When the Levee Breaks

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The famous image of the great bailaora flamenco Antonita “La Singla” Contreras  as an adolescent (~12 years old)

Recently, I came across a wonderful reminder of past projects in the form of magic shared on Facebook: some television footage from 1965 or so of the magnificent flamenco dancer Antonia (also sometimes listed as Antonita) Singla Contreras, known to the lovers of her art as “La Singla.” [1]  She was a gitana (one of the Romani people of Spain, vitally important to the growth of flamenco in Andalusia) born in Barcelona in 1948. Her story is sometimes characterized as a sort of miracle — she was apparently afflicted with what doctors said was a case of meningitis as a baby, and neither heard nor spoke until she was about eight years old. While she did eventually recover much of her hearing and speech, it was in her dancing — in the tablao(dance spaces, cafes, cantinas) of Barcelona and Madrid — that she most powerfully communicated with her world. At least some of the older video footage of her dancing available online comes either from a series of performances she did on tour in Germany in the early 1960s or from a later tour (1968-ish) of France, the UK, and Austria. Take a moment to savor this German television performance, which also includes other flamenco greats like guitarist Paco de Lucia:

La Singla made her film debut in Los Tarantos (1963), which was the final film starring that other great bailaora of Barcelona, the amazing Carmen Amaya (1918-1963). I’ve written about Carmen Amaya before — she was, among other things, known as both an excellent exemplar of flamenco dance, rhythm, and song and an innovator in the practice of her art. Among her innovations was her frequent employment of a very masculine style of dance (wearing pants rather than the bata de cola [2], emphasizing more energetic footwork, etc.), which she mastered to awesome effect while still deploying the postures and beautiful hand work more common to women’s dancing. She brought the thunder, every time, in a fiercely controlled and absolutely irresistible storm of sound and movement.

If watching Carmen Amaya is like seeing a controlled storm in action, I think watching La Singla (who shared Amaya’s “pants dancing” style, as you can see in the video above) is perhaps more like what happens when the water is about to go over the dam. She, too, is fiercely controlled, but gives the impression of only barely holding back the violent energy that Amaya firmly masters and uses — it is as if even the dancing isn’t quite enough for what she wants to say, and is driven before it. Every now and then, hair flying around her, it’s as if there’s a monster about to get loose, and it is glorious.

It is also — and I think this is important for understanding flamenco in La Singla’s particular style and time period — absolutely necessary to see how perfectly all of that energy and ferocity and barely-restrained feeling sits within the music, contributing to the sound one hears. La Singla has (from my very limited non-expert understanding of the concept) brilliant compas (see the glossary in note 2 below). This makes it possible to take a moment to think about how much the bailaor or bailaora is necessarily a part of the music in flamenco — as much so as the singer or guitarist — rather than being accompanied by it. One excellent way to catch this is to listen to a performance without being able to see the dancer:

Listen to the work of hands and feet, in addition to voice and guitar, and remember that the very oldest flamenco forms were entirely vocal — cante jondo. Listen carefully to the bit starting around 2:02 and see if you can still keep the core beat in your head when all you hear are the dancer’s feet — because you know she feels it and keeps it. Listen to what happens when other hands and feet come back in around 3:01, building in complexity through variations and improvisations while still holding the compas of the song so that when the singer and guitars and other hands and feet start again around 5:35, the transition is seamless. Now go back to the video of La Singla dancing, earlier in this post, and watch the other people on stage with her, too. This is a musical ensemble piece, not a dance performed with accompaniment, and seeing it otherwise, I suspect,  is a serious misunderstanding.

 


  1. There’s not a whole lot written about her in English, and there’s relatively little of any depth that’s easy to find online in Spanish for an English speaker muddling through the search. I couldn’t find her in my editions of D.E. Pohren’s books on the subject, or much in Totten’s introductory survey, but there’s a mention of her in passing in Leblon’s Gypsies and Flamenco: The Emergence of the Art of Flamenco in Andalusia (2003), and a nod to her here and there on blogs and assorted web sites devoted to flamenco like this one and this one. I will not pretend to have done truly comprehensive research for this blog post, of course.
  2. Don’t know what that is? Here’s a glossary of flamenco terms. You’re welcome. :)

 

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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7 Responses to When the Levee Breaks

  1. Thanks for sharing this! It’s nice to meet another philosopher with an interest in flamenco. I’ve been taking flamenco dance and castanets classes for a little while now. Truly remarkable performance. I tend to prefer this masculine style…that aggressive passion and intense rhythm draws me in.

    So true about staying in compas. I’m reminded of the time a group of us did a workshop with a teacher from Spain who had us doing a double turn. Landing on the beat by calculating the speed of the turn was insanely difficult, as was spotting—after a few minutes of practice we were all queasy. What La Singla is doing in there is really unthinkable for me.

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    • It’s so cool that you’re actually dancing! I’m sort of hopeless with dance — I can do martial arts and I can play music, but in the nebulous dance territory between violence and violins, I am ridiculously clumsy. :) What got you started in flamenco?

      One of the things I love about what is essentially a growing folk art like flamenco is that I get an excuse to think about how it so perfectly serves as an example of a way to think about music itself as an activity embedded in or expressive of a form of life that evolves as the life to which it belongs evolves.

