Flamenco Music
Home Up

About Us
Save A Film
View Our Films
Filmmaker Bios
Research Resources
AFA FilmShows
Start Your Own Cinema
Conference Presentations
Special Projects
16mm CinemaStore
Site Search
Site Map
Contact Us

Cantes Flamencos Basicos,
Japanese brush, Geoff Alexander, 1976

An Introduction to Flamenco Music

(Note: a cassette, with keyed examples of musical pieces, accompanied the original text and is referenced in this document.)

written by Geoff Alexander, December 10, 1986


Flamenco music is one of the most technically demanding, yet least understood musics in the world today, Part of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of what I usually refer to as "Tourist Flamenco", with its artificial emotion and showy (and often badly played) guitar stylings, Current recordings are frequently not much help, as guitarists like Manitas de Plata, or "Little Hands of Silver" (known in Spain as "Manitas de Plomo", or Little Hands of Lead) have managed to land themselves recording contracts with major record companies, while true artists like Melchor de Marchena remain in relative obscurity,

Part of the reason for this is the fact that the true Flamenco artist generally finds himself uncomfortable in a recording situation and is not able, or in fact refuses, to produce. The preferred venue is the "juerga", an authentic Flamenco atmosphere usually occurring at random, in any location, with much to drink, and with only a few other Flamencos and "Aficionado" present. The juerga atmosphere is extremely difficult to record, as the greatness of the music sometimes occurs sporadically, and can be destroyed in a second by what may be perceived as an inappropriate word or action.

The challenge, then, is to describe this feeling, this "duende" that all great Flamencos possess, as it affects their music, language, dance, and culture, and translate it in fewer pages than it deserves, I feel it essential to include a cassette recording along with this paper, to which I will refer many times in the course of this document. The examples on the cassette will through music explain the history, vocal and guitar styles, and various forms of Flamenco, Current Flamenco music, incidentally, contains some 80 different forms, many of which are not danced nor accompanied by guitar.  These latter fall often into the category of "Cante Jondo," or deep song, and it will be the main point of this paper to describe Cante Jondo; all modern Flamenco springs from it, and as the early examples on the cassette attest, bears a strong resemblance to Arabic music.



Some scholars of Flamenco believe that Cante Jondo evolved out of a mixture of early Byzantine, Arab, Jewish and Gypsy cultures in Andalucía.   At the time the Gypsies arrived, Christian, Jewish and Muslim music all existed in both liturgical and vernacular forms in much of Spain, including Andalcía.   An edict issued in 1492 by Isabella the Catholic required all Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Those who refused blended in as they were able, as did Christian fugitives and dissenters.  The Gypsies, who had themselves been expelled from India by Tamerlane in 1400 had gradually moved into this region as well.

Scholars have not come up with a definitive origin of the term "Flamenco."  Opinions have ranged from believing the word derives from "of Flanders," to referring to the word "flame."   In terms of the  "Petenera" (Example 5), which includes verses such as  "Dónde vas, bella judía?" and "...que está en la sinagoga,"  there is no extant scholarship that dates the song back to 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain.  The petenera's origin is shrouded in time, but as a song form, doesn't appear to predate the 19th century.


I must make mention here of the particular dialect of Flamenco, as well as its non-Spanish influences, I know several Spaniards who have a difficult time understanding the dialect known as "Andalúz," and for Americans who understand a little Spanish, Flamenco records can present a real challenge, Consider the following verse:

En mita der ma

In Castilian Spanish this would be spelled (and pronounced) En mitad del mar

In Andalúz, many last letters are dropped off words, the letter 's' if contained in the middle of a word is rarely pronounced, and the diphthong sounding like "aahheu" often ends-words ending verses as well as at natural breathing points (my examples are replete with the latter. Notice, for example, María Vargas' pronunciation of the second "Piconera" in example no. 9). This emphasis on regional dialect, as well as the content of many Cante Jondo verses, has drawn many to compare Flamenco with the Blues in the United States.


The essential mood of the 'cante', like many American Blues songs, is one of despair and tortured emotions. This "pena negra", or black sorrow, can be expressed profoundly merely by the mournful repetition of the word "Ay! The Siguiriya has been described as singing of "pains without possible consolation, wounds that will never close, crimes without human redemption... the lament of the earth that will never be the sky, the sea that knows no limits, the good-bye eternal, forever". It is the exposure of one's soul stripped bare:

Detrás del carrito
Iloraba mi madre
no Iloraba aguita
que Iloraba sangre

Behind the funeral cart
sobbed my mother
she didn't weep tears
she wept blood

Recurrent themes of Cante Jondo are the terror of death and the pain of love... there seems to be no middle ground. Federico García Lorca has noted a similarity between the Cante and Arabic verse in the praise of wine, obsession with women’s hair, and crying: "the Siguiriya is like a hot iron that-t burns the heart, throat and lips of those who pronounce it".

