|Some of the competitors from the 2013 flamenco cante competition|
|Rocio Molina, one of last year's finalists|
Vejer’s annual flamenco singing competition takes place on Saturday evenings during the months of June and July at the peña flamenca Aguilar de Vejer on Calle Rosario. The peña is located in the Rosario Baroque church building. Damaged during the Civil War, it was deconsecrated in the 1960s.
I can still remember the first time I attended the concurso, cautiously following the map from the tourist office and hoping I didn’t take a wrong turning. Despite the building's large capacity, all the seats were taken an hour before the competition began. Nowadays, I ariive an bit early and enjoy a glass of Rioja while the organisers make their final preparations.
|It's an international competition - this entrant was French.|
‘Cante’ or song, is the basis of all flamenco. Its origins are undocumented, but we know that it evolved as a fusion between the different musical elements of gypsy culture and Andalucian folk-culture. Indian, Jewish and North African styles all played a part in forming the flamenco genre, which seems to have emerged in the melting-pot of post-Reconquista Spain, when previously disparate ethnicities and cultures were thrown together in the resulting social upheaval.
|Guitarist Victor Rosa, a competition favourite|
There is no certainty about how the name ‘flamenco’ came to be attached to this unique art form, but we do know that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was considered impolite to use the word ‘gitano’ -gypsy- and ‘flamenco’ was often used instead, referring to the arrival of some travelling people from Belgium. In his wonderful book ‘South of Granada’, Gerald Brenan tells us that ‘Flamenco’ was the vulgar name for what was properly called ‘cante jondo’ or ‘deep song’. We now use this term to describe the most serious flamenco styles and it seems possible that the word 'flamenco' was first used in early publicity to dignify the gypsy art.
|An attentive audience|
Flamenco song and dance consist of between 50 and 100 ‘palos’ or different styles. These are quite varied, ranging from the deep and tragic Seguiriyas to the festive and celebratory Bulerias, and they have distinctive rhythms, styles and sometimes tunes. Rhythm is probably the most important element in distinguishing palos, though it is not always easy to identify.Each competitor in the competition will sing 3 songs, each in a different style, choosing from a list supplied by the flamenco club.
The palos, many of which tend to be associated with different regions, can quite difficult to distinguish at first, but the most important ones soon become familiar. The Alegrias, one of the native palos of Cadiz, is easy to recognise by its cheerful tone and its ‘tirititran’ refrain.
You will hear the singer tell you the name of the palo before he or she begins to sing, the most favoured being the more demanding styles such as Seguiriyas, Soleares or Fandangos, which help the singer showcase his or her skills.
The lyrics – letras – of the different palos are varied and though they are not all about disappointed love as some people believe, romance probably provides the most heart-wrenching themes. However, there are many religious, narrative or comic songs, as well as proverbial ones, and some of these go back to Roman times, reflecting an oral literary tradition which has been circulating in Europe for millennia.
|Another young finalist|
Flamenco song is traditionally accompanied by guitar, and though other instruments are often used as well, the guitar is the only instrument allowed in the competition. Some guitarists are competition regulars, while others accompany only one singer. The guitarists are an essential element in the event, since they must be capable of supporting and enhancing the competitor's performance.
Try the cante competition, even if only for a while and don’t be too concerned if you don’t understand many of the lyrics. All flamenco lyrics use the Andaluza dialect spoken here, and some are very old, so that the singer herself doesn’t always perfectly understand what she is singing and has to make an imaginative guess.
|Gustavo Benitez Mera, who organises the competition.|
The cante competition is an essential item in Vejer’s cultural diary and something everyone should experience at least once. You can order a meal there or just have a drink at the bar, but whatever you're doing, silence falls when the singing begins.
For more information on flamenco in the area, ‘A Summer in Flamenco’ is available on Amazon: