Flamenco is the signature musical style of Spain, intense and passionate, with a threat of wild abandon barely kept in check by the music's strict rhythmic structure. Flamenco puro, or "pure" flamenco is composed of three basic elements: voice, guitar and dance, with a repertoire of more than 60 individual song styles (palos) and dances (danzas) and an ever larger number of rhythmic cycles (compass). Flamenco is typically performed by a solo singer, backed by one or more guitarists with additional musicians providing percussion with hand-claps (palmas), rhythmic foot stomping and assorted hand-percussion instruments (most often the cajon). Dancers often accompany the singers (and vice-versa), though often the dancers perform solo, with the same instrumental lineup.
The various palossiguiriyas, soleares, fandangos, etcare divided into three main schools called cantes: cante chico, cante intermedio and cante jondo. Of these, the most well-known is the cante jondo, or deep song. This is a singer's showcase, where a powerful and truly great vocalist can achieve duende: a transcendent, near-mystical connection with the audience that conveys all the passion and release that the music holds.
Flamenco's origins are a subject of much debate, but it's generally agreed that the music originated in the parched Southern province of Andalucia sometime in the 16th century. The Andalusian city of Granada was the last Islamic stronghold to fall to Christian reconquest in 1492, and flamenco bore the polyglot stamp of the refugees from the very beginning: mixing together Arabic, Jewish, Christian and Gitano (or Gypsy) musical traditions. Evidence suggests that the name flamenco had it's origins in the medieval Arabic words for "fugative peasant: felag and mengu. Over the next few centuries, the music would become the almost-exclusive province of the gitanos, who would preserve and develop the tradition into the music we know today. Unfortunately, this association marked flamenco as the music of criminals and the underclass, and it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that flamenco saw its first true "golden age."
From roughly 1869 until the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, flamenco blossomed throughout Spain's many cafes cantantes. It was during these years that the "laws" of the music were codified into the many different palos. It was also when the unique flamenco guitar came to the fore, purpose-built for dazzling glissandos and intricate finger-work. The end of this era coincided with the rise of recording technology, and many of the best performers of the early 20th century were captured for posterity. It was during this era that the great Spanish playwright, Frederico García Lorcaa true aficionado of the musiclent his genius to the collection and recording of popular songs, which resulted in the Colección de Canciones Populares Antiguas (Collection of Early Popular Songs)a valuable archive still used to this day. In 1931 Lorca himself made a flamenco recording, accompanying singer La Argentinita on the piano in what would become a classic recording. But the outbreak of civil war in 1936 would bring both Lorca's life and this golden age to a tragic end.
After the Spanish Civil War (19361939), flamenco continued to gain respectability, with the government of Francisco Franco promoting it as a unifying national music. The 1950s saw flamenco gain important institutional recognition, with the establishment of a chair of Flamenco studies at the University of Jerez and the release of the Hispanovox label's canonical Antologia del Cante Flamenco, which cataloged the best singers of the era. The postwar years also saw the rise of the tablaos, a modern version of the old cafés cantantes that soon became an integral part of the flamenco circuit, providing a living home for the art form to evolve. But by the 1960s, the music was in creative declineoften reduced to canned performances for tourists. But with the death of Franco in the 1970s, flamenco experienced a period of intense creative renewal, spearheaded by the iconic singer Cameron de la Isla (aka Jose Monge Cruz).
The 1980s was the era of /a movidaan exuberant cultural moment when Spain finally shook off the social strictures of the Franco eraand flamenco entered its second golden era. Led by a new generation of performers, such as Ketama and Pata Negra as well as veterans like Paco de Lucia and Tomatito (both once accompanists for El Camaron), flamenco began incorporating elements of jazz, blues, rock and even reggae into a new fusion sound called nuevo flamenco. Pioneering record label Nuevos Medios developed an alternative distribution network that bypassed traditional broadcast outlets and tablaos in favor of bringing the music directly into bars, nightclubs and discos where younger fans were primed for the new sounds. But in one of music's great ironies, it was the Gypsy Kingsa band of gitanes from Arles, France, playing a parallel style called rumba catalanawho first brought this new flamenco aesthetic to worldwide audiences.
Today, flamenco continues to thrive and evolve, with young stars such as Estrella Morente and Diego la Cigalla and veterans such as Enrique Morente and Paco de Lucia winning international accolades, while experimental fusion outfits such as Ojos de Brujo and Indialucia push the music's limits. Tom Pryor