What is Flamenco?

by Marie Jost

…an Andalusian loves flamenco because it is beyond any definition, any law–accepting as it does every style, modality, cadence, sound and rhythm…because each individual who dances, plays or sings flamenco can interpret it as he wishes, and no one more so than that individual. Flamenco is Tartesian, Persian, Byzantine, and probably Ancient Greek, too. It is Mozarabic and Latin and, in being all of these, it is something more flamenco is no more than what its most recent interpreter wanted it to be.

Eugenio Noel, Martín el de la Paula en Alcalá de los Panaderos. Madrid: La Novela Mundial, 1926.

Many new to flamenco typically ask, “What is flamenco?” This might seem like a simple question, one that could be answered with a few formulas, a short list of essential features that, taken as a whole, defines flamenco. The reality of flamenco is far from this simple, tidy picture.

In truth, there is not one flamenco, there are many flamencos. Flamenco exists in both space and time, changing from locale to locale and from epoch to epoch. By its very nature, flamenco is a mass of contradictions: it is a traditional art form passed down orally from one generation to the next, often within family dynasties, but it is only about 200 years old and is a constantly changing hybrid. Also, while it is a regional and an oral art form, it is not a folk art.

Flamenco singing and guitar playing are not taught in conservatories, though theatrical flamenco dance has been taught since the nineteenth century in dance academies, and today has attained a breathtaking virtuosity that has nothing to do with the technically subdued but highly expressive pueblo dancing that is still the backbone of so many flamenco fiestas. Flamenco is associated in the popular imagination with the Gypsies of Andalusia, though non-Gypsy artists have been every bit as important in the evolution of the art form, and the entire fandango family developed largely apart from the heavily Gypsy-influenced styles that developed in and around Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera and Seville.

Flamenco is a way of life for many of Andalusia’s Gypsies and plays a prominent role in all their important celebrations, yet it has been a highly professionalized art since the nineteenth century, presented before enthusiastic paying non-Gypsy audiences since the early years of that century. In the end, rather than trying to define flamenco, the intention here is to describe some of its most characteristic features, always realizing that for every “typical”element enumerated, there exists one or more common exceptions to this or any rule. Flamenco is a moving target, restless, never static for long, lovingly preserving the past, yet looking expectantly toward the future. For every aficionado of flamenco you ask “What is flamenco?”, you will receive a different and often contradictory answer. Just as the Sufi is taught there are as many paths to God as there are souls on the earth, there are as many kinds of flamenco as there are flamencos.

Although flamenco cannot readily be defined, there is much about it that is typical, usual or customary, and this can be described to give a picture of some of the most common features of the art form. Much ink has been spilled on the origins of flamenco, from the date when flamenco can first be said to exist as a distinguishable and recognizable art form (the most common arguments place the date anywhere from the Fifteenth Century (or earlier) to the 1860s), to the role of Gypsies in the formation and popularization of flamenco, to establishing the canon of accepted (and acceptable) song forms. In fact, there is very little that can be said for certain about flamenco. We do know that it originated in Andalusia.

The first documents that feature eye-witness accounts of something that is recognizably flamenco date from the first half of the nineteenth century. The use of the term flamenco to designate the art form and its performers is even later, scholars have dated its first appearance in print to the 1860s. Yet there are theories, especially by those who champion the Gypsy origins and development of flamenco, crediting the Gypsies with the creation of flamenco within their family circles during the eighteenth century (if not before). Unfortunately scholars have been unable to document this theory, though there is some logic to the argument that anything developed within Gypsy family circles and not presented to a non-Gypsy public would have had little chance of showing up in the documentary record since the Gypsies themselves were largely illiterate.

Both Gypsies and non-Gypsies seem to have been involved in the development of flamenco as a performing art. Certainly today over half of professional flamenco performers are non-Gypsy, and in every era there have been major figures who have not been Gypsy. But the Gypsy contribution, especially in terms of interpretation, has been significant in every age. The rise of flamenco itself has been tied by some scholars to a vogue for Gypsy style clothing, language and music championed by certain members of the aristocracy beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century. Certainly there is ample evidence of Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike adopting a flamenco lifestyle, one heavily influenced from its inception by Gypsies and many of their habits and characteristics. Although until the 1970s there were always two different interpretative traditions in flamenco–one Gypsy, the other non-Gypsy—since the 1970s there has been an overwhelming triumph of the Gypsy style of flamenco.

