The three pillars of the Flamenco are :
The « Cante », flamenco singing,
The « Baile », flamenco dancing,
The « Toque », flamenco guitar.
The CANTE FLAMENCO or Flamenco singing:
Compared to guitar and dance, singing has a privileged status in flamenco. The first two are certainly important elements of flamenco, but were not indispensable at the beginning.
Initially, most cantes were performed “a palo seco” i.e. unaccompanied. This is still the way certain cantes are performed such as the Tonas, some specific Siguiriyas, the Martinetes (only accompanied by the sound of hammers hitting anvils), the Mineras, and the Carceleras, i.e. the original cantes that form the «Cante Primitivo». Nowadays still, in private gypsy celebrations, the cantaores willingly forfeit instruments and make do with the “palmas” (rhythmic hand clapping) to accompany their songs and dances.
Later, guitar became an important element of flamenco, either as a solo instrument, or in accompaniment to songs and dances. Nowadays, cante, dance, and guitar music have equal places of honor in flamenco. This harmonious trilogy is the heart of the rich flamenco tradition.
To understand well and appreciate the Cante Flamenco, it is essential to stress that what we commonly think of as “singing” and “cante” differ widely in the criteria by which a voice is judged. The elements that generally define a good singing voice in classical or popular music, for example the purity of the voice, or the beauty of its tone, are irrelevant in flamenco. The listener should never look for these elements in judging the voice of a cantaor.
In the Cante Flamenco, the character of the voice, its technical capabilities, and its intrinsic stylistic qualities are fundamental. They are the elements that allow the singer to “personalize” his/her interpretation of a specific cante. Flamenco accepts all types of voices without putting into question the esthetic sense. The ability to be expressive and to render emotion, coupled with a good sense of rhythm and vibration, are the values that must be taken into account when listening to a flamenco song. Thus a weak or short-winded voice can produce in flamenco excellent expressive results. It can even happen that the ability of the artist to overcome his/her limitations and the defects of his/her voice can enrich their art; this is what is called “pelear con el cante” or wrestling with the cante.
In the register of cante flamenco, one can distinguish, without attaching a value judgment to it, the raucous voice known as “afillà” in memory of « El Fillo » who gave it its name, the crystalline and velvety voice like that of Vallejo, also called a « laina » voice, the rounded or “redonda” voice at the same time soft and melliferous, that was the voice of Thomas Pavon, deep, high pitched voices, natural voices also called chest or gypsy voice characterized by the gaps and cracks typical of gypsy singing (Fernanda de Utrera, Camaron de la Isla...), and then also voices that are nasal, clear, smooth, dry, falsetto etc
On the other hand, the cante is totally dependant on an extremely strict sense of rhythm and measure. Even the cantes considered somewhat “free”, such as the Cantes of the Mines or of the Levant, the Granainas, or the Malagueñas, where the performer is allowed some degree of liberty, must answer to specific musical norms. This holds even more true in the cantes that have specific measures (tangos, tientos, alegrias, bulerias, soleares…) where the artist must scrupulously respect the rhythm required by the cante, while keeping both a sense of balance and a harmonious interaction with the guitar accompaniment.
Overall, the voice of the cantor is the main tool by which personalization and interpretation of a song are accomplished. Pure invention or creation is extremely rare in flamenco. Flamenco has a vast, but well-defined repertoire. Still, performers of flamenco are classified as “creators” if they are authors of new versions or variations more or less personalized of cante flamenco, or as straightforward “interpreters” if they simply perform existing songs.
The singing itself takes place generally in 5 stages as follows:
- The “temple” or warm up. Before singing, it is necessary for the cantaor to warm up and get ready for the rhythm. This warm up takes places without words. It is often punctuated with “Ay” and at times by melodious but meaningless utterances called “lalies”. They allow the cantaor to “templarse” ie concentrate on the palo he is going to perform.
- The “entrance tercio” is the introduction to the singing.
- The “tiercio grande” is the heart of the singing.
- The “tercio of relief” is the emotional cooling down of the tercio grande.
- The “courage tercio” or “wrestling tierce” is the finale, the personal touch and signature of each cantoar.
History has memorized the names of «Tio Luis el de la Juliana», of «el Planeta» and of «El Fillo» as the first cantaores to be acknowledged masters. They were followed at the beginning of the 20c. by Manuel Torre, Tomas Pavon, La Niña de los Peines, Antonio Mairena, Manolo Caracol. More recently, we have Terremoto de Jerez, El Lebrijano, José Menese, Chano Lobato, Paquera de Jerez, the sisters Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, Carmen Linares, and of course Jose Monje known as «El Camaron de la Isla».