Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Rhythms (Compas)

Flamenco Song Forms – The Tientos

A correspondent asks about the flamenco form called the tientos.

I tend to think of the singers Rafael Romero and Jacinto Almaden for tientos, a form which seems quite  serious (sometimes deadly serious) but doesn’t seem “jondo” or deep.  That’s not just because I reserve the term i for the big 3 — the siguiriyas, solea and the unaccompanied tonas/martinetes  group — but t because tientos and other serious cantes don’t seem to have the same approach or the same aesthetic objective.  For me, even the best tientos (or peteneras, or cana, or serrana) just sort of lies there — it may be done well, or badly, or brilliantly, but it doesn’t have the potential to reveal vast layers of deep meaning to me.  I wish I appreciated those forms more.

It’s also worth noting that while there may be several sort-of-different melodic approaches choose from in the tientos, it seems there’s really only one tientos; of course, this is quite different from the case of siguiriyas and solea, which have literally dozens of different manifestations, often bearing the names of individuals or places.  (The tonas/martinetes may have had many distinct variants as well, though most have been lost.)

The big 1988 Cinterco Diccionario Enciclopedico Ilustrado de Flamenco says the tiento (it insists on the singular, though it says it’s a plural noun) “is a song with three or four 8-syllable lines, usually followed by one or several 3-line estribillos, whose measure is uniform.  It’s a recent song, dating from the beginning of this century — derived from the earlier tango, which has the same compas, though the tientos is slower, more solemn and complex.

It was in Cadiz where it began to be called the “tango tiento”, which means “tango lento” (slow tango); later, in Seville, this term was forgotten, so only the adjective “tiento” remained and the form became a new cante in itself, due to the further slowing of its pace, and evidencing a certain influence from matrixes (matices) of the siguirya and the solea.  It’s a danceable cante, with verses that are customarily sentimental (patetica) and sententious.

As a dance, some say it was created by Joaquin El Feo.  It is majestic, sober and dramatic, with a decidedly ritual air.  Oral tradition says the singer El Marrurro was one of the first to cut the tientos to this style, after which El Mellizo fixed it in its present form.  Molina and Mairena write: “It was Enrique el Mellizo who aggrandized the tango until it became the tientos.  Quinones seconds this, and agrees that (the incomparable Gypsy singer) Manuel Torre was the first “divulgador” (to give it a public profile), since he was billed in his 1902 presentation in Seville as a singer of tangos (i.e., tientos).

But José Blas Vega (one of the dictionary’s two authors) affirms that its first popularizer (difusor) was don Antonio Chacón, writing: ‘The tango-tiento de Cadiz, of El Mellizo, is the musical “equilibrio” from which Chacón pulled forth the tientos; he knew the Cadiz school of song, and brought to it his great creative and musical sense, so the tientos of Chacón are impregnated with enormous melodic value.  Chacón may also have heard tientos in Jerez, by Marrurro, whom he knew and admired in his youth.  Those tientos, of Marrurro, have been lost, though the guitarist and cante expert Perico del Lunar referred to them.

The first reference to tientos appears in 1901, but the name didn’t gain currency until years later.  And although Chacón in his recording of 1909 and 1913 kept using the name tangos, he is credited with spreading the name tientos simply because the public, and aficionados and artists, identified the new modality of tangos lentos or tientos with the style that Chacón – not Manuel Torre and not Pastora Pavón — gave to it in recasting it.  Later, there were written references like this one from 1914: ‘How often I’ve heard people sing the famous tango popularized by Chacón, the Gayarre -[a Spanish opera star -- see below] of flamenco, as in “Que pajaro sera aquel“‘, thus alluding to the famous tientos verse.  Paco Percheles wrote: “Don Antonio Chacón was, contemporaneously with Manuel Torre, the other artificer of the tientos, which he popularized in Madrid, elevating them, as with everything to which he applied his art and his faculties, to a higher level.”  Augusto Butler wrote “Undoubtedly, it was Chacon who gave the form vigor and strength upon adding it to his exhaustive repertoire — and evidently gave it the name tientos.”

