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Flamenco: music and dance

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Flamenco - A complete guide to understand the art

Flamenco is passion, music, dance, and an icon of Spanish culture. Flamenco shows can be enjoyed all over Spain at tablaos. This music genre is deeply rooted in Spanish history and its evolution is full of anecdotes and interesting stories. In this post, we invite you to the wonderful and colorful land of Flamenco music and flamenco dance.

Table of Contents

What is Flamenco?

Flamenco is not just a style of music. It is a cultural expression that merges together the folkloric traditions of Gipsies in Southern Spain. Flamenco had no rigid norms and it evolved in different ways, known as palos. At the beginning, singing was the most important part, but flamenco is also about music, and dance, and jaleo!

Flamenco history

Flamenco is a Spanish dance. It was born in Andalusia in Southern Spain and was danced at its origins by gypsies. But those origins are not clear. The romany migration from migrated from Rajasthan in Northwest India and part of them arrived to southern Spain. Sephardic jews and moors populated southern Spain at that time (the migration is meant to have taken place in a long period of time between the 9th and 15th centuries). Flamenco was born out of the cultural intermingling.
At its origins flamenco was more about singing than dancing. It was an outdoor art, spontaneous. This implies that little was documented of this art for centuries. Instruments were changed and adapted and flamenco developed as a hybrid style of music. It was transmitted from family to family and generation after generation. Songs were originally sang in calo, which is the language of gipsies, a mixture between romany languages and Spanish. During the XVIII century flamenco was taken into cafes and public shows and soon later flamenco schools were created.
As cities grew in the XIX century, so did the gipsy districts within them, and during all that century flamenco went through important developments. Arcos de la Frontera, Chiclana, SanLúcar de Barrameda, San Fernando, Los Puertos or Jerez de la Frontera were all melting pots for flamenco music. Flamenco competitions developed “café cantantes opended”. These were places were people went late at night to enjoy drinks and flamenco music. The first café cantante was documented in the memories of singer Fernando de Triana who talked about a place called Los Lombardos in Seville.
At an early moment these cafes did not draw much attention. But in the last decades of the XIX century they had developed and could be found in many cities of Andalusia, but also in some other places in Spain.
Performances would include two or three singers, three or four women dancer and two male dancers. Guitars joined later and the cafes played a fundamental role in the importance of guitars in flamenco.

Flamenco dance
Flamenco dance

Origins of the word Flamenco 

As with many other words, it is not clear when it appeared and why it originated. There are two main theories. We start with the mostly accepted one, from author Blas de Infante who traced the origins of the word in the arab “Felah-Mengus” which translates into “wandering peasant” . The second theory connects the term with the Flemish word (flamenco in Spanish language also means someone or something Flemish) Since the Spanish Empire ruled over Flandes and music was brought by Spaniards, the term to describe the music could have evolved from those days.

Flamenco dance style
Flamenco dance style

Elements of Flamenco

In its different styles, flamenco is composed of four differentiated elements. The voice, the dance, the guitar and the “jaleo”. Voice was the first element of flamenco and as it evolved the other elements were added. The last one was the guitar.
Voice was the most important part of flamenco for good reason: the songs told stories of gipsy people; their grief, loves, fights, their sadness or happiness. The same song would vary depending on the singer too.

 

Best places to enjoy Flamenco in Spain

Andalusia is the best place to enjoy flamenco, but if you do not plan to visit the south of Spain you will still be able to enjoy fantastic shows in Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities

Flamenco styles. The “palos” flamencos

Flamenco is probably more complex than anyone thinks. There is a huge diversity in flamenco styles and those styles are referred to as “palos”. Palos are the different styles of singing in flamenco, and there are meant to be even more than 50 palos!

Let´s start by saying that all palos have a fixed structure, one that should be followed to be considered as such, and a variable part. Flamenco is very much about improvisation and that implies in any flamenco palo there is a flexible part that provides that room to improvise.

Probably the most famous palos are the following 7 ones. We will also provide a short description of each of them.

Alegrías

Alegría means happiness in Spanish. This palo is a joyful style, light, and cheerful. Alegria is a very popular flamenco style. Its origins are interesting. It appeared in the region of  Cadiz at the time the French invaded Spain. People from the region of Aragon in northern Spain went south. Aragon is famous for a musical style known as jota and Alegrías seem to be an evolution from the jota into a flamenco style. Alegrias are very similar to Soleas, though Alegrias have a much faster rhythm.

Bulerías

Bulerias originated in Jerez de la Frontera in Cadiz. They share also the same structure with Soleas but their pace is frenetic. This is party time!

Fandangos

This flamenco style may make you think of Portuguese Fado. There are regional variations. The most famous fandangos are from Huelva (the neighboring province to southern Portugal) and from Malaga.

Seguidillas

This palo is all about emotion, deep feelings, and sadness. This style resembles the Canto jondo.

Sevillanas

Probably today´s most famous flamenco style. Sevillana is what many people have in mind when they think about Flamenco. In this flamenco style, dancers act in couples. Sevillana became very popular in Spain, and many schools provided courses. Sevillana is the typical dance you expect to find at La feria de Abril in Sevilla

Soleá

The name probably derives from the word “soledad”, loneliness in English. This palo or flamenco style is about sadness. It is close to Cante jondo and is one of the most popular flamenco styles.

Spanish flamenco guitar
Spanish flamenco guitar

Flamenco guitar

Flamenco guitar
Guitars were not used to Flamenco till the moment in which Flamenco moved to the public scene at “café cantados”. This was the time in which flamenco became a show and not just art amongst family and friends. Today we can hardly think of Flamenco without guitars and a special type of guitar is made for flamenco: the flamenco guitar. The flamenco guitar is not exactly the same as the Spanish classical guitar. The flamenco guitar produces a deeper sound, more percussive.

Flamenco dance

The flamenco dance is the physical expression of flamenco. It is probably the most spectacular image of flamenco and the main reason why people go to flamenco shows. Its history is easier to trace the history of flamenco. The flamenco dance emerged with a clear structure during the 18th century. The role of the dance is to interpret the feeling brought by the songs and the music. A show with a flamenco dancer arriving to a climax moment is one of the best attractions in Spain.
All performers during a show works as one. They encourage each other and express their feeling with words of praise and recognition.

Flamenco dresses

The flamenco dress has become an icon for Spain. Colourful, adorned with ruffles. The dress as we know it today has evolved considerably. Gipsy women used to dress with colourful dresses on their everyday life. They would wear these dresses when they accompany their husbands to livestocks fairs. They design and colours gained the attention of bourgoies ladies who adapted them. In 1929 the Seville April fair made it official, and the Flamenco dress became the official female costume to wear during the fair. Sevillanas dances would not be the same without the flamenco dress! Today the production of Flamenco dresses is an important industry that serves not just Andalusia and Spain but many other countries with customers attracted by this impactful dresses.

Flamenco and sevillanas dresses
Flamenco and sevillanas dresses

Famous flamenco singers

Some flamenco singers and dancer are amongst Spain´s most famous persons. Some of the most recognised flamenco stars include names like Camaron de la isla, manolo Caracol, Lola Flores, Enrique Morente, Estrella Morente (daughter of Enrique) Carmen Linares. José Mercé and la Niñas de los Peines.

Flamenco and jazz

Many people claim there are similarities between flamenco and jazz, and they would derive from their flexible nature. Flamenco singers and musicians would improvise and match their emotions as they flow. Famous Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was passionate about flamenco, the feelings it expresses and the emotions it transmits. In a trip to New York (his famous book poet in New York was the outcome of this trip). During this trip he talked about the similarities of African-american and Spanish gipsy communities at that time. In recent times flamenco-jazz has emerged as a music genre that merges the inherent compatibilities of both styles.