Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Where Are The Best Flamenco Shows In Madrid?

Flamenco purists often swear that flamenco is best heard without amplification—just the natural powers of the voice and guitar cutting through the air of a small room filled with aficionados. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to witness a spectacle like this if you are not deeply involved in the world of flamenco. And it is nearly impossible to see the famous flamenco artists of today perform in such a capacity. That is why we are very fortunate to have the “Sala García Lorca,” part of the famous flamenco venue Casa Patas in Madrid. This intimate room is located above Casa Patas’ restaurant and main flamenco performance venue. Unlike Casa Patas’ established downstairs tablao, the upstairs Sala is only in its third season of concerts.

Recently I was fortunate to see two world-class performances in this small room with a capacity of 90 people, designed specifically for flamenco singing. There are many places to see flamenco performances in Madrid and this venue is perhaps the best when one combines the intimate setting with the quality of artists who perform. One need look no further than around the room at the members of the audience to glean that these concerts are coveted—many of the attendees are either flamenco writers, serious aficionados or famous contemporary flamenco artists. This is a far cry from your typical tourist-oriented flamenco tablao. There is no dinner upstairs and there is no talking during the performance, though a smattering of olés might be heard from the audience.

The concerts I saw were guitar duo José María Gallardo and Miguel Ángel Cortés and singer Duquende with Chicuelo as the guitarist. Both concerts were outstanding. Gallardo and Cortés are both top tier guitarists (classical and flamenco, respectively) and as a duo they seamlessly blend the two genres, both playing intricate melodies that somehow manage to improve rather than diminish the individual parts. They sound like no other duo I have heard and together break down the long-standing barrier between flamenco and classical guitarists. They have just released an album titled Lo Cortés no quita lo Gallardo that demonstrates their unique sound and it is a work that has the power to reach anyone who takes the time to listen to it. 

Duquende is a highly respected flamenco artist who has toured with, among others, the great Paco de Lucía. His preferred guitarist now is Chicuelo, and rightly so. Chicuelo is a monster player and excels both as an accompanist and a soloist. To hear them together, un-amplified in a small room is a wonderful experience and something one is not likely to witness many times. These are artists who fill large concert halls, and yet they love the art enough to perform for less than one-hundred people and make a fraction of what they normally make. You see, tickets for this series of concerts are only twenty-five euros. That price seems ridiculous when I think about how much a nosebleed ticket costs to see famous American artists. 

And yet flamenco, a music with unsurpassable feeling and talent, remains largely an outsider in its country of origin and, apart from small groups of aficionados in other countries, is surprisingly unknown or unappreciated. Within Spain curious tourists make up a large percentage of flamenco’s patrons—and it is mainly to them I am talking to right now, because at least they seem to want to witness this great art. If you want to see a true flamenco show in Madrid, Sala García Lorca is the place to do it. Just remember, the room upstairs is separate from the restaurant below and the shows are different. To see if a show is programed while you are in town, check out their website here: (   

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Semana Santa Trip Part 5 (Finale): Ronda

Better late than never, right? This weekend makes it a year since I was last in Ronda, during Easter weekend. It is easily one of the most gorgeous villages in Spain. From the time I visited during my first trip to Europe in the winter of 2011, I swore I would go back. I happened upon an excellent quality leather belt my first time there, and have worn it nearly every day for the past four years. It was time to get some more, and at the same time witness the processions of Semana Santa.


Mmmmmm....fresh mushrooms.
     After sucessfully finding the same store I had visited years prior and buying belts for myself and others, I stood on the side of the street and watched the Easter procession go by, complete with Jesus on the cross, Mary, censers, men and women in uniform and plenty of music.

     Andalusians really take these processions seriously. They happen every day throughout the week leading up to Easter, and the closer Sunday gets, the longer and more elaborate the processions are. After watching for a long while, I decided to find a place to camp before dark. I looked across the valley and saw an old bell tower in the distance, and set my sights on it.

Sunset over the mountains
     After a very long walk, I arrived at the base of the tower as twilight gave way to night and the music from the town turned mournful.

Ronda from a distance
From the inside of the tower
     Camping alone in the dark outside a rural village made me quite aware of my surroundings—I wasn't sure of the security of my selected campsite, but decided it would probably be okay. I fell asleep to the sounds of crickets up close and brass instruments accompanied by percussion in the distance.
     At four a.m. I was awakened by the procession, still going strong. The sound of drums rang out along with the piercing voice of a singer performing a saeta—a religious flamenco-inflected song performed during Semana Santa. I will never forget the wonder of waking up to the song and looking out of the tent across the valley to the twinkling lights of the old town of Ronda.

