The Feeling Behind Flamenco

I held my breath as I weaved my way through the densely packed Calle Betis bar in Seville. I was late to the flamenco show, but I had just spied an empty space on the floor in front of the stage.

I made my way up to the front and nestled into my spot, eager to see flamenco dancing. I knew that no amount of YouTube video clips could compare to an actual real-live show and, from what I’ve heard, the Andalucian style of flamenco was not one to be forgotten.

The bar was buzzing with people; eating tapas, drinking, chatting with friends. The waiters continually had to re-make pathways between tables as they passed through the restaurant. I sat at the front of the stage and let the sounds of the humming crowd flow over me.

Soon, the guitarist, singer and dancers all approached the stage and the buzzing died down. A soft, flowing, haunting ballad began on the guitar and the last rumbles of the crowd grew quiet. There was a breath of silence and then the singer began belting a song, feeling every note and every word throughout his body, his face twisting with expression.

After a few moments, a flamenco dancer came out in the middle of the small stage. Her movements were strong, slow and somber, her back arched as she captivated the audience. An intense emotion stung her like an electric shock and she flung her arms above her head, where they twirled slowly and gracefully for a few moments. It was as though she was dancing in molasses- each movement deliberate and driven with intensity.

The guitar started playing a louder, faster beat and the singer cried even louder. Her fellow performers started clapping and stomping (their feet and hands keeping two different rhythms) to the raucous beat as her movements grew quicker and more gracefully wild.

The beat grew stronger, louder and the crowd started shouting and clapping along. It was as though the entire bar- performers and audience together- had been possessed with this passionate and lively rhythm. Her routine ended with lightning fast footwork, the intensity reaching its highest peak. The bar filled with cheers and clapping as she twirled back to the side of the stage.

I’ve been dancing for 18 years and I have never heard something quite like the flamenco beat before. There is a passion and emotion throughout that is not seen in other dance forms. The culture of flamenco dancing goes far deeper than its sometimes stereotyped image…it’s actually quite fascinating and mysterious.

Flamenco is comprised of four elements: cante (voice), baile (dance), toque (guitar) and jaleo, which more or less translates to “hell raising.” This last element, with its passionate freedom, includes clapping, stomping and shouting from the crowd and fellow performers. The palmas, or handclapping, is made up of intricate rhythms accompanied by an equally intricate set of stomping and footwork.

I’m no stranger to musical beats and rhythms, but after a few minutes of trying to figure out the flamenco beat during the performance, I gave up, worried that my head might explode if I tried any longer.

One of the most alluring elements of flamenco dancing, beyond the rich, passionate taste of Andalucian culture, is duende. This element can be described simply as “the soul force that inspires flamenco art.” For  many years writers, such as Federico Garcia Lorca, have given duende a spiritual and mysterious significance, something that can’t easily be understood or felt by the average person.

It is said that duende can only be experienced in certain intimate flamenco settings. During these performances, “a singer will be possessed by the dark tones of the song and the spirit will enter the mind and soul of anyone who opens up to it.” The artists are seized by this supernatural inspiration and it creates an intense expressiveness felt in the performers and the crowds watching.

Flamenco is not something to be missed when experiencing Andalucia. But it is best seen in a more traditional setting: a crowded bar, full of locals eating tapas, drinking and socializing. And having to squeeze your way to the front of the stage where you experience an unforgettable display of passion, creativity and a little bit of duende.

References: Andalucia.com

This was originally posted on Andalucia Inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on a warm Granada night

I sat on the patio ledge near the side of La Alhambra and watched my feet dangle off the edge. I was mentally planning a retrieval route in case one of my shoes fell off into the garden below when my mother came up next to me.

“We kinda dropped the ball on this one didn’t we?”

I looked past her, squinting in the 11 p.m. darkness, to the jumbled mess of people waiting in a long line outside the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra.

“Yeah, we really did. What’s wrong with us?”

