Flamenco FAQ for Classical Guitarists

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Flamenco FAQ for Classical Guitarists

Text by Bob Clifton

What is flamenco?

A particular kind of music/dance (and some would say lifestyle) native to, but no longer restricted to, a small region of Andalucia in Southern Spain. Like American "blues" it probably has ancient antecedents, but as a distinct genre is only a couple centuries old. Not all Andalucian folk music is flamenco. Not all flamenco artists have been Andalucians (eg Sabicas), or even Spanish (eg Greco).

Some classical guitarists (understandably, if they haven't studied flamenco) view flamenco as a "style" of guitar playing emphasizing certain techniques above others and having a distinct sound. Thus (oversimplified) if you play rhythmic rasqueados and fool around with Phyrygian scales and a lot of Ami>G>F>E, it's flamenco. Not so. At most, flamenco-ish.

Flamencos themselves (ie guitarists, dancers, singers, aficionados), whatever their own specialty, and for both formal and historical reasons, usually agree that what is fundamental to flamenco is *cante* (song), i.e. a body of several dozen forms with specific rhythms, melodies, and in some cases themes, sung in a certain way.

Flamenco guitar started as accompaniment for cante, and in Spain has largely remained that, no matter how technically refined it has become. Probably the same is true of flamenco dance -- that it started as an embellishment through movement of what the singer was doing. Even the virtuosos like Paco de Lucia and the late Sabicas who are famous for solo work (and who play other music besides flamenco) would probably define flamenco in terms of cante rather than of guitar technique. Both started within the tradition as accompanists of cante, and were superb ones. To anyone familiar with cante, even their solos imply the cante from which they came.

Spaniards know this already. You say "flamenco" and they think "Camaron" (a popular singer who died in 1992) or "solea" (a song form) -- whether they like the stuff or not. Non-Spaniards rarely hear cante, and understandably have different associations -- for instance, the guitar played in a particular way. So it's important to emphasize for them that cante is central to flamenco in a way that a particular rasqueado isn't.

What makes a guitarist a "flamenco" guitarist?

For non-flamencos, I can't say -- maybe it is having an incredible rasqueado, or being able to play Entre Dos Aguas, or Luna del Fuego, or a tremolo from granainas.

For flamencos, it is the ability (at whatever level of skill) to accompany a knowledgeable singer (and knowledgeable dancer) who is performing one of the standard forms in a more or less standard way. You don't have to be very *good* as guitarist to qualify. Many singers in Spain, for instance, knowing only two or three chords, and playing execrably by anyone's standards, can crudely accompany themselves or someone else. Most wouldn't claim to be guitarists at all. But they would claim that whatever they're doing on the guitar is flamenco, not something else. They know the song, and they know what the guitar needs to sound like to go with that, even if they don't know the guitar itself well enough to pull it off very well.

So, whatever else you are able to add to that -- machine-gun rasqueado, blinding picado, etc etc -- it starts there: you know how solea goes (as song or dance), for instance, and what will fit it on the guitar. It doesn't mean you have to sing or dance yourself (though that can be an eye-opener) anymore than a sportscaster has to be able to pitch. The sportscaster *does* have to know the game, however. (Or fans complain.)

This may sound like an eccentric definition to musicians who admire many other things about flamenco, and may not give two hoots about cante or baile (dance). All I can say is get yourself into a group of flamencos and check it out. The guitar will invariably wind up, by subtle or not-so-subtle consensus, in the hands of the guy who can accompany the singers and dancers, not those who can't, no matter how superb the others variously are as musicians and guitarists. It's not that superb musicians are not recognized and valued; only that for flamenco to happen, the group needs a guitarist who knows how to support the singers and dancers.

How Do I Learn to Accompany?

I wish the news were better. It's not quite as extreme as "go to Spain (with a lot of money)", because you'll quickly encounter that anyway, but it can't be done by ordering a book or tape. You've got to go find some flamencos.

1. Find another guitarist who accompanies and take lessons, or watch, listen, spy, whatever :-)

2. Start building a collection of recordings (including videos if you can get them), and listen, listen, listen. If you're just starting, the older anthologies are usually better for picking out basic ideas. Contemporary flamenco is pretty jazzy, and while the bones are there, they can be pretty obscure. It helps to go shopping with a knowledgeable flamenco to find the nuggets (if any) at your local stores. Obviously solo guitar recordings aren't going to be too helpful. Neither are the Gypsy Kings for anything but rumbas. Camaron and Paco (or Tomatito) are great models, but pretty hi-tech.

3. *After you can sustain compas* (regardless of some mistakes in notes, and rough technique), find willing singers (!) and dancers, and practice with them, the better the better. Therein is a dilemma. It is much easier (and educational) for a student guitarist to follow a very good singer or dancer than a fellow student (the blind leading the blind). But of course it's the beginning singers and dancers who are willing to spend time with you.

