Classification of the Cante/ Part 1: Primitive Cantes and Derivatives - Flamenco Beirut  
In the beginning were the TONÁS.
It is now accepted that the tonás are the oldest and purest source of flamenco. They are hence called "cantes matrices" or mother songs.

The tonás in turn come from the "romances" (or "corridos") and from the "tonadas" (from which the word toná derives); these were popular songs kept alive by oral tradition. Why did the Gitanos, as soon as they arrived in Andalusia, take their inspiration from the romances? Probably because these songs were very popular, and hence unavoidable, and also because the romancero was held in high esteem. These songs could then have constituted the most primitive styles of flamenco, from which later emerged the tonás, the secrets of which were later transmitted by the Gypsies from one generation to another. (listen to a Romance)

Historical information is dismal. We can only surmise that the tonás were first sung around 1750, and first appeared in public performances towards the end of the 18th century. We know that one of the early great specialists of these songs, Tio Luis el de la Juliana, a water carrier from Jerez, was alive in 1775. (listen to the Tona of Tio Luis)

Gypsies claim that, during the golden era of the tonás, they were 33 in number, evidently the age of Jesus Christ when he died. Demófilo Machado, in a detailed report written in 1881, could find 26 tonas. During the era of Silverio and the "cafés cantantes", we hear of "18 tonás", and during the 19th century, only 7 could be located. They have now dwindled down to 3: the Toná Grande,(listen to a Tona Grande), the Toná Chica (listen to a Tona Chica) and the Toná del Cristo (listen to the Tona del Cristo). It is highly regrettable that the tonàs are less and less sung nowadays, almost on their way to extinction.

In flamenco terminology, the word" tonás" generally includes all songs unaccompanied by guitar (a palo seco). Only the voice counts. This becomes evident if one remembers the places where they were sung: usually a jail or a smithy. Hence, they are sometimes referred to as Carceleras (in Spanish carcel = jail) (listen to a Carcelera) or Martinetes (billows) (listen to a Martinete)

The most common themes of the tonás directly reflect the desolation and the tragedies of gypsy life in those days: penal servitude (jail, forced labor), states of marginalization or persecution, brawls and violent deaths. These were common and dramatic events that the people would take up and turn into song.

The metric structure of tonás is based on stanzas of 4 octosyllabic verses, in which the 2nd and 4th have similar assonances. Here is an extract from the toná grande of Tio Luis, considered a seminal song of the cante jondo: 

Yo soy como aquel buen viejo Que está en medio del camino
Yo no me meto con "naide"
"naide" se meta conmigo.

Jerez de la Frontera and the Triana neighborhood in Seville are considered the cradles of the tonás. While Triana preserved the archaism of the songs, they evolved in Jerez to bring to life a new style: the Siguiriyas.

Then came the SIGUIRIYAS
The siguiriyas are derived from the tonás and make up the second major generational trunk of flamenco. They show an important evolution of the cante, in that initially they were sung a palo seco, but later invited in the guitars; guitars ultimately became intimately coupled with the human voice in the performance of siguiriyas.

Manuel de Falla estimates that the siguiriya gitana is the most accomplished form of flamenco chant, that it is of "pura cepa" (= of pure root, authentic). Most musicians agree that they are unable to write down or transcribe the siguiriya because it is impossible to dissect out its rhythm; flamenco specialists in turn affirm that the more rigorous the written transcription of a siguiriya, the less likely it is to be authentic.

It is often said that the siguiriya "remembers the oppressive and solemn modulation of the muezzin." Its structure is made up of a powerful introduction with no words called "temple," followed by a stanza of 4 verses with respectively 6/6/11/6 syllables. The siguiriya ends with 3 verses, a stanza called "macho," also played with great power. Notice its disconcerting rhythm with 4/5 and 6/8 measures, and the anguished archaism of its descending cadenza. Its rhythmical formula is extremely poignant, and its pattern of alternating tension and release (“estiro y aflojo”) creates a hypnotic effect, akin to a magic ritual.