The singer who portrays "pena negra" must above all have "duende", a word which cannot be adequately translated into English but is essential in conveying the great and terrible art of the Cante, Through "duende", sorrow and tortured emotion accompany the singer coming from, as Lorca says: "distant races, crossing the cemetery of the years". Although true "duende" all too rarely occurs in the recording studio, examples ',4,5,6,7, and 8 on the cassette each contain it, with perhaps Tía Anica la Piriñaca (no. 7) being the most frightening.


With the passage of time, other forms of Spanish music interacted with the Cante to form two sub-groups, the "Cante Intermedio" and "Cante Chico", Cante Intermedio most often describes working conditions, and death, but with less of a tragic feel than Cante Jondo, In the Petenera, she is described as "the perdition of men", but we somehow sense that our singer will survive to love again, as opposed to Cante Jondo, in which he would certainly be hearing the death knell.

"Cante Chico"' can be characterized as being lighthearted, and mote "happy" than the other two forms. As a result, most Flamenco dancing is done to this style of music, in particular "Bulerías" and "Sevillanas". One cannot gainsay the art of many of the performers of Cante Chico, in particular Niña de los Peines, who sings a wonderful Bulería on example number eight, She begins the song with a fairly straightforward rendition of the Latin standard "Cielito Lindo", but by second chorus has turned in into a raucous, fiery Flamenco song, saying 'if you think I don't love you, take this knife and plunge it into my heart!". Niña de los Peines brings up another vital concept in the art of Flamenco, the quality of voice inherent in most great Cantaores: la voz Affillá.


This refers to a gypsy style of Flamenco singing in which the voice is cracked, or split at will and has a rough, course quality. It is believed by many aficionados that only a Cantaor of Gypsy extraction can master this quality. Niña de los Peines was noted for this, as is La Piriñaca (example no. 7). Non-Gypsy singers with the capability of injecting a good deal of "rajo", or coarseness in the voice, are considered capable of producing a good "Cante Gitano" (example no, 5).


As in American Jazz, much Flamenco is based on improvisation and a basic rhythmic and chord structure. The rhythmic structure in Flamenco is known as "Compás", although many Cante Jondo songs are sung "a palo seco", or without accompaniment, and therefore have no compás. An example of this structure will be found in example number five, the Petenera, with a rhythm of 33222336, or in the Siguiriyas, which has a rhythm of 22332.


The guitar was introduced to Spain through the Caliphate of Córdoba in the: Ninth Century A.D., and although we are reasonably sure of the evolutionary process of the Cante, no one knows quite for certain when the guitar was first used to accompany Flamenco. I suspect it occurred initially in the early stages of the music, and have thus included an example of Nubian oud praying on the cassette. The oud is the forerunner to the l and is played usually with an eagle feather. This plucking technique is very similar to the function of the thumb in Flamenco guitar playing. The oud is a lower pitched instrument, but one hears definite traces of the oud in the playing of Benitez El De Alcalá in example number 3, as well as Roman El Granaíno in example number 5. Again, the "Cana" in example two is perhaps the oldest style of Flamenco we know of: the singer is encouraged by shouts of '01e’!", which comes from the Arabic "Allah!".

We do know that Flamenco guitar changed forever in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century as guitarist Ramon Montoya began to integrate tremolos and arpeggios learned from his classical training and thus invented an entirely new school of Flamenco guitar. I have included a recording of Montoya from the 1930s, accompanying the mournful voice of Antonio Chacón (example no. l0), and it is not difficult to see the startling difference between this more technically-oriented style and that of the two Spanish pieces listed above. What has happened, though, is ultimately a division of Flamenco styles, one being a more concertized, "classical" form of Flamenco (and incidentally, the one most used in the Flamenco dance), and the other being a more traditional form of accompaniment in which "duende" La more important than pure technique. Some, like Melchor de Marchena, have mastered both styles (examples 6 and 8).

