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Flamenco Guitar

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Flamenco is a style of folk music style born of the Andalucian region of Spain. It comes from the Gitanos, or gypsies, who were influenced by both the Moors and by their own Indian roots. Various regional flavours are named by the place of origin, or the topic. For example, songs by and about miners are called mineras. This history of the style and its three parts - singing, dancing and guitar playing - may be found in many sources. This entry looks at the Toque - the guitar playing - and examines what it is about this particular style of guitar playing that makes us nod in recognition and say 'ahhh, Flamenco'.

What Is Flamenco, Then?

First is the rhythm: it is the beating heart of all music, it makes us dance. These patterns are called compás in Flamenco. Playing strictly within a given beat is called toque compás. The rhythm at the heart of Flamenco, sometimes called 'the mother of Flamenco' is called soleá or soleares. It consists of 12 beats with accents on the third, sixth, eighth, tenth, and 12th.

Over time there have developed variations on this theme: Alegrias come from Cadiz and allow for very ornate and rich guitar playing; bulerias is a rhythm from Jerez that is very lively and quick, a very demanding style of music for the dancer, singer and guitarist combined; colombianas feature flavours picked up in South America; but all have roots in the the Soleares. There is another form, more related to the Fandango, called Malagueñas. It is not danced and is free-form, without strict compás. Further variations on the theme have been influenced by other folk music of the region, like rumba and tango. These fall under the overall heading of free-form, or tarantas, style. They are a whole area of research unto themselves so let us go on and leave the reader to delve into the nomenclature further on their own. It is the 12-beat compás that really makes one think 'ahhh, Flamenco'.

The melodic passages on the guitar are called falsetas, while the interval between notes, or scale, is called the picados. The playing of these single notes as melody, or in groups as chords, are determined by the right hand work, called punteado (the plucking technique). Probably the most recognisable strumming technique is rasgueado, or 'rough picking'. The fingers play the notes of a chord splayed out so the notes follow one another rapidly: not quite an arpeggio, but definitely not a smooth harmonic chord. With the guitarist tending to follow the cues of the dancer or singer, these songs are either light and cheerful (cante chico) or profound and dark (cante jondo). This tonality comes from the scale mode used, much like a minor key sounding mournful or lonely in the Blues style of North America.

But That's Not All

It is the final ingredient that really makes the music come alive. It is the spirit of duende, coming into the circle and binding the audience, dancer and guitarist into a ritual that speaks the message of the travels of the gypsies, far from a nearly-forgotten home.

This can be best-explained by some guitarists that play the style well:

Jerzy Skoryna1 says:

When one plays solo or accompanies a dancer and singer, flamenco reaches a status of a ritual. Flamenco dancing, even though it is mostly improvisation, follows strict rules on what is being exposed.
The dancer takes control over the situation and she/he in 'code' asks the guitar player what she wants, what she is about to do and then, following the strict compás rules, the guitar has to be played as well. 'Duende', that magical spirit, comes out, it possesses one and takes over. One's playing goes where it consciously never would have thought it could go, takes one out of any boundary, one is then out of the rim and has no limits.
Flamenco comes from the hurt feelings from the Spanish gypsies, but more than that, it synthesises the hundreds of years of their journeys from india. At the end, universally, one could say that mankind's feelings; sorrow and happiness, are synthesised in flamenco. The compás are the spirit trying to order the soul, the expression is the will to live. Playing it, wow, it's hard to say, but this guitarist wouldn't change it for anything on this world; it sublimes the soul and spirit at the moment when one picks those six flamenco guitar strings and plays a fandango or buleria. It's like the beginning and the end put all together.

Another guitar player, Jim Graham2, who has some skill in this style despite the fact he doesn't live in Spain, explains it this way:

It's hard to explain what it feels like to present one of these pieces to an audience, at a time when the artist knows they are honouring a tradition that is not their own, but doing it honestly. The music almost, repeat, almost, becomes secondary to the event, audience response and the people who come to speak afterward confirm this. The applause when this happens doesn't make one think 'boy that really was played good', it makes one feel a kinship with the people that are there with the artist for this experience.

Out of all the styles this guitarist plays, which include classical and Celtic among others, this only happens with flamenco. Another aside is that for a couple of years everything this artist composed displayed some flamenco influence, it is a powerful force.

It is not the paintings on the ancient caves of Lascaux that amaze, it is the footprints in the muddy floor preserved for ages. Showing us that people very different from ourselves yet still human danced. They danced around fires in caves and did the one thing in their lives that was not there just for meeting physical needs; they made art into ritual and worship. And the audience, the musicians and the dancers became one thing. A small voice in a great Universe saying 'We are human and this is what it feels like'. Passionate loves, hot tempered hates and joy at being here now. That is what comes into the circle and makes one say 'Jaleo, that is Flamenco.'

Further Reading

1Member of Flamenco-Teacher.com.2Lessons by Jim can be found at Wholenote.com: the online guitar community.

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