Last year, in October 2015, I went to live for two months in Jerez de la Frontera, in the South of Spain to learn how to sing flamenco, and to escape London. Jerez was once described to me as the ‘cuña’ (crib) of flamenco by a local, and there seemed no better way to escape than by immersing myself in music rooted in gypsy culture, that is often about love, loss, pain and suffering, yet also finding the ‘arte’ and joy in these human experiences. I wanted to locate the uncontrolled, improvised nature of flamenco – found here in the streets, tabancos, and even the seated audiences in peñas (halls) who spontaneously get up out of their seats to dance.
Through a friend’s recommendation I found a singing teacher called Carmen, a gregarious, madcap cantaora, who learned flamenco on the streets of Jerez. Carmen rasped out bulerias beautifully in a strong Jerezana accent and lived with her pregnant girlfriend and about ten cats and dogs. I could only afford about two lessons a week, but it was a very cheap rate and she often went generously over the time limit. But, whilst I can belt out a few karaoke tunes, I had great difficulties in grasping the Arabic style melodies effortlessly flung out by honey-voiced cantaoras or bellowed from the stomach like La Pacquera de Jerez. Even picking up the basics of the mind-boggling compas (the beat) through palmas (hand-clapping) was a struggle, particularly since Jerez has its own irregular style, and there are many different styles of flamenco which each has a different type of compas. Good compas takes years of practice to perfect.
Jerez is famous for its namesake, sherry, and wherever you go you can smell the sweet, fermented grapes from old bodegas (wineries) dotted around the town. In Jerez, half the population is gypsy and proud and everywhere you walk you can hear the wail of flamenco cante through the windows, the strum of guitars and the echo of many feet stamping. It seems that a high proportion of the town are musicians, if not in flamenco, then jazz, blues or rock. The flamenco community here is tight, but people come from all over the world to learn the craft, and if you show enthusiasm and willing to learn, most locals or other ‘guiris’ (foreigners) established in the community will go out of their way to help you.
I had lived in Jerez for three months earlier that year whilst making an art project with my MA course, and I had fallen in love with the town. In the spring months leading to the summer, Jerez was bursting with light, flamenco, colour and fiestas. When I returned in the winter, the town was subdued and quiet, yet you could still find flamenco concerts, reunions and jams every day for free. What I loved most of all was going to bars late at night, and seeing real ‘sucio flamenco’ (dirty flamenco) often sung, danced and played by members of the gypsy community. I had one favourite called Rincon del Arte, in Plazuela, an area of Jerez. It was two minutes down the road from where I lived with my friend Anna, a Canadian flamenco dancer who shared my passion for this type of establishment (not all of my friends were so enthusiastic). There was often a horse and cart parked outside it, whilst its owner stopped to have a cervecita or two, and the men and women frequenting it were usually drinking throughout the day, ergo there was flamenco happening most of the time. They were warm and welcoming, but spoke in such a thick Jerez accent, swallowing all their consonants, that I could barely understand. As my friend Ricci once said to me: “Here we eat our words, because we are hungry.” Whenever I told them I was there to learn cante, they would begin clapping out the compas to me, shouting encouragement, expecting me to break out in song as I stood there red-faced.
My other favourite bar was la peña Luis de la Pica - an open courtyard that used to be a school on the other side of town, San Mateo. Interestingly both San Mateo and Plazuela are known for having two completely different flamenco ‘soniquetes’ (sounds). The soniquete of San Mateo flamenco is more gypsy in style and the area is famous for its gypsy street, Calle Nueva, which features in a lot of flamenco lyrics. The flamenco here has a faster-paced, more rough and ready fiesta like sound, in comparison to Plazuela, which is slower and arguably more profound – yet I think this is more in sound and tone than in meaning.
At Luis de la Pica, the community is fairly closed – often I would go with my other guiri friends and watch the regulars as they clapped, sang and danced under the stars and the night sky, often high on cocaine, although not to the detriment of their performance. It was sometimes a bit embarrassing, sitting there watching them as if I were at the zoo - I only filmed here once and even then very briefly. I occasionally tried to make conversation, although again my limited Spanish could barely comprehend the thick Jerezano dialect.
At the end of November and into December is zambomba season, where the community invades the streets and bars to sing Villancicos - flamenco Christmas songs. A zambomba is a drum-like instrument with water inside, which you play by plunging a stick into over and over again so that it makes a sort of warbley sound. These instruments are usually played by the elders of the community, and mostly by men.
It is almost exactly a year ago that I went to Jerez, met a whole host, of bizarre and wonderful characters and attended flamenco reunions (jam sessions), which were so raw and captivating they are almost beyond description. When I returned to London, I wrote a few stories about my time there whilst they were still fresh in my memory. I also made a film from footage I took whilst I was out there. Some of these, including the film, are copied below and I hope will give you an authentic impression of what it is like to live in Jerez de la Frontera.
