Paraphrasing the great Woody Allen, this post is about “Everything you always wanted to know about flamenco and never dared to ask”… This major art, this great unknown, and these curiosities of flamenco.

The world of flamenco has not only left us artists and songs for posterity: it is also a culture full of fascinating curiosities. Do you know the etymology of the word “flamenco”? The hidden influences of the genre or the amount of clubs that exist? And like these, there are countless other curiosities. Let’s try to solve them!

Curiosities about Flamenco

1️⃣ Do you know the meaning of “flamenco”?

There are several theories that tell us about the origin of the word “flamenco”, but none definitive. Some attribute it to the relationship with Flanders, either because of the “colorado” color of the Nordic inhabitants or because when a cantaor stood out he was praised for the good reputation of the singers from that part of Europe, who performed in the Spanish chapels during the 16th century. García Matos attributes it to the slang used at the time to refer to the “ostentatious, boastful or echao p’alante”.

Another theory attributes it to the false belief that the Gypsies came from Germany, and called both the Germans and the inhabitants of the Netherlands Flemish.

Finally, the most curious one for us, says that “flamenco” comes from two Arabic words. One is -(falah): peasant who lives off the land, and the other, -(mankub): marginalised, evicted, humiliated, dispossessed …

In this vein, we endorse the words of the distinguished guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar, who wrote: “…Being reproached and even banished, the marginalised, Andalusian natives, Jews and Muslims, Marranos and Moriscos, the marginalised, excluded or dispossessed of their land, were welcomed by other harassed and persecuted, the Andalusian gypsy people, to whom they would transmit the knowledge of the culture and music of the Cante Jondo”.

2️⃣ Flamenco: an art that comes from many cultures

There is not enough space here to deal in depth with the history of flamenco, its origins, its main creators… but there is room for a very brief review. Not to mention the flamenco curiosities that we want to unravel here.

Flamenco, as we know it today, did not exist before the end of 18th or early 19th century. The elements that make up the style did exist, but not as flamenco, they were not even called that way; they existed as Andalusian dances, gypsy dances, black dances, bolero school, theatre dances, etc.

Although the known documentary history of this art form dates only from the centuries I have mentioned above, i.e. the 18th and 19th centuries, flamenco scholars trace it back to a thousand years before the Christian era to point out the essential characteristics of the Andalusian cultural background, and a number of very important historical references are always cited, such as:

-The Tartessian laws metrocantables
-Phoenician colonisati
-the Greek colonisation of Andalusia
-The Cádiz Cantica
The Spanish-Pagan-Latin canticle

We should also mention the influence of the Visigoths, the Arabs with the poetic-musical schools of Medina-Bagdad-Mosul, the ancient carols and the indigenous Mozarabic compositions: moaxaja and zéjel, as well as the Hebrew influence.

The arrival of the Gypsies in Spain dates back to 1425. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, they travelled all over the country, most of them settling in Andalusia. From this point on, and in order for you to understand better, we could classify the development of flamenco in stages. We start at the end of the 18th century with:

  • The hermetic stage (called the hermetic stage because flamenco lived in secrecy, kept within the sphere of gypsy culture).
  • Primitive stage (because the fundamental flamenco songs began to be defined and disseminated).
    -The Golden Age (the cafés cantantes appear, the fundamental styles are fixed and flamenco becomes professionalised).
  • Transitional stage
  • Flamenco opera (this name is due to a business strategy to obtain tax benefits for flamenco shows).
  • Renaissance period (between 1955 and 1985). Anthologies of Flamenco Singing, Competitions, the Chair of Flamencology in Jerez de la Frontera, the National Festival of Cante de las Minas, the first tablaos and peñas (flamenco clubs) were born…).
  • Contemporary Stage

