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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

On Being Possessed

calli

Cantaora Cristobalina singing in family fiesta following the gypsy baptism of Sebastian Peña Snow.
Photo by Robert Klein, 1981

Two young gypsy men sat at a table nearby, watching me with curious eyes as I stood conspicuously in black pants, beige corduroy jacket, white shirt, tie, and sunglasses, guitar case and bag in hand, looking foreign and lost.

Had I come to see Diego? they asked. We can take you to him. But look—here he comes now!

He was tall, somewhat stooped, wearing a threadbare black cotton suit with a white shirt buttoned at the neck, wispy silver-blond hair thinly trained over a clean forehead. I remember his worn, shiny-black, soft leather shoes. There were two children at his sides—a boy and a girl—and he walked slowly with his hands on each of their heads, fingers in their hair and a sparkle of warmth and pleasure in his eyes. He greeted me with a smile and a bunch of questions and turned to walk me back up the street to Casa Pepe, the center of flamenco in Morón. So this was the great Diego del Gastor. I could hardly believe that I was actually there, walking up a street in what seemed to me another world—strange, dreamlike, yet very real and inviting.

I knew I had made the right decision.

My three-month leave became a two-year immersion. I never returned to academic life. (Physics professor Nick Wheeler, my prescient senior thesis adviser, had actually predicted this.) The more I learned about flamenco, the more I wanted to learn. I just couldn’t leave. Even with the lure of cultural and political change at home, there was nothing that compared to the intense high I was experiencing.

Over time, I got to know other artists, including singers Curro Mairena, Luis Torres “Joselero,” and Juan Talegas, and guitarists Paco and Juan del Gastor, Diego Torres Amaya, and Agustin Rios. Diego’s nephew Fernandillo would often come by our room to tell stories, share a copita, and entertain us.

Although formal guitar lessons were rare, getting together to make music was not. Sometimes Diego would just show up at my place to talk and play my guitar. He enjoyed the company of foreigners and was nourished by our attention. We in turn, brought him translations of Kafka and Erich Fromm, which he eagerly consumed, and hosted fiestas whenever life got a little dull. Sometimes we would pool our finances to hire cantaores from neighboring towns, sometimes plucking them right from the fields, and bring them to Morón for fiestas that would last for days. One of the most memorable was the wedding party following my marriage to Ginny, who had taken time off from her studies in Paris to visit me in Spain. She, too, stayed.

It was a small fiesta, including a few friends of ours and Diego’s, and the great cantaores, La Fernanda and El Perrate, both of the nearby town of Utrera. It started in a bare, dirt-floor farmhouse on the edge of town among the olive groves, with food and drink from Casa Pepe, and segued to a Morón bar around seven the next morning. The aire was so warm and celebratory that it felt like a family gathering. I recorded the music, which was absolutely extraordinary. The whole experience seemed to happen outside of time.

About Flamenco

Flamenco is the music of Andalusia, or Al Andaluz, as it was called during the Moorish occupation (711–1492). It has its origins in Indian, Arabic, and indigenous cultures, and is frequently associated with the Spanish gypsies, although it is not limited to them. At the core of the particular flamenco I experienced, as practiced by the gitanos of Western Andalusia, lies el cante jondo or “deep song.” It is driven by complex rhythmical structures (compás), and wanders melodically within the relatively simple tonal range of the Phrygian mode. The words (letras) are like haiku—traditional verse to be interpreted by the singer (cantaor) and accompanied by guitar or often by rhythm alone. Like folk music the world over, the songs typically address eternal themes such as love, pain, loneliness, and death. Although now a commercially viable world-music genre, flamenco is still performed mostly in intimate gatherings of family and friends. It is a shared experience, drawing its energy from the group as well as the artists themselves. But it is more than just a musical experience. It is a way of life.

reed magazine logoSummer 2009