Amazing Cultural Singing: Flamenco. How Does It Help Us?
Updated: Sep 11
In this 4 part blog, I will be exploring different vocalization styles that stand out for their unique characteristics. We will not only consider singing as a tool for self-expression but also as a basis for cultural identity. What can we learn from these to advance our own singing?
During my latest travels to Spain, I learned a great deal about the beautiful haunting laments of Flamenco. The most famous Spanish Flamenco signer is Camaron De La Isla; listen to one of his performances here. Others worth of mention are Ojos De Brujo, Radio Tarifa, Carmen Linares and Nina Pastori who are referenced listed in this article.
Originating from Andalusia (Spain), it got its musical roots from Indian immigrants new to the country then under Arab rule. It is in Granada's Cuevas del Sacromonte that a fusion incorporating Indian, Iberian and Spanish musical elements first emerged. What does Flamenco singing teach us?
A former professional Flamenco dancer told me that in Flamenco, the singer is the most important team member. All take their cues from him/her. He must lead from the back of the stage letting dancers occupy the spotlight and stealing most of our attention. Multitasking clapping hands and keeping together with the guitar accompaniment is also imperative. It is an honorable and humbling task.
2) Story Telling
Flamenco music tells of life struggles such as heartache, lost love but also extortion and oppression of the Roma people (I am told that the term "Gipsy" is considered a racial slur) by the monarchy. There is sometimes room for celebration and therefore some Flamenco songs do bear a lighter dynamic to the melody and overall message. The link between history and music is extremely relevant and thus powerful. We learn that writing and singing music from topics we already know and are dearest to our heart is a successful way to channel our emotions and connect with our audience.
3) Vocal Tone
In the Roma tradition vocals are generally raw, often even raspy. Many of the professional Flamenco singers I was fortunate enough to watch in Seville, mastered the technique of "pulling chest". This term is generally used when the larynx is moving at the front of the neck to pull vocal cords to pitch. In untrained singers, this approach can often be challenging around the vocal breaks. Therefore, it frequently limits range and creates vocal fatigue. But somehow, these singers beautifully make it work. May be it's the abrasive quality of pulling chest that gives Flamenco an unrivaled passion for drama and story telling. More modern styles include singers who opt for a cleaner and lighter tone closer to reinforced falsetto and Bel Canto's full voice. This goes to show that there is no right and wrong when it comes to vocal performance. As long as you can manage the intensity of the vocal technique used, you can play back and forth with different tones to express yourself. Create a vocal delivery that is truly unique and original while juggling the art of sustaining vocal health. Here is a recording of street artists I saw in Seville, Spain last summer: Senen Sentio (vocals), Lorine De Azevedo (dancer) and Toby Drake (guitar).
There is a great deal of improvisation in Flamenco singing and dancing. The verses and chorus form the basis of the song but melismatic vocal additions are generally improvised. I hold the highest respect for musicians capable of improvising. If you would like to use Flamenco as a model for vocal improvisation, familiarize yourself with major and harmonic minor scales first. It is skillful command of modes that will help you maneuver as a proficient melismatic singer however.
Learn more about different music modes here:
Specifically the phrygian mode in Flamenco for it brings a wonderful melancholy flavor to the music. Improvisation can be extended to other modes for Jazz scatting and R & B. Practice your scales with a metronome increasing your speed incrementally. Maintain pitch accuracy. Have fun experimenting and just go with the flow. Follow your musical intuition to come up with interesting lines. If it sounds good, you're doing fantastic!