Folk music has been around since the beginning of time, and it continues to be a driving force behind many cultures around the world. Folk music is usually classified as traditional music from a particular culture that has no true author and is passed down orally from generation to generation. Folk music is also known to have many meanings inside the music such as telling stories, describing a landscape, or teaching a moral lesson. One of the best examples of folk music that I have dedicated my life to studying is Flamenco music. In this article, I will describe what Flamenco is, where it came from, and give examples of letras (lyrics) from the cante (singing) to demonstrate the storytelling and histories of Flamenco musicians and the Spanish people.
What is Flamenco?
Flamenco is a type of folk music from Spain, in particular, the southern region of Spain called Andalucía. Flamenco music history goes back over a thousand years, and it is typically described to have origins in the year 711 during the Morish invasion of Spain. Flamenco music was created by the Romani Gypsies who migrated to Spain from the Middle East, and it consists of cante (singing), Baile (dancing), and toque (guitar playing; my specialty). Flamenco music was created to describe the emotions and struggles of the Romani people as they faced persecutions from the Moors who controlled Andalucía until the year 1492. At its earliest stage, Flamenco was only sung in an acapella manner. As time went on, the Gitanos (gypsies) would use handclaps to keep the beat, which would then inspire the dance. The guitar was not introduced until the 1800s because the instrument had not been invented yet. All three aspects of the music would eventually come together in the mid-1800s and create the Flamenco we know and love today. Flamenco is an oral tradition, and in order to learn it correctly, requires it to be passed down from teacher to student (mothers/fathers to their children back in the earliest years).
Stories of the Gitanos
As mentioned earlier, Flamenco music was a way to express many different emotions from the Romanis of different parts of Spain. In this section, I will showcase some examples of this within the different Palos of Flamenco. A Palo, which literally translates to “a branch” or “a stick” in English, is a style of Flamenco. Flamenco is an umbrella term for many different variations of music, which may have various types of rhythm, emotions, and methods of playing the music with the guitar. The more we analyze the lyrics of Flamenco, the more we start to see the tales of the Gitanos and the lifestyles they lived through. Here is a video example of a letra in Fandangos…
Yo no hago más que beber (All I ever do is drink)
La gente a mi me critica (People criticize me saying)
Que no hago más que beber (All I ever do is drink)
Y si la genta supiera el motive porque (if only they knew the reason that pushes me)
Conmigo tambien bebiera (They would join, drink, and stop dissing)
Of course, these are rough translations into English, but we can see the tragedy behind this lyric. According to the singer, he has a rough life and is driven to drink to overcome the demons of his life. The singer says that if only people could be in the shoes of the Gitanos would they understand and also start drinking with him.
As you can hear, Flamenco singing is much different than the pop styles of singing we listen to on the radio every day. We call this style of singing “Cante Jondo” which means “deep singing”. The singers are using more of their gut and chest to create these very profound tones, which adds to the emotion of the music. Flamenco singing is never from the throat and upper chest like a lot of modern singing is. Now let’s look at another style of Flamenco called Alegrías…
Con los ojitos señas (A message with your eyes)
Compañera de mi alma (My soulmate)
Hazme con los ojitos señas (Send a message with your eyes)
Que en algunas ocasiones (Because on some occasions)
Los ojos sirven de lengua (The eyes say what the tongue denies)
Looking at the letra, you can see that this is completely different in emotion from the previous Fandango letra. How can this be? Well, Alegrías is a different style of Flamenco that comes from the port city of Cadíz. Alegrías literally means “joy” in English, so the lyrics of this palo will be much more lighthearted. The stories of Alegrías can reflect happiness, love, friendships, the sea/sailing, or being happy for no apparent reason! Analyzing this letra, we can see that this is a love story where the singer says to his love that her eyes tell her true intentions even if it is difficult to find the words to express one’s love. Much happier than the previous story about drinking away your troubles!
Now let’s look at a really old letra from a Soleá, which is known as the mother of the Palos, and is usually the first style you will learn when studying flamenco guitar. This is also a favorite letra of mine…
En mis cortas oraciones (In my short prayers)
Le pido a dios llorando (I ask God crying)
Que me quite la salud (to deprive my health)
Y a ti te la vaya dando (and give it to you)
Again, we are back to the dark stories of Flamenco. Soleá comes from the Spanish word “soledad” which means solitude. The style of singing Soleá is very deep, sorrowful, and is usually in a prayer-like setting. As we translate this letra, we can see that this is a tragedy, as the singer is saying he/she wants God to take away their health in order to save the one they love most. These are stories that any of us can relate to at some point in life, no matter what our beliefs are.
Let’s look at one last uplifting letra from my favorite Sevillana…
Lo tiré al pozo, mi alma, lo tiré al pozo (I throw it into the well, my soul, I throw it into the well)
Lo tiré al pozo, el clavel que me diste, olé mi alma y olé (I throw it to the well, the carnation you gave me)
El clavele que me diste, mi alma, lo tiré al pozo (the carnation you gave, my soul, I throw into the well)
Lo tiré al pozo, yo no quiere claveles, olé mi alma y olé (I throw into the well, I do not want carnations)
Yo no quiere claveles, mi alma, de ningún mozo (I don’t want carnations, my soul, of any boy)
Ay que me pasa, el rato que lo tuve, olé ay que me pasa (Oh what weighs on me, the time I had it)
El rato que lo tuve, mi alma, en la cabeza (the time I had weighs on me, my soul, in my head)
This letra is up to the interpretation of the audience. I always analyzed this as a young girl saying that she does not want flowers or physical gifts from her love, but instead just wants him because he is always on her mind. Listeners may agree or disagree with my translation, and that is perfectly fine! Flamenco is difficult to translate to other languages, but you can still see the folk elements I mentioned earlier!
I hope this opens your mind up to the beautiful world of Flamenco. I recommend going online and listening to as much Flamenco music as you can to hear more of these examples in action. As you can see, Flamenco can be dark, profound, happy, funny, and encompass any emotion of the human spirit. This is one of the subjects that drew me to flamenco; it is not just storytelling, it is life itself!