Three Ways of Seeing Flamenco in Sevilla – Seville, Spain

“Three Ways of Seeing Flamenco in Sevilla”
Seville, Spain

Anselma wants to see that all of her guests have a copa in hand. She insists, in fact; anyone seen without a drink – whether it be Coca Cola, a glass of sherry, or a half-finished bottle of brandy – will be directed to either find a way through the crowd (which, at one word from Anselma, will immediately and miraculously part to create a path through) over to the bar, or through the door and back out into the street. Anselma is like a headmistress who will not tolerate even the most timid questioning of her authority, and who also happens to be a half-gypsy dancer in a tight brown dress with a neckline that dips down to an area nowhere near her neck. This is, after all, her place, and there’s no cover. If you want to be a part of the raucous mix of song, flamenco, ribaldry, and piety that is thrown together there every night (and, from the looks of things, almost everyone in Sevilla does), you’d better spend some euros at the bar.

Fortunately, I’ve been brought here by Leticia, my new Sevillana friend, who has been here many times before. She translates Anselma’s tirades and jokes, as well as the lyrics of the songs, for me (I speak Spanish fairly well, but the Spanish of Andalucia is spoken very fast, the words seeming to take tangible substance in the speaker’s mouth so that it requires some expert movements of the tongue to get them out). She finds a space for us in the crowd, makes frequent runs to the bar for glasses of jerez fino, and holds my things for me so that I can try to get a photo of the goings-on. She’s told Anselma that I’m a writer, and that I’d like to take a picture of her. So, at one point, when Anselma is down on the part of the floor that serves as a stage, working the gleeful crowd with jokes and taunts, I notice that everyone in the audience has turned to look at me. Anselma is saying something to me, and I check to make sure that I still have a drink in my hand. “What’s happening?” I ask Leticia.

“She’s saying that the American journalista in the crowd wants to take her picture, and that you’d better not make her look fat.” I take care not to use my wide-angle lens for the rest of the night.

I’ve come to Sevilla to see and write about flamenco. Having read a couple of guidebooks and websites about where to see the most “authentic” flamenco in the city, and having read enough of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s flamenco-inspired Poema del Cante Jondo (“Poem of the Deep Song”) to get something of a clue as to what it’s all about, I feel that I’ve more-or-less done my homework.

But it’s not as easy as that. Understanding the history and various forms of Andalucian folk song is a complicated matter. Everyone I speak to in Sevilla can offer me an explanation of what flamenco is, but each explanation is a little different. Definitions I’ve read are especially unhelpful, using vague descriptions like, “Flamenco is the outpouring of the deepest emotions of the soul.”

A few things, however, are fairly clear. Flamenco is most closely associated with the gypsies of Spain (many of whom arrived from India in the 15th century), and with the ancient folk songs of the southern region of Spain called Andalucia. But Spain is a country where Arabs, Jews, Romans, and others have, over the centuries, come and gone, each leaving its own imprint on the country’s culture. Flamenco and its various cousins have been no exception.

Any discussion of the history of flamenco mentions the fact that, in the 1920’s, Garcia Lorca and his friend, the composer Manuel de Falla, held a “Deep Song” competition in Granada. (Again, the relationship between flamenco and the deep song is a bit unclear; from what I can gather, deep song is the older, much darker, less commercial cousin of flamenco. In a preface to the Poema del Cante Jondo, Carlos Bauer says that “an analogous situation in America might be the relationship between blues and rock and roll.”) The purity of the Andalucian folk songs was being lost, they feared, and they hoped to revitalize and preserve it.

The guidebooks warn against going to the more tourist-oriented flamenco tablaos in Sevilla, where some of the dancing is done to taped music. I make arrangements to see my first show at a place called El Arenal, where, I’ve read several times, one can see something that approaches authentic flamenco. Still, I’m not sure what, exactly, authentic flamenco should look like.

