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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

On Being Possessed

The song builds with such strength and passion that Anzonini appears to be drawn up from his table into the center of the room, like a genie called from its bottle. His eyes are wide and blazing blue and he’s plugged into the same energy that possesses us all. He tosses a gesture here, a glance there, and it is clear that he is compás—he is it, the very soul of flamenco. When the song ends, and Diego quiets the strings, we are astonished and spent.

Such was my early experience of duende, the elusive yet powerful magic at the heart of flamenco. It came up out of the ground, out of the air, out of us all. There was nothing more to say. We crashed where each could find comfort. I remember how dark and quiet it was in the farmhouse that night, among the ancient olive trees and the fields of garlic.

manolito

Aurora Vargas dances for señoritos in a fiesta in Feria de Sevilla.
Photo by Jane Grossenbacher, 1984

My first real exposure to flamenco took place at Reed back in 1964. A classmate of mine, Chet Creider ’65, had returned from a year studying flamenco guitar in Spain and was performing in the old SU at a folksy orientation week talent show. In all honesty, I showed up more to meet freshman women than to listen to Chet, but that night changed my life. The music he played was different from anything I had ever heard before. It didn’t just speak to me; it took hold of my soul and wouldn’t let go.

Why it affected me so strongly, I don’t know. The music was formally elegant and emotionally profound, conversational and inviting. It felt deeply rooted in the human condition and spoke volumes in a single note; intensely personal yet unpretentiously universal. It was the blues and jazz wrapped in an Indian raga. I was hooked.

I graduated from Reed as a physics major in 1966, and went to New York City to continue my studies. There I met David Serva, perhaps the most accomplished American flamenco guitarist working today. David had been to Morón, the epicenter of Andalusian flamenco, and encouraged me to make a pilgrimage there. Shortly thereafter, I had an ugly encounter with the draft board that caused me to rethink my life choices. The war in Vietnam was in full swing, my student deferment had been revoked, and I was being called for duty. With calculated effort I failed the Army physical. The experience traumatized me, and for the first time, I felt that life was short.

I took a three-month leave of absence from my graduate work to travel to Spain, to seek out the great pueblo flamenco guitarist Diego Amaya Flores del Gastor. I was 23 years old; I had no idea how or even if the trip would work out. I had no reservations and no plans.

Before I flew to Spain, I joined thousands of other young people in various physical attire, body paint, and psychic states who converged on Central Park for the first “Be-In”—an uncensored, mind-bending, seminal event that ushered in the Love Generation. That was May Day, 1967. Hours later, on the flight to Madrid, I wondered if I should really be leaving the U.S. just when so many exciting things were happening.

The next day, I stepped off a bus in Morón and into a romantic world of cobblestone streets, whitewashed walls, old women in eternal mourning, and smells of pueblo life—olive oil and garlic laced with the fragrance of orange blossoms and black tobacco. It was the antithesis of harsh, urban New York City.

reed magazine logoSummer 2009