Those four little pieces of wood! How mysterious and secret they are to anyone who has never held them in their hands! At the first sound of their sonorous peal, there is a fascination not felt with any other percussive instrument. It is difficult to fathom how they convey such power!
At first, the uninitiated places them on the middle finger of the hand and rattles them to try to understand how they can achieve that special quality.
Very often, someone will try to learn in a very short time. It can’t be done.
The minute movements of the fingers have a special action which requires concentrated study and fierce focus to learn.
There are dances in Northern Spain in which dancers of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre and other provinces of the Iberian Peninsula use the castanets on the middle finger and a resounding clap is produced in a quite different technique. And it is surprisingly effective for the demands of this kind of vocabulary and music.
But the Andalusian , the virtuoso, attaches the cords of the castanets on the thumb where it is anchored in a double loop freeing the four fingers of the right hand to operate and slide over In succession from the small finger to each in turn to make a roll.The right hand performs the roll and the left maintains the beat with only the middle finger. This has to be reversed in the case of a left-handed player! I should mention that the instruments are tuned so the bass, macho (left hand) is one third of a tone lower. The right hand (hembra) has the higher voice. Coordination between the two hands is achieved with much practice.
Herein lies difficulty to train ligaments and tendons of the hand to play upon the open castanet. But this is function and not yet art.
I began the study of these small miracles at age 14. These were the first lessons. The effort of beginning to manipulate them took several weeks. Gradually, the ability to play a rhythm in a simple 4/4 or 3/4 count becomes a part of the brain and one proceeds to the next stage.
Now the arms must move with the music and in time and castanets become an accompaniment.
Castanets (palillos) have a well known history extending back to Ancient Greece and Egypt. So I won’t elaborate on the subject. There is a fascinating bronze from this early period of a buffoon dwarf dancing with castanets!
In a previous post, I related my early experience and study with a teacher who had a fine castanet technique and I learned a great deal. After time I was able to handle their role with confidence. Learning to dance, move the arms and master the complicated and sophisticated vocabulary of Spanish dance was not easy, but being young it was possible and after a year of using plastic castanets I acquired a fine pair of professional castanets and moved to the next level. Most of the best castanets are made of pomegranate. They achieve the best sound. The material has to be hard. In fact the unformed wood was often used to make heels for the dance shoes and this was effective for sound. Unfortunately the wood could split and cause trouble. Dancers rely on nails pounded into the heels to make a sharp attack on a floor. I did use the castanet wood often in my younger years and found them pleasing. The nails in the heel can be damaging to a wooden floor, however, so that both choices have drawbacks. I do have one pair of shoes with the castanet heels used for a stylized dance with less heavy footwork. I have a picture of these special items.
When I was offered a chance to study with José Fernandez at no cost, I was overjoyed to be given this opportunity to learn an approach that I had not anticipated before. Castanets must be scored as an instrument to function as another voice in the musical matrix. It is more than underlining the rhythm but carving out a part of their own as an element of the whole.
My castanets playing made such an impression, that a friend and mentor, Raquel Rojas, the dancer, actress and writer who encouraged me in my earliest endeavors wanted to borrow my palillos to use in an engagement!! I was flattered and stunned that my castanets would now perform in effect on their own in another’s hands! The rich history of the castanets in the career of Antonia Mercé, La Argentina, and her superb mastery of the castanets as a real musical instrument is well known. I was honored to have the opportunity to record my castanet playing with piano accompaniment on Period Records in 1954 when I was concertizing on the East Coast. I dedicated the disk to Antonia Mercé’s memory. The music I selected for the assignment was based on some compositions by Albeniz, Turina, Malats, and Valverde. These dances were specialties of Antonia Mercé. I had learned these works from my first teachers and had perfected them to the point of performing them in earlier appearances. Essentially they were theater or stylized dances which lent themselves well to a castanet score. The Escuela Bolera (School Dance) always featured castanets. They were the true “classic” fundamentals of the Spanish dance. The vinyl disk was advertised as INESITA and distributed all over the world. It was prominently displayed in Sam Goody’s, a well known music store on Broadway!
Strangely, the management of the Record Company issued the flamenco repertoire on side one which I recorded with Juan Martinez as guitarist for the flamenco dances. Perhaps they perceived the flamenco as more appealing to the general public. I considered the castanets superior to the flamenco work at the time, but had no control over the release of the material.
Juan Martinez was a dancer as well as a competent guitarist who appeared with La Argentina during her tours. This is mostly forgotten history!
Flamenco dance, song and guitar music does not usually lend itself well to castanet playing as the use of palmas, pitos and the cajon dominate the performances. The rhythms contain a rich tapestry of off-beating and crossing tempos which are best manifested in complicated hand clapping and heel beats. Flamenco has a distinct construction which stems from the song forms and demands an aesthetic contrary to written music. The composers of Spain offered great beauty of harmonies as well as rhythmic qualities in an impressionistic manner. Flamenco as an earthy form has a tension not found in the formal music of these composers. Nevertheless their scope has attributes lacking in “cante jondo “. The complexity of the flamenco idiom is astonishing and the past is swallowed up in new ideas and I regard it as natural. Everything evolves. Originally, the castanets were a feminine aspect and male dancers frequently ignored them. Nevertheless, there are many fine castanet players among male artists today and I applaud this. The gitanos, tended to regard castanets as associated with the aristocracy. So their use was avoided in favor of the more spectacular display of hand clapping and finger snapping at which they excelled. I also discovered that in the Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas of which I have written, the music is so rich that most of this music needs no percussive addition.
In my view, castanets are very special. They can shout or whisper; murmur and speak to us in a language all their own. Palillos! Like nothing else!