Manolin, fastest right hand in the Sacromonte, playing on the Paseo de los Tristes in Granada, Spain.
My friend Maximova is descending on Granada, Spain in June and will stay there until the end of August. She’s going to be working on a documentary about flamenco dance and will be hauling along her director of photography and possibly an assistant. If anyone has suggestions for reasonably priced accommodations for the summer in Granada, please leave a comment.
Some years ago a friend and I were all suited up and, with business plan and letters of introduction in hand, were a day away from flying to Los Angeles to chew the ears off half a dozen weasel-headed entertainment executives in the hopes of scoring some backing for an “entertainment property” we had created. Walking down the street in the Oregon city we lived in, blind with planning and stress, one of us turned to the other out of the blue and said: “Fuck this, let’s go to Spain and live with the Gypsies.”
And we did.
Ian and I sat on a stone bench in Granada’s Plaza Nueva, shaded from the sun by the spring leaves of a fig tree. It was, with the cool wind of the still-snowy Sierra Nevada blowing up the Darro, like sitting still inside a lime. Outside the light was liquid. Like mercury. Ian was stabbing away at some difficult run of notes in soleá on his guitar, a beautiful old flamenco guitar made in Valencia in the ’30s by the Ricardo Sanchez family, cypress wood, slanted pegboard, ivory bridge. Each note struck hung ringing in a doorway or window. This was our soundtrack: Ian’s ceaseless playing, my ceaseless smoking and incantatory mumbling trying to chip out some stubborn line or phrase: “I shall climb through the silence of cypress …”
A Gypsy stopped in front of us, the sun behind him, Mephistophelean silhouette, long black hair, black pointed beard, leaning on a knobby cane wrapped in maroon leather and studded with carpet tacks. He looked like the devil. Or a king.
“That tree has a great deal of wisdom.”
“That tree you are sitting under has much wisdom.”
“Can I see your guitar?”
He sat down on the bench next to Ian and took the guitar gently, like handling another man’s child. He strummed the strings lightly with his thumb, lurching quietly, awkwardly through soleá, then handed it back to Ian.
“Can you play for a singer?”
“I don’t know.”
The wind blew leaves in skirls along the polished paving stones of the streets, over bridges, along dirt roads, past empty cisterns …
“Now move. No, here. Now here. See? Eso. That’s it.”
Ratón sang, low, in a voice between a sob and the rasp of a wood lathe: The limbs of cypress trees stretched out over graveyard walls at night, the limbs of olive trees like dancers …
That was the first time we met Ratón.
In his youth, Ratón toured, as do many Gypsies, with a flamenco troupe. He toured Austria, which he loved with its magnificent Gothic edifices; Belgium with its canals; France with its strong wine and women. But flamenco falls in and out of fashion — which drugs, largely, do not. So, with a wife and son to feed, Ratón became Granada’s on-street hash connection. To watch him operate was a marvel. He would stand in the Plaza Nueva and one of his lieutenants, either Miguel or the Guy with the Long Hair or the Guy Who Does Palmas, would saunter up, avert his mouth and whisper something. Ratón would nod and the lieutenant would disappear again. And with this he had new shoes, a car and an apartment with two bedrooms. Hash was not illegal to smoke in Spain, just to sell. So after the Arab sheiks in Marbella or the Castellano businessmen in Madrid got off the phone with Syria, they called up a Gypsy to do their dirty work for them.
Evening, and clouds had turned Granada the blue-gray of the sea. The torn sky shuddered and the rain ran cold in streams down the air. An hour previous it had been hot enough for shirtsleeves, and Susan, Ian and I had walked down the Cuesta del Chapiz from the Sacromonte, where we were staying in a huge house on the Camino del Sacromonte. We walked down the narrow street where all the old whores sat against the ancient walls in short cane chairs, their doors open onto tiny, threadbare and extremely tidy rooms filled almost entirely by a large bed and night table. Susan always tightened her grip on my arm when we hit Conception, the cross street whose blue and white enamel sign marked the beginning of this silent gauntlet. I’d hoist up my artificial smile and the three of us would take a deep breath. There was really no reason for apprehension, but there was something so sad in the little rooms and the silence that we never became inured to. This string of chairs and doors ended at the equally ironically named cross street, Calle del Aire.
