If one were to close one’s eyes and imagine flamenco, the silhouette of a dancer would likely come to mind, as would the cry of a singer, the strum of a guitar or the vibrations of palms and dancing feet.
For this reason, when talking of flamenco instruments from an orthodox and traditional point of view as is that of El Tablao de Carmen, we need mention only three key instruments:
- The voice
- The extremities (hands and feet)
- The guitar.
This list excludes a number of other instruments which, despite being flamenco instruments, do not usually feature in the Tablao de Carmen‘s daily lineup.
The voice in flamenco
The voice is a magical and grandiose instrument. The voice is breath and feeling, it’s the vibration of strings and the epitome and summary of the human soul in its maximum expression. The voice reflects everything, like the gaze.
The voice is technically defined as “the sound emitted by the human respiratory system,” and is a human wind instrument. As such, the voice is one of the many components of a broad musical universe.
Unlike other musical instruments, the voice allows for the incorporation of words into music, text into the piece. It could be argued that the unique capacity of this human instrument, to add a message, magnifies its power in the musical world.
When that human sound, the voice, is controlled musically it becomes song, and in the context of flamenco music, this is referred to as “cante”.
Singing is an activity that requires highly developed muscular reflexes. Singing does not require much physical strength, but it does call for a high level of muscular coordination.
It is difficult to define what makes a voice flamenco in nature.
Much has been written on the subject, but only recently has this topic been studied and analysed using scientific criteria. The reality is that what was recognised as flamenco song at the end of the 19th century did not exist except among Spaniards in the lands of Iberian Peninsula.
In order to inquire more deeply and learn a little more of the history and classification of the flamenco voice, we recommend this article by singer and professional flamenco singer, Alba Guerrero.
What is “el quejío?”
There exists, in flamenco music, a unique term, a sound which is inseparable from its essence, that is “el quejío.” “El quejío”, which is an abbreviation of “quejido,” synonymous with the words for moan and pain in Spanish, is one of the most flamenco sounds. These sounds appear without fail in the vast majority of flamenco songs. Flamenco makes music of suffering.
The relationship between music and verse
In their fenomenal article, “Góngora y la música” Lola Josa and Mariano Lambea argue that, in the context of Baroque musical compositions, the relationship between literary and musical art could be precisely realised in a work of superior art. To achieve this, the technical elements of musical language must follow a process of dependence on the poetic sense of the text.
As such, in an extract from said article, the theorist Pedro Cerone, of Bergamo, advised composers of the period of the following:
“The most essential part is doing what the text calls for; is it joyful or sad, heavy or light, distant or near, humble or grandiose, in order that [la música]make the effect that the text intends, and so as to lift the spirits of those listening.”
This small extract correctly points to that unerring need of the human heart and to its need to express itself. The voice of the flamenco singer does not seek excellence, but rather the maximum expression of feeling.
Guitar in flamenco
The foremost instrument in flamenco. Almost unfailingly present in any flamenco gathering is the guitar. Its strings accompany the singer in his song and the dancer in her dance.
While the most basic songs were not accompanied by any instrument, the guitar was the first to appear in accompanying the singer. Musicologists and experts on Andalusian folk music consider guitars to have entered the world of flamenco in the 19th century.
And since guitars entered the flamenco stage, not only do they accompany dance, they also incite dance. Their presence cultivates the expansion of flamenco expression, creating a process of specialisation, diversification and as a result, the classification of songs and varios flamenco rhythms, or “palos”.
In its early days, flamenco germinated in an environment where various cultures, Spanish, Arab, Gypsy and Hebrew, coexisted. A unique mix of its influences, mannerisms and instruments was produced. For this reason, the way flamenco guitar is played is different from the classical troubadour, concert or festival styles.
The flamenco beat, the different rhythms and the flamenco personality have forged an instrument with peculiar characteristics, defined as flamenco guitar.
The flamenco style is different from other ways of playing traditional guitar. The evolution of this style has led to the instrument itself specialising little by little and becoming more flamenco, to the point that it differs in its structure from other guitars.
What is the difference between a classical and Spanish guitar?
In flamenco tablaos, alongside song, the guitar is the soul of the show.. The guitar and its chords inspire and support the singers and dancers. It is responsible for a large part of what happens on the stage. Flamenco guitar is a variant of classical and Spanish guitar.
As such, flamenco guitar is ultimately different from traditional guitar, despite the fact that the two are indistinguishable to the untrained eye:
- The weight: the flamenco guitar is lighter than classical guitars. The sides of the body are narrower and the distance between the back of the body and soundboard is diminished, resulting in a smaller interior body and in less mass. The material that makes up the body also tends to be thinner, which also affects the guitar’s total mass. The material that makes up the body also tends to be thinner, which also affects the guitar’s total mass.
- The strings: are lower in the frets. A key principle in the fabrication of flamenco guitars is the position of the strings on the fretboard. It’s almost indispensable that there be a slight “cerdeo” in the strings to give the guitar its characteristically metallic, percussive sound.
