Prayer from the Heart
by Candela Olivo
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".
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.
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:
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?
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.
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):
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)
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.
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.
the cradle of the "cantoración" (song-prayer)
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
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...
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