We wandered around the so-called Muslim district, past the Saseteria with its Castellano convert tailor, the Al Faguara Teteria, or teashop, the “Arabic” Teteria. We passed the Restaurant Boabdil and La Bodega, coming out opposite the Cathedral, where Ferdinand and Isabella are interred, down from the Banco Santander on the Via Colón, where Gypsies were murdered by the hundreds when fascist forces took Granada from the loyalists. We spent our last money on ice cream and started back up. (“Vais a subir?” came the constant call. Yes, we are ascending.) When the rain broke it fell in blue-black sheets and our shirts sucked around our backs and our hair fell down our heads like running ink. Shaking and hooting, we rounded a corner. Standing beneath the veranda outside a cafeteria stood Ratón, the Guy with the Long Hair and Ratón’s son. He shouted to us.
“Come here! Get over here and get out of the rain, you fools!”
He ushered us in to the steamy cafeteria where they gave us bar towels to dry off with.
“You want coffees? I’m buying.”
We drank sweet cafe con leche in the warm cafe and chatted while the rain poured blue into black outside the large glass windows. The dark smell of cheap cigarettes coiled up in blue smoke. Everything was blue.
CASA DEL PUCHERO
We had rented a large house on the Camino from Juanillo, the richest man in the Sacromonte, restaurateur and unofficial mayor. Besides his restaurant he owned a Le Car and a house, and had a beautiful wife and several handsome children. Due to childhood polio he was known rather ungenerously as Chickenleg. The curious thing about the house, and something we did not figure out until later, was that its absentee owner, an Italian, had left Juanillo the keys to oversee the place, not rent it. But rent it he did — to us. For about $200 Susan and I and Ian rented the largest and most lavish house I have lived in. Susan and I had a bedroom, each of us had a studio, and Ian had the large bedroom. There was a bathroom upstairs as well. On the ground floor was another bathroom, a bar/kitchen and a huge living room/salon, or sala, with a fireplace.
Casa del Puchero had been for many years a flamenco bar and the rooms upstairs had housed many of the greats as well as contemporary stars such as Paco, Cameron and Pepe Habichuela. This imbued the place with a magic. Ian was certain that this magic assisted him in his drive to improve his playing.
The fact that we were a guitarist, a poet and a painter did not hurt our standing in a community in which everyone was either a singer, guitarist, percussionist or dancer and for whom wealth was an occasion for jealousy but virtuosity in art a reason for respect. These were the people after all who said, “Hay que tener arte.” One must have art.
One afternoon as the three of us sat talking in the kitchen, watching the Swedish and Japanese tourists peering into the windows hoping, I suppose, to see real Gypsies, Ratón happened by with the Guy Who Does Palmas. We were soon sitting around in a circle in the resonant kitchen drinking coffee and talking. Ian started playing a bulerias. Ratón started singing, a racket of boot on tile as he spun about in the center of the circle, a maelstrom of controlled explosions caught in the net of the guitar. The internal rhythms of the palmas, the complicated clapping patterns of flamenco, held the whole expressive riot in order. When he saw my tentative hands, the Guy Who Does Palmas yelled, “Yes! Like that! Come on, everybody must do something!” So we clapped off each other, a staggering ratcheting gallop like two men on black horses at night.
Soon, Juanillo’s two beautiful young daughters were peeking in the doorway.
“You have no dancers!” they protested.
Like huge silk flowers they whirled about, enchanted in the circle of chairs — the forest. Ratón in his chair again, eyes closed, hands on knees, elbows locked, head thrown back: a chirping, diving, grating howl, like a bird, soaring, then, wings flat, falling, exploding out across the waves, the brilliant spray, the shadow and echo of the grotto. And soon the girls were pulling an unwilling Susan from her chair: dance, dance! And she did. Arm extended, wrist cocked, her hand turned: a white bird; eyes over the shoulder to follow the little girls, little women, sure in the movements, strong, sexual, fearless, and assumed that pose herself, found herself for the first time in that gesture.
We passed the afternoon that way.
After that a dark brilliance surrounded the Casa del Puchero.
Deep in the velvet of summer when the night sky spread its jewelry out on cloth Susan made a fire in the fireplace. We were out of butane for our little stove and Ian and I had plunged ourselves into a black resignation. I sat at the wooden table in the kitchen smoking, thinking bitter thoughts: Life is pain. Ian was drowning in a well of rumbling arpeggios. It was times like these in which Susan truly showed her mettle. While we glowered blackly at each other and all the invisible numerals God in his hatefulness had scratched on our minds, Susan moved officiously out of the room with a determined stride.
“Crack! Smack!” A sharp noise from the echoing sala.
“What the fuck?” I asked no one in particular.
“What the fuck is she doing in there?” Ian looked up.
“Crackity-smaaaack! Crackle, crackle.”