Finally, it is worth mentioning the evolution of flamenco in what is today without doubt one of the world capitals of Flamenco, Madrid (together with Seville, Cadiz, Jerez and Barcelona), which hosts all the branches of this Art, and which is also one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Europe. In its streets resound Flemish beats, but also those of other places, Indians, Jews, Arabs, Latins, Africans, Central Europeans… Romani blood mixes in its millenary journey with other bloods, other sounds, of which Madrid is a privileged repository. In times like these, when migratory flows are once again reaching historic proportions, it is worth remembering that it is these flows, provoked by the just aspiration of peoples for a better life, that have sown the fruits on which our culture is nourished. Would Madrid be the same today without the Arab, Mozarabic and Jewish influences? Without the Latin American connection? Can Spanish music be understood without the traces of other cultures? We believe that culture, art, should not be thought of as a watertight compartment with no relation to other worlds, but as a melting pot of encounters where the identities that shape us are forged.

3️⃣ Flamenco singing and flamenco styles

We are often asked a question: How many flamenco “palos” are there?

The answer is not easy, that is to say, it is not a closed number, but we can safely say that the number of clubs exceeds one hundred. But what is a “palo”? Are a “palo” and a “cante” the same thing? What types of variants are there? Let us clarify some principles.

A palo is a style within flamenco that has its own melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and even lyrical particularities. There are festive, happy, slow, fast, deep, light, dramatic styles… with different types of dance formats and, above all, identified and grouped around the type of flamenco singing and the way it is accompanied by both the guitar and the dance.

There are ancient, modern, classical, etc… Binary, ternary, in 4/4, in 6/8, with and without hemiolia, with and without amalgamation, in major, minor, modal tones… there is a great quantity!

Furthermore, it is necessary to differentiate between “personal” – that is, variants that a cantaor performed in a particular way and that have remained – and “regional” variants – identified by their place of origin, palos that we can call “thematic”, since they are identified by some part of their lyrics.

Then, we have the intertwined relationships between them, how one develops, intertwines and becomes another, for example, the soleá and the bulería, or the tientos and the tangos, in short…

To illustrate this immense network of palos, we can cite the Árbol Genealógico del Cante, which appears in the book Geografía del Cante Jondo, by Domingo Manfredi, published many years ago, or the more recent mappings by Faustino Núñez, modern and very complete.

4️⃣ One of flamenco’s most famous singers

To say “one of the most famous cantaoras of flamenco” would be to go beyond the impossible: the number of cantaoras who have left their mark on the world of flamenco singing is enormous, and a large number of them have never been recorded. Of the oldest ones, we have no sound recordings, although there are echoes of how they performed certain cantes, uses, forms, lyrics… Moreover, on many occasions, they were forgers of cantes that have survived to the present day. To mention just a few names of the most important female flamenco singers in history (in no order or order, old and modern, all legendary, the real list would be endless), mixing current flamenco singers with old flamenco singers, we will mention La Andonda -who bequeathed us soleá songs-, La Serneta, Fernanda de Utrera -considered by many to be the best soleares singer of all time-, La Niña de los Peines, La Repompa de Málaga, Carmen Linares, Estrella Morente, Lole Montoya, Mayte Martín, La Perla de Cádiz, La Paquera de Jerez, Juana la del Revuelo, Rita la Cantaora, Remedios Amaya, La Macanita…

5️⃣ The importance of the use of the capo when playing flamenco

The “cejilla” is a movable attachment that can be fixed wherever it is necessary to give each cantaor his or her own tone. It has been used since the last half of the 19th century. Before its use, the guitar only gave the cantaor two tones: E and A, or, in flamenco parlance, “por arriba” and “por medio”.

