by Nancy Penrose
She found her calling in Spain.
I am a traveler in search of flamenco. In a nightclub in a cave in Granada, I sip Cruzcampo beer and watch and wait for the music to begin. Stools scrape, tables shift, and that narrow room grows crowded. Fellow tourists. British accents. A small stage; a backdrop of wrinkled cloth. In the front row, chic summer cool of the Spanish—young women in tight bodices; men in dark shirts.
This is not my first time in Granada. I passed through thirty years ago, an American student in a hurry to return to classes in France after Christmas in Spain. I had no time to explore the great Moorish palace of the Alhambra, no time to find the music. Now I have returned, deep in middle age, to fill this void in my repertoire of travel. And that afternoon, headed to my hotel, sated from a day within the splendors of the palace, I saw a flyer for the evening’s performance: simple, black and white, an address, a time, four names, and the word FLAMENCO. I sniffed treasure, something real, authentic, an antidote to shops with jumbles of bullfight posters, Don Quixote T-shirts, plastic castanets. And in the flyer, I tasted the promise of passion: I may dress like a good girl but I have the soul of a diva.
A man rises and takes the stage. Locks of black hair curl to his shoulders. Pudgy cheeks and jowls. The singer. With his opening wails of aye, aye, aye, he wrings the air with grief, his face twisted by the pain of the tale. He sings to the peak of one word, weaves and warbles around the top before riding down the slope of sound to rise again, stretch the air, pulse to another peak, all on that one word. In his voice I hear the cries of the muezzin calling long-ago Moors to prayer, Sephardic half tones, the threads of an Indian raga pulled through centuries of Gypsy wanderings. I do not understand the words but my heart takes the tears, the ecstasy. His head drops at the end of the song. He looks up to the applause as if surprised to see us.
Flamenco was born of a brew of outcasts: Moors and Jews sent into exile, death, and hiding in 1492, the Christian Reconquista of Spain complete. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand claimed the Alhambra as their own. The Gypsies, who already lived life cast out, took in the newest exiles. Ancient cultures and sacred memories melded a music with strong and complicated rhythms. The uneven beat of the twelve-count––not the familiar 4/4 count of Western time––is common. The names of the song forms are music—soleás, siguiriyas, livianas, bulerías—containers for words that hold the anguish of love, loss, exile, hunger.
Two guitarists step onto the stage and sit down. One is tall, gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. The other is roundish with the beginnings of a bald spot. Hands wrapped around each guitar neck, fingers baited to strike, they nod to each other and begin. Single sparkling drops of sound. Tight squeak of finger against string. Filigree of high notes against a wall of bass. Knuckles knock the face of the guitar; wood body, wood drum. Fans of fingers snap open and waves of rasgueado break and roll through me over and over and over. I try to enter the music, imitate the clapping, the palmas, of the Spanish in the front row, hands perpendicular, fingers spread. But I am clumsy in the attempt, unable to find footing in the uneven beats, like missing the last step on a flight of stairs. The singer’s voice enters. Wood and flesh grow the notes, send them forth as pearls flung to the audience. Shouts of olé burst from the crowd.
A break at the end of the first set. Guitarists and singer mingle with the summer cool at the front of the room, kissing hello to friends come to share the evening. I go outside for fresh air. Above me, the red rocks of the Alhambra, ramparts lit by moonlight. I had seen their reflection in a courtyard pool that afternoon; rough exterior stones meant to hide, shield, deflect commoners’ perception of beauty and wealth within. Mirrored against the gruff red in the surface of the pool, marble pillars webbed together by stucco. And the walls of the Palacio Nazaríes dense with patterns of foliage and flowers that swirl and curl around the script and wisdom of the Koran and flowers and foliage and script and tiles that twine and line memories of the days when Jews and Moors and Christians lived and worked and mused together in Granada before the Reconquista, before the Inquisition.
The poet Federico García Lorca, favorite son of Granada, was haunted by the cruelties of the Inquisition, enraptured with the passion of flamenco. His hometown was his muse, the music his model. Lorca wrote that “Granada is made for music, for it is a city enclosed by mountain ranges, where the melody is returned and polished and blocked by walls and boulders. Music is for cities away from the coast. Seville and Malaga and Cadiz escape through their ports. But Granada’s only way out is its high natural port of stars. Granada is withdrawn, enclosed, apt for rhythm and the echo, the marrow of music.”
The break ends. The dancer takes the center. She is dressed in a simple black blouse and long red skirt. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun. Lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth do not mar her beauty. She cocks her head to the right, lifts her chin. One hand rests on a hip. The other is raised to the top of an arc above her. The audience is still, poised. With a stomp of heels she announces her beginning and flies into a swirl of skirt and snapping fingers. She lights a staccato of zapateado that sounds like a woodpecker gone mad in the forest. Blur of black leather heels and toes. She flings to a stop. Skirt pulled to thigh she spins a slow circle. She stamps once, twice. Her fingers are flowers; her arms snake against the pounding rhythm of heels on wooden stage. The singer joins in. His voice curves around the flick of her hips, shapes the music she dances. She locks him in a gaze that smolders then snaps to face the gray-haired guitarist, who leans into her passion and responds with a roll of chords like a well-muscled bull in the ring. This was what I had craved. This was why I had come. I fill those shoes with her. I fling my soul into her wild and complicated rhythms, into the sensuous arch of her back. I feel the jolt of heel against floor, lick of skirt against legs, heat of music in my own breasts.
The whirling, swirling, snapping, pounding, strumming crest and recede. The audience jumps up, clapping, cheering, shouting, screaming our olés. Dancer and singer stand frozen, breathing hard, lost in each other’s gaze, then turn to bow to the audience, special nods to the front row.
I walk back to my hotel, beside the river, beneath the ramparts of the Alhambra on the hill above. I have the treasure; how do I carry it home? Will life on another continent destroy what I hold? How will I stop the black press of the mundane? Pat Conroy wrote “…once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers, that the mind can never break off from the journey.” I take heart.
I use my mind and body to continue the journey. The spirit of Granada echoes in the stomp of my heels on the wooden floor of a dance studio in Seattle. My shoes are black leather with a saucy little notch above the heel. I’ve learned how to flick my skirt on the kick turn at the end of a paseo, how to slide my hands against my hips at just the right place in the music. My feet ache from the arc of the shoes. I stepped on my own toe last night. My body struggles against the foreign form of the twelve count—1 and 2 and 3 and uh 4 and uh 5 and—but I soar when my teacher tells me “That’s it! You’ve got the idea!”
New CDs are stacked in my living room: Paco de Lucia, Carlos Montoya, Gypsy Soul, Sabor Flamenco. I’ve rented the Carlos Saura video, bought a book called Song of the Outcasts, read Lorca’s poetry and written in imitation: I have docked within the music and the long reach of my senses has explored its depths. I dance at the fringe of this universe but the treasure holds me captive.
Nancy Penrose is a writer who lives in Seattle. This story won the Silver Award for Best Travel Story of the Year in the First Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.