Chasing a Spanish Songbird – Valladolid, Spain, Europe
Plaza Mayor – spacious and framed by red walls – is the heart of Valladolid, a Spanish city 200 kilometres north of Madrid. One weekend in May, the square is dominated by an outdoor stage dedicated to San Pedro Regalado, its patron saint. The true star, though, is a lady singer whose name is spelled out on a vertical banner: Isabel Pantoja.
The popular lady sings copla, a song tradition with roots in Andalucia. Hopeless love stories and uncontrollable passions are common themes. Copla is considered lighter and more commercial than flamenco, its golden days were after the Civil War. It also survived Franco and found in Isabel Pantoja, born in 1956, one of its finest interpreters. She’s an admired performer, worshipped by the members of “Marinero de Luces”, a fan club named after a major hit. On Saturday night at 22.00, she will restart her career.
Nationwide media interest is high; 500 journalists and camera teams fight for the best view. Price signs appear on balconies, ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 Euro, inexpensive compared to the bail of 90.000 that Isabel Pantoja paid for her own recent release. She became suspect number 98 in a case about the mismanagement of public funds and money laundering. Her partner, the previous mayor of Marbella, remains in jail. Greedy construction firms are on one side, badly in need of land – politicians are on the other side, with the right to issue building licenses.
The papers do their best to create hysteria, openly anticipating demonstrations and harassments. “The crisis of her life,” says a headline, intimating that a nervous breakdown is the least one could expect. The media might have a hidden agenda: the transformation of a songbird into a bird of prey: “She was so good, now she’s so bad!” People in general are more balanced, many feel sorry for her, not expecting her to be a specialist in finance, at worst the victim of poor advice. “To me she’s a singer,” some say, emphasizing that the rest is none of their business.
Reduced from an idol to the clown of a media circus, Isabel Pantoja is certainly thankful that fans and supporters are coming from all over Spain to back her up. A three-level circus will meet them, with Las Fiestas de San Pedro Regalado as an overriding circus, which La Pantoja is only part of and yet totally overshadows.
The third circus is made up of two midnight performances on Thursday – the opening night of a two-week campaign ahead of local and regional elections.
Explosions of sound, caused by technical tests on three stages, are the sole entertainment so far. The smaller stages, a hundred meters apart, are for PSOE, the Social Democrats – and for PP, the conservative Partido Popular. The elections are threefold: municipal, provincial and regional. Valladolid is the capital city of both a province and the autonomous region of Castilla y León. The municipal government, El Ayuntamiento, is led by Javier León de la Riva from the PP. The Pantoja commotion must suit him well. Apropos Pantoja, Plaza Mayor is where burning at the stake took place during the Inquisition.
The resourceful PP sports a freshly painted campaign bus with portraits of Senor de la Riva and his fellow top candidates, inspiring the Vallisoletanos to “Confianza en el futuro”. The bus serves as a backdrop in the first meeting. PSOE promotes a new front figure, radiating female energy and will to reform: Soraya Rodriguez, aiming at Javier León’s job. Petit, freezing in her thin black dress, she kicks off the meeting, speaking in a clear voice and using powerful gestures to stress that twelve years PP is enough. She’s ready to take over “esta casa”, pointing to Casa Consistorial, the city hall.
The next morning, Sr. de la Riva has been replaced by an enormous facade banner, while Soraya Rodriguez has opened an office at the square. In jeans and a white sweater, she answers questions and runs a video. The PP bus is on the road, thundering liberal messages, whereas PSOE content themselves with small red cars claiming they do more, “Haremos más!” Candidates from either side escape many a critical question from the media, who prioritize La Pantoja, despite her announcement, “No interviews, no statements!”
La Feria de San Pedro begins with a long program and a concert every night, most of it taking place at Plaza Mayor; during daytime it’s a public living room for the Vallisoletanos lined with bars and cafes, of course. At night, especially during festivals like this, Plaza Mayor becomes a concert hall, primarily rock bands shattering the night with sound and light effects. The constant activity suits a progressive university city, also regarded as an economic motor for inland Spain, in spite of a moderate 320.000 population.
M-Clan, a rock band from Murcia, is scheduled Friday night, after a six-year absence. A local group, Chloé, warms up an audience of 3,000 until it doubles, all ready to share Carlos Tarque, who is jumping around, singing, directing his M-Clan, interacting so eagerly that 6,000 people forgive him his long leave, during which he has developed a few wrinkles, grown sideburns and curly hair. His blue jeans and green T-shirt, though, could possibly be the same. Even the media is amused.
Saturday at last. Plaza Mayor is being cleaned and polished again, this time for a copla star. A group of middle-aged ladies, arriving early in the morning, have parked themselves right in front of the stage. Baking in the sun, they are approached by journalists and photographers with nothing to do. Other groups arrive, obviously not from here; they must be supporters from around Spain, little by little forming a defense wall before the stage. La Pantoja arrives from Madrid in the afternoon.
Asked whether they’re going to the show, the locals answer evasively, as if they were above gossip and rumors. But everybody leaves home in the evening, strolling arm in arm, merely out for a walk, ending at Plaza Mayor, apparently by mistake. A quarter to ten, the square is half empty, then the flood comes – 20.000 according to police estimates. The music strikes up – two minutes early – Isabel Pantoja appears, a master in artistic effects, tonight’s timing must be one of them.
No Puede Ser – Can’t be
Another effect is humor; she’s draped in a golden garment, imitating a lump of gold. It’s simply a vast shawl, at this moment acting as body armor for a vulnerable lady. The sympathy of her supporters makes it easier to face the audience, many of them presumably against her. The stage has become a fortress, where her weapons are the songs, her voice and professionalism. Elegantly, she moves from warm and gentle to outbursts of emotion, rolls the “r” aggressively; maybe a warning to her pursuers. She gathers strength by bending forward, then thrusts her arm and head into the air, singing her lungs out, while her free hand goes on with its own peculiar movements.
In tears, with a few words and a hand on her heart, she faces her supporters briefly, then includes everyone as she explains her feelings – in a very subtle, deliberate way – by occasionally adjusting a few words in the lyrics. “Me voy!” she sings out several times, threatening to leave. Through another text, she refers to the media circus she’s caught in, “No puede ser!” Can’t be.
As a tourist, you begin to feel responsible. After all, if tourists hadn’t been so desperate to own an apartment on Costa del Sol, there would be land enough, and no reason for corruption – nor would anyone dream of chasing a Spanish songbird.