History of Flamenco


What is Flamenco?
The modern flamenco guitar
Links to Flamenco sites

What is Flamenco?

Flamenco is a folk art and culture from Spain. It is particular to the province of Andalusia in Spain. Historically, it has always been the musical outlet of the poor and oppressed. It passed on by oral tradition which the individual artist uses as the basis for his own variations.

Flamenco is a tripartite art, involving singing, dance and the guitar simultaneously - as well as rhytmic punctuation (by hand-claps and other methods) that is considered an art form. There are hundreds of different types of pieces within flamenco, which have generic names such as seguiriyas, soleares, alegrías, malagueñas, fandangos, zapateado, rondeña, etc. They are defined by characteristic melodic, rhytmic, and harmonic structures; each has a characteristic mood and many are regional variants of essentially similar forms.


It his though that what was to evolve into flamenco origined back  to the 16 th century. The flamenco song (or cante, as it is known) involves a synthesis of at least four cultures:

the Gypsies
the Moors, or Arabs
the Jews
the indigenous Andalusians

The first three were thrown together by the general persecution that followed the expulsion of the Moors in 1492. Flamenco was eventually created by the fusion of the cante gitano with Andalusian folk music. The accompaniment of the singing by the guitar is a later phenomenon altough it is recorded by travellers in Andalusia in the 18th century. Andalucian folk songs had in the past been accompanied by different instruments including bandurria, violin and tambourine, but now the guitar predominated.

Flamenco first became a public, performing art in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the cafe cantante. The first cafe cantante opened in Seville in1842, and attracted very little attention. But by the 1860s similar cafés were established not only in the major cities of Andalucia but as far as Madrid, and beyond. An audience of aficionados from all classes and occupations watched the performance. They could expect to be entertained by a group comprising perhaps one or two singers, three or four female and two male dancers, accompanied by two guitarists. The second half of the nineteenth century was one of the great ages of flamenco performance. The cafés brought together the Gypsy singers (cante gitano) and the Andaluz singers (cante andaluz) which became masters of many different forms of flamenco. The cafés also expanded the role of the guitar, which became tremendously popular. They would employ a regular first and second guitarist, who had to know how to accompany many different forms of songs and dance, and be able to follow the styles of different singers. While the singer remained the leading figure, the guitarist came to take a less subservient part as time went on. Good guitarists were in great demand, the competition was fierce. In their efforts to outdo each other, the players introduced new techniques, and sometimes even resorted to tricks and outrageous acts of showmanship such as playing with a glove at one hand or with the guitar held above their head. But the cafés fostered a series of fine guitarists culminating in Rámon Montoya (1880-1949), who was later to be the founder of the modern style of flamenco solo guitar.

The cafés cantantes' greatest days were over by the turn of the century, and by the 1910's they were in serious decline. The years uo to 1936 were to be the years of the theatrical presentation of flamenco, of the "Opera Flamenca" and "Flamenco Ballet". Public taste turned toward a smoother type of voice, as typified by Antonio Chacón, toward the lighter Andalusian cantes. The leading professional singers of the time, Chacón, Torre were some of the greatest in flamenco history. There was no real shortage of true artists in the dance either, and such guitarists as Javier Molina, Ramón Montoya, Manolo de Huelva, and Perico del Lunar were all active.

War in Europe and the aftermath of civil war in Spain made the 1940's an unpropitious decade for flamenco, with little opportunity for paid performance outside the Americas. However, a concern for true flamenco began to reappear in the 1950's bringing with it opportunities for serious performance. Festivals in Cordoba, Jerez and Malaga in the late fifties and early sixties stimulated public interest and encouraged a new generation of artists.

The modern flamenco guitar

The modern flamenco guitar is first cousin to the modern classical guitar. The two have a common ancestry, and are handbuilt by essentially the same methods. The flamenco guitar, however, has a particularly distinctive sound and playing action of its own, achieved by the use of different timbers for the body and subtly different dimensions and proportions.

There are three primary differences between the flamenco and classical instruments:

1) The classical guitar is typically made of rosewood, with a cedar or spruce top. The traditional flamenco instrument is made entirely of cypress, and is generally lighter in construction, giving it overall a lighter and more percussive sound. Some flamenco guitarists actually prefer the depth of the classical instrument for their solo playing, while others use a hybrid instrument.

2) The flamenco guitar has plastic tappingplates called golpeadores. These protect the face of the guitar from the taps with the right-hand fingernails, a feature of the flamenco music.

3) Flamenco guitars still often have push-pegs (like a violin) for tuning. On the classical guitar, these have been replaced by geared machine heads.

Like the modern classical guitar, the flamenco guitar is an instrument of comparatively recent invention.

Available evidence suggests that Antonio de Torres should be credited with the development and stabilization of the flamenco guitar in the 1850's, at the same period and in the same way he defined the classical guitar.

An examination of an early flamenco guitar, made by Torres in 1867, reveals the basic characteristics of the type. The six strings are tuned by wooden pegs, and the body is a little smaller than the equivalent classical type. The two most important characteristics of the typical flamenco guitar, however, are the use of Spanish cypress for the back and sides, and the extreme lightness of the construction. The use of very thin, light cypress sides and backs helps to give the flamenco guitar its distinctive sound. The whole internal construction is simpler than on the classical model. The action of the flamenco guitar is set lower than that of the classical, with the strings closer to the frets for rapid fingering, and the fingerboard itself is usually slightly narrower. Finally, the table carries the distinctive tap plate to protect it against the drumming and slapping of the guitarist's fingers, which forms an essential part of flamenco technique.
It has been suggested that many of the characteristics of the flamenco guitar initially arose from the need for an inexpensive instrument. There is an element of truth in this argument: flamenco guitarists have not, traditionally, been rich men.

Over the last century and a quarter, the basic flamenco guitar has undergone few modifications, although it has increased a little in size. Trials have been made with maple rather than cypress bodies. The most recent introduction has been the hybrid "concerto flamenco" guitar, which combines the flamenco fingerboard and tap plate with the classical rosewood and machine tuning.

Flamenco: form/family/style

1) Gypsy (cante gitano)
        Soleares family
             La Caña
        Seguiriya family
        Tientos family

2) Andalusian (cante andaluz)
         Fandangos family
             Fandangos grandes
             Fandangos de Huelva
            Granadinas (Granaínas)

            Media Granaínas

3) Folk-influenced
              El Vito

4) Latin American-influenced


Evans, Tom and Mary Evans:  music, history, construction, and players from the
Renaissance to Rock"

Magnussen, Paul: "Rincon Flamenco", Classical Guitar , 1997,: 30-33.

Magnussen, Paul: "Rincon Flamenco No.5: Basic Forms", Classical Guitar 1997,: 47-49.

"The Origins and Development of Flamenco" IN

The Guitar Foundation of America : http://www.guitarfoundation.org/


Links to Flamenco translations sites





Top of page





Copyright François Faucher 1998-2024