I’ve got a reservation for the early show at El Arenal; I assume that this is probably not the best thing to do (things don’t usually get going in Spain until around 11 at night), but I’m tired from my flight over.

Around the corner from El Arenal is a little tapas place called Meson de la Infanta, where I had lunch earlier in the day, and which had immediately become my favorite hangout in Sevilla (it is, so far, my only hangout). While I’m sitting at the bar, enjoying some bacalao, cheese, and sherry, and trying to have a conversation in Spanish with the bartender, Antonio, two American women – a woman from Chicago and her daughter, who lives in D.C. – come in. Their Spanish is even worse than my own, and I translate their orders for them. Suddenly I seem like an exemplary speaker of Spanish and a connoisseur of all that is good in Sevilla, and I enjoy the illusion.

It turns out that the women are also going to the early show at El Arenal. Just before 9 we pay our bills and walk over to the club.

The place resembles just about any nightclub; it’s dark and crowded with little tables and people. There are photographs, posters, and paintings of flamenco dancers all over the walls, and the lighting is for the most part the same deep orange color that one sees just about everywhere in Sevilla. We’re led to a table near the stage, and served our drinks. Soon after, the show begins.

A fierce-looking middle-aged woman in a red dress, a balding man in a suit and an open shirt, and two young guitar players enter the stage. On a set of stairs leading down to the stage, hidden from most of the audience, I can see the dancers, who are already dancing.

The first dancer enters the stage, in a black dress. The dance is beautiful and exciting to watch, but I’m also watching the faces of the singers and guitar players – particularly the woman, whose face seems to betray something I imagine to be jealousy (I assume that she was one of these young dancers at one point in her life) and a readiness to find fault. The dancers, I’m thinking, must be terrified of her.

As the show goes on, I’m distracted by the dynamics between the performers, and by the fact that even the most beautiful of the dancers have missing teeth. “Now I want to see them throw each other around,” whispers my companion from Chicago. I guess that this isn’t likely, but I think I can understand why she says it.

There are three dancers who cause a stir in the audience. The first is a girl in an orange polka dot dress (that color, again – Leticia tells me later that walls in Sevilla were once painted with bulls’ blood, and that this was the resulting color). There is something indefinably different and wonderful about her dancing; the female singer’s face shows nothing but admiration as she watches the girl. The second is a skinny column of a man, dressed in black. When he enters the stage, someone in the audience says, “Oh, here we go,” in English. As he dances, the singer in red smiles a secretive kind of smile, and calls him guapo – which he is, in an angular, stylized, missing-tooth kind of a way.

Finally, a doughy, older woman in a black dress and a white mantilla brings a chair onto the stage and sits down. Everyone pays close attention; I imagine that she must be the grande dame of the place. She sings a long, slow song, which I assume to be a love song, and the only line I understand is something like, “But there were complications…” – a turning point in the song, it seems, and one that gets a cheer from the audience.

By the end of the show, I’m exhilarated by the dancing, and, having made assumptions about what I was seeing based purely on my own imagination, still completely in the dark. I’m also left wondering how, if flamenco is indeed the outpouring of the deepest emotions of the soul, the performers do two shows every night. I need to see another show so that I have something to compare to this one.

The next night, therefore, I’m thrilled to be going to Anselma’s, in the Triana district of the city (where there is, apparently, also a school of flamenco). I’ve forced myself to stay awake; the show doesn’t begin until around midnight.

It’s clear that there’s a regular crowd here, and that there’s a certain rowdy protocol to be followed. On the walls – again, the bull’s-blood color – there are the expected photos and posters, as well as the head of a bull and, in a prominent place just above the stage area, a small statue of the Virgin surrounded by tiny electric candles.

At Anselma’s the singing and dancing are improvised, and it seems that anyone who cares to may get up to dance flamenco or sing a song. No one is wearing anything resembling a “flamenco costume”; young girls, dressed in outfits that American girls would wear to, say, a Springsteen concert, suddenly get up to dance with each other, the stylized grace of their arm movements and erect stances appearing, to my untrained eye, no less professional than those of the dancers at El Arenal.

