Playing for Cante

My first real experience playing for a legit singer took me by surprise.

I was living in Granada and my friend took me to a Peña (flamenco club). This one was owned by a singer called El Niño De Las Almendras – you can see him and the Peña here:

Things didn’t get started until around 2AM. But when they did get going people started playing and singing and the man himself told me to accompany him singing a Granaína. I was terrified, but I was also thrilled at having a chance to play for an actual singer! I’m going to go ahead and assume that it didn’t go quite as well as I remember it all, but at least I wasn’t humiliated.

But there’s a bit of a Catch-22 when it comes to learning to accompany Cante.

The best way to learn is to play for singers as much as possible, but most singers don’t want to be accompanied by someone who doesn’t know how yet. So how was I prepared to do this if no singers had actually allowed me to play for them before?

The answer is that I had played for every great singer I had ever heard of – Camarón, Vicente Soto, Carmen Linares, Enrique Morente, you name it. I accompanied them in my room. All alone.

I started out with Camarón’s Flamenco Vivo record (on good old cassette tape) and I would play along to every track on the album until I had it memorized.

How did I know what to play? I listened to Tomatito and would try to play, as best as I could, what he was playing.

If there was cante I played along.

From there I moved on to playing along with other records I loved. If there was cante I played along. Sometimes it would take me forever to figure out what exactly the guitarist was doing, but I hung in there. This turned out to be a good way to discover new singers back before the internet – I’d go to record stores and pore through the flamenco records, buying anything that featured a guitarists I liked or wanted to hear [you had to be inventive back then to learn about all the great flamenco that was out there]. I was a bit obsessive, so I probably ended up playing along with just about every record I owned, which turned out to be pretty good preparation for the ‘real’ world.

And something else happened – something I didn’t even realize at the time: I was becoming familiar with Cante in a way that would soon come to serve me very well. After a while I could play along with most anything easily, though every now and then I’d get my butt kicked my something really out there, like Duquende’s Alegrias on the album with Tomatito where they change key every 5 seconds

Most albums had mostly familiar stuff, but there would always be something new, even if it was just the guitarist playing some new voicings or the singer doing a slight variation of something I thought I knew. It was a good way to learn not to become too complacent, even if the singer wasn’t in the room with me!

Playing for Cante is one of my favorite things.

I’ve come a long way since then, and these days playing for Cante is one of my favorite things in the world to do. But the truth is that every now and then someone will sing a letra that I’ve never heard before, one that goes somewhere unexpected, and I’m grateful for all of the ear-training I didn’t really realize I was doing at the time.

One of the reasons I’m so happy that we’re releasing our Cante Explained videos is that nothing like this existed back when I needed it. Our goal with these videos is to make you better prepared than I was when I was starting, and save you some of the hundreds of hours that I spent playing along with records before singers started letting me play for them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend you playing along with Camarón. [Another great way to start is to play for dance class if you can, as the teachers will often sing – some sing just a little bit and some are very good singers, but either way you learn].

There are a couple of things I want to mention that I think will save you some frustration as you get started:

1 – You need to know where the capo is! Way more often than not – almost always, in fact – the guitarist will have a capo on when accompanying Cante. To quote myself from my post about transcribingLet’s say you’re learning a Soleá. The first thing you’ll want to do is listen for where the guitar resolves. Generally, you’ll want to look for a traditional-sounding 10-11-12 (traditionally played on an E-shape chord). Chances are it’s not the open E string you’re hearing but something higher, so at this point you’d slide your finger up the sixth string until you hit the note that’s the root of that ‘E’ chord (I put it in quotes because with the capo it’s no longer really an E, even though it looks like one!). Put your capo there and play some Soleá to see if this sounds like the right key.

You can apply this same principle to any Palo you might want to play along with – you just need to find where things resolve to figure out where the capo goes.

2 – A chord’s function is more important than its voicing. This is a fancy way of saying that there are many ways to play the same chord and these ways are generally interchangeable. If you’re playing por medio there are tons of ways to play Bb, for example, and for the most part it doesn’t matter which Bb voicing you play. Of course, you don’t want to play a Bb minor, but almost any of the tons of voicing for Bb7 or a Bb triad or a Bb Lydian sound will work, so it’s not important to know exactly which one so-and-so played when accompanying, though it’s fun to figure that out.

3 – You don’t actually have to accompany with the capo in the same place. This is a bit advanced, but it can be really fun if you know your way around guitar and are familiar with some of the less common voicings in flamenco. Let’s say that you’ve determined that Tomatito has the capo on the second fret and is playing por medio. You can do the same, of course. But you also have other options. Since the second fret puts you at B Phrygian, you could use the Granaina voicings without a capo, which also puts you at B Phrygian. Or you could play por arriba with the capo at the seventh fret, or try the fifth fret and play the Taranta voicings. The more you experiment the more stuff you’ll discover.

Check out this little video I made with Jesus Montoya to illustrate how this works:

I learned most of this stuff the takes-forever way.

Of course you’ll have to figure out your voicings and their functions if you do this – If you have some theory you could realize that the D- por medio is the biii-7 chord, and that in the key of B Phrygian the biii-7 is an E-7. If it’s any consolation, I figured out most of this before I could read music or knew the difference between a chord and a voicing. It’s more important to have a lot of patience and love of the guitar.

I learned most of this stuff the hard way, or at least the takes-forever way. And I don’t regret it. But our hope is that between our videos and what you can learn by watching all of the amazing stuff out there on YouTube you’ll have a head start so that when it’s 4am and you’re at the Peña and someone hands you a guitar you’ll be ready!