AN INTRODUCTION TO SIX KEY FORMS | BY JASON WEBSTER
In flamenco, repertoire is understood in a slightly different way than it is in other musical forms. Although certain pieces may be considered standards—for instance, Paco de Lucía’s “Entre Dos Aguas”—a guitarist’s role is principally to accompany singers and dancers. And in order to do this well, the guitarist needs to have perfect rhythm and a thorough knowledge of flamenco’s different styles, known as palos.
There are dozens of palos, many with multiple sub-categories based on provincial variations. To learn and understand them all requires a lifetime’s study. Thankfully, a handful are performed repeatedly in performances and recordings. Here is a short introduction to the basic palos within flamenco.
Joyful and erotically charged, tangos complete the best flamenco parties. Tangos have a 4/4 rhythm, the first beat being silent. The tempo is usually very fast, although it may slow down a little to accompany a dancer. The style of playing is light and jocular. The city of Cádiz, Spain, is particularly known for its tangos, although Jerez, Málaga, and Seville are also great centers of the style. (These tangos have only a passing resemblance to Argentinian tangos and should be considered quite separate.)
Slow and soulful, the soleá is one of the most important palos in flamenco and its 12-beat rhythm forms the basis for many other styles. There is debate about the meaning of the name, but one etymology links it to the Spanish word soledad—“solitude.” This may offer a clue to its emotional intensity and the cathartic, almost blues-like charge at its heart. The soleá is often followed by a more upbeat bulería.
Along with tangos, these are quintessential flamenco party pieces, with a 12-beat rhythm. Usually played at the end of a performance, with the musicians and dancers standing in a semi-circle together onstage, the bulería has become the most popular palo in flamenco, thanks in part to its development by the nuevo flamenco players of the 1970s and 1980s. It is typically the piece guitarists use to demonstrate their virtuosity and speed, often with a backing of jaw-droppingly fast palmas clapping.
The great flamenco guitarist Tomatito plays a bulería
One of the oldest palos, the seguirilla is, along with the soleá, one of the most emotionally intense and tragic styles, typifying the cante hondo, or “deep song” that true aficionados consider to be the very soul of flamenco. It is somber, slow, and requires as much sentimental as technical skill to play well. The rhythm is counted in a number of different ways, but can be broken down into a 12-beat compás, according to preference.
Alegre means happy in Spanish, and as the name alegria implies, it is a very happy palo, often associated with Cádiz and usually focused on the dance. It is rare in that it is played in a major key and Ionian mode (as opposed to Phrygian, which dominates most flamenco). The alegria includes two sections for the dancer to show off her skills—the silencio, in which a minor key is briefly introduced, and the escobilla, in which the tempo is gradually increased, highlighting the speed of her footwork. It is played with a 12-beat rhythm.
Often cited as the palo with the greatest influence from Moorish music, a fandango has a 3/4 rhythm with particular emphasis on the first beat. There are many variants of the style, but the best known come from the city of Huelva. Many aficionados will insist that no understanding of flamenco guitar can be developed without first mastering fandangos. It has a wide emotional range and can be both playful and serious. Tarantas, granaínas, and malagueñas are all palos that develop out of fandangos.
Each of these palos can be played as solo pieces for guitar, but it should be remembered that the form, feeling, and mood they carry come from their origins as music created for song and dance.