Flamenco is a music and dance form that originated in Andalusia, in the south of Spain about 200 years ago. It's an art form that reflects the actual melting pot Andalusia is, a land in which we historically can find, Celtic, Iberian, Tartessian, Greek, Roman, Visigothic, Arab, Moorish, Castillian, Jewish, Black-African, Latin-American and Gypsy influences. It encompasses a great number of styles with different origins, melodies, rhythms and types of verses or stanzas.
Each flamenco style is called a “palo flamenco”. If you look for the word “palo” in a Spanish dictionary you will realize it has several meanings one of them is stick, which is the one a lot of aficionados use, although this is actually wrong. In this case we are referring to the suit of a deck of cards. When we talk about "palos flamencos", we are talking about the different “suits” of the flamenco genre.
There is a set of “palos secos”, meaning without the accompaniment of the guitar or “a cappella”. These are: Tonás, Carceleras, Martinetes, Debla and Saetas.
There are four groups of cantes flamencos according to their rhythm or “compás”.
It is very possible you may have come across this very popular illustration of a Flamenco genealogical tree. In it, all the different styles or "palos" are placed in the branches of a tree in a whimsical manner, sometimes following a interpretative or stylistic logic, sometimes geographical or historical reasons. In the trunk, down below, we find the "palo seco" style of the "toná", giving us the impression the more dramatic and full of pathos Flamenco styles are the origin of the art form. Even tough this way of classifying Flamenco may seem kind of logical, interesting, even beautiful, it doesn't have any correlation to the very complex historical and musical processes that gave birth to it. That Flamenco genealogical tree responds to an idea of Flamenco pushed forward by "flamencologists" during the mid 20th Century. It is barely scientific, rather capricious, and follows concepts completely dated nowadays.
If we are to use a more accurate and musicological method to classifying Flamenco, we'd rather do it by grouping the "palos" according to their rhythm, their "compás".
Fandangos de Huelva.
Verdiales y abandolaos.
Granainas y Medias Granainas.
Cantes de Levante.
(These last four have lost their rhythm but evolved from the fandangos)
Bulerías por soleá.
Cuplés por bulerías.
(The placement of the accents in the last two styles could be counted as shown below)
These are the accents that form the basic Flamenco rhythms (click on the names of the rhythms to hear a sample of them)
Fandangos: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Soleares: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Seguiriyas: 8 9 10 11 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Tangos: 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Guajiras and Peteneras: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
There are different kinds of flamenco stanzas or “estrofas”:
Some of these stanzas have been part of Spanish, even European, literature and folk music for centuries before flamenco appeared.
Quintillas: verses of five lines with eight syllables each line. This is the “estrofa” of all fandangos.
Fandango de Almonaster la Real. This is a folk fandango from the beautiful village of Almonaster la Real, in the northern hills of the province of Huelva, the so called Sierra de Aracena.
En la Fuente del Venero
De Almonaster la Real
Yo me quiero declarar
A esa flamenca que quiero
Que no la puedo olvidar
At the Venero fountain
In Almonaster la Real
I want to declare my love
To that flamenco girl
I love I can’t forget her.
Cuartetas: verses of four lines with eight syllables each line. This is the “estrofa” of Cañas, Polos, Soleares, some Seguiriyas, Bulerías, Tonás y Martinetes, Alegrias y Cantiñas,Tangos, Tientos, Garrotín.
Soleá de la Andonda. According to Flamenco researcher Norman Paul Kliman, in his Soleares Audio Library: "We know next to nothing about this singer, and there is some disagreement as to her place of birth. In 1879, Demófilo wrote that she was from Jerez, and two years later he included her in a list of singers from Morón. In 1905, Núñez de Prado wrote that she was from Utrera. According to oral tradition, she lived in Triana and was much younger than her lover el Fillo. The Morón-based researcher Luis Javier Vázquez Morilla indicates that she was born in Ronda, that her name was María Amaya Heredia, and that she was actually the lover (or perhaps the wife) of one of el Fillo's children, although no evidence of this has been made available yet. Luis and Ramón Soler state that the soleás of la Andonda were popular in Ronda. The authors point out the abundance of these styles in the recordings of Paca Aguilera and the ties between certain families of Gypsy artists from Ronda and Morón. Style 1 attributed to this singer has been recorded many times throughout history and remains very popular today. It is sometimes referred to as the "soleá grande de Triana."
Y tú dices que no me quiere
Pena no tengo ninguna
Porque yo con tu queré
No tenia hecha escritura.
You say you don’t love me
I don’t really care
Because I don’t have a contract
With your love
Tercetas: verses of three lines with eight syllables each line. This is the “estrofa” of Soleares, Jaleos, Bulerías, Tangos, Tientos.
Bulería. The bulería nowadays is the indisputable queen of all Flamenco styles, and it is in the town of Jerez de la Frontera where we find them in its finest expression. This is a example of a "bulería corta de Jerez", a style singers choose to sing at the beginning of a bulerías number, as to warm up their voice.
