Sounding the Soul

Getting inside the flamboyant voice of flamenco

The café cantante El Burrero was one of the most popular flamenco cafés in Seville in the late nineteenth century. This interior shot shows a traditional cuadro (group) on stage, ca. 1880. Photograph by Emilio Beauchy. Courtesy of Hispanic Society of America, New York.

In the beginning was el cante—the song. The song was its own instrument. Its notes, rhythms, and timbres were carried by the currents of the Mediterranean and El Río Betis, today’s Guadalquivir, the routes followed by multiethnic groups of nomadic Gypsies to Andalucía in southern Spain.

The song held a story of human experience. Its mournful melody traced the grief, grit, and grace of los Gitanos, the Gypsies, expressing centuries of persecution, resistance, and, ultimately, survival. The song was pure emotion, the sound of the soul itself.

TODAY, ALONG WITH EL BAILE (dance) and el toque (guitar), el cante is among the trio of Spanish art forms that comprise the dramatic performance art of flamenco. But before the mid-nineteenth century, when dancers in flashy flamenco costumes and fast-strumming guitarists filled European theaters and cafes, flamenco was a community-based folkloric tradition with cante at its core. Shared at home or on the street, passed down from elders to youth, flamenco personified a cante-driven conversation about the daily life experiences of repressed minority peoples of Andalucía.

“Originally, flamenco was not performed before an audience,” wrote Nicolasa Chávez in The Spirit of Flamenco: From Spain to New Mexico, the companion publication to the exhibition Flamenco: From Spain to New Mexico. “Flamencos, those who are part of the flamenco community, were not professional performers but everyday people.”

Leading the conversation was the male cantaor or female cantaora. Their emotional oral histories and community narratives called family and friends to the kitchen table or the street corner to listen. The singer’s distinctive inflection and vibrant vocal trill inspired spontaneous dance with individuals engaging directly with the singer, who steered the mood, tempo, and direction. Theirs was an intimate, stripped-down interaction that utilized the body’s basic instruments, from percussive footwork, to rhythmic palmas (hand clapping) and finger snapping, to graceful floreos, arm and hand movements. Occasionally, the bang of a wooden staff or cane on the floor or the clink of a blacksmith’s martillo (hammer) on an anvil enhanced the beat.

Between 1880 and 1900, the flamencos of southern Spain moved from society’s margins to center stage of flamenco’s golden era.

“The transformation of a familial tradition into a respected art form . . . did not go unnoticed,” Chávez wrote. “These performers . . . shaped how we view, experience, and understand flamenco today.”

With flamenco’s transition to the global arena, however, cante was upstaged. The singer’s idiosyncratic vocal stylings were unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable, to uninitiated ears. The Spanish-language meanings of the singer’s stories were undoubtedly lost on foreign audiences. Travelers, writers, and others sought the “exotic” qualities of flamenco, but above all, they wished to be entertained.

As paid performers, many nineteenth-century flamencos adapted their tradition to suit foreign tastes. Choreographed performances put dancers in the spotlight in dazzling costumes, serenaded by guitarists who often played long solos. As dancers engaged the audience, the family circle expanded to a semicircle. The cantaor moved to the background, toning down more intense aspects of cante to perform more upbeat, applause driven songs.

As flamenco’s entertainment value solidified in Europe, it also took hold in the United States. Touring flamenco troupes and newly arrived flamenco immigrants were soon performing in New York, Boston, and beyond. In New Mexico, Spanish classical dance and folkloric traditions emerged at local fairs and fiestas during the early twentieth-century Spanish colonial revival, and instruction in Spanish and Mexican dance was popular into the 1950s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that a flamenco performance tradition took root in the state, influenced by such pioneering local icons as Vicente Romero and María Benítez in northern New Mexico, Clarita García de Aranda in Albuquerque, and others. This set the stage for today’s flourishing flamenco scene.

With a concentration of professional performers and students in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico is now widely considered the flamenco capital of the US. For native and transplanted performers alike, the history, integrity, and inspiration of cante is not lost.

“El cante es el flamenco” (the song is flamenco), said Santa Fe-based dancer and teacher Antonio Granjero, who hails from Jerez de la Frontera, the cante cradle of Spain. “El cante es todo” (the song is everything).

“Cante is about soul,” declares internationally acclaimed native New Mexican dancer and teacher María Benítez. “How do you teach someone soul?”