While flamenco cannot be neatly defined, certain basic and typical elements can be identified. The most basic element of flamenco is the voice. Without the voice, or at least the corpus of song forms derived from the singing tradition, there can be no flamenco. A lone singer, accompanied only by hand claps, finger snapping or table rapping, or simply the naked voice, can be the quintessence of flamenco. The guitar has been accompanying flamenco since the nineteenth century and has developed certain techniques and accompaniment styles in concert with the development of the singing style. Contrary to what many foreigners believe, dance is not the motor that drives flamenco. The musical forms that the dances are set to all derive from the singing tradition. The musical structure derives in every case from song: guitar and dance are rooted in flamenco song.

There are several different types of flamenco performances characterized by different venues, and even different audiences. The most basic performance type is the juerga or party. A juerga can simply be a collection of a few musicians–singers, a guitarist or two, and perhaps a few knowledgeable non-performers. Dancing may occur, though it will be impromptu and informal and will bear little resemblance to what would be presented in a flamenco stage production. Often the singers and guitarists will dance a bit as part of a juerga, at other times non-professional dancers will spontaneously get up and dance and occasionally professional dancers will dance, but in the more informal fiesta style. This more informal type of flamenco is also part of Gypsy celebrations such as baptisms and weddings. Some of the more elastic flamenco song types, generally bulerías and tangos, will be sung and danced to for hours on end. Again, the focus is on spontaneous performances by party goers who may or may not be professional performers. The emphasis is on self-expression, wit, playfulness and spontaneity. Prodigious technique, theatrical effects, and highly structured productions are not the focus of a fiesta.

Already by the 1840s, there is written evidence that flamenco was performed for paying spectators. During the course of the nineteenth century, more formal venues, in particular music halls and theaters, became the most usual place for paying audiences to experience flamenco. Performing groups were formed of one or more singers , a couple of guitarists and a group of dancers. There is a mix of singing accompanied by guitar, guitar solos and dance accompanied by voice and guitar, with quite a bit of emphasis given to the dance. Although these dance numbers are more highly structured than those spontaneous dances performed at juergas or fiestas, and there is greater emphasis on technique, still the performers have a certain degree of freedom within the overall agreed upon structure. For example, when a tablao group presents an alegrías, all of the performers know what metrical and harmonic structure is most typical of that song form. Alegrías have particular melodies associated with them and the lyrics have a specific poetic meter. The dance por alegrías traditionally contains certain sections that often come in a particular order, though there is some flexibility. Because the basic elements are common knowledge between all of the performers, and certain signals are commonly used to communicate between them, tablao performers can perform together with minimal rehearsal. This is the type of flamenco most often seen in flamenco night clubs in Spain.

Since the 1920s, highly choreographed theatrical productions have become increasingly common. In such productions the emphasis is on dancing, and often the dancing itself is at the service of a highly developed plot. A complex choreography is created, often set to specially selected or composed music. The performers have less room for spontaneous improvisation (or none at all), for in these productions there is great emphasis on flamenco as a dramatic art form like opera or ballet, in which the plot, choreography, music, costumes and set design all work together to communicate a consciously designed experience to the audience. This is flamenco as a theatrical art, one presented before a large audience that often has little or no understanding of flamenco.

One of the most notable individuals associated with this type of theatrical flamenco has been Antonio Gades, whose works have been superbly documented by director Carlos Saura in a trilogy of dramatic dance films (“Blood Wedding”, “Carmen”, and “El Amor Brujo”). The dance technique of theatrical flamenco is worlds away from pueblo flamenco, though there is a clear connection with tablao flamenco, and the two styles have cross-fertilized to some extent. Yet for all the distance that divides theatrical flamenco dancing from the flamenco of a juerga or a fiesta, they all have in common the desire to communicate emotion directly and through the agency of the same flamenco song forms that are the basis of all flamenco.