Pardon the length of this photo. I felt the panoramic view added context. 

     I awoke again at sunrise and took in the lightening forms of the mountains and the town with its famous bridge, known as the tajo. Paco de Lucía, the famous flamenco guitarist, composed a rondeña (flamenco song form originated in Ronda) named after the bridge. 

El Tajo
     As the sun continued to rise I walked back into town and, that afternoon, took the train back to Madrid, thus concluding a memorable Semana Santa in Andalucía. Some experiences had such an impact on me that they found their way into the concluding song on my recently released album Evening Sounds. In a way, the album documents my two years in Spain. Though, perhaps more accurately, it attempts to capture the essence of a time that will remain forever at the core of my experiences.

You can listen for reference to the four a.m. drums below, as well as the influence of the rondeña flamenco song form.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Semana Santa Trip Part 4: Zahara de la Sierra and Seteníl de las Bodegas

Zahara de la Sierra
     Ah, it's been a while since my last post. I was very busy in Madrid the last few months I was there. That's okay, let's pick up where I left off. I was traveling aroung Andalucía with Camille, and we had just traversed part of the Sierra de Grazalema. We visited the pueblo of Grazalema and, as the day was coming to an end, we decided to try to get to our next destination. It was about 17km away, and we started walking in hopes of getting a ride there. The only problem was, there was one road that went to our next destination, Zahara de la Sierra, and no other stops along the way. So unless we caught someone going to that pueblo of 1,500 people, we were out of luck. We walked to the crossroads that led to Zahara and waited. As it turned out, we were in luck. A family drove by—at first they said sorry, they couldn't take us, because their car was pretty full with two children in the back. But a minute later they turned around, no doubt feeling bad that we would be stranded there all night, and gave us a lift. It sure was good that we didn't have to walk, because most of the ride consisted of hairpin turns while ascending a mountain. Then there was a steep descent into the valley below. We arrived in Zahara at sunset, took a walk around and got a bite to eat.

Sunset in Zahara de la Sierra
Fried Eggplant with José Ximénez vinegar

     The next morning we explored the town. As you can see from the first picture, the town is perched on a hill. At the top of the hill is a castle contructed from the 13th to 15th centuries. It overlooks the entire valley in which Zahara de la Sierra is situated. 

A look at the reservoir from Zahara's castle
The tower of Zahara's castle and the olive groves surrounding. 

Zahara at a distance 
     Needless to say, the views were impressive and it was definitely worth a stop. I envisioned myself staying there for weeks, saturating myself with Andalusian country life. But I hadn't brought my guitar, so that was out of the question! We had places to be, and didn't know exactly how to get to them. Later in the day, we waited for a bus that we thought would take us to our next destination. It didn't. We got dropped off 7km down the road in another pueblo, Algodonales. The bus driver said another bus would come in a couple hours so we had lunch and waited. Eventually, that bus did come and we experienced a beautiful bus ride through the Sierra de Grazalema, passing white-washed pueblos and castles older than the discovery of America. I know it's a bit cliché, a bit romantic, but after a year and a half in Spain I still had not gotten over its beauty. 
     We arrived in Alcalá del Valle, a small pueblo outside of the park. We went there because a guide book said there was a great walking path that connected Alcalá and the town of Seteniíl de las Bodegas. There was supposed to be an old windmill and everything. It turned out to be a disappointment—that path is not worth walking. But we decided to camp for the night and set up in an olive grove a few kilometers outside of Seteníl. In the morning we walked into town. Seteniíl de las Bodegas is famous for its houses that have been constructed under rock overhangings. 

The 'modern' section Seteníl de las Bodegas
Houses constructed into the rock in Seteníl de las Bodegas

     The area has been occupied continuously since at least the 12th century, when it was under Arab control. But considering nearby archaeological findings that indicate the region was populated with humans over 25,000 years ago, it would be a good bet to say that Seteníl has seen its share of prehistoric humans. The natural shelter the rock provides, coupled with the river below, would've made it a great place to spend some time back then. Since then, permanent dwellings have been built by the building of walls from the top of the rock overhang to the ground beneath. 

     It is a unique place and, though I couldn't see myself spending more than a day there, it's definitely worth seeing, and the food we had was tasty and inexpensive. It's not far from one of my favorite towns in Spain, the town we were to visit next—Ronda. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Semana Santa Part 3: Sierra de Grazalema

     From Arcos de la Frontera we took a bus to the Sierra de Grazalema. We got off at Ubrique, a town nestled into the mountains and famous for its leather products. We bought groceries and the local sweet, called a gañote, and headed for the mountains. 

