What is the ‘compás flamenco’?

Compas Flamenco

The beat [el compás] is the root of flamenco, the foundation, the mother from which all flamenco styles are born. Without the ‘compás’, there is no flamenco; they are inseparable, and even when it is less palpable, such as in a slow piece, the rhythm is there even if not audibly. It is a feeling that comes from the inside. It is the heart that moves flamenco. “Give me the beat” [“dame compás”] is what any flamenco artist asks for, because without the beat, there is nothing.

The flamenco beat baffles anyone who approaches it, even professional musicians from other genres and musicologists, are surprised that flamenco artists secretly know such an unprecedented and unique rhythm. Much of the mystery lies in the 12-beat rhythm, present in many flagship styles such as bulerías, alegrías, or soleás.

Musicologist Faustino Núñez, on his Flamencópolis website, explains that in the past, when flamenco was born (around the late 18th century, when only singing and rhythm, without a guitar, were performed), deep flamenco singing occurred only in private gatherings, in closed circles, and only a few had access to hear, understand, and internalize the 12-beat rhythm, as if it were the best-kept secret. The birth of this rhythm and its aura of mystery occurred mainly because flamenco has always been an art transmitted orally from parents to children, without sheet music, outside of academic musical logic, making it difficult to learn through tradtional methods. Enrique Morente summarized it like this: “Learning flamenco is strange because you learn it in the air”.

“If you don’t have ‘soniquete,’ why you do it?”

Being within the rhythm that the palo [varietie] flamenco demands is essential, an indispensable requirement. Faustino Núñez even speaks of the “dictatorship of “soniquete” [rythm] to refer to the imposition of the beat as a parameter to measure whether a flamenco artist is worthy or not. The word became popular in 1991 with the release of Paco de Lucía’s Zyryab album, where Potito sang: “If you don’t have ‘soniquete’. why you do it?”, and fidelity to the beat began to be taken as the main criterion for the artistic value.

The innate grace in each artist

But beyond the exact science of times and beats, there is an “internal beat”, which not only involves knowing the metric structure of each style but also the grace or indeed the ‘soniquete’of each artist when singing the melody over the beat or tapping to the guitar’s rhythm. In addition to the relevance of the innate intuition and interpretation of each, ingenuity comes out in each artist through a lot of work and practice: where to begin and where to finish a melody, when to pay attention to silence, where to stretch the syllable… Mimo Agüero, director of the Tablao de Carmen,explains it this way: “The interpretation by the artists is what makes them great; the beat is what it is, it’s there, and genius is when someone adapts to it and exalts it. The flamenco beat is an immovable thing that popular culture knows how to highlight”.

A beat that a computer cannot replicate

A great classical music performer and flamenco enthusiast describes the relevance of the flamenco beat: “It cannot be done with a computer because a good beat is loaded with tradition and is the result of the mix of all cultures that came together in Spain, it is the blend of the old and the young. Both are needed to continue existing, just like the wine from Jerez de la Frontera, where the old wine in the barrel needs the new and viceversa”.

The matter of the beat refers to the importance of family in the Gypsy world, to the intense coexistence between elders and children, where everyone joins in the beat and supports each other, both in music and in life.

History of the flamenco beat

The ternary beat mainly draws from the Andalusian tradition and Spanish musical tradition in general. In fact, it is also known as “abandolao” beat because it is present in Spanish bolero. The binary beat comes from American tango and arrived from Cuba to Cádiz in the early 19th century when it was incorporated into flamenco. It is widespread in many Hispanic genres of very different kinds, such as the jota, the pasodoble, or reggaeton. The 12-beat rhythm was already present in the 17th century, both in cities and colonies, and was present in local songs such as chaconas and jácaras, but also in styles from America such as guajira and petenera.

Structure of the flamenco beat

Binary beat:Characteristic of fandangos (one of the most performed today is the fandango de Huelva) and seguidillas, originating from national folk traditions, which contributed to giving flamenco a very characteristic beat.

Ternary beat:In flamenco, they are divided into binary beats with binary subdivision (2/4 or 4/4), in the case of tangos, tientos, tarantos, or rumbas, among others, or binary beats with ternary subdivision (6/8), in the case of tanguillos.

The key to the mystery lies in the 12-beat rhythm, also called amalgamated beat, as it combines a binary beat and a ternary one (¾ + 6/8 or 6/8 + ¾). The major problem with this rhythm is understanding where the accents are placed, but this is complicated by the flamenco custom of the headless beat, where the first beat is silent, and by the musical phenomenon called ‘hemiola’, which articulates a ternary beat as binary, as in bulerías, adding tension to the music and interpretation.

This amalgamation beat is present in bulerías, soleás, bulerías por soleá, cantiñas, alegrías, guajiras, and peteneras (it was even called ‘petenera beat’ for a while), among other styles. The traditional count is structured as follows (the bold number corresponds to the accent):

1 2 3 / 4 5 6 / 7 8 / 9 10 / 1 2

However, when performing, it is not always counted the same way, and the accents are not always marked on the same beats. The bulería beat, for example, is also counted as 6 (half beat) instead of 12, especially in Jerez, the birthplace of this style. The same happens in verdiales, romances, and jaleos. In addition, the ending (of the guitar and the dance) [called ‘remate’] is on the 4, instead of the 10. The structure is then as follows:

2 / 1 2 / 3 4 / 5 6 / 7 8 9 10 / 1

But the complication of this beat is summarized by the cantaor Bastián de Jerez: “In Jerez, we can end at any time, it’s just very difficult to explain this to someone who is not from here”.

The beat in dance

Another complication of this beat is that in dance, the way of measuring the steps does not correspond to the traditional measure, which further confuses the audience. In this sense, throughout the history of flamenco, many dancers have contributed their personal expression of the beat, such as Antonio Ruiz, who danced the martinete with the seguiriya beat, or Carmen Amaya, the Barcelona dancer to whom the Tablao de Carmen is dedicated, who was the first to dance tarantos in a show, which is still danced in our tablao and other flamenco spaces today.

Seeing and hearing flamenco artists in the flamenco atmosphere of the Tablao de Carmen allows you to approach feeling and to understand the mystery of this unique and almost spiritual rhythmic quality of flamenco. Our flamenco troupe shows flamenco rhythm and beat every night. ¡Viva el compás! We invite you to come and experience it!