“Eschuche la guitarra,” he said, as he demonstrated to us how to clap. “Listen to the guitar.” “It is a conversation between the clapping and the guitar,” Naim explained. If the clapping is off beat then it throws off the guitar off beat, and the song is lost.
We were in La Perla, the largest Flamenco peña in Cádiz, trying to learn palmas—clapping—from Naim, a 22-year-old Flamenco dancer with piercing eyes the color of obsidian. By clapping I don’t mean applause, I mean the rhythmic accompaniment to the Flamenco guitar and which forms the basis of a Flamenco performance.
Palmas for him was as easy as walking, but I could barely manage a crawl. Was this 2-4 or 4-4 or what did that really mean? Music theory was never a strength and my high school band days were long gone. “Pah! Pah pah pah! Pah pah pah! Pah pah pah! Pah pah pah!” he sang, showing us how to clap for Alegrías, the Flamenco style typical of the city and province Cádiz. The beat was repeatable and therefore learnable, but it took an intense amount of concentration to get it right. Every time I thought I had it down Naim, who was scanning all our faces, would look at me and I would mess it up.
Flamenco is a layered and complex musical form which consists of clapping, toe tapping, guitar, vocals, and often, but not always, dance. It appeared in Spain in the 18th Century. Its roots lie in the blending of Spanish Gypsy (Gitano) music, which came to Spain from Rajasthan by way of North Africa, and traditional Andalusian folk music like the cante jondo (deep song)—the deep, mournful laments we so often associate with Flamenco. There are many styles of Flamenco—alegrías, soleas, siquiriya, sevillanas, etc.—and they each have their own beat and feel. Lorca described Flamenco as “one of the most gigantic creations of the Spanish people,” and it is definitely emblematic of Andalusia and the entire country.
We saw many Flamenco performances during our week in Cádiz, but it was on our final night when we heard a performance by Carmen de la Jara, a local Flamenco performer accompanied by her guitarist and Naim himself doing palmas, that I finally got what he meant by the conversation. The guitar started out slowly, with the clapping layered in. Carmen began to sign only after she had watched, listened and felt the music that the other two were playing. Her voice needed to be woven in to the song and the right moment and in the right way. They continued to play, the lyrics not unlike a Country Western song, from the few words I could catch. The three of them watched each other, listened and nodded occaisionally. The song gained momentum until it reached the emotional climax, which leapt out and grabbed us, ignoring any linguistic boundaries. When the performers saw our reaction their song grew even stronger. It was then that I realized who the final member of the conversation was—the listener. Once they saw that we felt the music, that we understood it, then the conversation was complete.