The flamenco castanets, marking rhythm
That the sound of the flamenco castanets is representative of this art is indisputable. Just as they have also become a symbol of our culture, alongside the flamenco guitar. Did you know that this instrument has a male and a female, and that they are more than three thousand years old?
The castanets are a percussion instrument that was created more than three thousand years ago, by the Phoenicians. They were called crotals (an instrument that exists today with the same name) and were used in religious ceremonies and celebration of rites, as part of the cultural tradition.
Thanks to trade on the Mediterranean Sea, it spread to other countries, such as Italy and Croatia. However, it was in our culture, the Spanish one, that it really took hold.
Its composition does not differ much from the current one, although it has been slightly modified. The first castanets consisted of two parts, both made of pieces of wood joined by a rope, which were placed in each hand. The curious thing is that, despite the fact that many people think that these two parts are the same, there are differences, so many that one is called male and the other female.
The female flamenco castanets, with high pitch, are placed in the right hand, while the male, in charge of setting the rhythm and decorating the compositions, is placed in the left hand. Nowadays, they are also called “palillos“, and more materials are used in their composition than wood, such as pressed cloth or fibreglass.
Technique and rhythm: how to play the flamenco castanets
Once you’ve got a good set of castanets, the first step is to identify which one is the male and which one is the female and to fit them tightly to your thumbs, but they must be tight, not tight.
The position of the fingers is primordial, since they should be with the tips facing each other and the palms turned towards the body. Once this is done, we can start the movement.
You start with the right hand, which is the mark of the first rhythm, to continue with the left hand, which is the one that cuts the last note with its touch. Once you have internalized this lesson, we proceed to play. The flamenco castanets follow five independent elements, which form different combinations: RI-A-PI-TA-CHI.
A-RI-A-TA, A-RI-A-TA, A-RI-A-TA-TA-TA-TA
A-RI-A, CHI-TA, A-RI-A-PI-A
Accents are marked in bold (example of combination from Wikipedia).
The flamenco castanets and seguiriyas
In the expansion of the castanet has to do much with its sound, as it is an ideal instrument to mark rhythms. They have been used in different styles of music, although flamenco has adopted them as part of the accompaniments to dances and songs.
In fact, it was classical music, from the hand of authors like the guitarist and composer Santiago de Murcia, when they began to make a name for themselves in Spain.
From Murcia he composed the “jácaras”, satirical musical compositions in which the castanets were of great importance. At the same time, he was the creator of numerous fandangos, in whose accompaniments were, of course, the castanets and the guitar.
However, the great expansion of the flamenco crotals took place in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the School of Dance Bowling (Escuela Bolera de Baile), in which the best dancers were prepared. In this school, the castanets were used as part of the dance accompaniment, and their sound was accompanied by the movement of arms.
This image is one of the most typical flamenco expressions (the dancer dressed as a flamenca moving her arms while playing the flamenco castanets).
On the other hand, the great flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya is also considered to be one of the artists who popularized the castanets. Her appearance in the films “La hija de Juan Simón” and “María de la O”, dancing with them, made them become a popular instrument.
In Andalusia, specifically, this instrument is used to accompany sevillanas, fandangos de Huelva, verdiales and other types of more flamenco styles, such as soleá, guajira and seguiriyas.
The latter is one of the cantes considered to be pure, as it gathers in its lyrics and rhythm the essence of the first expressions of flamenco. The seguiriya hides a tragic and solemn character and hides in its beat what is known as “compás de amalgama“, that is, a mixture of 3×4 and 6×8.
Moreover, many experts consider it to be the “quintessence” of flamenco singing, due to this return to the origins, to the profound lament.
Thus, the flamenco castanets have become an expression of both danceable and joyful sounds, as well as those that are more profound, being present both as an accompaniment to a flamenco dance, and as the protagonists of a part of a good show.