Flamenco – Complete Beginner's Guide | Songlines
Friday, February 9, 2018

The Songlines guide to Flamenco


Flamenco is a way of living. It’s about taking risks and letting yourself get carried away by what you feel in your heart, with your body. Jan Fairley offers a beginner’s guide to an Andalucían artform that has found popularity throughout the world



February in Jérez, a town in the heart of Andalucía. The sun is shining outside as we tuck into olives, ham and pale dry fino in a tablao restaurant at the edge of the Santiago Gypsy neighbourhood. Before us a group of local teenagers and 20-somethings – singers, guitarists and dancers – have taken to the stage, sending jaws dropping as they weave their magic. ‘Ayeee’ is the cry. Soon everyone is transfixed. ‘Olé’ they shout in encouragement, asking for more.

The night before at Jérez’s key annual flamenco festival we saw the multi-racial Ángeles Gabaldón Company performed Inmigración, a moving political piece set to the Al Andalus-Arab music of the Chekkara Orchestra of Tetuán. The multimedia show’s theme is the illegal trafficking of people, focusing on the plight of North Africans failing to get into Spain in flimsy boats. Andalucía, the show insists, is a region of immigrants. Where once it was the Gypsies, the very people whose culture created flamenco, who were persecuted, today it is North Africans. Both the show and the tablao exemplify how flamenco’s passion remains undimmed. Their concerns draw on the old and the new and are at the cutting edge of European culture.

You only need to experience a local tablao group or the big names such as José Mercé, Enrique Morente, Miguel Poveda, Vicente Amigo, Gerardo Nuñez, Sara Baras or Eva la Yerbabuena to know why. An ancient tradition bristling with passion, flamenco has rejuvenated itself by absorbing a wealth of new influences. The dazzling quality is such that flamenco’s creative energy has come to symbolise modern Spain. As Spain’s leading dancer and choreographer Baras says, “I value bravery and taking risks. There must be risk in art… If not, you don’t get anywhere… you have to improvise… let yourself get carried away by what you feel in your heart, with your body.”


While flamenco today is found everywhere, its heartland remains Andalucía, in particular the triangle between Seville, Cádiz and Ronda with Jeréz at its centre, and in Gypsy neighbourhoods around Triana, Acalao, Utrera, Lebrija. Gypsies remain one of the ethnic groups most marginalised in European history. In his song ‘Persecución’, Juan Peña’ ‘El Lebrijano’ captures centuries of persecution singing ‘por galera’. He tells how Spanish Gypsies were treated as slaves and sent to the galleys. “The Church did terrible things, rejecting Gypsies and protecting those who killed them. So did Philip II in 17th century Spain. Gypsy lives were destroyed. Flamenco music comes out of that, people communicate real pain and suffering. That’s where the whole feeling of jondo – deep song – comes from and that’s why people sometimes cry when they hear flamenco.”

Flamenco’s origins lie in ancient, private traditions which the gitanos (Gypsies) brought with them when they migrated from India 1,000 years ago.

From the 1500s onwards, Gypsies were a key part of Andalucía’s ethnic mix, performing music as a traditional occupation. By the 18th century professional Gypsy musicians had ‘flamencoised’ Andalusian folk music, full of cultural influences from the many groups who co-existed for centuries – Moors, Arabs, Berbers, Jews and Christians alike. They were influenced by the port musics of Cádiz and Seville, whose key trade with the New World brought them African and Latin American communities. This to-ing and fro-ing (ida y vuelta) of people, music and influences from old to new world and back again fed into flamenco and continues unabated. The vitality of a young group like Son de la Frontera comes from a fusion of the family tradition of Diego del Gastor of Morón de la Frontera with that of Cuba. Guitarist Raúl Rodríguez (son of flamenco’s avant-garde singer Martirio) use of Cuban tres guitar renews century old links between Andalusian and Canary Island immigrants who went to grow tobacco in Cuba.

Gypsy blood remains key. As Mario Pacheco, boss of key flamenco label Nuevos Medios says, “Without that Gypsy blood and attitude flamenco would have become folkloric instead of being vitally authentic and popular.” Gypsies expected neither luck nor divine providence from life. In the words of singer José Mercé, “Flamenco is flamenco from Gypsy or non-Gypsy. But what happens is that Gypsies have a way of feeling that is special, different. Fernando el Terremoto summed it up when he said, ‘We throw the salt on the other side’”.


