5/14/2006

The Gypsy Blues [MAY 14, 2006]

Friday night. A crowded, smoked filled bar in the working district of a nameless town on the Andalucían coast. (Well, actually, it’s Cádiz but "nameless town on the Andalucían coast" just sounds a lot more travel-romantic, doesn’t it?). The clientele have been ordering their wine by the bottle for the past hour or so while nibbling on such typical Spanish tapas as jamón serrano, queso manchego, and tortilla. The once hushed table chatter has now built up to such a volume that you can’t even make out the strange language being spoken at that single table to the dimly-lit back... the one under that stuffed and mounted bull’s head. The only thing that’s for sure is that they’re the only ones not speaking Spanish in the joint.

"No way. Quantum Leap blew Fantasy Island away. Hands down!"
"Listen, all I’m trying to say is that is was a pretty creative idea. Don’t you think? I mean – An island where your fantasies come true. That is damn creative," my friend responds.
"OK. I’ll give you that much. But Quantum Leap was just as creative if not more. Some of those leaps. Like, like the time he became Marilyn Monroe was..."
"Hold on. I don’t think he ever became Marilyn Monroe. He turned in to someone who knew her. I’m pretty sure it was a chauffeur or something."
"Whatever. That’s besides the point. What I’m trying to say is... Forget it." I turn to my girlfriend, "What do you think, honey? Quantum Leap, right? A much better show, right?"
"I don’t know. What the hell is a quantum lip?" she contorts her puzzled Czech face.
"Oh right, the whole Communism thing. You guys never got those shows in the Eighties. Well, it was about this guy, a scientist actually, Doctor Samuel Beckett, who entered..."
"Enough already," she interrupts. "Will you two shut up? No one cares about your stupid Fantasy Island or Quantum Lip television programmes. Besides, something’s happening on the stage. I think they’re starting."
"Oh, sorry, dear..." I grab my glass of wine, lean back into the wooden chair, and take a sip before mumbling, "Quantum LEAP not Quantum LIP," to no one in particular.

As everyone at our table silently directs their attention to the motley crew of well-dressed Gypsies and slick-haired Spaniards who have now walked on stage, the tables around us continue their idle chitchat. The young guitarist plucks his first strings and the rhythmic clapping coming from the three others standing to his right slowly builds pace. The patrons surrounding us keep up their drone-like conversations, almost completely ignoring the performing musicians. Not many books have been written on Spanish manners – probably because there aren’t any. But that’s besides the point. Eventually, once the guitar and choral clapping reach what seems to be their climax, a heavier-set, middle-aged, Gypsy women to the guitarist’s left rises to her feet and belts out the first verse of a ballad of unfulfilled desire. Everyone in the bar instantly stops what they’re doing and turns their interested heads to the stage. The passion in her voice grabs the attention of the seated masses and doesn’t let go. She soon breaks into an elegant dance – the ripples of her multi-colored dress undulating in its wake – and draws the occasional "¡Olé!" from random, spellbound onlookers. A night of flamenco has begun.


Work it, baby... Work it!

Gypsies get a lot of grief here in the Old World. Their nomadic background and centuries-old reputation as swindlers and con-artists has done little to help the modern European perception of these cultural outsiders. Historians estimate that this ethnic group first migrated onto this continent from the Indian subcontinent during the first half of the last millennium (that’s 1000–1500AD for all of you high school drop-outs or unsuccessful GED candidates). Ever since, they have consistently formed the poorest and least educated sector of society. Gypsy literacy levels throughout the continent hover at an astonishingly low 40–50% which is even more shocking when you take into consideration that, except for Albania at 87%, not one European nation has a literacy level below 98%. This poverty and lack of education, obviously, also leads to a disproportionately higher rate of crime in the Gypsy community. I recently read a study, for example, that stated even though Gypsy women only make up about 1.5% of the Spanish population, they account for over 25% of Spanish prison inmates. Anyway you look at it – from Portugal to Russia or Norway to Moldavia – there’s a lot of work to be done in the Gypsy community.


Baby Bigot-Gomez finally realizes the wrongs of her ways, "Stinkin' Gypsies.
What d'ya ever give Spain?! Oh... right. The whole flamenco thing."

Outside of Central Europe, Spain boasts the largest population of Gypsies and Andalucía, with nearly 60%, is home to most of them. Spanish Gypsies, or gitanos, are no exception to the European norm. They are perceived as being lazy, thieving and government-leeching. They are discriminated against in interviews, schools and the media. They are the one neighbor that no self-respecting Spaniard would ever want to live next to. But despite all of this blatant racism and outright bigotry, no matter how much they are spat on or looked down upon, there’s one reason why a gitano always walks with a head held up high – Flamenco. The gitanos invented Spain’s most renown music and gave it its passionate dance and ostentatious dress. They started it all in their poor ghettos centuries ago – nurtured it, perfected it – and then eventually handed it over to the Spaniards confident that they would never be able to produce a national style of music that could ever rival their own. And the gitanos were right. Today, Spaniards from every walk of life dance, sing, and enjoy the flamenco rhythm. They perform it on stages and in bars throughout the country while blaring it proudly on home stereos. Flamenco encompasses what it means to be Spanish and is España at the very heart of the proud nation’s name... except that it really isn’t. It’s actually gitano and everyone knows it. Ask any Spaniard to tell you who plays the best flamenco in town and they’ll all agree: "Those dirty, filthy, thieving Gypsies down the road. God bless ‘em!"