Blinding technical virtuosity is usually impressive, but in my opinion does not belong to the genre of serious Cante, For comparison, I have included a version of the Petenera (example no. 15) that, though technically proficient, contains none of the charm and beauty of version number 5. This example contains none of the damnation and sorrow of El de la Matrona’s: the singer even refers to Petenera as "niña", which is an altogether too-endearing term for this fabled woman (he could be referring to Niña De Los Peines, a famous interpreter of this song). The guitarist is competent but lacks all the duende of El Granaíno, a complaint I levy against many of the young guitarists I hear coming out of Spain. I can draw a corollary here between German Lieder, in which the singer is accompanied by the piano, and Flamenco. The most accomplished accompanist of his day, Gerald Moore, wrote a book entitled "Am I Too Loud?" in which he discussed --- you guessed it --- the art of listening to the singer, not fighting with him.


",.. she now stamps on the ground, and placing her hands on her hips, she moves quickly to the right and left, advancing and retreating in a sidelong direction. Her glances become now more fierce and fiery...she commences clapping her hands...uttering words of an unknown tongue, to a strange and uncouth tune...she springs, she bounds, and at every bound she is a yard above the ground." Thus described George Borrow, in his hook "The Zincali"' the gypsy dance of 1843. This is the precursor of the modern Flamenco dance, and some of this early feeling can be seen in the dancing of the children in the 1963 film Los Tarantos starring Carmen Amaya with Antonio Gades. The dance of the juerga, however, is not what one usually sees in the world of commercial Flamenco. True, Cante Jondo can be danced, with duende and the gracia of the "pena negra" etched on the dancer's face and governing his or her movements and pasture. But most Bailaores dance to lighter forms of Flamenco, such as Tangos and Zapateadas (which comes from the Spanish word for "shoe").

As a soloist, the dancer is responsible for keeping with the compás, either through pitos and palmas (finger-snapping and handclapping) or footwork, The Zapateado (example no, 11) is generally a showcase for footwork; the Tango here is one of the rare examples of a dance that translates also to good recorded Flamenco (example no. 12): Cantaor Rafael Romero is inspired to an extent that he actually turns away from the microphone as Elvira del Albaicín shouts encouragement with cries, pitos, and spirited feet.

Flamenco dancing in its best form contains a combination of finger and hand movements (generally in men with both arms raised, in women moving in a serpentine fashion), upper torso bent back to roughly a 45 degree angle, and deliberate foot movement, Flamenco duets, featuring a man and a woman, usually have all the fire and emotion of a duel, the dancers' eyes locked upon each other, the aggressiveness passing back and forth between partners as their abrupt yet compás-based strides compliment each move in the upper torso. I have seen this dance performed excellently in the film adaptation of "Carmen", which featured Antonio Gades, one of the greats, with a sensuous Maria Del Sol. The drama of this type of dance is riveting. I must say, in closing this essay an the dance, that I cannot fathom the use of castanets in Flamenco. They drown out the compás, pitos, and footwork of the dancer, and make it damnably difficult to hear the guitar player. I have not been able to determine the origin nor the date of introduction of castanets to Flamenco, but I strongly suspect they were added during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century to give added tourist appeal to the emerging art of Commercial Flamenco. Castanets are never brought to the juerga.


Edward F, Stanton, in his important work The Tragic Myth: Lorca and the Cante Jondo, states that Cante Jondo "belongs to the minority, not the masses... it has probably always been 'cryptic, occult, secret’... it possesses... the characteristics of traditional music: oral transmission, anonymous origin of music and verses and Largely illiterate performers who come from the fringes of society". Truly, except for such modern Lyricists as Garcia Lorca, Manuel Machado, and Francisco Moreno Galván, the main body of the Cante rests in verses known as "coplas" that belong solely to time itself. The majority of Flamenco verses deal with love in all its aspects, and in fact one Flamencologist gathered as many as 22,000 different verses in his search, Death is another subject close to the heart of Flamenco. I feel that the pinnacle of the "pena negra" is reached in the jondo pieces wherein lies death, and in particular where love has been the cause of ruin:

I made a fire in the hills
The wind came and blew it out
Where there was fire
Ashes always remain

Or in the seemingly light, happy Bulería on our tape by Niña de los Peines:

If anyone doubts the love I have for you
Take this knife, and open my heart

Paul Hecht divides Flamenco verses into songs of diversion (cante chico), reconciliation (cante grande) and anguish (cante jondo), yet Niña's Bulerías falls into the "diversion" category. There is much crossover from one sub-group to another, but almost never does the cante jondo describe an emotion of happiness. Here are a few of my favorite verses:

I am unlucky
Even in walking
Far the steps I. take forward
Turn back on me

If my heart
Had little glass windows
You could Look in and see
It weeping drops of blood

I don't know where
I just don't know how
This rope got around my neck
Without my knowing it

Time said to Love:
That pride that you have
I'11 punish you for it

To tell me to forget you
Is to preach in the desert
Forge on cold steel
And talk with the dead

I've seen a man live
With more than a hundred knife wounds
And then I saw him die
From a single dance

It is quite common for verses such as these to he interspersed with the cry "Ayyyy!" or other remarks, and quite often as well a song is ended with "madre de mi corazon" before the final verse.