Walk into a Spanish bar late-night and a group of people may be double handclapping a sevillana. Fingers clicking, one or two dancers weave in and out in small circles swirling beautiful shapes with their arms, their rapid toe-heel moves zapateando tapping percussive rhythms. This is a good way into flamenco, just as listening to the rumbas and tangos of fusion groups like Ojos de Brujo and Radio Tarifa set the mood.

The next stage, which inevitably means jumping into something deeper, can initially frighten people off because of the potency of emotions. It’s the equivalent of pouring your heart out to someone, venting anger, frustration, disappointment, the inner mind world that stresses us out and can literally drive us insane. What’s unique about flamenco is that these feelings are neither censored nor romanticised. Articulated and heard, they provoke catharsis – the totality of flamenco is key. As Estrella Morente, daughter of singer Enrique Morente and dancer Aurora Carbonell, and married to top bullfighter Javier Condé says, “To be ‘flamenco’ is to understand life in a different way. It’s taking art by the horns of the bull and saying, ‘I will live life from the basis of art, and I am going to eat and drink that art.’ So when you eat, you are flamenco, even when you are ironing you are flamenco. Flamenco is a way of living, of moving your body, your hands, everything.”


To enjoy flamenco it helps to know about the technical side of things. When a singer begins, they tell the guitarist to play a particular song form and flamenco has many different types called canteor palo(s). They can be grouped according to where they come from, degree of profundity: cante jondo (deep song), cante grande (great song) or cante chico or liviano (little or light song), ethnic origin or musical features. The essential thing is, whatever the form, all flamenco can be deep and great – focus, delivery and intention is all.


During the dark years of the Franco dictatorship in Spain from 1939 to 1975, flamenco survived where it first originated in the juergas and fiestas of close knit Gypsy families making their own entertainment. The renaissance came at the beginning of the 70s due to geniuses like late, legendary singer, El Camarón de la Isla and guitarist Paco de Lucía who coolly changed all the rules. Their union as Gypsy and non-Gypsy summed up flamenco’s ‘new’ approach, opening to incorporate ideas from jazz, rock and classical idioms while staying firmly rooted in centuries of handed-down oral tradition.

With fiery panache they embodied flamenco as a life-long discipline. De Lucía, who began aged five, has memories of playing for 12 hours a day. “My father had to earn his living playing at night for the rich señoritos who got drunk with whores and fancied a party. That was the highest thing any flamenco musician could aspire to then, to be hired by one of them. He would come back home with the 100 or 500 pesetas they had tipped him and we would have breakfast with that. I thought it was normal for hands to be playing guitar as my father and my brother did. I knew the rhythms instinctively and began creating my own way of playing early on. By the time I was 12 I was earning money. I do not think genius is born into you, you have to work for it. Talent alone is not sufficient. And you have to continue pushing yourself just like that very first day.”

De Lucía became the most influential flamenco artist of the latter 20th century. Growing up with all manner of music, performing with rock guitarists and jazz fusionists like John McLaughlin and Al di Meola, he enriched flamenco’s harmonic vocabulary exploring timbre and texture, using innovative left hand slides, bent notes, right hand unsupported chords. His band’s introduction of the Peruvian cajón box was so fast and fluent it is now thought by many to be indigenous to flamenco.

In the 80s another new generation spearheaded by the groups Pata Negra and Ketama and artists like Enrique Morente and Tomatito experimented further incorporating ideas from blues, rock, Latin and modern jazz. This continues in the 21st century: in the words of ‘Aire’, a José Mercé song which saw flamenco in the Spanish mainstream charts, it’s all about ‘air’ letting in new ideas, taking risks, feeling the freedom to innovate while staying true to the cante forms.



Each form is built on its own compás, a set of rhythms that it helps to think of as a rhythmic unit. This is usually based on 12 beats clapped continuously by a person whose job is to do just that (they’re sometimes called ‘angel’ as they keep watch on everything). The important difference between forms comes down to tempo and which of the 12 beats are given particular stress. Forms considered distinctively ‘Gypsy’ like soleares, alegrías, bulerías, stress beats one, three, six, eight and ten, eg ONE–two-THREE–four–five–SIX–seven-EIGHT–nine-TEN-eleven-twelve etc Some songs use free rhythms (cantes libres). Many flamenco forms use a modal scale often described as ‘exotic’ and ‘dark’ because it is seldom used in Western music. Its technical name is Phyrigian (find it by playing the white notes on piano from E to E), what is important is that it uses lot of minor intervals which gives it its’ distinctive flamenco sound.


