Saturday, January 20, 2007

Passion play

Flamenco is to salsa as orgasm is to foreplay.

Café Patas, some time after midnight on a Saturday. The Goo-roo led me in past late diners and happy tipplers, down a long room to a counter in the wall. Bought our tickets. And waited for the door to open. Obviously Madrid time is fairly close to Indian Standard. We didn’t get inside for another 15 minutes and the midnight performance didn’t start till well after 12:30.

Chairs and tables on two sides of what we in India call a “dais” (usually pronounced ‘day-ess’), a curtained enclosure behind it, some chairs along the wall. The room was large and dimly lit. Some of the audience obviously appreciated the low lighting and took full advantage of it. Some others, more obviously, just didn’t give a damn. A performance before the performance, in a manner of speaking. Another door from the ticket enclosure had a backwoods bar – a plank to put the bottles on – and a trio of Latinas swayed around the room with interesting glassfuls. The Goo-roo, punctilious as ever, asked my choice and was a little disappointed when I stuck to water.

Frankly, at that point in time, with my eyelids gummy from lack of sleep, my head spinning from fatigue and wine, all I wanted was to get it over with and find a nice warm bed. What little flamenco I had seen on television was graceful but stylised, rather stiff. Huevos y Bacon and Pepe came to mind. Perhaps twenty minutes or so, then I’d prod the Goo-roo into a homeward cab. Meanwhile, the guitarist appeared, doffed his hat, struck a few chords, loosened his fingers on the strings. Nice.

The curtains parted again and a large lady in black emerged to sit beside the guitarist. Then a larger lady, also in black. I blinked. Finally a rather handsome couple stepped up on the stage. He was obviously Latin, lean-hipped, square-jawed, with long wavy hair flowing below his shoulders. She looked a little like Martina Hingis, but the eyes were far more fiery.

The first large lady suddenly set up a wail. The guitarist sprang in with a glissando and a sudden percussion effect. The performance had started.

And I was lost.

THIS was flamenco? The energy, the sheer energy of it all! This was intravenous speed! It had about as much relation to the staid posturing I’d had in mind as a panther has to a cream-fed tabby. The heels tapped and raced, drummed up a storm on the boards. The man’s hair flew. His jacket twirled, his arms framed air, his fingers snapped like castanets. Then she joined in. Sedate at first, so icy I almost saw the fan and the mantilla. The guitar snarled, cajoled, implored. The voices soared. He went into another impassioned series. And she caught fire. Gradually. Her fingers, her feet, her eyes. Oh yes, her eyes!

It was almost too intimate. There was none of the flirtation of salsa, no to-ing and fro-ing. Just a whole-hearted immersion in the spirit of the dance. Passion stripped so bare I felt I should look away. Physical enough to raise the sweat, yet so graceful that any moment frozen in the camera might capture the rhythm and the mood. Pirouettes so fluid I almost saw the camera-blur following the arms, finishes crisp as if cut with a knife. Fatigue or not, I was awake again.

They took a break after an hour or so. I went outside to clear my head with cold air and a cigarillo. The crowd was eclectic. A couple of mamaquitas, a terribly young dandy impeccable from shoeshine to knotted scarf, the think-tank of a mobike gang complete with their babes in alarmingly low-rise jeans and fur-trimmed knee-boots. From the expressions and gesticulations, we were united in our appreciation of the experience.

The next hour was even better. Carmen had a couple of long solos. Her rhythm was faultless, her expression sublime and tortured by turns as if she were molten in desire for a man she loathed. Raoul (or was he Carlos?) came back on for some passes that impressed with their physicality, but Carmen owned the evening. He was good, but too young and raw, even with her smiling support and the “Oles” from the audience. He was body, she added soul.

Towards the end, the largest lady in black bombazine joined her protégés. Suddenly, with a step and an upflung arm, she shed her years and her flesh. It was as if a hippopotamus had been transformed into a dolphin. She strutted, she twirled. The audience roared, Ole’d, swept up in the victory of art over time. An encore, another. And a final heart-stopping cameo from Carmen before the guitarist took his bow.

Outside, we buttoned up and stepped out. A fair way home, made longer because we couldn’t take the alleys – the Goo-roo’s phobia of muggers. No matter. I stepped lighter in memory of what I had just experienced.

Salsa? You can keep salsa.

Flamenco is to salsa as orgasm is to foreplay.

**** ****


Anonymous said...

You make me wish I was there. :(

Anonymous said...

If you ever get a chance, watch Sara Baras dancing flamenco - amazing!!!

Chronicus Skepticus said...