Ian and I got up, suddenly and inexplicably panicked. We dashed into the sala. In the shadowy cavern of wall and chair a warm fire was flickering: Indonesian flames fluttering flags of light around the room. Susan had found scrap wood, broken it up and started a fire.
“Now we can have tomato and rice and coffee, you idiots.”
After we ate we had sweet coffee. No light in Puchero but the light of the fire. Three shadows darkened the frosted glass in the iron door. I swung the door in on its complaining hinges. Ratón and his retinue entered quietly, seriously.
In the circle of chairs and iron ribbon of the guitar, Ratón danced, dark head, dark heel, to the low wooden boom of hands and crackling branches. We were far away from the city in the dry vega where the crickets well up at night like a dreamed spring and knives get lost in the moonlight on their way from the kettle to the saddle: song, like each year of life, a wound never to be recovered from, all of us Jacob, each day an angel, each love, each word — worth it …
After Ian had forsaken his pursuit of the Black Widow, a dancer named Pilar, he directed his affections toward Belen, the robust eldest daughter of one of our dearest friends in the Sacromonte, Manuel. Manuel and his wife had three caves. We were never completely sure whether they were from Manuel’s family or from his wife’s. Women, though they stayed much closer to home, were very powerful figures in the Gypsy family. One night when Susan walked about the neighborhood upset, a clutch of large Gypsy ladies gave her a talking to about me and I was made to understand my duties and attend to them a little more assiduously. Gypsies were the least judgmental people I had ever met, but some things, well …
The main cave, the highest, was where the family lived, directly up the hill from the Rocio, the barrio’s largest tablao, or flamenco nightclub. It had a houselike extension complete with a terrace affording a nice view of the Moorish ruins on the hill opposite, the little Darro River running like bells in a sack beneath its wind-rushed greenery. Up the hill olive trees writhed poetically on the ridge by the cyclopean walls. Below the main cave was a smaller cave they kept their rabbits and chickens in and below that an unused cave. The whole complex was entered through a wrought-iron gate.
The Mother-in-Law had come to live with them after her husband died, bringing her rambunctious 14-year-old son in tow. She was thrilled to no end over the prospect of Ian marrying her granddaughter, one that Ian was not fully prepared to realize. One evening Susan and I went over with Ian to visit. We were served fried eggs and potatoes and afterwards Manuel prepared limonada.
“Because there are women present,” he proclaimed as he mixed the Fanta Limon with the white wine, “we will put no whiskey in.”
“Whiskey in the sangria?”
“When just men are drinking, yes.”
Manuel was one of the lucky ones, he worked a six-day-a-week construction job downtown. Andalusia had very high unemployment and what few jobs there were went usually to castellanos.
“Hey, hey, Manuel — don’t you think so?” Manuel’s primo asked him, jabbing him with his elbow. He hoped to drum up some support for one point or another.
“Humanos son humanos.” People are people. The typical Gypsy response. This “cousin” of Manuel was one of those wonderful and rare birds, a millennialist anarchist. Of the whole rancid buffet of political structures, quasi-religious Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, with its revelatory ecstacy and naive love of Man, is the nearest to my own impossible taste. We carried on a lively conversation about the Civil War, priests, the nature of human life; standard fare for the Sacromonte on a weekday night after dinner.
Ian, much to Susan’s amusement, grew increasingly uncomfortable under the Mother-in-Law’s ministrations. I did what I could to help.
“Did you like your food?” she asked him. “With a Gypsy wife, you would have food like that every night! You like to eat? You’re so skinny!”
“Oh, he loves to eat!” I told her. “There is nothing better to him than a good meal.”
“Then you should marry a Gypsy woman.”
“He should, shouldn’t he? You should you know. Perhaps there’s somebody …”
The conversation went on this way for some time, with an occasional imprecation from Manuel for his Mother-in-Law to stop her foolishness. Belen and her younger sister stood at the kitchen door, watching the strange goings on, Belen coyly averting her eyes when Ian looked her way. Her younger sister hid behind her, staring over her shoulder at these odd voyagers like old friends in her family’s midst. (Her young body the color of unfiltered olive oil, squeezed from the olives on the hill by the boy’s school, budding up in a promise of fruit, picked carefully by hand in the heat of midday and pressed in a cool stone magazine.)
It was 10 o’clock. The lights had come on at the Alhambra and Generalife for the night tours. Beautiful though they were, golden against the deep Andalusian summer night, I always found myself following the crooked line of the darkening hill up the ravine to the broken tower of the Silla del Moro, always poetically extinguished at the sun’s departure. This is where Granada’s last Moorish emperor took refuge when his city rebelled beneath him, in the days before the Reconquista closed the doors on the lush reign of the Arabian kings.
