Forgive me if these notes are obvious. Flamenco consists of guitar, dance, vocals, and clapping—in configurations that vary in size and composition from one dancer and vocal with guitar to larger ensembles of 8 or 9. Only the guitar—and, if more than 2, clapping—is common to every flamenco performance. I’ve seen only male guitarists, and can they ever play. Think Al DiMeola, you jazz fans. The guitar itself is a little smaller than the usual acoustic, I think. “Canadian cedar”, says CADF, is an important part of the guitar.
Men and women sing (rarely in unison or harmony), men and women clap. During the “song” (an inadequate word I’ll use for now), the main vocal may switch from one to the other. The ensemble dancers will sit and clap, stepping forward for a dance lead and sitting down again in the course of a song.
The clapping, another inadequate word, is no idle time-keeping. It’s an instrument. I noticed in Sevilla that one can take classes in clapping, which I’d like to do some day.
All of these components vary in intensity during the course of the song. The song itself, as far as I can tell, is more of a journey—a regular harmonic and rhythmic pattern will shift to another one along the way. The song enacts a series of rises and falls, the peaks evoking cries of olé and outbreaks of applause. I think there’s some improvisation in the transitions, which the performers—profoundly attentive to one another throughout—convey in the moment.
As for content of the song, I have no idea. But based on the racetrack that my body and soul becomes, let’s call the song, almost always in a minor key, a journey to kingdom come (a phrase I’ve never used before) and back. That's the content, I guess.
The king and queen of flamenco are the male vocalist, accompanied brilliantly by guitar, or the female dancer, also with just guitar. She may wait offstage until she decides to enter and take over in her long skirts, her dance taking those rises and falls even further. The guitarists are simply masters—the engines of flamenco.
According to my crude understanding of flamenco as performance, there are two kinds: (1) the more mannered, exaggerated display, as opposed to performance, of the elements mentioned above, and (2) the real deal, that picks you up by whatever aspect of your being is handy and gives everything a deep shake.
The show last night was recommended by the hotel and the tourist info, sure signs that I was headed for (1). I went anyway, amusing myself in a couple of tapas joints on the way. Seated in the flamenco venue--a large, open, high-ceilinged space comfortably decorated with rural images--yokes, rakes (hinting at common sources of bullfight and flamenco?), etc.--at around 9:30, I got worried when two dozen older women with short grey hair and cameras filed in, herded by their tour guide, and started taking pictures of each other. But the show wasn’t bad. The 7 performers were young and obviously schooled in flamenco, and they did achieve some high points, but all in all it was rather tired and automatic.
I have higher hopes for flamenco in small clubs tomorrow night and the night after. Tomorrow morning it’s back to the CADF archive.