Flamenco Foundational Rhythmic Concepts (article)
Flamenco rhythms were for a long time a hard to get, well-hidden knowledge, not to be shared with outsiders. Times have changed. Now, we can enjoy a good variety of educational resources revealing the secrets of Flamenco rhythms. However, depending on the perspective of the teacher, the explanations, counts, conceptual framework and general approach about the same Flamenco rhythms can be quite different.
I don’t claim to be any kind of expert when it comes to Flamenco rhythms. Quite the opposite. I consider myself the eternal student, humbly engaged in a life long pursuit of learning, playing and practicing Flamenco rhythms. I am well aware of how much I still have to learn about the fascinating wealth of rhythmical variety that Flamenco offers.
That is why I am developing the online course Flamenco Rhythms Revealed, to provide myself and the international Flamenco community with the opportunity to hear different perspectives from dancers, singers, percussionists and guitarists as they understand, feel and explain Flamenco rhythms.
In this article, what I hope to accomplish is to go over a variety of foundational musical concepts, and explore how they apply to Flamenco.
Ritmo (Rhythm): The dictionary defines it as a repeated pattern of movement or sound. On a more poetic tone, Isadora Duncan defined rhythm as a cycle that dies just to be born again. Along with harmony and melody, rhythm is one of the fundamental aspects of music; perhaps, the oldest and most important one in Flamenco as well as in many other musical cultures. From a musical viewpoint, rhythm can also be defined as the systematic arrangement of sounds and silence in time.
Pulso (Pulse or beat): Again, the dictionary’s definition is: a regular, rhythmic sound or movement. Pulse is the primary rhythmic unit. In Flamenco, I have found teachers that call pulso to each of the beats in a rhythmic cycle, while other teachers call pulso to the steady accentuation of the foot marking the accents of the rhythmic cycle. Since they are both steady rhythmic sounds, they both can be considered pulses.
Tempo (Tempo): The dictionary tells us that tempo is the speed at which a passage of music is or should be played. In Flamenco, tempo mostly applies to the natural speed of the different styles. The sorrowful “jondo” (deep) styles, like for instance Siguiriyas or Soleares tend to be slower tempo, while the joyful “festero” (celebratory) styles, like the Tangos, Rumbas, Sevillanas and Bulerías, tend to be medium to fast tempos. Variations in tempo can also occur within any one single Flamenco dance. For instance, a Soleá which is a slow song, contains segments in the dance where the tempo is greatly accelerated, this is called “la subida.” Often times, this occurs at the end of an “escobilla” (footwork segment). The dancer starts picking up the tempo with the footwork, creating lots of excitement, to culminate in a dramatic sudden stop after what is called a “remate” or “cierre.”
Silencio (Rest): The dictionary musical definition for rest is an interval of silence of a specified duration. In Flamenco, the rest is used in powerful dramatic ways, as we have seen in the previous segment, when an interval of total silence follows the increase of tempo in the dance. This stop doesn’t happen at random, but it has a distinct, traditional, pre-determined timing within the rhythmic cycle. That is how the entire ensemble can stop all at once in unison. The musical concept of rest is widespread throughout all the different styles of Flamenco. At specific moments in the different rhythmic cycles, one beat is silenced creating a spectacular effect in contrast with the previous beat or beats which are usually strongly accented.
Acentos (Accents) are an emphasis on a particular note, beat or chord. Accents are a complex subject within Flamenco as they are not always even and they don’t always have the same rhythmic weight. Furthermore, we can have accents on the foot and accents on the claps. Many times the accents don’t necessarily fall on the downbeat, but they may fall on the weak part of the measure conveying a distinct syncopated flavor. To simplify things we can say that if we place an accent every two beats that creates a duple meter. If we were to place the accent every three beats, that would create a triple meter. In Flamenco, there are many styles that are strictly binary or strictly ternary. However, the combination, amalgamation or polyrhythmic interaction of twos and threes generate a great variety of distinct Flamenco styles.
Compás (Measure): The dictionary official definition of musical measure is a particular metrical unit or beat grouping. In Flamenco, the measure is the underline foundation for everything. The “compás” (measure) is the basic rhythmic cycle, which is different from the Flamenco expression “tener compás” (“to have the measure”), a metaphoric way of saying that someone “owns the measure,” that is: exhibits rhythmical mastery. One of the exotic measures in Flamenco is the traditional 12 beat count measure. It includes an amalgam of ternary and binary beats. According to musicologist Jerónimo Utrilla the antecedent of this measure can be found in Spanish Baroque dances.
Soniquete (Groove) is an informal expression that refers to a distinct rhythmic pattern. In Flamenco, soniquetes account for the rhythmical variations and embellishments that make up the richness of Flamenco rhythms. For instance, even within the same style, say the Bulerias, we can have the same tempo, the same rhythmic cycle (12 beat count) but many different soniquetes or grooves.
Whether one is a dancer, musician, singer, percussionist or just a lover of world music, understanding Flamenco rhythms can represent a challenge to be mastered. At the same time, it can greatly add excitement to our lives.
About the author:
A native Spaniard, performer, workshop leader, and speaker, Puela Lunaris is the founder of Dances of the World Society, an international network of individuals and organizations that support her work Saving Dances in Danger of Extinction. Passionate about making her culture accessible to international audiences by producing quality educational materials, Puela has created the Duende Flamenco Practice Music Series, companion albums to her international best-selling instructional series of Flamenco Dance online courses. In addition, she is the curator, artistic director and producer of the Legendary Gypsy Masters Anthology, designed to make it easy and fun for people to recognize Flamenco styles. Ms. Lunaris holds a B.A. in Dance in Education and Spanish Language and Culture from the State University of New York and she is a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
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