Castanets in Flamenco

When we talk about castanets, we talk about the flamenco dancer Lucero Tena. Born in Durango (Mexico), she began attending flamenco dance classes at a very young age, studying the “escuela bolera” and becoming familiar with the typical dances of Spanish folklore. As noted by the Spanish Archives Portal of the Ministry of Culture, among her teachers was Domingo José Samperio, a Cantabrian musicologist who emigrated to Mexico after the Civil War. Along with Pilar Rojo, another Mexican dancer of Spanish dance and flamenco, they are credited with the creation of “concerted crotalology”meaning castanets in concert. It must have been in those classes with Samperio when Lucero fell in love with this percussion instrument to later become its greatest proponent.

Her stroke of luck occurred when she encountered the renowned Barcelona dancer Carmen Amaya in Mexico. It was in honor of Amaya’s legacy that we inauguratedTablao de Carmen 35 years ago, and upon their meeting, Amaya extended an invitation for her to dance in a show. Lucero became a part of Amaya’s company, embarking on a three-year tour across Mexico and the United States. Eventually, her journey led her to Madrid, where she found a permanent place at the tablao El Corral de la Morería, making the Spanish capital her home. Since the 1960s, she has been the undisputed master of castanets, or “palillos”, as they are called in the world of flamenco and in some parts of Andalusia. She has recorded albums with this sound as the protagonist and offered recitals in which she stands out as a solo percussionist. Among them, her most famous performance was the interlude of the zarzuela La boda de Luis Alonso in 2007.

But where does this instrument come from, that Spanish folklore, especially flamenco, has embraced so deeply?

History of castanets in flamenco

The invention of cymbals, predecessors of castanets, was the work of the Phoenicians, who controlled the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean Levant, and extended to present-day Israel between the 13th and 6th centuries BC. Luis López Ruiz’s Flamenco Guide suggests that Phoenician dancers from Cadiz were brought to entertain the Empire’s parties in Rome, where they incorporated cymbals into their performances. In Ancient Egypt, they even had symbolic power, to scare away evil spirits, and were present in religious and funerary ceremonies, according to the website of the National Archaeological Museum.

For centuries, castanets were integral to various popular performances. However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century that they made their debut in classical music, courtesy of Boccherini, an Italian cellist. He composed a piece in which castanets took on a leading role. Even one of the most distinguished composers of classical music, Richard Wagner, introduced castanets in his opera Tannhauser in the mid-19th century.

Castanets in Spanish music

In Spanish classical music, their significance predates even that of flamenco. Accoding to the web page of Gran Gala Flamenco, Santigao de Murcia, guitarist and composer, included castanets in the interludes and fandangos he composed.

The two eminent composers of Spanish music in the 20th century, Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz, frequently incorporated castanets into their compositions. De Falla’s zarzuela ‘La vida breve’, composed in 1903, was a triumph in Madrid’s opera contestborrar., earning him recognition before his fame. This piece, celebrated as one of his finest works, prominently featured castanets, played by the dancer Antonia Mercé in Argentina . Mercé also showcased her castanet skills in Albéniz’s suite ‘Castilla’in 1934. In 1966, Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo premiered“Dos Danzas Españolas”, specifically crafted for castanets, with Lucero Tena showcasing her mastery with these instruments.

Castanets in flamenco dance

Originally, castanets were a hallmark of the ‘escuela bolera,’ a dance style that gained popularity in the 17th century. This school of dance drew inspiration from regional dances, refining and embellishing them for courtly presentation, thus intertwining its origins closely with flamenco.

Throughout the 20th century, the legendary Carmen Amaya used castanets in numerous performances, leaving a mark on her fellow dancers with her unique style. She prominently featured castanets in the films ‘La hija de Juan Simón’in 1935 and the French movie ‘Quand te tues-tu?’ [When do you kill yourself] in 1953. Today, castanets remain a staple in various dance styles such as sevillanas, seguiriyas, cañas, and zambras, offering artists the flexibility to incorporate them into any chosen style.

Types of castanets

At present, castanets can be categorized based on the material they’re crafted from, their intended use (professional, semi-professional, and beginner), and the manufacturing method employed (varying degrees of hollowness). Broadly, they can be classified into four main groups:

  • Handheld: the most used in flamenco dance, joined by a small cord.
  • Pollopas: made of plastic, these are commonly used by children or beginners in this discipline.
  • Based: attached to a base, typically favored in symphony orchestras.
  • Handled: or palilleras, composed of an elongated handle that holds both pieces.

At the Tablao de Carmen, while some dancers occasionally incorporate castanets into their performances, it is not “must have” instrument in our regular routines. Recently, Azahar Tortajada, a young dancer from Tarragona, reflected on the significance of castanets in her artistry: ‘Dancing with castanets offers a distinct dimension and expression, expanding possibilities both rhythmically and physically,’ she shares. After a year of castanet classes, she persists in her learning journey, drawing inspiration from her peers and honing her skills through performances on our stage.

Come and live it with us, every night at the Tablao de Carmen.