The siguiriya is an extremely powerful cante, loaded with deep drama and pathetic mystery. It is one of the most difficult styles of flamenco song, due to the enormous variety of nuances it can possess, and the knowledge it requires from the singer in order to master its difficulties. Manuel Rios Ruiz said about the difficulty of performing well the siguiriya: “To sing por siguiriya is fundamental. In this exercise, a voice will either soar or crumble. To the one who can sing it successfully, the siguiriya is the source of the greatest satisfaction." (listen to a Siguiriya)

The siguiriya transmits desolation, the moaning of the human soul, the most genuine and piercing screams let out by a human wounded by his destiny. The female gitana singer Tia Anica la Piriñaca masterfully described it as a chant that "conveys the taste of blood.” Manuel Rios Ruiz speaks of the “sonorous temple of flamenco chant,” affirming that the siguiriya is defined by “anguish, tragedy, lamentation, piercing and ripping shrieks.”

Let us pay homage to the siguiriya with the following fragment:
  • Era un dia señalado
  • De Santiago y Santa Ana;
  • Y yo lo rogué a Dios
  • Que aliviara mis dolores.
The "madre del cante": the SOLEÁ

As we have seen, the tonás and the siguiriyas are considered the foundations on which the temple of cante is built. The soleá in turn, is considered the ultimate expression of equilibrium and harmony in the flamenco world. Poets have dubbed it the “mother” of the flamenco chant (with numerous offsprings), or the “queen” of popular poetry. 

Its origin can be traced to the first third of the 19th century, when it accompanied dances. With time and practice, it became a style in its own right, and is even considered by some as one of the basic styles of the cante flamenco. 

According to Gonzales Climent, the soleá displays « the perfect equilibrium of cante jondo » and is considered the purest poetic essence of Andalusia; its contagious and artistic intensity is unique. The themes of the cante por soleá are varied. They often deal with life, love, or death. They almost invariably invoke "la ausencia que causó el olvido" (= absence that is the cause of forgetting), while always remaining extremely humane.

How did its structure evolve? The only certain fact is that it originated as a gypsy chant. We can presume that, before it appeared in Triana around 1840, it was bred in the intimacy of some gypsy home in Lower Andalusia where it was born. We start hearing of soleá towards the middle of the 19th century. (listen to a Solea) and (listen to a Solea por Buleria).

Because of the complexity of its rhythm and its melody, the soleá can display well the skillfulness of a singer. Its potential grandeur and subtleness make it one of the favorite styles throughout the geographical regions with a flamenco tradition. 

Let us remember the words of a soleá from Triana:
  • A qué tanto llover
  • Si a mi me duelen los brazos
  • De sembrar y no recoger…
The TANGOS, joyfulness and elation…
We saw that the tonás, the siguiriyas and the soleares are 3 styles of cante jondo that tread the path of pain and hardship. In contrast, the 4th pillar of deep chant, the tangos, derives from joyfulness and celebration, and constitutes the only non-dramatic modality of the older cantes. It is a song of feast, evoking the warmth of the hearth in ancient caravans, patios and courtyards. Its dance is spontaneous and natural, not “manufactured,” as will later be for example the baile por siguiriya. (listen to a Tango)

Geographically, the zones of tango are Seville, Cadiz, Jerez, Malaga and the Estremadure. The queen of tango was unquestionably Pastora Pavon, La Niña de los Peines, who sang the following tango from which her name derives:

  • Peinate tu con mis peines   
  • Que mis peines son de azúcar,   
  • Quien con mis peines se peina,   
  • Hasta los dedos se chupa…


They are two, the serrana and the liviana, and both fit well the rhythmical and musical atmosphere of the siguiriya.

