There’s a scene in Ricardo Pachón’s 1984 film El Ángel: Musical Flamenco that features legendary Andalusian gypsy singers Bernarda y Fernanda de Utrera. Gathered in a reverberant salon, a multi-generational audience of women, men, and children form a tight circle that kinetically pulses with their rhythmic clapping. At the top of the arc from the camera’s viewpoint, sits sixty-one year old La Fernanda next to guitar maestro Pedro Bacán. Dressed in scarlet, Fernanda’s stoic face is lined with the character her voice embodies, melancholy etched into beauty. Her voice flashes out like a blade and as her melismatic tones slash the heavens, the audience is immersed in the catharsis of the moment and seem to vibrate in unison.
On the heels of La Fernanda’s heart-wrenching verses, her younger sister La Bernarda penetrates the circle from one side, walking into frame like an ominous messenger, draped in a white scarf over a black dress and oversized sunglasses obscuring her eyes. From the center of the circle, she slowly rotates, stalking the audience before her voice pierces the atmosphere. She sings of poison and despair while alternating between resolute handclaps and arms flung open in surrender. The audience both feeds on and into this energy with their own emphatic clapping, stomping and shouting.
Bacán’s fingers blur across nylon strings while Fernanda bounds to her feet joining her sister at the center of the audience. The cantaoras (female singers) trade verses like a binary star whose gravitational pulls extract the emotions of those encircling them. Together they reel in the ecstasy and agony and send them crackling skyward on their fingertips.
The musical exchange documented in Pachón’s film is a positive feedback loop, a sonic exorcism of sorts where the singers and players mirror and magnify the collective energies of those gathered around them and reach a heightened state called duende. This slippery but essential concept is notoriously hard to pin down. Duende is often translated with language such as soul, spirit, passion or charisma but what all of these words are reaching towards is a fleeting promise that resides at the heart of flamenco, an ideal emotional alignment between performers and audience that’s transcendent in nature. The music birthed from these moments of duende is woven from the threads of personal and collective experience from the micro-level—romantic passion and the sorrow that inevitably accompanies it, to the macro—cultural conquest and diasporic endurance.
In Andalusia, where flamenco originated, there is no lack of densely-layered history to fuel the fire. A geographic and cultural crossroads, Andalusia has been imprinted with the farflung influences of those who have attempted to and/or succeeded in laying claim to the land—Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Muslims, Christians, Jews and others have all coexisted and clashed there over time. The name Al Andalus, is derived from the Moorish moniker for Spain and it’s their influence that’s perhaps most deeply ingrained here. Starting in the 8th century, The Moors established cities such as Seville, Córdoba and Granada as centers of the arts, mathematics, science, philosophy, poetry, fashion, cuisine, music, and more. The echoes of their polymathic pursuits are etched into the cultural landscape and their instruments, rhythms and vocal styles are deeply ingrained in flamenco music.
Flamenco is also the story of the Romani people or Gitanos as they are known in Spain. Originally hailing from northern Hindustan, it’s believed that the Romani fled an Afghan invasion in the early 11th century and slowly moved through the Middle East, Africa and Europe picking up and leaving behind mannerisms over the course of their migration. The Romani scattered across the path of their migration but large numbers eventually settled in Spain around 1425, bringing with them a cultural fusion bonded by shared values. But unlike the aforementioned groups who left their mark on monumental scales, the Gitano, possibly due to their emphasis on oral traditions, have left a more ephemeral yet potent imprint. In fact, due to the large number of famous Gitano flamenco musicians, they are often synonymous with the musical form and gypsy culture has seeped into the bloodstream of Andalusia.
And if migration forged the building blocks for flamenco music, it was persecution that solidified its structure. During the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, the Moors, Gitanos and Jews all faced great pressure to convert Christianity under the threat of violence. But like many others throughout human history who have managed to wring beauty out of despair, the musical echoes of their hardships have come to form the foundation for flamenco. Modern flamenco is the confluence of all these cultures rubbing against each other – the migrants, oppressors and victims. Their spirits swirled into the cante jondo or deep song of Andalusian flamenco giving it a complex and enduring character.
