The word alegrias is commonly translated as “happiness” or “merriment” and, as you might expect, it is typically played at an upbeat tempo and in a major key (usually A or E). As with the previous article in this series on Sevillanas, the goal of this article is both to help you understand the overall structure of alegrias and to help you learn how to tailor it to the needs of your playing situation. While the alegrias does not have a rigid structural formula like the sevillana, it does have relatively distinct “song parts” which, in more traditional arrangements, are often assembled in a predictable order.
Some of the more common flamenco texts—those by Don Pohren and Robin Totten, for example—argue that alegrias is usually played in A and that an alegrias played in E is properly called alegrias por rosas. In listening and watching performances, and playing accompaniment myself, however, I have found that alegrias in E major is, for dance accompaniment anyway, at least as common as its A major cousin. One reason for this is likely the more easily exploited range opened up by making E major the “home chord.” In any case, once you start moving the capo around and using different chord forms, for example playing your E major at the seventh fret in “C” form, or in the “A” form, the absolute pitch key becomes less and less important.
The explanations and examples given here are concieved with dance accompaniment in mind, but many of the same principles apply to solo instrumental arrangements as well. If you’re looking for a way to get beyond just playing "what’s on the page," this is a good place to start. In developing this article and its accompanying score, I have used as source recordings Camarón and Tomatito’s “Tus Ojillos Negros” (Paris 1987), Grupo de José Galván’s “Alegrias” (Solo Compás, Alegrías II y Cantiñas), and Chicuelo’s “Dulce Sal” (Complíces).
The examples that follow are for a traditional alegrias in E major.
Download the PDF of the full arrangement.
Structure and Compás
The basic structure of alegrias por baile (“for dance”) can be schematized like this: This order draws on the Grupo de José Galván Solo Compás alegrias, on my own experience playing alegrais for Rubina Carmona’s dance classes and for La Peña Flamenca de Seattle, and from Chuck Keyser’s “Flamenco Forms” webpage. Other sources will describe alegrias differently—there are lots of possible ways to conceptualize it—this is just the breakdown I feel works best with the examples I’m providing.
- Copla (verse) & Falseta (guitar melody)
Though this is a common order for alegrias, these sections can be rearranged, doubled, or eliminated altogether. The compás of alegrias is based in 12s and, like soleá, is accented on the 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12 beats. It can be counted like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. The examples given here (and in the PDF transcription) are blocked out in 12 beat phrases, starting on 12:
Many well intentioned sources give the structure and compás of alegrias and seem to assume that that’s enough. In order to make your own musical interpretations build and move purposefully, however, it helps to get a sense of how these pieces fit together—and how, exactly, to play them. What follows is a detailed description of each of these sections, with musical examples, that will address both the whys and the hows of alegrias. In some cases I have included illustrations directly in the text, but remember that all of these examples are drawn directly from the PDF. The letters next to the section subheadings correspond to the rehearsal letters in the PDF score.
Guitar Intro (A)
In this case I’ve chosen a falseta, this one based on the falseta Tomatito plays for Camarón on the Paris 1987 album. You could also play a traditional four compás “marking” progression that moves through the basic alegrias chords (as we’ll see an example of this progression later in the footwork rehearsal letter “L”), or begin your alegrias with the temple (as we’ll see next!).
The temple is traditionally the cante (singing) intro, usually a melodic string of nonsense syllables, most commonly “Tirititrán tran tran.” In this arrangement the temple section is four compáses of alegria rhythmic marking with some melodic variations. For an instrumental or accompaniment arrangement, this temple could also serve as an introduction. The first line of the temple provides an example of the basic alegrias compás rhythm:
Llamada literally means “call” and it is the signal to the singer, dancer, or guitarist to take the lead. In this case, since there is no cante (singing), the guitarist is “calling” him- or herself. Though this is not always necessary for a choreographed piece, in this example it helps the musicians and dancers keep track of where they are in the arrangement by clearly defining and delimiting the different sections of the alegrias. In this arrangement, llamadas also help to keep the different sections from running into each other; they allow the piece “room to breathe.” In this sense, some of what I’ve labeled “llamada” here might be more properly termed “entre-copla” or “marking” compáses; for simplicity’s sake, however, I’ll risk the misnomer.
