See D. E. Pohren, Lives and Legends of Flamenco: A Biographical History (1964) and The Art of Flamenco (1971); J. Serrano, Flamenco, Body and Soul: An Aficionado's Introduction (1990); T. Mitchell, Flamenco Deep Song (1994); Flamenco (film, 1995), dir. by Carlos Saura.
Learn more about flamenco with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Flamenco embodies a complex musical and cultural tradition. Although considered part of the culture of Spain in general, flamenco actually originates from one region: Andalusia. However, other areas, mainly Extremadura and Murcia, have contributed to the development of several flamenco musical forms, and a great number of renowned flamenco artists have been born in other territories of the state. It is generally acknowledged that flamenco grew out of the unique interplay of native Arabic, Andalusian,Sephardic, and Gypsy cultures that existed in Andalusia prior to and after the Reconquest. Latin American and especially Cuban influences have also been important in shaping several flamenco musical forms. Flamenco is played with a flamenco guitar.
Once the seeds of flamenco were planted in Andalusia, it grew as a separate subculture, first centered in the provinces of Seville, Cádiz and part of Málaga—the area known as Baja Andalucía (Lower Andalusia)—but soon spreading to the rest of Andalusia, incorporating and transforming local folk music forms. As the popularity of flamenco extended to other areas, other local Spanish musical traditions (e.g. the Castilian traditional music) would also influence, and be influenced by, the traditional flamenco styles.
Many of the details of the development of flamenco are lost in Spanish history. There are several reasons for this lack of historical evidence:
Lack of interest from historians and musicologists. "Flamencologists" have usually been flamenco connoisseurs of no specific academic training in the fields of history or musicology. They have tended to rely on a limited number of sources (mainly the writings of 19th century folklorist Demófilo, and notes by foreign travellers. Bias has also been frequent in flamencology. This started to change in the 1980s, when flamenco slowly started to be included in music conservatories, and a growing number of musicologists and historians began to carry out more rigorous research. Since then, some new data have shed new light on it. (Ríos Ruiz, 1997:14),
There are questions not only about the origins of the music and dances of flamenco, but also about the origins of the very word flamenco. George Borrow writes that the word flemenc [sic] is synonymous with "Gypsy").
Blas Infante, in his book Orígenes de los Flamencos y Secreto del Cante Jondo, controversially argued that the word flamenco comes from Hispano-Arabic word fellahmengu, which would mean "expelled peasant" after the end of the Moorish reign. Infante links the term to the ethnic Andalusians of Muslim faith, the Moriscos, who would have mixed with the Gypsy newcomers in order to avoid religious persecution. Other hypotheses concerning the term's etymology include connections with Flanders (flamenco also means Flemish in Spanish), believed by Spanish people to be the origin of the Gypsies, or the flameante (arduous) execution by the performers, or the flamingos.
For a complete picture of the possible influences that gave rise to flamenco, attention must be paid to the cultural and musical background of the Iberian Peninsula since Ancient times. Long before the Moorish invasion in 711, Visigothic Spain had adopted its own liturgic musical forms, the Visigothic or Mozarabic rite, strongly influenced by Byzantium. The Mozarabic rite survived the Gregorian reform and the Moorish invasion, and remained alive at least until the 10th or 11th century. Some theories, started by Spanish classical musician Manuel de Falla, link the melismatic forms and the presence of Greek Dorian mode (in modern times called “Phrygian mode”) in flamenco to the long existence of this separate Catholic rite. Unfortunately, owing to the type of musical notation in which these Mozarabic chants were written, it is not possible to determine what this music really sounded like, so the theory remains unproven.
Moor is not the same as Muslim. Moor comes from the Latin Mauroi, meaning an inhabitant of North Africa. The Carthaginians, for instance, came from North Africa. Moorish influence in the peninsula goes back thousands of years, but it was the Islamic invasion, by largely Berber armies in 711, that determined the main musical influences from North Africa. They called the Iberian Peninsula Al-Andalus, from which the name of Andalusia derives. The Moorish and Arab conquerors brought their musical forms to the Peninsula, and at the same time, probably gathered some native influence in their music. The Emirate, and later Caliphate of Córdoba became a center of influence in both the Muslim and Christian worlds and it attracted musicians from all Islamic countries. One of those musicians was Zyriab, who imported forms of the Arabic music, revolutionized the shape and playing techniques of the Lute (which centuries later evolved into the vihuela and the guitar), adding a fifth string to it, and set the foundations for the Andalusian nuba, the style of music in suite form still performed in North African countries.
