Listening for Compás
A reader writes: "I read your ‘tips for beginners’ and I noticed ‘Listen to Flamenco all the Time.’ Just wondering if you have any recommendations for a beginner who is completely alien to the 12 beat compás. Ideally something that’ll help me learn about the different rhythms."
This is a great question for all sorts of reasons—not least of which being that it reminds me of my own state of perplexitude about what to listen to when I started getting into flamenco. The best answer, of course, is to listen to what you enjoy. If you’re at all like I was then, though, you probably have a disc or two that you love, but as far as new acquisitions go, you’re stuck between mainstream "nouveau flamenco" and a whole lot of names you don’t recognize. As I found, unless you have a more experienced mentor willing to help you out, it can definitely be hard to home in on good music that makes it easy to understand compás.
That said, some big names do stick out: Paco de Lucia, of course, Tomatito, Vicente Amigo. The problem for a new guitarist is this: much of the more recent Paco, Tomatito, and Vicente material is so subtle and syncopated that it’s hard to reconcile with the concept of the 12 count compás, or a standard Tangos rhythm, or the clear segments of Sevillana. Don’t get me wrong: I love listening to this stuff. And once you initially get your head around compás, the syncopation and creativity is absolutely mind blowing. But it’s hard to learn with.
So. What to do. Well, you can try discs on chance, though this can be hit or miss (and expensive). Or you can ask fellow flamencos for recommendations—which is exactly what the reader who inspired this article has done. As is my want, I’m happy to respond, but, as is also my want, there will be qualifications and asides aplenty.
And here’s the first aside: what follows is a necessarily subjective set of lists—I’ll certainly recommend the discs that I personally like and find useful. If you like the kind of music and thinking that is represented elsewhere on this site, these choices will probably agree with you. If you don’t like what else you see here … well, what do you expect?
Now, that caveat made, here’s what you’ll find in what follows:
- A Look at "The Classics"
- A Short List of Contemporary Guitarists’ Discs
- A Short List of Cante Accompaniment Discs (with an explanation of why this should be important to you)
- A Short List of Where to Find Flamenco Discs.
At a certain point it falls little short of negligence not to be familiar with the "classic" flamenco players of the twentieth century. Ramón Montoya, Niño Ricardo, and Sabicas are the biggest names in this category. The way I look at it, you should know these guys and be familiar with their music. Unless, however, you’ve made a personal choice to be a "muy antiguo" style player (which is how a guitar-maker in Granada put it to me a few years ago), you may not want to emulate them. (Another way I’ve heard "professional" guitarists label this style of playing is "funky"—and they don’t mean it in a good way.)
That said, there are a number of contemporary players that play in a very "mid-century" style that make beautiful music. Very early Paco de Lucia, for example, still owes a lot to Sabicas. Pepe Romero and Paco Peña also have a more "classic flamenco" style. Russian virtuoso Grisha Goryachev plays beautifully in a way that owes a lot to early flamencos and is light years ahead of many contemporary players in terms of musicality. If you’re just getting into flamenco you should know that this is more of a "period" style than a reflection of what "modern" flamenco is up to at present, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying it.
And where do you turn for a dose of "early flamenco education"? I personally am a big fan of the Chant du Monde CD series for all three of these guitar icons. These discs give you a representative and well produced selection of each artist’s style and repertoire. In looking over the Chant du Monde liner notes for this article, I am also reminded of the lyrical beauty of Mario Bois’s descriptions (in French, English, and Spanish). There is nothing technical here, but if you need help opening your western ears to the roots of flamenco, Bois’s notes are a good start.
Because the stock of online retailers changes depending on availability, I’m not providing links here to where to buy any discs in particular. At the end of this article, however, I will give links to sites where you can reliably find most (if not all) of these recordings in one stop.
As I mention above, this is a list of recordings of contemporary guitarists who I have found to be particularly clear in terms of compás. Are they "the best" or "my favorites"? No—although I do enjoy them all. They do, however—to my ear at least—make it easy to hear how flamenco compás moves.
Pepe Habichela: Habichuela en Rama
Pepe Habichela’s Habichuela En Rama tops my list because his playing so distinctly transmits the flamenco compás but is at the same time all his own style. Whereas a lot of players "modernize" their flamenco playing with jazz influences, I don’t here that in Habichuela’s playing on this disc. For me the contemporary flavor of his playing comes more from his touch and rhythmic nuance than from exotic chord voicings. Habichuela’s A Mandeli is also well worth checking out.
Pedro Soler: Luna Negra
Soler’s style is in a more traditional vein than Habichuela’s and has a quality that I can only describe as "raw": you get the feeling that he’s there in the room playing for you. Though Soler has accompanied extensively, Luna Negra is entirely solo guitar—no back-up singers, no second guitars, no percussion. This makes it a great disc for listening to the "voice" of the flamenco guitar (and, of course, the underlying compás that animates it). Sombras is also a very good disc (for all of the same reasons).