But José Blas Vega clarifies “These comments don’t stop us from affirming, in the spirit of truthfulness, that Manuel Torre with this version of tango lento, much more accented by him due to his interpretive tendencies, met with great success in Seville.  From him and from Chacón, Pastora Pavón (Niña de los Peines) got her main influences for tientos.  It’s enough to hear the tientos of Chacón and analyze them through extensive recordings, to appreciate that he has been the modern fundamental fount of this style, in which the tracks of the maestro are perceived directly or indirectly in some 70% of recordings, though time has unfairly obscured his creative and diffusionary labor.”

For some years now, not just in public but in recordings, most interpreters have linked the tientos to the tangos, usually beginning with tientos, given its greater expressivity and possibilities for timing (temple), and ending with tangos, which is easy, since the guitar simply has to lighten/brighten (aligerar) the rhythm.  Other important past interpreters were Tomas Pavón, Aurelio de Cadiz (Selles), Manolo Vargas, Antonio Mairena, Pepe de la Matrona, Bernardo de los Lobitos, Manolo Caracol and Terremoto.  Today its a common (prodigado) cante with evidences of its Cadiz and Triana sources, as well as the personal touches of its early specialists, which makes it fair to say that in the last 50 years it scarcely shows any evolution (por lo que puede decirse que en los ultimos 50 anos apenas si se aprecia en los tientos alguna evolucion).

End of translated excerpts from the out-of-print big dictionary (which puts the whole entry in a single paragraph).

I disagree with the idea that the tangos and the tientos have essentially the same rhythm.  Speed aside, I know that the tientos has a “dotted” rhythm, which I hear as “and-a-ONE,-and-a-two,-and-a-THREE,-and a four,…” — the same “trick” rhythm that identifies the faster, and major-key, tanguillos and zapateado; the tango, on the other hand, has a flat-footed, 4/4 or even rhythm, “ONE-and-two-and-THREE-and-four-and…”, just as boring as, say, the farruca rhythm, and so easy and obvious that even an American (me, anyway) can play it right.  (Lately, modern guitarists have jazzed up the tango rhythm a bit by using neat triplet rasgueo — but the basic pulse remains simple.)

Note:  The comparison of Gayarre to Don Antonio Chacon, still revered as the greatest master of the non-Gypsy approach to flamenco song, can be revealing.

Julian Gayarre (1884-1890) was a basque opera star.  George Bernard Shaw criticized him for excessive vibrato and excessive vocal mannerisms, but many Spanish and Italian critics admired his voice and style.  The 1963 Ricordi Enciclopedia della Musica says: “Gayarre’s voice was slightly guttural and at times could show hardness in the very high notes and an uncertain attack. Nevertheless, it was full, resonant and extraordinarily fascinating. He was distinguished for his breath control, extremely clear diction, vibrant and passionate tone and for his ability to both soften and strengthen that tone. The way he produced contrasts of color and intensity was incomparable.”

Brook Zern

April 10, 2012   No Comments

Flamenco Compás – Producer Ricardo Pachón on Why So Few People Like Flamenco Music

There are many ways to consider the flamenco metric system or compás, specifically the seemingly irregular 12-beat compás that underpins most flamenco forms and is unlike anything we are familiar with.

I’ve analyzed it using the device of a clock face, and even a bicycle wheel.  I’ve also cited the unfamiliar nature of flamenco compas as a reason why flamenco’s popularity is always going to be limited in comparison with the musical styles that use rhythms we have always known and loved.

But don’t take my word for it.

I usually translate material from uncopyrighted publications, but I would like to briefly cite or paraphrase the opinions of Ricardo Pachón, the most important producer of flamenco recordings in recent decades including Camarón’s radical “La Leyenda del Tiempo.”

Pachón spoke to interviewer Javier Primo in the flamenco magazine Alma 100, number 59, from May of 2005.  (The publication folded a few years ago.  So sue me.)

After noting that a sale of 5,000 was always a lot for any flamenco record, he added that flamenco is and always will be an art for minorities.

Asked why, he says it’s because the important flamenco forms or palos including the solea, siguiriyas and bulerias use a polyrhythm of 12 beats (tiempos), which is very complicated.  He says that what we usually hear, and what we usually dance to, is either in 3/4 waltz time (valses); or in 4/4 common time (rock’n'roll, he says, though of course it covers almost everything else as well.)

He adds that human beings are accustomed to either binary or ternary rhythms, and adds “When you have a solea, with two ternary beats followed by three binary beats, you have to count it in twelves, and you have to know where the closes are, and the accents, to do it so it really moves you with its pellizcos and comes out right (cuadrado), and makes musical sense.”

Yes indeed.  I once asked my father why, after he had finally passed along his weakness for flamenco to me, he had decided to focus on fishing and writing about fishing.  He said there were several reasons, but one of them was simple:  ”They don’t sell seventy million flamenco licenses each year.”

Face it.  We will never make any money because we are all in the wrong business.  But it’s worth it.

What?  You mean it’s not worth it?

Brook Zern

February 15, 2012   1 Comment

Flamenco Rhythms (Compas) – General observation

A correspondent asks about the subject of counting flamenco rhythms or compas correctly.

Answer:  There are three kinds of people:  Those who count correctly, and those who don’t.

Brook Zern

November 21, 2011   No Comments

The Flamenco Compas Clock (El Reloj de Flamenco) – 1996 post by Brook Zern


Recently, some Spanish and European flamenco authorities have been using the allegedly novel idea of a clock face to explain flamenco’s seemingly complex rhythmic system, called compas.

I like the idea a lot.  In fact, I started using the device in my talks and classes about flamenco around 1972, and hung the paper clock in the classroom that year for what may have been the world’s first university course on flamenco at The New School for Social Research in New York.

The clock reveals that all three of flamenco music’s apparently different tricky compases are in fact permutations of the same twelve-beat rhythm — of which five (!) beats are accented — and that each of them can be derived by simply deciding on a different starting point.

Also, because it is circular, the clock face makes it clear that flamenco compas is like a wheel, with no real starting or ending point, always in spin, always ready for artists to jump on or off as the spirit moves them…

I recently stumbled upon an old post to the pioneering flamenco discussion group hosted by Temple University.  Dated October 22, 1996 and sent by the extraordinary aficionado Robert Haynes, it is a reposting of something I had sent to the group considerably before that date.  (In the welcome spirit of Mr. Haynes’ post, I’ve done this “without warning or permission”.  I have only deleted his presumably long outdated email address.):

Subj:  FL Flamenco Clock -reposted without permission
Date:  Tue, Oct 22, 1996 12:41 PM EDT
From:  RAHAYNES@_____
::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Brook Zern’s post regarding the clock is reposted without warning or
permission.    Robert/o
::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

There is an Official Compas Clock in a basement in Jerez, half-hidden between two barrels of ancient sherry.  It looks like a very big regular clock face, except for the fact that the numbers 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12 are much darker and heavier than the other numbers.

Also, you can reach up and turn this clock face to two other positions.  In addition to having the 12 on top, you can also turn it so the 1 is on top, or so the 8 is on top.  Also, you can turn down the lights in this room so that you can’t make out the numbers any more — just see that certain of them are dark, heavy and emphatic.

Now when the clock is in the regular position, it is called the Guajiras/Peteneras clock.  It reads:  “12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11…”

But the lights are down, so you can only distinguish the heavier numbers, so you hear or feel this as “1 and a 2 and a 3 and 4 and 5 and…”

When you turn the clock so that the 1 is at the top, and then turn the lights down, it becomes the soleares/alegrias clock:  “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12…” with accents, of course, on 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12.

And when you turn it so the 8 is on top, it becomes the siguiriyas/serranas clock:

8 9 10 11 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7…”, which in the semi-darkness becomes: “1 and 2 and 3 and a 4 and a 5 and…”

When you want it to be a Bulerias clock, you may have to decide whether the 12 is on top, or the 1 is on top.

Of course, nobody in Jerez needs to refer to the Official Compas Clock, since their DNA incorporates this information.  But just like the Official Yardstick in Washington, its presence is necessary in case everyone gets amnesia.

Brook Zern

November 17, 2011   No Comments