There’s a Catch-22
that happens when you’re just beginning accompanying cante. The only way to get good is to play with singers, but singers don’t really want you to play for them until you know what you’re doing. So how do you even start? The good news is that you don’t have to become a flamencologist.
The answer, as with most things in flamenco, is to listen to a lot of flamenco. Accompanying cante is a combination of keeping your ears open and having a sense of what the singer is likely to sing. If you know the melodies of the letras (verses) then you’re less likely to be surprised. The place to start is by choosing a palo and listening to as much cante in that palo as possible. Eventually you’ll notice that certain melodies happen way more often than others.
As you identify these melodies,
try to sing them. You don’t need to know the words. In fact, it’s almost better not to know the words, since different letras will use the same melodies with different lyrics. The key is to learn the shape of the melody. At that point you’ll want to bust out your guitar and see if you can figure out what chords go with those melodies.
There’s a tricky moment here, because almost all cante is being accompanied by a guitar with a capo. You’ll have to learn to figure out where the capo goes. In order to do this you need to listen to the end of the letra, or listen for a familiar cadence in the guitar. For example, if you’re listening to Soleá, you’ll want to listen for the 10-11-12 figure that we resolve to all the time. Once it’s in your ear, play an E-shape bar chord until you find the right key. Wherever the bar is for that chord is where you put the capo. (Occasionally the guitarist will be playing in a key other than Por Arriba, but if you find the key that works Por Arriba, then it won’t really matter).
If you’ve memorized the melody, of course, you can practice in any key you like. Our brains do an amazing job of transposing keys effortlessly. You don’t need to refer back to your recording you can at this point sing the melody to yourself and find the chords that go with the melodies. If you’ve been listening to enough flamenco you’ll probably also start to fill in the spaces with appropriate little fills and cadences, but this isn’t essential at first.
Once you’ve started to make connections
between the melodies and the chords that go with them, you can go back and accompany the recording. This is essential to make sure your compás doesn’t get lost as you find the chords. When I started I basically taught myself to play along with the entire live CD of Camarón with Tomatito, so I had some of the best teachers in the world!
Another thing to know is this – most records have letras that are way more complicated and sophisticated than what you are likely to encounter on the street or at a tablao gig. Singers push the boundaries and experiment on their recordings, but when accompanying dancers they generally sing more traditional letras, so these traditional ones are the ones you’ll want to learn first. For my students I really recommend a CD called Fiesta por Tangos by Los Gitanos de Jerez. It has a ton of the most common letras and they’re all just cante, guitar and palmas and nothing gets too fancy. And in many cases the accompaniment is simpler than what you find on the original recordings of the letras, so you get to hear a more practical way to accompany the letras.
Certain styles of letras have names –
Soleá de Alcala or de Triana, and Tangos Extremeños, for example. It’s really fun to know which are which, but I actually think it’s more important to recognize the melodies than to know their names. Plus, I’ve never had a singer tell me before a gig what style of letras they were going to sing. As you start to recognize that certain bits of melody need certain chords it starts to fall together, and you’ll actually be able to roll with almost anything a singer throws at you. It takes a lot of patience and a TON of listening to really get good, but you can get a great head start before you even meet a singer if you start playing around with this.
Keeping your right hand going in compás while you do all of this is another thing altogether, and probably the subject of a future post.