If you're in a major metropolitan area, where live flamenco happens, this is probably more feasible than you might think, because most performers in the US teach (economic necessity). Here's what I'd do, assuming I found a group (guitarist, singer, dancers) who seem to know what they're doing: Approach the guitarist about lessons. If too busy or expensive, ask for competent teachers s/he might know. If you can't afford the maestro, it may be that one of their better students teaches too. You can get fundamentals from the student and then "graduate". At the same time, inquire about the lead dancer's classes, and make contact with some of the dance students. Student dancers rarely have the chance to work on their own with guitarists, so they're often eager to find ANYONE who plays. It can really help to pair up with a compatible "buddy" and pool resources. One way around the "blind leading blind" syndrome is for you and your buddy (student singer/dancer) to arrange for a private for both of you with *both* pros just before or after a rehearsal, when they'd both be there anyway. Probably worth it, even if expensive. The flamencos I'm talking about will at least know you're serious if you propose such a thing, and unless they're on ego trips, may well do their best to accomodate you. Some guitar teachers accompany the classes of the dancers with whom they work (or their students do), and of these some will allow or encourage you to sit in. Invaluable. Recognize that dance teachers have an interest in competent student guitarists, even if the regular accompanist doesn't. If you are by hook or crook able to attend your buddy's dance or cante class, you'll have a common frame of reference. After you understand basic accompaniment, you'll be able to expand your knowledge by just listening to a lot of people, and won't be so dependent on instruction.

All of this presupposes that you're *meanwhile* mastering the guitar itself, classical and flamenco technique, etc. I don't have much to add to the wealth of recommendations on that to be found in this group. My point is that even if you take them all, and wind up with dazzling technique and a fat repertoire of solos, you're not a flamenco guitarist by flamenco standards if you can't accompany singers and dancers. To paraphrase the departed master (Sabicas), who advised guitarists who wanted to become soloists: Spend 20 years accompanying cante; spend 20 years accompanying baile; now you're ready to think about solos. He did his time concurrently, but now and then apologized for having started soloing "too early."

The three rules of accompaniment:

1) Stay in compas.

2) Stay in compas.

3) Stay in compas.

Compas is Spanish for 1) rhythm, generally, 2) measure -- a coherent unit of rhythm, 3) the characteristic rhythm of a particular form. Thus, "he has good compas" means he has a good sense of rhythm. "The introduction is 4 compas long" means something like (but not exactly) "it's four measures long." "I play this in the compas of tientos" means I play it with the same rhythm you'd hear in tientos.

The backbone of all forms in flamenco that have compas at all (some of the lyrical songs don't) is the compas. Hopefully, you will play the right notes or chords at the right time, but mistakes of that kind are quickly history. Singers and dancers will forgive you many many sour notes, and terrible tone. Unfortunately, they can't work with you at all if you provide them a hesitant, uneven, or false rhythmic basis. For accompaniment, compas is King. It's also the Achilles heel of many classical guitarists coming into flamenco, unless they do lots of ensemble work, or are blessed at birth with excellent compas. Classical guitar practice is typically solitary, and tempts one to always go back and fix things. You can't do that when accompanying.

It's easy to show that you can provide minimal accompaniment without pitch at all (much less fine tone), but not without good compas: simply damp all the strings with the left hand, and play accurate percussive rhythm with the right hand for a singer doing bulerias. S/he'll do just fine. On the other hand, if you play all the chords perfectly but add or drop just one beat every 48, the song (or dance) will falter towards chaos (unless the other guy is very quick at covering), and s/he'll be ready to strangle you.

Compas, compas, compas.

How can I get a taste of what flamenco accompaniment feels like before going to all this effort?

If you play ensemble stuff, or jazz, or accompany another musician, you know, and can stop here. If you play mostly alone, it's harder to convey. I hit on an idea which I wish someone would try and give me feedback on. I play some classical pieces, and I know that that experience is qualitatively different from what I do in flamenco. How to convey it?

Take a classical piece that you know cold by heart, and not one that technically taxes you in any way, one that you can hear in your head without playing it. Say Sor's first Study. Set a metronome if necessary (you'll soon see if it's necessary) at a comfortable setting. Start the piece, and then, when the impulse strikes you, just stop physically playing for a few beats, but let the music go on in your head, in perfect time; when the impulse strikes you, resume -- not where you left off, but wherever the music is now. Continue this process, sometimes letting several measures go by, until you've finished the piece. You may find this very easy, or extremely difficult, depending on how you work. If you try it several times, pick different places to suspend and resume your playing. In all cases, keep the music going in your head.

This exercise illustrates several things: a) that the music keeps going even when you don't; b) that the piece is still whatever it is (e.g. Sor's first study) even if the exact notes you leave out are different each time, and that in a sense the notes are still there whether you play them or not; c) that there isn't that much mystery about how people "stay together" -- they're all internally hearing the same thing. It also sidesteps the misconception that accompaniment = "just playing chords in rhythm". Accompanying in flamenco is somewhere between this exercise and following a chord chart.