“Should I get my guitar?” Ian asked me quietly. The clapping had begun from El Rocio.
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
The cave we were living in at the time was a short jog down the path. Ian flashed in and out of the copper spray of the street lights, returning with the guitar in one hand.
We poured ourselves another limonada and waited for Belen’s sister to descend and open the gate. I watched Susan’s eyes in the candlelight fixed on the burning cinnamon of the Alhambra. It was the moment, that special moment before the most important part of life: the Art. Hay que tener arte. Art is the transmutation of the everyday pain and suffering, the want, the desire of Life, into spirit; it is banging at the gates of heaven, wrestling with the dark angel, with duende. It can smile as it pulls a knife out of its own ribs. It can be genuinely happy and laugh with its children — but it always knows.
Manuel picked up the guitar carefully, held it with one hand.
He ran his rough hand over the neck, over the curves of the body; he peered down the fretboard. He strummed it, played a few measures of tarantos, stumblingly. Perhaps it had been too long since he sang.
“A very fine guitar indeed. Now I will teach you how to play tarantos for a singer.” He handed the guitar back to Ian. “You know tarantos?”
“Of course,” Ian replied.
Ian let loose with a strong rasquiado. The first chords drummed out. They rang off the walls of the terrace and swirled like currents of warm air, like smoke from a candle, rose and rolled over the walls spilling out and up into the ocean of the heavens like a man’s cry into the universe. Like Ratón, Manuel guided Ian’s hand, marked time.
“Eso. That’s it. Now hold it. Change. Again. Eso.”
A man stood at the mouth of the deep shaft of a mine. Below, the miners — small, grimy Jonahs, God-deaf and wounded. Their guitars’ solea echoed and twisted as it traveled up the shaft to where the man stood. The man at the mine mouth felt the stitch of pain between his ribs, a needle and thread that passed through the men below, now him, now the men again, making them one. He sang to the cry of the guitar that issued from the shaft: to send that message up to the green star. Their cry rose, his rose, they rose together to form the flower that seeks the light of life out: the Prayer (whether there existed anything to receive it or no).
Manuel was a bricklayer — 10-hour days in the sun or rain of Granada building someone else’s houses, offices, apartment buildings. As he sang, his white tank top glowed like the snow on the Sierra Nevada against his dark skin, his hair fell down from the top of his head like dark wings, darker than the sky over the broken hills. The broken glass and sand of a man’s life in the sudden flight of a dove. He had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. It stole our breath and the premeditation from our eyes. The song mounted, rose, grew louder, complex, arabesques in the air of muscles and whitewash, higher, nearer the broken golden throne of Desire — and exploded into tears, into blood that dried on our hearts like seawater on the hull of a battered ship, like silence on the heart of the world.
We stood, half out of our chairs, slack-jawed until Manuel’s wife’s face grew bright from inside like an alchemic flower with pride and love; the children, the Mother-in-Law, her young son, proud and somewhat surprised that someone they knew so well was capable of winning in that kind of a fight. He looked up into their beautiful faces.
Some months after that, we left Granada. Granada had made me a poet and, though I didn’t know it at the time, would also make me a husband. Living in Granada was like living inside fire. I don’t know if I will ever make it back to Granada, but it hardly matters. There are places in your life that you leave and there are places that leave you. But if you’re lucky you find a place that, no matter where you go, no matter how far from it you move, never deserts you. I imagine this must be the same feeling a religious man identifies as God’s love.
Because of Granada, I have the strength of 10 men, and am very rich.
(This story originally appeared in Salon and Emergency Horse.)
My friend Ian, in addition to having a website devoted to the philosophy of science, Project Genesis, has now gone hog wild on blogs. He’s got them for poetry (very nice stuff too, very unusual and attractive) at Star Poems; on various things, including a sound file of one of Ian’s bulerias (a flamenco guitar mode) at Art of Peace; on nature at Tuning In With Nature; on mathematics at Math System of Ian Beardsley; on the golden ratio at Golden Ratio And The Wind That Blew; and on general science at Micro Connect Macro.
I recently received the following letter, to my great excitement, but to my distress as well.
manolin is a friend of mine too. im an australian flamenco dancer and i live in the (sacromonte).
it was curious reading about gabriel on your site because i was with him and his wife last night on the terrace of la buleria….which is right outside my cave…. but i use it when la buleria is shut.
