The Music of Andalusia

Andalusian Music

Flamenco is the most famous musical style of Andalusia and is usually associated with the Roma people (Gypsies). Although flamenco is thought of as a dance, it was originally a song style. The song style has lyrics that express tempestuous emotions like despair, guilt, and jealousy.

Since the appearance of nationalism in the nineteenth century, most people outside of Spain have related Spanish music to flamenco and the Roma culture. This association is probably due to the popularity of works such as the opera Carmen created by the French composer Georges Bizet in the nineteenth century. Listening to flamenco artists in different points of the world as well as through the media was also common at the time.

Painting of a group of Roman people. One woman sitting on a man's lap watching another woman playing a hand drum. Cooking fire and mountains in the background.

Origin of Flamenco

The origin of the flamenco, both the name and the art, is difficult to establish. This uncertainty led to the creation different theories. George Borrow, in his book Los Zincali, defends the idea that flamenco was created by the Roma people (often referred to as gypsies or gitanos) and that it came from Germany or Flanders. Thereby, the word “flamenco” means “from Flanders.” Other theories that defend the idea that the word flamenco derivates from Arabic sources. The term “felag-mengu,meaning fleeing peasant; “fel-lah mengu” or singing peasant; “felah-en dum,” songs of the Moors of the Alpujarra. Juan Serrano and Jose Elgorriaga believe “that the word flamenco was first used by gypsies to identify gypsy traits and, later, to identify their songs and dances.”

Detail of a procession of the Spanish Inquisition in Goa entering the church with standards and banners. Engraving. The Spanish Inquisition was a council to combat heresy, authorized by a papal bull in 1478 and established by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in 1480 as responsible to the Crown, not the Church. It used secret procedures and judicial torture, and burning its victims in public ceremonials. With its independence from papal interference, the Inquisition soon became an instrument of the Spanish Crown's build-up of absolute power in the 16th and 17th century. It was finally abolished in 1834. The Inquisition drove Moors and Jews out of regions in Spain, including Andalusia. Work ID: d3qa6jn2.

The region of Andalusia, located in the south of Spain, became a major cultural point in the Iberian Peninsula due to the diversity of communities, cultures, and languages. Antonio Domínguez Ortiz defends the idea that the Roma people were a marginal group in Spain and that flamenco became bigger due to the integration of other marginal groups, including Jews and Moors, in the peninsula at that time. The truth is that, despite harsh laws against the Roma, they never suffered the persecution that Jews and Moors encountered in Spain. With the Inquisition, persecution was religiously based. Roma people were Christians and were therefore less oppressed than Jews and Moors. The author Mitchell states that Jews and Moors suffered massacres and expulsion due to the “non purity” of their blood. Despite marginalization, Jewish influences contributed to Spanish culture, especially Andalusian culture, and flamenco. Some historians that maintain that the petenera, a variation of fandango, has its origin in the Jewish culture.

The Moorish people were expelled from Spain during the sixteenth century. Those who did not leave the country often suffered the death penalty if they were found, but many decided to stay in Spain despite the risk. Blas Infante proves that many of these Moorish people joined the gitano bands, as the bands accepted everyone considered an outsider. Roma did not suffer the possibility of the death penalty at that time, and this may be why many Moors integrated into their society. Infante uses many primary sources to support his idea.

All of these cultural elements were present in the beginning of flamenco. This art results from many different cultural factors and it should not be connected to a single origin. Even though flamenco is primarily connected to Roma people, there are certainly many different elements that shaped its creation. 

Becoming a National Style

Flamenco has been linked to Spain, Andalusia in particular, since its origins. Is it fair to consider this music a national style? Claus Schreiner, in his book Flamenco, defends the idea that this concept and lifestyle belongs only to a Spanish minority. Many people in Spain merely attempted to adopt it and present it as part of their traditions. Specifically, modifying the pure musical forms into popular songs, changing the flamenco essence to something that is not recognizable, even though most people associate these changes with flamenco.

Musical bars of Manuel de Falla's La vida breve. Andalusian dialect is used in this opera about a young Romani woman who is in love with an engaged man.

The Elements of Flamenco

Although many people outside of Spain typically associate flamenco with a dance style, it was originally a song style that has a particular evolution. The song style has lyrics that express tempestuous emotions like despair, guilt, and jealousy.

Serrano and Elgorriaga make a curious differentiation in the flamenco style, dividing it into juerga, an experience where participants share conversations and music, and then quejío. They define the quejío as the “outcry of anyone at the farthest edge.” They contemplate that everybody can identify with the sentiment of quejío, making flamenco a universal experience.

Other possible categories of the music in flamenco are instrumental (which Serrano and Elgorriaga call juerga) and cante flamenco, singing that could be also related to quejío. Typically, the flamenco is danced by bailaores, an Andalusian term that references people who specialize in dance. The ‘d’ is dropped from the Castilian bailadores, indicating a reference to Andalusian folk dialect

Instrumental Flamenco

The flamenco musician employs different instruments, like the flamenco guitar, castanets, and cajón. The flamenco guitar is a special instrument that was modified to have a different timbre. Its construction is also different; typically, the tone of the guitar is not as deep and specialty woods are used to distinguish between blanca and negra guitars (light and dark woods). Sometimes wooden pegs are used instead of gears. These guitars all have a tap plate, so the soundboard is protected against the taps of the fingernails.

Generally, guitarists, also known as tocaores, learn to play this type of instrument by imitation and listening. There are not many notated scores, and flamenco has an improvisatory character. To achieve the tone quality that flamenco requires, flamenco guitarists must play close to the bridge, achieving a harsh and rasping tone. They also use the technique of striking the strings down (the Spanish technique apoyando that means supporting,) to achieve lightly percussive sounds. They play the strings with a combination of fingertips and fingernails. They also use the rasgueado technique, playing with the whole fingernail, creating sharp and percussive sounds. They also tap the soundboard itself with their nails, both above and below the sound hole.

The castañuelas, or castanets, and other percussive elements, such as taconeo (percussive footwork), pitos (finger snapping,) palmas (hand clapping)and jaleo (supporting screams or cheers) are other important elements in the instrumental flamenco. Castañuelas are a percussion instrument. They are made of wood and have a concave form. A rope joins two parts to create one instrument. Commonly they are used as a pair, one per hand, as part of the dance. They are not exclusive to the flamenco and are present in other types of Spanish folk music, but they add to the necessary rhythmic accompaniment.

There are two different types of palmaspalmas fuertes, also known as strong palms(one palm is struck by the fingers of the other hand) and palmas sordas or muffled palms (where the two palms slightly rounded clap, creating a muffled sound). The second type is more often used in Cante Jondo by the singers. The cajón is also a recent entry to replace the use of knuckles on tables or canes on floor.

Cante Flamenco

Christof Jung establishes three types of singing in the flamenco style:

  1. Cante Jondo (deep song) or Cante Grande: this type of song is the most important; it has dramatism and intensity, the themes of the song vary, but generally is related to a pain, or a tragical experience related to love or life. The cantaores of Cante Jondo became more popular beginning in the nineteenth century.
  2. Cante Intermedio (usual song): it is a mix of Cante Jondo but it does not have the seriousness; it has more Andalusian elements.
  3. Cante Chico (light song): it is an easier type of song, more melodic, colorful, and it does not explore the pain associated with the Cante Jondo style.

Spanish composers such as Manuel de Falla were able to get inspiration and imitate flamenco singing in their compositions.