The saeta is an unaccompanied song stemming from Jewish religious songs which are believed to date back to the 16th century. The singer will show his ardent devotion to a particular image of Christ or the Virgin during its performance and to witness an ancient saeta performed from a balcony in a narrow back street is an experience that you will leave you emotionless.
Today, saetas are planned with professional singers often performing them, unlike years before when the saeta would be sung by anyone who felt moved by the images of the passion.
The word saeta comes from the Latin, Sagitta, which means arrow, and although not flamenco by origin, they have all the spontaneity of flamenco, and today many artists include the saeta in their repertoire.
The saeta has all the primitive tones of the debla or martinete, but many singers now use the guitar as an accompaniment when recording the saeta.
The performance of the saeta will be far more passionate when sung in front of the images of the passion, rather than in a tavern or recording studio. The saetero, or singer of the saeta, will be inspired by the whole scene of the procession, the people and the atmosphere, the incense and the sombre beat of the drum all combining to give the right ambience.
Although you may witness some excellent saetas performed outside of Semana Santa, the most emotionally-inspiring ones will normally been in the early hours of the morning in areas like Triana (Seville); during the performance of the saeta, the only sound you will hear will be the burning of the incense.
There are many flamenco singers who have been excellent saeteros and Manuel Vallejo and Pastora Pavon (La Niña de los Peines) were two of the most sought-after singers during holy week in Seville during the mid-1920s. Manuel Torre was also an excellent singer of saetas, and he once sang a two-hour saeta in the 1920s to the Virgin de la Macarena, bringing the centre of Seville to a complete standstill. Today the pasos are only allowed to stop for two or three minutes for the saeta to be performed, and the brotherhood that owns the pasos are fined if they are late going back into the church, something for which the gypsies of Seville are notorious.
The saeta, like other forms of flamenco song, are performed slightly different in each area and the oldest and most primitive are believed to be those of Arcos de Frontera in Cadiz and those from Alcalá de Guardaira in Seville. Manolo Zapata was an outstanding singer of the Saetas Viejas de Arcos de Frontera, and Enrique el de la Paula, son of Joaquin el de la Paula, was renowned for his Saetas de Alcalá which were based on the toña.
Another old style of saeta is the Saeta Quinta, an ageing traditional religious song from Marchena in Seville, although unfortunately the most popular style from this town is the Saeta de Pepe Marchena, which is a more modern style of song.
The saeta from Jerez de la Frontera is called Saeta jerezano de siguiriya, and Enrique Soto of the Sordera clan and La Paquera de Jerez were two popular saeteros during the Easter week in the Barrio Santiago in Jerez.
La Paquera was a regular saetera for the confraternity of Cristo de la Expiracíon, a brotherhood to which both her father and grandfather belonged. But strangely enough, La Paquera once said that she preferred to sing the saeta alone in a church than in the street during Semana Santa.
The Saeta Malagueña from Málaga incorporates both the siguiriya and the martinete; the voice weaves its way around long mournful notes that have a rather Gregorian religious echo. This style of saeta is rather long and quite difficult to perform correctly and some singers will perform only in the style of the martinete in order to miss the high notes of the siguiriya.
Antonio de Canillas is a fine singer of the saeta malagueña and he sings in the traditional style using both the martinete and the siguiriya.