Sweet Sevilla: Flamenco Town

Just after DP and I returned to Spain on August 2nd, we flew to Sevilla (you probably know it as SevillE in English… this “anglicizing” of foreign words cracks me up… as if we couldn’t handle that intimidating Spanish “A” at the end of the word). Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city with a population of 700,00. The capital of the region of Andalusia, Sevilla is nestled in the far Southwest corner of Spain, quite close to the border with Portugal; you can travel from Sevilla to Lisbon by bus in just 5 hours. Andalusia is the land of flamenco, bullfights, lemons, sheep, old Moorish architecture and extravagant Gothic cathedrals.

In summer, Sevilla is “Africa-hot” with August temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, for us, the temperature never exceeded 35 degrees during our five-day stay. Let us be clear, here, that 35 degrees is still mighty warm and compels one to walk on the shady side of the street. Women hold their elegant Spanish fans up to shield their faces from the sun. Entire sections of streets in the shopping district sport huge banners of white fabric draped from one side of the street to the other in order to provide shade for overheated shoppers. The main plaza, in fact is also covered with these lovely festive banners. I found Sevilla to be incredibly soulful and lively, even in the hottest month of the year.

When we were first planning our trip in July, DP and I decided that we wanted to see a flamenco show. We were not looking for just any old flamenco show, though! What we had in mind was something authentic – a show without parking spaces designated for tour buses – and that little wish right there is one of the trickiest aspects of tourism in Europe in 2007. Flamenco comes from Andalusia but, as Spanish culture is changing, most Sevillanos no longer attend flamenco shows on a regular basis (you would be more likely to find most young Seville residents at the disco) so the flamenco shows in Sevilla are designed primarily for tourists. Our mission was to find a small venue where the flamenco show was not completely staged and where the performers were still permitted to improvise. When we were in Lisbon, just after New Year’s, we had been on a similar quest to hear genuine fado (traditional Portuguese soul/blues singing); we got lucky one night with Adega do Ribatejo, a tiny place where even the cook sang. We struck out BIG the next night when we ended up in a blatantly “turistic” venue complete with a neon light, a huge stage and performers that were bored like math class. When the first fado singer came out, a tiny man draped in a black and red cape, we we knew we weren’t going to get the real thing. Oh, I have never seem so many DIVAS (male and female) – and with so little talent – anywhere. We comforted ourselves with the fact that the meal was good and slipped out early. We also promised ourselves to beware the neon signs in the future!

Rick Steves, my European travel Guru, recommended a flamenco place called Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus (House of the Memory of Al-Andalus), promising “an elegant and classy musical experience … In an alcohol-free atmosphere, tourists sit on folding chairs circling a small stage for shows featuring flamenco, Sephardic, or other Andalusian music.” When I started poking around on the Internet, the name of this place kept coming up so I called and made reservations for Thursday and Friday nights; the performers are different each night. When we got to Sevilla, the guide of our city walking tour recommended Casa de la Memoria to some other people on our tour. “Besides” she said, “it is also the cheapest.” Score!

When I made the reservations over the phone, the man with whom I spoke instructed me to arrive no later than 8:20 p.m. for the 9:00 p.m. show. Not one minute later or they would give our tickets to someone else. This is a very non-Spanish way to think about an evening’s entertainment but, as I possess a healthy respect for a deadline, we arrived about 8:10 p.m. and lined up with a friendly family that had been on our walking tour on Wednesday. They were North Carolina people; I think the father teaches at Duke. Their two girls (grades eight and three) and I practiced opening our Spanish fans with a fast flick of our wrists and then turned the fan to offer the lovely floral side to the world. I am fast-becoming a North American fan-flicking champion. Just ask DP. I actually asked our tour leader for a lesson; this is one of the most touristy things I have ever done but I figured if I was ever going to learn how to use a fan properly, Sevilla was the town and Concepcion was the teacher!