Gabriel was playing and his wife was dancing….it was a warm night and the moon was full and then came the police. It was awful it was only just midnight and they were reprimanding him and started taking his details including his fathers name…..just about the spanish inquisition…..and gabriel had to beg them and kissed the policeman´s hand begging him to leave him be. heartbreaking.
so it was nice reading about manolin…..he often sits on that corner on cuesta chapiz looking straight up to camino del sacromonte and plays his guitar…..and i always wondered….why there….because its such an odd spot…..now i know.
[Here is a piece on the same subject I wrote for Salon.]
[And here is what Prof. L.P. Harvey said about one of my models for this book, Richard Ford’s Handbook for travellers in Spain: “I am glad to see that Ford still has the capacity to set people thinking. They don’t make guide books like that any more.”]
I have had this idea in mind for a long time. No one seems as interested in it as me, alas (alack). So, here it is. Admittedly, the “sample chapter” is a bit slapdash. Here is a better look at the topic.
A brief description of the book:
“My Life on the Holy Mountain” is a biography of Manolin Heredia Heredia, my oldest friend in the Sacromonte, an angelic picaro from an ancient Gypsy family, famous for their musicians. Manolin, in his mid-thirties, unmarried, with no prospects, member of a culture that is alternately despised and worshipped, is one of the happiest sad men I’ve ever known. As the Gypsies themselves say, he has the joy of being sad.
The book will cover not just Manolin’s life and struggles, but that of the community as a whole, the Gypsies of The Sacromonte, or “Holy Mountain,” a barrio on the hills on the north side of Granada, Spain where this people has lived for over 500 years.
Their unique culture, full of a passion for creating, is under-represented outside of the most vulgar or romantic books and movies. Metal work, guitar making, horse trading, lying, story telling, singing, dancing and drinking are all arts in the Sacromonte.
As Washington Irving put it almost two centuries ago, “Indeed, all this part of Andalucia abounds with such game-looking characters. Great gossips, great smokers, apt at touching the guitar.”
This story is the story of Manolin, but also of his community, of the Gypsy, of the force of imagination and freedom in a restrictive world. It is also the story of history – the history of Spain, of the Moors, the Jews, the Reconquista, of Europe, of India, of Arabia – a story of survival, cultural power, minority-majority conflict and dialogue.
The book will be a narrative, the story of Manolin, but it will necessarily also be a book about ideas – art, history, cultural survival. I have outlined possible chapters below, but please keep in mind this narrative that will hold all the cultural material in a meaningful context – the life of a man.
The manuscript details:
The book will contain approximately 11 chapters with approximately 250 pages. Each chapter should take about a week and a half to write, so the book should take about four months to complete. Research will take several addition months, bringing the book in at around six or seven months.
List of possible chapter titles:
Chapter 1: Un Gitano Legitimo (A Real Gypsy) Introduction to Manolin and to myself; our relationship.
Chapter 2: Hay Que Tener Arte (You Gotta Have Art) The function of art in Gypsy culture, the immediacy and ‘practical’ nature of their relationship to expression that makes it a part of living culture; stories of the great artists of past and present in the Sacromonte. Manolin’s birth and introduction into art as a method of cultural survival.
Chapter 3: Los Paredes de Jericho (The Walls of Jericho) Granada’s Gypsies through their history, from Arabic times through Franco and up to and including the landslide and current conflict with the city of Granada. The forces of history in Manolin’s life.
Chapter 4: Tiene Historia (He Has History) The story of Gabriel – his birth, death and rebirth. Manolin vs. one Gypsy ideal.
Chapter 5: Humanos Son Humanos (People Are People) The story of Manuel the Bricklayer and his sons and daughters. Manolin vs. the other Gypsy ideal.
Chapter 6: Los Hijos de Benjemi (The Sons of Benjemi)The clans of the Sacromonte and how they fight. Where Manolin stands in the complex politics of the Sacromonte.
Chapter 7: Cante Jondo (Deep Song) The development of cante jondo and flamenco music – the siege of heaven. Soundtrack to Manolin’s life.
Chapter 8: Caras Famosas (Famous Faces) The world looks at Granada and the Sacromonte, visitors who’ve been taken — Washington Irving, Prosper Merimee, John Ford, Malcolm Cowley and Glinka. Tourists, travelers and Manolin.
Chapter 9: Sr. Heredia Va a Madrid (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) The political power of half a million Spanish Gypsies and the fight against racism in Granada, Spain, Europe and the world. Manolin’s nascent political consciousness.
Chapter 10: Verdes Voces (Green Voices) Love, courtship, marriage – and Manolin’s “Ay, no hay chicas?” Manolin’s salvation and damnation.
