Flamenco rhythms in your hands - Palmas and audienceship
Taking advantage of the lockdown time to practise something at home, in flamenco we tend to turn to either dance training, singing, or playing instruments such as guitar or cajon. That’s totally fine, but aren’t we forgetting something which is even more fundamental in flamenco, more accessible and even easier to practise than those fancy things - that is palmas, hand clapping.
Palmas as essential
In Spanish, the word literally means palm of the hands. It’s a musical way of clapping hands to add percussive sounds to flamenco music. We do so to mark the beats, often adding accents with foot stamping too. It can also be used to control the speed of the performance, although it’s sometimes better to follow the pace created by the dancer, it depends…
There is even such a profession called palmero or palmera, who specialises in palmas. Not particularly specialised in it, any performers of flamenco should actually be good at palmas, either you’re a singer, guitarist, dancer, or instrument percussionist, in order to accompany each other as colleagues. Palmas is something which everyone must commonly know.
Sounds of palmas
There are basically two types of sounds: seco (palmas abiertas) and sorda (palmas sordas).
Seco means dry, and it makes high-pitch, crispy sounds by snapping a point inside a ball of palm, somewhere at the bottom of index and middle fingers, by the tightly-held main three fingers of the other hand. For sorda, slightly cupped palms meet each other diagonally so that the fingers of both hands don’t clash. In this way, the sound is rather a muffed pop.
In general, we use seco when the guitar music or dancer’s footwork goes loud and dynamic, while sorda is more appropriate to accompany the singer or calming parts of guitar falsetas (but in some occasions it’s better not to clap at all, it depends on each palo and how the mood goes).
To get an image of the shapes of hands and overview of different rhythms:
Flamenco Palmas Overview Tutorial by Kai Narezo
Palmas as percussion
While rhythmic patterns and accents could be varied, the very basic concepts in palmas are ‘a tiempo’ and ‘contratiempo’. A tiempo means on time, marking the counting beats of the music. Attempting contratiempo should come after you manage to articulate a tiempo, as it means between the beats which is more difficult to hit. Palmas with good musical sensibility could create exciting grooves.
Palmas is so simple and complicated at the same time, as it’s supposed to be a percussion instrument implanted on human bodies. The best advantage is that you don’t have to carry around a solid object like cajon, only your own hands. Besides, it extends your degree of comprehension of flamenco music especially in terms of rhythm, and this merit serves not only flamenco performers but also audiences who want to appreciate the music genre.
To see palmas as percussion tools:
Palmas por Siguiriya
Palmas and audienceship
As we’re lacking in real flamenco shows during the lockdown, now is actually a good chance for us to learn about palmas, not only for our skills but also for our audienceship.
As the action looks so accessible to anyone, the artists on stage doing palmas could be mesmerising. Sometime before the lockdown, you must have witnessed a few members of the audience trying to copy the hand clapping, or to ‘practise’ palmas along with the live music. This often causes a little accidental disturbance to both the artists and the rest of the audience. Nobody wants to ruin the lively atmosphere by telling someone off, but they might get ‘shhh’ from others, or politely told by the artists not to do the (unintentionally distracting) palmas during the show.
When it’s OK for you to do palmas from the audience side, the artists on stage would actually ask you to clap to a certain music they play, like rumbas or something to encourage participation. You can still say jaleos (e.g. 'olé', etc.) aloud to the artists throughout the shows, and give them applause of appreciation during the numbers as well as at the end.
So, ironically though, now is a good time to practise palmas, as real shows aren’t available during the lockdown. Recorded materials or online streams (with your own microphone off) allow us to practise palmas while the artists play, without disturbing the atmosphere. The only concern might be your cohabitants and neighbours.
When the lockdown is finally lifted, we could turn out to be good at palmas and also well-informed as a flamenco audience. We will be able to enjoy live flamenco shows better than ever.