Jerez de la Frontera, Spain – Flamenco Studies

This trip lasted from February 18th to March 10th 2004. (definitely not
long enough)

Well, it took me three days to remember the url of my “secret”
maintenance page that I use to update this diary! Doh. Anyway, I´m
here in Jerez and it´s raining – again. In fact, it has done nothing
but rain since I got here. My travel day of planes, trains and automobiles
was beautiful, but that did me no good since I was inside the whole time.
I finally got here after a 2-hour delay at O’Hare to make some kind of
repair to the plane; they never did tell us what was wrong – hmmm. I arrived
in Madrid just in time to run to catch my flight to Seville. That was
a waste, however, because that flight was delayed an hour as well. Eventually,
I got to Seville and enjoyed a cab ride to the train station with a cabbie
who, once he discovered that I was a Chicagoan here to study Flamenco,
was eager to discuss the similarities between Michael Jordan and the great
Flamenco artists. Cool. After an uneventful train ride across the beautiful
Andalusian countryside, I was met at the station by Gerry, the manager
of the language school that I’m studying at. He took me to my homestay
house (actually an apartment) and introduced me to the two teenage girls
that live there. Their mother, a nurse, was working at the local hospital
and wouldn’t return until later. I spent some time chatting with Alexandria,
age 16 and the older of the two. When mom got home later that night, I
was given a ´thumbs up´ rating for my coolness level. This
pleased me greatly, of course. Gerry had asked me to come to the school
later that evening to take my placement test so I could begin right away
on Monday. I went in and met Sofía (who, I found out later, would
be my teacher) who gave me the exam.

Thanks to some good anti-jetlag advice from my dad, I was able to get
a decent night’s sleep that night. In the morning I went the meet the
guitar teacher “El Carbonero”. His system of teaching is very
interesting. He has an ante-room where 4-8 guitarists of a wide variety
of levels are sitting and practicing while they wait their turn for a
visit to the inner sanctum of his private studio. When he finishes a lesson,
he walks out into the ante-room and looks around to select the next student,
whom he directs into the studio. He frequently walks around the room,
listening to the students practicing and gives them direction or correction
as required.

When I entered the private studio for the first time, he asked me to
play something so he could discern my level of playing. I began playing
one of the couple of pieces I had learned to prepare myself for the trip.
After about 5 seconds he said “basta” which means “enough”
or “stop”. He apparently had figured out I could play guitar
but knew precious little of flamenco. He announced that we would start
with Tientos, a slow, stately dance form that is a mainstay of the flamenco
art form. He feeds you the music a phrase at a time – he simply plays
it himself and looks at you like “play it back!” Of course it´s
pretty rough to grasp it all in one swallow, so he proceeds to step through
it note by note without explanations or preparations. It really carries
the sentiment of “if you´re going to get it, your going to
get it by just watching and listening; if you´re not going to get
it, you´re never going to get it no matter how much I try to explain
it to you”. I like it immediately. I make a series of visits to the
inner studio and learn a decent size chunk of music. When you are done
for the day he says “grabamos” which means “let´s
record”. He plays what you´re working on plus a little extra
to give you a clue of what´s coming next.

The weather here has been wretched. It´s been 15 degrees below
normal and raining – EVERY DAY! They tell me that I brought a “gafe”
(curse) from Chicago because this is not normal for this time of year.
It´s usually 65 and sunny, not 50 and rainy. Oh well. They tell
me, “you should have been here the last 2 weeks, it was beautiful.”
Of course. I don´t really mind except that I´m tired of having
wet shoes from walking in the rain.

On Sunday I wanted to visit the nearby village of Arcos de la Frontera
but there is only one bus on Sunday and I missed it by 15 minutes. I decided
instead to go to the port city of Sanlucar because I fancied the idea
of seeing the Atlantic Ocean. There just happened to be a bus leaving
in 5 minutes, so I bought a ticket and climbed aboard. I must say that
Sundays around here are pretty sleepy and not much goes on. There is a
strip of restaurants along the beach in Sanlucar that are known for their
excellent seafood. I went into one of the restaurants and realized that
I have absolutely no knowledge of the Spanish names of ocean going fish
and lesser-known sea creatures! I guess studying Spanish in Chicago does
not give one cause to learn the names of oceanic critters. Fortunately,
there was a menu in English. I´ve had little reason to use English,
which is of course, one of the reasons I came here and for that I´m
glad. The family I´m staying with speaks perfect English – they
lived in England for several years (both girls were born in England and
the older speaks accent free). They also lived in North Carolina for 2
years. However they have been great about avoiding English except when
I ask them to translate a word for me. The do watch a ton of TV in English
because, obviously, it´s way better than watching the dubbed versions
of American shows. I´m surprised to find that watching it is actually
helping my Spanish. When overtaxed with Spanish 24×7, my brain sometimes
goes into a linguistic freeze kind of like an engine that´s run
out of oil. The little blasts of American tube give the language center
of my brain enough of a break that I´ve not yet suffered a freeze.