From Cádiz came Paquirri El Guante, a versatile artist who played the guitar, sang and danced. Together with José Patiño, he spread the use of the capo. According to José Manuel Gamboa, the adoption of the capo was a fundamental step in the consolidation of professional flamenco, as Ferandiere said, one can accompany the guitar without the capo, with a repertoire of chords sufficient to harmonise any melody in any key, transposing the chords. However, our ear is very accustomed to its use, which also brings out the timbral brilliance of the chords with capo on the high frets. Did you know that, when putting the capo on and transposing to another key, flamenco guitarists still call the key by the same name, even if they are in another key? An example of this can be seen i

6️⃣ The use of other non-traditional instruments in flamenco

Flamenco (or as they say outside Spain, “Flamenco Music”) as a unit of “singing, guitar and dance” is, like all stereotypes, something both real and fictitious. Let us explain: it is true that flamenco has its roots in flamenco singing, with the flamenco guitar as an accompaniment and dance as a popular expression of this music. Also the accompaniment of the palmas and the various zapateados, thus accentuating the rhythmic aspect that is so dear to flamenco and so specific in its conformation.

Following this line, we could find the purest cantes a capella, such as the Tonás, the Martinetes (accompanied only by the clattering of an anvil in the smithy or two stones clashing) or the cantes de Trilla. However, flamenco has been introducing different instrumental elements since the beginning of the 20th century, although it was not until the 1970s, with Paco de Lucía, Camarón and later the “Nuevos Flamencos” under Pacheco’s Nuevos Medios label, that the incorporation of instruments such as percussion, strings, winds and piano began to become massive. We therefore like to distinguish two stages: the early 20th century, with experiments such as those of the saxophonists “El Negro” Aquilino and Fernando Vilches, in the 30s and 40s, with great commercial success, or the first flamenco pianos of Arturo Pavón (nephew of Tomás Pavón and La Niña de los Peines) and José Romero Jiménez. The other stage would already be from the 1970s onwards, with the very rich timbral contribution of Paco de Lucía’s sextet and Camarón’s experiments with La Leyenda del Tiempo, incorporating rock and jazz sonorities, opening the door to an unstoppable opening of timbre that has brought us up to the present day.

From those early days, we should mention the Soleá on saxophone by Pedro Iturralde and the instrumental ensembles of the dance companies of the 80s, where the members of Camerata Flamenco Project who sign this post come from, with flamenco flute, percussion, flamenco piano, flamenco cello and violin as the main contributions to the cast of guitar and vocals plus corps de ballet, with their castanets and palmeros. A serious study of the evolution of the flamenco guitar -both as accompaniment for singing (and dancing) and the more recent flamenco concert guitar- would be a separate chapter, as it has a depth and complexity worthy of study.

7️⃣ Flamenco is now universal. United States and Japan

Today, can we say that flamenco is universal? We understand that there are several paradoxes here. It is true that it has an exposure that it has never had before, it is true that there is flamenco in Japan, where it has been consumed regularly and very popular, and also that there are specialised festivals and a lot of flamenco in the USA. (like Monterrey and others with a lot of pull), but… universal?

We think that there is still a long way to go for flamenco to have the international and national weight it deserves. There are very important international elements that moved flamenco around the world, especially during the dark cultural journey of Franco’s regime in Spain. Thus, the immense Carmen Amaya or the guitarist Sabicas settled in the USA, or José Molina toured extensively in North America or Antonio Gades -who took flamenco to the theatres- all over the world since the 60s. And many others! Antonio el Bailarín, the tablaos “El Flamenco” in Tokyo and Osaka (where the members of Camerata Flamenco Project were in the 90’s), the Ballet of Cristina Hoyos or the travelling dance companies of the Nuevo Ballet Español or Joaquín Cortés, among many others. To this should be added the interest that flamenco awakened in the 1960s in the USA, thanks to Gil Evans and Miles Davis (unforgettable The Saeta by album Sketches from Spain, for example), flooding Spanish harmonies and melodies into the jazz that was making its way into modernity.

However, from a more realistic point of view, we think that there is still a long way to go, opening up the festivals to flamenco music abroad (not only to the most commercial products) and, especially, inland, taking this incredible art to all levels of our country, where, despite appearances, it is still largely unknown.

By Ramiro Obedman, member of Camerata Flamenco Project.

ENTER!!! and watch the programmes of Camerata Flamenco Projectsobre los tangos,la soleá o las cantiñas.