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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

On Being Possessed, A journey to flamenco and back again, by Steve Kahn 66

It was late winter of 1968. I had been living for about a year in the small pueblo of Morón de la Frontera, in the Spanish province of Andalusia, and had made the usual friends that American guitar students make, gypsies and Spaniards alike. I also met Anzonini, a well-known flamenco dancer, and Rosa, his infamous girlfriend, who lived on a garlic farm outside the tiny village of Setenil de las Bodegas, somewhere in the mystical Andalusian countryside. One morning, a bunch of us, including my (then) wife, Virginia Gilmore ’72, piled into our old army-green VW and headed off to their farm for an adventure.

Setenil is an isolated, ancient pueblo straddling a narrow, muddy riverbed in the foothills of the coastal range. Dwellings are built into natural recesses and cling to the base of sandstone cliffs that overhang the river. To get there we drove through endless, dreamy hours of dry air, dirt roads, and steep, rolling hills punctuated by the oldest of olive trees.

This was the landscape of flamenco, where the Roman, Moorish, Christian, and Jewish cultures collided and commingled during medieval times. That day Ginny and I were foreigners in the company of great musicians, ingloriously bumping along a winding, dusty path, shoulder to shoulder through a magical land. There was Diego, in his late fifties, pure gypsy, charismatic, wise, powerful, and brilliant, and his nephew, Fernandillo, something of a court jester or flamenco festero—he could dance, sing, tell stories and control the mood of any fiesta. We were going to visit Anzonini, another great festero. All were revered in the flamenco community.

Along the way we stopped for a campfire lunch at the site of a favorite sweet-water well, known only to Fernandillo and other gypsies who still traveled the old goat and horse trails of the backcountry. We were as far into Andalusia as I could ever have imagined, and by the time we arrived the spell was cast.

manolito

Great gypsey soleá cantaor Manolito de la María in Alcalá de Guadaíra. Photo by George Krause, 1963

The farmhouse, a whitewashed, tile-roofed structure perched on the hillside, was primitive but welcoming. After a wonderful dinner and much to drink, Diego tuned up his guitar and the fiesta was on. Hours later, well after midnight, we were dozing in our chairs in the warm shadows of candlelight. Diego was playing por bulerías, a fast, driving form of flamenco, and his friend, a cantaor whose name I don’t remember, started to sing.

As the song unfolded, something quite extraordinary began to happen in the room. It was as if the cantaor had, at that moment, tapped into some powerful, profound source of energy. It felt like he was singing way beyond his normal ability. Diego picked up on this immediately and played to it, driving him on, following him into the emotional vortex. We all tuned in to this extraordinary phenomenon taking place in our midst. I remember Anzonini, who had fallen asleep at the table, lifting his head from his arms, his body rising dreamlike but electrified from the chair, empowered by the music. He rises slowly, deliberately, and moves in perfect rhythm, moves a compás, not exactly dancing, but focused and intense, as the cantaor sings and Diego plays and the exploding rhythm takes us all into some other dimension.

reed magazine logoSummer 2009