EL GRITO, THE CRY, erupts from deep within, a place of anguish, desolation, exasperation. The cantaor massages the melody like a lover, or a warrior, elongating a phrase then pulling back, manipulating each word with a quiet caress or a fist to the face.

The cry launches a cante jondo, literally a deep song, a declaration of disappointment, suffering, heartache, death. With every howl of lament, every wail of rebellion, every painful sigh, the cantaor leads fellow flamencos across the meandering, often treacherous, terrain of time, memory, and experience.

Whether a weighty cante jondo such as a seguiriya, or a lighter, more celebratory cante chico, such as an alegría, cante is an exercise in improvisation. Indeed, as a musical tradition, cante bears comparison to American jazz or blues. Rather than a traditional repertoire, the genre comprises hundreds of rhythms and forms, which the cantaor shapes into the stories of the ages. The greatest cantaores plant their songs in personal experience, weaving words to the pace of their heartbeat, singing each cante as if for the very first time.

“Once it washes through your soul, your interpretation, it is your song,” said Albuquerque-based cantaor Vicente Griego, known as El Cartucho, a native of the northern New Mexico village of Dixon.

Cante is a living art,” said cantaor Fernando Barros, a flamenco historian and composer from Granada, Spain, who now lives in Santa Fe. “It came out of a certain history, but it is most important to place it in a social context.”

Flamencologists and ethnomusicologists ardently debate flamenco history, which has only been documented for the past 200 years. Popular history traces its beginnings to the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition, when Gitanos, Sephardic Jews, and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spanish lands. While many minorities fled, others hid in mountain caves throughout Andalucía. In these confined spaces, in the midst of extreme cultural repression, including prohibition of traditional Gypsy language and dress, the first cantaores exclaimed their first gritos. Their distinctive delivery of their people’s tragic plight seeded the myth of flamenco as a purely Gypsy tradition of purely Spanish origin.

Historians like Barros, however, acknowledge more diverse ethnic, cultural, and musical influences to explain today’s flamenco milieu. Specific Andalusian dance and music styles were evolving by the second century, when the Roman Empire overtook the Mediterranean Coast and Iberian Peninsula. The Byzantines ruled from the fifth to the eighth century, when Moorish forces established an 800-year Muslim stronghold. Bands of nomadic Gypsies flooded the region throughout the Middle Ages, including East Indians, Arabs, and Africans, who blended with local cultures. This multiethnic convergence inspired a multicultural fusion of musical history, ancient rhythms, traditions, and influences. In time, a distinctive musical heritage emerged in Andalucía—particularly in the geographical triangle of Cádiz, Sevilla, and Jerez de la Frontera.

With the rise of the Spanish Catholic monarchy, the exiled outcasts clung tightly to their musical traditions. The Gypsies, in particular, forged a unique vocal identity—el cante—that expressed their cultural pride, love of family, and ache for a place to call home.

Perhaps because it came from a pain so deep, a place so interior, the voice of the cantaor developed as an uncanny reflection of his subject matter, characterized by a profound resonance— guttural, dramatic, operatic.

“It sounds like sediment,” said Griego. “It can be very bitter, sweet and rancid at the same time, like raw chocolate.”

“The voice is beautiful because it’s not perfect,” said Barros. “There’s a certain quality, an elasticity and texture, an essence that gives it authenticity.”

The essence is emotion. Unabashed, indelicate, sarcastic, the cantaor wears his or her emotions like an ancestral obligation that is both a burden and a badge of honor. Outbursts of rebellion, ecstasy, and despair lay bare the wounds of persecution with vocal compás, a rhythmic, emotion-driven precision. The singer treads a tightrope of tension and release to finally bring his or her people, and fellow performers, to redemption.

Redemption came in 1782, when Spanish king Charles III issued the Leniency Edict, which freed the Gypsies to live and work as they pleased. With permission to perform in public, flamencos began singing and dancing at parties of the Spanish elite, and eventually adapted their art form for European audiences. As cante’s improvisational origins became more rehearsed, its raw intensity was seldom heard outside of Gypsy circles, leaving some of the best cantaores unknown, and audiences incomplete in their understanding of flamenco.

The philosophical and political power of cante jondo, however, resonated with the intellectual class. A 1920s movement to preserve flamenco’s roots attracted poet Federico García Lorca and composer Manuel de Falla, who connected to cante jondo as literary and compositional traditions. In Granada in 1922, the two launched the Primer Concurso de Cante Jondo (First Congress of Cante Jondo), bringing together a largely amateur contingent of cantaores to compete. The event recognized talented local and regional cantaores, and launched a new tradition of cante concursos that continues today in southern Spain.