Although popular Flamenco "cuadras" perform all over the world, I prefer not to discuss them here. It reminds me of what the "dinner jazz" movement has done for the appreciation of the spirit of real, improvisational jazz, namely removing almost all of that selfsame spirit from the music it imitates. And yet, there is a "theatre" to Cante Jondo, but the stage is usually a dirt or linoleum floor, the audience is rarefy over 20 or so in number, and the cues are usually governed by the ingestion of wine and the resultant "duende". This theatrical experience is truly a Dionysian one, and is known as the juerga. Books on Flamenco are replete with names of singers who could make one cry in a juerga, but froze in front of a microphone, J.M. Caballero Bonald, who recorded the phenomenal "Archivo del Cante Flamenco" on Vergara Records, actually took microphones and hand-held tape recorders to the caves in the Sacromonte above Granada to record in a real juerga setting . Listen to examples no, 2,4, and 7 an the tape for the profound difference in this type of performing. This, then, is the authentic theatre of the Flamenco; it’s hard to gain admission, but once you're there you've got the best seat in the house.


The only proper way to explain good Flamenco is to provide examples, so I've recorded a few here that I think are indicative of the Cante and its roots. I am not a musicologist, but have attempted to provide some insight into the scale patterns used in Flamenco, which I find lean heavily to the Phrygian mode, as opposed to the Arabic songs on the tape, which are either in the Arabic scare or Aeolian made.

Example 1: Hamza El Din, oud. This song is sung in Nubian, using the B Aeolian mode. I find quite a bit a similarity in the style of oud played here and the guitar style used by Roman El Granaíno in Example 5, in that the strings are plucked rather than utilizing the "rasqueado" style deriving from Ramon Montoya (Example 10).

Example 2: Amos Rodriguez, cantaor, Benitez el de Alcalá, guitar. This Caña" is considered the oldest song form in the Flamenco genre, and is recorded in a juerga format. A very old style of guitar here, as well. The trademark of the Caña is the "Ay Ay AY Ay Ay" between various stanzas.

Example 3: Wadih Al Safi, singer. It is interesting to note the direction contemporary Arabic singing has taken. Similar to Flamenco in the wailing, crying style, with the flute essentially taking the guitar accompaniment, in a scale that appears to be C Aeolian.

Example 4: Antonio Almendrita, cantaor. , This Saeta is sung to the dead Christ during Holy Week, and typically discusses his pain and death. This version fluctuates between D Major and E Phrygian.

Example 5: Probably my favorite Flamenco piece, the Petenera sung by Pepe el de la Matrona and accompanied by Roman El Granaíno. Pepe cries as he begs: "Dónde vas bella judía?", a question dating from the Spanish middle ages. "I'm going to the synagogue, to see Rebeco," says she, all made up and dressed. In anguish, Pepe finishes the song with the statement "you are the downfall of all men". No guitarist plays the Petenera with the grace and "pena" of Roman El Granaíno. This one still gives me the shivers.

Example 6: José Menese, cantaor, and Melchor De Marchena, guitar. Throughout this paper, I’ve maligned the artificiality of the recording studio, and generally favored the older singers. Jose Menese is the exception. Probably about 34 years old at the time of this recording, he might have the purest "voice" in the recorded history of Flamenco. He cries, his voice full of emotion as well as dynamic range, with perfect accompaniment by one of the greats, Melchor de Marchena. This is a Siguiriya, in B Phrygian, with a power that indicates that Menese probably wouldn't lose much of that dynamism in a concert hall.

Example 7: Tía Anica la Piriñaca: Martinete. The Martinete was originally sung by gypsies at the forge, accompanied by the slow, tortured rhythm of the falling hammer. Piriñaca has all of the "rajo, the "voz afillá" that characterizes all great gypsy singers. I have to point out that she is a woman with a very rough-hewn style, and one of the most honest interpreters of the Cante Jondo.

Example 8: Niña de los Peines, cantaora, Melchor De Marchena, guitar. Nina came probably as close to being a "star" within the world of Flamenco as anyone. This recording from the '30's explains why. She begins by singing the popular, sugary song "Ceilito Lindo" and finishes with a raucous improvisation that includes the line about "opening my heart with a knife" that I discussed in my discussion of Flamenco verses. She was able to translate her emotion to disc, and several years before her death, while in her eighties, took the stage at a famous Flamenco festival and danced with much the same fire as she had in her youth.

