Flamenco Safari: They Only Come Out at Night

The Cathedral of Seville at night

The streets are cold and quiet when I arrive after midnight in Al Arenal. It’s a neighborhood of winding, narrow roads, nestled between the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and La Maestranza, the first and last word in bullrings and also a setting in Bizet’s Carmen.

My taxi driver has dropped me off next to the Hospital de la Caridad, founded in 1676 by a repenting Don Miguel de Mañara. Mañara is believed to be the inspiration for Don Juan, the great fictional seducer, brought to life by Molière, Mozart, Byron, and all the rest.

Don Miguel, so the story goes, was returning from a drunken orgy along a dark Seville street when he either came across or had a vision of a funeral procession that seemed to be carrying his own corpse. He forswore his libertine ways and set up the hospital, which is still used today to help the destitute at death’s door.

I turn my back on the spires and curlicues of the baroque medical building and make my way down Arfe street. The ghosts are leaving me alone for now, and instead of corpses I find the warm pool of light spilling out the windows of La Andaluza. I step into the small, crowded tavern, where a young man sitting on a bar stool plays guitar just a few feet from the door. The owner, Emilio, comes out from behind the bar, greets me by name, and kisses me on both cheeks. He asks me what I want to drink.

I’ve been trying to get out and see as much flamenco as I can. Nightlife-wise, nothing much starts before 11 p.m. in Seville, and since my morning class is at 9:30, sleep is getting squeezed. Tonight my evening started with a ticket to Sol Café Cantante, a theater that showcases new performers every week to a mostly foreign crowd. A guitarist opened, seated at the front of the stage against a black backdrop. Two other men layered in clapping, foot-stomping, and song for a complex, cadenced, plaintive sound, and after the first number they were joined by two women, a singer and a dancer. The dancer’s red lips and shoes were the brightest flashes of color in the show. She had an exquisite scowl on her face and the moves of a matador.

A dancer at Sol Café Cantante

As I left the theater in search of more, I had two tips to go on, acquired from two expats, French and German, whom I had met in a flamenco bar a couple of days earlier. The first lead, El Perro Andalus, was a bust. It was a good bar, actually, with a casual Pan-European crowd, and at 10:45 the bartender assured me that a flamenco-fusion group would be performing at any moment. Whatever the band’s fusion element might have been, they stuck to a highly traditional timetable, and when they hadn’t shown up by midnight, I headed for the barrio of Carmen and Don Juan.

I had visited La Andaluza the day before, in the afternoon, with my German connection, who is friendly with the couple that owns it and had offered to introduce me. I’m relieved that Emilio knows my face on arrival, since the bar is so small and the crowd so intimate with one another that I feel like I’ve shown up at a house party.

I sip my rum and coke leaning against the bar, feeling like an outsider. The walls and floors are made of wood, and the air is full of smoke. The young guitarist on the bar stool appears very laid-back, as though his mind is on the conversation next to him even though his fingers are moving across the fret board.

And then, three feet from me, a man who looks like a Roman emperor bursts into song. He has big, broad features; a neatly trimmed beard; and long steel-gray hair combed back into a ponytail. I don’t understand the words, exactly, but they make the crowd laugh, and the sound is strong and bittersweet. Everyone around me starts clapping, keeping time like it’s second nature. The guitarist still looks casual, but something is different: He now curls slightly toward the older man.

The Roman emperor, still belting it out, taps a plastic bottle lid against the top of a barrel. Some people rap their knuckles against the walls. I clap very quietly. A man the color of dried tobacco joins in with a verse, then starts stamping his feet.

After the song winds up, Emilio takes the guitar and sits down at the head of a low table. He beckons me to take a seat. “Amor, amor, amor,” he sings, and everyone joins in. It’s upbeat and folksy. After a few songs, the dignified middle-aged man next to me starts a conversation. Where am I from, what am I doing in Seville. He gives me the name of a peña, or flamenco club, with a Saturday-night scene.

The thing that most impresses me is the level of participation. One second someone will be staring quietly into his whiskey and water, the next filling his lungs to express feelings on lost love. And then it’s back to his drink like it was no big deal. But every turn is performance-quality, and the artists are giving their all. It’s hard not to applaud.

Two young women have been sitting at the far end of the table from me, one canoodling intermittently with her boyfriend. One is tall and wears a pink pullover with jeans. The other is short, with wide hips, brassy highlights in her hair, and pointy-heeled boots. When the short one removes a pair of castanets from a small sack, I snap to attention.

When I came by the bar yesterday, Emilio asked me if I could dance sevillanas, to which I replied “sort of.” Sevillanas are one of the few types of flamenco that use castanets, and some argue that they’re not properly flamenco because they originated in Castilian folk dance. That debate aside, sevillanas are immensely popular across Spain. I had learned the basic form in classes with Sara Candela, a flamenco teacher in Washington, who would sing the lyrics while we marked steps. I always thought she was saying “that gypsy conquers by dancing sevillanas,” but when I finally checked a dictionary, I learned that the word I thought meant “conquers,” conquista, is probably better translated in this case as “wins hearts.” (The line is, “Esa gitana se conquista bailando por sevillanas.”)

In a tiny space at the end of the table, the two women face each other and the short one plays her castanets, which sound like delicate, musical automatic gunfire. Sevillanas are danced by pairs, often of women, who circle each other like fighters, not quite touching but maintaining eye contact all the time. As the two women in La Andaluza go around, one caresses the other on her cheek with a darting movement, then lightly strokes her chest.

For me it’s as though I’ve been studying an obscure language in a dusty textbook, memorizing grammar and experimenting with awkward sounds, and now suddenly I’m hearing it spoken for the first time, natural and alive.

Which is also how it’s been to be in Seville.