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:   Continue reading “Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain”