The term flamenco (= Flemish) appeared at the end of the 18th century in
the sense of haughty and ostentatious; at the same time, the word gives the name to the flamingo bird, whose
body carriage with its long neck and risen leg reminds one of the typical body posture of a
History of flamenco
The earliest accounts, from the beginning of the 19th century, report musical "parties"
where gitanos played and sang for entertainment, supported and rewarded by the local
notables (members of the nobility and land-owners).
The period between around 1840 and 1920 is considered to be the "Golden Age" of
flamenco: both in Madrid and Sevilla, so-called café cantantes
(musical cafés) were open at that time; musicians and dancers of flamenco were
performing there on the basis
of work contracts. At that time, the distinctive vocal character of flamenco was formulated –
dancing also became important. From the beginning of the 20th century – especially under the influence of
Ramón Montoya – guitar playing evolved from being a mere accompanying feature – so that, from the middle of
the 20th century, one can also encounter guitar playing without voice. The period of
is, however, also considered to be the beginning of the commercialisation of
During the period from the 1920's to the 1950's, two attitudes to flamenco confronted each
other: on the one hand the commercial style – known as opera flamenco (operísima)
featuring sentimental songs (cuplé flamenco), which were influenced by Spanish zarzuelas and Latin-American folklore, with vocal fireworks and theatrical effects.
This style provoked – on the other hand – criticism from Spanish intellectuals and artists
(M. de Falla, F.G. Lorca) who – on the contrary – saw in flamenco the
"soul of Andalusia",
and emphasised the romantic and spiritual aspect of flamenco. During the era of the
Franco dictatorship, however, state cultural policy preferred the alternative commercial concept of
Wider international interest in flamenco was awoken in the 1950s – partly thanks to
travelling flamenco musical-dance groups. In 1958, the Institute for Flamenco Research,
("Catédra de Flamenco"),
was founded in Jerez de la Frontera; flamenco clubs were simultaneously founded in
the bigger Spanish cities,
and regional festivals and interpretation competitions started to be held.
From the 1960s, Nuevo flamenco, (the new flamenco), started to evolve – in which the
elements of flamenco were associated with the elements of Western popular music,
Latin-American, Arabic or African music. One of the most significant representatives of this genre is the
guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucía, who, with his style of music-making – combining f. with jazz and
Latin-American rhythms – has influenced flamenco musicians in an exceptionally
The Main Features
In the flamenco genre, singing (cante), guitar-playing
(toque), and dancing (baile) are combined. Male or female
singing has been considered to be the most significant part; at the very beginning, (before the period of
café cantantes), the vocal part was unaccompanied, or rather accompanied only by
rhythmical instruments (later by castanets). Application of intervals smaller than a half-tone, enharmonic
modulations, relatively narrow range (not extending the sixth), and a rhythm not subordinated to metre are
characteristic for the vocal expression. Together with usage of expressive interjections and a guttural
register, the singing evokes an atmosphere corresponding to the topic of the texts - intense anguish.
From the point of view of style, three forms can be distinguished in the vocal expression (and also in
other musical components associated with it), the corresponding poetic forms also conform with these
styles: Cante jondo (literally deep singing = internal), which is considered to be
the oldest, based on the poetic form siguiriya and a twelve-beat rhythmical structure;
cante intermedio (medium) which originated by mixing
cante jondo with Spanish folklore or popular music.
Cante chico (small = light), which took over some elements of Latin-American music,
represents a more extrovert interpreting attitude.
Vocal texts in the Andalusian dialect of Spanish occur in the form of three to five line stanzas that
represent the basic skeleton - flamenco singers enrich this structure with
variations. Some texts are anonymous, many however come from known authors (M. Machado, M. Balmaseda, G.
Lorca). The most frequent topics are suffering and death, love and anguish caused by love, hope and
hopelessness…. all this is reflected with fatalism and nihilism. Some songs of the
cante chico type have a humorous topic, but there is always a tragic undertone
Only from the period of café cantantes has guitar playing become the organic part of
flamenco; various techniques are used, making the string resonate, including
difficult elements in the playing of the left hand. There is a combination of arpeggios, strummed melodic
passages, tremolos – played with four fingers, and also the percussive playing of rhythmical figures.
The dance component of flamenco has gradually developed from a rather static
expression (corresponding to the original lamenting songs of the gitanos). Later,
some Spanish folk dances penetrated into the flamenco sphere (e.g.,
seguidilla, fandango, zarabanda) – these have widened the scope of the
Apart from the forms which combine singing and dancing, there are also purely vocal formations, e.g.,
singing of a religious character.
Listeners assume an important role in the traditional context of flamenco; they play an
active part in performance, not only by encouraging shouts but also by rhythmical clapping, etc. At a
concert performance, this role is taken by one singer.
Although flamenco performers need not necessarily be
gitanos, many of the most significant ones belong to this ethnic group
(e.g. La Niña de los Peines, Ramón Montoya, and others).