Learning Letras

If you want to accompany Cante you have to know the letras

You’ll hear me say all the time that if you want to accompany Cante you have to know the letras, but what does that really mean? There are a couple ways to look at it:

I remember the first time I played with a singer who had been studying at the Fundación Cristina Heeren – one of the best places in the world to study flamenco. As we would play, he’d tell me the history of each letra – who had originally sung it, what other letras it was related to, all kinds of fascinating stuff. And I ate it up. I love knowing more about the roots of this amazing music and learning about singers I haven’t heard of yet. It turned out that the back story to some of these letras was way more personal than I had thought – that singers of the past had put their own stamp on certain letras to transform them, and in some cases the letras would be known by their names, like Malagueñas el Mellizo, or Tangos del Piyayo.

Did I mention that I love learning this stuff? It’s called Flamencology [Which should totally be the name of a bebop tune].

It didn’t even matter if I knew the words

I also remember realizing that as much as I loved all this stuff, it didn’t actually make me a better accompanist. It didn’t really matter all that much if I knew where a letra was from, or who sang it best. From the narrow view of accompanying the singer, it didn’t even matter if I knew the words.

It turns out that there are two things that will better prepare you for accompanying Cante than all the flamencology in the world: Knowing the shapes of the letras, and the ear-training that comes from mimicking other players as they accompany.

Variations on the same melody

The first of these things is probably more important. Let’s assume for a moment that you don’t speak Spanish. If you sang along to a ton of Solea letras you might just sing or hum the basic melody (hopefully in compás!). And you’d start to notice that an awful lot of those letras were essentially variations on the same melody, and that out of dozens of letras you came across most would fall into just two or three basic melodies. As you think about accompanying these letras, you’d rightly come to the conclusion that for the most part you’d need to play the same stuff.

If you think about this, it’s really good news! You don’t have to learn all the letras in flamencodom – you just have to learn a couple of melodies.

With time you come to recognize the shape of a melody

And this applies to every Palo, though in some cases you have more than just a couple of shapes/melodies to learn. But here’s the fun part – most of the less-common letras are very similar to more common ones. So once you’ve learned the most common letras, you’ve also learned the elements that make up almost all of the rest of the letras in that palo. At first it may sound weird to you when a Buleria lands on an E Major for a moment, but with time you come to recognize the shape of a melody that’s pulling you there, whether or not you’ve ever heard that melody before.

So as you learn to accompany a new letra, really pay attention to how the melody goes about pulling you from one chord to the next. You’re very likely to run into that same melody/pull in a different letra at a different time. Very possibly in a different palo altogether! And as you learn more letras you’re just building your vocabulary, and getting more and more fluent in the art of accompanying the Cante.

Listening and experience

I’ve met singers who are true flamencologists. They are scholarly in their knowledge of the history of flamenco and the great singers who shaped the current generation. But I have also met great singers who don’t know this stuff very well at all. Knowing this makes me feel a little better about everything I don’t know. I often feel that as a teacher I need to know everything I can about the history of flamenco. But I also know that as a player, the listening and the experience are way more important for being a good accompanist.

Cante Explained

Put these ideas into action and watch our flamenco guitar tutorial videos on how to accompany cante!

Want to follow along with the lyrics to the cante por Soleá? You can download a .pdf of that here!