How to Speak Flamenco

Mysterious Musical Fire

My first experience hearing flamenco guitar was at Malibu Beach in 1960. While sitting on the sand watching the surf and strumming the few chords I knew on a Tijuana guitar, a dark, suave fellow majestically appeared. “Hola, I am Arnoldo from Sevilla, Espa±a,” he said. “Por favor, may I play for you a little flamenco?” “Fantastic,” I told him, though I didn’t know a flamenco from a flamingo.

As Arnoldo began tuning the strings, I noticed the long fingernail of his right-hand thumb, which he used as a pick. Suddenly, he launched into a series of blasting rasqueado strums and established the quick, 12-count rhythm cycle I later discovered was called bulerias. The variations were long, complex, melodic runs, and the plucking, or picado, was as rapid as bullets spurting from the barrel of a machine gun. I had never heard anything like it in my life.

For those of us in Santa Barbara during Fiesta week, however, there will be plenty of opportunity to hear real flamenco and to watch the dancers perform to this most remarkable Spanish music. [See Fiesta Events beginning on page 8.]

Until early in this century, flamenco was completely confined to Andalus-a in southern Spain. Like jazz, which began among the Southern American blacks, flamenco originated among the poor and persecuted people of Andalus-a. They were a combination of many peoples who had experienced great upheavals because of wars and immigration. Consequently, the roots of their music are found in many places: in the rhythms and chants of the Moors, in the religious music of the Jewish Diaspora, and the Gypsy music brought from India. When all this fused with Andalusian folk music, the phenomenon know as flamenco began.

Paco Pe±a, a virtuoso guitarist from the region, explained, “The essence of Gypsy music is a ‘certain cry’ or feeling that aficionados call duende, and this music expresses the joys, sorrows, misfortunes, and everyday life of the people.”

The basic repertoire of flamenco consists of only 14 songs. Half of these songs are called cantes jondos, or deep songs. The stately, profound, lamenting songs, Soleares and Seguerillas are typical examples. The remaining rhythms are cantes chicos, or happy songs. The sunny flirtatious Alegrias and Sevillanas are the most popular of the songs, expressing lightheartedness. This fascinating music is a captivating exotic blending of tender beauty and savagery that creates a mysterious fire-the true art of flamenco.

Reprinted from The Independent story archives. First published August 2, 1989.

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