Andalucían culture features prominently in my recent novels, Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, especially in relation to music and dance, which is characterised by a single emotion: passion. As Salvador tells Alexandra in Indiscretion:
‘Spanish flamenco is the embodiment of passion. Some people say that music is at its best when wild and unleashed. Flamenco is often like that, heels stamping, castanets clicking, skirts of the dancers whirling.’
He goes on to explain that not all flamenco music is performed in this way – it can be still and poignant – but of course Salvador has described here the vision of flamenco that most people conjure up, of which castanets is an integral part.
In fact, while castanets are used in some flamenco dances, they are not traditional to all flamenco. They are more commonly played as part of other folkloric dances, like the Sevillana and the balletic Escuela Bolera. Here is an example from my novel Masquerade; a raw, spirited performance by my character Marujita:
‘The older gitana took up her castanets and stalked into the space, twirling her hands like proud birds. Now the true queen had taken the stage for all to see. With mesmerizing nobility the gypsy danced, her head held high, hands and arms moving with a power and beauty that were breathtaking. Every movement, while exaggerated in its twists and turns, was fluidly graceful; then she dipped and twirled aggressively like an Amazon warrior, her castanets clattering like gunfire. Marujita’s black eyes shone like some terrifying goddess as her arms swooped up like wings about to take flight.’
‘Castanets’ is derived from the Spanish word for chestnut (castana), but in Andalucía the instrument is known as palillos, which translates to saucers. The instrument isn’t, in fact, Spanish in origin. In various forms, it can be traced back more than 10,000 years, beginning with the Phoenicians and then being taken up by the Iberians, who brought it to Spain.
The simplicity of the instrument and the ease with which it can be played to create a rhythmic percussive sound has helped it to stand the test of time. Modern castanets are formed from two shell-shaped clackers held together by a string or leather tie. Hardwood produces the best sound: granadillo, rosewood, ebony, pomegranate or oak.
Don’t let the simplicity of castanets fool you, though, that they are easy to play! It takes years of practice to play with speed and mastery. Remember, the castanets player is not merely a dancer or musician, but must be both at once. Accomplished players can coax from the castanets a range of sounds. The right hand holds the hembra (the higher-pitched ‘female’ of the pair) while the left holds the macho (the lower-pitched ‘male’ set). This video shows a skilled castanets player in action, accompanying the Berlin Opera Chamber Orchestra as they play Georges Bizet’s Carmen:
When it comes to castanets playing, the most important artist is Antonia Mercé y Luque. Born in 1890 to professional Spanish dancers, she was destined for the stage, but she grew up to have strong opinions on what she performed there. Essentially, she developed her own dance style, based on Spanish folkloric dancing, which would prove hugely influential, and castanets playing was an important element of that. La Argentina, as she came to be known, laid the foundations of all modern castanets playing: her way of playing become the definitive way of playing.
La Argentina took castanets beyond the borders of Spain, notably to the US, which she toured six times, and to France, where she was especially popular in Paris. There, Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted a work he considered one of his most important, called ‘Dancing Girl with Castanets’ (1909). I will leave you with this artwork, which I think perfectly encapsulates the emotion and intensity of the castanets player.