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      • I’m really clumsy too…actually, I started taking flamenco classes to improve my balance after a mysterious illness. I needed to find some sort of sport or social form of exercise that would challenge me (the doctor recommended tennis or golf…neither are my cup of tea.) One evening I went a Spanish restaurant here in Tucson and flamenco dancers performed with a live guitarist and singer. I was blown away. So I Googled around and found an instructor who teaches out of her home. I started out learning castanets just because that was the most convenient way to jump into a class (and less intimidating for me, since I’m also more of a musician than a dancer), then moved on to a beginning level Sevillanas class. Now I’m combining the Sevillanas with castanets. It turned out that flamenco was exactly the sort of exercise I needed. The coordination involved is incredibly intense, but there’s no way I’ll end up crashing into the mirror or someone else. We start out doing everything in microscopic slow motion and discussing every aspect of a movement before we do it in real time. To give you a sense of it, it’s the polar opposite of Zumba. You don’t wing anything. The instructor really wants to make sure we get the technique right before all else, so it feels more like a mental workout than a physical one, at least at first. I’m only just now starting to break a sweat when I dance.

        The funny thing is, I didn’t know anything about flamenco when I started. You know way more about the art form than I do. I’m still treading water in that respect. So much terminology!

        And as for violin, I would think you’d have to have a really good ear to play it, since there aren’t any frets. (This is coming from a mediocre guitarist who can’t imagine life without frets.)

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        • It sounds like you’ve found a great form of physical rehab in flamenco, and an excellent teacher. I came to flamenco from a different direction — trying to puzzle out what I was seeing in an Iron and Wine video (“Boy With a Coin”) led me down the research rabbit hole. :) There is such an amazingly complex language and tradition about it all — I’ve just got the tip of the iceberg, and I think I’m really hindered in my attempts to understand it by the fact that my Spanish language skills are nearly non-existent, and I’ve got only the most rudimentary understanding of the historical and political context in which flamenco traditions developed. Do you speak any Spanish at all?

          You know, violin and other fretless instruments are funny — once you get the right intervals in your ear and get the muscle memory down, it’s surprisingly easy to find your way around the fingerboard. It’s more a memory task, more habit development than anything else, and a lot of early training for small children (outside of purist Suzuki instruction) involves actually marking intervals with stickers or fingerboard maps for a while until muscle memory and ear training set up properly. When I first started playing fretted instruments (guitar, ukulele), I found it incredibly frustrating that I couldn’t really easily adjust pitch by just shifting finger positions a little bit. It’s the fretless player’s cheat when a string is slightly out of tune — just move your hand a bit, and don’t play it open, and try not to make a noisy mess until you get the chance to re-tune. :) On the other hand, I learned guitar from tab and chord shapes rather than reading music and memorizing proper scales, so while I can play and figure stuff out pretty easily (thank the Muses for the invention of the capo and the circle of fifths), half the time I couldn’t tell you what note I’m playing (on a violin I always know).

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          • It’s the same for me with Spanish. It’s unfortunate, especially now that I’m living in Tucson and doing flamenco.

            Interesting points about fretless instruments. I’d never considered that you can adjust the pitch if a string’s out of tune. That would be so handy!

            I’m the same with guitar. I don’t know what I would’ve done without Guitar World magazine. And as for notes, I certainly couldn’t tell you. I might—might—be able to tell you the chord, if it’s something like G, D, E, A, etc. And I don’t even know what the circle of fifths is. Something about looking at musical notation makes my mind shut down. I tend to look for the easiest path to achieving my short-term goal—”how can I play this song?”—which is why I never learned to read music. Even though I took piano lessons for years as a child, I still never learned because I cheated and pretended to read the music when I was really just staring at the page and playing from memory.

            Speaking of cheating, I found this amazing website for flamenco guitar that offers a wealth of tools such as tabs, videos, and even metronomes:

            http://ravennaflamenco.com/articles/accompaniment-sevillana

            If you look on the right of the screen, you’ll see “Browse by palo” and you can click on those and search for tabs in various keys.

            The strumming is a bit of a challenge, but if you watch the videos you can get a sense of how it’s done, at least well enough to have fun messing around with it. I basically flick the strings in a cascade from pinky to index finger and for the upstroke I’ll do something similar in reverse finger order, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is all wrong.

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          • Oooooooh — that site is terrific! Thanks for sharing it! Something to play with when I finally get some free time…

            One of the things I first noticed when I started going to the local jam session here in my little town is how many people a) play guitar really well, and b) don’t read music at all, although they often actually know more about certain bits of music theory where finding keys, chords, and arpeggios are concerned than I ever manage to remember. We watch each other’s hands and listen in order to play together, rather than sharing sheet music or tab. It was a hard for me, at first, transitioning from formal violin-thinking to listening/watching with a guitar. Once, a group of us — some music-readers, some not — played a little gig together (guitars, banjo, bass, mandolin, fiddle). We sort of had to invent a cue for the non-readers to use to follow the repeats in and among the A and B sections of the trad Scottish dance tunes we were playing, so we’d say “yip” when it was time to move. :) It made the performance a lot more fun for us and for the dancers (and sometimes a bit weird).

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          • That is so awesome that you have a group to play music with! I hope you’ll make a video and share with us someday. And Scottish music? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard such a jam session, and with dancers too? Yes, I hope you’ll make a video! That sounds like a lot of fun.

            I think if I’d grown up with internet, I would’ve watch videos to learn how to play. I wonder if I would’ve even bothered to learn tabs. On the other hand, so to speak, it’s kind of hard to watch someone else play and translate that backwards. At least it is for me. I find myself asking, “So what fret are you on?”

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