Flamenco, 1: palmas and cante jondo


Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe. And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

Youtube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco.

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is among lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados. [1]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of youtube clips, I’m finding some useful sites, like this and thisAs usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and (faster) bulerias. Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerias by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points.

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet.

Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ve already mentioned the solo saeta ritual singing in honour of the Virgin as her statue passes—alternating with percussion, and wind ensemble with piercing trumpets. Here are a couple more examples, starting with Niña de los Peines in 1920:

And martinetes—some instances from the great Agujetas:

and with hammer and anvil:

* * *

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and reporting back… Meanwhile we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camaron de la Isla:


*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”

[1] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The rough guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song.


Further to mondegreens, the Mountweazel is also a fine creation—a bogus entry deliberately inserted in a reference work.

While I was editing the “China” entries for the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, I tried in vain to persuade the powers-that-be that a vast civilization with a continuous history of thousands of years might just deserve as much coverage as a composer who lived for thirty-five years (Mozart). Anyway, what with all the labrynthine complexities of the Grove style “Bible”, one needs the occasional light relief (cf. the popular “composer or pasta?” quiz); and Grove now has a competition for spoof entries.

The 2016 winner was Caroline Potter:

Musical Cheesegrater
(Fr. râpe à fromage musicale; It. grattugia musicale)
A percussion instrument that enjoyed a brief vogue in Rome and Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification the instrument is reckoned as a friction idiophone. Of metal construction, it typically has four sides, each with raised perforations of a particular size. The player strokes one or more of the sides with a metal implement, producing a distinctive rasping sound. A rare rotating variant, where a perforated barrel is turned using a crankhandle to create friction against metal tangents, survives in the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The musical cheesegrater is cited in a posthumously published appendix to Luigi Russolo’s celebrated manifesto L’Arte dei rumori in the fourth category of his sound classification (screeches, creaks, rumbles, buzzes, crackles, scrapes). Its best-known use is in Maurice Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (1924), where it is rubbed with a triangle beater.

The musical cheesegrater was employed by Italian Futurist composers and associates of the Dada movement in Paris, and its popularity and decline mirrors the fortunes of these artistic groupings. The manuscript of Erik Satie’s Rabelais-themed Trois petites pièces montées (1919) features the instrument rubbed with a hard cheese, though scholars disagree whether Satie intended this to be a percussion instrument or part of a projected staging. Edgard Varèse showed enthusiasm for the musical cheesegrater during a dinner with Russolo; it appears in sketches for Amériques (1918-21), but not in the final version. Recent academic research in gastromusicology has revived interest in the instrument.

I’m gratified by the reference to the numinous Sachs–Hornbostel organological taxonomy, even if a whole host of stranger instruments appear there. So it’s of little consequence that just such an instrument is indeed used in several world traditions, such as the guiro/güira of merengue. Indeed, it brings to mind “our” very own washboard.

If it’s pithy organology you need, there’s also the vuvuzela.


Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan
To follow Chet Baker and Clifford Brown, it’s worth adding Lee Morgan (1938–72) to our list of great jazz trumpeters. He was shot dead by his wife at Slug’s Saloon when he was only 33, before he could finish himself off with heroin—on which, do listen to this fine programme on the Lexington Narcotics Farm.

Trumpet chart

First, to pursue the theme of lineages, I remember Clifford (1958):

Still with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, among stiff competition, here he is with Wayne Shorter playing A night in Tunisia in 1959 (even the percussion intro is amazing):

Another ballad, from 1958:

A video from 1961:

With Wayne Shorter again (1965):

Oh all right then, here’s The sidewinder (1963):

Some other great trumpeters featuring on this blog: from the African musician John Blanke at the Tudor court (under Wind, ethnicity, and gender), to Tomasz StańkoJohn Wilbraham, and enchanting versions of Handel‘s Eternal source of light divine by Alison Balsom, Wynton Marsalis, and David Blackadder (WOW).



Nearly ready to try out using the bow.

We should celebrate the wonderful regional diversity of European folk cultures, notably their musics—Ireland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and so on. But styles are just as varied within WAM (Biber, Nielsen, Janacek…).

Even among the great composers born in the 1680s, apart from Bach and Handel, let’s not forget Rameau—an early flowering of the distinctive voice of French music, leading on to Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen (not to mention Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger). If we’re conditioned by some notional one-size-fits-all baroque style, it’s most rewarding to immerse oneself in Rameau’s whole sound world—the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodic contours and ornaments, the instrumental timbres…

Perhaps we can hear “Tristes apprêts” from Castor et Pollux as a French companion to the Buxtehude Klaglied or When I am laid in earth—not to mention the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Among several fine renditions, here’s Sabine Devieilhe, backed by soulful bassoons:

Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,
Jour plus affreux que les ténèbres,
Astres lugubres des tombeaux,
Non, je ne verrai plus que vos clartés funèbres.
Toi, qui vois mon cœur éperdu,
Père du Jour! ô Soleil! ô mon Père!
Je ne veux plus d’un bien que Castor a perdu,
Et je renonce à ta lumière.

Rameau Athens

Rameau in Athens, 1981-ish.