Moraîto: Morao y Oro
Moraîto is perhaps better known as an accompanist, but his solo playing is definitely worth checking out. Morao y Oro is a great example of Moraîto’s distinct style and, as with the other discs on this list, gives a clear sense of how more modern playing fits in with traditional flamenco compás. Morao Morao is also an excellent disc (it seems that Morao y Oro might be hard to find these days).
Paco de Lucia: Fuente y Caudal
Of all the amazing discs Paco has released, I’ve chosen this one (from 1973) for this list because it represents (to my ear, anyway) a midway point between the more traditional style of playing on La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucia (1967) and his very modern style playing on more recent albums, such as Cositas Buenas (2004). As always, Paco’s compás is abundantly clear; the advantage of this disc for novices is that the playing makes it easier to hear how the music fits into flamenco’s basic rhythmic patterns.
Tomatito: Rosas del Amor
This disc is perhaps the most "modern" sounding of this list. As such, those new to flamenco might find the compás a bit harder to track. Compared to the very modern playing of many of Tomatito’s other solo discs (to say nothing of Paco’s later catalogue—or Vicente Amigo’s playing), however, this disc should make a good initiation to more syncopated and boundary-pushing styles.
As above, you can generally find these discs at the sites I list below. Incidentally, this list is, according to my ear, in the order of "most- compás-friendly."
If you’ve spent much time hanging around flamencos or flamenco sites, you’ve no doubt heard (or read) volumes on the importance of knowing how to accompany cante (flamenco singing). I won’t take issue with this here (after all—who am I?), but let’s face it: for many people who play flamenco casually and for their own personal edification (and why not?), what are the chances that you will be accompanying a singer any time soon?
If you are in a position where you need to accompany cante, good for you—it is a very fulfilling pursuit. If you’re not in this position, though (and even never hope to be), there is still a strong case to be made for learning how to listen to cante and cante accompaniment. The case is this: cante is the root form of flamenco, the "source," if you will. Even if you don’t ever plan to support a singer, having an idea of how flamenco song is structured will help you make sense of how solo flamenco guitar is structured. With that, I give you list number three.
Camarón: Rosa Maria (with Paco de Lucía on guitar)
For those of you really new to flamenco, Camarón is the flamenco singer—sort of like what Elvis is to Rock n’ Roll (minus the sequins). It is true that flamenco cante is an acquired taste. If you don’t "get it" right away, don’t worry too much about it. Listen to what you enjoy and come back to it later. It may take a while, but eventually it does make sense and an appreciation will sink in.
Camarón: Paris 1987 (with Tomatito on guitar)
On both the Paco and Tomatito accompanied Camarón discs above, you will also pick up on falsetas that come up later in each of these guitarists’ solo playing. It’s interesting to hear these themes in different contexts—it gives you a sense for how solo flamenco guitar is related to accompaniment and how the two evolve in tandem.
Jose Serrano & Antonio El Agujetas: Two Cries for Freedom
The Jose Serrano & Antonio El Agujetas disc is an interesting case: these two singers had been serving prison time for violent crimes and were recorded as part of a project to draw attention to the disproportionate number of gypsies behind bars. Their singing is raw and passionate. Unfortunately, I don’t know who the guitar players are. The accompaniment they provide, however, is a good example of what "typical" contemporary accompaniment sounds like: it is energetic and "correct" in every way, but not "flashy" in the way that Tomatito’s or Vicente’s accompaniment can be. The compás is also admirably clear.
Esperanza Fernandez: Recuerdos and Jose Mercé: Aire
The final two discs by Esperanza Fernandez (Paco Fernández, Miguel Ángel Cortés, José Antonio Rodríguez on guitar) and Jose Mercé (Moraîto on guitar) are good examples of the state of contemporary cante and accompaniment. As with the other discs presented here, I’ve chosen these two because they make the compás a bit easier for a novice to track than other equally good disks. Don’t let this criteria mislead you, though—these are both excellent albums by any standard.
So. I’ve given you my recommendations (idiosyncratic though they are). Now where do you find these gems? If you’re shopping in Spain, you won’t need my help. If you’re not so lucky, however, the internet gives some good options. Here’s a list of a few sites I’ve found to be good flamenco sources. If you know of any others—please do list them in the comments below.
This last site is the French Amazon. Yes, it’s in French, but they do have a better flamenco selection than Amazon.com. As I write this there’s no Amazon.es yet (though do check for updates – it’s inevitable, right?).
So there you have it. And here you have my last caveat: let’s be clear that this article is a reflection of both my own taste and of what’s in my personal flamenco collection. Since I’m often asked this kind of question, here’s an answer. It’s not the only one—or the best one—but it’s an answer. Something to add? By all means—comment away!