The Serrana is an outdoors rhythm born, it is said, with smugglers and other bandoleros. The Serrana antedates the period when chant was accompanied, and thus did not have the help of a guitar accompaniment, hence its heroic and sustained modulations that place it firmly within the cante jondo. Its style is full of brio, particularly melodic and solemn, and very demanding of the singer. Starting in the middle third of the 19th century, the serrana was sung in a well-defined or professional way.(listen to a Serrana)

The Liviana was born in the sugar cane fields along the seashore, and incorporated the nostalgic singing of Andalusia muleteers. According to the dictionary, liviana means “light, easy, superficial” no doubt because of the ease of its performance. It is said that singing the liviana allowed the cantaor to get ready for more difficult and more demanding ranges, a process termed "cantar con guía". (listen to a Liviana) 

The Soleares group no doubt has a lighter origin than the one that characterizes it today. It is a chant with ternary measures, where the "solearilla," which is the last stanza, provides a lively and simple, almost relieving closure. At times, however, the opposite happens, and the ending is a harsh culmination that requires from the singer special vocal skills and a great expressive sensibility.

A multitude of styles derive from the soleà trunk, including the alboreà, the polo, the bulería, the petenera and the group of the cantiñas.

The Alboreà is a cante that has long remained at the margins of public performance because of its intimate ritual meaning: it was (and still remains) closely linked to the private ceremonials of gypsy weddings, and has kept to this day this prerogative. Its lyrics allude to the virginity of the bride, the deflowering on the wedding night by an elder saintly gypsy woman, who will display to the members of the clan the "diclé" or wedding sheet smeared with the blood that proves the purity of the young girl. This harsh ceremony is accompanied by the singing of the alboreà, with the following lyrics:

  • En un prado verde
  • Tendí mi pañuelo…
  • Salieron tres rosas
  • Como tres luceros…
  • Que viva el padre de la novia!
  • Que buen ha queao
  • Por eso a su hija
  • La han coronao


Older Gitanos have always refused to acknowledge the recordings of Rafael Romero "El Gallina" or of Joselero, since the ritualistic content and the joy of the alboreà were strictly for the ears of the wedding guests.(listen to the Alborea of Rafael Romero)

The word alboreà comes from "albor" or light of dawn. Its musical structure is along the same measures as a light soleà or a soleà por bulerias. 

The Caña has evolved little since its origin. It started as a harsh and long cante, with a great deal of modulations, and a strong tendency towards melancholy. It culminated in a “macho” that required great strength of interpretation and exceptional physical stamina. The caña is nowadays seldom sung, and has gradually become a relatively monotonous chant, interpreted without strength or character, and somewhat discarded.(listen to the Caña)

  • Let us celebrate it with this verse:
  • Como un caballito sin freno
  • Tiene mi flamenca el arranque;
  • De mi no te acordabas
  • Y hasta que estoy delante.


The Polo is a style of song that has a lot in common with caña. Virile and full of emotion, it is also very complex in its performance. Some specialists of flamenco see in the polo “a fossilized cante with no possibility of evolution.” Others see it as a virile and majestic style that requires great skill and sense of rhythm. It follows the same melodic lines as the solea. (listen to a Polo)

Here is a stanza that perfectly expresses the solemnity of the polo:

  • Todos le piden a Dios
  • La salud y la libertad;
  • Yo le pido la muerte
  • Y no me la quiere mandar.


The Bulería: The Bulería is the daughter of the solea, and the direct heir of this root style.

Etymologically, buleria may be a gypsy deformation of the Castilian word "burlería," or of the word "bullería" that means noise, clamor, screams. It is a typical fiesta cante, and remains the most lively and rhythmic style in flamenco. It allegrous melodies and its charm are echoed in the whimsical gracefulness of its dance steps. It expresses to the fullest measure flamenco happiness, and is the culmination of rhythm and measure. 

Historically, the bulerías did not appear till the middle of the 19th century, and are the masterful creation of street singers in the Santiago neighborhood in Jerez. Taking as a framework the rhythm of soleá, but lightening its measures, they gave life to a style overflowing with grace and movement.

The bulerías are generally grouped into 2 categories: the "bulerías'” proper are also called “festives” and fit particularly well with dances (listen to a Buleria), and the "bulerias al golpe" that are best listened to; a well-refined style of the latter, called "bulerías por soleá," is quite slow, akin to a soleà (listen to a Buleria por Solea). 