Later, as members of the avant-garde Generation of 1927, Lorca, Falla, and others promoted cante and Gypsy culture worldwide through writing, theater, classical music, opera, and more. But in 1936, flamenco’s good fortune turned again amidst the onset of the Spanish Civil War, which pitted the right-wing Spanish military against the leftist Republican government. Lorca’s leftist affiliations prompted his assassination, and Falla fled to Argentina. Again, Gypsy culture was repressed, sending cante jondo underground.

The war ended in 1939. Flamenco’s ups and downs continued as the century unfolded; the genre was alternately celebrated, degraded, sanitized, and popularized. The down times, especially, fueled the fiery heart and art of the cantaor.

PERHAPS MORE THAN ANY OTHER non-flamenco artist, Federico García Lorca strived to foster understanding of cante jondo, composing poetry and other writings around the deep song form and other Gypsy themes. Cante’s “dark sounds” and mysterious creative force led him to coin the term duende, which he described as “something newly created, like a miracle.”

In New Mexico today, performers embrace the creative enigma of duende, connecting its invisible spirit and emotional transcendence to the power of cante.

“You have to get into the soul of it, listen to the singer, let go,” said María Benítez. “When you get a really inspired singer, not one who sings on the surface, but one who really knows how to take a bite out of the steak, it can be an out-of-body experience.”

Describing flamenco as “the art of sensation,” Antonio Granjero anticipates the moment of the cantaor’s first grito, the elongated ayyyyiiiiiiiieeeeee that sets the tone for the dance. “If that grito gets inside you, it drives you,” he said. “When the singer is giving so much that his voice breaks, he can, without words, determine how well or how poorly you will dance.”

Practically speaking, the cantaor’s craft is stylistically sophisticated and highly technical. His or her ability to inspire others to movement, however, is purely instinctive.

“If you aren’t born with the vocal instrument of cante, you can’t do it,” Granjero said. “You can learn how to sing cante, but you still won’t know how to sing cante.”

Questions about what is or isn’t “pure” flamenco abound, including whether or not Spanish Gypsy genetics are required to be authentic. Cantaores often share Gypsy family bloodlines, and percentage-wise, the calling is predominantly male. Nonetheless, a legacy of powerful female cantaoras, whom Benítez described as “hell on wheels,” flows throughout flamenco history. In practice, a true understanding of cante isn’t limited to birthright or gender, but requires a shared sensibility that can be rooted in a variety of experiences.

For example, while both Granjero and Barros were born in Andalucía, neither was raised in a flamenco family. But both lived amid Gypsies and other flamencos in communities where cante and flamenco were integral parts of daily life.

“I was invited to Gypsy homes, where I learned by listening and doing, by living the fiestas,” recalled Barros, whose largely self-taught cante practice began in Granada about age fifteen. “What attracted me to the Gypsies was their willingness to share.”

Granjero remembered his mother cooking to the strains of cante sung on the radio by such performers as Camarón de la Isla, whose recordings popularized cante worldwide. “I don’t have any memory without the sound of cante,” he said. “Half of my neighbors were Gitanos, but many payos, non-Gypsies, were also flamencos. Jerez [de la Frontera] is a meeting point, a great demonstration of how flamencos have mixed. In the end, cante was part of me.”

At ten, Granjero began studying flamenco dance, leading to an impressive career in Spain, Europe, and the United States. He first came to Santa Fe in 1995 to dance with Mariá Benítez’s Teatro Flamenco. Despite his success as a dancer, he admitted, “If I could have been a good cantaor, I would have become a cantaor.

“Dancers, we’re all frustrated singers,” he continued. “When people ask, ‘What do you envy—money, houses, cars?’—I say, ‘I envy the singer.’”

As a New Mexican raised in a family of miners, vaqueros, and horse traders, cantaor Vicente Griego may seem a contradiction. But he said, “I grew up around people who are connected to Spanish Gypsy culture through a long tradition of song.”

Griego first heard cante’s call in 1992, when he attended the Festival Flamenco Internacional de Alburquerque at the University of New Mexico. “It was like an ancient voice that I hadn’t heard in a long time,” he recalled. “The guttural, deep voice of cante jondo was like the alabados (hymns) of the penitente hermanos (members of the Penitente brotherhood). They were singing the same song of resistance as the mestizaje (mixed peoples) of northern New Mexico. I walked straight over to the circle of singers, and I never left.”

