Last Friday night Jon and I had a blast. Near dusk we drove about 45 minutes south towards Cartagena to a small inland mining town called La Union for the 53rd Annual Festival Cante de las Minas, or "Songs of the Mines." The chance to go see an international flamenco festival was one not to pass up. Plus, the cheapy tickets were only 10 euro per person, how could we go wrong? The first half of the 10 day festival is all presentation of individual artists, and the second half is a competition. Since we were only going to afford one night of tickets, we opted for a competition night in order to see all the kinds of flamenco: singing, dance, and instrumentation.
As mentioned, La Union has a heritage in mining - primarily silver, alum, iron ore and other minerals; and apparently given the richness of the soil and the proximity to Cartagena (see my last post on the city), played an extremely important economic role in the Mediterranean economy (source: Discover Costa Calida). The mining community gave way to a rich folkloric tradition and La Union has now become home to not only the Festival we attended, but is clearly an arts center in the area. The large central indoor market was even converted into a performance venue. As an arts person, this union (no pun intended) between mining and arts is fascinating, and I love seeing how industry and culture are intertwined here.
Although the festival is billed as "international" and world-renowned - which I'm sure it is - I'm fairly certain we were the only English speaking people there, and certainly the only Americans within a 20 mile radius. Even the ticket office didn't have any English speakers (nor did they take credit cards...). But we showed up around 7pm, explored the little town, and settled down on the main plaza for a cañas (small glass of beer) and tapas. The square was filled with little kids jump-roping and families enjoying the coolness of the evening - such is the Spanish way - all generations out together. I love it.
I want to highlight a few moments in the night, because, in addition to the guitar and the harmonica, the singing and dancing soloists were truly amazing. I also have to say that not only were the musicians great, but it was just as much fun to watch the audience react, with a hearty, "Olé!!" when they were impressed. This, by no means, is not a culture that remains passive.
Baile - Dance
Woah. Before I say anything about traditional and professional flamenco dance. You just have to see it.
When I came to Spain with my family in 2001, we went to Sevilla and found an amazing locals tavern. There were about 10 chairs lined up, occupied by 2 or 3 guitarists and the rest clappers and singers. It wasn't a show, it was just a night out. People from the audience would come in and dance a bit and then switch out. Actually it's very similar to neighborhood dance parties in Mali and Senegal. But I digress. The point is that it was very participatory.
This was something entirely different. 1 Guitarist, 2 singers and 3 others clapping. And, then, that guy: Eduardo José Guerrero Gonzàlez. He strode in, more like glided in and proceeded to give 2 performances unlike anything I've ever seen. I'm not exaggerating. Sitting on the edge of my seat, with chills, I watched as this person danced with such a power, grace, passion and energy that I really have never seen. It was angular and sudden, but smooth and fluid at the same time. Jon and I were both dumbfounded at the end of his performance. In so many ways, the baile for men is easily linked to the art of bullfighting. The movements, the sudden attacks, the provocation - you see the matador in the dancer.
So as I was watching this incredible feat of human artistry I started to think about the art of bullfighting. It's not bullfighting season, we'll miss it by a few weeks (since Spain is essentially closed in August). I understand that there are a lot of people out there that think bullfighting should be banned, that it's cruel and dangerous. Well, I'm not disputing that it's cruel and dangerous. Just during our first few days here a young 16 year old boy was gored to death during a run of the bulls in Spain. And in the ring, it is a fight to the death - either the matador or the bull. But if you watch bullfighting - you see the art. You see the depth of the tradition, and the richness of the cultural expression. From the ceremony, to the running of the bulls, to the fights, to the costumes and fresh in my mind - to the dance - bullfighting runs in the veins of the Spanish. Art, music and dance runs in the veins of this culture as well. And it became crystal clear to me that you can't separate the two.
I think that in our American culture we rarely see the arts so clearly expressed in sport, and very rarely do we see sport reflected in the arts. But last night while I was watching the dancer, not only did I see the matador, I realized that in the matador is also the dancer. To see these two uniquely Spanish traditions blended into one was beautiful. It was the highlight of the evening for me.
Cante - Singing
When we left the show at 2am, Jon asked me, "Yeah, so the signing, it sounds like..." and before he could answer I said, "Quranic chant? Yes, it does and it should - it's the Moorish influence left on the music tradition." (Thank you Lewis & Clark for all those ethnomusicology classes!) Flamenco singing is powerful, intense and for lack of better words, just really interesting and impressive. We saw 4 singers as part of the competition, 3 men and 1 woman. The first singer came out swinging, with huge notes and unbelievable projection. The second slow played it a bit, was much more casual in his performance, but was really incredible. The third singer left us wondering how 10 euros could possibly be better spent (that was just before the dance performance!). His first song was quiet, the son Mineras - for the miners - and we both commented, "huh he's not as impressive as the last guy." But we were wrong. The control, the emotion, the tiny pitch fluxations (or half and quarter tones if you're into music theory), not to mention the stupidly long amount of time he for which he could hold a pitch, again, was just incredible.
The singers performed traditional songs. Even people in the audience next to us were singing along. I know this sounds silly, but it's something I love about Spain - just how Spanish everyone is. They wear their culture on their sleeve - it's beautiful.
Overall it was a truly wonderful evening of music and art. I'm so grateful that we were able to experience it!
What have some of your favorite/best overseas arts or cultural experiences been?