2003-03-09

An adventure in Jerez

You are not likely to know the Spanish city of Cadiz where I am living and you are even less likely to know of Jerez de la Frontera sitting 30km north. That is, unless you are a fan of Flamenco music and dance. Jerez is reputed to be the birthplace of this genre of music. My Flamenco guitar expert brother James made it clear to me that I would need to make a stop in this city and since it is only a short bus ride from my Cadiz apartment, I have done this twice. The second trip was an adventure into the heart of Andalucia and Flamenco. If you don?t know what you are doing, then there are many flamenco establishments to be found. If you do know what you are doing, there are also many flamenco performances to be found. However the two are not the same. The former being those shows aimed at tourists and groups -dry and expensive although still somewhat interesting. The latter being those where the spaniards go - lively, sweaty, cheap, and the best flamenco music to be found. The problem being that you don?t find information about the local establishments in many guide books because the real flamenco doesnt follow a schedule like that. Rather, the real flamenco is to found at the "Pe?as" which seem to be designed to elude tourists no matter how clever. The local people however seem to simply know, perhaps through their genetic material, how and when to find them.

At the start of this adventure, I did not know of the Pe?as. I thought as anyone would, that the brochures in the tourist office would give me a pretty good list of what to see. Anyhow, I set out from Cadiz last saturday afternoon with one of my French roomates, to try for the flamenco experience. Of course we missed the bus (it just seems strange to hurry for anything here- so we didn‘t). We took the train instead. A bit into our short trip, we began talking with a man, Joakin, sitting across from us and we told him of our plans to go to a flamenco show. It turned out that he ran a school for Flamenco dance and guitar. He expressed his disdain for the "tourist"establishment that we were planning to go to and told us about the aforementioned Pe?as and also noted that we just so happened to be in Jerez during the Festival de Flamenco. He explained how normally there is one Pe?a per weekend at some mysteriously designated establishment. However, during the festival, there were three or four per night although he couldn?t tell us where any of them were. (I have his contact info if anyone ever wants to study dance or guitar here). A short time later, we left our train, found a shabby place to stay, and headed for our tourist show. It consisted of four dancers, two guitarists and a singer. The crowd consisted almost entirely of english speaking tourists. The performance was as lively as can be in front of a quiet, stoic house. We ate tapas of Calamari, Queso Viejo (aged cheese), Tortilla de mariscos, and Papas Fritas (french fries) and chased them with beer (I also tried a glass of Sherry since Jerez is also one of the Sherry Wine capitals of the world -I think it must be an acquired taste). The show ended after 90 minutes or so and the tourists all headed out immediately - I am sure they were scared of walking around too late in the "gypsy" quarter of the city. Anyhow, the singer of the flamenco group was sitting at the bar so I asked him about the Pe?as and he said he was on his way to one nearby and that he?d walk us there. A short walk through vacant cobblestone streets found us at a flamenco cultural center which seemed to simply be a large bar which presumably offered flamenco performances. It was deserted. It was only half past midnight and the Pe?a here would not start until at least 2:30am. Luck was on our side however as we chatted with the bartender about going to the other Pe?a on foot and he said it was too far. But an older well dressed spaniard sitting at the bar offered to take us there as that was where he was headed. He turned out to be the owner and president of the flamenco cultural center. She flattered him with her curiosity and beauty while he drove his little somewhat beat mercedes through tight streets with one hand on the wheel and one smoking a cigarillo. He spent more time looking at us than the road while telling us stories about flamenco. The other Pe?a was just getting started and our new friend was enjoying introducing us to everyone he knew which seemed to be everyone. Among them was the President of the Flamenco association for Andalucia who happened to own this club. Our two presidential friends exerted their privileges at their respective establishments and we enjoyed free drinks for the night. This Pe?a was full of spaniards crammed tightly together but always cheerful and friendly. We met musicians, dancers, friends of friends, etc. This show was infinitely more lively and less rehearsed than the earlier show. The dancers, beautiful no matter their ages, laughed and smiled and then at other times seemed at the verge of tears. The singers belted out ear piercing flamenco wails and sweat drenched their storied, wrinkled faces. Sometime later, the show ended and our friend took us back to the first Pe?a which was now full of people too. I joined him for a whiskey and we listened to some of the truly impromptu flamenco which was going on here. We recognized a number of people from the other Pe?a so it felt like home. Sometime around 4 we left while things were just really getting going and found our way home through a maze of gypsy streets in Jerez. Sometime after returning home the next afternoon and taking a siesta at the beach, I did a pair of paintings inspired by the flamenco dancers.