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Saetas: Prayer from the Heart
by Candela Olivo

One of the most bone-chilling experiences of Andalusia's Holy Week is hearing that broken voice, which, from the loneliness and the anonymity springs out, singing from the soul from on high to pray to the baroque images. The "saeta" (a style of religious music) has been able to find in flamenco a way of channeling its prayer. Flamenco in the saeta, a way to get close to God. But this encounter is anything but casual considering reflections like that of Gabriel del Estal for whom "flamenco, on its own, is already a prayer".

The saeta goes back to an uncertain moment in history as a popular canticle whose intention was to inspire devotion and penitence on the occasion of the Way of the Cross or canticle of the Lord's Passion. These sententious saetas or moral warnings were sung in the 18th century by the Brothers of the Rounds of Mortal Sins who patrolled the streets to encourage the faithful to be pious and to repent.

The birth of the popular saeta and the custom of people singing it to express their religious feelings dates, approximately, to the middle of the 19th century. This primitive saeta, which has now almost disappeared, was moving for its grave, deliberate, monotone intonation, which was simple in style and execution. From these old original saetas, performers in each shire in Andalusia elaborated modified forms. These saetas had features particular to each locality and inspired local songs like the old Cordoba saeta, the "Cuartelera" of Puente Genil, the saetas from Marchena or Castro del Rio's "Samaritan".

This song of faith, and flamenco, that other way of expressing the deepest sentiments, came together in the hearth of the common people at the start of the 20th century. The people's artistic expression gave form to the saeta, adapting it to its styles, flavoring it with flamenco. A popular song arose with four or five eight-syllable verses sung to the tunes of "martinetes" or "seguiriyas" soulful flamenco styles which go well with the black tone of Christ's passion. Since then, these songs have been played, directing them to the images, without accompaniment, during the passing of the processions of Holy Week. The theme of these songs is, obviously, the Passion and the Death of Jesus Christ, as is exemplified by these lyrics of Francisco Moreno Glaván, recorded in 1974 by Diego Clavel:

Carry him little by little,
Foreman, in short steps
Because he smothers himself in sorrow,
and carries his eyes low
from tears like pearls.
They lowered him from the plank
And in sheets they put him,
His body faded,
His Mother asks to the Heavens:
What crime has he committed?

The appearance of the saeta as a flamenco song could have occurred many years before its popularization in the 1920's, according to José Blas Vega. Although its creator is not known to an exact science, some theorists cite Enrique el Mellizo (Henry the Twin) together with other members of his family. Hipólito Rossy maintains the theory that the creator of flamenco saeta was Manuel Centeno, whereas other theorists attribute its birth to Antonio Chacón or Manuel Torre. Recognized artists from the saeta's first age of splendor were La Serrana (the highland woman) who recorded Medina el Viejo (Medina the Old One), La Niña de los Peines (the Girl of the Combs) and Manuel Vallejo, together with El Gloria (the Glory) who is said to be the best architect of the style. His extremely personal interpretation, with its musically perfect flamenco structure, is the one most followed by later saeta singers.

The modern version of Centeno's saeta broke away from its roots in the 1920's, becoming overelaborated with ornaments and lengthened into three parts. Due to the voice of La Niña de la Alfalfa (the Alfalfa Girl) this modern form took over Seville during those years. Carmen Lineares captures this peculiar style in the anthology "La Mujer en el Cante" (Women in Flamenco Singing) about the Manuel Font de Ante's "La Marcha Amargura" (March of Sorrow):

Now Hope is drawing near
Beautiful as the Heavens
Glory to the Sevillians
And Honor to the "Macarenos"
(residents of the Macarena, a district in Seville)
Listen in Real Audio

Luis Melgar Reina and Ángel Marin Rujula, in the work "Saetas, pregones y romances litúrgicos cordobeses" (Saetas, speeches and liturgical romances from Cordoba) explain that: 'flamenco-influenced saetas are born in the precise instant in which the flamenco singer feels the need to direct himself publicly to God, singing the old tune, known as old saeta, but disguising it with flamenco features. Modern saeta became totally flamenco when, with time, it carved itself a place in the moving mystery of flamenco emotivity.

Musically, the saeta has split in two. The old saeta survives, though overelaborated with a profusion of decorations with groups of short notes replacing single long ones. Moreover, professional flamenco singers have invented a new form of saeta based on the "seguiriya" (one of the three fundamental forms of flamenco, together with "toná" and "soleá") adapting this style to the religious meaning of the words.

Marchena, the cradle of the "cantoración" (song-prayer)

Many investigators agree that the town of Marchena in the Seville province is the epicenter of the saetas. Because of the ideal social, historic, religious and musical factors that have crossed these croplands, they dare to conclude that this was the cradle of "cantoractión" (song-prayer). The first monastery of Franciscans was already established in Marchean in the fifteenth century, and ten other religious orders would later follow. This fact is relevant since the very name "saeta" is attributed to religious orders like the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Capuchins, and even more so if considering that all these orders were settled in Marchena.

In addition to these profound religious beliefs, this town has distinguished itself by a strong musical and poetic sensitivity. Fruit of this combination of art and the sacred, the primitive old saetas from Marchena were born in the fraternities of penetience. Ten different types are presently conserved, and perhaps, there was an eleventh which fell in disuse and has been lost. The folk of Marchena continue singing saetas like "la Quinta y Sexta del Cristo de San Pedro" (the Fifth and Sixth of Christ of Saint Peter), "la Cuarta de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno" (the Fourth of our Father Jesus of Nazareth), "la Cuarta del Dulce Nombre de Jésus" (The Fourth of the Sweet Name of Jesus), "la Cuarta del Señor de la Humildad y Peciencia" (The Fourth of the Lord of Humility and Penitence), "las Carceleras de la Soledad" (the Jailers of the Solitude) or "las Marcheneras" (those from Marchena).

With the aim of preserving this rich musical legacy, the Circle of the Friends of Flamenco of Estremadura produced the disk "Origen and Evolución de la Saeta: Saetas Marcheneras" (Origin and Evolution of the Saeta: Saetas from Marchena). This work, released in 1999 by Promúscia, captures the tradition of sacred flamenco in the voice of saeta singers from Marchena. But this is not the first act to conserve the saeta from Marchena. Motivated by this same objective, to preserve, the Sisterhood of the Penitence of Our Father and the Lord of Humility and patience and Our Lady of the Sorrows of Marchena founded a school of saetas in 1986. Voices were raised against its creation, arguing that the regulated instruction could rigidify the style. But the evidence that the times had changed won out, that the old methods of learning, oral transmission while working in the fields or in the homes would not return...

The night had fallen
The darkness covered us
When that beloved, perfect pledge
In Mary´s arms
Corpse, they turned it over to her.
(the Jailer of Solitude)

By Candela Olivo
Translation: Douglas Laurents

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