The presence of the Moors was also decisive in shaping the cultural diversity of Spain. Owing to the extraordinary length of the Reconquest started in the North as early as 722 and completed in 1492 with the conquest of Granada, the degree of Moorish influence on culture, customs and even language varies enormously between the North and the South. Music cannot have been alien to that process. While music in the North of the Peninsula has a clear Celtic influence which dates to pre-Roman times, Southern music is certainly reminiscent of Eastern influences. To what extent this Eastern flavour is owed to the Moors, the Jews, the Mozarabic rite (with its Byzantine influence), or the Gypsies has not been clearly determined.
During the Reconquest, another important cultural influence was present in Al-Andalus: the Jews. Enjoying a relative religious and ethnic tolerance due to Islamic law in comparison to Christian countries, they formed an important ethnic group, with their own traditions, rites, and music, and probably reinforced the middle-Eastern element in the culture and music forms of Al-Andalus. Certain flamenco palos like the Peteneras have been attributed a direct Jewish origin.
It might be that during that stay in the New World, the fandango picked up dance steps deemed too inappropriate for European tastes. Thus, the dance for fandango, for chacon, and for zarabanda, were all banned in Europe at one time or another. References to Gypsy dancers can be found in the lyrics of some of these forms, e.g., the chacon. Indeed, Gypsy dancers are often mentioned in Spanish literary and musical works from the 1500s on. However, the zarabandas and jácaras are the oldest written musical forms in Spain to use the 12-beat metre as a combination of terciary and binary rhythms. The basic rhythm of the zarabanda and the jácara is 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. The soleá and the Seguiriya, are variations on this: they just start the metre in a different beat.
A turning point in flamenco appears to have come about with a change of instruments. In the late 18th Century the favoured guitar became the 6 string single-coursed guitar which replaced the double-coursed 5 string guitar in popularity. It is the 6 string guitar to which flamenco music is inextricably tied. Flamenco became married to the 6 string guitar.
During the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, flamenco took on a number of unique characteristics which separated it from local folk music and prepared the way to a higher professionalization and technical excellence of flamenco performers, to the diversification of flamenco styles (by gradually incorporating songs derived from folklore or even other sources), and to the popularization of the genre outside Andalusia.
The first time flamenco is mentioned in literature is in 1774 in the book Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso. During this period, according to some authors, there is little news about flamenco except for a few scattered references from travellers. This led traditional flamencologists, like Molina and Mairena, to call the period of 1780 to 1850 as "The Hermetic Period" or the "private stage of flamenco". According to these flamencologists, flamenco, at this time was something like a private ritual, secretly kept in the Gypsy homes of some towns in the Seville and Cádiz area. This theory started to fall out of favour in the 1990s. José Blas Vega has denied the absence of evidences for this period:
Nowadays, we know that there are hundreds and hundreds of data which allow us to know in detail what flamenco was from 1760 until 1860, and there we have the document sources: the theatre movement of sainetes (one-act plays) and tonadillas, the popular songbooks and song sheets, the narrations and descriptions from travellers describing customs, the technical studies of dances and toques, the musical scores, the newspapers, the graphic documents in paintings and engravings; and all of this with no interruptions, in continuous evolution together with the rhythm, the poetic stanzas, and the ambience. (Quoted by Ríos Ruiz 1997)
Álvarez Caballero (1998) goes further, stating that if there are no news about flamenco previous to its late 1780 mentions, it is because flamenco simply did not exist. The whole theory about a hermetic stage would then be a fantasy, caused by the aura of mystery surrounding Gypsy culture.
There is disagreement as to whether primitive flamenco was accompanied by any instrument or not. For traditional flamencology, 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). Later theories claim that this is false. While some cante forms are sung unaccompanied (a palo seco), it is likely that other forms were accompanied if and when instruments were available. 19th century writer Estébanez Calderón already described a flamenco fiesta (party) in which the singing was accompanied not only by guitars, but also bandurria and tambourine.
