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Article: A short analysis of RAGAS and FLAMENCO

By Simon Zolan

The word raga comes from the Sanscrit ranj and means to colour with emotion. It is a combination of notes which acts directly on the senses.

Flamenco is by nature passionate and dramatic and also appeals directly to the heart. Some sources say it means fugitive peasant, others link it both the flashy dressing of the Flemish courtiers (known as Flamencos) and the gypsies with which the "flashy" music became associated.

Ragas are derived from basic parent scales. These are known as melakartas in southern India. There are 72 melakartas and all the south Indian ragas correspond to their parent scales in their ascending aroha and descending avroha note structures. This is a more comprehensive system than in the north of India, where there are ten parent groups known as thaats. A thaat is simply a particular grouping of 7 swaras or notes.

Flamenco follows a strict time sequence called compás in groups of 12 beats, but also in other time signatures such as 3/4 and 4/4. Although the basics must be totally absorbed, flamencos can vary the emphasis within the compás to produce countertime and a variation on the rhythmic pulse.

Ragas belong to three classes or jatis according to the number of notes that ascend or descend.Sampurna ragas use all the seven notes SA RE GA MA PA DHA NI (such as the Bilaval and kafi ragas.) Ragas using six notes are known as sadava and examples of these are puriya and gurjari todi. The five note ragas such as bhupali and malkauns are known as odava. In addition to these three main types ragas may be of mixed class where the number of notes is different both up and down. Asavari for example is an odava-sampurna raga as it has five notes ascending (aroha) and seven descending (avroha). A raga should not have more than 7 nor less than 5 notes. No such limitation exists in flamenco.

Flamenco traditionally follows the phrygian modal scale, but allows certain mixtures of major and minor scale elements, as it is exposed to other cultures through fusion. The number of notes is not a limiting factor.

Every raga has a key note known as the vadi.This sound is dwelt on and accentuated constantly throughout the piece and is used to begin and end all variations. It is eagerly awaited and desired so that tension may be resolved.

In flamenco there is a climax and release of pent up emotion, with an insistence on a key note, that resolves after the build-up of a variation. Either the singer or dancer brings such catharsic moments to the delight of the crowd, but also at times the guitarist, although his role is more to accompany and therefore enhance the performance of the dancer and singer.

A raga can immediately be identified by its catch phrase (pakad) which only emerges when there is an elaboration of a number of patterns (vistar). A raga is essentially a melody where all notes are sung or played in succession. The absence of harmony and the movement from one note to another is what distinguishes Indian music from Western music. Much use is made of embellishments such as meends slides, andolitas swings, kampitas shakes and mirhs or slurs. A raga is given shape and beautified by numerous ornaments, alamkaras and other devices, the best known of which are taans. The jabra taan creates a trembling throaty effect; the kut taan uses notes in a fast zigzag manner; the choot taan has upward and downward movements at great speed; the gamak taan uses each note twice in virtuoso displays of technique.

Flamenco makes use of various devices to ornament without deserting its structure. Notes are repeated and embellished in both the song and the guitar. The guitar has a tapping plate called golpeador which is used for syncopation and emphasis by the guitarist. The thumb in flamenco is also so important. Some techniques have been borrowed from classical guitar, but the alzapúa thumb technique is very flamenco, especially when combined with golpes or tapping on the golpeador. Less obvious is how the dancer can make use of a sequence that can be changed on the spur of the moment when performing within a given form. Improvisation in flamenco implies a complete understanding and control of compás. The guitarist can adorn certain notes as long as there is a compelling resolution to the sequence, an inevitable conclusion at the right time. This is difficult to explain in words as much depends upon the performer, but the conventions must be followed. This is where the interesting argument begins as to what is acceptable or even pure in flamenco.

According to Indian ancient theory, the musician's task in exploring mood is made easier if the performance takes place at the time and in the atmosphere appropriate to the raga. So if a raga which embodies the atmosphere of spring is played in spring it will be more effective than if it were played in winter. The right atmosphere responds to the raga as it were, just as the sympathetic strings of a sitar vibrate to enrich the melody being played on the main strings. This is why particular times and seasons are deemed suitable for particular ragas.

No such reference exists in flamenco, though the appropriate (though not exclusive) time for flamenco is late at night or in the early hours of morning, when people enjoy a fiesta and when it is cooler.

Yet the time theory is an honoured one in all Indian classical music. There are ragas appropriate to the early morning, the late morning, the noon and afternoons.Midday and midnight ragas usually have GAb and NI b (Bb); and the ragas before twilight must have SA(C), M(F) and PA(G). The ragas of the sunrise and sunset belong to the special sandhiprakash, the twilight group. In general the time of the ragas performance is determined by the position of the vadi. If the vadi is in the purvanga (lower tetrachord) then it would be suitable for the hours between midnight and midday.

In a full rendering the most important part of the raga is the alap or beginning, when the mood of the raga is established in a slow, meditative and rhythm-free exposition known as the vistar where each note is given full significance.

In flamenco there can be a slow build up in some of the more serious flamenco forms eg Soléa leading to highs and lows throughout the form. Percussion can be used, either hand clapping and/or a box like instrument called a cajón as accompaniment. Yet it is the flamenco guitarist who binds the whole group together.

In Indian music as the raga develops, an element of rhythm is brought in with the percussion instrument, either the tabla or pakhavaj in north India and the mridangram in south India. Here rhythm is all important, and both soloist and percussionist improvise sometimes echoing each other, sometimes going into individual variations of rhythmic counterpoint and at other times playing in unison. In this last section of the raga, the virtuosity of the musicians can be fully displayed. Here the increasing complexity and speed of the variations generate tremendous excitement. Equally so in flamenco, the Bulería often ends a piece in a flurry of excitement and technical prowess.

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