Chapter 11: “Tenemos Que Irnos, Pero Granada Queda” (“We Must Leave, But Granada Remains”) Leave-taking and some notes on the future – of Manolin, the Gypsies of the Sacromonte and of Granada. Hope springs eternal. History is a heartless machine.
A book on the Gypsies of the Sacromonte will be popular for a number of interrelated reasons. First, Gypsies have been made popular by, among others, Isabel Fonesca in her book “Bury Me Standing.” This book, however, was about Eastern European Gypsies.
Secondly, flamenco music, the characteristic art of Southern Spain’s Gitanos, made increasingly popular through Carlos Saura’s movies, the records of Ketama and other young players, has created an unfilled hunger for information on the people who make it. This book is, by necessity, a book on the flamenco subculture. This is in line with a general tendency toward appreciating the cultural products of the world’s varied peoples.
The final reason is the sheer paucity in English of books on Spanish Gypsies, ironically, the very Gypsy people with the most to offer culturally.
Generally speaking, the Western reading public deeply reveres examples of life lived “authentically,” of lives lived for deeper values. Hay que tener arte, say the Gypsies. You must have art. And the American book-buying public agrees.
And that same public has been primed by books like “Memoirs of a Geisha” to read history through personal narrative.
About the author:
Curt Hopkins is a playwright and poet who has spent the last decade working in the Internet industry and as a journalist. He has had essays, plays and poems published in Exquisite Corpse, Bluelawn, Amelia, Catalyst, Timberline, Dada and Big Talk. He has had plays produced at New City New Playwrights Festival in Seattle and Northwest Playwrights Festival in Oregon. He is co-founder of Emergency Horse Magazine and of the Big Time Poetry Theatre and The Making House/AutoImaginary Clown.com theatre groups. His journalism has been published in Newsweek, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Salon, Seattle Times, The Rocket, New Times and many other magazines and newspapers. He lived for a year among the Gypsies of the Sacromonte barrio in Granada, Spain. He has visited many times since then.
He has written previously about the Gypsies of Granada in Salon.
Every story purporting to be true is a story of memory. I have told so many lies about Spain, omitted so much that would be injurious to me, built up around the bad memories and superimposed, telescoped and colorized so much, that it will be a miracle indeed if I am able to tell the plain truth. And maybe the plain truth is not what a reader needs, or a writer. It’s possible that the construction in words of an atmosphere and a structure that the reader can gain from entering, and can enter at all, requires the relegation of the truth to the status of an incidental. But I don’t think so. I think there is some value to trying to tell oneself, and others, the truth. So I will try. In the end perhaps it will be a matter of which Me wins – the confessor or the writer. They are not always the same and they do not always share the same goals and values.
Spain made me. No, that’s not true, though it sounds good. Spain brought to the surface the best and the worst of me. That “worst” part bothers me. The egotism, selfishness, blindness, temper, sharp tongue, the dismissive, contemptuous, frightened and impotent part of me, that flails and lashes out against the chaos of living, that would rather put its eyes out than stare into the incomprehensibility of it all, that part escapes and catches on fire and to this day I have to stay on guard to keep it from flaring up again and burning those I love. And still, I am not always successful. But I am, however marginally, a better person, more aware, stronger than I was before I knew Spain, before, more accurately, I came to know Granada.
By now, Granada is more a religion, or at least a cathedral, than a place to me. Granada rescued me by condemning me to see myself, and the world, as it is, or rather, as I always suspected it was, and was always told it was not. Granada showed me that joy was not an indulgence, but rather the point of life. If my evocation seems a bit purple and extravagant to you, sitting in your office or on your deck or in your coffee shop, surrounded by career worries and plans and money or its absence, your life full of necessities and pragmatism, no-nonsense and proud in your adulthood, having put childish things behind you, prideful of your ability to see through the fairy tales and take things “head on,” well, I blame Granada, and I give it the credit. But the place has grown, in the intervening years since 1987, abstract. And that’s not right. Granada holds, breeds, feeds abstracts, or non-physical, metaphysical realities, but it is not itself anything but made of stone, water, flowers, wind, music, food, vino mosto, language – things you can touch, taste, hear, smell. It’s real.
My way back from the abstract to the real is to tell you about Manolin. Manolin is Spain, he is Granada, and he is, despite the warp of light around him that will surely result in passing him from the Camino del Sacromonte through my mind and memory to you, quite real indeed, I assure you. Manolin is no idea, no symbol. He is a man.
To say Manolin comes from a family of famous musicians would be like saying someone from Amish Pennsylvania comes from a famous farming family. In South Africa, they mine diamonds. In Jiangsu, they produce silk. In the Sacromonte, they make music.