One contemporary group that’s dedicated to the preservation of flamenco through the act of reinvention is Califato ¾. The Seville-based collective brings a reflection to the past glories of al-Andalus while forging new folklore through their bold outlook on sonic fusion. Their name itself is encoded with intention. Califato nods to the Caliphate of Córdoba, the Umayyad dynasty’s 10th century Muslim kingdom that ruled most of the Iberian peninsula. ¾ represents one of the primary compás, or rhythmic units, of flamenco, the others being 6/8 and 12/8 time. Flying their rhythm flag high, Califato ¾ have made it their mission to transpose the distinct time signatures of the flamenco compás onto current dancefloor genres and to infuse them with an Andalusian perspective
As a group, Califato ¾ is space for exploratory visions to merge, with members coming from different musical collectives: Breaking Bass, LIE radio and Industrias94. They coalesced at a creative retreat in the Andalusian countryside but you could say they were truly born from the streets of Seville with all its layers of subterranean history. As a unit, they are proudly Andalusian but also fully tapped into the broader musical conversations of today's universal underground – where microgenres zip through the internet bringing once regional sounds (and often the methods of making them) to far flung locales. Alongside the elements of traditional flamenco – voice, handclaps, foot stomps, guitar and cajon – the music of Califato ¾ also showcases the members' affinities for zouk, drum and bass, hip hop, dub, rave, punk and more. It’s a blend that lends itself well to reformulation through the use of DAWs and other modern musical tools. Califato ¾ merges often disparate elements into new musical mutations that honor their multiple strands of DNA while shining as a greater whole.
And while the collapsing of musical space and time accelerated by the internet has bred many positive new possibilities for music making and even dissolved borders in some senses, knowing where you come from within this swirling infinitude remains vital. Projecting a unique cultural viewpoint can be an antidote to bland globalism and you can feel the essence of al-Andalus in every aspect of Califato ¾’s output, from the iconography of Judeo-Christian Semana Santa festivities in their videos to songs embedded with Sevillian historical references. The band’s lyrics are written in Êttandâ pal andalûh, an unofficial orthography created in 2018 to better reflect the distinct characteristics of the Andalusian dialect, and they often incorporate music for regional folk dances such as sevillanas in their compositions. Califato ¾ is dedicated to Andalusia's history by ensuring it pushes towards the future. And like the great Andalusian gypsy singers from Utrera, Fernanda and Bernarda, Califato ¾ energetically exchanges with listeners in a manner that’s part séance, part deep history transmission and all passion.
We caught up with Califato ¾ recently to discuss their music-making practice and started off by asking about the origin and importance of the manifesto they have on their website.
The music came first, the manifesto later. We are five people, and each one comes from a different style and way of doing things, perhaps this is what most enriches our world. We drink from different rivers but everything reaches the same sea. As friends, we manage to understand each other very well, and we have fun, the most important thing for group work.
After the first album “L'ambôccá”, we formed the group for the first time and we created the manifesto to consolidate certain ideas, but the really curious thing is that we carried it out naturally. It is very flexible despite the written intentions, and it probably boils down to incorporating Andalusian elements in our music, in any form of expression: sonorous, rhythmic, anecdotal, folkloric, philosophical, street…
Califato ¾’s manifesto from their website: https://califato3x4.com/
Tell us about honoring an existing musical tradition while also evolving it through experimentation. Did you have to step away from your own Andalusian heritage to really appreciate it?
We honor folklore in our music, always from a place of admiration. When you treat things with care when doing them, you also transmit the same thing when people listen to it. We make music that can last over time, with no shame, but with dedication and care. It is always necessary to look at things from the outside in order to have another point of view. We have separated from our folklore and have come back to take it to another level. We are very proud of Andalusian culture, from the past and now.
[Califato ¾ member] The Gardener posted a video of a shrine on Instagram with a framed portrait of Las Grecas. How have fellow innovators of the flamenco tradition influenced you?
We have countless references. To mention a few: Bernarda and Fernanda, El Torta, El Capullo de Jerez, La Paquera... all these artists are very personal. Their life and their music come together giving a very personal strength to everything they do.
You also utilize visual elements to project your identity, via music videos, album art and fashion. How do Andalusian traditions, religious iconography, Semana Santa processions, etc. factor into your visual aesthetic and how might these directly cross over into the sounds you make?