Traditional views on flamenco, starting with Demófilo have often accused this period as the start of the commercial debasement of flamenco. The traditional flamenco fiesta is crowded if more than 20 people are present. Moreover, there is no telling when a fiesta will begin or end, or assurance that the better artists invited will perform well. And, if they do perform, it may not be until the morning after a fiesta that began the night before. By contrast, the café cantante offered set performances at set hours and top artists were contracted to perform. For some, this professionalization led to commercialism, while for others it stimulated healthy competition and therefore, more creativity and technical proficiency. In fact, most traditional flamenco forms were created or developed during this time or, at least, have been attributed to singers of this period like El Loco Mateo, El Nitri, Rojo el Alpargatero, Enrique el Mellizo, Paquirri El Guanté, or La Serneta, among many others. Some of them were professionals, while others sang only at private gatherings but their songs were learned and divulged by professional singers.
In the 19th century, both flamenco and its association with Gypsies started to become popular throughout Europe, even into Russia. Composers wrote music and operas on what they thought were Gypsy-flamenco themes. Any traveler through Spain “had” to see the Gypsies perform flamenco. Spain - often to the chagrin of non-Andalusian Spaniards - became associated with flamenco and Gypsies. This interest was in keeping with the European fascination with folklore during those decades.
In 1922, one of Spain's greatest writers, Federico García Lorca, and renowned composer Manuel de Falla, organised the Concurso de Cante Jondo, a folk music festival dedicated to cante jondo ("deep song"). They did this to stimulate interest in some styles of flamenco, which were falling into oblivion as they were regarded uncommercial and, therefore, not apt the cafés cantante. Two of Lorca's most important poetic works, Poema del Cante Jondo and Romancero Gitano, show Lorca's fascination with flamenco and appreciation of Spanish folk culture. However, the initiative was not very influential, and the derivations of fandango and other styles kept gaining popularity while the more difficult styles like siguiriyas and, especially, tonás were usually only performed in private parties.
The dominant palos of this era were the personal fandango, the cantes de ida y vuelta (songs of Latin American origin) and the song in bulería style. Personal fandangos were based on Huelva traditional styles with a free rhythm (as a cante libre) and with a high density of virtuouso variations. The song in bulería style (Canción por bulerías) adapted any popular or commercial song to the bulería rhythm. This period also saw the birth of a new genre, sometimes called copla andaluza (Andalusian couplet) or canción española (Spanish song), a type of ballads with influences from zarzuela, Andalusian folk songs, and flamenco, usually accompanied with orchestra, which enjoyed great popularity and was performed both by flamenco and non-flamenco artists. Owing to its links with flamenco shows, many people consider this genre as "flamenco".
The leading artist at the time was Pepe Marchena, who sang in a sweet falsetto voice, using spectacular vocal runs reminding of bel canto coloratura. A whole generation of singers was influenced by him and some of them, like Pepe Pinto, or Juan Valderrama also reached immense celebrity. Many classical flamenco singers who had grown with the café cantante fell into oblivion. Others, like Tomás Pavón or Aurelio Sellé, found refuge in private parties. The rest adapted (though often did not completely surrender) to the new tastes: they took part in those mass flamenco shows, but kept singing the old styles, although introducing some of the new ones in their repertoire: it is the case of La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol, Manuel Vallejo, El Carbonerillo and many others.
This period has been considered by the most traditionalist critics as a time of complete commercial debasement. According to them, the opera flamenca became a "dictatorship" (Álvarez Caballero 1998), where bad personal fandangos and copla andaluza practically caused traditional flamenco to disappear. Other critics consider this view to be unbalanced (See Ríos Ruiz 1997:40-43): great figures of traditional cante like La Niña de los Peines or Manolo Caracol enjoyed great success, and palos like siguiriyas or soleá were never completely abandoned, not even by the most representative singers of the ópera flamenca style like Marchena or Valderrama.
Typical singers of the period like Marchena, Valderrama, Pepe Pinto or El Pena, have also been reappraised. Starting with singers like Luis de Córdoba, Enrique Morente or Mayte Martín, who recorded songs they created or made popular, a high number of singers started to rescue their repertoire, a CD in homage to Valderrama was recorded, and new generations of singers claim their influence. Critics like Antonio Ortega or Ortiz Nuevo have also vindicated the artists of the ópera flamenca period.
