WHAT IS FLAMENCO?
FERNANDO BARROS, Author
A New Voice in Flamenco
Flamenco is a distinctive musical genre that permeates its cultural birthplace, while taking its rightful place amongst the world’s heritage art forms in song, instrumentation and dance. It originated in Andalusia, Spain, the result of musical influences spanning decades and cultures. These influences include rhythm from Africa, melody from Arabic countries, and harmony from the Mediterranean basin.
Flamenco is, in its most fundamental definition, an art of emotion, having its genesis in story-telling through song (cante). The themes represent all of life: birth, family, community, death, tragedy and joy. Its influences contain multiple overlays enriched by the enculturation of the different peoples who settled the land of southern Spain.
Equal to the song are the instrumentals, with emphasis on the flamenco guitar with a unique addition to its body a “plate” on which the guitarist strikes rhythms, while playing chords on the fingerboard. The “touch” of flamenco guitar has been the discipline that has evolved throughout the lifetime of flamenco. Its original function was to accompany the singing and dancing. Additional rhythm is created in percussion with the use of the cajon, a drum on which the player sits. The unique sounds created are determined by where and with what force the drummer plays, the wood of the cajon, and any added interior structural layers.
And equal to both the singer and instrumentalist is the dancer, male or female, who interprets the meaning of the music with expressive movement and theatricality. The male, most often, uses the power of his legs and feet, with added flourishes from his upper body. Sometimes clapping in rhythm, he moves with purpose and force in reflection of the music. The female dancer is equally dramatic with rapid, percussive and intricate foot movements designed to emphasize the internalization of rhythm. Her sensuality is expressed through coordinated hip and hand movements, sometimes accompanied by the rhythm of castanets, and with the palms of the hands.
Their techniques are rhythmically complex and emotional interpretation is unique to each performance. Archetypes of human passions are overlaid with each dancer’s personal experiences, history with the genre, and emotional responses to the music.
Flamenco disciplines are most often presented in a duo format of either the singer and guitarist or the guitarist and dancer. Another variant is group flamenco, called Cuadro Flamenco, presented by a number of musicians who sing, play guitar and/or dance performing the multitude of the different styles that create the flamenco music arts.
Thus, the art of flamenco is to be found in the rich fusion of vocal music, dance and musical accompaniment.
Flamenco is a musical art that was born relatively recently in southern Europe, during the mid-nineteenth century. It emerged from the ideals of the Romantic Period when travelers first began to experience its allure as exoticism and as a distinct culture.
However, its creators were concerned that this new art form be imbued with the new ideals of egalitarianism and the quest for shared human aspirations just beginning to emerge: equality, solidarity and fraternity. Today’s flamenco is the synthesis of a gestation process that began in the first third of the nineteenth century and continues to increase its full range of artistic variables to this day. Its rightful evolution is that it not only honor the past, but also create and innovate for the future.
Flamenco is performed during celebratory occasions: religious holidays, family rituals, sacramental ceremonies and private parties. It is a sign of identity for many groups and communities, especially the ‘gitano’ (gypsy) ethnic community which has played a key role in its evolution. The transmission of flamenco takes place within dynasties of artists, families, flamenco clubs and social groups, all of which play a key role in the preservation and dissemination of this art.
If flamenco fails to excite musicians, performers, and/or the public, it will not rise to the purpose for which it was created: the culmination of emotion. To this end, Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, called it “Duende” (“imp”). It is necessary that flamenco accompany the most radical social ideals, having been a misconstrued concept of the romantic mind. It is an influential, modern music and, as such, educational. It contains ideas, customs, beliefs, world views and passions that bridge the past with the present. Flamenco today offers global citizens the opportunity to integrate with other cultures, experience the rich foundations of musical styles, and form new alliances with other genres.
I believe that some elements that characterize impressionistic music are also present in flamenco, as is the rhythmic elasticity, therein. Freedom to change the length of the notes is inherent in flamenco. This quality is called melismatic load, or following the vocal fluctuation with higher and lower tones attached to a word. Another characteristic of the impressionistic voice is tonal harmony, also present in flamenco song.
The musical elements of flamenco, created from the time of its infancy, are to be found in the musical heritage that existed throughout Spain in the nineteenth century. Over the centuries, the raw materials with which artists create new music, have been embraced by practitioners and the public.
The elements and idiosyncrasies that define flamenco music are to be found in four complex rhythms: tangos, fandangos, solea, and seguidilla; and one without rhythm. The flamenco “personality” is to be found in its compound rhythms as well as others without rhythmic requirement, such as freestyles and simple rhythms, whether binary or ternary. The ‘ngo’ of tango and fandango reveal the rhythmic roots of Africa.
The importance of keeping time with the hands clapping the beats (palmas) cannot be stressed enough. In the complexities of correct rhythms are the synthesis of one of the key elements of flamenco: internalization of rhythm as outlined above.
The characteristic sounds of the guitar, modes of singing and rhythmic timing converge to create the foundation for the lyrics. The role of the poems or writings that are sung in flamenco provide an emotional way to view and interact with the world. The variety and flexibility of melodies make up a broad spectrum of styles and sub-styles. Throughout its history, flamenco has gone from presenting a popular form of culturally-based dance music to a complex form of art recognized and celebrated worldwide.
It has been noted that the engine of progress is innovation, a feature that has always been present in the history of flamenco music. Directing its evolution, characterizing the dichotomy between tradition and innovation and laying the ground work for the future is our present work. Flamenco has been recognized as a cultural asset by UNESCO and its patrimony is to be preserved and protected as such.
To that end I specialize in composing the music for and singing the lyrics of the poets and writers of Spain: Miguel de Cervantes, Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Juan Ramon Jimenez and others. In addition, I am dedicated to integrating and preserving the rich cultural heritages of the Sephardim, the Arabic cultures, and medieval music as worthy antecedents of flamenco.
Lorca, in particular was an emerging champion of flamenco, prior to his untimely death in 1936, a time when the foment of war was once again upon Europe. His compositions, both in music and the written word, emphasized the social qualities which would truly begin to take root in the second half of the 20th century: justice, equality, solidarity, and challenge to the status quo.
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