These flamenco song forms are sometimes called “palos”. Palo simply means a stick in Spanish and perhaps refers to the wooden sticks that many flamenco singers performed with during the nineteenth century, sticks that they would sometimes rap on the floor as they sang to mark the compás. There are over a dozen flamenco palos. Among the most commonly performed today are alegrías, bulerías, tangos, fandangos, seguiriyas, soleá, soleá por bulerías, tarantos, martinete, saeta, malagueñas. There are other less commonly performed types, many of them derived from Andalusian folk music: bamberas, peteneras, farruca and fandangos de Huelva. There are also the so-called “cantes de ida y vuelta”, song types that went to the New World with the Conquistadors and Spanish settlers and returned at some point during the nineteenth century to be transformed into flamenco song forms, these include, among others, the milonga, rumba and guajiras. This plethora of different sources and song types has been characteristic of flamenco since the nineteenth century.

A palo is characterized by several features:

  • Compás–comprising both its musical meter and a particular pattern of accents within this metric structure.
  • Mode, key or scale. Flamenco is often modal music, though not exactly the accepted modes of Western music. There are also some examples of palos, or sections of palos, in major and minor keys.
  • Melody. Some flamenco palos, for example members of the cantiñas family, are associated with specific melodies. Other palos, like bulerías can and are sung to almost any melody, including popular songs transformed into the compás of bulerías.
  • Some palos are associated with characteristic lyrics, for example the petenera, whose lyrics speak of a woman named Petenera, or the bambera, whose lyrics tell of swinging on the bamba (an Andalusian word for swing). There are also certain lyrics normally sung por seguiriyas or soleá, and saetas have a religious text, sung as they are to the images processed in Holy Week.
  • Finally, each palo has a specific poetic meter to its verses that is, of course, compatible with the compás of the music.

Because of the rigidity of the compás in association with melody, and to a lesser extent lyrics, a performer or knowledgeable aficionado can identify the palo being performed before the end of the first sung line, and often before. The meter and the accent pattern quickly places the song into one of several compás families. The mode or key often further refines the identification. Finally the melody, characteristic guitar accompaniment and lyrics contribute to the positive identification. Seguiriyas will never be confused with malagueñas, nor bulerías with guajiras.

 It is quite frequent in Spanish to say that a singer or guitarist performs “in the style of”(por) a palo. For example, a singer sings por seguiriyas, meaning in a style that employs the characteristics of meter, compás, mode, melody and lyrics that are those of seguiriyas, and hence distinguishable from those of soleá, martinete, granainas, etc. Each flamenco palo is characterized by a number of commonly agreed upon elements. Taken together, these elements distinguish one palo from another. All a singer has to do is let the guitarist know he wants to sing por soleá, and the guitarist knows how to begin his guitar introduction. Once the singer begins singing his first line, the guitarist then identifies the specific melody the singer is singing and, from experience, knows how to accompany the singer. It is up to the guitarist to know the song tradition at least as well as the singer he is accompanying so that within seconds he can recognize what the singer is singing, and therefore accompany him appropriately. It must be remembered that flamenco is still an almost entirely oral tradition. The musicians are not working from any type of written musical notation, but are performing music that has been handed down orally from one generation to the next. This is beginning to change in recent years with the rise of flamenco compositions, especially on record albums. However, many of these songs have now become part of the oral repertory and are sung together with traditional verses and melodies in the same song.

So, we return again to the question: What is flamenco? Perhaps flamenco is not beyond description, though it might be, as Eugenio Noel believed, beyond definition. There is a corpus of commonly agreed upon characteristics that distinguish the flamenco palos from one another and create distinctions within flamenco as a whole. But these characteristics themselves are not flamenco. Flamenco is first and foremost an expression of the human heart. The formal elements of flamenco should ideally always be at the service of this expression: mutable, if necessary, to more fully explore our human experience.

While flamenco was born and grew to maturity in a certain time and place, it has transcended its origins to be recognized as an art form of universal appeal, one expressing the universal concerns of human experience, an art form that speaks to hearts from Tokyo to Topeka, from Sydney to Seville. The power of flamenco derives from its of social and geographical focalization combined with its exploration of general human concerns. Some modes of communication still lie beyond the boundaries of conventional language, communicating in ways that are more direct, more truthful: speaking the language of the heart and soul. To be touched deeply by flamenco, you need not know the difference between bulerías and alegrías all that is required is an open heart, one ready to be moved by the passion for living expressed with such naked conviction in this art.

Author: Marie Jost

Marie Jost received her doctorate in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a flamenco and world music aficionado, a Hong Kong film enthusiast, and an ardent Leslie Cheung fan. Ms. Jost currently resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A.