Thursday, March 29, 2012


                                        Ancient song, old tongue.


There is a style of folk music that evolved in the southern and western parts of Ireland that has certain similarities to cante jondo; the deep song of Andalusia.
This music is called the sean-nós; a highly ornamented style of unaccompanied singing that is free of rhythm and was originally sung in Gaelic.

The ornamentation of the sean-nós is identified as melismatic; which means that the note is emphasized by a group of adjoining notes or, the singing of a single syllable whilst moving between several different notes in succession.
The melismatic (melisma) style of singing has been used for centuries and ancient cultures used this technique in religious worship. In western music, the term melisma generally refers to the Gregorian chant; a ritual chanting music named after Pope Gregory I: The fabulous gypsy flamenco singer Enrique el Mellizo drew upon numerous resources for his inspirations and touches of the Gregorian chant could be found in his malagueñas and soleares.
However the term melisma may be used to describe numerous musical genres including Asian folk, Arab and Middle Eastern, Portuguese fado and flamenco. 
Sean-nós means “old style” and many traditionalists believe that no aspect of Irish music can be entirely understood without a profound appreciation of sean-nós.
Much the same may be said of flamenco; because this music is the key that opens the lock to the majority of modern Spanish music.
The sean-nós singer uses a form of nasalisation that produces a droning M or Ng sound at the end of a line or verse. This requires highly developed breath control; a technique also used in flamenco.
It is a voice with a natural fierceness where emotion is expressed from the heart and soul of the performer and the singer will also use meaningless drones or wails to prolong the length of a word.
The sean-nós tradition was exclusively oral until the end of the 18th century and different areas of Ireland had many variations of song; and as with cante jondo, singers would have had to travel from village to town to learn them[1].
The different styles of sean-nós, and the way that they are delivered, also varied from one performer to another and were once manifold, but today countless have been lost and forgotten over time.
These old songs were performed to accompany work or daily existence and expressed emotions of love, death, sadness and joy.

Today, the sean-nós have undergone as many changes as flamenco; new songs are now accompanied with an array of different musical instruments and the style of singing has become much more pleasant on the ear.
There are many singers who argue that for the sean-nós to survive, new material and influences must be added. There are others who insist that only songs sung in the pure orthodox way are worthy of consideration, and also of the name sean-nós.
Another characteristic of flamenco that is evident in sean-nós is the audience participation; the singer will be spurred on by cries of encouragement at moments of profound emotional understanding: The interaction between performer and audience is a crucial aspect of both traditions.
Comedy and poetry are also elements of sean-nòs and during a Teach an Airneáil (a rowdy party) people would congregate in the house of a certain singer: Stories would be told, songs would be sung and everyone who was present joined in one way or another.
As with the term flamenco; the phrase sean-nós is used today to describe a vast repertoire of music, much of which bears little resemblance to its original structure. The weaving of the singer’s bare, coarse voice, the bending of certain notes and the fact that it was sung free of rhythm, are all things that are also characteristic to cante jondo.
Although there are no connections between these two styles of singing, they share similarities in the way they are, or were, performed, and sadly it is a way of life that is fast disappearing from the villages of Ireland.
Although there are still a few people who continue to practice the orthodox sean-nós, unfortunately they are few and far between.[2]
Another style of folk singing that is common in Gaelic speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland is lilting, sometimes referred to as mouth music.
The lyrics to this traditional singing style are often nonsensical and the genre has often been compared to scat singing. 
Scatting is a vocal improvisation that uses meaningless syllables and wordless vocables and this style has often been said to have been the invention of Louis Armstrong.
During the recording of Heebie Jeebies in 1925, Armstrong reputedly dropped his lyric sheet, and since he could not remember the words, instantaneously, he started using gibberish intelligible words, as if to approximate an instrumental break.
However, the renowned ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton had been performing scat around 1907 and even he, who was somewhat self-seeking, attributed the invention to a Mississippi comedian named Joe Simms.
Scatting allows a jazz singer the same improvisational opportunities as the instrumentalist and it is said that Armstrong tapped into his own core of emotions when scatting; releasing sentiments so deep that they would “bypass the ear and go straight to the heart and soul of the listener”.

The rashness of jazz is the element that is most often compared to the spontaneity of flamenco.
Jazz, unlike flamenco, was originally instrumental and the spontaneity of jazz lies with the music and not the lyrics.

Even though the likes of Billie Holiday claimed to never sing a song the same way twice, they rarely change the lyrics, unless of course they were scatting.
The singer would change each performance of a song by the way they interpreted the lyrics; but what makes a singer a jazz singer?
Billie Holiday is often referred to as one of the great jazz singers of the last century but Holiday also sang blues and most often, pop or middle of the road.
Ella Fitzgerald was definitely one of the great jazz singers of the twentieth century but she too divided her career between pop and jazz.
  
A jazz singer will most often take a popular song and add improvisational ingredients such as ornamenting or adjusting the melody and altering the rhythm so that the song is not envisaged as originally intended.

