[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."]
MY LIFE ON THE HOLY MOUNTAIN
With Manolín in Granada
by Curt Hopkins
paradise, closed to many; gardens, open to few
– pedro soto de rojas (1584-1658), poet of granada,
lost village in the andalucia of cries
– federico garcia lorca, (1898-1936), poet of granada
it will be nothing to me to leave all the goodness of spain
– judah ben shmuel ha-levi (1075-1141), poet of granada
Beloved Granada, where I was born
In the shadow of the blood-black Christ,
In the echo of the muezzin’s cry,
In a wind heavy with loss,
In my man’s heart you are a bright thorn.
In the Plaza Nueva on a summer morning
Birds filled the green trees,
Sunlight glittered in the streets
And people sat at the white
Tables unfolding newspapers, alone.
From their cafés the waiters unfolded the sails
Of their aprons and swept around
Those silent islands, their mouths
Full of unsung songs.
Life was as distant and cool as the sea.
This day, being born, I shall stand in the sun
On the wall of the Torre de la Vela,
Linger beneath the grapes
At La Mosca, watch the dark close the doors
In San Juan de los Reyes, and, when the day is done,
I shall climb through the silence of cypress,
Through the patter of hands and the racket
Of crickets, through the stacked
White stones of the houses
To Puchero, to stand with the Moon on her terrace.
Alone, I watched the dying ember
Of the broken tower of the Silla
Del Moro glow on the sill
Of the world. A single quavering
Note rose, world of solitude, rose
On a current of air to tremble in my ear
And die with the tower in a snuff
Of stars, that jeweled the ruff
Of the Moon’s white dress, who joined me then
Upon that terrace, commenting on the lateness of the hour.
Beloved Granada, the day I was born
You pressed into my soft heart
A bright thorn, a sharp
Barb upon whose wound
I still feel the cool white hand of the Moon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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 Manolín. Manolín 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. Manolín is no idea, no symbol. He is a man.
To say Manolín comes from a family of famous musicians would be like saying someone from Amish Pennsylvania comes from a famous farming family. Manolín is a direct descendant of the legendary flamenco cantaora, La Faraona. In South Africa, they mine diamonds. In Jiangsu, they produce silk. In the Sacromonte, they make music.Manolín has been my friend for a long time. 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 mean, ser Gitano. Manolín 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 La Susanna, 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 Manolín was born, in a house at the intersection of the Cuesta del Chapiz—the road to the ancient Arabic quarter of Albaicín—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. Gypsies 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.
Manolín 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 Manolín. “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.
Manolín 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, Manolín, 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 individual have the sight to see the hidden raices, the roots 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 Belén. 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 jealous woman. Asshole, 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 the most 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 soleá and bulerias.
For years I was bothered by Spain. It hung in the corner of my mind like a dream I couldn’t shake. For years I was bothered by Spain…
“My Life on the Holy Mountain” is a biography of Manolín Heredia Heredia, my oldest friend in the Sacromonte, an angelic picaro from an ancient Gypsy family, famous for their musicians. Manolín, now in his late-thirties, unmarried, with no prospects, member of a culture that is alternately despised and worshipped, is a clown and a priest, a scam-artist and a sweetheart.
The book will cover not just Manolín’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 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, of convivencia—a story of survival, cultural power, minority-majority conflict and dialogue.
The book will be a narrative, its through-line the story of Manolín, but it will necessarily also be a book about ideas: art, history, cultural survival. Manolín, in other words, will act as our Virgil. 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 book will be illustrated—on the cover and at the chapter breaks—with linocuts of Granada by La Susanna, who is intimate with Granada and knows the characters and places in the book.
It will take between six and eight months to complete the book. I will use extensive notes and writings, published and unpublished, that I have made on my trips to the Sacromonte, as well as research from histories, memoirs and journals. I will augment that with research in archives and libraries, both in the United States and in Spain. Finally, and most importantly, I will add to my already-extensive experience and knowledge of the Sacromonte by conducting in-depth interviews with each of the main characters in the book, Manolín above all. I may even have time for a limonada at Kiki’s.
* * *
When speaking of the music of the Sacromonte I will use two terms, flamenco and cante jondo. They are both branches of the same music. Cante jondo, however, is considered the more ancient, pure and simple—and therefore more spiritually powerful—of the two. Flamenco is known as cante chico, or lesser song, whereas cante jondo, which means “deep song,” is also known as cante grande, or great song. I will use the term flamenco to refer to the music in general, unless I need to make reference to the specific forms or effects of that older music, or unless it is a proper name.
