Un poquito de flamencology 6 - Alegrías
A flamenco version of Jota?
In our century, it’s very rare for a flamenco production not to showcase Alegrías on the list, usually as a solo dance piece.
Alegrías belongs to the Cantiñas family, together with Romeras, Caracoles, Mirabrás and such. Cultivated mainly in Cádiz, Andalusia, this group shares the compás of 12 counts like Soleá. Unlike Soleá which is serious and profound, songs of the Cantiñas clan have a joyous air for being sung and played in a major key.
The main distinction of Alegrías from its siblings is that it was influenced not only by traditional Andalusian music but also by another popular music form called Jota, mainly rooted in Aragon of northeastern Spain. In a way, it’s a hybrid of the coastal south and the far-away mountainous north.
Transition from Jota to Alegrías, demonstrated by Faustino Núñez
There have been many notable cantaores from its cradle of Cádiz, such as Aurelio Sellés, Pericón de Cádiz, Beni de Cádiz, La Perla de Cádiz, to name but a few, who have produced significant vocal treasures of Alegrías.
Alegrías by La Perla de Cádiz
Is it always happy?
As the name indicates, Alegrías tends to be associated with joy, happiness, something positive, since the soundscape with a major key provokes a bright, uplifting atmosphere. Many of its letras also praise for romances or lovable features of Cadíz. It doesn’t mean, however, that all the Alegrías are simple, despite its general categorisation as a ‘cante chico’ (a little/light song).
For instance, one of the most frequently sung letras speaks of a tragic experience of the gypsy quarter of Santa Maria being bombed (maybe by a French army as history suggests). Also, in the famous ‘Un Tiro al Aire’, the man shows his struggles and confusions caused by a betrayal of his lover. The emotions could be profound and deep. Nevertheless, such pain melts away into the shining blue sky and the generous ocean of Cádiz through the bright soundwaves of Alegrías.
‘Barrio de Santa Maria’ by Camarón de la Isla
‘Un Tiro al Aire’ by Camarón de la Isla
Layers under Alegrías
Structure-wise, Alegrías has some specially tailored components. The singing starts off with a very typical and memorable entrada or salida ‘tiriti, trán, trán trán’. It was, according to Chano Lobato, an invention at a show/fiesta in 1933 by a cantaor Ignacio Ezpeleta, who couldn’t remember the letras for being drunk. Somewhat sounding like an imitation of the guitar, this ‘tirititran’ has gained its status as standard.
The story of ‘tirititran’ by Chano Lobato, followed by singing Alegrías
The letras usually hold sets of main lines plus an additional part called juguetillo, a special name only in Alegrías, which is usually called coletilla (a little tail) or estribillo in other forms of flamenco. Being similar to the word juguetito (a little toy), the name suggests its playful nature of Alegrías.
In the baile, there are also unique parts called silencio and castellana. Silencio is an interval of silence where the singer rests and the guitarist plays in a minor key, creating a rather sombre mood for a change. Then, we have a choice of inserting castellana or not. That’s a short singing part to break the sorrowful mood and regain a drive for going back to a major key. Some dancers skip it to move straight onto escobilla /zapateado (footwork). In any case it demonstrates a contrast between solitude and joyousness, imagining hidden emotional layers covered under the expression of delight.
Here is an example of a traditional style of dancing Alegrías by Matilde Coral. Although the video starts after entrada, she follows the format consisting of letras including juguetillos, falsetas into subida (speeding up), silencio, castellana, escobilla, bulerías de Cádiz.
Alegrías by Matilde Coral (1982)
Like the purity of lotus flower
To me, this later performance below by Matilde is even more captivating - she remains seated most of the first half, listening respectfully to the singers. When she finally stands up to gradually dance, her physically modest movements evoke richer emotions. She freely enjoys swimming in the beautiful ocean of cante, expressing a joy of life, behind which we could also feel, even without silencio, hidden sadness and suppressed pain generally shared in our lives.
Just like a pure lotus flower blooming through a muddy, dark pond, we could find happiness in life while going through lots of tears, scars, pain, misfortunes, struggles. That’s why we need Alegrías.
Alegrías by Matilde Coral (2011?)