Flamenco Singing: Fundamental Pillar

“Flamenco song is not understood, it is lived,” said writer Fernando Quiñones. While there have been countless attempts to define it, Luis López Ruiz’s Flamenco Guide documented Antonio Mairena, a renowned flamenco singer and dedicated scholar of flamenco song, concluding: “We do not believe it possible to define flamenco singing.”

What can be explained about flamenco song is that it often speaks of intense emotionsit brings both pain and joy to their maximum intensity. The Cordovan poet Ricardo Molina called these the “radical feelings and intuitions of man”.

It can also be noted that the first manifestations of proto-flamenco singing in the 19th century (of which verses are still sung today) mostly emerged from the space of labour: the forge, the countryside, and the mines. Similarly, flamenco song is, by definition, solitary. The singer sings alone. Guitar accompaniment, dance, and spectacle came much later. Singing was the seed from which the entire framework of the art of flamenco emerged, and it remains to this day its fundamental pillar.

Types of Flamenco Singing

Within the countless song forms (called palos in flamenco), lyrics, themes, and melodies that make up flamenco singing, there are two main groups: cante chico and cante grande.

  • Cante chico is lighter and happier: these are the most festive palos, such as alegrías, bulerías, and tangos. They speak of love, vital illusions, and joys.
  • Cante grandeis also known as cante jondo. This includes seguiriyas, soleás, and tonás, among others, and tell stories of great sorrows, anguishes, or even death.

Songs can also be classified by type of rhythm (binary, ternary, or twelve-beat) or by place of origin (Levante, Cádiz and Los Puertos, Seville and Triana…). However, here we will explain the classification from the Flamenco Guide by Luis López Ruiz, which divides flamenco singing into three main groups of flamenco palos.

  • First are basic, or free, songs and their derivatives, including the most primitive palos such as tonás, martinete, carcelera, or debla. These are sung without accompaniment and without a determined metric.

Tangos, the most sung and well-known palo by the general public, tanguillos, and tientos are also included. Then there are joyful palos sung in major tonality such as alegría, cantiñas, romeras, and caracoles.

  • Second come fandangos and their derivatives: among which are local fandangos These songs originate from places such as Málaga, Huelva, Almería and Alosno. A few examples are malagueñas, granaínas, and medias granaínas, from which the so-called miner-Levantine songs emerged: minera, cartagenera, taranta, and taranto.
  • The third category is flamenco-influenced songs of regional or Latin American folkloric origin.In these examples, the place of origin is of great importance. This category is made up of the rumba (from Catalonia) and sevillanas, as well as songs known as ida y vuelta (round-trip). The latter originated in Latin America, and include the guajira, milonga, vidalita, and colombiana.

Great Masters of Flamenco Singing

These are singers who, in the two hundred years of flamenco history, have contributed to the evolution, development, and dissemination of flamenco song. It is believed and recounted that the first singer in history was Tío Luis el de la Juliana, in Jerez de la Frontera, but his existence has not been proven. Other singers included El Planeta, El Fillo, or La Andonda. All of these harken from Triana, Seville, one of the cradles of flamenco. However the first singer to appear in documented records is Silverio Franconetti, of Italian father and Spanish mother, born and raised in Seville in the 19th century. A great singer of seguiriyas, he led the professionalization of singing, taking it out of taverns and bringing it to singing cafes. Whatsmore, he was “the first to sense the significance of singing,” according to the Flamenco Guide.

In the mid-19th century, the Llave de Oro del Cante (Golden Key)award was created in Madrid. It has only been awarded to five artists throughout history: Tomás el Nitri, Manuel Vallejo, Antonio Mairena, Camarón, and Fosforito. While he earned no prize, it is also worth mentioning don Antonio Chacón, who earned such respect that he is always referred to with the ‘don’ before his name. Along Antonio Mairena , Chacón was one of the greats of the 20th century, interested not only in being a singer but also a flamenco scholar. Another event of note was the famous Granada Contest of 1922, whose winners were El Tenazas de Morón and Manolo Caracol. The latter was unknown at the time, but went on to become one of the great masters of flamenco song.

Regarding female singers, figures like Pastora Pavón, known as La Niña de los Peines, La Paquera de Jerez, La Perla de Cádiz, and Fernanda y Bernarda de Utrera have marked the history of flamenco singing. Families of singers have also been very important, where practically in each generation a new singer of great calibre emerges. Examples of these are the families of Terremoto and Sordera in Jerez de la Frontera.

The figure of the master is crucial for every artist starting out in this discipline. In the world of flamenco, respect for the elders’ knowledge and execution of song is a key aspect of learning. Admiration is such that in some cases a singer’s style can lead a palo to be named after them. The malagueña of El Mellizo, for example, is a melody invented by the artist of the same name and well received by singers and enthusiasts alike.

Singing in Dance

Finally, it is necessary to distinguish between cante alante (singing upfront) and cante atrás (singing behind). The former refers to singing solo, and the latter to singing in accompaniment to dance, or “for” the dancer. Each flamenco corner tends to prioritise one type of show more. In the peñas (flamenco clubs), singing alante is prioritized, with a singer and a guitarist. In the tablaos (flamenco venues), although there may be singing alante, or even a guitar solo, the main protagonist is the dance. Although there are times when they start, musicians follow the rhythm set by the dancer when singing and playing for dance. If the dancer speeds up the rhythm of their zapateado (footwork), the singer accelerates the hand clapping and the guitarist the strumming. In tablaos, the importance of rhythm is paramount and there may be more or less improvisation, depending on the style of each venue. At Tablao de Carmen, we prioritise rhythm as a guide and ensure harmony among artists in each performance, every night. Come and enjoy it with us!