mindGrazing

chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

Intro to Flamenco

Posted by Jason on February 6, 2009

Most people have heard of flamenco music at some point in their lives, but many truly do not understand what this wonderful music is all about. As many people know, flamenco music comes from Spain and includes guitar, singing and dance. However, one thing that is not well known is that all Spanish music is not flamenco. Furthermore, all Spanish music played on the guitar is not necessarily flamenco. In fact, most Spanish guitar music that we hear in the United States is NOT flamenco, but rather classical music.

So what do most of us know about flamenco music over here in the good ol’ U.S. of A? Gypsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert, and Jesse Cook are probably a few of the names that come to mind when we start talking about flamenco. All guitar players, none of them quite play flamenco music. The Gypsy Kings are probably the closest thing to flamenco, but they take only one tiny sliver of flamenco styles (the rumba flamenca) and use that winning formula like crazy to make some big bucks. Ottmar Liebert is basically a smooth jazz guitarist that has taken some scales to make his “jazz” sound a little Spanish and PRESTO! We have “flamenco nuevo,” which is pretty much crap. Jesse Cook makes me want to puke. If Gypsy Kings and Ottmar Liebert had a bastard musical love child, it would be this guy. He’s a watered down version of already watered down versions of flamenco. It’s pop jacuzzi jazz rumba fusion-lite, and above all it’s NOT flamenco. Don’t be fooled, people.

So what is flamenco, then? At the very core of flamenco is singing, or cante. Flamenco singing is not largely known about in the states because it’s not very marketable. It is gutteral, loud, and uses a lot of notes between notes that sound like they’re off-key to most western ears. It is a singing born out of suffering and oppression; it is raw and harsh. Flamenco started out as marginalized gypsies bore inhumane working conditions in a foreign land. They had to work in mines or fields for little pay and no say in how they were treated. The first songs were work songs or fiesta songs, similar to those of the African-American tradition here in the U.S.

Eventually guitars were added to accompany the singing and they had to cut through the din of tavern patrons and noisy friends. In order to do this, flamenco players mostly strummed and tapped on the tops of their guitars in order for the compound, driving rhythms of flamenco to be heard. From the mid-1800’s to about the 1950’s or 60’s, the guitar was never thought of as a solo instrument, except for little sections and fills called falsetas in between verses of the cante. Sabicas was the first guitarist to really make waves as a solo flamenco player, and others like Manolo Sanlucar and the now-famous Paco de Lucia soon followed. Tomatito and Pepe Habichuela are also in the same vein as the earlier guitarists, and Vicente Amigo is a more modern and less traditional continuation of true flamenco guitarists.

Dance came out as a natural response to the rhythmic complexities and depth in flamenco music, and it is one of the more marketable aspects of the art. Americans would much rather go see a dance and guitar show than singing and guitar. Both the baile (dance) and the toque (guitar) are flashy and exotic sounding. Flamenco singing appeals only to a small group of people that are interested in the emotions and the pain that are at the foundation of the deep song or cante jondo. I don’t think American ears will ever enjoy flamenco singing on a large scale. It’s too raw, too honest. Guitar and dance are much more easily commercialized and watered down with our preferred varieties of easy listening. Even pure flamenco (which is really not quite pure without the song) can be appreciated in the U.S. if it’s guitar and dance.

So, at its core, flamenco is a tradition of folk song born out of a suffering of a marginalized people. Guitars and dance are very important to the art form, but they are not the heart of it. Over here in America, we have embraced the guitar and the dance, as well as corrupted, watered-down versions of each, but we have yet to welcome a strident and raw style of singing. I don’t know that any culture really appreciates the cante very much; even mainstream Spain can’t seem to stomach it in large quantities. Maybe that’s the beauty of it. Nobody has really tried to adopt it and morph it into something sellable, thereby leaving at least some of the flamenco tradition intact.

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4 Responses to “Intro to Flamenco”

  1. ApK said

    I’ve been toying with the idea of taking a flamenco dance class at my local community college – rumor has it that the teacher is highly traditional. I did not know much about the origins of the music though – thank you for sharing! I think it might make me a bit more motivated to give the dancing a try…

  2. Jason said

    You should do it! Let me know if they have a live guitarist or recordings. Once I get quite a bit more of the musical styles under my belt, I’d like to accompany for a class or dance troupe or something. Less stressful than being a soloist or whatever… we’ll see though!

  3. when I was on the Costa Del Sol…we went to a small flamenco performance with a guitarist and 3 dancers. I got pulled up on the stage and had to dance with them (read: ridiculed by them) for the enjoyment of the small crowd.

    I have hated flamenco ever since…

  4. Brooke said

    I really enjoy how educational your blog is on such a host of subjects.

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