Writing about flamenco palos has been long overdue for me. There is a lot of information on the web already, so I have tried to explain it in a way that makes sense to flamenco dance students and flamenco aficionados based on my experience as a flamenco teacher.
I hope this helps you to “somewhat” understand the notion of palos. I say “somewhat” because one thing is for sure in flamenco: there is always an exception to the rule, and as far as norms and rules go, they are as far as it gets from the true essence of flamenco. Having said that, it is important you understand what they are. Oh…did I mention flamenco is full of contradictions?
What is a palo?
A palo flamenco is a style variant within flamenco characterized by specific musical and cultural aspects. In Spanish, palo can mean “stick”, “branch” or “suit” (as the categories in a deck of cards).
It is said that there are over 50 flamenco palos. Each is defined by its rhythmic pattern (compás), its musical tonalities, the singing style and the mood and sentiment it conveys, its place of origin and its relation to other palos. There are different ways of grouping the palos and flamencologists do not agree on this when it comes to establishing a classification, as well as on the number of palos. Some organize them by their metrics (compás), and others by the region of origin or type of singing.
A common way to visualize and organize them is their representation in the form of a flamenco tree. The large branches represent each of the four main palo families and smaller branches represent deriving palos that come out of these four main branches.
On the graphic below I have included the main four palo families without their variants and added one more: the flamenco nuevo, which refers to today’s evolution of flamenco music. The folklore and the palos de ida y vuelta are represented as smaller variants and are therefore on the sides. On the web you will find several versions and different forms of organization of the palos under the term: “arbol del cante flamenco” or “genealogia del cante”.
What is a palo seco?
Palos seco refers to those palos naturally sung a capella. The main group of palos secos are the Tonás and under this category you will find the martinetes, debla, seatas and carceleras. They considered by traditional flamencology to be the oldest surviving musical form of flamenco, which is why they are placed at the trunk of the tree.
How much and why do I need to know about palos?
Flamenco dance is the expression of the sentiment inherit in the music, therefore knowing about palos, how they differ and understanding the cultural context will help you find meaning as well as bring out the emotion expressed in the music and song.
Ask your teacher to translate the lyrics, or explain the meaning of the song, ask about the palo in class if you need more information to understand the style.
Although there is no need for you to learn and be able to identify all 50+ palos and their origin, having some knowledge about flamenco palos is definitely needed if you are going to study flamenco dance. As you listen and learn, you will start recognizing them and you will then be able to classify them. understand the overall mood of the piece.
Which are the most common palos for dance?
The most common palos for dance are sevillanas, tangos, fandangos, alegrias, soleá, seguiriya, farruca, guajira, tientos, tarantos and bulerias. There are many other palos that are less main stream but that are still suitable for dance.
Throughout your learning journey as a flamenco dance student you will learn dances to several palos. Beginner dance students start by learning palos with a rhythmic pattern of four, such as the tangos or three, like sevillanas. These palos are generally easy going in both melody and content. As you move up in level, you will learn palos with a “compás de 12” rhythm of 12, which are more complex and include “binary rhythms” meaning a combination of accents on the threes and twos within a 12-beat rhythmic pattern such as: [ 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 1 2 ] = 12 beats or as flamencos count it: 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11. Also as you advance, you will move into more dramatic palos, such as the solea or the seguiriya, which not only involve a considerable level of technique and understanding of the rhythm, but also involve strong emotional expression and freedom of interpretation.
Main dance palos divided by compás:
- palos in compás of 3: sevillanas, fandangos
- palos in compás of in 4: tangos, farruca, tientos, tarantos
- palos in compás of in 12: alegrias, solea, seguiriya and bulerias, guajiras
Keys to identifying a palo
Identifying the compás is an important characteristic of a palo, but you need more than that to classify a palo. Pay attention to these factors when listening to flamenco music, so you can start identifying the palos:
- the compás
- the melody, the tonalities, the lyrics and inherit mood of the piece (festive, sad…etc)
- the type of singing (jondo, chico, see below)
- the tempo
Identify a palo by the singing style
Here are the three types of singing styles and how to recognize them:
- Cante básico or Cante jondo:
also called cante grande (big singing) can be classified in four main palo families: the tonás, the seguiriyas, the soleá and the fandango. All four descend from gitano/andalusian origin. As depicted on my flamenco tree graphic, all of the other palos are related in one way or another to one of these four.
- Cante flamenco: the cante flamenco is less profound and sorrowful that the cante jondo, but also moving, sometimes containing an oriental cast to the music. The singing follow the same rhythmic scheme of the palo of origin, but at different speeds or with changes in the melodies and chords. This style of singing includes the “cante intermedio and the cante chico,” meaning medium and little song. Festive palos of cante chico include alegrias and bulerias. The cante intermedio is somewhere between the cante grande and the cante chico and it varies depending on who is singing. Examples of common dance palos of this group are the alegrias, caracoles, bulerias and tarantos.
- Sones aflamencados: translates as “flamenco style song” and are palos that descend from Spanish folklore and from Central and South America. The most popular being the sevillanas, followed by the melancholic Northern Spanish farruca of Galician descent or the Asturian garrotín. Those palos of Spanish origin with Central and South American influences are called“cantes de ida y vuelta” and belong to this group as well. Amongst these we find the Cuban rumba and guajira, the Argentine milonga or the Colombian colombiana.
Trying to fully understand and recognize all the palos, their origin and their structure is a titanic task. Flamenco was never properly documented on the first place. As flamencologists are able to acquire more information through the digitalization of old newspapers and documents in Spain and across the world, particularly in central and South America, the history of flamenco evolves, taking these into consideration. Dive into the vast world of flamenco as much or as little as you like. It certainly is a fascinating one!
For detailed information of all flamenco palos, refer to the Palo Wikipedia page
Author: Maria Osende