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Dance Music


Flamenco dancer Belén Maya, photograph taken by Gilles Larrain at his studio, 2001 Flamenco dancer Belén Maya, photograph taken by Gilles Larrain at his studio, 2001

Flamenco is a song, music and dance style which is strongly influenced by the Gitanos, but which has its deeper roots in Moorish and Jewish musical traditions.

Flamenco culture originated in Andalusia (Spain), but has since become one of the icons of Spanish music and even Spanish culture in general.

According to Blas Infante in his book "Orígenes de lo flamenco y secreto del cante jondo", etymologically, the word Flamenco comes from Hispano-Arabic fellah mengu, "Peasant without Land". This hypothesis has no basis in historical documents, but Infante connects it to the huge amount of Ethnic Andalusians who decided to stay and mix with the Gypsy newcomers instead of abandoning their lands because of their religious beliefs (Moriscos). After the Castilian conquest of Andalusia, the Reconquista, most of the land was expropiated and given to warlords and mercenaries who had helped the Castilian kings enterprise against Al-Andalus. When the Castilians later ordered the expulsion or forceful conversion of the Andalusian Moriscos, many of them took refuge among the Gypsies, becoming fellahmengu in order to avoid death, persecution, or forced deportation. Posing as Gypsies they managed to return to their cultural practices and ceremonies including the singing.

Other hypotheses concerning the term's etymology include connections with Flanders, the flameante (arduous) execution by the performers, or the flamingos.

Originally, flamenco consisted of unaccompanied singing (cante). Later the songs were accompanied by flamenco guitar (toque), rhythmic hand clapping ( palmas), rhythmic feet stomping (zapateado) and dance (baile). The toque and baile are also often found without the cante, although the song remains at the heart of the flamenco tradition. More recently other instruments like the cajón (a wooden box used as a percussion instrument) and castanets (castańuelas) have been introduced.

"Nuevo Flamenco", or New Flamenco, is a recent variant of Flamenco which has been influenced by modern musical genres, like rumba, salsa, pop, rock and jazz.

Flamenco history

Flamenco performance by the La Primavera group Flamenco performance by the La Primavera group

Many of the details of the development of flamenco are lost in Spanish history. There are several reasons for this lack of historical evidence:

  • The turbulent times of the people involved in flamenco culture. The Moors, the Gitanos and the Jews were all persecuted and expelled by the Spanish Inquisition at various points in time as part of the Reconquista.
  • The Gitanos mainly had an oral culture. Their folk songs were passed on to new generations by repeated performances in their social community.
  • Flamenco was for a long time not really considered an art form worth writing about according to Spaniards. Flamenco music has also slipped in and out of fashion several times during its existence.

Granada, the last Muslim stronghold, fell in 1492 when the armies of the Catholic king Ferdinand II of Aragon and queen Isabella of Castile reconquered this city after about 800 years of mainly Moorish rule. The Treaty of Granada was created to have a formal base for upholding religious tolerance, and this paved the way for the Moors to surrender peacefully. For a few years there was a tense calm in and around Granada, however the inquisition did not like the religious tolerance towards Muslims and Jews. Therefore the inquisition used religious arguments to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to break the treaty and force the Moors and Jews to become Christians or leave Spain for good. In 1499, about 50,000 Moors were coerced into taking part in a mass Baptism. During the uprising that followed, people who refused the choices of Baptism or deportation to Africa, were systematically eliminated. What followed was a mass exodus of Moors, Jews and Gitanos from Granada city and the villages to the mountain regions (and their hills) and the rural country.

It was in this socially and economically difficult situation that the musical cultures of the Moors, Jews and Gitanos started to form the basics of flamenco music: a Moorish singing style expressing their hard life in Andalusia, the different compas (rhythm styles), rhythmic hand clapping and basic dance movements, see Andalusian cadence. Many of the songs in flamenco still reflect the spirit of desperation, struggle, hope, and pride of the people during this time. Flamenco singers are specifically renowned for their somewhat harsh and natural vocal quality. This style is meant to evoke the nature of suffering so closely related to the origins of the music. Other local Spanish musical traditions (i.e. Castillian traditional music) would also influence, and be influenced by, the traditional flamenco styles.

The first time flamenco is mentioned in literature is in 1774 in the book Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso. The origin of the name flamenco however, is a much-debated topic. Some people believe it is a word of Spanish origin and originally meant Flemish (Flamende). However, there are several other theories. One theory suggest an Arabic origin taken from the words felag mengu (meaning: 'peasant in flight' or 'fugitive peasant').

During the so-called golden age of flamenco, between 1869-1910, flamenco music developed rapidly in music cafés called cafés cantantes. Flamenco dancers also became one of the major attractions for the public of those cafés. The art of Flamenco dance was immediately defined in the contrast between male and female styles. Males typically focus more on complex foot movements partnered with relatively little upper-body movement. The female style on the other hand incorporates graceful and distinctly feminine, hip, hand, and arm movements. Along with the development of Flamenco dance, guitar players supporting the dancers increasingly gained a reputation, and so flamenco guitar as an art form by itself was born. Julián Arcas was one of the first composers to write flamenco music especially for the guitar.