Example 9: María Vargas, cantaora, Manolo Sanlúcar, guitar. This very pretty song would fall into the Cante Chico category. She asks "¿Dónde está Julio Romero?", referring to Julio Romero De Torres, a Córdoban painter of Flamenco subjects who died in the early part of this century. She answers, saying "he's not dead, only sleeping..."


Example 10: Antonio Chacón, cantaor Ramon Montoya, guitar. Possessor of a very high pitched voice, Chacón was still capable of becoming one of the great early interpreters of Cante Flamenco. Also present in this version of "Tarantos" is Ramon Montoya, the shaper of today's classically-inspired style of Flamenco guitar playing. Compare this with Ramon El Granaíno’s style in Example 5.

Example 11: Luis Heredia, guitar, Carmen Santos and Chiquito de Cadiz, dancers. This Zapateado features some interesting examples of footwork, with a compás of 33222. Toward the end of the "shoe solo", the dancer plays all compás beats as well as internal beats with one shoe, while using the other shoe only to mark the beginning beat of the 33222, similar to the function of a bass drum in western music.

Example 12: Rafael Romero, cantaor, Luis Heredia, guitar, Elvira del Albaicín, dancer. Tango. I really enjoy the steps, handclaps, and "pitos", or finger snaps, by Elvira del Albaicín. So, apparently, does Raphael Romero, as he seemingly turns away from the microphone during most of the performance.

Example 13: Antonio "El Cartujano" cantaor, Juan Trilla, guitar. He's little-known, but gives the most stirring rendition of a Flamenco Rumba that I've ever heard. He sings of her dark eyes, her hair, how he likes to kiss her, how she drives him absolutely crazy. All the passion that's missing from most renditions of the "Rumba Flamenca" can be found here.

Example 14: Pepe el de la Matrona, cantaor, Pedro Soler, guitar. Pepe was 83 years old at the time of this recording, and I've included it here to illustrate that with time, a true Flamenco's voice just gets better. The tears and passion, and fire are perfectly offset by Soler's guitar.

Example 15: Jesus Heredia, cantaor, Jose Cala, guitar. I've included this as an example of how not to perform Flamenco. Most of the fault does not lie with the guitar, who for the most part is only trying to cover for the poor singer. Heredia has no feeling of the grace and charm of the Petenera, as does "El De La Matrona" in Example 5, but insists on false emotion and "operatic" voice inflections. He even has problems with the rhythm, and forces the guitar to catch up with him at one point, probably so he doesn't run out of breath. This type of singer does best staying with Cante Chico, or less demanding forms of Flamenco.


All translations by Geoff Alexander, Paul Hecht, or D.E. Pohren, except where noted.



Borrow, George. The Zincali. London: William Clowes & Sons 1902

Colin, Dr. Charles, and Schaeffer, Don, Complete Encyclopedia of Scales. New York: Charles Corin 1977

Hecht, Paul. The Wind Cried. New York: Dial Press 1968

Pohren, D.E. The Art of Flamenco. Sevilla: Society of Spanish Studies 1973

Stanton, Edward F. The Tragic Myth: Lorca and Cante Jondo Lexington: University Press of Kentucky 1978



Example 1: Hamza El Din: Al Oud. Vanguard VSD 79194 (USA)

Examples 2,4,7: Archive Del Cante Flamenco. Vergara 13-001/6 (Spain)

Example 3: Wadih Al Safi: Volume 3. EMI Araby MT 10099 (Greece)

Examples 5,11,12: Noche Flamenca. Disques BAM LD 6008/10 (France)

Example 6: Jose Menese: Cantes Flamencos Basicos. RCA LSP 10340 (Spain)

Example 8: Niña de los Peines. Regal 1 J 040~?0,077M;(Spain)

Example 9: Maria Vargas: Reina del Cante Gitana. Caudal CAU 538 (Spain)

Example 10: Don Antonio Chacón: Los Ases Del Flamenco Regal 10 C 038-031.511 (Spain)

Example 13: Antonio "El Cartujano". Vergara 7,196.UN (Spain)

Example 14: Pepe el de la Matrona: Grands Cantaores Du Flamenco Le Chant Du Monde LDX 74879 (France)

Example 15: Antología Del Cante Flamenco: Retablo 5, Serlibro S.A. AFL 805 (Spain)


Useful Links

Joaquina Labajo's "How musicological and ethnomusicological is Spanish Flamenco? 

Copyright (c) 2016 Geoff Alexander   All rights reserved.     Contact Us               

site stats