Flamenco

I woke up in Seville, the capital of Andalusia, in the muggy south of Spain, where orange trees grow. I woke up early even though I needed to sleep late: habit. I ate lots of bread and as many corn flakes as I could fit in the bowl, and then I remembered that I didn’t need to be frantic about calories anymore.

I waited until ten o’clock, when a lady came by with a purple umbrella to lead a tour of the city. We walked around Seville for three hours and I saw unbelievable architecture and my own strong legs in shop windows, and it was all okay, but it wasn’t the Camino.

I found myself in a shopping district at six o’clock, when siesta was definitely over and the hoards were coming into the street for the night. It was a zoo at H&M. Somehow, I was sluggish and slow without my pack.

I sat on the cool tile floor of my hostel–we say hostel now, not albergue–and I was sad. I already felt the accomplishment of the Camino, but I hadn’t yet felt the end.

But that night, I walked down a narrow alley with a slight cool breeze. Vines hung in my eyes from somewhere high. The light was amber and it was past bedtime.

I went into a bar Stacey and Sarah had told me about. It was muggy and unpretentious, and it was full of people. Long low wooden tables, painted many times over, filled the whitewashed space and a minuscule stage—size of a double bed–occupied a corner. A second story I have the generosity to call a mezzanine was above it and here I took my seat, feet sticking out from under a railing and dangling above a bench. I sat next to a well-tanned Australian couple on vacation who didn’t trade in pleasantries. They had been in Spain long enough to decide it wasn’t as good as Italy, but at least the women didn’t wear so many crop tops. I got a mollified smile from the wife once I agreed that yes, Spanish fashion was classy.

After an hour of cheap red wine in the hot bar, the flamenco show began. A man stood on the stage and said things I couldn’t hear over the roar of the crowd that had gathered, filling all remaining seats and leaning against the walls. He sat down on a bench near my feet, next to a guy tuning a guitar. Two other men sat on the bench: a man in a pink polo shirt, and a man with slicked back black hair a white button up shirt with the leaves rolled up, and a vest.

The tuning didn’t stop. It flowed right into a tangle of finger picking, and a melody emerged after a few seconds. The player put his cheek against the body of the guitar; his face was placid.

The man who had introduced the show who was sitting next to the guitar player on the bench  looked like he was about to cry. Then he opened his mouth and sang. He wailed in semitones. His voice was one of practiced rawness and it cut through the chatter of the crowds and the clink of glasses. I should have taken a photo of his face while he sang but it would have felt wrong, with his brow furrowed in such anguish.

No part of this smacked of performance. Singer and guitarist and pink shirt guy and vest man never got up from the bench. They motioned to each other with their hands and their eyes lit up, perhaps at inside jokes inside the songs, yet even though they were familiar with each other and the music, they seemed to mean every single unintelligible word with all their hearts. The guitar was delicate and precise as lace. The voice was like a scratch on the arm.

We were silent.

The end of the song was abrupt and we erupted into applause that felt more like relief than appreciation.

And before the applause died down, the man in the pink shirt started clapping, and the first singer and vest man joined him. The clapping was syncopated and aggressive. Then the pink shirt guy sang as the first man had, accompanied by the claps and the guitar, and during this, the fourth man, in the vest, slowly stood and sauntered to the stage, head bowed, brows furrowed, eye closed, hands clapping, deep in thought.

He closed his eyes and tilted his head toward the ceiling, where a rickety fan spun, and where ceramic pots hung, full of long-dried herbs. Cobwebs. When he wasn’t clapping, his arms moved like they were underwater.

Out the corner of his eye, he connected with the singer and then the guitarist.

Then he moved: his feet stomped so fast they blurred, and his hips swayed, and his head and shoulders buckled and his arms went wide. His body lapsed into caesurae before storming back into motion. And he danced and he danced. His legs short circuited while his torso remained perfectly still and his arms complained and pleaded and swore and his hands clapped and his fingers snapped and his feet, clod in heeled shoes, tapped in time with the singers’ claps. Some of the taps were so loud the guitar went dissonant. He was sweating through his shirt. His vest was undone and his hair fell in his wincing face. It was grotesque and gorgeous.

The crowd murmured and whistled more and more. I swear I heard someone yell “Ole!” when he finally hit the climax of the song and froze, showing no awareness or appreciation for the wild applause and cheers.

There was a break for a half hour, and the spirit of the dance possessed the audience, who streamed to the bar, to the restrooms (where someone had torn off the toilet paper dispenser’s cover in a frenzy), to the sweet hot jasmine night.

Cigarette smoke floated into the flowers. Everyone fanned themselves and the women ran their fingers under their eyes, clearing away sweaty mascara.

When the break was over, we reconvened with refilled glasses and the dancer had changed his shirt. And again, the tuning and the play and the chatter of audience and performers morphed into performance before we knew it.

The guitarist was steady and virtuosic. His eyes never fluttered and his forehead never wrinkled and his mouth never twisted. He never stopped looking at his comrades but he was in his own world, with his face against the guitar.

Here is advice: when you go to shows, watch the musicians. It’s like watching the groom when the bride first appears at the end of the aisle: it’s not where you’re meant to look, but if you do, you will see a whole new side of things. Musicians are the constant, the undercurrent. Observe their involuntary movements: the tap of a heel or the lift of a knee or the cock of a head. Observe when they start and stop playing. Observe that they have fun with different parts of the music than everyone else.

And every one else was a mess: the audience was getting rowdy and loud and so was the shushing. Someone dropped their drink and the shattering of glass alerted a bouncer, who was looking under all the long tables for the shards, broom in his hand. A young boy who may have been the dancer’s son by the way they interacted had spilled water on the stage, and it smeared and evaporated as the dance went on. The night was getting cooler but the room was getting hotter. People had finished their food and licked salt off their fingers, never quiet enough, never taking their eyes off the performers unless they had someone to seduce. The Australian couple got up and left once they realized there would only be a man dancing tonight (“The women are better”), and I took their seats. I found myself shushing with everyone else, and I stayed until the end of the show, well after one in the morning.

I do not know anything about flamenco. I did not understand any of their songs. The only phrase I caught all night was “cold water.”

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