According to specialists, the bulería is a light soleá full of irony, sometimes of satire; it leaves lots of room for spontaneity and improvisation. Originating in Jerez, it accepts (more than any other style) the cries of joy or clamors of cheering called jaleo, as well as rhythmic hand clapping.

Some affirm that, to reach the depths of a buleria, one must travel a long and difficult road, for it is a style that requires, to be well understood, a thorough familiarity with all the flamenco paths leading to it. It is thus considered an encyclopedic process, a synthesis of deep expression, and not a superfluous easily accessible cante, though it deceptively looks so. 

The Petenera is a very melodious cante, melancholic, moving, and majestic. It owes a lot to the soleà. Since its inception, it has been surrounded by mysterious legends and by duende. Some say the petenera could be of Jewish origin, because of certain verses that go as follow:

  • Dónde vas, bella judía
  • Tan compuesta y a deshora?
  • Voy en busca de Rebecco,
  • Que està en una sinagoga.


Jose Blas Vega, on the other hand, suggests that it originated with a flamenco singer named "La Petenera," a deformation of "Paternera" = originating from Paterna, a province in Cadiz. (listen to a Petenera)

Cantiñas is a generic term to mean a group of songs comprised of the alegrias, the cantiñas proper, the romeras, the mirabrás and the caracoles. 

The Alegrias are extremely festive, and were the initial songs to accompany dancing. They originated from the jotas of Aragon, acquiring flamenco traits in Cadiz. Ignacio Espeleta is the one singer who introduced the famous "tirititrán, tran tran tran…" - said to be improvised because he forgot the words to his cante! – It remains popular years afterwards, and now starts most of the alegrias. The alegrias never lost their strength and their gracefulness, and remain a prominent and popular style in the flamenco repertory. (listen to Alegrias)

The Cantiñas proper are rhythmically similar to alegrias, but differ by their distinct tonalities. (listen to a Cantiña) 

The Romera is a cante that demands great dynamism, and is particularly suited to dances. It has vivid rhythm that can be freely altered during the performance, thus leading to unexpected and surprising stops (sometimes in the middle of a word!), hence creating a very suggestive effect quite unique to this style. (listen to a Romera)

The Mirabrás follow the rhythm and the accompaniment of the alegrias but in a major key. The mirabra is a cante with lengthy and grandiose lyrics, and with a vibrant a graceful rhythm. It is said that its entrails have the transcendence of a soleá mixed in with the passion of the grander styles. (listen to a Mirabras) 

The Caracoles are musically close to the mirabrás. They display a clear baroque tendency, with lots of musical ornamentation such as arabesques, and their lyrics are often whimsical. Because of their dynamism, they are extremely popular. (listen to Caracoles)

Tientos, Tanguillos and Marianas are 3 chants that have their roots in tangos.

The Tiento is a slow tango. It has adopted the measure of tango, but made it more complex. This cante is relatively recent, the earliest information we have about it dating from the beginning of the 20th century.

It is believed that the word tiento derives from a copla sung by Don Antonio Chacon, that says:

  • Me tiraste varios tientos
  • Por ver si me blandeabas
  • Y me encontraste mas firme
  • Que las murallas del alba.


It quickly became customary to link tientos and tangos, starting with the more expressive tientos and following with the more rhythmic tangos. (listen to a Tiento)

The Tanguillos originated in Cadiz, a joyful and lively area of Spain. They have extremely funny, ironic, or even satirical lyrics. Quite festive, their rhythm is quick and bouncy, making them favorites at carnival time. (listen to Tanguillos)

The Marianas are songs that have roots in folklore, but have acquired flamenco characteristics in a style derived from tango. It is said that the origin of the chant comes from a Hungarian Gypsy who played on a tambourine while "Mariana," his old monkey, would dance. The monkey inspired a few stanzas that some singer(s) rendered into flamenco, using the measures of the tientos. The result was a very melodious but somewhat monotonous chant, now obsolete. (listen to a Mariana)

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