Four Fine Artists You May Not Have Heard Of

This is obviously not exhaustive. I'm not all that current, anyway. My purpose is to balance American guitarists' view of "who's big in flamenco" by giving them names of a few guitarists who are highly respected in Spain(for good reason) but little known here because they stick mainly to accompanying and don't do a lot of international solo concerts.

Tomatito: Became Camaron's guitarist when Paco de Lucia got busy with other music outside of Spain. Like Paco, an extraordinary technician, and sophisticated musician, deeply influenced by jazz. Listen to his accompaniment to the Lorca piece on Leyenda del Tiempo. He has a solo CD available in US, but it's less flamenco than his accompaniment.

Paco Cepero: Certainly belongs on the list of major Pacos. Guitarist of choice for many top singers in 70's and early 80's. Wrote or arranged stuff for singers, and "raised" them, and contributed in ways to "pop flamenco." I know of no solo recordings. Do you?

Pedro Bacan: Favorite guitarist of families from Lebrija. He's probably done some solo recording, but is at heart a powerful accompanist. Hates contemporary baile (dance), so refuses to accompany dancers.

Joaquin Rather: Manuela Carrasco's husband and accompanist. Widely seen in US in *Flamenco Puro*. Leading accompanist of baile. A figure like Manitas de Plata, on the other hand, who through ingenious PR managed in the 60's to cook up notoriety for himself in France and the US, was never respected at all within the flamenco world. He is a French gypsy who plays chaotic "impressions" of flamenco (and not very well), not flamenco itself, which his touted hands regularly butcher. No crime; the flamenco world pretty much ignores him. However if you're reading this at all it's likelier that you've heard of him (as a flamenco guitarist) than of the four people above (who are flamenco guitarists, and fine musicians as well) -- which is too bad. The Gypsy Kings come from a similar context (the French gypsy community) but are far better musicians; they have taken a relatively minor form within flamenco (rumbas -- itself borrowed from Latin America) and written engaging arrangements for it which have become internationally popular -- fair enough. They are not basically flamenco musicians, since they do little besides rumbas; but they've made good use of a flamenco form to create something interesting of their own.

A Video Resource: Carlos Saura's "Sevillanas"

The best single video I know that succinctly illustrates the key points of this FAQ is a fine short Spanish video called *Sevillanas* which circulates widely in American flamenco circles, particularly among dancers. It was directed by Carlos Saura, the same guy who did the popular Carmen and El Amor Brujo films featuring Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos. And for purposes of illustrating this FAQ it's better. Hard-core purists may balk, since the form to which it is devoted (*sevillanas*) is a popular Andalucian folk song/dance now incorporated into flamenco rather than part of the original flamenco canon. Don't take that fine point too seriously.

The video consists of 7 or 8 renditions of the sevillanas form in quite different contexts, with different guitarists, singers, dancers. The range is broad indeed: you get genuine folk stuff, academic stuff out of the equivalent of a Spanish ballet school, sentimental stuff, the inner gypsy cabal (Camaron (just before he died), Tomatito, Manuela Carrasco), and, for guitar nerds, a guitar duet of Paco de Lucia and Manolo Sanlucar, without cante or dance.

The unifying (and musically educational) thread is that the whole video is devoted to just one form -- the literary equivalent would be an anthology of sonnets. (If you're musically astute, you can probably figure out the basics of that form, and its rich variety, from the video.) You will see that the form is quite independent of the guitar or of any particular technique or level of skill. The wonderful geriatric sevillanas that starts the film doesn't even have melody; it's just a rhythmic chant (but still recognizable to anyone who knows sevillanas); it illustrates the point that compas is what's indispensable. You may note that the guitar doesn't even show up for awhile. When Paco and Sanlucar do their duet, you will see (in proper context) how sophisticated solo pieces originate, and the influence other music has had on contemporary flamenco. In Tomatito's accompaniment of Camaron you will see a superb technician using just two chords and the simplest right-hand technique to support a singer (keep in mind that Tomatito can sound like Paco when he wants to); and you'll also hear (if you can get past all the hair and beards -- it looks like the 60's) the particularly gypsy sound (not Gypsy Kings, they're French) so prized by flamencos. Most important, if you happen to have learned a sevillanas as a solo, and haven't a clue how to accompany, it will be an eye-opener: most of the guitar work is accompaniment, some very simple, some quite sophisticated. You'll also see how the baile meshes intricately with the cante (dancers have to know the cante, too -- a strange notion to many non-Spanish dance students, who tend to think of music as providing simply a beat and/or mood for movement).

I recommend this video here for what it illustrates about the role of the guitar within flamenco, not as exemplary of my taste (or anyone's).

Saura's point was to show the variety of sub-worlds that use the sevillanas form in various ways. Many of the performers you see would not be comfortable with each other, or in each other's worlds, so you too can relax if you find some of the stuff simply silly. Imagine the escuela bolera girls in their ballet slippers going through their figures with Camaron and Tomatito instead of the orchestra of bandurrias!