Reimagining Flamenco is an upcoming Rockport Music event with a cast of musicians performing both flamenco-inspired works by Manuel de Falla and classically-flavored reinventions of guitar and piano pieces by the old flamenco masters. To understand how these pieces are adapted, however, you first have to know about the history of flamenco. Below is an excerpt from the program notes detailing the history and technical elements of traditional flamenco. 

Singing, musicianship and dance—cante, toque, baile—are the core ingredients of an art form which can trace its origins back over many centuries. Today, flamenco is alive and well, constantly evolving and reinventing itself both in and beyond the Iberian Peninsula. In 2010, Spain successfully nominated flamenco for inclusion on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list.* “Andalusia in southern Spain is the heartland of Flamenco, although it also has roots in regions such as Murcia and Extremadura,” the nomination states. “Cante is the vocal expression of flamenco, sung by men and women, preferably seated, with no backing singers. The gamut of feelings and states of mind—grief, joy, tragedy, rejoicing and fear—can be expressed through sincere, expressive lyrics characterized by brevity and simplicity… Toque or the art of guitar playing has long surpassed its original role as accompaniment.”

At the heart of traditional flamenco lie a dozen or so basic song types and at least double this number of related styles (estilos). If we’re lucky enough to travel in southern Spain, we tourists will hear the more familiar ones from one flamenco show (tablao) to another. Artists have been performing commercial flamenco shows from as far back as the last few decades of the 19th century. What we’re experiencing here in traditional flamenco are not “songs” as such— set compositions written by a single composer to words by a known poet—but the ability of a flamenco singer (cantaor) or guitarist to bring to life and, if we’re lucky, creatively improvise in a melismatic manner around traditional estilos, within a sequence of four or five verses (coplas), interspersed with guitar interludes. This is all built around the prevailing chord progressions or beat-pattern of the chosen cante (often the distinctive 12-beat pattern of the flamenco bulerías).

If this makes flamenco sound academic, it certainly isn’t! For generations, flamenco existed as a subculture in the taverns, whorehouses and decadent private parties of the rich. Cante jondo, flamenco’s “deep song,” originated as a kind of deep cry from the heart of the oppressed, often culminating in sobbing wails of “Ay-ay-ay.” If a singer or guitarist lacked the skill and charisma to animate this inherited musical heritage and idiom, they wouldn’t leave behind much of a memory, let alone a legacy. Doing so has been an important part of how traditional flamenco has evolved, as an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to the next. Its roots can be a thorny issue and reflect the complexity of the history of southern Spain, and of Andalusia in particular. Gypsies or the Roma ethnic group have been widely credited with an important role in spreading flamenco music, but not with being its sole creators. They began to settle in southern Andalusia as early as the late 15th century. The co-creator of today’s concert, Serouj Kradjian, credits Spanish folk song, Arabic songs from North Africa and Jewish chanting with bringing comparable contributions to the melting pot of the cante flamenco. This reflects the legacy of the rich multi-cultural mix of Muslims, Jews and Christians that made up Islamic Spain, from roughly the 8th to 15th centuries, together resulting in one of the peaks of European civilization.

Today you can frequently hear a handclapping (palmas) and finger snapping (pitos) accompaniment to a flamenco performance—these were likely a more frequent way of accompanying flamenco before the guitar became standard. Many performances also include castanets, foot-stamping and vocalizations, and chorus clapping (jaleo). Flamenco is performed during religious festivals, rituals, church ceremonies and at private celebrations, like weddings, even funerals. Additionally, it is the badge of identity of numerous communities and groups. Flamenco has been taught in music schools for most of the past century, not only in Spain. One authority recently estimated that there are more flamenco academies in Japan than in Spain. “Flamencologists” (yes, that’s what they’re called) have analyzed and dissected a hundred or more different estilos and picked apart and quantified every imaginable aspect of the art form. Still, despite the pressure of over-analysis on the one hand, and the commercialized “Nuevo flamenco” with its flamenco-styled pop songs on the other, traditional flamenco continues to thrive and seek ways to constantly revitalize an art form that crosses the boundaries between folk, classical and popular music.

Reimagining Flamenco will take place Thursday, July 11, 2019 at 8 p.m.