What Is (and Isn’t) Flamenco: Part Two

       There is a lot of great music out there that shares techniques, sounds, and inspiration with flamenco, yet is decidedly not flamenco. It might belong to a different style altogether, or it could be fusion or flamenco-inspired genre. It’s normal for the distinction to be a bit hazy outside of Spain. However, if you’re looking to learn a certain style of guitar (flamenco or otherwise), it’s helpful to be able to articulate what you want.   

What Isn’t Flamenco

Spanish Classical Guitar

       "Spanish guitar" can mean many things, but it most often refers to music written by Spanish composers for the classical guitar. Like flamenco guitar, classical guitar is played on a nylon-string guitar and employs the right-hand fingers (not a pick). The two genres draw from similar sources of inspiration (the music of the Iberian peninsula) and have influenced each other considerably. The sounds of flamenco influenced the music of many Spanish composers, and techniques adapted from classical guitar added new dimensions to flamenco playing. However, in spite of the cross influences, flamenco and spanish classical guitar are very different genres.  

Classical guitar, unlike flamenco, is written in music notation.  While Spanish classical and flamenco guitar are both played on nylon strings and share musical influences of the Iberian peninsula, the aesthetics and customs of the genres are quite different.  

   Classical guitar music (Spanish or otherwise) is written by a single composer using music notation. Performers play a specific piece or set of pieces, and they stick to the music on the page. Creativity and self-expression lie in how the player phrases and interprets the music. The aesthetics of classical guitar are also quite different from those of flamenco. Classical guitarists strive for tonal purity, technical precision and cleanliness, and well-developed palette of expressive tools like tonal color. The sound of the flamenco guitar is brighter and more percussive. Rhythmic precision and driving energy take priority over subtleties such as tonal colors. Furthermore, rather than precisely interpreting a composer’s work, flamenco players often adapt or arrange existing music and compose their own solos. 
       "Soleares" by Joaquin Turina is inspired by the flamenco palo with the same name (sometimes called Solea).  Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo uses many flamenco techniques in his work for guitar and orchestra Concierto de Arjanuez.  Composer Isaac Albéniz originally wrote Leyenda (Asturias) for piano, and the guitar transcription has become an icon of Spanish guitar music. 

Music from Latin America

       The nylon-string guitar is as popular an instrument in Latin America as it is in Spain, and the regions have influenced each other’s music for as long as there has been travel between Europe and the Americas. Many Latin American genres use techniques, scales, and sounds that are also used in flamenco. Cuban music has had a particularly profound influence on flamenco, and the flamenco palos, Guajira and Rumba, were adapted from the Cuban styles with the same names. However, a ‘Guajira Flamenca’ is flamenco, and Guantanamera is not. Likewise, the Buena Vista Social Club, the soundtrack of the Pixar film Coco, Mariachi music, and Argentinian Tangos are not flamenco.    

Cuban music has influenced certain flamenco styles like Guajira and Rumba, but remains its own distinct genre.  

Fusion and Flamenco-inspired Music

       Modern flamenco owes its survival and continuing popularity to international interest in the genre. Had flamenco remained isolated within Andalusia, it likely would have stagnated and faded away into an artifact of music history. 
       Paco de Lucia (1947-2014), widely considered the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time, revolutionized flamenco with compositions that were both fresh and modern, yet authentically flamenco.  His collaborations with jazz and classical musicians captivated new audiences while communicating a distinctly flamenco sentiment. Paco’s innovations propelled flamenco to worldwide popularity, and it’s only natural that widening popularity led to blending with other genres. 
     However, while Paco de Lucia maintained a purely flamenco voice while innovating and exchanging ideas with other genres (Entre dos Aguas, for example), most modern fusion loses that core. Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook, for example, takes inspiration from flamenco and blends it with smooth jazz. Although often mislabeled flamenco outside of Spain, his widely popular and energetic music has little in common with what you’d hear in a flamenco performance.
       Most currently, the music of Barcelona-born pop star Rosalía draws on flamenco inspiration. Rosalia got her musical start in flamenco after discovering the great flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla in her teens. She trained formally in flamenco cante and she certainly can sing flamenco. For instance, here she performs a flamenco Tarantos and Farruca with guitarist Alfredo Lagos, and here she improvises a Fin de Fiesta at the end of a flamenco show. However, Rosalía’s flamenco singing is not what propelled her to international fame and three Latin Grammys. While you can hear Rosalía’s album El Mal Querer all over Spain (and the world), you won’t hear anything similar in flamenco tablaos.  