In my early days as a baroquer I did some Rameau opera for Lina Lalandi, but alas I began working with John Eliot Gardiner just too late to take part in his ground-breaking performances. His 2011 Prom was enchanting. The very first piece I heard him conducting live (those funky bassoons again!) was the Entrée pour les Muses (from 18.09)—further enhanced here by magical staging with dance.

Rameau’s operas alone are a rich canon to explore.

Jottings from Lisbon 2

In this post I begin to educate myself on the Salazar regime—framed by more on the changing history and image of fado.

Fado 1910

José Malhoa, Fado, 1910.

Back in Lisbon last week after my visit this time last year, I reacquainted myself with the delectable Colete Salva-Vidas and her three daughters, notably the errant Aterragem (see my linguistic fantasy here)—and now, I find, yet another on the way, Proxima Paragem (“next stop”, between you and me). I’m tickled that the door sign for “Pull” is Puxe—putting foreigners off the scent, like changing the signposts in wartime Britain? I would like “pullover” to be puxesobre, “pushover”.

To console me that my visits never seem to coincide with a festival of traditional Alentejan choirs, my friend Nick took me to the wonderful Casa Alentejo. Cunningly disguised as a Western Union office, you’d never guess at the riches inside—a Moorish courtyard, frescos, tiles, and a little double stage: a true gem (if not aterragem).

* * *

While my first loyalty is to the complexity and intensity of flamenco cante jondo, it’s always good to explore fado—and it’s high time for me to understand a bit more about its social and political background. This may be old hat for world music groupies, but perhaps it’s of a certain relevance for my sinophile readers; and quite aside from the tourist angle, there seems a genuine enthusiasm among the current fadistas[1]

The Museo do Fado (including sound archive here, and biographies here) makes a useful introduction. Evoking many other genres (rebetika, tango, and so on), the early history of fado was one of delinquency and transgression (cf. Merriam, ““licence to deviate from behavioural norms”). Indeed, that’s still very much the ethos of shawm bands in rural China. As a useful 2007 article on fado comments:

When a Portuguese writer described the fado in 1926 as “a song of rogues, a hymn to crime, an ode to vice, an encouragement to moral depravity, an unhealthy emanation from the centres of corruption, from the infamous habitations of the scum of society”, he identified a set of associations that a new generation of fadistas wear like a badge of honour.

Musicians often wore bright tattoos, in red on the singer’s chest or between his thumb and fingers, with markings of “anchors, ships, guitars, flowers, animals, pierced or joined hearts, the cross, the five sores of Christ [YAY], other love, religious, fantasy signs or inscriptions”.

Fadistas 1873

Pinheiro, Fadistas, 1873.

But later a political stigma replaced the old social one:

For some, it’s a sound forever tarnished by its association with fascism. After the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, many on the Portuguese left saw the fado as something shameful. It was seen, at best, as a conservative outlet for national misery, at worst as an authorised voice for Catholic fascism.

Salazar himself considered that fado “sapped all energy from the soul and led to inertia” (on which grounds he might have been a big Sex Pistols fan). In 1927 he passed a law regulating it, depriving it of much of its improvisation and spontaneity—which sounds like what the Party has long tried but failed to do in China. Under Salazar fado wasn’t used as propaganda, but it was neutered. Flamenco, while no less commodified, has retained a more earthy aspect.

Fado‘s links with Brazil and Africa are also worth pursuing.

* * *

Following my visits to Sachsenhausen and Stasi memorial sites in Berlin, it seemed suitable to give myself a basic education on the Salazar regime and its sinister PIDE security forces. By contrast with the grim surroundings of the Stasi museum in Berlin, the Aljube museum (Museum of resistance and liberation; also useful introduction here) occupies a picturesque site overlooking the sea, suitably opposite the Sé cathedral—as if to remind us of the role of the church in supporting the regime.


Portugal was one of the poorest countries in Europe. In 1920, 66% of the population was illiterate. Infant mortality rates only decreased belatedly:

1926: 45%
1974: 37%
2011:   3%.


The Estado Novo endured for forty years, from 1933 until 1974. It was in this period that Portugal became encapsulated by “the three Fs”: fado, football, and Fátima. Bread and circuses, perhaps: for the opposition, a formula for national alienation. One might add a fourth F: fear.

Lisbon 1939

Lisbon 1939.

The Aljube had a long history as a prison. On the eve of the Estado Novo it held “women of ill repute, and incorrigible women accused of serious crimes”. Indeed, under Salazar, the exhibition mentions the general exploitation of women:

Women like Maria Lamas, Maria Isabel Aboim Inglês, Virginia Moura and Maria Machado initiated a new specific approach to the female condition and especially of the until then “invisible” condition of the women.

In a country where feminism was a late starter, this positioning would fertilize the cultural soil, in which would grow what is considered the first Portuguese feminist manifesto, As Novas Cartas Portuguesas [The new Portuguese charters], the publication (and apprehension) of which would leads its three authors, Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Velho da Costa, and Isabel Barreno, to be criminally persecuted in 1972.

