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At Bar Alambique


Spain —

Flamenco is an extremely vital, vibrant music.

Not only is the sound colorful and lively, its practice is that of a living artform; neither a relic of Spanish times past, nor a display for the amusement and exploitation of the foreign traveler. Though popular with tourists, flamenco is even more popular with the Spanish people. This was true, certainly, in Seville, where I lived for the first half of 2001.

One indication of the indiginous popularity of flamenco is in the bar/venue Carboneria there in Seville, a noted tourist hotspot in the historic Santa Cruz district. One can hear the locals there, clapping hands in perfectly divided countertime — "las palmas." One can see them too, gathering off to the side during intermission to sing along with a guitar — singing songs with which they are all familiar.

Some of the best flamenco is in very small and informal venues. One performance I saw, with my friend and co-worker Eugenia, consisted of two Gypsy gentlemen at Bar Pata Negra on Plaza San Leandro. One of them played guitar, the other a bongo. The man on bongo sang. He also joked, laughed, danced, dressed in a space-alien mask, and, later, acted out a robbery — the pistolero in a felt hat, running through the crowd to make "escape" — coming back with hat in hand for donations.

Another "performance" was not a performance at all, but some people playing music in a tiny bar. Eugenia and I were out again, this time just seeking different places, and found Bar El Firoela. The place was minuscule. There was a guitarist, a singer, a guy playing the bottom of an ornate silver teapot, and three foreign women who had been studying flamenco dance. Eugenia and I took places on the narrow, steep stairway, the only remaining place to sit. Miguel — we met him later — sang beautifully, in the mournful fashion of a music born of Gypsy suffering. And flamenco guitar is powerful. The women, though shy, danced after some encouragement. Catherine, a Scandinavian woman, was lovely and talented.

Flamenco, apparently, has in recent years regained the enthusiasm of younger Spanish people. It is no wonder, either; it is a profoundly affective music. The mournfulness of its more pained incarnation has a depth of mood to it that is not unlike the old blues of black America; its happier tunes are absolutely florid.

It is reportedly difficult to export flamenco as live performance — the Spanish like it so much that it's hard to pay enough to bring the musicians out of the country.