The elements that we use in our image have a lot to do with the traditions of our land, likewise, everything is created by Andalusian artists and designers or with links to Andalusia such as Rorro Berjano, JLR or Marina Nosequé. We first make the sounds, and then the different artists immerse themselves in it to create an image or video. This modern vision with hints of nostalgia is what interests us.
What are the specific rhythms and time signatures that sit at the foundation of flamenco music and how can these building blocks be used as foundations for more experimental musical expressions?
Flamenco rhythms are normally based on 3/4 or 12/8. We have adopted those beats to expand the normal use of dance floor focused electronic music. We believe that there is much to investigate and we love to delve into different rhythms than what we are used to.
Might some flamenco purists take offense at the modification of a compás?
Our music is always based on respect and admiration. We are attracted to futuristic views because we are closely related to electronic music. We don´t understand how we can offend anyone because we have no intention of causing offense. We make music to have fun, the flamenco “palos” are in a certain way like the “jazz standards”, there are some “rules of the game” but each artist is free to make their own version of them. What is boring in flamenco or in any discipline is to dwell too much on technical issues, and stop flowing or enjoying.
Nowadays there are infinite ways to experiment with electronics, Ableton itself or any other DAW offers infinite possibilities, not to mention modern VSTs and the whole range of synthesizers and effects that exist. To give an example, in our song “Fandangô de Carmen Porter” we use a pattern randomizer plugin: We use the basic pattern of a classic fandango and we incorporate this tool to give the bass a futuristic touch. Creativity in our case arises from group work, everyone listening and contributing with ideas that lead us to use different tools.
In flamenco, dance, music, and song are inextricably linked. Is consideration of dance a vital part of Califato ¾ ’s compositional process?
Flamenco music is usually taken as a kind of ritual, a way of entering a certain trance; the same thing happens with electronic music in a club. We want to emphasize where these two forms of expression, so different in appearance, come together. Our way of making music is also festive; we have creative-party/brainstorm sessions so that ideas arise in a visceral and unconscious way, just as it would happen in a flamenco meeting.
Can you talk about the interplay between acoustic elements such as hand claps or nylon-stringed guitar and electronic elements originating from a DAW? How can you ensure these each shines independently while merging into a greater whole?
Each song asks for different things, we make no distinction in the elements. Normally we use a DAW to record some demos, and then comes recording with acoustic instruments (mainly strings or wind instruments). Everything gets a lot of brilliance and punch but it can also be the case that what makes a sound original is its “artificiality”.
In our first EP, L'ambôccá, everything was done on the computer. Then we began to incorporate acoustic instruments, with hundreds of tracks, and it was difficult to simplify, because each of the elements was contributing something different. Also in the creation phase we tend to leave gaps, so that we rest for a solo, a stop, a transition.
Normally, everything comes out in a collage of acoustic or synthetic elements, and then we figure out how we can play it live. At that point we realize what we need to do for the sounds to have the brilliance and presence that you mention. The important thing is the dynamics, not losing the element of surprise in a song. And no matter whether it is an acoustic or digital surprise, you have to give freshness to all the creations.
We believe that an important part of creation is making creative decisions that bring novelty: adding an extreme fx to a group of tracks, a sound at the “wrong” volume, a “broken” rhythmic pattern, an unpredictable cut, a synth that sounds like a guitar…
‘Cante jondo’ translates to deep song but refers to deep in more of a profound emotional sense. How have modern electronic instruments allowed for a deepness of frequency to enter into flamenco that wasn't possible with acoustic instruments?
The sound of electronic music is constantly changing, causing us to completely detach ourselves from the sound space of drums-guitar-bass-voice. Cante jondo is ritualistic, it's impressive how much can be transmitted by nothing more than a guitar, a voice, clapping hands and a cajon. If we take this instrumental minimalism to electronics we get to connect with what you mention: The deep sound of the synthetic basses, the use of extreme effects... this new sound universe is like a colossal fantasy that can be very "jonda". Mixing ancient sounds with the most avant-garde.
Keep up with Califato ¾ on their website, Instagram, Spotify and Bandcamp
Text and Interview: Mark McNeill
Photography: Adrián del Campo