Saw something really great last night. Manuel, the flamenco instructor
invited me to sit in on a group accompaniment class. He brings in a professional
flamenco singer and a group of about 15 folks including everything from
10-year-old kids to 60-year-old adults sit in a big semi-circle around
the singer and Manuel. The evening starts out with some group playing
to back up the singer. We played a Bulerias and a Tientos as I recall.
Then the students take turns on the “hot seat”, accompanying
the singer while Manuel injects comments and criticisms. At the end of
each number, he gives a few more tips and it`s on to the next student.
It all serves as a kind of master class with the critiques being intended
for the benefit of all. It was great seeing all the age groups coming
together to jam and everyone, including me, seemed to be having a great
time while learning some valuable stuff. There was also a young singer
in attendance and he got some chances to sing and get some pointers as
well. Why doesn’t this exist more in the U.S.?

This internet café is really great. They play medieval music for
the surfers and sell a wide variety of offbeat books – everything except
commercial bestseller type stuff. The owners are very nice as well – like
helping me to figure out these funky Spanish keyboards. There’s actually
a special shift key for accessing a new bank of characters.

I’ve been getting heavy doses of ska at my homestay. The older daughter
is into this ska/punk/metal band from Madrid called Ska-P. Fortunately,
they’re pretty cool and I have the chords to at least 3 of their tunes
memorized. If I ever want to move to Spain, maybe I could land a gig with

I spent the day in the lovely little pueblo named Arcos de la Frontera.
As I walked up the streets away from the bus station, it appeared to me
to be a rather generic little town of white buildings – hence it’s inclusion
as one of the well known “pueblos blancos”. I continued climbing
up the streets and as I came around a bend I was confronted by the dramatic
sight of a castle on the edge of a cliff not too far in front of me. The
closer I got to the castle, the more the town turned into a beautiful
and well preserved medieval town with tiny streets that a car could only
pass if the pedestrians stepped into the doorway of a house or storefront.
I found some nice views for drawing and produced 3 before my pen died.
I began a search for another pen, but today is Andalusía Day and
everything (except tourist crap) is closed for the holiday. Oh well.

As the trip has continued, I´ve met more people and got involved
in more things. That’s giving more to write about, but less time to actually
write. I have been fortunate to get connected with a group of people that
includes American expats, Dutch, Italians, Danes, Australians and of course
Spaniards. It seems that I was blessed with the good fortune that Salud,
the momin the home I’m staying at, is a part of this group and through
attending social functions with her I’ve been more or less adopted by
the group which, due to it’s nature, adopts people quickly if the members
deem you interesting. I use the term members very loosely because it’s
not like there is some pretext of “in” versus “out”.
The majority are students or practitioners of flamenco but some, like
Salud, are there just because they fit in socially.

I experienced my first juerga the other night at 5:00 a.m. in a bar nearing
closing time. For those of you who don’t know, a juerga is a spontaneous
outbreak of flamenco in a public place. It is by nature unplanned and
has a very raw sound. That’s not to say it’s unprofessional, just that
it springs up with whatever lineup of dancers/musicians that happen to
be there. It is very interesting that something like the “chick singer”
of jazz could NEVER exist in flamenco. All participants must have intimate
knowledge of all aspects of the art form. Everyone can sing a little and
dance a Bulerias and play some guitar or clap palmas in a correctly articulated
driving manner. All the singers play some guitar and have as much knowledge
of the compás (rhythmic groupings) as the guitarists and percussionists.
The dancers also have an extensive knowledge of everything and would certainly
choke any one who tried to participate and messed up the compás.
It is common to see the guitarist jump up to dance a few compás
worth of bulerias and toss his guitar to one of the palmeros who have
done nothing but clap all night long. The palmero picks up the piece where
it is when he catches the guitar and plays effective rhythm guitar. Everybody
here plays a little guitar.

Back to the juerga. Salud and I had been out peña visiting and
bar hopping and made one final stop at a strange bar a block from her
apartment. The place was decorated like the set of the old Adams Family
tv series and we were sitting in a sort of ante room having an Oloroso
Seco which is a type of dry sherry made here in town (as is all sherry).
From the next room came the sound of one person clapping a bulerias rhythm.
Straight away the bartender started to sing – very well I might add. Soon
more people joined the palmero and began to add cross rhythms and one
began to dance. This went on for an hour or more before we left and it
was still going. The sound was haunting – in part because it was so unexpected
and in part because of the ambience of the bar and the surreal state of
my mind at 5:00 a.m. The lack of guitar also gave it a starker character.
Being a guitar player, I had sought out flamenco mostly centered around
the guitar (which the majority of it is) but I have come to realize that
the guitar is absolutely not necessary to the art form. I suspect that
this realization is critical to understanding how to play flamenco well.

