Cante...the song...is the most important element of flamenco...the heart of the art form. Indeed, original flamenco was comprised purely of cante, with hand-clapping palmas (knuckle-rapping percussive accompaniment). The guitar was gradually incorporated into the cante during the Nineteenth Century. The oldest record of a flamenco performance mentions two masters of this form, El Planeta and his young follower, El Fillo. Even at the dawn of professional flamenco in 1842, performers were already famous for their singing style and repertory.
There are two basic pure forms of flamenco song: the cante flamenco andaluz and the cante flamenco gitano. However, the differences between the two styles virtually defies description...it is something which must be felt. Nevertheless, it may be noted that cante flamenco gitano (or the "gypsy song") consists exclusively of the original songs of the genre...the musical forms developed by gypsies who immigrated in the Fifteenth Century...and their development without much outside influence. Examples of this would be the tona, solea, siguiriya, tango and buleria. Cante flamenco andaluz is a style which began to spread during the middle of the Nineteenth Century. It is a combination of different Andalusian folkloric and musical song forms which display a clear influence of gypsy flamenco. Examples of this would be the many variations of the fandango and the cantinas (such as alegria). The South American songs which were inspired and influenced by the music of Spain also contributed a great deal to the enrichment of cante flamenco andaluz. A third form of flamenco song, the cantes folkoricos aflamencados, are not truly considered to be flamenco styles by the purists. These are the folk songs and dances from Andalucia, other Spanish provinces and South America, only slightly influenced by flamenco forms. Examples of this are the sevillanas, farruca, garotin and Cuban rumba. Other types of Spanish gyspy folk music which are not considered true flamenco (those heavily influenced by Arabic culture, for instance) would also fall into this third category.
In general, the flamenco song of today may be classified into one of two categories: the jondo and the chico. The jondo is the original flamenco song. The word jondo literally means "deep and profound," referring to a style of singing which usually expresses tragic themes. Soleares and siguiriyas (among others) fall into this category. The chico is a happier and more festive style of singing, being light and often humorous.
El cante flamenco, the basic flamenco song is an expression of emotion, being essentially a wail of complaint from a people who had been repressed for centuries. Many flamenco songs have no fixed rhythmic pattern and, to the uniniated ear, often seem somewhat strange and rather discordant, even harsh and distorted. Flamenco dancing and guitar accompaniment (which came much later) tends to hold a more instantaneous appeal. The earliest flamenco song focused on depressing topics...sickness, loss of children, prison and death...with the voice of the singer striving to communicate such experiences and evoke them in the listener. In modern times, this is paramount in setting the mood for both dancer and guitarist. According to Ricardo Molima, as detailed in his book, Misterios del Arte Flamenco, "flamenco is the primal scream in its primitive form, from a people sunk in poverty and ignorance." Thus, the original flamenco song could be described as a type of self-therapy.
It is generally accepted that the strongest influences evident in the evolution of Flamenco singing can be traced from the following cultures:
In Spain, where flamenco first came into being, the main focus of the art form continues to be the cante.Punjabi singing of India
Persian Zyriab song form
Classical Andalusian Orchestras of the Islamic Empire
Jewish Synagogue Chants
Mozarabic forms such as Zarchyas and Zambra
Arabic Zayal (the foundation for the Fandago)
Andalusian regional folk forms
Western African influences via the slave population of the New World Caribbean, Central and
South American colonies (including Rumba, Garotin, Guajiras and Columbianas)
Antonio Fernandez a/k/a El Planeta
(Approximately 1770-Approximately 1850)
Little is known about this flamenco singer...arguably the first famous performer of the art, even his given name cannot be verified. El Planeta is believed to have been born in the Spanish town of Cadiz some time during the last third of the Eighteenth Century, dying toward the middle of the Nineteenth Century, posssibly in the Spanish city of Seville. He appears to have been a type of patriarch of the gypsy community, often referred to as "Count and Prince of the Fraternity." By 1831, he was already being described as a "veteran singer of great style." A leader in his time, who was very popular and liked to dress in fine clothes, it is likely that El Planeta was originally a gypsy blacksmith. There seems to be little doubt that he accompanied himself on the guitar, although he frequently sang with no musical accompaniment whatsoever. El Planeta's siguiriya is the oldest known in flamenco history.
