At the end of the year 2020 which has been scarce of festivities, Christmas is our last chance to feel a little festive. Even if we’re refrained from having a good-old Christmas this year, let’s cheer ourselves up by earthy music suited for the celebration: Villancicos.
Spanish Christmas carols
Villancicos weren’t originally for Christmas, nor for flamenco. Emerging as a type of folk music in the Iberian peninsula and dating back to the 15th century, the songs were initially about rural country lives, sung in a poem composed mainly of estribillos (refrains) and coplas (stanzas). The theme of Christianity started to occupy this musical genre in the middle of the 16th century, in both Spain and the Spanish colonies in Latin America, mostly as an educational tool to new converts of Catholicism.
These songs were, therefore, sung at events and occasions based on the Catholic calendar. However, after going through decline in popularity, Villancicos have almost been reduced to the role of Christmas carols since the 20th century. Although the songs are now restricted to the specific season, the styles can be varied, and flamenco isn’t the only possibility for the musical arrangements.
To travel through different types of Villancicos, let’s look at some examples: the first one is in a ‘for everybody’ style, carolled in a cathedral:
5 Villancicos Navideños en la Catedral de Valladolid
(The framework excludes those who are singing, but you can get an idea)
The next one is in a typical Spanish folkloric style, performed in Granada:
Coros y Danza de Granada - Villancicos populares de Granada
As far as the theme of Christianity and Christmas is secured, the musical arrangements can be varied. Having a distinctive gypsy culture localised in Catholic Spain, there was no wonder that those Christmas carols have been influenced by flamenco too. When Villancicos are devoured by flamenco, they can be performed in various palos: Villancicos por Bulerías, por Tangos, por Alegrías… The following example shows Villancicos por Fandangos:
Villancico por Fandangos. Peña femenina de Huelva. 1989
Villancicos as cante solo
Basically, anyone can sing and enjoy Villancicos - after all, they’re Christmas carols which are often sung in chorus. Having said that, when tailored in a flamenco style, we can also appreciate beautiful solo performances of Villancicos by renowned professional cantaores. Considering the tradition of flamenco singers delivering Saetas during religious processions, it’s not strange.
Probably the most popular Villancicos for cante solo are ‘Campanilleros’ and ‘Villancicos del Gloria’. If you’re a flamenco fan, you’d recognise the songs, especially the latter as this was featured in Carlos Saura’s 1995 film ‘Flamenco’.
Campanilleros. Niña de la Puebla. 1989
Villancicos del Gloria. José Mercé. 2019
Villancicos and Zambomba
Just like flamenco itself, Villancicos are regional too, hence there are some local variations in terms of how they are enjoyed. In Jerez, for example, it’s strongly related to Zambomba.
Zambomba literally refers to a friction drum that has a thin, long stick sticking out from the centre of the drum skin. You make noise by vibrating the membrane with the stick to mark the beats. What is confusing is that the word Zambomba also means a fiesta itself, held at Christmas time, singing Villancicos. In some areas, Seville for instance, you can even hold a Zambomba without a zambomba - that is, you could call a Christmas fiesta ‘Zambomba’ without involving the instrument.
Since we can’t have a real fiesta or travel to Andalusia or even sing in public, let’s make a virtual space-and-time trip to imaginarily join these people in Jerez before the pandemic: ¡Feliz Navidad!
Lo Flamenco | Zambombas de Jerez