“How do they know how to do that?” I ask Leticia.

“Maybe they take lessons.” she tells me. “Or it’s just in the blood.”

The night just keeps getting better. Anselma (after assuring herself that there won’t be any photographs of her looking anything less than svelte in any American newspapers) does a bawdy song and dance with one of the singers, and I need no translation to understand what the act is about. A little later, the same man gets up to sing a kind of love song to Sevilla. Leticia translates,” You haven’t seen Sevilla until you’ve seen the statue of the Virgin at the Feria…” Almost everyone in the place sings along.

Leticia has told me of one more place where I should go to see yet another kind of flamenco show – a place called La Casa de la Memoria, in the old, mazelike Barrio de Santa Cruz. I’m intrigued just by the beauty of the name – the “House of Memory”. Leticia tells me that this is where serious aficionados of flamenco go. It’s in a private house, and no food or drinks are served. I call and get myself on the waiting list, which I convince the woman on the phone to put me on only because it’s my last night in Sevilla. I’m lucky – I get in; many others are told that they’ll need to come back the following night.

It’s raining that night, and this, I’m told, is unusual. Patrons at Casa de la Memoria are led into a partially covered Moorish-style courtyard, where chairs have been arranged around a stage surrounded by flowers and candles. Except for the sound of the rain, it’s almost silent in the courtyard, and the heavy smell of the flowers is mixed with the smells of incense and strong European cigarette smoke. In this atmosphere, I feel as if I’m waiting for a Catholic Mass to begin inside of a mosque.

Two young men, one a singer, the other a guitarist, quietly enter the stage. The guitar player plays in a mesmerizing, rippling kind of way that seems to be an accompaniment to the rain. The singer opens his mouth to sing, and it’s as if a Spanish plain has opened up in front of us. The first words of the song are Se fue… – meaning that something, or someone, has left. Later, I hear the words La senora sabe que lo quiero – “the woman knows that I want her.” Whatever this man is singing about, I believe him.

The dancer, in a black skirt and bull’s-blood blouse, appears for the second song, whose melody reminds me of the calls of the Muezzin at prayer time in Cairo, and which, I believe, is called Dinero (Money). I notice that the dancer’s stockings are sagging around her ankles, but she is beautiful in a timeless, ageless kind of way. I try to imagine her hanging out with friends in a tapas bar dressed in jeans, but it’s impossible. When she dances, her eyes are closed, and the sounds made by her snapping fingers are loud, precise little cracks in the air. The singer sings directly to her; she hears him, but she also appears to listening to something in her own head.

Toward the end of the night at Anselma’s, Anselma looks at her watch and points out the time to the singers and musicians. Everyone (except me) knows what will happen next. Someone turns out all of the lights except for the electric candles illuminating the Virgin on the wall, toward whom everyone turns. Accompanied by a single guitar, the singer begins to sing to the Virgin – the Paloma Blanca – and her Child. The song is a long musical prayer, and everyone joins in. The mood of the place has changed entirely, and I have a sense that this is the most authentically Sevillian moment I’ve witnessed yet in Sevilla.

You haven’t seen Sevilla until you’ve seen the statue of the Virgin�

At about 3 in the morning, Leticia walks with me back to the Hotel Alfonso XIII, where I’m staying. We cross a bridge over the river Guadalquivir, which is a recurring image in Garcia Lorca’s Poema del Cante Jondo (“The river Guadalquivir/winds through orange and olive trees…), and which I’ve seen in my imagination for the past twenty-five years. Sevilla is finally winding down for the night, and at this hour reminds me of another poem from the book: “(Sevilla is) a city lying in ambush/for long rhythms,/and it coils them up/like labyrinths…”

Sixty-eight years after his death, and seventy-three years after the publication of the Poema del Cante Jondo, the poet would be glad to see people crossing the Guadalquivir in the early morning hours, having had their fill of flamenco for the night.

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