Where the Lines Blur

Flamenquito, Rumba, and Sevillanas

       The line between "authentic" flamenco and "pop" flamenco falls somewhere within this category. Precisely where it falls and what it includes or excludes depends on who you ask. Flamenquito is the Spanish way of saying "flamenco lite." It draws on the easier-listening sounds and palos of flamenco for music that suits a fun, festive atmosphere. Many native Andalusians are not fans of "pure flamenco" and its serious and often tragic intensity, but love flamenquito and listen to it daily. 
       Rumba music like The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo is a famous example of this lighter version of flamenco. The Gipsy Kings are a group from southern France whose families left Spain during the civil war in the 1930s. Like Paco de Lucia, they helped propel the sounds of flamenco to worldwide popularity. 
      Sevillanas are a popular folklore dance with a set musical structure and choreography.  The instrumental accompaniment ranges from a single guitar using flamenco rhythmic techniques to a small string ensemble or band. Nearly everyone who grows up in the south of Spain knows how to dance them. Most towns have an annual fair or "Feria," where locals set aside several days for dancing Sevillanas and celebrating.

On Flamenco Purism and Personal Taste

       Outside the flamenquito gray area, what "is" and "is not" flamenco is pretty cut and dry. It is a matter of facts, history, and musicology, not opinion. What’s "good" and "bad" music is a completely different story and a question of personal taste. A handful of vocal flamenco purists have fed rumors that the flamenco community resents its sounds being borrowed by other genres. And it’s true that many of us jump to set things right when the label ‘flamenco’ is erroneously applied to fusion (or Mariachi, or Rosalía’s latest album, you name it). But when it comes down to it, the flamenco world can only be grateful that its reach extends so far beyond Andalusia. 
       Flamenco owes its survival in the modern world to its international appeal. Even the very best flamenco artists in Spain depend on concerts, tours, and workshops abroad to earn a living in the field.  Many of these artists are quick to admit that international audiences receive flamenco with more respect and admiration than Spanish audiences do. Fusion and cross-influences are inevitable byproducts of any genre’s popularity. Far more listeners worldwide recognize the music of Rosalía, the Gipsy Kings, and "Concierto de Aranjuez" than have ever heard a flamenco seguiriyas, for example. Many foreign-born professionals in flamenco (myself included) discovered flamenco through such music. And who knows how many future flamenco artists will discover flamenco the same way.

Read What Is (And Isn't Flamenco): Part One here.

Some flamenco concepts mentioned in this article have been addressed in more detail in Lessonface’s Forum.  Check out the links below and feel free to share your thoughts and questions in the appropriate forum thread or in comments below.
What is a flamenco palo?
How rasgueos and other flamenco techniques can serve all guitarists
Flamenco guitar recommended listening
How to arrange flamenco guitar solos

Leah Kruszewski has been a guitar teacher for nearly ten years, specializing in acoustic, classical, flamenco, and fingerstyle guitar. She is the most popular teacher on Lessonface for classical and flamenco guitar! This Winter 2020, Leah is offering a group class entitled "Flamenco Guitar Workshop." This class will meet for seven live sessions on Sundays, Jan. 19th, 26th, Feb. 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, March 1st, from 12pm-1pm US Eastern Time. Learn more and sign up here.

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