most alegrias and cantinas. It is significant to note that traditional flamenco guitarists did not go to formal training academies, so they had interesting and unique harmony as well as unique unresolved dissonances.
Melodies of flamenco music have intervals that are intriguingly smaller than a semitone, which brings about variety. More often than not, change from one tone to the next is done smoothly. It is also notable that most traditional flamenco music has a short range (a range of about a sixth). The music use enharmonic scale, which refer to a scale with notes that have identical names but different spellings. It also insists on a note, as well as, the contiguous chromatic notes thereby creating a sense of urgency. There is an absence of a regular rhythm in such songs while most of the palos express sadness and bitterness.
The flamenco dance
Flamenco dance that is also known as baile involves a lot of emotions, expressions, and proud carriage. The most authentic and traditional forms of flamenco dance can be witnessed at weddings or celebrations in Spain. While the virtuoso technique might be less, the music and steps involved in this dance is the same. The flamenco puro is a dance style characterized by a solo performance. It is usually spontaneous and improvised as the music plays on.
Classical flamenco, on the other hand, is that style used nowadays in most dance groups. The hips move very little while the body remains tightly upright, just like a ballet dancer.
Modern flamenco needs a lot of time to master it. It involves much complex footwork for both male and female dancers. Some dancers even include the use of castanets, fans and shawls.
In conclusion, flamenco can be categorized amongst music that demands a lot from singers, dancers and instrumentalists, as well. However, very few people truly understand it and know its history. This I attribute to the modernization of modern flamenco where artists even go to record their music. It leaves out original artists such as Marchena without recognition. Notably, traditional flamenco artists are spontaneous. They encourage the Juerga setting of flamenco music; hence never encourage recording their music. Therefore, authentic and original flamenco music may soon end if people do not promote it. According to Agen (1997), the Juerga setting is the most preferred of all. The music, however, is believed to have evolved out of a mixture of four cultures including the Gypsy, Jewish, Arab and Byzantine. The word flamenco originally meant flamish in Spanish. It is thought that the word was used to distinguish gypsy’s music of the time since there was a clash between gipsy culture and flamish culture during the flamish kingdom. A large part of flamencos history has been lost due to a number of reasons. The people constituting the flamenco culture passed through numerous turbulent times. The Gitanos, the Moors and the Jews had all been persecuted and chased out of Spain at different times. The Gitanos on their part had an oral culture, which meant they passed their folk songs by repeated performances to new generations. 1869-1910 represents what can be termed as the golden age of flamenco. It is during this time that this form of music developed quickly and gained ground. Dancers attracted a sizable audience while guitarists gained reputation. The flamenco guitar flourished during this time. However, currently most artists have to undergo training in academies to get familiar with Flamenco Music.