Juan José Téllez relates in his book “Paco de Lucía. The son of the Portuguese” that Paco de Lucía once said, flamenco was the last music in Europe based on rhythm. Now I am not familiar with the folk music of all the smaller and bigger European nations, but I definitely agree that the basis of flamenco is the rhythm; melody comes second.
I learned this myself on my first dance classes in Madrid, where our teacher, Cristina went on and on about ‘un-dos-un-dos-trés-cuatro-cinco-seis-siete-ocho-nueve-diéz. Un-dos-un-dos-trés-cuatro-cinco-seis-siete-ocho-nueve-diéz. Un-dos… again and again and again. The ‘compás’, the rhythm. The base, the starting point, the walls, the structure of flamenco. I remember her saying that we should have this rhythm inside of us. It has to come from within, she used to say. The French girl from Biarritz – on her Erasmus in Madrid- and the Hungarian girl – taking a chance on her life (me!) – understood quite quickly the importance of the compás and were able to repeat the steps and claps heard in class, but not everybody could. In order to follow the rhythm, you have to hear not only the rhythm, but when you are out of the rhythm! Out of compás = profanity in flamenco. If you don’t realise that you are out of compás, you might as well give up your flamenco career. I do believe though that musical hearing can be improved. By sweating blood (say the Hungarian), but it is possible to learn and improve.
The different flamenco forms, ‘palos’, all have different rhythm and more importantly, different accent. They can be categorised into groups based on their base rhythm and origin: 12-beat patterns are in the soleá-family: bulerías, alegrías, cantiñete etc.; 3/4 compás is used in fandangos de Huelva, rondeña, malagueña, granaína etc.; 4/4 compás cycle is in tangos, tientos, farruca etc.; the songs of ‘ida y vuelta’ have tango feel but originate from South America like guajira, colombiana, vidalita; seguiriya group includes seguiriya, liviana etc.; the toná family, also known as ‘palo seco’, includes martinete, saeta etc.; and finally, the rest that do not belong to any of the above groups like zambra or nana.
Flamenco can be enjoyed without knowing these groupings but definitely helps recognising the different forms, if we recognise the compás.
And then I haven’t even mentioned ‘contratiempo’ yet. Counter time – I suppose – you would call it in English. The space between the beats, I read once. It’s basically the beat half way between two whole beats. It is used frequently in flamenco, I would even say flamencos like playing with contratiempo. It makes the songs more colourful, exciting and lively! What a challenge though! If compás was difficult, not sure how to describe contratiempo…
I love it how some of my friends from the south of Spain just start clapping and beating the contratiempo with their feet or making a sound with their mouth, without even realising how difficult it is! It’s amazing how they are able to make music with their hands/feet/mouth within seconds!
A huge compliment for me was when – after spending a couple of hours with my friend, L. (professional flamenco dancer), dancing, trying to follow a simple choreography – we went to A’s big family meeting with more than 50 people, and she told everyone: ‘Tiene compás, si, si, tiene compás’. (“She’s got the rhythm, yes, yes, she’s got the rhythm”).