Coplas & Falseta
The copla is the “verse” of the alegria. Even though there is no cante in this particular arrangement, we can still use the copla chord progression to give the alegrias some substance and a sense of movement. The copla gets us away from simply alternating between the E and B7 chords. This first copla moves through the base alegrias chords (E, B7, A) and is played to a traditional alegrias rhythm, echoing the rhythm used in the intro falseta. In the second copla we’ll see some rhythmic and chord variations that can be used to make this basic pattern more interesting.
As discussed in “C” above, the llamada here is more of an articulation from one section to another than a “call” properly speaking. When used as a transition in this way, the llamada still ends on the ten count—and still closes the musical phrase—but it also leads into the next section. More open, legato, rhythm playing (versus abrupt contratiempo) will help to achieve this effect.
This falseta is based on a passage Chicuelo plays in “Dulce Sal.” The main part (or theme) of the falseta is four compáses long and is followed by a two compás remate (“remate”comes from the verb “rematar,” “to finish (something)”; in this case it’s the tying off or finishing of the falseta). Again, the opening rhythm of the falseta echos the traditional alegrias rhythm we’ve used in the introduction and first copla.
Llamada (G) (cf. “E” above)
Second Copla (H)
This copla follows the same basic structure as the first copla, but introduces three new elements to give the progression we started with above a whole different feel:
Syncopation: Instead of accenting the 12, 3, 6, 8, and 10 beats, here we can play around those beats in order to. When syncopation is done well, it highlights the underlying compás and in a way provides a new “point of view” on it. In order to pull this off, however, you must, as a guitarist, always know where the compás is—and where you are in it. You should be able to tap out the compás with your foot while playing a syncopated passage.
Alternate chord positions: The first and second compáses of this copla are both hanging out on the E major chord, but the chords are played in different positions, which gives them a different feel. During the first compás, the open position E major is played, but only on the three highest strings. For the second compás, the E moves up to the seventh fret, here played in the “C form” (i.e. the form you would use if you were playing an open C major chord). You can also play the E major in an “A form” at the seventh fret—or in the “D form” at the ninth fret, or the “G form” at the twelfth (which is, however, pretty hard to grab!). By moving your chord positions around, you not only get different “sounding” chords, but you’re also presented with different ways to ornament them by grabbing the notes that the various forms put in reach.
Passing chords: When moving from the second to the third compás in this copla, we “pass” through a C#7 (beat 3, bar 103) and an F#m7 (bars 104 and 105) in order to get to the B7. E major to B7 is still the base progression, but the passing chords give that simple movement more “color.” Passing chords are typically (though not always) the “seven” chord one string lower (an inverted fourth) than the chord at which you eventually want to arrive. When to use passing chords—and how long to stay on them—is largely a matter of taste. Too many passing chords and the underlying chord structure starts to get lost; not enough and you find yourself repeating the same three chords over and over. Experiment to find out what works best for your particular style.
Llamada (I) (cf. “E” above)
“Subir” means literally “to rise” or “to wind up.” In the subida, the dancer will build his or her footwork both in intensity and in tempo. For the guitarist, the subida generally starts at or slightly below the main tempo of the piece and begins relatively softly. As it progresses, it gets faster and louder.
The desplante marks a break in the dance, generally at the high point or climax (though not necessarily the end) of a footwork section. The dancer will signal the desplante by raising his or her arms and taking a step or two backwards. While the standard alegrias chords and compás will work with the desplante, a more dramatic (and traditional) accompaniment is given here. These chords pass through the A, breaking up the regular chord sequence, and accent the 7, 9, and 11 (i.e. play in contratiempo) during the first compás. The chords and compás resolve as the dancer finishes his or her desplante, and the toque (guitar playing) returns to the base compás.
Here the toque marks four compáses of the basic alegrias progression while the dancer performs his or her footwork. As with much of alegrias this section can be stretched or compressed depending on what your dancer has in store. As mentioned above (cf. “A”), this progression could also be used to introduce your alegrias.
The cierre is the close of a section of song or dance. The cierre shown here has more of a “modern” feel and is the variety used in the Grupo de José Galván alegrias. The first compás plays like a llamada, but the second compás is more heavily syncopated and moves to the E major sooner, closing definitively on the ten count. (We’ll see a more traditional cierre following the castellana at rehearsal letter “R”.)
Silencio (sencillo) (N)
Sencillo means “single” and refers to the most common form of silenciowhich spans six compáses. Silencio, of course, translates as “silence,” though rest assured—we’re not talking about total silence here, but rather the silence of the singer. In fact, the silencio is typically a place where the spotlight (so to speak) is on the toque.