Under the dictatorship the Aljube became a political prison. The museum outlines the use of torture, the role of informers (bufos, “squealers”), the resistance, and the exile of prisoners to penal colonies in the Azores, Madeira, East Timor. Many died of starvation and disease in Tarrafal camp in Cape Verde. The third floor covers the anticolonial struggle, as well as the 1974 Carnation revolution.

The exhibition documents the collaboration of the PIDE with the Italian secret police and the Gestapo—going on to note that the CIA helped train the PIDE from 1957.

One thorn in the flesh of the regime, harrassed by the PIDE, was the musician José “Zeca” Afonso (1929–87):

I’m sure a lot more tourists walk past than enter the Aljube museum, which is sad—but of course it takes a particular mentality to travel the globe in search of atrocity sites. Despite all the evidence of human suffering, not least during my own pampered youth, I’m not here (today, at least) to rant against tourism—the whole image of the Med (sun, sea, and in this case Sé) and idyllic island resorts—or indeed to carp at the human capacity for enjoying life.

Criminal states have operated all over the world, and continue to do so. In places like Germany and Portugal, where regimes have changed, lessons may be learned in the public domain; in China, still very little.

* * *

The new generation of fadistas are said to have shaken off the link with fascism, but it never fitted neatly into the discourses of either right or left. Moreover, it now seems largely rhetorical for fadistas to pride themselves on its history as an “ode to vice, an encouragement to moral depravity from the scum of society”. The clubs have been becoming gentrified for over a century, the atmosphere genteel (or what the Chinese would call “cultured”)—and even I can’t fault it for that.

So what better way of spending the night before Eurovision than to relish fado at a venue I hadn’t visited before: the Associação do Fado Casto in Rua São Mamede. Among all the fado joints in the Alfama, it’s rather off the beaten track, and suitably untrumpeted from the outside. The atmosphere is great, with groups of family and friends enjoying fine food amidst evocative memorabilia.


As to the fado, performed in sets of three songs, while the pluckers noodle away whimsically,  the intimate intensity of saudade as the singer enters is immediately touching. I heard fine sets from Matilde Cid, accompanied by Antonio Duarte and João Filipe:


Here she is on youtube:

I also just found out about the great Carminho, falling hopelessly in love with this early clip of her singing Fado of the hours in Carlos Saura’s 2007 film (longer sequence here):

I used to cry for not seeing you,
And now that I see you, I cry

Chorava por te não ver,
por te ver eu choro agora,
mas choro só por querer,
querer ver-te a toda a hora.

Passa o tempo de corrida,
quando falas eu te escuto,
nas horas da nossa vida,
cada hora é um minuto.

Deixa-te estar a meu lado,
e não mais te vás embora,
para meu coração coitado
viver na vida uma hora.

This has leapt into my list of all-time Top Ten World Songs—along with Erbarme dich, You’re my thrill, Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen, Back to black, When I am laid in earth, Chet ballads, Härlig är jorden, Eternal source of light divine, and Naturträne. Incidentally, many fados make use of the plangent minor key, but this is a good instance of how saudade can be amply achieved without it.

I’m somewhat resistant to Big Stars (at least in “world music“), but I can hardly sign off without paying homage to the saudade of Amália Rodrigues:


[1] While we await a translation of Rui Vieira Nery, Para uma história do fado, for one detailed study in English see Paul Vernon, A history of the Portuguese fado; see also James Patrick Félix, Folk or fake: the notion of authenticity in Portuguese fadohere. For a general introduction to fado in the wider context of Portuguese music, with discography, see The Rough guide to world music, pp.309–23; fado also features regularly in Songlines magazine.


A selection of recent posts


To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:

For more, click on MY BLOG in the top menu and scroll down…

Indian singing at the BM


Ragamala for rag Bihag. Yale University Art Gallery.

After some time immersed in the rich harmonies of Mahler 10, it made a nice contrast for me to bask in the purity of monophonic Hindustani music in the Indian gallery of the British Museum. With the arhat at the other (Chinese) end of the gallery gazing on serenely from afar, Kaushiki Chakraborty sang with the lucidity and intensity characteristic of the style, accompanied by tabla and harmonium (the latter, alas, only intermittently suggestive of the bandoneon—call me old-fashioned, but you still can’t beat the sarangi).

She began with a khayal in the late-evening rag Maru Bihag—whose relation with rag Yaman (and Yaman Kalyan) is a subtlety to be explored by the aficionado. But even for the less attuned ear it’s worth homing in on the basic vocabulary of rag: the pitch relationships, always expounded most clearly in the opening alap.

To simplify absurdly the ascending and descending scales, and the choices of phrases within them (NB upper-case letters denote higher degrees, lower-case their lower degrees; S and P, do and so, are invariable), Ms Chakraborty’s version of the rag featured N and M prominently, using an ascending scale of

N  R  G  M  D  N—

as in many ragas, feeding on the tension with the tonic drone of S. The natural-fourth degree m is introduced as a subsidiary theme (N G m, or S m, and G m G), and later a sustained P also features. Here’s a version she sang in 2017:

Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of solfeggio is a good way of listening to Chinese ritual melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organizing sound.

Some would date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, and even the invention of graphic notation… Comes in jolly handy for Mahler 10, though.