Keeping the beat: Panaderas de Pan Duro

El Naán choose their words to enhance the beat of their hands and the strength of their message. You don’t need to speak Spanish to understand them. The sounds of the words speak for themselves: a human language. Filmed in a single take:

The pattern begins immediately: Panaderas de Pan Duro. Percussive sounds aplenty, but the rhythmic magic of the song lies in its subtle, interweaving layers of sound and meaning. Each is wreathed in smooth, light sounds. The pride and hunger of a long, hard life, played out on an empty wooden table.

Let’s be clear – the power of the song doesn’t live in the placing of consonants. The best songwriting is a mix of happenstance and intention. Hard consonants help to emphasise, but hard consonants alone would give you a headache. El Naán have a story to tell and their word choices strengthen the telling of their story.

Panaderas de Pan Duro swings between hard and empty, struggle and hunger. It’s a song of strength and resiliance in desperate times. You don’t need to speak Spanish to feel the emotional beat at the heart of the song. Duro (difficult/hard/strong/resilient) is the key word. Its presence in the title is no coincidence. Duro is the central concept and the foundation stone of the song. When life is hard, you must be hard to survive it.

Duro refers to the family’s diet of stale, hard bread (pan duro). Duro reminds us of the toughness and resilience of the family. The song is full of hard words: madera (wood), piedra (stone). Unyielding, enduring substances. The family has just two stones (dos piedras) to cook up into a meal with seis lentejas (six lentils).

It’s no coincidence that panadera and madera are twin sounds. And it’s clever songwriting that they’re not directly rhymed. The sound echo is left for the listener to discover.

Every beat of a hard brings you back to a memory of duro. The singer explains: Tengo dos manos honradas/Tiernas y duras a un tiempo (I have two honourable hands/Both hard and tender)

Duro itself, with its round, open ending, is a simple word that isn’t a simple word. Like most well-used words, it carries within it a universe of meaning that unfolds in song.

If you listen to the way El Naán sing the heart-word duro, you’ll hear them extending the final vowel. That gives the audience more time to think about the word duro and to add meaning to it. El Naán use the same technique in important words that end in o and a. It’s a way of signifying importance and encouraging attention.

In English song, we tend to use the ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ final consonant technique to call for attention. Like this or this.

If you’d like to see how tricky the traditional panaderas hand game is, watch these Spanish schoolchildren. The younger children have had time to practise. The older children are learning as they go:

If you’re writing a song in English: listening to Panaderas de Pan Duro will help you, whether you speak Spanish or not. The rules of sound and meaning are universal, they transcend language and geography. Panaderas de Pan Duro is a masterclass in balance of sound, with percussive and smooth woven together to carry meaning.

Simple words like duro carry layers of extra meaning that unfold as the song continues. It’s the same with simple English words like pretty heredo here or bang bang here. Always look beneath the surface when you choose your words to fit your music. In any language.

No English word means just one thing. The definition you learnt in English class won’t be the only meaning attached to an English word in the minds of native English speaking listeners. Always check with online dictionaries provided by Cambridge here and Oxford here. And always read to the bottom of the page when you’re looking at word definitions. Every meaning is possible, when you sing a word.

Songwriting is selection. The best word, out of all possible words. Chosen by sound, when sound marries meaning and music.

By the way: you can get an idea of how an enthusiastic panaderas or two might improve your breadmaking by watching this.

El Naán are performing at: EtnoKraków, the international, traditional music festival in Kraków, Poland from July 5th – 9th.

© Sing Better English, 2016


5 thoughts on “Keeping the beat: Panaderas de Pan Duro”

  1. What an astounding post! I love your lessons in pronunciation *and* songwriting (“Always look beneath the surface when you choose your words to fit your music. In any language.”). And I greatly appreciated the introduction to El Náan. I’m in awe that they could both keep that intricate rhythm going while singing that complex, multi-versed song. Very impressive! I did watch the video of the children learning the “ritmo panaderas” as well, but was quickly reminded why I gave up my Flamenco dance classes as a kid: “Esa niña no tiene una gota de ritmo.” 🙂 Thank you just the same for making me WANT to tap my feet to this stirring music.


    1. Thank you, Heather. El Naán have done a brilliant job with their words, arranging them so that the consonants pop up at just the right place to suit the percussion of their hands on the table. There’s an alchemy to songwriting and I’d guess it’s more a process of trial and error, with an eventual “wow, that works perfectly” rather than “let’s carefully arrange our words to align with the movement of our hands. So, we need a ‘d’ here, here and here. Any ideas on words with a ‘d’ in the middle?” It’s that Michelangelo thing, isn’t it – discovering the statue inside the stone rather than imposing a statue on stone.

      I felt for the older children who’d been ‘set up’ a bit in the panaderas-learning scenario. I’d guess that the younger kids had been drilled in panaderas for a while. The older children must have a felt a bit like beginners dropped into an advanced tango class.

      And, thinking of your youthful flamenco setback – I think you’d enjoy this post by The Pale Rook, a marvellous textile artist from Scotland:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right that there’s an alchemy To songwriting — and, like actual alchemy, it’s difficult to get it right, even when you have the right ingredients and know how to combine them! That’s why I’m in awe of songwriters like Paul Simon who can keep cranking it out over several decades and evolve their subject and style without losing any of the magic.

        And thank you SO MUCH for sharing that post from The Pale Rook. What a beautiful story, so wisely told. I just became her newest subscriber. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s lovely, isn’t it? She seems to be a thoughtful soul. I think she is one of those bloggers who was ‘discovered’ by WordPress, with the blizzard of likes, follows and comments from random people that discovery always seems to generate. I do like her work. There’s something ancient and fragile about the dolls she makes.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You have such a beautiful way with words that I’m often tempted to just “copy and paste” and quote you back to yourself! I agree with you on all counts, Elaine.

        Liked by 1 person

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