We thought we had seen real flamenco in Málaga just because it was in a small bar full of locals. But then we talked to people and read a bit, and I realized we had to try again. There is no better place to seek out flamenco than Sevilla. It is the heart of Andalucía, where flamenco was born.
Here is what I learned: Although there are many forms of flamenco, often regional, they usually consist of four elements: guitar, singing, percussion, and dancing.
I would be happy just to listen to good Spanish guitar. Send home the singers and dancers, the guitarist is the core of the performance. He starts the show and provides the underlying structure; the singers and dancers respond to his music. A skilled guitarist can play four parts at once, two with each hand. He can hold a chord while plucking strings with the little finger of the same hand, and all the while his other hand is strumming and plucking simultaneously. Increíble!
Once the guitarist establishes the melody and rhythm, the singer begins. Not on a specific bar, but when she feels it. Flamenco singing is very emotional. There is a lot of wailing and crying out. It can sound odd to someone who doesn’t understand the lyrics, but you have to admire their passion.
Once the guitar and singing blend, the percussion begins. Flamenco is all about the percussion, and it can be accomplished in various ways, usually by the dancers who up to now have been standing by grooving to the music. Typically it starts with a syncopated, back-beat clapping. Like the singing, the clapping is a personal response to the music. The dancers join in as the music moves them, each with their own rhythm and cupping or flattening of hands to create different sounds. In flamenco, clapping is an art.
Percussion can be created with castanets too, but in the performances we saw, the dancers clicked their fingers. The clicking was so loud and sharp, we thought they did have castanets at first. The use of their bare fingers added to the beauty of the performance. Hand movement is very much a part of flamenco, and the clicking enhanced it.
Then the ultimate percussion: the dancing. Male or female or both together, each performance tells its own story. The dancing begins slowly – a natural progression of the clapping and finger clicking. As the hands work, the hips start to sway and the feet start to tap, increasing in intensity as the dancer gets into the performance. The guitarist and singer pick up the pace a bit, and the dancers respond. The skirt is hiked up, and the feet stomp so loudly on the wooden floor you want to cover your ears. The dancers are in each others’ faces; then they’re stomping across the stage in a crazy staccato rhythm. Their feet move so quickly that sometimes they are just a blur, yet always keeping the rhythm. Passion and heat fill the small room. The artists are no longer performing; there is no choreography. They are responding to the music and each other, body and soul.
I thought I could visit Spain and skip the flamenco. Or, at most, one performance would be sufficient. But now I understand why people go back again and again. As they claim in bullfighting, the experience you have depends on the particular talent; in this case, the guitarist, the singer, and the dancers. You never know what each combination will bring, but each time you hope for magic.