Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain

Noted for its dramatic intensity and tragic beauty, the saeta is a type of devotional song performed during Holy Week processions in the Andalusia region of Spain, inspired by images of the suffering Christ and Virgin. It is sung during pauses in the procession, usually without accompaniment: a loud, melismatic wail of praise and lament. Sometimes such performances are planned, with a professional singer standing on a balcony; other times they are improvised by someone in the crowd, as he or she feels moved. Either way, the performances are typically quite emotional.

Here’s a spontaneous male duet performance that took place in the village of San Fernando in the Andalusian province of Cádiz in 2011:

The word saeta means “arrow” in Spanish, referring to the way in which the song soars through the air, piercing the hearts of its listeners.

Music historians locate the origins of the saeta in late medieval monastic canticles. According to Doreen Carvajal in The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition,

Most experts agree that the early primitive form of saeta was composed of Gregorian psalms sung by friars and monks during missions. Later the musical structure broke free and was adapted for singing in the street, reshaped by converso Jews [Jewish converts to Catholicism] in the sixteenth century.

While some of these Jewish Catholic songs may have expressed genuine devotion to a newly embraced Christ, most of them—one theory notes—were coded expressions of the singer’s own sorrow at having been forced to renounce his or her former faith by threat of exile or death. This was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, after all.

The saeta was also developed early on by the Andalusian gypsies (gitanos), who have adopted the Catholicism of their host country and who remain the saeta’s most popular interpreters today. They brought to it the elements of flamenco, such that the saeta is now regarded as a subset of that art form and is a part of every flamenco singer’s cante jondo (“deep song”) repertoire.

Saeta for the blind and imprisoned
Julio Romero de Torres (Spanish, 1874–1930), La Saeta, 1918. Oil on canvas. Painted in response to the following saeta lyrics: “¡Oh Santo Cristo de Gracia! / Volved la cara atrás. / Dadle a los ciegos vista / y a los presos libertad.” (Oh Holy Christ of Grace! / Turn your face upon us. / Give sight to the blind / and liberty to the prisoners.)

Even though the saeta has made its way into concert halls, it is still best known as a song of the people, an integral part of Andalusian folk culture, especially among gypsy communities. Sometimes gypsy saeteros (saeta singers) incorporate into the lyrics expressions of ethnic pride—for example, identifying Jesus and his mother, Mary, as one of their own:  

Ya viene el Cristo moreno
el Señor de los gitanos
el mas grande y el mas gueno.
Apretaitas las manos
Pobre Jesús Nazareno.

Miralo por dónde viene
er Jesú de gran podé!
A cada paso que da
nace un lirio y un clavé.

Virgen de la Macarena
reflejo de luna clara
da en tu carita morena.
No hay cara como tu cara
ni pena como tu pena.
Behold the brown-skinned Christ,
Lord of the gypsies,
The highest and holiest,
With hands bound,
Poor Jesus of Nazareth.

Look at the way He comes,
Jesus the all-powerful!
Lilies and carnations bloom
Wherever he sets his foot.

Virgin of Macarena,
The bright moon’s reflection
Shines in your dark little face.
There is no face like yours
And no pain like your pain. [Source]

Here are a few more examples of saetas being performed in their most typical setting: at religious parades during the final week of Lent.

Marina Heredia, Granada, 2010:

Unidentified man, Madrid, 2013 (though the art form remains the most popular in its birthplace, Andalusia, it has spread to other parts of Spain, as this video evidences):

Maria Vargas, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 2015:

Some traditional saeta lyrics do exist, but for the most part saeteros improvise their own, interspersing them with vocalizations of grief.

¡Aaaaaayyy! quien te ha enclavado,
Quien te ha enclavado en esa cruz,
¡Aaaaaayyy! Quien te ha en coronado,
Oh divina, quien te ha herido el costado.

Que hay viene tu madre,
Es divina con el pecho traspasado,
¡Aaaaaayyy! Que hay viene tu madre,
Es divina con el pecho traspasado.
Aaaayyy! Who has nailed you,
Who has nailed you on that cross?
Aaaayyy! Who has crowned you?
Oh God, who has hurt your side?

There is your mother.
She is divine with her pierced chest.
Aaaaaayyy! There is your mother.
She is divine with her pierced chest. [Source]

One oft-quoted line goes,

¿Quién me presta una escalera
para subir al madero
para quitarle los clavos
a Jesús el Nazareno?
Who will lend me a ladder
to climb the wood
to remove the nails
from Jesus of Nazareth? [Source]

The melodies are also improvised—they are simple, chant-like.

Here are a few other performances, recorded in studios.

Manuel Torre, 1909:

Smithsonian Folkways Records, 1956:

The saeta gained some recognition in the West when acclaimed jazz musician Miles Davis paid homage to the form on his 1960 album Sketches of Spain. In the saeta track—an instrumental—Davis imitates the voice of the saetero with his trumpet. This, he said, was the most challenging aspect of the whole project. As you listen, notice how the initial fanfare drops out to give way to the saetero, and then it picks back up at the end, signifying that the procession is moving on.

Lastly, here is a video of what is to me the most beautiful-sounding of all the saetas. It’s from the 1966 movie Acompáñame (Come with Me), sung by Rocío Dúrcal as the character Mercedes during what appears to be a deathbed scene. The lyrics are given above. (“¡Aaaaaayyy! . . .”)

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