The flamenco guitar (and the very similar classical guitar) is a descendent from the lute. The first guitars are thought to have originated in Spain in the 15th century. The traditional flamenco guitar is made of Spanish cypress and spruce, and is lighter in weight and a bit smaller than a classical guitar, to give the output a 'sharper' sound. The flamenco guitar, in contrast to the classical, is also equipped with a barrier (often plastic) similar to a pick guard enabling the guitarists to incorporate rythmic tapping of the fingers while they play. The flamenco guitar is also utilized in several different ways from the classical guitar, including individual strumming patterns and styles, as well as the use of a capo in many circumstances.

In 1922, one of Spain's greatest writers, Federico García Lorca and renowned composer Manuel de Falla organised the Fiesta del Cante Jondo, a folk music festival dedicated to cante jondo ("deep song"). They did this to stimulate interest in this, by that time unfashionable, flamenco music style. Two of Lorca's most important poetic works, Poema del Cante Jondo and Romancero Gitano, show Lorca's fascination with flamenco.

Flamenco styles

Flamenco music styles are called palos in Spanish. There are over 50 different styles of flamenco. A palo can be defined as the basic rhythmic pattern of a flamenco style, but also covers the whole musical and cultural context of a particular flamenco style.

The rhythmic patterns of the palos are also often called compás. A compás is characterised by a recurring pattern of beats and accents. These recurring patterns make up a number of different rhythmic and musical forms known as toques.

To really understand the different palos it is also important to understand their musical and cultural context:

  • The mood intention of the palo (dancing - Fandango, consolation - Solea, fun - Buleria, etc.).
  • The set of typical melodic phrases, called falseta's, which are often used in performances of a certain palo.
  • The relation to similar palos.
  • Cultural traditions associated with a palo (men's dance - Farruca)

The most fundamental palos are: Toná, Soleá, Fandango and Seguiriya. These four palos all belong in the cante jondo category and form the rhythmic basis for nearly all the other palos.

Flamenco cante consists of a number of traditional (and not-so-traditional) forms, with characteristic rhythmic and harmonic structures. The rhythm (compas) is perhaps the most fundamental distinguishing feature of the different flamenco forms. The cante jondo, called the mother of flamenco, consists of 12 beats, with accents on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th beats. Songs are composed of several falsetas with rhythms defined by the song form.

Some of the forms are sung unaccompanied, while others usually have a guitar and sometimes other accompaniment. Some forms are danced while others traditionally are not. Amongst both the songs and the dances, some are traditionally the preserve of men and others of women, while still others would be performed by either sex. Many of these traditional distinctions are now breaking down; for example the Farruca is traditionally a man's dance, but is now commonly performed by women too.

The classification of flamenco forms is not entirely uncontentious, but a common and convenient first classification is into three groups. The deepest, most serious forms are known as cante jondo (or cante grande), while relatively light, frivolous forms are called cante chico. Forms which do not fit into either category but lie somewhere between them are classified as cante intermedio. Many flamenco artists, including some considered to be amongst the greatest, have specialised in a single flamenco form.

Cantes of Flamenco
Cante Jondo Cante Intermedio Cante Chico
Siguiriyas Bulerias Alegrías
Soleares Tangos Fandangos
Tientos   Farruca
Peteneras   Guajiras


Toná Palos

  • Debla
  • Martinete
  • Saeta
  • Tonás

Soleá Palos

  • Alboreá
  • Alegrías
  • Bamberas
  • Bulerías - Bulerias (Luis Maravilla. 31 seconds,133Kb)
  • Campanilleros
  • Cańa
  • Cantińas
  • Caracoles
  • Carceleras
  • Cartagenera
  • Colombianas
  • Mariana
  • Mirabrás
  • Nanas
  • Peteneras
  • Polo
  • Romance
  • Romera
  • Rondeńa
  • Sevillanas
  • Soleá - Soleares (Juan Serrano. 30 seconds,118Kb)
  • Trillera
  • Vidalita
  • Zambras
  • Zorongo

Fandango Palos

  • Fandango
    • Verdiales - fandango variation from Málaga
    • Jaleos - fandango variation based on the Andalusian scale. Rythmic predecessor of the bulería and of the soleá.
  • Fandanguillos
  • Farruca - Farruca (Sabicas. 35 seconds,147Kb)
  • Garrotín
  • Granaína
  • Guajiras - Guajiras (Sabicas. 35 seconds,158Kb)
  • Jabera
  • Malagueńas
  • Media
  • Media Granaína
  • Milonga
  • Mineras
  • Rumba
  • Tango
    • Tanguillos - from Cádiz
  • Tarantas
  • Tarantos
  • Tientos

Seguiriya Palos

  • Cabales
  • Livianas
  • Seguiriyas - (siguerillas, siguiriyas) Siguiriyas (Carlos Montoya. 30 seconds,135Kb)
  • Serranas

Flamenco artists

Flamenco occurs in two types of settings. The first, the Juerga is an informal gathering where people are free to join in creating music. This can include dancing, singing, violin, Palmas (hand clapping), or simply pounding in rhythm on an old orange crate. Flamenco, in this context, is very dynamic; It adapts to the local talent, instrumentation, and mood of the audience. One tradition remains firmly in place: Singers are the most important part.

The professional concert is more formal and organized. The most common performance usually has only one instrument, but sometimes more are used, with guitar almost always at the center. Dancers are the next addition, followed by singers.

It is rare to find an artist who has mastered performing in both settings at the same level.

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