¿Dime qué quieres de mí?
Si hasta el aguita que bebo
Te la tengo que pedi.
What do you want from me?
That even the water I drink
I must ask you for it.
Solearilla: first line of three or five syllables and two more lines with eight syllables. This is the “estrofa” of some Soleares and Bulerías.
Pa mi unos tormentos grandes
Verte y no poderte hablar.
For me great torment
To see you and not be allowed to talk to you.
Verso de pie quebrado: “estrofa” with four lines, the first two lines with seven syllables, the third with eleven and the fourth with seven. This is the “estrofa” of many styles of Seguiriya.
Seguiriya de Paco la Luz. This is a seguiriya style created by Francisco Valencia Soto "Paco la Luz" born in Jerez in 1839. I learned it from a recording by singer Juan Talega, although I throw in there my own personal phrasing and ornamentation.
Yo no soy de esta tierra
Ni conozco a nadie
Y el que lo hiciera por mis niños
Que Dios se lo pague.
I’m not from this country
Neither do I know anyone
But he who could help me with my kids
God bless him!
Décima: “estrofa” of ten lines with eight syllables that originated in Spain during the Baroque era (17th Century). This is the verse of the Guajiras.
Guajira. The Flamenco guajira has nothing to do with the namesake Cuban musical style, it is rather a Flamenco interpretation of another Cuban musical form called "punto Cubano" and its Canary Islands counterpart the "punto Canario". I learned this set of lyrics from the great Enrique Morente.
Aquí la malanga crece
Rico manjar suculento
Y al rumor del blando viento
La rica caña se mece
El ajónjoli parece
Rica alfombra peregrina ¡
Ay! El mamey que se reclina
Y hacia la rama que toca
Parece la dulce boca
De mi angélica Rufina ¡ole bien!
Yams grow here
Tasty delicacy and
To the murmur of the breeze
The sugar cane sways
The sesame field seems
A strangely beautiful rug.
¡Ay! The mamey bends over
Towards a branch kissing it
Looks like my Rufina’s S
weet angelic lips ¡ole bien!
Pregón: this is a song vendors in the streets of Andalusia and Spain used to do to publicize their goods. There are several “pregones” that have survived until today, also Caracoles and Mirabrás, two styles of Cantiñas, have Pregones in their lyrics.
Pregón de Macandé. Gabriel Díaz Fernández aka "Macandé" was born in Cádiz in 1897. He was a Flamenco singer and street vendor who used to sell candy in the bullring at the nearby town of San Fernando. He also created his own styles of fandangos. I learned this pregón after it was made very popular by singer David Palomar in his album titled "Trimilenaria" (2008).
Por la salida de Asturias
Y la entrada en la montaña
Fabrico yo mis caramelo
Y pa’ venderlos por España
¡Ay! de menta, caramelos,
Que los acabo, mis caramelos.
Venir niñas a comprarme
Que lo llevo de menta,
También los llevo de limón,
De Félix y Mariano Rodríguez,
De Vicente Barrera,
Del gran artista Cagancho
Y el Niño del Mataero.
Comprarme mis caramelos.
Next to the exit to Asturias
And the entrance in the mountain
I make my candy
To sell them around Spain
My mint candy
I’ll sell them all out, my candy.
Come to me girls and buy them
My mint candy.
There is also lemon candy
From Félix and Mariano Rodríguez,
From Vicente Barrera,
From the great artists Cagancho
And the Boy from the slaughterhouse*
People, buy my candy!!
*All these are names of legendary bull fighters who used to order candy with pictures of their faces on the wrapping as advertisement.
Coplas, cuplés, canciones: These are songs that have been incorporated into the flamenco repertoire. There is in Spain a music genre called “Canción Española” which is actually popular music from the early 20th Century with an influence from Spanish folk music and Spanish operetta or “zarzuela”. They follow the format of any popular song: verse-chorus-verse-chorus and in flamenco we can find them performed in Bulerías. More recently, since the 1960’s, Tangos and Rumbas have also been composed in this format.
Rocío ¡ay! mi Rocío (cuplé por bulerías). This is a "copla" or Spanish popular song from the early 20th Century and popularized by Imperio Argentina. I first heard it in the bulería version by Canalejas de Puerto Real.
Con sombrero negro
Y chaqueta corta
Y en las brujas horas
Por su calle abajo
Paseaba una moza
De quien sin saberlo
Yo me enamoré.
Una mañana clara
De abril sonreía.
Me acerqué a su reja
Y le dije alegre
Con Vd mi vida
Tengo yo que hablar.
Hablamos de muchas cosas
Que el tiempo se las llevó,
Pero tan sólo una copla
Que en mi alma se quedó.
Rocío ¡ay! Mi Rocío.
Manojito de claveles,
De pensar en tu querer
Voy a perder el sentío
Porque te quiero mi vida
Como nadie te ha querío.
