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Music & Entertainment

Learn About Flamenco Music: History, Dance, and Guitar

Written by MasterClass

Feb 1, 2019 • 6 min read

Flamenco is the bold and elegant fusion of singing, dancing, and music that has been passed down from generation to generation since the fifteenth century.

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What Is Flamenco?

Flamenco is an art form comprising of songs, dances, and instrumental music associated with southern Spain. Flamenco is rooted in the folkloric musical traditions of the Roma people in the Spanish communities of Andalusia, Extremadura, and Murcia.

Spanish flamenco music was inspired by the music of India, brought to the European continent by members of the gypsy culture. It is widely believed that the Roma people migrated to southern Spain from Rajasthan, in northwest India, sometime between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, bringing with them a large repertoire of songs, dances, and musical instruments, including tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets. Over time, these Indian folkloric traditions mingled with the musical traditions of the Sephardic Jews and the Moors, resulting in what is now known as flamenco.

What Makes Flamenco Music?

Flamenco includes six primary elements:

  1. Cante. Singing.
  2. Toque. Guitar playing.
  3. Baile. Dance.
  4. Jaleo. Singing and choruses.
  5. Palmas. Hand clapping.
  6. Pitos. Finger snapping.

The foundations of flamenco, however, rest in cante and baile.

What Is Flamenco Cante?

Flamenco songs fall into three main categories. Each style has its own characteristic rhythm and chord structure.

  1. Cante jondo. Means “profound, deep song.” The cante jondo is based on a 12-beat rhythm structure. It is a complex song that embodies heavy emotional territory. Common themes for a cante jondo are death, despair, doubt, anguish, and so on.
  2. Cante intermedio. Means “intermediate song.” The cante intermedio is less complex musically than the cante jondo, and typically incorporates elements of other Spanish music styles. It is normally more lively and is often accompanied by guitars, castanets, and hand clapping.
  3. Cante chico. Means “light song.” The cante chico is the simplest of the three styles. It typically has a quick, light rhythm and deals with lighter themes, such as love, humor, and the countryside.

What Is Flamenco Baile?

While baile is the dominant element of flamenco dancing, it is performed with accompaniment, typically guitar music and singers. Sometimes, a baile makes use of a “palo seco” (“dry stick”)—a stick that is used to beat the tempo of the flamenco dance on the floor.

In flamenco, the baile works hand-in-hand with the cante. The two tell a story. The baile itself is often highly stylized, expressing emotion through a series of intricate arm and body movements. Male flamenco dancers usually perform intricate footwork (sometimes with their heels), while female flamenco dancers focus more on the movement of the arms, hands, and fingers. Both male and female flamenco dancers wear elaborate costumes, in bold colors, with intricate ruffles.

What Is Flamenco Duende?

A guitarist (“tocoar”) keeps the rhythm, sometimes following the dancers across the floor. While the dancers move, the singer (“cantaor”) tells a story. The dancers may perform an intense sequence of rhythmic dance, thought of as a trancelike state in which the sounds are said to “invade” the body. This is called a duende.

This sequence often happens during the cante jondo. It is often accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping and sounds. Flamenco performers think of this sequence as one in which the dancers communicate with both the audience and with God. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), widely recognized as the most influential poet of twentieth-century Spanish literature, once said of duende: “Duende could only be present when one sensed that death [is] possible.”

What’s the Difference Between Classical and Flamenco Guitar?

Next to song and dance, the third most important part of flamenco is the guitar. There are several differences between traditional guitar and flamenco guitar—both in the instrument itself, as well as how it is played.

  • The flamenco guitar is different from standard guitars. The toque is the guitar playing part of flamenco. Flamenco guitar is played differently from classic guitar in everything from the strumming to the guitarist’s posture. A flamenco guitar typically has thinner tops and less internal bracing than a classical guitar and features what is known as a tap plate, similar to a pickguard, which protects the guitar body from the rhythmic finger taps of the player.
  • Flamenco techniques include strumming and tapping. Flamenco guitar is a mixture of different percussive and rhythmic techniques. It is common for eighth note triplets to be mixed with sixteenth note runs in a single bar. Finger taps (golpes) are common, as is the strumming of the strings.
  • Flamenco guitarists use their legs. Flamenco guitarists also hold their instruments differently. Rather than supporting the guitar on the right leg and at an incline, flamenco guitarists usually cross their legs and place the neck of the guitar parallel to the floor—this position allows for better leverage of the instrument, and eases the player’s ability to switch quickly between different playing styles.
  • Flamenco guitar has a higher pitch. Flamenco guitar is also usually played using a cejilla (capo)—a device that clamps down across the fingerboard at a particular fret on a guitar. This helps to raise the pitch of a guitar, making its sound sharper.
  • Flamenco is all about improvisation and tradition. In flamenco guitar, the main purpose of a cejilla is to change the key of the guitar to match the singer’s vocal range; this also allows for more improvisation. It’s important to note that traditional flamenco music is rarely written down. Instead, it is passed down from generation to generation.

Four Famous Flamenco Guitarists to Know

  1. Ramón Montoya (1880-1949). One of the first great flamenco players, Montoya believed in the guitar’s unlimited capacities. His performances were based on the musical experiences of different generations, combining modern styles with those of the Roma.
  2. Sabicas (1912-1990). Agustín Castellón Campos (stage name: Sabicas) performed his first concert in Pamplona at the age of seven. Completely self-taught, Sabicas had a natural talent he employed while performing with some of the world’s best flamenco singers and dancers. He popularized flamenco guitar in the U.S. after moving there during the Spanish Civil War.
  3. Paco de Lucía (1947-2014). Hailed as a pioneer and an experimentalist, Paco combined the world of flamenco with that of classical guitar, sometimes introducing new elements and styles, such as jazz. In 1975, Paco became the first flamenco guitarist invited to perform at the Royal Theater in Madrid. In 1981, he collaborated with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola.
  4. Andrés Segovia (1893-1987). For a generation of listeners, Segovia is the embodiment of both classical and Spanish flamenco nylon string guitar. Listen at your own risk: You may experience flashes of wanting to quit guitar altogether after hearing what Segovia can do with the instrument.

What Is the History of Flamenco?

While many believe flamenco originated through an interchange of musical styles, culture, and folklore between the Roma people and the native Andalusians, Castilians, Moors, and Sephardic Jews in the early eighteenth century, there are some who believe that flamenco existed in Andalusía long before the Roma arrived from India.

  • The Golden Age of Flamenco

What most people do agree upon is that the golden age of flamenco happened sometime between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Like most folkloric traditions, flamenco began as a deeply private, family-orientated tradition. It was first popularized in 1842 at the Café sin Nombre, in Seville. The first of many cafes to open in Spanish cities, the cafe put on flamenco performances, and invited people to come in, sit down, and watch the spectacle. While this generated the beginnings of a flamenco performing industry, it also led to what some saw as a decline in the cultural superiority of the art form. In 1922, Lorca and composer Manuel de Falla created the first flamenco competition to try and restore what they saw as the “purity” of flamenco. With the national spotlight on flamenco, the art form grew and flourished.

  • Modern Flamenco and Modern Performers

Famous contemporary flamenco performers include:

  • Antonio Gades
  • Cristina Hoyos
  • José Greco II
  • Lola Greco

Modern flamenco continues to innovate. Classically-influenced artists push the boundaries of flamenco through ongoing collaborations with other artists, including filmmakers, theater makers, and visual artists, in an effort to diversify flamenco’s audience and introduce new generations to the art form.