The silencio sencillo is traditionally played much slower than the rest of the alegrias and in a minor key, as is transcribed here. The silencio I’ve arranged for this score is adapted from the Grupo de José Galván alegrias and, again, has a more “modern” feel:
Many silencios resolve after six compáses, upon which the guitarist moves on to the next section in his or her alegrias. The traditional silencio can, however, be extended another four compáses by the doble.
Silencio (doble) (O)
The doble is even less common than the silencio sencillo, but is a good way to add more texture and variety to your alegrias. The doble I’ve transcribed here is mostly arpeggio, but the doble can easily include more picado passages or chord variations. The traditional doble is four compáses long and is played in the same major key as the rest of the alegrias.
Notice that the last compás of the doble accelerates in order to bring the tempo back up to alegrias speed by the end of the silencio. Another alternative is to use the next section (a llamada, for example) to pick up the pace.
Llamada (P) (cf. “E” above)
Paseo Castellano (Q)
The Castellana is, again, a section that some say is becoming extinct, but, as with the silencio, it still hangs on in some circles (and in Solo Compás recordings). As you’ll notice in the score, the guitar part for the castellana is not much different than the standard alegrias toque, such as you would play for footwork. What sets the castellana off from other sections is primarily the cante (singing) and baile (i.e. the way it is danced—paso is a step or a series of steps).
The cierre given here is of the more traditional variety. I’ve placed this cierre here because the castellana is a more “traditional” element of alegrias, though this cierre and the cierre above (cf. rehearsal letter “M”) are interchangeable.
Escobilla literally means “broom.” The section takes its name from the brushing/shuffling step dancers use at times during the escobilla. This section, like the subida, often begins slowly and accelerates as the footwork builds. While escobilla toque, like much of the alegrias, is open to interpretation, the arpeggiated forms of E major and B7 are the most common accompaniment. Even given this minor constraint, however, the escobilla still offers lots of room for interpretation and embellishment. Each escobilla phrase is typically two compáses long:
Following this initial phrase are four examples of different ways the escobilla can be played, all of which might be played in turn in any given section of footwork. An escobilla section may be much longer than is written here. Likewise, sections of escobilla may be punctuated by llamadas or interspersed in other sections.
Llamada (or Ida) (T)
In the example given here, the escobilla is tied off with a llamada before the song transitions into bulerías. In very old styles of alegrias, this is where the ida would go. I feel secure in saying, however, that this is one part of alegrias that is resting cozily in permanent retirement.
Buleria de Cadíz (U)
Like many flamenco forms, the alegrias often ends by shifting to a “lighter” song form, in this case buleria de Cadíz. Buleria de Cadíz is, of course, played to the same compás as any other buleria, but the chords are in the key of E major. As you transition to buleria you will want to both increase your tempo and change the aire of your playing. Even though you’re still moving (with passing chords) between E major and B7, whereas in alegrias the chord change typically happens on count ten of the compás, in buleria the chords typically change on the twelve count. Cierre (or desplante) (V) The final cierre transcribed here is another more “modern” innovation to alegrias (borrowed from the Solo Compás track). One could also (and equally as well) make the final close with a desplante or either cierre shown above.
Interpretation and Solo Guitar
As I stated at the beginning of this article, a good alegrias accompaniment may contain all or only a few of these elements, either in this order or in some other order that makes better sense to the dancers and musicians involved. The important part, of course, is that there is some sense to the arrangement, that it builds meaningfully in some way, and that musicians and dancers are able to use the form to “say something.”
Basically, the goal is to get away from simply playing notes or falsetas and instead play the form. This is why learning how to accompany other flamencos is important to learning to play solo flamenco guitar: flamenco is by nature an ensemble art form; an accomplished flamenco guitar player will be able to evoke flamenco cante and baile, even when there are no singers or dancers present. This intuition—along with staying in compás, of course—is a key element in the difference between playing nice music inspired by flamenco and actually playing flamenco.
In the next part of this series on dance accompaniment, we’ll explore the soleá. Soleá is considered by many to be the "mother of all flamenco forms." Although it is much less structured than either sevillanas or alegiras, soleá is also made up of particular forms and structures which, once understood, offer unique opportunities for creativity and individual expression.