My mother and I are usually very studious travelers. We don’t over-plan our adventures, but we certainly find out all the details and activities of the area before we get there. But Granada was different. We just sort of showed up, not realizing how much of a destination point it was at the beginning of September. Needless to say, when we moseyed down to the Alhambra from our hotel that morning we found ourselves face-to-face with a long line to purchase tickets just to get in. By the time we got up to the ticket booth, the Nasrid Palaces, which require a designated entry and exit time, were sold out for the afternoon. So instead we bought tickets for the special nighttime viewing of the Palaces and thought (again) that it shouldn’t be too crowded.

Fast-forward another 10 hours and we came upon another long line waiting to get into the Nasrid Palaces at 11 p.m. Neither of us being the wait-in-a-crowded-noisy-line kind of people, we shrugged our shoulders in defeat and wandered over to an upper patio that looked toward the Sierra Nevada moutains of Granada (something that didn’t require a ticket.)

As we sat there with a mild “I am a failed tourist” feeling sinking in, I began to really look out into the dark hills of Granada…It looked like I was in front of a green screen. The view was unreal, like something out of a movie or a desktop picture, not something I accidentally happened upon on a late summer night.

A warm breeze danced through the patio and over my body. I was completely entranced. The shadowy hills were filled with golden balls of light that were shining from the distinctive square European windows…it was something I’d never seen before. The hills were alive with a magical, silent presence, that made me want to cry, laugh and sigh. I sat there, not caring anymore if one of my shoes fell off, thinking about…thinking? It was a rare moment in my life when I really wasn´t thinking about anything. At least nothing on the laundry list of to-do’s that I carried around with me. I became philosophical; impressive, grand thoughts filtering through my mind, but I let them go… This was a time to enjoy a feeling, not a thought.

My mother and I sat there for almost an hour, not really saying much to each other, a rarity in itself, simply looking out at the scene before us. Life slowed to a snails pace, nothing seemed to matter because I was fully in that moment.

We eventually got up and passed by the still-long line into the Nasrid Palaces, joking at how we had been so clueless. As we walked away and I turned back one last time to seal the image in my mind, I realized we had a more spectacular 60 minutes than if we had toured though the ancient palace. As magnificent as the Alhambra is, I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will stay with me forever. And it was more than just looking- it was feeling the moment.

I didn’t learn about Moorish architecture that night, but I did learn this: leave time for the unexpected. Don’t plan every second of a trip. We had a list of activities we wanted to see and accomplish in Granada and that certainly wasn’t one of them. But it stands out as the brightest, sharpest picture in my mind. You never know what you’ll discover or feel when you simply let yourself live.

My Newest Discovery in Spain? Olive Oil.

I knew Spain, especially the southern region of Andalucia, was serious about their olive oil. But it wasn’t until I saw huge two-liter bottles being sold at grocery stores and had many of my dinners deliciously drenched in the stuff that I finally said, “Ok ok, I get it.”

Everywhere I turn, there is olive oil. At the store, in restaurants, in kitchen cabinets, on the table next to the bread. Coming from a place where I just grabbed plain ole vegetable oil to sauté or coat the frying pan, this basic ingredient and flavor in Andalucian cuisine seemed to me like a new-found “secret of life.”

Like Spanish wine, olives and olive trees have a long and ancient history of cultivation in the Mediterranean area. The trees are said to have originated in Greece about 6,000 years ago, where stone tablets dating back to 2,500 BC have been found making reference to the plant. The Phoenicians and Greeks brought the olive tree to Spain and cultivation was further expanded under the Romans. The Arabs also continued to improve the technique of olive oil production during their rule. In fact, the Spanish word for oil, aceite, is derived from the Arabic word, al-zeit and “stuffed olive,” aceituna, also comes from the Arabic word al-zeituna.

