When I was in Spain for the first time, I attended several performances that had the same two local professional palmeros. These two men did ONLY hand clapping; they didn’t sing, dance or play an instrument. One of them was quite a character, taking his own bow at the end of the show and hamming it up by pretending to cut off his own ear and throw it out into the audience. It was wonderful seeing the two play the invaluable support role that gave them the respect of the accomplished artists he shared the stage with.
Palmas are the glue that hold the flamenco ensemble together. In a jam setting, palmas and jaleos are the ‘juice’ that incite performers to get up and sing or dance, taking risks with the full support and encouragement of everyone standing by. There’s a sense of connection and belonging for everyone, allowing for wholehearted group participation in what is otherwise a soloist’s art form. While the patterns can be very complex, the easy versions are quite accessible. This simple inclusivity is one reason I’ve begun to invite audience members to do basic patterns at my performances. Similar to a rhythm circle, it allows us not only to borrow the music, but to create that sense of community, bonding and warmth not often found in our chilly climate.
For flamenco aficionados, doing palmas is a way of participating and learning more about flamenco without necessarily developing the craft needed to perform at a high level. Here in Calgary, when students are invited to do palmas for a show, the response has often been, ‘Well, I consider myself to be more of a dancer (or guitarist) than a palmera.’ The truth is, the Spanish flamencos can all do palmas, regardless of their main discipline. It’s fundamental part of the training, and a service we all provide to one another. When embraced, it’s a rich source of learning and joy. One of the student dancers I know did ultimately provide palmas for a full show and worked hard to make good on her role. After it was done, she told me that at first, she’d had an attitude about it, but that it was very bit as rewarding as I had promised it would be. She was able to learn the structure of several choreographies without needing the technical prowess to execute them herself, and in doing so, had begun to understand, and appreciate, flamenco in a way she previously hadn’t conceived of.
Flamenco is known as one of the most organic musical forms worldwide, and doing palmas enables artists to develop stronger instincts about the direction the ensemble might take in a given moment – again, without having to also know the chord structure or dance steps to respond. I maintain that rhythmic understanding is not intellectual, but kinaesthetic and visceral. It must be FELT to be fully understood.
When I first started studying, I spent about as much time listening and doing palmas as I did playing the guitar. I did it because I loved it, not anticipating how much it would help my development. Firstly, it has given me hours of enjoyable listening and study, which has cultivated much inspiration. I’ve gained an intuitive sense of the rhythms so that it gets easier and easier for me to write and improvise in whichever forms I’m working on. Sometimes musical ideas come to me that are quite complicated, but surprisingly, they often fit into the rhythm when I work them out. When I study with other players, I’m able to learn the material more quickly because the compás or rhythmic pattern is automatic.
Over time, the mandate to cultivate a flamenco jamming culture here in Calgary has asserted itself strongly in my mission statement. There’s something about the rhythmic drive created in a group that expedites learning, far more than studying in seclusion. Starting at the end of this month and on an ongoing basis, I’ll be offering Palmas & Listening Workshops for the Calgary flamenco community. If you’re interested in learning more, both experienced flamencos and beginners are welcome to attend.