The art of flamenco is to rivet the listener to your tale so they think of nothing else save what they hear and see. This is why lyrics are often sobbed, even histrionically cried out, with particular words and phrases extended using vocal melisma, that is elongated with a lot of dramatic and subtle tremolo fluttering of the throat. While there are few female guitarists, female singers and dancers are as independent and strong as men. For a singer to be original is a huge challenge. They have to master the complicated timings and memorise hundreds of different verses handed down which are copied to the last subtle vocal move. Only when they can do this well with ease, can they ‘create’ giving their performance their individual stamp. An improvising singer selects from a vast number of ready-made poetic verses called letras or coplas (in Spanish or the Spanish-Gypsy language cayó). Often only three or four lines long, they get linked together and therein lies individual creative genius.

Flamenco Guitar

The guitar came late to flamenco with Gypsies relying on their bodies to sing, dance, clap, rap knuckles on table or strike the blacksmiths forge for the martinete. Made of lighter wood than the classical version, it only became integral in the mid-19th century when guitarists began supporting singers and dancers in public at the café cantantes. The guitarist’s job is to set the ambience, support the singer and in between verses play solos called falsetas, some of which date way back to the popular romance tunes composed by vihuela players from 16th century onwards.

As guitarists became bolder they demanded more time for themselves and so the solo toque (guitar form of cante) emerged. A key generation born in the late 19th, early 20th century, including landmark figures like Ramón Montoya, codified technique, establishing a new virtuosity by involving classical features, arpeggios, intricate left-hand work, varied, fast picado (single-notes) runs and four-fingered tremolos. Montoya also fixed certain keys to specific forms. Guitarists like Niño Ricardo, Sabicas and Diego del Gastor became renowned for their falsetas handed down and copied by subsequent generations. A toque (guitar solo), is composed of a sequence of falsetas and many heard today began life at least a couple of hundred years back.


Duendes are literally ‘ghosts’ or ‘demons’ and many past cantaores (singers) believed they were poltergeist-like creatures who held the true secrets of cante. They possessed the minds and bodies of singers and dancers when they totally sublimated themselves in the moment sending those present into a state of inspired ecstasy. Today this key word gets abused, used too easily to pinpoint poignant or exquisite moments. You encounter duende when you get goose-flesh and momentarily move out of time into a transformed space. You may be involuntarily moved to weep.

Flamenco’s reach – the local peña

Flamenco today has new intensity and impact as it moves with wit and energy in numerous directions as the historic ingredients – be they Gypsy, Moorish-Arab, Judaic or Latin – interact in dynamic new ways with jazz, hip-hop, rock, pop and electronica at clubs and worldwide festivals. Meanwhile back in Andalucía flamenco thrives in the numerous local peña clubs like that dedicated to seminal singer La Niña de los Peines, off the main square of the small town of Arahal. Here you watch and listen, sitting on typical straight-backed, rush-seated chairs found all over Andalucía. Past and present meet in this white ancient building, its thick walls lined with photos of renowned musicians old and young, for this is where once famous singers Pastora Pavón Cruz (La Niña) and Pepe Marchena used to meet and where undoubtedly they hover today to impart their duende.



Paco de Lucía

Cositas Buenas (Mercury)

Created during two years self-exile on a Yucatan beach, Mexico with its tribute to El Camarón.


El Camarón 

Potro de Rabia y Miel (Polygram)

The most influential singer of the modern period accompanied by Paco de Lucía and Tomatito.


José Mercé 

Aire (Virgin)

One, if not the, most important singer of the 21st century. ‘La Vida Sale’ and ‘Aire’ hit the Spanish pop charts.


Estrella Morente 

Mi Cante y Un Poema (Real World)

Singing with wisdom beyond her years, this breathtaking debut was produced by her father, Enrique.


El Lebrijano 

Yo me llamó Juan (Flamenco Duende, Senador)

Roots songs from a Gypsy champion.



Various Artists 

I Concurso de Cante Jondo (Sonifolk)

Remastering of hardcore originals from the 1922 Granada festival sponsored by poet Lorca.



Son de la Frontera 

Son de la Frontera (Nuevos Medios)

Ida y vuelta re-forged by marrying plangent Cuban tres guitar to song of classic guitarist Diego el Gastor.


Diego El Cigala 

Picasso en Mis Ojos (Sony/BMG)

El Cigala tributes Picasso with Tomatio and Raimundo Amador.



Various Artists 

Beginner’s Guide to Flamenco (Nascente)

Three CDs integrating old and new voices, male and female, fusion and roots, peña to club energies.

This article originally appeared in Songlines issue 36, May 2006

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