As we waited in line at Casa de la Memoria, we saw a poster that listed the performers for that night:
Jueves 9 (Thursday, August 9): “MARQUESITA”
Bailaora (Female Dancer): Ana Márquez “La Marquesita”
Bailaor (Mail Dancer): Edu Lozano
Cantaor (Singer): Jeromo Segura
Guitarrista (Guitarist): Manuel de la Luz

Shortly before 9:00 p.m. we were allowed to enter to the outdoor courtyard where the flamenco show would be held. On each of three sides of the small wooden stage, there were three rows of black folding chairs (from Ikea… I’m sure of it because we have the same ones at home in Barcelona) and our 8:10 p.m. arrival time secured us a seat in the front row. I sat between Dee and the girls, fans-a-fluttering. Dee was tired as we both suffered terrible jet lag this trip across the Atlantic. While he looked like he might not make it through the show, I was bouncing up and down in my folding chair. I was filled up with big butterflies of flamenco anticipation, as were the girls beside me, but we were all terribly well-behaved.

At the beginning of the hour-long show, two men dressed in black came out onto the stage with chairs and sat down. This duo was made up of guitar player Manuel de la Luz and singer Jeromo Segura. When North Americans think of flamenco, we tend to think of it as a dance style but the heart of flamenco is actually the music. Historically, the verses of flamenco songs were concise little poems written by Andalusian writers and the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca (executed during the Spanish Civil War) was one of the most famous writers of flamenco lyrics. While the guitarist began playing, the singer clapped. I read recently that, in Spain, the act of clapping is less often a showing of appreciation than it is an art form. This is nowhere truer than in flamenco where the clapping becomes another layer of the music. The clapper then began to sing.

The first time I saw a flamenco performance, I was living in Cali, Colombia and friends Barbara and Eugenio took me to the Arts Centre for a surprise. Eugenio, was from Cali, had managed to get tickets for four of us to see Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. (How was I to know that he was one of the most important guitarists alive)? There were probably about ten men in Paco’s ensemble and a number of them played the “caja” or large wooden boxes to accompany Paco on guitar. As I listened to Jeromo and Manuel, I was transported back to that magical night in Colombia twelve years ago.

In the second act of the Sevilla flamenco night, dancer Edu Lozano strode onto the stage. He was quite small and not at all what I imagined a male flamenco dancer would look like… but my preconceptions fell away as soon as he began to dance. His movements were powerful; his flamenco was an incredibly athletic marriage of tap dancing and deep lunging flamenco poses. While he danced, Ana Márquez joined the guitarist and singer, clapping and encouraging the male dancer, Edu, with a string of incomprehensible Spanish words. Dee noted that she was completely focussed on his movements and that she was moving in her chair – not toe-tapping or swaying the way we might at a concert but actually dancing in a very small and contained way. Edu danced to three songs and seemed to be overtaken by a force outside of himself. In flamenco, this is known as duende – a difficult-to-define phrase in the Spanish arts that connotes emotion and authenticity.

Ana Márquez, “La Marquesita”, performed next. Although she was adorned in those famous flamenco polka dots, her costume (a blouse and a long ruffled skirt that reached the floor) offered a refreshing twist from the red and black norm as she swirled in a subdued palette of peach and pink. She was breathtaking. It was as if the top and bottom halves of her body were separate; she moved her torso like I had been trying to flourish my fan. As the dance progressed and her “story” approached its climax, Ana pulled her skirt up, displaying her strong and beautiful legs. What was fantastic about this dancer was that there was nothing coy about her movements; she was not trying to play “pretty” for the tourists. She was absolutely inside the music and her interpretation of it and I believed her entirely. Her hands were two graceful swooping doves that punctuated her dance.

Then, too-too soon, it was over. The two dancers performed for a minute together (a photo opportunity for the tourists only… flamenco dancing really is a solo deal) and the audience applauded wildly. Then we filed out into the blue-black Sevilla night.

It’s a great, wild ride, this flamenco. It’s sexy without being self-conscious. The performances are both structured and improvised. Apparently, I cannot say enough good things about flamenco at Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus. Bravo!

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