Folk vs. Flamenco

02004-08-17 | Uncategorized | 4 comments

Folk Music: It normally was shared and performed by the entire community (not by a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth.

It seems to me that Folk music is an expression of a group. It makes use of a specific melody and that melody is known to the performer(s) as well as to the audience. The audience might even sing along with the performers.

Flamenco is about the rhythm, and about the soloists depth of emotion. Often a melody is hardly recognizable, and certainly the audience would not be able to sing along with the singer. This technique is called melisma (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica melisma stems from the Greek word melizein – to sing, or melos – song.) Melisma simply means a group of notes or tones sung on one single syllable, or a melodic embellishment. Very arabic, very indian (dot, not feather).

That’s what Flamenco seems to all about, really. In other words it is an individual sport and not a team sport like Folk. Yes, the audience participates, might do palmas, might yell encouragement and offer loud praise, but they are there to have the singer express his or her emotion, which then delivers the group to a shared place. The individual performer as a conduit to the past or the pain of the whole group.

I think Sevillanas are Folk music, but Robin Totten simply writes in his book “Song of the Outcasts”: The sevillanas are not flamenco.


I posted the above entry on my I-N journal about a week ago. The obvious question is, how does my own nouveau flamenco music fit into this? Well, I think my music is much more melody-driven than Flamenco. That makes my music more like Folk or Pop music. (My music contains certain elements of Mariachi music, Mexican Folk music. Listen to the melody in Barcelona Nights and the harmony in thirds – that’s very Mexican, and so is the Umpah bass in 2/4) My melodies are very defined, whereas a Flamenco guitarist will generally try to imitate the melismata of the singer by adding arpeggios and trills and other “extra” notes. Because the voice has sustain and the guitar does not, the guitarist essentially breaks down the melisma of the voice into many seperate notes.

In many cases I spent a long time breaking down a melody into its essential parts, cutting away notes that seemed superflous to me. That must seem completely alien and art-less to a Flamenco artist. Like a Moorish architect looking at the Farnsworth house by Mies Van Der Rohe and thinking that it is just a primitive box.

I feel that on La Semana I am combining these elements a little more… the melody and the melismata… There is, of course, a chorus with a defined melody – I can’t help that I love a nice chorus melody! – but I am also leaving more melismata intact. Allowing myself to be more free from the melody in the verses. I find that the opposite movement is happening with Flamenco in Spain. While the verses are still full of arpeggios and trills, more and more often there will be a more defined Chorus melody. Listen to Canto by Vicente Amigo and El Pele. On some songs El Pele sings the most amazing vocal melismata during the verses and then several voices sing a Pop chorus with a clear melody line in harmony. That creates a fascinating hybrid between the Flamenco verses and a Pop chorus.


  1. Eno

    Well said. Very well said.

  2. Matt Callahan

    I have always favored the voice of a musical instrument over the human voice. As OL has said before, by trusting the music you can feel the story in the song. You don’t need the spoken word to tell you. In this way, the song can fit the listener. Your imagination can mold the music and make it uniquely yours without taking away from what the musician intended in the composition.

    We may have to work a little harder than those who are spoon fed lyrics until the words have no meaning but, I think our reward is a bit greater.

    A few posts ago, Ottmar stated that English was his second language. I think it’s his third. Guitar is his first language.

  3. Carol

    I think that’s beautiful, Matt. I sure agree. Words stop one’s voyage…

  4. Adam Solomon

    Just read Totton’s book (pretty interesting reference at the very least) and remembered this post, so decided to come back to it. Very, very interesting + informative breakdown (gracias!).


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