Bearing elements of Andalusian folkloric music and Romany music, with elements of Persian classical music, Jewish and Muslim religious music, and any number of other vestiges of melody and rhythm from the countless cultures that merged in Spain's southern port cities over thousands of years, flamenco is a wild and passionate music with a tremendous pedigree. Though it's often thought of as simply an accompaniment to a dance, the dance elements of flamenco are but a small part of the overall genre. Have a listen to some of these excellent CDs featuring many of flamenco's greatest guitar players and singers.
Paco de Lucía's impossibly fast fingers and passionate phrasing have led him to be widely regarded as the greatest living flamenco guitarist, and indeed, one of the world's greatest guitarists of any genre. His toque (style or technique) is not strictly traditional, but it is so influential that nearly all modern flamenco bears some of his stylistic stamp. Entre dos Aguas is the album that made him a worldwide sensation, and if you buy just one flamenco CD ever, this should be the one. Though, fair warning, if you start with this one, you'll have a hard time not buying more.
This album showcases one of the finest flamenco duos of all time. Camaròn de la Isla, born José Monje Cruz to a Romany family in Cadiz, was one of flamenco's greatest cantaores (singers) up until his death in 1992. Tomatito, born José Fernández Torres in Almería, was a student of Paco de Lucía's and grew to become a wildly popular flamenco artist (and later, pioneered the flamenco-jazz fusion for which he is now better known). It's a live recording, and one that manages to beautifully capture the raw emotion and intensity of a flamenco performance.
Sevilla-born Remedios Amaya is one of the leading female cantaores. Her style is a relatable, contemporary one, and probably closer to the type of sound that most people would associate with flamenco, but it remains loaded with duende (a Spanish word that's difficult to translate -- it the flamenco context, it means something like "the powerful spirit of the earth which stirs within the soul and without which, there is no passion and therefore no flamenco"). She's accompanied here by the noteworthy guitar player Vicente Amigo, who we'll talk about more in a moment.
Paco Peña, a native of Córdoba, is largely responsible for popularizing the flamenco guitar outside of Spain. He began his career with a flamenco dance troupe, but later became a solo tocaor (guitar player), eventually moving to England in the mid-1960s and starting a small flamenco craze there that made him quite famous. This two-disc set contains an album of traditional songs and an album of songs that he wrote himself, both equally wonderful.
Manolo Caracol is a legendary, larger-than-life figure of the flamenco. Born in Sevilla to a Romany family that produced many generations of flamenco cantaores and bailaores (dancers), as well as matadores (bullfighters), he lived a live of scandal and passion, and though he was not necessarily the strongest singer in a technical sense, and was known for having some uneven performances, he was filled with more duende than most other singers have in their little finger. He performed a full range of flamenco song styles, but particularly excelled in the fandango, creating his own style that became known as fandangos caracoleros, many of which are highlighted on this collection.
Barcelonian Mayte Martín is one of the most influential women in modern flamenco. She both sings and plays guitar, and her aesthetic take on the genre is clean and warm, still brimming with dramatic flair but also bearing a warmth that makes her a very accessible artist, especially for new listeners. This album includes a violinist, which is a departure from tradition, but an elegant one.
Diego El Cigala is a popular and well-regarded cantaor who was born in Madrid to a Romany family, and began his career singing traditional flamenco in small flamenco clubs (called tablaos). He was recognized for his talent pretty quickly, and his career escalated quickly. His voice is warm and expressive, and though his vocal stylings are quite traditional, he performs with a modern-styled band, making for a nice blend of old and new. If you want to get a good sense for flamenco hand-clapping (palmas) and the intricate rhythms and subtle dynamics of the form, this is a good place to start, because not only is El Cigala a master of this element of flamenco, but it's mixed effectively into the sound here, so you can really hear it (it sometimes gets lost in recordings of flamenco, though it's an important part of the music that is very easy to hear and see in live performances). This two-disc set includes one disc of studio recordings and one disc that was recorded live at Madrid's famous Teatro Real opera hall.
Hailing from a dynasty of flamenco bailaores, cantaores, and tocaores which includes her father, singer Enrique Morente, Estrella is young, beautiful, and wildly talented, and has captured the hearts of flamenco fans everywhere. She gained some recognition among international film fans, as well, when her voice (seemingly) came out of Penelope Cruz's mouth in the movie Volver, and it was a fitting match. This CD is flamenco with a decidedly contemporary twist, but it's easy to fall in love with.
Vicente Amigo is a master of the flamenco guitar, and one who is not afraid to incorporate subtle bits of outside influences into his sound. The result is something with deep roots but strong, outstretched branches, and it's lovely to hear. This particular CD, Amigo's first major international release, won a Latin Grammy for Best Flamenco Album after its release in 2002.
As with any genre, the recordings of contemporary flamenco artists tend to be easier to listen to than older artists, partly because of style, but mostly because of the very basic sound quality issue. Still, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't at least give a try to some of the recordings of the great flamenco masters of the early 20th century, starting with La Niña de Los Peines, born Pastora Pavón Cruz in Sevilla in 1890. She was broadly talented, and could sing every palo (song style) with equal depth, and her style of singing and palmas set the tone for a new era of flamenco after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Because of the era in which she did most of her recording, she never made any full-length LPs, and thus her catalogue of single songs are regularly released and re-released in various collections. Truthfully, almost any of these collections is as good of a starting place as any other, but this one will fit the bill nicely, and seems to be easy enough to find.