Manolin has been my friend for over ten years. His friendship has been one of those that changes your life, that remakes the scope of what is possible in your life. I first went to Granada with no knowledge of what a Gypsy was. I left knowing what it is to be Gypsy, ser gitano. Manolin has been my Virgil in a journey that seemed on the outside to be an attempt to understand the Gypsy people, their barrio of the Sacromonte, the city and state of mind that is Granada. But it was really a process of coming face-to-face for the first time with me, and with death. For that, above all else, is the purview of the Gypsy.
The Sacromonte, or “Holy Mountain,” clings to the hills on the south of Granada, Spain, a city its 17th century poet Pedro Soto de Rojas, called “paradise closed to many .” The Sacromonte itself was described by another native son, the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, as “the lost village in the Andalucia of cries.” It is a community of caves dug out of the hillsides and whitewashed. There we lived – my wife Susan, my friend Ian and I – first in a cave with dirt floors, then in a villa that used to host the legends of flamenco – Sabicas, Mario Escudero, Cameron, Paco de Lucia, Tomatito, Pepe Habichuela. From the terrace of this villa one could look across the lush tropical ravine of the Darro River and see, at night, the broken tower of the Silla del Moro and the sharp outlines of the Generalife and Alhambra palaces, lit up first by the fading sun, then, later, by electric lights.
Here Manolin was born, in a house at the intersection of the Cuesta del Chapiz – the road to the ancient Arabic quarter of Albaicin – and the Camino del Sacromonte. The house, which has stood in the same place and the same form for 500 years is a tiled apartment around a carmen or atrium garden. It stands as a sentinel between what is easily known and what is unknowable. Here the tourists, both foreign and Spanish, divide to the antique Arab gate and the Mirador de San Nicolas or to the Sacromonte. Either way they choose they will see the light as it plays over the glazed surface of the pottery embedded in the plaster, the copper ladles hanging from the cave roofs, the hammered gold and silver of the Darro in its weedy reaches.
There are few doors into the private carmenes of Gypsy life in this place where architecture is less in service to society than to a drunkenness of the soul. Gypsys are well aware of how to manipulate non-Gypsy images of the mysterious, dangerous, knife-wielding, palm-reading picaro. One of those few doors in it seems is to show up without any such images in your head, as we did. I had heard the world ‘Gypsy’ but had no idea what images I was supposed to be seeing so I saw none. We had no money, so we couldn’t get taken. We had no appointments to keep so we couldn’t be late.
Manolin and I sat on the wall overlooking the school yard one summer afternoon passing an Aguila and a pack of Fortunas back and forth. Behind us, over our left shoulder, on the hill where the monastery of the Sacromonte sat the olive trees rippled green to white with every breeze. He pointed across the Valparaiso, his blue-black hair shading his coffee-colored face.
“See that hill?” he asked, indicating a green and yellow ridge full of prickly pear, wild olive and agave. “That used to be full of Gypsies. You could see the smithing fires from here, and they could see ours. Look behind you.” He turned over his right shoulder and pointed his bottle of beer up past the Vereda en Medio Alta and the hand-pumped fountain. A smear like a giant hand could be seen all the way down through the re-build.
“In 1964 we had rains like we’d never seen. The whole hillside came down. A man and his grandson were buried right there where that cave is now.” So the government, he said, moved half the barrio out to a dusty shantytown in the Vega. It was supposed to be temporary but they remain there. The Sacromonte pays the price for the heartlessness of nature and man both.
Below us the kids squeaked and clapped, running after a red-and-white soccer ball as the habit-clad nuns kept them from rolling off into the ravine or sneaking off for cigarettes. Kiki called from Los Faroles, “I got a tortilla in the oven!” Later, later! We told him. His mother, clad in the black dress of the widow, sat in a cane chair beside the bar, tatting lace. The four-stroke of an old Renault unwound as a driver shifted down on the turn, honking once at Manolin. “My primo, Eduardo,” he said. Explanation enough. Silence descended as Kiki clanged shut the iron gate of his bar, the children disappeared back into the classrooms and the car made the turn by La Faraona. The sky overhead was the improbable robin’s-egg of a Titian painting.
Manolin Heredia Heredia, I thought, looking at my closest friend, angelic picaro from an ancient family. Manolin “tiene la alegria de estar triste.” He has the joy of being sorrowful. He’s a brooding, tender soul, quick to laugh, out with his feelings, open-handed, suspicious, naïve, easy-to-offend, forgiving. The Abadia bell rings lauds, vespers and compline and in the silence afterward the smoke of blond tobacco and the tower of the muezzin under the magnified stones of the stream.