Andalucia is the largest olive oil producer in the world, which may be why I see it drizzled over everything, from toasted bread in the mornings to tapas at night. Catalonia, Castile-La Mancha and Aragón are also popular oil producing regions in Spain, each with it’s own unique and distinct flavor. Some oils from Andalucia are considered fruity, slightly bitter and peppery or with a touch of sweetness and piquancy from Aragón.

Spanish cuisine follows the Mediterranean Diet, which is known to be incredibly beneficial to your health.Mediterranean meals are comprised of a “generous use of olive oil, for cooking as well as garnishing, lots of healthy legumes and nuts, pasta, bread and rice, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products such as cheese, and plenty of fish.”

Olive oil is a fundamental part of that Spanish diet and it also happens to be one of the healthiest oils in the world (why was I using vegetable oil…). Not only is it full of antioxidants and very easy to digest, it is also known to reduce and keep cholesterol levels in check. Although it is recommended to use virgin or extra virgin olive oil varieties to ensure you are reaping the benefits and getting this oil in its purest form.

Until you can experience fresh, flavorful Spanish cuisine first-hand and savor their famous olive oil in it’s most traditional and purest form, you can always cook a Mediterranean meal at home. Here is a recipe for Salmorejo, a cold soup, very similar to gazpacho, but richer and smoother. Add some fresh rolls drizzled with olive oil along with a glass of Spanish wine and enjoy!

This was originally posted on Andalucia Inside. 

References: Olive Oil from SpainAsolivaAndalucia.com

Where the new meets the old: Seville’s Plaza de la Encarnación

It’s hard to imagine what Plaza de la Encarnación would’ve looked like years ago when there weren’t six giant mushroom shaped parasols rising above the busy plaza, before it became home to the largest wooden structure in the world.

Plaza de la Encarnación was the setting of a food market (the same one there today in fact) but in 1973 when their facilities needed improvement and there was talk of incorporating an underground parking space into the same area, the stalls were knocked down. An above ground parking lot temporarily inhabited the plaza until a clear building plan was made to integrate a new market, underground parking and Roman ruins, which had been discovered in the 1990s. This ancient Roman colony was said to consist of “structures including two Late Antique houses with courtyards, a possible church, and other houses or structures in the vicinity of a later Islamic house.” The structure was designed in 2007 by German architect Jürgen Mayer H and construction began soon after.

It’s easy to tilt your head and imagine you’re seeing a large honeycombed spaceship descending upon Sevilla, but the structure actually includes four useable levels. The first level (below ground) was designed so you can walk around the excavated Roman ruins and the second street-level view includes a large farmer’s market along with a couple cafes. The third level, a raised platform below the structure, is a beautiful open space where you can really take in the massive size of the structure. The fourth level is my favorite. On the very top of the Metropol Parasol they have created a large panoramic deck to see the unforgettable views over the ancient city center.

Although this plaza has been open since March 27, 2011, opinions still remain divided about the structure. As someone who has no roots in Seville, I tend to have a little different perspective.

The Metropol Parasol is a (large) hint of the new in a city that steadfastly and so beautifully preserves the traditional. To some it looks out of place, a towering behemoth of light wood next to the muted Medieval tones of the cathedrals, cobblestone streets and apartment buildings. But to me, this modern structure represents that young, vibrant, you-can’t-quite-place-it feel of Seville.

For a city that has seen the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, the Arabs and all the diverse history since, it easily preserves all that traditional quality and feel, without being, well, boring. There is a deep history here that I can’t fathom having grown up in the U.S. Visions of a 7-year-old me running through Colonial Williamsburg in a mop cap and pinafore thinking I was in really old, ancient times comes to mind…But now I’m walking over Roman ruins every day.

Plaza de la Encarnación is hugged by the old and traditional, but confidently represents that fresh, dynamic feel of Sevilla that you’ll never forget.

This article was originally published on Andalucia Inside.

References:Arup.comsouthampton.ac.ukdesignbuild-network.com, Photo Credit: Overhours.com