One night in Arcos: And the beat goes on (a flamenco experience)
It is one of those nights that begins like all the best adventures – in a car, believing you might die. You don’t speak their language and they don’t speak yours, but somehow you have agreed to something – you don’t know what, yet – and now you are in a car squeezed between two people in the back seat, being sped around the narrow, steep and curvaceous cobblestone streets particular to this Puebla Blanca (White Town), built hundreds of years ago on the edge of a cliff. As the driver accelerates around absurd corners, you wonder how long it will take for the news of your tragic death to reach your family. Everyone in the car is laughing. Apparently this is hilarious.
You don’t die. Instead you are transported a short way out of town to a large unassuming room, with mismatched furniture and brown paper tablecloths and the rich salty smell of Andalusian food. There are families of all ages occupying the tables that are full of glasses of beer and wine and plates of tapas. Framed pictures of flamenco artists are crammed onto each wall at slightly crooked angles. There is a small black stage in the corner with chairs set against the walls and a microphone on a stand points to the centre seat.
One of your party brings you a glass of pale gold manzanilla and grabs some spare plastic chairs that were stacked in another corner, so you can all squeeze yourself in. A basket of bread and regan̄as and a plate of fried seafood is placed on the table.
The show begins. The cantor (singer), bailaores (dancers), tocaor (guitarist) and cajón (percussion box) player take their seats on the stage. The cantor, a huge beast of a man with a voice to match and diamond studs in his ears, sings with a deep sonorous and powerful melancholy, full of raw despair from his guts. The first bailaora is magnificent – her hands, hips and dress magicking up commanding tableaux – taut and strong and beautiful.
The next dancer though, has you completely enthralled. He dances with wit and a divine intensity, his body alternately becoming fluid, then hard, heels stamping out an impossibly fast rhythm. At one point you realise you have forgotten to breathe, that you are suspended in time. You join in the huge “Ole!” and standing ovation.
Others in the room are invited on stage to dance in turn. Women from the audience transcend their ordinary clothes once they begin dancing. A girl in a Nike t-shirt and sweatpants jumps on stage and commands it completely, pulling at her t-shirt as if it were the fringes of a dress, passion fizzing from her arms, her hips, her face.
After the show you go to the bar to order drink and food and are confused to find the dancers and one of the musicians serving behind the bar, still in costume. The girl in the Nike tracksuit is totting up a bill and the male dancer who took your breath away is asking what you want to order. This is the Family Flores – this bar, these dancers, the proprietors. They are flamenco and flamenco is their life.
Most of the customers leave, but not the party you came with. These are their friends and now that the place is closed, a new show, the real one, begins in the bar.
One of your party, Juan Diego, is a flamenco guitarist and, it turns out, the nephew of the proprietor – the man behind the bar with the hat and white hair pulled into a ponytail. You guess correctly that this was Juan Diego’s teacher. Someone brings Juan Diego a guitar and a chair and it begins. Juan Diego sweats as he makes the guitar sing and the small assortment of people join in with palmas (flamenco hand-clapping) – each adding their own, complementary beat. Someone starts to sing and then the percussionist grabs his cajón. For the next couple of hours, different men sing desperate songs of love and woe with Juan Diego. You find yourself clapping along. You don’t know if you’re doing it right but it doesn’t matter. At the end of one of the songs, someone points and laughs and does an impression of you at that moment – hands clasped in prayer, face full of wonder.
Amid the Ole!s and smiles and smoke, a small dog runs into the bar and sniffs everyone’s feet. The dancers leave and return in casual clothes and carry plates of steaming food from the kitchen to the main room. Eventually, at around 2:30am, the players stop playing, but the music keeps going inside you.
On the backseat of the car on the short journey back, someone rolls a joint and the driver does not crash. You arrive at your room tired but you cannot sleep, not yet. Not while this music plays on in your veins.
Titi Flores will be dancing with Flamenco Express in London between 23rd and 26th April. See http://www.flamencoexpress.co.uk/ for details.