How to be a Flamenco Aficionado – What is ‘Jaleo’?

If you’ve ever been to a flamenco show with Spaniards, you’d have noticed that the audience has an easy, almost overly personal relationship with the performers. The show was likely peppered with shouts of ‘olé!’ ‘toma!!’ or ‘bien!’ Sometimes there are longer phrases, even complete sentences that make the non-Spanish speakers in the crowd chuckle awkwardly, probably what was happening but also thinking that it all seems a bit rude. ‘Jaleo’ (‘ha-lay-o’) is a way for a flamenco audience to verbally show appreciation of what’s happening onstage and participate in the performance – similar to the way we might say, ‘oh yeah’ if we hear something we like at a blues bar, but a little more…Spanish.

To many Canadians, the idea of interrupting a performance this way seems completely counterintuitive; taboo, really. We’re deeply uncomfortable with being seen as attention-getting. In Spanish culture, the agenda is not about getting attention; rather, it’s part of giving it. It’s thought that the word ‘ole’ has morphed from the word, ‘Allah,’ meaning God. In other words, the performer has left their ego at the door and is being a good conduit for the Arte.

Of course, things evolve over time. At a concert in Seville one time, I was listening to a beautiful guitar solo when suddenly a woman’s voice erupted, shouting what seemed like several long sentences from the middle of the orchestra section of the concert hall. As it turned out, she was the guitarist’s mother. She couldn’t help herself from exclaiming with all her heart, “My son, you’re the light of my life! I’m so proud of you!!” If that had been me playing I’d have been mortified, but not him. He stopped his piece right in the middle, and dedicated his performance to his mother on the spot, then continued the piece. While I was truly moved by this, I am unlikely to start delivering proclamations to my loved ones mid-concert anytime soon. There’s another nuance that I suits my Canadian-style taste more. At another show in that same hall in Seville, the dancer did her first big break, and the audience breathed an Olé in unison. Everyone in the room was utterly connected in that moment, completely on the same page.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have the experience and knowledge for this level of participation, not to worry. I’ve noticed that even the uninitiated are drawn to clap and cheer in those moments, and that works, too.

Something I love about flamenco is that while it is considered to be the ‘art of the soloist,’ nobody does it alone. The audience’s admiration comes from a deep respect for the art itself and where it comes from inside the artist. In return, the performers acknowledge that we need an audience to make art, and that your participation is a vital part of it.