The diversity of flamenco styles is absolutely phenomenal. Every style is called palo and represents a different traditional flamenco variety. To give you an idea of how wide flamenco can be, there are more than 50 palos which, in turn, can have many variations!
Usually, palos have a regional origin within Andalucía, the area in which flamenco was born. It is said that flamenco was initially performed in cafés cantantes, mainly in Seville, Jerez and Cádiz. From there, flamenco art became so popular that it spread out to the rest of the region.
What is a palo exactly?
In Spanish, palo has different meanings such as “pole”, “bar”, “stick” or “branch”. So, in flamenco, the different palos are explained as the branches of a tree.
But it also means “suit” (as the several categories in which a deck of cards is divided). Therefore, in this case, palo is also a metaphor of “category”.
As a matter of fact a palo is defined by its basic rhythmic pattern (compás), its musical tonalities, its recurring figures (known as motif), and its lyrics. It covers both the musical and cultural aspect of a flamenco style.
When referring to cultural and musical context, it means that each one is characterized by
- Its mood. This is the most important identity sign as flamenco music and songs are always related to a state of mind (sadness, joy, loneliness, melancholy, etc.).
- The cultural traditions related to it. These traditions can by expressed through a dance style, or the lyrics meaning for instance.
- Its relation to other palos.
Flamenco styles classification
As I mentioned in the introduction, flamenco can be expressed by singing, dancing and playing an instrument (guitar, cajón or by clapping hands). The cantaor (or cantaora) leads the performance and the rest of the cuadro will follow his (or her) inspiration. Bear in mind that flamenco is an emotional art form and relies on improvisation.
Because of its wide diversity, palos are not easily classified. Some experts order them according to the rhythm, others by geographical origin. There is no objective way to do it and classifications aren’t rigorous at all.
However, it is generally accepted that every palo fits into one of these flamenco styles:
- Cante Jondo. It’s the deepest and most serious palo, and it’s usually considered the origin of flamenco. It’s a complex song style that travels in heavy emotional territory (e.g. death, despair, doubt, anguish).
- Cante Chico. It’s the simplest of the three styles. It typically has a quick, frivolous and light rhythm and conveys amusement, fun, love, humor, and the countryside.
- Cante Intermedio. Every palo that can’t be included into one of the previous categories belongs to the Cante Intermedio. It’s usually more lively and is often accompanied by guitars, castanets, and hand clapping. It may also incorporate elements of other Spanish music styles.
The most important flamenco styles
According to the experts, Among the variety of flamenco palos the most important are:
- Fandango is a popular dance, where a couple expresses its courtship. The dance is accompanied by guitars and castañuelas or hand clapping.
- Seguiriya (or siguiriya, derives from seguidilla, from the verb seguir, to follow). It’s one of the most important and deepest palos. It’s an incredibly sober dance, with slow movements and rhythm. Its fundamental step consists in a rhythmic walk based on dry, sonorous and cut hits, with the dancer making a movement of forward and backward movement in the same space. The songs are generally dark and dramatic and the lyrics refer to suffering in human relationships, love and death.
- Soleá. It’s one of simplest flamenco styles, accompanied by a guitar. It’s also one of the most performed dances by artists and because of its type of movements it’s better suited to women to dance it. The bailaora dances the lyrics that the singer improvises. Then, she performs a foot brush (zapateado) and usually finishes with some bulerías. The songs are solemn, painful and incredible sad.
- Toná (derives from tonada, tune). It belongs to a category called cantes a palo seco, which are palos sung a cappella (no music involved).
All of them are part of the Cante Jondo and they constitute the basic compás for almost the rest of the palos.
Other popular flamenco styles
In addition to these, here are some other palos very popular in Spain as well.
- Alegría, originating in Cádiz, is the oldest flamenco dance, which is characterized by the musicality of the guitar tones. In fact, its’ the most strictly structured of the flamenco palos. So much so, that much of the rest of the flamenco styles take as a basis the joys to compose their choreography. A salida (entrance), paseo (walkaround), silencio (silence), castellana (upbeat section), and zapateado (foot tap on the floor) are all followed in a strict order and often finished off with a bulería.
- Bulería is a festive singing style and it’s used as the culmination of other dances (such as a soleá or an alegría). It’s the most cheerful and fun of all the dances and is distinguished by its fast pace, undoubtedly, made to dance. Thanks to their energetic compás, buleriás are common at the end of a performance when dancers stand in a semicircle with each of them taking it in turns to dance to a part of the music.
- Farruca is a flamenco style originating in Galicia that is extremely difficult and demands a high level of execution. It’s more a male dance than a female one, to the point that when a woman interprets it, she dances it with pants to help her highlight the characteristic zapateado, accompanied by whistles.
- Sevillanas is without a doubt the least flamenco style as it’s halfway between flamenco and other popular Andalusian folkloric dancing. However, it’s by far the best known and the one that most people dance at ferias throughout Spain, especially in Andalucía. It’s composed of four sevillanas with their lyrics, which always have the same duration and the same dance structure. People normally start with sevillanas when learning to dance flamenco as it is not as challenging as other styles and there are many more opportunities to practice.
- Tangos. Not to be confused with Argentinian tangos, flamenco tangos are one of the most traditional palos. With a huge amount of variations, tangos are some of the most lively, festive and danceable palos, often characterized by clear and heavy guitar strumming, allowing dancers to express themselves to a metered rhythm. There are a thousand varieties of tangos and they can be interpreted with movements of great brilliance and expressiveness.
This article is part of a complete tutorial about flamenco in Spain where you can read all the information you need to enjoy this typical Andalusian folklore.
Here is a complete summary of all the guide:
1. What is flamenco?
2. Where to see flamenco in Spain?
3. The best flamenco show in Spain
4. How to enjoy flamenco dancing in Spain
5. Where to take flamenco dance classes in Spain
6. Flamenco history and origins
7. Understanding flamenco singing (cante)
8. Understanding flamenco dance (baile)
9. Understanding flamenco guitar (toque)
10. The different flamenco styles
11. A flamenco glossary