Guitar legend Sabicas is said to have once quipped that before even thinking about playing solo, the guitarist must first accompany singers for twenty years, then accompany dancers for another twenty years. Fortunately for most us, this appears to be an exaggeration – not even Sabicas himself followed this regimen.
Benefits of Accompaniment
Exaggeration or no, there is a kernel of good advice in Sabicas’s 20/20 advice to guitarists. Accompanying flamenco dancers and singers, in addition to being very enjoyable in itself, carries a number of benefits for the flamenco guitarist. Learning to accompany can:
- help you to meet and share ideas with other players
- give you a chance to work through the deeper structures and movements of flamenco as a whole
- force you out of the habits (often developed while practicing alone) that lead to plateaus and sticking points in your playing
Oh, and accompanying can also be a lot of fun.
Depending on where you live, dancers may be easier of more difficult to find. Fortunately, flamenco dance has become increasingly popular worldwide in recent years: dance instruction outside of Spain is perhaps more widespread now than ever before. Dancers often may not, however, have the opportunity to play with live musicians; when available, live accompaniment may be quite welcome.
In order to find dancers in your area, check the internet or local papers for a peña (a flamenco club) near you. A peña can also be a good place to find out who teaches lessons and when and where they are held. While you won’t want to drop in uninvited, getting in contact with one of these instructors may lead to an invitation to “sit in.”
You should also check out community centers and colleges for classes. Again, you can contact class organizers and let them know you’re interested in accompanying dance. Flamenco dance classes may not be offered every quarter, so if your first search turns up nothing, be sure to check back again in a few months.
If the peñas or classes in your area are already working with a guitarist, you should check to see if that guitarist teaches lessons. In addition to the innumerable benefits of studying with an experienced accompanist, lessons can be a valuable networking resource.
How to Prepare
When you find fellow flamencos to approach about accompaniment, whether they’re beginning dancers or dance instructors, be sure to be courteous and considerate. A professional attitude will show that you’re not merely going to freeload and/or waste their time – this is, unfortunately, not uncommon!
The best way you can show that professionalism is to be prepared: your dancer will want to know what palos (flamenco dance forms) you can play, how steady your compás (the basic, all important rhythm that runs through most flamenco music) is, and if you’ve accompanied before. Working with a musician can be very rewarding for a dancer, but if that musician doesn’t know accompaniment basics or is constantly fuera de compás (“out of compas” – the cardinal sin of flamenco), the experience will be frustrating for everyone.
Primary Palos (Song Forms)
Although dancers will often have favorite dances they like to perform, contemporary flamenco baile (dance) has a few staple palos you can count on running into. Each of these has a distinct compas. As a first order of business in accompaniment, you should be sure you’re comfortable with the compas and basic rhythmic structures of:
In general, solo pieces may be a good place to find embellishment and falsetas for accompaniment, but it is essential to start with a foundation of compas and rhythm. Dance accompaniment does not generally require superhuman feats of technical wizardry. Whether you can play basic rhythm in compas matters much more than how many notes you can cram into 12 bars.
In order to further expand your repertoire you might add fandangos de huelva, farruca, siguiriyas, and taranto. Dancers may also ask you to learn less common palos (for example caña, miribrás, or bamberas), but often these forms are variations of the palos listed above. In any case, most dancers will not hold it against you if you don’t have less common forms at your fingertips.
The sevillana form is a great starting point from which to approach dance accompaniment. It has a standard structure, offers a wide variety of musical expression, and is often the first palo dancers learn. Learn to play and accompany sevillana in the next article in this series: Sevillana Accompaniment.