"Damn. Those gitanos really know how to shake that booty."

My fiancée and I are fortunate to be living in one of the world’s foremost flamenco centers. Cádiz has been a hub of guitar making and innovation for centuries. In fact, some historians claim that the famed Pagés brothers actually invented the first modern guitar here in 1803. And, no, it probably wasn’t a Stratocaster Electric. Spanish guitars (which include most modern acoustic guitars) weren’t originally designed to play Blue Suede Shoes or Smoke On The Water. They were meant to accompany the passionate songs and exquisite dancing of the flamenco elite – of which we have no shortage of here either. The Province of Cádiz has been home to some of flamenco’s greatest performers throughout the ages. Just to mention modern times, the internationally-known Paco de Lucía, considered to be the best living guitarist, was born and raised here as was the greatest flamenco singer to ever walk the earth, El Camarón de la Isla. El Camarón, unfortunately, died in 1992 at the age of 41 after years of an uncontrollable lifestyle and heroin abuse. He was, of course, a dirty, filthy, thieving gitano... but that still didn’t stop the estimated 100,000 people that turned up at his funeral.


Granny Gomez is dancing the flamenco...
And she's lovin' every minute of it!

One of the results of this proud Cádiz tradition of flamenco is that one can see and hear it nearly everywhere. Young kids who just got their driving licences don’t cruise down the beach in dad’s car and ogle bikini-wearing babes while pumping out hip-hop on the factory-installed stereo. No, they do it while pumping out flamenco. When locals go out with friends just to chill out on a park bench, shoot the breeze, and drink a bottle of beer or two, it’s never long before the rhythmic clapping of a flamenco tune takes over. When mothers are trying to lull their babies to sleep, they moan and wail a flamenco song at the top of their lungs into the baby’s ear – well, I haven’t actually witnessed it but I’m sure that happens every now and then. What we have witnessed, though, was a flamenco "Christmas Carol" show this past December. A bunch of gitanos on stage started dancing and singing away about how a baby Gypsy had just been born in a manger in Bethlehem as everyone in the audience clapped away and threw in the occasional "¡Olé!" I had no idea Jesus was a Gypsy... I always thought he was Black.


The stage is set for the Gypsy Blues...

So, where does all of this leave me and my lovely fiancée? Well, when we first arrived in Cádiz about two years ago, we were eager to go and sit through as many flamenco shows as we could. By the time Christmas came round, and we found out that Jesus was actually a Gypsy, we were already sort of getting tired of the whole thing. Now, we’re lucky if we go to a flamenco show once every couple of months. The problem is, no matter how creative, lively, and passionate flamenco may be, it’s still something foreign to us. I guess it just either grows on you or it doesn’t and, after spending countless nights in seedy flamenco joints, the entire novelty of the thing has just worn out. At the end of the day, we’re not Spanish and we’re definitely not gitano... we’re just adventurous foreigners with a penchant for traveling. So how could we ever come to love this local art form as fervently as the people of Cádiz? The simple answer is that we can’t. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to amuse ourselves somehow else. Now that I think of it, someone told me the other day that they’ve already released most of the Quantum Leap seasons onto DVD. Screw flamenco, it’s time I taught my fiancée some of the benefits of not living under Communism in the 1980s – quality television programming. Well, that and the whole freedom of speech thing.

9 comments:

ViVi said...

Wow, I'm completely jealous, we don't have anything resembling flaminco in these parts. Plus, my husband has all the rhythm of a water buffulo. Oh well.

But Quantam Leap was the shiznit, I'll testify to that!

luap nhoj said...

he turned into the cheufeur (sp?).



NOT MARILYN

Chiri said...

Paco de Lucia is from Algeciras (provincia de Cadiz). Camaron was from nearer the city of Cadiz - either San Fernando or PSM. Flamenco musicians often have great nicknames, not just the culinary 'Camaron' or 'Tomatito' but also somewhat tactless statements of fact like 'El Bizco'.

Lori said...

I love Quantum Leap....they're still playing reruns on Scifi here....I've got the first 2 seasons on DVD....It did go into the 90's.....Not sure about Marilyn....but he was a woman that was pregnant one time.....and how about the time he leaps into Lee Harvey Oswald....that was my fav!!!

Fantasy Island....I was young when that was on....But I do remember my Mother watching it....And I remember something like

It's a plane...BOSS
It's a plane...BOSS

That's about it.....That had to be the early 80's...

Have a great day!!!

euro-trac said...

There was an ELVIS Quantum Leap from what I rememeber! :o)

Hi,
The band on my blog were a band called Slade
and the singer was Noddy Holder.

They were pretty big in the 70's in the UK, but never had success in the States. We knew them more of a 'glam rock' band really and not like they were in the video. They had a Christmas song that still gets played every year now, and probably always will....

euro-trac said...

A touch of make-up might be nice too!
:o)

Ms Bees Knees said...

i think it may depend on your age. i'm a fantasy island kinda gal... but i'm also 33. i never got into quantum "lip"... it seemed like a "boys" show to me.

J.Doe said...

Flamenco dancing is beautil, but I've been robbed several times by gypsies, so I try to avoid them.
They do have a bad reputation in the rest of Europe, but unfortunatley they earned it.

Anonymous said...

Seems kind of ironic that the Spanish people are so proud of something that was invented by the people whom they condemn.
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