The precarious conditions of the Andalucian singer of the past made it inevitable that he/she should dwell on the more tragic aspects of existence. Even though conditions are now incomparably better, the feelings inherent in the cante are universal and timeless and represent a link between past and present.
Andalucia, the region of southern Spain which is flamenco's home, has a strong musical tradition documented from ancient times and flamenco certainly takes its place in that heritage. Throughout the centuries, Andalucia absorbed peoples of different cultures and backgrounds, including Romans, Jews, and Moors. As far as flamenco is concerned, the most significant arrival was in the 15th century when tribes of nomadic Gypsies settled in southern Spain. Their arrival coincided with Ferdinand and Isabella's conquest of Granada, the last bastian of the Moors, and the subsequent expulsion of Jews and Arabs from Spain.
Historian Felix Grande, writing about life in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries stated: "The Jews were massacred, the Gypsies humiliated and persecuted, the Arabs exterminated, the Moriscos (converted Arabs) expelled, and the Andalucians generally exploited...if we do not relate the music...to brutality, repression, hunger, fear, menace, inferiority, resistance, and secrecy, then we shall not find the reality of cante flamenco...it is a storm of exasperation and grief." It was against this background that flamenco evolved.
While earlier records suggest that flamenco was at one time unaccompanied, it is hard for us today to imagine flamenco without a guitar. In effect, the guitar forms an integral part of the song; singer and guitarist are one creating the cante. The different types of cante provide the basis for all flamenco guitar playing. Most of the cante has an underlying rhythmic structure which must be strictly adhered to-the compas. One of flamenco's chief characteristics is the complex syncopation against the compas, with the cante being sung almost entirely off the beat and the guitarist maintaining the rhythm, adding further to the syncopation. In some forms, like the cante libre (free song), the compas is less apparent, but the singer may break into an established rhythm which the guitarist then has to follow. Indeed, the singer is at liberty to improvise, whether the toque (guitar playing) is free or in compas, and the guitarist may not know beforehand what is to be expected of him.
There is no evidence that the guitar was initially used to accompany the cante, and even today some of the most dramatic forms of cante are invariably performed unaccompanied. However, it was certainly in regular use by the end of the 19th century and the guitar has an exceptionally long history in Spain, an early version probably being brought by the Romans. The lute was extremely popular in the rest of Europe during the Renaissance, but was rejected in Spain as a foreign intrusion since it was of Arab origin. Furthermore, the vihuela (the guitar's predecessor) was more suited to the accompaniment of ballads by strumming, since the lute requires notes to be picked more delicately. It was also cheaper to produce and more robust.
In the 19th century, there were two types of singing in Andalucia-the cante gitano of the Gypsies and the cante andaluz. Silverio Franconetti, an Andaluz of Italian origin and an exceptional singer of Gypsy styles, was the first to bring these two styles together. This integration of both forms resulted in the cante flamenco as it has come to us-the end product being without question greater than the sum of its parts.
The wail of the cante jondo (deep song) resembles the mournful chant of the exiled Sephardic Jews. Its poetry has the existentialist angst and philosophical questioning common in Arabic poetry. The dance which evolved slowly, fully blossoming in the 1840's suggests the repetitive key symbol prevalent in Islam, the trance inducing rhythms of Africa, and the stubborn search of Jewish music.
Flamenco developed rapidly, gaining in artistic stature as well as popularity. Establishments appeared throughout Andalucia and beyond, dedicated wholly to the performance of flamenco. They came to be known as cafes cantantes, coffee theatres, where refreshment could be enjoyed while watching the performance. Although some of them survived until the middle of the 20th century, their heyday was past by the 1920's. Generally they were like cabaret theaters, with as many as four shows a day.
Dance has always been associated with flamenco. It is difficult to imagine this music without movement. While sophisticated flamenco dance companies have been touring the world for more than 50 years, it is the raw unchoreographed dances of Andalucian Gypsies that has maintained the art form in its most creative essence.
A lively dance from Cadiz. The origin is in the jotas of Cadiz–traditional folk music of Aragon, brought to the Andalucian town by soldiers during the War of Independence in the early 19th century. The main characteristics of this style are the richness of its guitar accompaniment, the intricacy of the dancing, the demands of its difficult rhythm, and its lively sound.
This developed like soleares from a simply style. However, unlike soleares, it has a fast and lively rhythm–indeed, the fastest in all flamenco–and it provides enormous scope from improvisation on the part of dancers, singers, and guitarists. It is wild, frenzied, and lively, but nevertheless contains the germ of sorrow that is almost always present in flamenco.
A distant cousin of the Alegrias but the tonalities are very different and the lyrics are much bouncier and compact.
Another name for seguiriyas used to be playeras–from placidera, meaning, "hired mourner." The fact that the words often allude to death suggests that its origin may have been in the primitive wails for the dead. Indeed, the guitar accompaniment evokes the sound of bells tolling.
One of the basic cantes. One can say that the soleares is the perfect form of cante Flamenco, where beauty and depth of feeling are in harmony. Its rhythm (12 beats to the bar) has its origin in a simple dance called jaleo, consisting of 3 beats to the bar, with the emphasis on the third.
Song and dance from the province of Almeria. The Flamenco dance possesses two extremes: the profundity of a seguiriya, a sole, or a taranto, and the wild, uncontained gaiety of a bulerias.
Cante y Baile Festero-from the villages along the Atlantic seaboard near Cadiz. The name comes from the old dances of that region, which produced three different flamenco styles, tientos, tangos, and tanguillo. In the tientos, the singing used to be a simple statement, uncomplicated in style. Perhaps owing to the special interpretation of certain singers, it became more and more serious and developed into a very profound style. The rhythm that the guitar provides is founded on a basic 4/4 pattern, although it is continuously enriched by subtle accentuations on different beats or offbeats. In contrast to tientos, tangos is sparkling and sensual.
An austere and rhythmical interpretation of perhaps flamenco's most profound and oldest forms. The rhythm and song pertain to the Siguiriya, but it is not accompanied by music ( guitar ). In essence, both the Siguiriya and the Martinete can be defined as searching for hope in a hopeless situation, or believing when there are no longer reasons to believe in life, thus, confronting death.
A joyous, yet painful celebration of life, family, marriage, etc. It is usually danced and sung by gypsies in festive gatherings. It expresses the sense of vitality and joy of life, yet it contains a somber and mysterious quality. The Jaleo preaches that life has moments of wonders and joys but tragedy might be waiting just around the corner.