Roman road (calzada romana)
      From Ubrique there is a Roman road that connects Ubrique with a nearby village, Benaocaz. It's fantastic. The mountains in the sierra are of the same composition (limestone) as those in the Picos de Europa. Their slow decomposition is evident in their jagged peaks grooved by rain over millennia.

Rain grooves

Ubrique in the background 
Ubrique in the background

     As we walked toward the next pueblo, Benaocaz, the sun set and we eventually set up camp outside of town. The next morning we had coffee (chocolate milk for me) in town and continued on toward the next destination, Grazalema, on the Senda de cabreros (Goat herder path). In the bar in town they had told us we wouldn't be able to make it all the way to Grazalema because part of the route went through private property and there had been a dispute that led to the owner's closing his land to walkers. It sounded a bit silly to me, so we went ahead and continued on, despite others telling us along the way that it was closed. 

On the way to Grazalema

Ibérico pigs

Rocks. Outside of Benaocaz.
     The hike was, needless to say, stunning. We saw five people in as many hours. 

Still on the road to Grazalema
     After hours of walking we arrived at the point of contention. There was a fence with a sign saying that no one could pass. But that wasn't true, because it was rather easy to hop the fence and continue on. Turned out, the private land was the most enchanting part of the hike. It is truly a shame they closed it off. We saw a mare and her colt in a pasture with the limestone mountains rising up behind. This might well have been the reason for the closing of the path. Then we came upon a house, which was surely the property owner's, and we had to scramble through two gates and walk a half mile more down the road until we were out of the property—just before a car came rolling down the long driveway.

Mare, colt
This is how a goat drinks from a stream
     After, we ate lunch on a bench before continuing on another 4km (we'd walked 9 already) to Grazalema.

The pueblo of Grazalema

     The town itself was calm and after spending some time there we decided to try to get to our next destination before the end of the day. To be continued...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Semana Santa Trip Part 2: Jerez de la Frontera and Arcos de la Frontera

     From Fuenteheridos we rode south with a nice couple to Jerez de la Frontera, a flamenco capital. They wanted to drive us to the hotel but we encountered roadblocks and policemen once we neared the center of town. It was Sunday, and the processions of Holy Week had began. Processions take place throughout Spain every day of Holy Week, but Andalucía does it best and takes it most seriously. Every town does things slightly differently. The general outline is that a lot people dress up, mostly in Ku Klux Klan style outfits (of course, this has been going on in Spain much longer than the Klan's existence), others in army uniforms with instruments, others in robes, and they walk around the town. All ages participate. Depending on the day, people also carry enormous Pasos, or floats, some with Jesus and others with the Virgin Mary. They are not light, and are usually carried on the shoulders of many men who stand beneath the floats for hours at a time.

There is Jesus on the Cross
     We got dropped off near our hostel, which happened to be right in the middle of the procession. The streets were completely full and everyone was wearing their Sunday best as we walked by unshowered with big backpacks and hiking clothes. We got to the hostel, changed and went out.

There's the Virgin Mary
     Processions last for a long time. The closer it is to Easter, the longer they last. More on that later. Needless to say, as we walked around the city, we kept running into the Procession and had to either wait for it to pass or turn back and go a different way.

     Above is a kid with a big candle. Kids not in the procession gather on the side and have sticks with balls of wax on the end and ask the people with candles to kindly drip the melted wax onto their balls to make them bigger. Nothing more to say here.

The same Paso passing through a plaza hours later. 
     These processions move very slowly. Everyone walks in time to the somber music of the band playing and very couple of minutes everyone stops, maybe to give the float-bearers a rest, and they do various things. Some of the people in the parade go barefoot.

Not spooky at all
     I'll be talking a bit more about these Processions in the next post. Here's a picture of a sign outside of a restaurant. 

I think "papatoes" is spelled wrong but other than that it looks okay.
     Jerez was a lovely town I would like to visit again to see some flamenco. During Holy Week the flamenco stops to make way for other events. The next day we took a bus to Arcos de la Frontera, a white pueblo on a hill.

A corner of Arcos de la Frontera
A street in Arcos de la Frontera
     The village was enjoyable to walk around, though very steep. Villages in the south of Spain tend to be built eiither on a hill, cliff, or in a valley. They are almost never flat. From the town we could see our next destination, the Sierra de Grazalema. We had a tasty meal while we were in Arcos, with one of the best flans I've eaten.