But as for this, 'passion so bare I almost felt I should look away...', we felt quite the opposite when we were there.

The women have the most beautiful backs I've ever seen.

And I think I need to stop raving about the women, oh right about NOW. :S

Anonymous said...

I don't get the title "Flamenco is to Salsa..." as they are completely different dance forms, based on completely different music, with different, roots, origins and history!

So what you feel when you are actually dancing or look at someone dancing Flamenco or salsa is and should be completely different!

Another point, Flamenco is danced in Spain by Spaniards and Latinas are from Latin America. The term "Latino" refers loosely to any person having Hispanic or Latin American background and is often taken to be a synonym with "Hispanic" (of course there is a possibility that the trio were actually Latinas hired by the Cafe Patas) They dance salsa, although Salsa's origin, is in the Caribbean, African Music and the Hispanic influence in New York.

Just some observations, in an otherwise nice blog :-) –PS

Anonymous said...

"It was as if a hippopotamus had been transformed into a dolphin."
Awesome wordplay, man!

Anonymous said...

Aiiii! Woe is meeee!

Sorry. Couldn't resist. :)

Anonymous said...

Evidently you know the subtle art f caressing with words. So gorgeous, this.

Yet, oddly, the bit that makes me stick my chin up higher is the lady who does successful animal impersonations. Being of the variety of hippoptami, I salute the dolphin-transformed.

Anonymous said...

what no pix of the performance ??
nice post but...

Falstaff said...

"What little flamenco I had seen on television was graceful but stylised, rather stiff"

You so need to watch Carlos Saura.

Oh, and the observation about her 'catching fire' - you have company, and extremely distinguished at that:

thalassa_mikra said...

One of my favourite singers of all time is the legendary flamenco singer Camaron de la Isla. Do check him out on Youtube, that man's voice gives me the goosebumps every time I hear it. I think you might find some recordings with all time great flamenco guitarists like Paco de Lucia or Tomatillo.

And he was a gypsy too (gitano), so flamenco was in his blood.

Anonymous said...

did we go to the same show? your post amazes me. I thought english wasnt equal to the reality of spain.

thanks for this. there was saura and lots of cameron de la isla at home, and sara baras was in madrid as well, but there is only so much time.

Anonymous said...

As blue dot green says -- why the comparison with salsa (which isn't even from the same continent)? But that apart, nice post.

I've seen Sara Baras, whom anon and goo-roo mention. Brilliant, but this was in a rather posh theatre in Paris, viewed from the cheap seats, so that took away some of the impact. Also, it was a sort of "refined", "classical" flamenco. I've seen other flamenco at close quarters elsewhere (in fact I know an excellent guitarist here in Chennai). One day I hope to see it in its proper surroundings, in Spain (preferably, Andalucia... I'm told even Madrid isn't the same thing)

Anonymous said...

Maybe the two flamenco shows which really left me moved were one by Soledad Barrio and some cante jondo (deep song) from Jose Merce. In the New Yorker issue of 6 March 06, Joan Acocella writes a review of Future Flamenco where she mentions Soledad Barrio.

Soledad is travelling around the world with her company, Noche Flamenca, in 2007, so it might not be difficult to catch a show.

Jason Webster wrote a book called Duende about becoming a guitarist in spain and falling in love with a "gitana" dancer. But a couple of lectures by Lorca in Madrid in the 30s, collected in a book called Search for Duende remain the best introduction to flamenco (in writing).

There is an annual festival in Jerez which is reputed to showcase the best in flamenco, but the need for money brings almost everyone to madrid.

Jeet said...

wow. thrilling description :-) I loved the way you recount the experience.

Anonymous said...

And it is for this that your blog was missed so sorely over the last 2 (?) months ...

km said...

Hell yeah, JAP is a-roarin'.

I just hope I don't ask the waitress to get me some orgasm with my nachos.

Anonymous said...

Catch the flamenco when you are in Cadiz next... in the small unnamed joints, ... the lanes away from the brightly lit streets.

The ports always have the best dancing.

Anonymous said...

seville for flamenco!!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I'll respond to all the learned comments in a bit. For now, the salsa angle.

A friend loves feeding the line that salsa is the closest one can get to sex with one's clothes on. I thought that flamenco has it knocked into a cocked hat.


Namrata said...

There is a little place in Segovia, under the shadows of the church, where a man learns to live all over again. I do not know her name, nor do I wish to, but she danced to soul music-tapping into the pulsing heart of the cosmos. The earth trembled and stood still for her that velvet night. She bared her soul to me and I carry that ember-memory still.She dances in my blood, eternally.

PS: Blog has been duly updated as per orders. Salut! ;)