Musicians new to flamenco rhythm sometimes have a hard time wrapping their heads around the odd time signatures that characterize many flamenco palos. Buleria, solea, siguriya, and alegria, for instance, are all based on a repeating 6/8 | 3/4 pattern, but each palo is phrased and counted differently. One of the best ways to understand and learn to hear (let alone play) these nuances is to listen to as much good flamenco as you can.

Just like with any specialized art form, once you have a basic sense of flamenco’s foundations, it’s easier to explore the details. Unless you’re surrounded by an active flamenco community, however, it can be tricky to pick out new acquisitions. A lot of what is promoted as “flamenco” in mainstream music channels tends to be of the “nouveau flamenco” genre. This is great if you’re into rumba, but can leave you short on other styles.

You may already be familiar with some of the big names in a the more “traditional” flamenco vein: Paco de Lucia, of course, Tomatito, and Vicente Amigo all come to mind. The problem for a new guitarist, though, is that 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 compas, 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 compas, the syncopation and creativity is absolutely mind blowing. This kind of material can, however, be hard to learn the basics from.

With this goal of “getting a sense of the basic forms” in mind, here’s a short list of some discs and performers I’ve found helpful for wrapping one’s head around flamenco rhythm, timing, and structure.

The Classics

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 necessarily want to emulate them.

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. 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. Series editor Mario Bois’s descriptions are also very good. There is nothing technical in them, but if you need help opening your western ears to the roots of flamenco, Bois’s notes are a good start.

Ramon Montoya compact disc Nino de Ricardo compact disc Sabicas compact disc

Contemporary Guitarists

As I mention above, this is a list of recordings of contemporary guitarists who I have found to be particularly clear in terms of compas. 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 compas moves.

Pepe Habichela: Habichuela en Rama

compact disc Pepe Habichela’s Habichuela En Rama tops my list because his playing so distinctly transmits the flamenco compas 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

compact disc 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 compas that animates it). Sombras is also a very good disc (for all of the same reasons).

Moraito: Morao y Oro

compact disc Moraito is perhaps better known as an accompanist, but his solo playing is definitely worth checking out. Morao y Oro is a great example of Moraito’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 compas. Morao Morao is also an excellent disc (it seems that Morao y Oro may be hard to find these days).

Paco de Lucia: Fuente y Caudal

compact disc Of all the amazing discs Paco has released, I’ve chosen this one (from 1973) for this list because it represents to my ear 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 compas 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

compact disc This disc is perhaps the most “modern” sounding of this list. As such, those new to flamenco might find the compas 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.

Cante Accompaniment

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, but let’s face it: for many people who play flamenco casually and for their own personal edification, cante accompaniment may not be a high priority.

If you are in a position where you need to accompany cante, good for you – it can be a 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. Here are some good places to start.

Camarón: Rosa Maria (with Paco de Lucía on guitar)

compact disc 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)

compact disc 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

compact disc 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 compas is also admirably clear.

Jose Mercé: Aire

compact disc Jose Mercé (with Moraito on guitar) offers another fine example of the state of contemporary cante and accompaniment. As with the other discs presented here, I’ve chosen this particular disc because it make the compas a bit easier for a novice to track. Don’t let this criteria mislead you, this album is also excellent by any standard.

Everything Else (and More)

There’s no way, of course, that a short list like this can be anywhere near comprehensive. There is a ton of other great flamenco music out there – and more coming out every day. Do you have a favorite artist or album that’s not on this list – or something new you’re excited about? If so, please do share below!