The experience inspired Griego to sign on as a road manager with the José Greco II Flamenco Dance Company. While touring the US, Canada, and Latin America with the group, he was mentored by cantaor Alfonso Gabarri, El Veneno, of Madrid. Over time, he observed and learned from other flamencos and immersed himself in the cante anthology preserved by the late great Gitano cantaor Antonio Mairena.

Griego has never studied in Spain, and the fact that he was not born there wasn’t an issue for his mentors. “I learned because I was born in New Mexico, not in spite of it,” he said. “I was raised with the same code of honor and respect that they practiced. They didn’t ask for my passport. They said, ‘Primo [cousin], welcome.’”

Indeed, Griego said, the issue of purity in flamenco in the modern age is moot. “Flamenco in its purest form was cante off the tongue of a Gitano on the road from India,” he said. “The minute someone sung it in Spanish, it became mixed. Why do we have to keep thinking of a mix as an impurity? The only thing that is pure is the heart of the artist.”

THE BOOMING SLAP of a makeshift cajón, a boxlike percussion instrument, rumbles through the Museum of International Folk Art auditorium as second-graders practice rudimentary flamenco rhythms. Led by Granjero and Graciela Gonzales, a member of Granjero’s Entreflamenco dance company and the Santa Fe School of Flamenco, the education program is part of the museum’s flamenco exhibition, which highlights cante history, singers, and sounds. This session introduces students to basic flamenco history, rhythms, movements, and music. Even as the students arc their arms, stomp their feet, and practice palmas, Gonzales reminds them, “The most important thing is el cante, the song.”

Like Granjero and Gonzales, many New Mexico flamenco performers also teach. In 1970, María Benítez and her late husband, Cecilio Benítez, founded the Institute for Spanish Arts, the first nonprofit flamenco dance and teaching organization in New Mexico, which continues to mentor young performers today. Since the late 1970s, Albuquerque dancer and teacher Eva Enciñias-Sandoval, daughter of Clarita García de Aranda, has nurtured her hometown into another influential flamenco hub. The city is home to the nonprofit National Institute of Flamenco and its Conservatory of Flamenco Arts, and the University of New Mexico offers the only bachelor’s degree in flamenco dance in the US.

By all accounts, apart from Spain, New Mexico is a leading educational center for flamenco. Those who work the stage and the classroom feel a responsibility to preserve flamenco’s community-based origins while offering viable performance options to new generations.

“It’s a delicate balance,” said Benítez, “between the pressure to entertain and the pressure to be true to the soul and spirit of flamenco. Our role as educators is to teach our students how to transmit emotion. Those who can tap into their soul will succeed.”

Although many academic or conservatory settings treat cante, dance, and guitar as separate studies, Barros and Granjero advocate a model that teaches students the three disciplines simultaneously. This approach puts cante back at the center of the action.

“In Andalucía, cante is still what flamenco is about,” Granjero said. “Here, dance sells flamenco, but we need to teach students that cante sustains it.”

For the past five years, Barros, who is also a geologist, has immersed himself in the “methodology and science” of cante. As a contemporary cante composer who blends classic Spanish literature and poetry with flamenco cadences and rhythms, he encourages innovation. “I have a dream of New Mexico as a flamenco center where new ideas and new investigations encourage its preservation as a musical art,” he said.

Griego, who sings for the Albuquerque-based flamenco repertory company Yjastros and tours worldwide as a guest singer with other groups, also embraces opportunities for innovation. His group ReVoZo performs “mestizaje flamenco,” a mix of cante and Latin music. But first and foremost, he said, “My responsibility is to remember what others did before, to continually seek a deeper understanding of flamenco’s roots. I consider myself a student until the day I die.”

Benítez advocates collaboration among New Mexico’s flamenco community in extending the significance of cante. She also recognizes that cante may never be fully accessible to contemporary audiences.

“Some people will always be uncomfortable with the emotion and edginess of cante. They want to know the meaning of every word, not realizing what they are receiving is independent of language,” she said. “Cante, at its root, is the heart and soul of a singer from Spain. There should always be a little mystery in that.”

Carmella Padilla writes extensively about intersections in art, culture, and history in New Mexico and beyond. Her books include The Work of Art: Folk Artists in the 21st Century; El Rancho de las Golondrinas: Living History in New Mexico’s La Cienega Valley; and Low ’n Slow: Lowriding in New Mexico. She recently co-edited A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World, the companion publication to the recent Museum of International Folk Art exhibition The Red That Colored the World. She is a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and a frequent contributor to El Palacio.