By Scott Mateo Davies
Flamenco is an art form combining music and dance in support of a body of songs known as "cantes". It originated with the gypsies (gitanos) of the southern area of Spain called Andalucia. Throughout Spain it is invariable associated with Andalucia, and is frequently associated with gypsies, even though many non-gypsies have excelled as flamenco artists.
Outside Spain, on the other hand, it is seen as the musical form most representative of the whole of Spain, especially due to the work of Federico Garcia Lorca and his essays and poems praising flamenco.
What is significant about flamenco is its cultural mix. It represents the influences of extremely divergent cultures: the Moors, Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) Jews, Gypsies, and the dominant Spanish culture. For example, many of the melodies used in flamenco have both Sephardic and Arabic roots, the "letras"(texts) are in a characteristically Gypsy poetical form while the guitar is typically Spanish. As an oral literature, flamenco is the epitome of the expression of the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed. The texts are often laments about the burdens of a poverty-stricken life, making frequent use of the image of orphans in describing their pain. The gypsies are seen as a poverty-stricken and underprivileged ethnic minority; their songs both reflect and reinforce this image.
Flamenco has developed into a major art form with dozens of schools throughout Spain and worldwide. There are now a multitude of styles, genres, poetical forms, and musical and dance techniques. In addition, young musicians often add pianos, synthesizers, electric bass, violins, flutes, harmonicas and percussion to the accompaniment of traditional flamenco forms. Indeed, flamenco in Spain today is popular as never before and incredibly new heights of virtuosity are being attained by dancers, singers and musicians alike.
Many peoples including Celts, Romans, and Visigoths had settled the Iberian Peninsula. In 705 AD the new Muslim kingdom of the Arabs (Moors) began to seize territory in the south. By 732 AD, they had reached the border with France and chose to consolidate their control within those borders. Cordoba was selected as the capital, establishing a center of learning that was renowned throughout the Muslim world. Some of the world’s innovations in medicine, philosophy, mathematics and architecture were developed at the academies of Cordoba, by Jews and Muslims alike.
The Christians retained a foothold in the northern provinces of Asturias and Leon, but were crippled by disunity. By the eleventh century they had united under a common ruler and began to whittle away at the edges of the Caliphate (as the Arab government was known). Over time, Muslim political power began to weaken; by 1248, their territory had shrunk to half the size of present day Andalucia.In 1478, the Inquisition was established by the Church to compel those Jews and Arabs to either convert or be expelled, and to insure the sincerity and loyalty of the converts. In 1492 the final expulsion order was given to the Jews by King Fernando (Ferdinand), and the reconquest of Granada ended the Moorish period of Spanish history. This period was also one of intense persecution of the nomadic gypsies, whose allegiance to the Crown was always suspect. To this day, the center for gypsy life is the southern province of Andalucia.
The first mention of flamenco as a gypsy art form is in the early 19th century, where its performers were seen as disreputable, poor and prone to criminality. Beginning in the late 19th century, a small number of virtuoso performers developed large followings among intellectual circles throughout Spain. By the turn of the century, flamenco became a somewhat fashionable artistic movement, inspiring composers (Falla, Torroba, Albeniz), poets (Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado), and others involved in the Spanish cultural renaissance of the time.
Additional material from Wikipedia:
Originally, flamenco consisted of unaccompanied singing (cante). Later, the songs were accompanied by flamenco guitar (toque), rhythmic hand clapping (palmas), rhythmic feet stomping (zapateado) and dance (baile). Toque and baile are also often found without the cante, although song remains at the heart of the flamenco tradition. More recently, other instruments have been introduced, such as the cajon (a wooden box used as a percussion instrument) and castanets (castañuelas). Recent research has shown that there was also a strong Sub-Saharan African influence ]. "Nuevo Flamenco," or New Flamenco, is a recent variant of flamenco which has been influenced by modem musical genres, like rumba, salsa, pop, rock, and jazz.
There remain questions not only about the origins of the music and dances of flamenco, but also about the origins of the very word flamenco. But whatever the origins of the word, in the early nineteenth century it began to be used to describe a way of life centered around this music.. Although, to the uninitiated, flamenco seems totally extemporaneous, these cantes (songs) and bailes (dances) follow strict musical and poetic rules. During this period of development, the "flamenco fiesta" developed. More than just a party where flamenco is performed, the fiesta, either unpaid (reunion) or paid, sometimes lasting for days, has an internal etiquette with a complex set of musical and social rules. In fact, some might argue that the cultural phenomenon of the flamenco fiesta is the basic cultural "unit" of flamenco.
The flamenco guitar is a descendent from the lute. The first guitars are thought to have originated in Spain in the 15th century. The traditional flamenco guitar is made of Spanish cypress and spruce, and is lighter in weight and a bit smaller than a classical guitar, to give the output a sharper sound. The flamenco guitar, in contrast to the classical, is also equipped with a barrier (often plastic), similar to a pick guard, enabling the guitarists to incorporate rhythmic finger tapping while they play. The flamenco guitar is also used in several different ways from the classical guitar, including different strumming patterns and styles, as well as the use of a capo in many circumstances.
Flamenco music styles are called palos in Spanish. There are over 50 different styles of flamenco. A palo can be defined as the basic rhythmic pattern of a flamenco style, but it also covers the whole musical and cultural context of a particular style.
The rhythmic patterns of the palos are also often called compas. A compas is characterized by a recurring pattern of beats and accents. These recurring patterns make up a number of different rhythmic and musical forms known as toques. The most fundamental palos are Tangos, Soleares, Fandangos, and Seguiriyas.. These four palos all belong in the cante jondo category and form the rhythmic basis for nearly all the other palos.
Flamenco cante consists of a number of traditional (and not-so-traditional) forms, with characteristic rhythmic and harmonic structures. The rhythm (compas) is perhaps the most fundamental distinguishing feature of the different flamenco forms. The cante jondo, called the mother of flamenco, consists of 12 beats, with accents on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th beats. Songs are composed of several falsetas with rhythms defined by the song form.
Some of the forms are sung unaccompanied, while others usually have a guitar and sometimes other accompaniment. Some forms are danced while others traditionally are not. Amongst both the songs and the dances, some are traditionally the reserve of men and others of women, while still others could be performed by either sex. Many of these traditional distinctions are now breaking down.
The classification of flamenco forms is not entirely uncontentious, but a common and convenient first classification is into three groups. The deepest, most serious forms are known as cante jondo (or cante grande), while relatively light, frivolous forms are called cante chico. Forms which do not fit into either category but lie somewhere between them are classified as cante intermedio. Many flamenco artists, including some considered to be amongst the greatest, have specialized in a single flamenco form.