Whereas, in Western music, only the major and minor modes are explicitly named by composers, (except as an occasional oddity in jazz and classical music) flamenco has also preserved the Phrygian mode, commonly "Dorian mode" by flamencologists, referring to the Greek Dorian mode, and sometimes also "flamenco mode". The reason for preferring the term "Greek Dorian" is that, as in ancient Greek music, flamenco melodies are descending (instead of ascending as in usual Western melodic patterns). Some flamencologists, like Hipólito Rossy (Rossy 1998: 19–36) or guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar, also consider this flamenco mode as a survival of the old Greek Dorian mode. The rest of the article, however, will use the term "Phrygian" to refer to this mode, as it is the most common denomination in English speaking countries.
The Phrygian mode is in fact the most common in the traditional palos of flamenco music, and it is used for soleá, most bulerías, siguiriyas, tangos and tientos, among other palos (Rossy 1998:82). The flamenco version of this mode contains two frequent alterations in the 7th and, even more often, the 3rd degree of the scale: if the scale is played in E Phrygian for example, G and D can be sharp. This such augmentation results in the Phrygian Dominant mode of that key.
G sharp is compulsory for the tonic chord. Based on the Phrygian scale, a typical cadence is formed, usually called “Andalusian cadence”. The chords for this cadence in E Phrygian are Am–G–F–E. According to guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar, in this flamenco Phrygian mode, E is the tonic, F would take the harmonic function of dominant, while Am and G assume the functions of subdominant and mediant respectively.
When playing using the Phrygian mode, guitarists traditionally use only two basic positions for the tonic chord (music): E and A. However, they often transport these basic tones by using a capo. Modern guitarists, starting with Ramón Montoya, have also introduced other positions. Montoya himself started to use other chords for the tonic in the doric sections of several palos: F sharp for tarantas, B for granaína, A flat for the minera, and he also created a new palo as solo piece for the guitar, the rondeña, in C sharp with scordatura. Later guitarists have further extended the repertoire of tonalities, chord positions and scordatura.
There are also palos in major mode, for example, most cantiñas and alegrías, guajiras, and some bulerías and tonás, and the cabales (a major mode type of siguiriyas). The minor mode is less frequent and it is restricted to the Farruca, the milongas (among cantes de ida y vuelta), and some styles of tangos, bulerías, etc. In general, traditional palos in major and minor mode are limited harmonically to the typical two-chord (tonic–dominant) or three-chord structure (tonic–subdominant–dominant) (Rossy 1998:92). However, modern guitarists have increased the traditional harmony by introducing chord substitution, transition chords, and even modulation.
Fandangos and the palos derived from it (e.g. malagueñas, tarantas, cartageneras) are bimodal. Guitar introductions are in Phrygian mode, while the singing develops in major mode, modulating to Phrygian mode at the end of the stanza. (Rossy 1998:92)
Traditionally, flamenco guitarists did not receive any formal training, so they just relied on their ear to find the chords on the guitar, disregarding the rules of Western classical music. This led them to interesting harmonic findings, with unusual unresolved dissonances (Rossy 1998:88). Examples of this are the use of minor 9th chords for the tonic, the tonic chord of tarantas, or the use of the 1st unpressed string as a kind of pedal tone.
Musicologist Hipólito Rossy adds the following characteristics (Rossy 1998: 94):
Flamenco uses three basic counts or measures: Binary, Ternary and the (unique to flamenco) twelve-beat cycle which is difficult to confine within the classical measure. There are also free-form styles, not subject to any particular metre, including, among others, the palos in the group of the tonás, the saetas, malagueñas, tarantas, and some types of fandangos.
They are also common in Latin American countries.
12-beat amalgams are in fact the most common in flamenco. There are three types of these, which vary in their layouts, or use of accentuations:
The compás is fundamental to flamenco, it is the basic definition of the music, and without compás, there is no flamenco. Compás is therefore more than simply the division of beats and accentuations, it is the backbone of this musical form. In private gatherings, if there is no guitarist available, the compás is rendered through hand clapping (palmas) or by hitting a table with the knuckles. This is also sometimes done in recordings especially for bulerías. The guitar also has an important function, using techniques like strumming (rasgueado) or tapping the soundboard. Changes of chords also emphasize the most important downbeats. When dancers are present, they use their feet as a percussion instrument.
