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Jerez, flamenco and zambombas in the cafes and streets. Christmas in Cadiz.

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Music in the Streets of Jerez

In the previous installment of this short series of articles on the province of Cadiz I mentioned the ghastly local tv channel. It features an almost endless supply of flamenco. There are, of course, rather a lot of distinct flamenco styles. You get the whole gamut on tv. I can appreciate the general feel, but a small amount of pain and angst goes a long way.

When I first came to Spain many years ago I was walking along a track out of Alicante towards Elche. I believe it was a sunday, and I hit the village mid afternoon, right during the paseo. The whole community was off to the far reaches of the palm forest to celebrate a saint’s day. It was some time before I came abreast of a cart containing six guys. I was puzzled as to why they were penned into this cart. They all seemed happy, so I asked what was going on. It turned out to be the midsummer feast of St John. I therefore smiled and introduced myself as John, or Juan.

This caused much jubilation because now there were seven Juans, and the crowd insisted that I get into the cart. Having seven Juans would bring immense good luck for the forthcoming seasons.

That evening was magical with the dancing, and the guitar playing, and the singing. It wasn’t flamenco, or what I call flamenco, but it was definitely a form of cante jondo, and it was very moving.

When I was in Jerez I did not attend a dance party, but watched several parties on tv. (Sorry about this, but that’s modern life.) And I’m glad I did watch one program. Sadly I had no-one to ask who was the small girl who put on an amazing performance. I am guessing she was ten or twelve years old, but she had obviously been singing for some time. She had a strong voice, and took complete possession of not only the stage, but the audience as well. She is not just going to be a great star, she is one already. If anyone knows who she is I’d love to know her name.

Well, we did go out, but only briefly because it is, after all, winter down here. One of the booklets you get given when you arrive in your hotel gives a list of all the carol singing that takes place over the religious period known as Advent. You know what a zambomba is, don’t you? Yes, of course you do.

For those of you who don’t know what it is, let me explain. This is a custom dating back several hundred years, but which had almost died out until recently. It’s is a celebration. around a fire in a courtyard or in a local cafe or tasca where local ballads are sung by flamenco singers accompanied by everyone present, with added tapas and drinks to make things go with a bang. This sing-song is named after a special type of drum that is used as part of the accompaniment.

Here is a picture of some typical drums. The zambombas are pots covered with goatskin, which is pierced by a wooden rod, which is rubbed with the hands to produce a rather odd sound:


This tradition is especially strong both in Jerez and in Arcos, but I note the custom is spreading all over the province, and we had a booklet in Santa Maria giving a list of the eateries taking part.

          Zambomba party

Let me quote an article from the newspaper El Pais’s web site.

“In the courtyard outside the Atalaya Museums, a towering 19th-century palace that has almost 300 period clocks on display, the bells strike two in the afternoon. Wicker chairs are gathered around a bonfire, and a selection of liqueur wines, Ibérico cold cuts and Christmas sweets are on offer.

“Today, the guitarist Juan Diego strives to rescue old romances (Spanish poems with eight syllables to a line) and Christmas carols, preserved through oral history, so he can put them to music and sing them.”

I think the newspaper is forgetting that way back in the thirties and even up until the time I briefly lived in Grenada, these old romances were sung in the evenings.
They were usually quiet affairs. I remember two guys (they were brothers I believe), who had a small shop in one of the streets at the foot of the hill of the Alhambra, used to make and repair guitars by day, and in the evening they would fill a couple of glasses with tinto, and sit in front of their shop playing their guitars and singing softly.

Sometimes there was a small group of us listening. Often the brothers just played for themselves.

In those days Grenada was a small quiet city, and I was then studying and translating Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads. I lived only a block away from the brothers, and just round the corner was the pad of Ian Gibson who was then researching a book on Lorca. Lorca, A Life.

I climbed to the top of the tenement building where he had an apartment on many occasions but eventually an old biddy put me out of my misery. “You won’t find him here now. He’s teaching back in Ireland.”

But I had this idea of trying to set Lorca’s traditional eight syllable ballads to music.

According to the article in El Pais “The origin of all this is in Arcos, where we used to sing romances. With time, Gypsies in the poor quarters of Jerez adapted the lyrics to flamenco,” says De Luisa shortly before the performance.

De Luisa’s repertoire includes songs about Baby Jesus becoming drunk from the fruit of the strawberry tree and others on love affairs and quarrels. “Like all good popular traditions, these twists and turns of the Spanish picaresque genre [relating to roguish heroes who outwit their corrupt, upper-class foes] come out in the songs,”

I remember two of these old songs from way back, and I didn’t hear them in Arcos. One was a charming song about a campesino who crept over to his girlfriend’s house one night, but then got frightened because he thought he heard her father coming, but it was only the cat.

Another was about a mad boy who was always singing songs. He would sing bits from various songs all muddled up, which ended up producing a song that was disgracefully suggestive, which everybody found hilarious, and all the ladies adored listening to.

It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in the week up to Christmas. Maybe next year I will go to Arcos and see what they make of the tradition.

Cadiz (Part 1)

The wines of Jerez (Part 3)

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