Francisco Ortega Vargas a/k/a El Fillo
(Approximately 1820-Approximately 1878)
[Note: The above image is believed to be that of El Fillo on the right and El Planeta on the left]
Born in the Spanish village of Puerto Real during the second decade of the Nineteenth Century, El Fillo was the chosen disciple of El Planeta. Together, they were the main figures of early flamenco. The voice of Fillo was said to be hoarse and harsh...characteristics which have remained within the art to describe a voice of that type and which is known as afilla, taken from this singer's nickname. El Fillo performed all styles of cante known at that time and has been referred to as the "father of cante." El Fillo's date of death cannot be verified, but he is believed to have died some time in 1878, most likely in the Spanish city of Seville.
Silverio Franconetti Aguilar a/k/a Silverio Franconetti
Born in the Spanish city of Seville, Silverio Franconetti was and is considered a legend of flamenco's Golden Age. His influence on the history of flamenco was tremendous and he is arguably the finest non-gypsy singer of the Nineteenth Century. He spent his childhood in the Spanish town of Moron de la Frontera and was expected to enter the family's tailoring business, but would escape at every opportunity to visit the gypsies at the nearby blacksmith establishment and listen to their songs. It was there that he most likely met El Fillo, who encouraged the lad's talent for the gypsy cante. Franconetti later spent several years in Argentina and Uruguay, where he worked as a picador in the bullring and served as an officer in the Republic of Uruguay Army. Upon his return to Spain, he directed cafes cantantes and would hire only the best of performers. Franconetti is credited with being the only flamenco singer who sang everything absolutely well.
Francisco Antonio Enrique Jimenez Fernandez a/k/a Enrique El Mellizo
Born in the Spanish town of Cadiz to a gypsy family, Enrique El Mellizo was a puntillero in a bullfighting troupe as well as being an accomplished flamenco singer. Though he seldom left the vicinity of Cadiz, he was well-known throughout the entire Andalusian region of Spain for his performances. A depressive and solitary man, El Mellizo was considered by many to be a strange character. The beauty of his voice has been compared to the classical compositions of Beethoven and Chopin, and the soleares of Cadiz were virtually his own personal creation. He was married to Ignacia Espeleta y Ortega, who came from yet another great dynasty of flamenco singers. Each of El Millizo's three children were also celebrated flamenco performers.
Born in the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera, Antonio Chacon is considered one of the greatest singers of all time and certainly the major non-gypsy flamenco artist of his age. A pupil of Silverio Franconetti, Chacon began singing when only a boy and later toured the Andalucian region to make his living. His singing style was a high falsetto with much emphasis on sweetness of sound and vocal virtuosity. He inspired a legion of followers and created the vogue for personal fandangos which characterized the opera flamenco era. Chacon's style of singing lost popularity with the revival of gypsy-style cante which triumphed during the 1960s and 1970s, but some modern flamenco singers (Enrique Morente, for example) echo the legacy of this fine singer. Chacon, often referred to as the "Pope of Songs," died in the Spanish capital of Madrid at the age of fifty.
Manuel Soto Loreto a/k/a Manuel Torre
Born in the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera, Manuel Torre was an illiterate gypsy...a man often referred to as having "the greatest culture in his blood." Greatly influenced by Enrique el Millizo (with whom Torre spent much time during his youth), Torre's entire professional life took place in the Spanish city of Seville, having been hired at a young age to perform in the cafes cantantes, where he met and married Antonia Torres Vargas la Gamba, a beautiful dancer. Credited by many with having the most duende in flamenco history, the singing of Torre was dark and full of anguish. His delivery is said to have been powerful with an intense ability to inspire overwhelming emotional responses from his listeners. Even today, Torre continues to influence modern flamenco singers.