This quality is achieved by maintaining the strings very close to the fretboard. Keeping a small distance between the strings and the fretboard has the benefit of comfort, which adds to the ease of playing in the flamenco style.
- The wood: The flamenco guitar is made from tonal woods to give it the voices that differentiate it. Generally, the sides and back of the body of flamenco guitars are made from cypress wood, which is lighter than cedar and persimmon. German fir wood is the preferred wood for the soundboard.
- The internal layout: flamenco guitars have a different arrangement of the soundboards inside the top than classical guitars. The varetaje of a flamenco guitar is designed to give a percussive sonority to the top. The placement of the bracing defines the type of vibration of the top of the guitar.
- The sound: The sum of the use of lighter woods, the low action of the strings and a thinner neck result in a flamenco guitar having a sharper timbre than a classical guitar and, ultimately, a brighter sound.
All of these elements of the flamenco guitar give it a lively and brighter percussive quality. They also lend it its flamenco personality and characteristics, producing different sounds which among flamenco artists are called by names such as ‘dry,’ ‘metallic’ or ‘scratchy.’
Another peculiarity of flamenco guitar is the differentiation between “male” and “female” guitars. Once a guitar has been built, its personality is said to be “male” or “female” depending on the sound of its “bordon” or bass string.
Hands and feet of flamenco
Rhythm is unquestionably the base of flamenco as an art and at the heart of its good practice. For this reason, it’s important to highlight two of its most fundamental and crucial instruments, that perhaps due to their obviousness and simple nature tend to go unnoticed in the presence of dance and the sound of the guitar: the hands and feet of the artists sitting “behind” those performing.
Since a good sense of rhythm is a prerequisite to be considered a flamenco artist, not one note nor step can be executed without the metronome of flamenco: “el golpe” or the beat as a physical force.
Whether it be made such with the hands by way of clapping, or by the stamping of feet (either sitting or standing), the beat is essential.
Another genuine and unique sound of flamenco is the “pitos,” a sound which results from the snapping of the thumb against the three fingers which follow it, the index, middle and ring. One of the characteristic features of a gypsy’s dance is the keeping of the beat with “pitos” as one dances.
In order to outline the power of rhythm, one need look no further than a group of flamencos in the street performing with nothing but their own bodies. The ability to make flamenco music with rhythm from scratch is one of the most notable features of the legacy of the gypsy people.
Clapping in flamenco
Clapping plays an essential role in flamenco music, and above all in the development of flamenco dance.
The sound that is born through the meeting of palms is the motor of the rhythm and beat of flamenco. Clapping is the central stimulus for flamenco artists and musicians, and serves as an indispensable accompaniment in a flamenco group.
Claps punctuate and mark the accent of the song and dance. Good clapping is music in itself.
How does one distinguish between different kinds of flamenco claps?
- According to the way they sound:
muffled and dry Muffled claps sound grave and soft, as a result of the hollow in a cupped palm. The point of them is not to obscure the sound of the guitar or the voice, but rather to accompany them respectfully.
Dry claps, also called “natural” claps, are strong and sharper as a result of the force of their sound which comes from tense, hard palms. These highlight the moments of intensity in the dance and playing of the guitar.
- According to their functioning in time: simple and “redoblás” or “encontrás”
Simple claps mark simple time, the natural rhythm of the beat.The “Redoblás,” or doubled and “encontrás” or contradictory are syncopated and at odds with the simple claps that carry the beat.
All great musicians and flamenco stars, Carmen Amaya, Paco de Lucia, Lola Flores and Rosalia, to name a few, have relied without fault on their team of artists who clap professionally.
The great musical category required makes palmeros one of the most necessary but difficult specialties in the professional flamenco world.
The palmas (hand clapping) and it is the good compás (rhythm) that guides and drags all the flamencos towards the music and flamenco. At this point we invite you to visit the following scene of an excerpt from a performance by Carmen Amaya, where despite the presence of the guitars, only the palmeros dominate and rule.
The flamenco feet
We like to emphasise the roll feet play as an essential element in the keeping of the flamenco beat. While the foot may be the foundation and physical base of dance, it is also one of the “producers of the complex flamenco beat.”
It is no coincidence that when a dancer knows how to mark the rhythm well he is said to have “buenos pies” or “good feet.”
Or the other way in which it is referred to when someone is able to keep the rhythm, even when seated as in the case of those clapping or other musicians in the group, is “meter el pie” or “inserting the foot” in the most opportune moment.
Flamenco voices, clapping and guitar… In El Tablao de Carmen rhythm rules. Its guardians are the artists, the singers, the guitarists and dancers. On a daily basis they gift a refined and unique art, flamenco.
Since its inception, the purpose of El Tablao de Carmen has been to offer the foundation of pure flamenco, nothing more and nothing less than flamenco rhythm and beat, to whoever presents themselves at our doors.
In memory of the genius of beat and of flamenco rhythm, Carmen Amaya. Always.