Rocío ¡ay! Mi Rocío.
With a black hat
And a short jacket
During the haunted hours
Down her street
A beautiful girl passed me by
I fell madly in love with her.
A fresh morning
In April it was shining.
I got nearby her window grill
Dressed as dashing I could
And happily, told her
With you, my sweetheart
A few words
I’d like to have a chat.
We talked about many things
Gone with the wind,
Except for a song
That remains in my soul.
Rocío ¡ay! My Rocío.
Bunch of carnations,
Just thinking of your love
It’s driving me crazy
Because I love you sweetheart
As nobody has before
Rocío ¡ay! My Rocío.
The structure of the Cante Flamenco
The flamenco songs as you have seen have a tendency to be short verses, despite this they have full meaning and stand on their own with full poetic and musical intention.
When a singer starts a flamenco performance, he or she first of all chooses a “palo flamenco”, for instance soleares, and will proceed to do a series of different styles or traditional melodies within that “palo”, something like a medley.
The performance will go as follows:
- Guitar introduction.
- Salida: This is a cry full of ornaments done with half and quarter tones; it is the essence of flamenco music. It is the way a “cantaor” uses to get within the frame work of the tonality and the scale he will use to do his “cantes”. It can be an “¡ay!, lere lere, tiriti tran tran tran”, etc...
- Cante de preparación: This is the first cante, or a few of them, which are slightly difficult.
- Cante valiente or macho: This is a cante of extreme difficulty that brings the performance to its emotional climax. After the cantaor warms up he will do these styles within the palo, in occasions without breathing in between phrases or “tercios” to show how capable he or she is as a performer.
- Remate: This is an ending or tag in some styles, called “coletilla”, “coro” or “juguetillo” that is performed in a faster tempo. In other styles like Malagueñas the “remate” is a cante abandolao or verdiales. We also have this in dance numbers, for instance, we finish or “rematamos” a soleá or alegrías dance with bulerías or tientos with tangos.
This performance of "romeras", a style of "cantiñas" similar to "alegrías de Cádiz", is a good example of the development of a Flamenco number.
The flamenco scale is without any doubt the Phrygian scale. There are also songs in major and minor keys, despite that once you listen to the Phrygian scale you immediately associate those sounds to flamenco music.
If you were to play on a piano keyboard the C major scale (all white keys), but instead of going from C to the higher C you started on E, you’d be playing the Phrygian scale, the flamenco mode or scale. You may change the sound of this scale by raising the third note a half a tone, in this case we would be playing a G sharp (G#) instead of a natural G. By doing so we make it sound even more flamenco or "Moorish".
Baile, el: flamenco dance.
Cante, el: flamenco song.
Cierre: closing, break at the end of a footwork section of a dance.
Camelar: to want, to love.
Castellana: Castilian girl, step of the Castilian girl performed traditionally after the silencio in an alegrías de Cádiz dance.
Coletilla: tag, little refrain at the end of a flamenco stanza.
Compás: rhythm, beat, musical bar.
Contestación: answer, footwork done by the dancer in between the music phrases of a song. It coincides with the “respire” or breath of the singer.
Desplante: literally means rudeness, it is a step full of attitude, a break similar to a llamada and performed in bulerías as a remate.
Escobilla: solo footwork section in a flamenco dance.
Falseta: Melody or musical idea performed by the guitarist.
Jaleo: racket, mess, shouts of encouragement to cheer the performers in a flamenco show. It also refers to a style that is the origin of bulerías.
Juguetillo: literally it means little toy, in flamenco this refers to a tag or refrain at the end of a dance.
Letra: lyrics, words.
Llamada: call, cue given by the dancer to call the singer in.
Remate: break, specially the one the dancer performs at the end of a flamenco song. It can also be the ending or climax of a flamenco song or dance.
Respiro: breath, it can go on for an entire “compás” or bar. It coincides with the footwork answer or “contestación” by the dancer or an embellishment by the guitarist..
Salida: start, it is a cry, a wail the flamenco singer performs at the beginning of a flamenco song or dance to warm up or tune up with the guitar.
Silencio: silence, very lyrical section without footwork of the alegrías dance performed traditionally by the guitarist in a minor key, as opposed to the major key of the alegrías.
Subida: rise, climb, speeding up footwork section in which the dancer brings up the tempo of the dance.
Tablao: flamenco stage, it also refers to the flamenco clubs that originated in Spain during the 1960s.
Tercios: literally it means thirds; it also refers to the different stages of a bullfight. In flamenco it refers to the different musical phrases of a flamenco song.
Toque, el: flamenco guitar playing.
I'd like to thank all the Flamenco artists, experts, musicologists and researchers that have contributed with their knowledge to this article, especially José Manuel Gamboa, Faustino Núñez, Norman Paul Kliman, Guillermo Castro, Gerhard Steingress and many more.