Pastora Maria Pavon Cruz a/k/a La Nina De Los Peines
Born in the Spanish city of Seville, La Nina De Los Peines is undoubtedly the most important and inventive woman singer of early flamenco...quite possibly the greatest female flamenco artist of all time. She adopted her nickname at an early age, taken from the lyrics of a song she often performed at the Cafe de la Marina in Madrid, the Spanish capital. One of the most complete singers in flamenco history, La Nina was unsurpassed when it came to tangos and her cante was known to be profound. She was frequently requested to sing siguiriyas at a time when women did not traditionally perform in that style and is credited with the distinction of standing alone among the women singers of her era. In 1996 (three years before her death), the Council for Culture of the Regional Government of Andalusia declared La Nina's voice an Asset of Cultural Interest and the catalog of her recordings is quite substantial.
Manuel Ortega Juarez a/k/a Manolo Caracol
Born in the Spanish city of Seville, Manolo Caracol was the last genius of a magnificent gypsy dynasty which remains legendary even today in the forums of flamenco and bullfighting. It is highly likely that his ancestral lineage included both El Planeta and El Fillo. In 1922, at the age of thirteen, Caracol won the prestigious Cante Jondo Competition in Granada and was immediately hired for private fiestas. During the Spanish Civil War, however, fiestas all but disappeared and he worked chiefly in the theater as a means to survive. Thus was born the staged version of flamenco. Caracol was an outstanding, if irregular, singer with a personal and unique touch to his cante which was said to have provoked overwhelming passions from his listeners. He liked to emphasize his own personal style, often stating that he had copied nobody. To much criticism from the purists, Caracol frequently sang accompanied by a piano or even a full orchestra...something which was innovative in his day. He died in Madrid, the Spanish capital, at the age of fifty-four.
Enrique Morente Cotelo a/k/a Enrique El Granaino
Born to a non-gypsy family in Granda, Spain, Enrique Morente's creative flair is experimental in its forms of flamenco expression. As a child, he was an altar boy in his native city's cathedral. He learned his flamenco trade first in Granada and then in Madrid, beginning his recording career in 1967. Although highly praised by the critics, Morente is far from the most popular flamenco artist in terms of record sales. He continually seeks out new modes of the art and performs traditional cante as well as a mix of flamenco and rock and even classical renditions. With the death of Cameron De La Isla, Morente is arguably the single most influential flamenco singer of the modern age and has been credited with inventing the cante of the Twenty-First Century, also sometimes referred to as the "New Flamenco." Morente's recordings include tracks with the legendary singer, Antonio Chacon, and the guitar master, Sabicas. Morente's daughter, Estrella Morenta, is considered to be among the best of the newer flamenco singers.
Jose Monje Cruz a/k/a Camaron de la Isla
The son of a gypsy blacksmith/basketmaker and the second of eight children, Camaron De La Isla was born in San Fernando (Cadiz, Spain). He received the name "Cameron" because of his blond hair and began to sing in public at the age of eight. He cut his first album in 1969, accompanied by Paco De Lucia on the guitar. Known as the "living legend of cante," he was a social phenomenon...thousands would flock to the auditoriums where he performed. In an effort to attract young people to the genre, the charismatic Camaron broke the mold of flamenco tradition in some ways, although he began as a traditional singer and learned the art from accomplished older performers. He was said to have believed in the duendes of cante but remained unable to explain them. Camaron's career was a short one...only twenty years or so...but he revolutionized cante and along with his partner, De Lucia, set flamenco on a new path, bringing the art to any and all audiences...even those who had never cared about flamenco prior to Camaron. Also known as "Prince of the Isle" and the "Mick Jagger from Cadiz," his recordings included new instruments that had never before been utilized in any flamenco singer albums..drums, flute, zither, moog and other keyboards, for example. Cameron's last concert was held in Madrid, Spain's capital, on January 25, 1992. His untimely death at the age of forty-one came later that same year (on July 2) in the Spanish city of Barcelona.
For an extensive biography/discography listing of celebrated cante performers
both past and present, click on the link button below to visit the
Flamenco Artists' Encyclopedia at La Web Del Flamenco.
For audio examples of the flamenco song,
please click on one of the musical note buttons below.
Each links to a different site.