by Deborah Lawlor
“When I sing as I please
I taste blood in my mouth”
-Tia Anica la Periñaca
The core of Flamenco is the song, the cante. The dance and even the guitar are built around the cante. As Linda Vega, one of my great dance teachers, says: “The dance adorns the cante” – and the guitar mostly does too.
What is Flamenco?
The deep song, the cante jondo is its root . The two primary forms of the deep song are the soleares, singing of aloneness, isolation, loss, and the siguiriyas, which sing of pain, injustice, heartbreak, death.
“Let the bells toll,
Let them toll in sorrow
The mother of my heart has died,
The mother of my soul.”
“When I remember how my mother kissed me
I almost lose my mind.”
Those who compose and sing these simple songs are Gypsies who migrated to Andalucia in Southern Spain from the 1400’s onward, and for most of these years were reviled and scorned by the local Castillians.
“The Castillianos on the corners
With their lamps and lanterns
Are saying in loud voices
“Kill him! He’s a Gypsy cur.”
Another verse goes:
“Just like the Jews
Though I be burnt alive
I won’t deny what I have been.”
Most Flamencos to this day are Gypsies, and some say that to be truly a ‘Flamenco”, or to have “flamencura” you have to be Gypsy, even down to the way you walk.
In 1749 King Fernando VI ordered his “final solution”: all Gypsies were rounded up. Over 12,000 of them were either imprisoned in arsenals or sent to forced labor in the mines.
There are various forms of the deep song:
- There are the Carceleros – songs about jail.
- There are the Tarantos and the Mineras – about working in the mines.
- There are siguiriyas about beating iron in the hot metal forges where the distinctive compass or rhythmic cycle of the siguiriya was forged as well.
- There are even songs about the brothels:
“ With a knife I killed her
A woman of ‘the life’
As she began to quiver
We recognized each other –
She was my sister.”
Flamenco. The deep song. Pain too great to be spoken – and often expressed a capella: no dance, no guitar. Just the aye aye ayes of the martinete, for example, leading into the siguiriya, when the singer closes his eyes and opens his gashed heart. This is Flamenco.
So what about the dance? What role does it play in this dark world of the cante jondo?
During the song the dancer moves solemnly, respectfully, listening with his or her whole body to the cante. Rarely looking at the singer, the dancer will provide percussive accents to his song, filling in the breaths and pauses with strong and intricate moments of footwork that say “Yes, that’s it!” The dancer becomes an extension of and a counterpoint to his voice, his intension, his concentration, his mood.
At the end of the letra (verse) the dancer will make a call, a llamada, to the guitarist and embark on an intensive yet modulated footwork section in which she/he both digests and reacts to what the singer has just given. Often the pain the singer has expressed is transformed into anger as the dancer builds up the tempo, the guitarist following her lead, through complex rhythmic passages that display and release or stomp into the floor the emotion that the singer has evoked. This builds into a climactic finale and closure – then she performs another “call” and the singer re-joins the guitarist and dancer and gives voice the final section of the “piece”, the bulería, which is an up-tempo, glorious song of release and resolution.
So the role of the dancer is to transform. The Cantaor (Singer) gives voice to a tragedy; the dancer and guitarist create a pathway to its acceptance. The audience breathes. Life can go on. This is Flamenco.
Deborah Lawlor is the Producing Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre and the Creator/Producer of Forever Flamenco.