The flamenco guitar (and the very similar classical 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, called a golpeador. This is often plastic, similar to a pick guard, and protects the body of the guitar from the rhythmic finger taps, called golpes. 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.
Foreigners often think that the essence of flamenco is the dance. However, the heart of flamenco is the song (cante). In common with almost all dance forms, Flamenco began as a form of musical expression before it became the expression through movement known as dance. Although to the uninitiated, flamenco seems totally extemporaneous, these cantes (songs) and bailes (dances) follow strict musical and poetic rules. The verses (coplas) of these songs often are beautiful and concise poems, and the style of the flamenco copla was often imitated by Andalusian poets. Garcia Lorca is perhaps the best known of these poets. In the 1920s he, along with the composer Manuel de Falla and other intellectuals, crusaded to raise the status of flamenco as an art form and preserve its purity. But the future of flamenco is uncertain. Flamenco is tied to the conditions and culture of Andalusia in the past, and as Spain modernizes and integrates into the European community, it is questionable whether flamenco can survive the social and economic changes.
Cante flamenco can be categorized in a number of ways. First, a cante may be categorized according to whether it follows a strict rhythmic pattern ("compas") or follows a free rhythm ("libre"). The cantes with compas fit one of four compas patterns. These compas-types are generally known by the name of the most important cante of the group. Thus
The solea group includes the cantes: solea; romances, solea por bulerias, alegrias (cantinas); La Cana; El Polo
Flamenco music styles are called palos in Spanish. There are over 50 different palos flamenco, although some of them are rarely performed. A palo can be defined as musical form of flamenco. Flamenco songs are classified into palos based on several musical and non-musical criteria such as its basic rhythmic pattern, mode, chord progression, form of the stanza, or geographic origin. The rhythmic patterns of the palos are also often called compás. A compás (the Spanish normal word for either time signature or bar) is characterised by a recurring pattern of beats and accents.
To really understand the different palos, it is also important to understand their musical and cultural context:
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; for example, the Farruca is traditionally a man's dance, but is now commonly performed by women too. Many flamenco artists, including some considered to be amongst the greatest, have specialised in a single flamenco form.
The classification of flamenco palos is not entirely uncontentious, but a common traditional 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. Other non-musical considerations often factor into this classification, such as whether the origin of the palo is considered to be gypsy or not. Forms which do not fit into either category but lie somewhere between them are classified as cante intermedio. However, there is no general agreement on how to classify each palo. Whereas there is general agreement that the soleá, seguiriya and the tonás must be considered cante jondo, there is wide controversy on where to place cantes like the fandango, malagueña, or tientos. Many flamenco fans tend to disregard this classification as highly subjective, or else they considered that, whatever makes a song cante grande is not the song itself but the depth of the interpreter.
The classification below reflects another traditional classification of cantes more based on rhythmic pattern, but also taking the origin into account.
The professional concert is more formal and organized. The traditional singing performance has only a singer and one guitar, while a dancing performance usually included two or three guitars, one or more singers (singing in turns, as in traditional flamenco singers always sing solo), and one or more dancers. A guitar concert used to include a single guitarist, with no other support, though this is now extremely rare. The so-called New flamenco has included other instruments, like the now ubiquitous cajón, flutes or saxophones, piano or other keyboards, or even the bass guitar and the electric guitar. Camarón de la Isla was one artist who popularized this style.
A great number of flamenco artists are not capable of performing in both settings at the same level. There are still many artists, and some of them with a good level, who only perform in juergas, or at most in private parties with a small audience. As to their training in the art, traditional flamenco artists never received any formal training: they learnt in the context of the family, by listening and watching their relations, friends and neighbours. Since the appearance of recordings, though, they have relied more and more on audiovisual materials to learn from other famous artists. Nowadays, dancers and guitarists (and sometimes even singers) take lessons in schools or in short courses organized by famous performers. Some guitarists can even read music or learn from teachers in others styles like classical guitar or jazz, and many dancers take courses in contemporary dance or Classical Spanish ballet.
An overview of the various flamenco artists can be found in the following categories: