from the Flamenco Series:
Losing one's way intentionally, as exciting as it is, can also be tiring. Resting against a stone wall somewhere south of Granada, I looked back on the path I had climbed. Around me, the mountainside was covered with almond trees whose branches were laden with sweet smelling blossoms funereal in their antique ivory whiteness. Below, in a valley marked by small cultivated garden plots and groves of olive trees, I watched diminutive peasants dressed in black drift silently in and out of the shadows of a tiny village, oblivious to the fact that they were being observed from above.
That I found myself, at the age of nineteen, a solitary wanderer on that Andalusian track, was the result of neither chance nor choice. Sometimes, after the fact, when called upon to explain what had drawn me to Spain, I credited the recordings of Pastora Pavon, La Niña de Los Peines. At other times I attributed my afición for Andalucia to my having read Gerald Brenan's wonderful study of the Alpujarra, the title of which has already found its way into this narrative. On occasion I pointed to the writings of that marvelous linguist and traveler George Borrow as having inspired my adventures. To strangers who asked, I explained that my desire to visit Spain was prompted by my love for the guitar, an instrument which I had played since early childhood. "Spaniards have taken guitar music to heights unmatched anywhere else in the world," I would say, "my desire to experience that music was the reason for my journey."
Although these answers sounded both reasonable and credible, they served (as was their design) to obscure the real reasons for my journey. What follows, although seemingly less plausible, is actually closer to the truth.
For most of my childhood I had cultivated a fancy the implications of which were secret even from myself. I imagined that one afternoon in spring, some nine months before my birth, on a day when the moon showed moth white in a bright blue sky, a wandering gypsy, tiring of trudging through the dust of Quaker Hill Road, found his way to the door of my maternal family's country home in upstate New York in search of something to ease his thirst. In my fantasy, my mother, finding him pleasing to behold and attracted by his scent, invited him in. In her loneliness, I imagined that she offered him more than water and that he accepted. I supposed that they found both passion and pleasure in each other's bodies, and that I was the result of their ecstatic union. Thus it was that I perceived my journey to the south of Spain, through the lens of my fantasy, to be a homecoming.
The reality of my situation was quite the opposite. Having left New York somewhat precipitously, my luggage was limited to what I could carry. A guitar and a knapsack containing a change of clothes and a handful of books were, although I didn't know it at the time, my entire worldly possessions. Still, while in the States my financial situation would have been desperate, in Spain my modest resources would allow me to live frugally for some time. I was in no hurry.
The campesino who, leading a burro on which a young boy was seated, slowly ascended the path to my resting place was not hurrying either. When my only response to his questions (since they were unintelligible to me) was "Yo no hablo Español" he indicated with gestures that if I would walk with them the child would balance my knapsack and guitar atop the burro. Relieved of my burden and thankful for the company, I happily agreed.
The water in the old man's leather bottle tasted of pine tar but it sustained us as we trudged northward. I fumbled through the pages of my pocket dictionary as he, with more energy than skill, attempted to teach me the rudiments of Spanish. At times the boy attempted to aid in the effort and I did learn, after some effort, that he was the old man's grandson
It seemed that they were impressed that I was headed for Granada. With the help of my dictionary I managed to learn that the campesino had visited "la capital" in his youth but that at least fifty years had passed since then. "Es muy grande," he said. "Hay mucha gente." By keeping his sentences short he did, indeed, make it easier for me to decipher his meaning but I wondered, as we walked, whether he was capable of longer sentences at all. Often we lapsed into silence, the strain of communication across the language barrier being more than either of us could handle, but after a rest we would try again. I am indebted to this generous patriarch for much of that which passed between us as we traversed the mountainside remains with me to this day and those first few strained hours eventually became the basis of my understanding of the Spanish idiom.
At length, preparing to turn off the track onto some unmarked trail leading to their home hidden behind a serrated ridge, the old man halted the burro and, returning my guitar and pack, embraced me. Then he pushed me back onto the main path and, pointing in the direction we had been traveling, said "Granada es por allá." The boy adding his "Adiós," they turned their backs and, with the old man in the lead, soon disappeared behind the ridge. If they told me their names that day (and I am not sure that they did) I cannot remember them now.
Granada was indeed in that direction, but when I finally entered that fabled city I was no longer afoot. Just before dark of the day following my encounter with the campesino and his grandson, I had found my way to the road which bypasses the western end of the Sierra Nevada on its way from Malaga to Granada. There I had flagged down a bus and, finding the cost of the fare to the city to be less than sixty pesetas (the equivalent of one American dollar) I the thought of finding a bed to sleep in and the opportunity to rest my feet to make a decision for me. Thus it was that my arrival in the city of the Alhambra was more modern than mythic.
Remaining seated during the few moments of confusion which resulted from the other passengers retrieving their belongings from the overhead racks, I was the last one to leave the bus. Under the arches which formed the front of the station were some benches and, not knowing what to do next, I sat down to try to come up with a plan.
I had not been sitting for more than a moment when I was
approached by a gnomelike figure who resembled nothing more than one of
I can't remember exactly how it came to be arranged, but eventually "el cojo" (for that turned out to be the name by which he was known) led me to the pension La Tuna in the Naranjo de San Matías, a small alley hidden away just a few blocks from the city center. I considered it a good omen that the pension had no sign, for I thought that the lack of advertisement might indicate lower prices.
My guide's impatient knocking resulted in a small sliding portal in the massive oak door being opened. After we had been scrutinized, there was the sound of latches being released and the heavy door finally opened. We entered.
There was a hushed conversation between the dueña of the pension and my guide and it appeared that I would be refused admittance... "No sé," I heard the patroness say, "...es extranjero... No queremos extranjeros aqui..."
For some reason, however (probably an anticipated propina), my hunchbacked guide enthusiastically pleaded my case. "Es tarde," he said. "Dejale quedarse aqui por esta noche. Mañana veremos."
It was settled and I was shown a tiny room up two flights of stairs. In response to my "cuánto?" I was informed that the room, three meals included, would be fifty pesetas a day. More tired than I had, up to then, been willing to admit to myself, I nodded my agreement. The patroness and my guide withdrew and I, closing my door, threw myself on the bed and was soon asleep.
In order to better appreciate the rest of this narrative,
it becomes necessary at this point to revisit New York prior to my departure
for Spain. This time the New York I refer to is not that bucolic upstate
landscape in which I was raised but rather the "insular city of the
Manhattoes" so eloquently described by another wayfaring dreamer
a century before my own arrival there.
In his atelier, Polaco, a guitar maker of Polish origin, sold me my first flamenco-style guitar. Recognizing in me what he perceived to be enthusiasm, the guitar maker invited me to attend his weekly flamenco soirées when members of the flamenco community then in New York would gather at his apartment for an informal evening of music and wine.
The warmth with which I was received by the flamenco community was a new experience to me. Perhaps the gypsies accepted me because they enjoyed my admiration. Perhaps, being far from home, they recognized in me another displaced soul. Whatever the reason, and despite the fact that I found it difficult to communicate in Spanish, I soon became a regular at Polaco's parties and at the "Spanish" cafes where flamenco music, in one form or another, provided entertainment. Having played the guitar since the age of six, it was not surprising that I began to acquire the rudiments of flamenco music. Before long I was given the opportunity to perform at the fiestas and soon thereafter, in some of the nightspots.
I loved the music. I was intoxicated by the mysterious gypsy cadences which had their origins in the eastern Mediterranean and India. I was thrilled by the complex rhythmic patterns which, while at first they had defied my understanding, soon became clear, delighting me with their syncopation and counterpoint. I was comforted by the finely tuned social structure which the flamencos had brought with them from Spain and I was entranced by the costumes and pageantry of the performances. But most of all, I found in flamenco music the opportunity to escape.
My accommodations at the La Tuna in Granada provided,
free of charge, the ideal language immersion opportunity. It turned out
that I had, courtesy of my disabled guide, been settled in a pension which
sheltered a few out-of-town university students and substantial number
of women who were the mistresses of wealthy local businessmen and prominent
regional officials in the then-expansive provincial bureaucracy which
endured thanks to the outcome of Spain's recent civil war.
Women in this situation formed the majority of the residents at La Tuna. As they had little to do except during siesta, that mid-day time business closing time which lasted far longer in Spain than in any other European country, the chicas of the pensión spent most of their time gathered around the communal dining table cuddling their infants, knitting, sewing, and otherwise passing the time in leisure activities. It was with delight that they helped me find words to tell them about "América", and with good humor that they nick-named me "El Indio" because, finding it difficult to conjugate verbs, I often resorted to the infinitive, the result being that my sentences reminded them of the speech of the Hollywood Indians in the imported and dubbed westerns which were standard fare at local theaters.
Four to six hours a day of informal conversation soon gave me proficiency in Spanish. At the same time I had ventured forth in search of music. Through the good offices of Sr. Peña, a flamenco aficionado whose two sons were guitarists working in France, I was introduced to the musicians of Granada. A chance encounter with a newspaper reporter for the daily La Patria gave me the opportunity to publicly declare my admiration for the music and culture of Andalucia and I was made welcome by many in the gypsy and non-gypsy communities alike.
My ability to converse with English-speaking tourists was recognized as an sset by the gypsies of the Sacromonte and provided entrée to the cuevas where performances were given. As my musicianship improved, I was more and more often invited to join in the festivities. Of course, I was not a "verdadero" flamenco, but eventually, when I limited my thought processes to Spanish, I came to think like one.
Thanks to the generosity of one of the highly-placed male visitors to La Tuna (who made me promise never to reveal his name) I was introduced to Manuel Cano, one of Spain's great guitarists. Befriending me, Manuel not only taught me invaluable techniques and music, he also "sold"1 me a fine Sobrinos de Esteso guitar which opened new doors. Almost any guitarist was willing to teach me a few falsetas in exchange for the opportunity to play this fine instrument. My abilities as a guitarist improved rapidly.
I traveled northward with my new instrument. In
Barcelona I rubbed shoulders with the great classical guitarist Narcisso
Ypes, visited the workshop of the great guitarmakers the Fleta brothers,
and was invited to perform on Radio Nacional de España. I attended
illegal gatherings of Catalan poets (the Catalan language was outlawed
by the Franco regime) and illegal gatherings of Quakers (non-Catholic
religions were forbidden as well). In Barcelona I learned the Zorongo
Gitano, a combination of Siguryas and Tientos which I never heard played
elsewhere and stayed up till dawn in the gypsy camps on the outskirts
of the city.
I visited the U.S. consulate and had my passport amended to include the stage name "Juan Moreno." In reviewing copies of some of my letters written in Europe, I find that I sometimes added an "X" as a middle initial. The "X" might have stood for Xavier or Ximenez, except that I never used either of those names.
A misconceived trip to the Côte D'Azure in France in search of a fellow expatriate who had prematurely departed for Germany left me playing guitar with some real gypsies in a restaurant in Nice. Then I wandered to Marseilles where I found a job playing in a bar that soon became too dangerous for comfort. Good jobs were hard to find in France if one did not have the appropriate papers so for a while I sought anonimity crewing on various craft the plied the coast. Then Paris and on to London. Then back to New York. Then, after about a year, back to Europe again. It seemed that every major city had its flamenco contingent and I found my way to it.
So it was for a number of years. I sold or gave away my books, avoided speaking English, and used my birth name only when necessary on legal documents. Wearing a sombrero cordobés and dressed in chaqueta corta, faja, and botas flamencas, I accompanied dancers and singers, performed as a soloist, and immersed myself in la vida flamenca both on-stage and off.
One of my proudest moments might have been when, after my guitar solo in a performance at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the entire Toronto Symphony Orchestra rose to applaud. I do not know if they would have been less enthusiastic if they had known that I was not the Spanish gypsy they perceived me to be but, for me, the thought of that possibility robbed the evening of much of its pleasure.
copyright © 1998-2000 Jonathan Talbot. All rights reserved.