Juanillo waved from the green balcony of his restaurant. Juanillo was a leader in the community and owner of the best restaurant in the barrio. He had a beautiful wife and polio-stricken leg. Sometimes we hung out after the restaurant closed, Manolin, La Susana, Ian and I, sitting on the terrace playing the guitar, singing soleás, drinking sherry in the humid summer night air, the sigh of wind through the trees on the riverbank far below us.
Around us stitching in and out of sight and weaving the material of the Sacromonte together were the people. Rarely does an invidual have the sight to see the hidden raices of his life. Here they were like the everyday miracles of the Hebrew prophets. Ratón, on-street hash connection and a singer of unusual power. Manuel, construction worker, singer and father of the dancer Belen. Gabriel, archangel who served seven years in the carcel under Franco, scars like a raised, white spider web across his chest from an attack by a grieving woman. The angry American who stole money from us and occasioned a show-down with the Guardia Civil. Pilar, the black widow. Mondeja, the painter and his arch-enemy Antonio, who nearly came to blows over whose carnations were more beautiful.
Hay que tener arte, the Gypsies say. You must have art.
We believe love is real, sometimes we believe G)d is real, we believe when we’re young in things like art and freedom. But in Granada you do not have to operate on faith. Those things are real like water is real, like the agave and figs on the hillside are real. You can touch them. You do not have to believe in them any longer. You can pull them up by the roots.
I had first come to Granada with Ian, who had discovered flamenco and cante jondo music, the Gypsy-figured music of Southern Spain that united elements of Byzantine liturgy, Andalucian folk song, Arabic music and Jewish prayer, while working alone in the middle of the snow and coyotes at the Pine Mountain Observatory in Central Oregon. There, alone under the cold echoing dome, tracking the stars, he had discovered his own rhythms and progressions he later discovered to be solea and bulerias. For years I was bothered by Spain. It hung in the corner of my mind like a dream I couldn’t shake.
I stood by the open train window, the overnight from Madrid. Over the fractured, broken land of the southern La Mancha plains Quixote’s windmills and villages of white blocks turned slowly on the red earth. It wouldn’t be long, the slow rise at the end of the plain, the drop into the verdant trough of the vega, the Moorish castles broken apart atop the weathered crowns of the hills. Then, the city itself, laid out like jewelry against the backdrop of the hide-scraper peaks of the everwhite Sierra Nevada…
In October of 2003, Carmen Calvo, Minister of Andalucia province’s Cultural Advisory Board, unveiled the “Flamenco Porvenir” plan. This plan, which lasts from 2004 through 2011, creates the official Agency of Andalusia for the Development of Flamenco and guides the foundation of a museum dedicated to the distinctly Spanish music and dance art in Jerez de la Frontera, as well as the expansion of the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, and the creation of a flamenco television channel.
One of the principal branches of this agency will be the Corporation for the Promotion and Commercialization of Flamenco, giving an economic boost to the sector, relying mainly on public funding and capital coming from some private companies. An “Economic Observatory of Flamenco” will compile data and analyze the economic effect of flamenco.
The plan was introduced in Seville at an event attended by numerous flamenco personalities, such as Manolo Sanlúcar, Esperanza Fernández, Matilde Coral, Mario Maya, Juan Peña El Lebrijano, Cristina Hoyos, and Mayte Martín.
Coinciding with this plan is UNESCO’s addition of flamenco to its list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”
According to Calvo, the plan provides “an agile and autonomous instrument to provide to all the initiatives undertaken by this institution.” UNESCO’s declaration will contribute to “the process of reaffirmation of the diversity and creativity of this unique patrimony, as well as an increased consciousness of its importance as a channel for the collective practice of the people of Andalusia.”
This is a monumental shift in governmental thought and action regarding flamenco, which has long been considered as Iberian “nigger music.” From its formation in the early 18th century (based on roots and trends going back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years further), it has been relegated to the despised minorities and borderline characters of Spain – Gypsies, Jews, poor Andalucian farmers – and regarded with embarrassment or, at best, indifference.
Among the most unique, artistically penetrating and subtle art forms, Spain is finally giving its own art a proper place in the priorities of the nation. In an era of homogenization, largely as a result of globalization, in which first each US state, then each international airport and finally almost every high street in the Western world is beginning to look the same – with Starbucks, Nike stores, banks – and all the music vetted by MTV, this is one art form that fails with homogenization, that becomes less palatable as it is diluted. To say we could use a reminder that whiskey still exists in this age of small beer would be to state the obvious.