The following day I was invited to go to lunch at a restaurant in the
countryside with basically the same group of folks that was at the party
I mentioned earlier. The restaurant was on a chicken ranch and you walk
past the holding pens as you enter the tarp covered dining area. I was
told that you can select a particular chicken for your dish. I declined.
I did, however, order a meal of chicken that was delicious and the dinner
conversation had that wild multi-lingual euro-mix. As we were enjoying
a flan style desert, the table next to us broke into palmas, clapping
out the rhythm of Bulerias. It appeared to be an extended family of a
dozen or so. The fellow that appeared to be the patriarch began to sing
and he had a voice that was quite nice. The rest of the patrons of the
restaurant barely seemed to notice that this was going on! Apparently,
this must be a not uncommon event in these parts. I found it very beautiful
and it gave me a little more insight into just what this music is all
about. I went to the peña show that night to get one last dose
of flamenco and to bid farewell to all my new friends. We drank a bunch
of sherry and I promised to come back again. I do believe I will keep
that promise.

A word about the peñas. A peña is a club for flamenco.
Now I use the word club not in the sense of nightclub where an American
band would play a gig, but club in the sense of gardening club or chess
club or something like that. The members pay dues, rent an establishment
and operate in a semi-private way. Normally the club is for members only
(although, if you stop in they’ll be glad to take your money for a glass
of sherry) but occasionally they pony up some cash for a professional
or semi-pro performer and they throw open the doors to the general public
– free of charge. Now the 2nd and 3rd weeks of my trip overlapped the
Jerez Flamenco Festival and during the fest at least one peña is
open every night with an “espectaculo”. The quality tends to
vary a lot. For example, the first night of the festival I saw a group
of three singers a guitarist and a dancer and, frankly, they weren’t very
good. The very next night I saw the same guitarist playing in a duo with
his father (a singer) and he sounded twice as good! It also helped drive
home the fact that flamenco was, and is a family based art form. The best
peña show I saw was in La Peña Terremoto, named after a
famous singer from the 60’s with a thunderous voice (terremoto means earthquake).
There were 4 guitarists, 2 singers and a dancer who was the most popular
dance instructor in town. She was a riot – a real ball of fire. The older
2 guitarists were excellent, one of them looked like the classic 19th
century mad scientist and he played all the wild falsetas. A falseta could
be described as a short guitar lead, and modern solo flamenco players
string several falsetas together to make something that very much resembles
a jazz solo. I was really glad that I got to see the whole gamut of levels
of flamenco from the polished performances at the official festival shows,
to the semi-pro stuff at the peñas to the kids just learning at
El Carbonero’s studio.

My last 2 days were in Seville. I thought it was going to be only 1 day,
but I spaced out big time. I left Jerez on Monday to be in Seville for
my 7:00 am flight on Tuesday. I was out until 2 a.m. and got up with the
alarm at 4:30. Ouch. As I was getting ready, I looked at my plane ticket
to make sure I had the time right. I did – it said 7:00 am on Wednesday
March 10. WEDNESDAY!? DOH! I had an entire day extra, plus I could go
back to bed and sleep! I did just that. I must say that Seville is a fine
place to spend a free day. In the morning I found a flamenco record store
and the owners turned me on to a new Camerón compilation that I
bought and love. Camerón is the great singer who, along with Paco
de Lucia, revolutionized the art form. I spent the middle day hanging
out in the alcazar, which is an old Moorish fortress right in the middle
of Seville. It’s absolutely beautiful and has to be one of the most peaceful
places on earth. After that I ate lunch with some extra wine to celebrate
my bonus day. I then went and did the siesta thing on the bank of the
river after watching the sculling crews practice a bit. That night I heard
what was absolutely the worst flamenco of the trip in a bar that charged
me 4 euros for a watered down Coke. Obviously, I don’t know where to go
in Seville! Wednesday morning finally rolled around and, after a good
3 hours of sleep, I called a cab to go to the airport. The cabbie was
playing a blues disc and I told him I was headed back home to Chicago.
He said the disc was by a young friend of his who is a well know local
blues/flamenco player. He flipped through some tunes on the disc and,
sure enough, the young man could burn on both flamenco and blues! It was
a perfect wrap-up to a wonderful trip. The rest of the return journey
was uneventful, although I spent most of the flight to Chicago talking
with a well-groomed and attractive woman of perhaps 50 or 55 years of
age. She was intelligent and well spoken but only spoke Spanish. When
I was standing in the airport waiting for my luggage a guy came up to
me and said, “do you know who you were talking to all the way home?”
Of course, I said “no, should I?” He said that she is a well-known
national TV reporter in Spain. Huh, what d’ya know. I hope she has as
much fun in the U.S. as I had in Spain!

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