The art of chopsticks, or flamenco castanets
A rose between your teeth and the sounds of castanets - they’re the items most frequently associated with flamenco. Only the latter is true.
The word ‘Palillos’ means chopsticks in Spanish, just like chopsticks are called ‘baguettes’ in French. ‘Palillos’ also refers to what we usually call ‘castanets’ (castañuelas), which indeed have the same characteristics as chopsticks - a pair of little objects which are operated by opening and closing your hands, occasionally making percussive sounds.
Proper musical instrument
Castanets themselves have a long history, said to be more than 3000 years old, and not particularly Spanish. We see them even in classical music concerts as a part of an orchestra. Nonetheless, they’re strongly associated with Spain and Spanish music these days.
My first experience of playing castanets was in my childhood. How flamenco castanets differ from those educational toys is literally in our hands: while the school castanets have strings/laces which go on your middle fingers (it was at least like this in Japan), the flamenco version goes onto your thumbs. As the castanets hang from the thumbs, your fingers gain freedom of movement, with which you can create more varied sound patterns.
The sounds are usually expressed verbally as:
*Pam: hit both castanets at the same time with the middle and ring fingers
*Ta: hit the one in your non-dominant hand, usually with the middle and ring fingers
*Pi: hit the one in your dominant hand, usually with the middle and ring fingers
*Ria: hit the one in your dominant hand by little-ring-middle-index fingers in order (ri), then subsequently hit the other one to close the phrase (a = ta)
*Chin: hit one (usually the dominant hand) against the other’s side edge
‘Ta’ made by your non-dominant hand has lower pitch (macho = male), while ‘Pi’ by your dominant hand is higher (hembra = female). The flamenco castanets are therefore a little melodious like some other percussive instruments (cajon also has higher and lower pitches). The one of higher pitch normally has a groove on top (where two pieces are joined together with string/lace), so that you can tell which is which.
(the groove on top: the bottom castanet is the 'higher' one)
Play and dance at the same time
Not all flamenco dancers play castanets, and not all flamenco songs require castanets. Still, it’ll expand your potential if you can play castanets while dancing. It adds a more elegant percussive atmosphere in the performance than masculine footwork.
I was fortunate to have learnt how to play flamenco castanets in my early days as a beginner. If you start it after you reach an advanced level of dancing, you’ll probably feel they’re an obstacle to your free movement. I suppose it’d be beneficial to start early so that you can operate castanets like a part of your body. Still, however early you started, you need to keep practising anyway… For me, a series of castanet exercises is a must when practising in a studio - I keep revising the same exercises I learnt years ago, from great teachers such as Maribel La Manchega, Virginia Domínguez, Tamara Lopez, Victor Fernandez, Alejandro Molinero… Practising castanets while dancing is a good exercise also for my brain...
In flamenco dancing, castanets are most frequently used in Sevillanas, Fandangos, Seguiriyas, but it could also fit other palos, depending on how you play it (a friend of mine said cajon doesn't suit Guajiras, but it also depends on how you play it). Just like chopsticks, ‘palillos’ are versatile and there could be more potential than you might think.
See how castanets are made:
Castañuelas del Sur en Andalucía Directo - Canal Sur TV
See a lesson video by Ballet National de España:
EJERCICIOS DE CASTAÑUELAS (1ª CLASE). Maribel Gallardo. Ballet Nacional de España.