I don’t really know much about Estela. Someone at some point said that she was Swedish. She is a lady, perhaps in her late 60’s that held a flamenco reunion in her house most Tuesdays in the evening. She didn’t seem to provide much in the way of flamenco herself – aside from basic compas and generous hospitality with nibbles and wine. It was open to all – guests brought crisps, beer and music. There were proficient local flamencos, foreigners who wanted to learn, or those who sat and joined in with the compas or jaleo (calling out encouragement: ‘Ole!’ ‘Tomar que tomar!’). And there was me, a total novice, who watched, attempted to copy compas, badly, and later, with permission, began to film. Generally I tried to be subtle, allowing the flamenco ‘jam’ to be recorded as non-obtrusively and quietly as possible. The only time I ran into a bit of trouble was when a lady, referred to by some as ‘crazy Maria’, got up to dance a buleria, and when I picked up the camera to film, she hit it quite forcefully with her hand.
I also had the privilege to see Gonzalo sing - a rather heavily built Jerezano who I had spotted a few times singing at Rincon del Arte. Rather comic in his deliverance, laughing eyes like little chips of joy, surveying his surroundings it always seemed with a knowing humour. He paused often, like a true comedian, adding gravitas to the next line, which he delivered a little irregularly, speedily, as if he didn’t quite want you to catch his rhythm and his lyrics. He usually sang jolly Alegrias and Sevillanas, but once he surprised me, cutting through the joy with a very slow and sad Solea, bringing tears to the eyes of everyone there. At the end of the song, he wiped his eyes and jokily quipped that he wished he didn’t have to work, only sing – undercutting the sombre mood and provoking laughter. Very typical Jerezano – acknowledge sorrow but never dwell on it.
‘La maestra’ (The teacher) – is an outsider of Jerez who somehow became mother and teacher to all the young guiris who moved to Jerez looking for flamenco. Mercedes of Madrid, has a rasping, gitana-style quality to her voice when she sings cante. She is a presence and a character, often singing with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other, eyes sparkling, expelling the energy of a ‘festero’ (a term for someone who entertains through flamenco). She dances and plays very well but it is when she is singing that her passion truly transmits – from the undulating throat rasps of Solea and Siguiriya to comical fandangos and tangos with saucy lyrics. Mercedes is a true performer who studied flamenco with the gitanos of Madrid from teenage hood. As much energy as she expels out, she contains inwards, often leaving reunions and fiestas early to retire to her quiet Andalusian apartment with her rescued cats – who are much like the young hopefuls nurtured by her who appear in Jerez.
A well-loved local Jerezano character and flamenco drunk (and there are many), affectionately named after a type of bread roll. Every time one sees Chusco he is drunk to a lesser or greater degree. He is affectionate and happy, always smiling, zealously over-affectionate – often hugging you, putting his arms around your neck, squeezing your hands tight, repeating ‘guapa’ at young, pretty ladies although without a hint of sleaze. Chusco is flamenco personified. He walks around the streets all day, from tabanco to tabanco, in pursuit of flamenco, and no matter how inebriated, plays guitar like a dream, sometimes on a guitar with only three strings, singing in the soft, embattled gasp that comes from years of smoking and drinking, but with a melodious timbre, like something beautiful being embraced too tightly. This fusion is a perfect embodiment of flamenco puro in Jerez. Chusco is not gitano (and gitanos are often thought of as the only members of the community who can truly unlock the door to authentic flamenco puro, although I don’t agree) but he is some kind of nostalgic, broken embodiment of Andalusian flamenco. In my world, he would be considered a failure and ‘a bum’ in the eyes of society, but in his community, he is much loved and respected for his art. A man who falls asleep dribbling from excessive boozing, who has lost the ability to communicate in the everyday ‘normality’ of existence, but is still respected – well, he is something special.
One evening I bumped into him whilst I was out walking with friends, and he grasped my shoulder, howling ‘mañaaana’ (tomorrow) to the sky, kissing his knuckles and throwing it to the stars, doing the sign of the cross for his padre who had died the previous year. And then he began to explain his life to me, using the street as a map and a diagram, through a thick cloud of Andalusian Spanish and alcohol. My friends, Gil and Ravé were busy speaking in Hebrew at this point and so I had no translator, meaning that I understood around 20% of what Chusco was saying. Still, somehow he transmitted the gist of what it was he was saying to me, often breaking his speech to erupt in song: ‘mañaaana!’ He spoke almost in ‘coplas’ (flamenco rhymes) and I allowed myself to get lost in the rhythm of his story.
I had hoped to film him playing and so on another occasion, when I received a phone call from Gil urging me to come to Rincon del arte as Chusco was there, I ran down as fast as I could with my camera. When I arrived I was disappointed to see Chusco passed out in his chair. After being there for about an hour listening to the guitars, I hear a low and husky ‘aaaay’, and like Lazarus rising from the dead, Chusco has suddenly reared up his head to interject, overtaken by the spirit of flamenco, singing drowsily but beautifully. For the first few moments he reaches some distinct clarity, sincerity and authenticity but then after loses himself, not quite out of compas, but losing synchronicity with the guitarists. Wiser and with a greater understanding than the players, Chusco steams unsteadily ahead as they desperately follow him into some misty sphere that exists somewhere within his mind, but they cannot quite catch him.
Rebecca Wade Morris is an artist and writer living in London, her work experiments with caberet, pop up interventions, glitzy campery and politics. She has showcased her work at Duckie, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Camden Roundhouse and Buzzcut Festival in Glasgow.