A flamenco singer has to possess a certain quality in his voice, and for the deep song the voz afilla is by far the best.
The singer will need to possess the ability to adapt his personality to whatever style he is performing whilst having the ability to relay his emotions to his audience.
Improvisation plays a big part because the jondo singer will rarely sing the same words twice and each time he performs he will alter the lyrics depending on the situation.
This is most evident during a flamenco juerga when the lyrics are often invented on the spot, as is the dance, and this is one reason why flamenco appears quite obscuring to those not conversant.

The evolution of the blues does share certain similarities with that of flamenco’s advancement and the basis of this seems to stem from the fact that both are the music of the oppressed.
Flamenco and blues are manifestations of persecuted races and both genres were originally performed by everyday people whose music was simply part of their daily routines.
The blues was originally an oral verse that’s lyrics were spontaneously created and most often unaccompanied, with the exception of a rhythm beaten-out with a cane or the singer’s foot.
It is true that one does not necessarily need to speak Spanish in order to appreciate flamenco, but to those who do not have an understanding of the language, the lone voice will often appear just an unbearable mass of wailing.
However, a blues singer who performs a cappella would be easier to appreciate to an English speaker simply because they would at least know what the song was about.
This is quite often the barrier that needs breaking before the flamenco can be truly appreciated and one will begin to see that this style of music is not quite as obscure as it may have previously appeared.
The principle element that makes flamenco so atypical compared to other music is that the name does not simply refer to the music; it refers to a way of living- a tradition that is most definitely inherited from childhood and something that they need, like bread and water, simply to exist.
It is this passing from one generation to the next that makes the music so unique and even the most knowledgeable aficionado can rarely cease to be amazed at the ease at which gypsy children absorb this way of life.
It is without a doubt that if it were not for the gypsies of the small villages and towns in the lower region of Andalusia, the orthodox style of flamenco and the passionate way of life attached to it may well have become something known only to musicologists.






[1] There are four main styles of sean-nós all corresponding to the three areas where Irish is still spoken as a community language: West Munster (including parts of Cork and Kerry), East Munster (Waterford), Connacht (Connemara and Meath); and Ulster.
It would not be correct to say that sean-nós is not practiced outside of these areas, but that only these four styles can be distinguished. These differences in style generally correspond geographically to the various dialects of Irish.
With the influence of the recording media and ease of travel, these distinctions have become less definite.


[2] Sean-nós singing has made something of a comeback since the 1980s and singing competitions are held in Ireland where singing from the heart, good breathing technique and voice control are the main elements that are judged.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A new book by the English writer Tony Bryant, has been released by Flamenco sapiens, the Seville based publisher that produced the authors last book concerning the art of flamenco - Flamenco; an Englishman’s passion.
Bryant’s latest offering concerns the genealogical line of one of the biggest gypsy flamenco clans to be associated with flamenco, or in fact, any musical genre.
The author has researched and charted this family’s history from the seventeenth century until the present day and he has proved that many of the most renowned performers of flamenco are actually related via blood or marriage connections.
The author says, “Many flamencologists and aficionados are aware of the gypsy custom that all gypsies are cousins, but in the case of this family, and after nearly three years of research, I have come to the conclusion that this statement may well have some foundation”

His new book, Flamenco; a time-defying heritage, is based on the family of Fernando Peña Soto- El Pinini; a legendary singer who was born in Lebrija, Seville, in 1863, but who had spent nearly his entire life in the neighbouring town of Utrera.
The mythical El Pinini was patriarch to a family that has produced some of the most respected flamenco singers of the twentieth century.
La Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, Bambino, Miguel El Funi, Bastian Bacán or Pepa de Benito are just a mere few, but the author has also included many anonymous performers from with-in this family, whose reputations have rarely left their place of birth.
The author spent much time in Utrera and he soon made contact with some of the great-grandchildren of Pinini, and they helped him patch together the family’s immense genealogical tree; a chart that contains more than one-hundred flamenco performers, all of whom are included in the book.
Bryant said that it was necessary to understand the life style and customs of these people to truly understand the meaning of their music and “although at first I felt as though I had gate-crashed their village, I was quickly welcomed into the homes and lives of the most welcoming people of Spain; the gypsies!” The fruit of these unusual friendships are contained in this book.
The author had access to birth, baptism and death certificates as well as numerous other documents concerning this family; all of which has given him information that has never previously been published.                                                                                           
Through his friendship with members of the fourth and fifth generations of the Pinini clan, Bryant was able to witness this family’s flamenco tradition firsthand whilst also charting their family tree.

The Pinini family were extremely interested in the authors work and they all showed an appreciation because someone was taking the time to research their family and its tradition.
Luis El Marquesito; a great-grandson of El Pinini and one of today’s leading voices in this style of flamenco, endorses the book with a preface, in which he thanks the author for his relentless work concerning his family.  
El Marquesito continues to say that it gives him great satisfaction to know that his grandchildren will be able to go to the library to read about their family.

The book contains the author’s opinions and knowledge, which has been based on extensive research and a relentless investigation of one of the biggest and most illustrious families in flamenco history.  
The author explains the complicated matter of the Spanish family name tradition and even gives a glossary of Spanish terms for family members.
This book is an excellent follow-up to his last book and it will be an informative read for anyone interested in flamenco, or indeed in Andalucia.

Flamenco; a time defying heritage is as much about the andalucian gypsies as it is about flamenco; it concerns their way of living, their customs, and of course, their music.