A quick note on style: When introducing a Spanish-language or Gypsy term, I will italicize it. Once I define that term, I will treat it as an English word or phrase, without italics. Also, I choose to dignify the Gypsies by capitalizing their name. They are, after all, a people, not a figure of speech.
Map of the Sacromonte with cast of characters
Family tree of flamenco forms
Introduction and Acknowledgments
PrologueI. UN GITANO LEGITIMO
(A REAL GYPSY)
Arriving in Granada
Introduction to Manolín
“Would you like to see Gypsies?”
II. HAY QUE TENER ARTE
(YOU GOTTA HAVE ART)
The function of art in Gypsy culture
Art as a method of cultural survival
III. LOS PAREDES DE JERICHO
(THE WALLS OF JERICHO)
Granada’s Gypsies through history
The forces of history in Manolín’s life
IV. TIENE HISTORIA
(HE HAS HISTORY)
Gabriel: birth, death and rebirth
Manolín vs. one Gypsy ideal
V. HUMANOS SON HUMANOS
(PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE)
The story of Manuel the Bricklayer
Manolín vs. the other Gypsy ideal
VI. LOS HIJOS DE BENJEMI
(THE SONS OF BENJEMI)
The clans and how they fight
Where Manolín stands
VII. CANTE JONDO
The development of cante jondo and flamenco
The siege of heaven
Soundtrack to Manolín’s life
VIII. CARAS FAMOSAS
The world looks at Granada
Visitors who’ve been taken Washington Irving, Prosper Mérimée,
John Ford, Malcolm Cowley, Glinka
Tourists, travelers and Manolín
IX. SR. HEREDIA VA A MADRID
(MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON)
The political power of half a million
The fight against racism in Granada
Manolín’s nascent political consciousness
X. VERDES VOCES
Love, courtship, marriage
“Ay, no hay chicas?”
Manolín’s salvation and damnation
XI. “TENEMOS QUE IRNOS, PERO GRANADA QUEDA”
(“WE MUST LEAVE, BUT GRANADA REMAINS”)
Hope springs eternal
History is a heartless machine
GLOSSARY OF SPANISH, GYPSY AND FLAMENCO TERMS
I. UN GITANO LEGITIMO (A REAL GYPSY)
Arriving in Granada, Introduction to Manolín, “Would you like to see Gypsies?”
The approach to Granada is to wake in a field of light, aboard the all-night sleeper from Madrid. You break out of the meseta, studded with the white cubes of infrequent houses into the verdant plain that surrounds Granada. From the train station, if you walk down Avenida de las Andaluces to the Gran Via, up Reyes Católicos and through the Plaza Nueva, under the towers of the Alhambra along the Darro river and up the Cuesta del Chapiz, you will encounter the Gypsies at the gateway to the Sacromonte. A man will offer to show you “real Gypsies.” Another will tell you of a giant house he has in the Sierra made from the shell of an enormous turtle. In a house with an internal courtyard dripping with strands of laundry, behind the little church plazuela with the statue of the Gypsy, you will find Manolín.
II. HAY QUE TENER ARTE (YOU GOTTA HAVE ART)
The function of art in Gypsy culture, Manolín’s birth, art as a method of cultural survival
The nature of art within Gypsy culture is not that of artifice, but rather, a moral posture in relations to a wider world, one frequently unfair to Gypsies. Flamenco and the older forms of cante jondo are the most obvious expressions of what amounts to a martial art: the characteristic rasqueados and falsetas of the guitar, the sharp report of heels in dance and palms in rhythm. The cheap flash of the tourist tablaos has little to do with the back porch flamenco the Gypsies of the Sacromonte still practice. There’s nothing quite like happening to be carried along toward an evening of music played not to impress you but to impress each other. And the Gypsies are philosophers of art as well. “Hay que tener arte,” they say. “One must have art.”
III. LOS PAREDES DE JERICHO (THE WALLS OF JERICHO)
Granada’s Gypsies through history, the forces of history in Manolín’s life
From its obscure origins as an Ibero-Celtic village through Roman times, as the Municipium Florentium Iliberritanum; through the Emirate, as Garnat al-Yahud or “Granada of the Jews” for its large and venerable Jewish population; to the Nasrid kingdom, through the Golden Age and Civil War to the present day, Granada has always been a character in the life and art of its inhabitants. Manolín is no exception. Granada, said the Granadine poet Federico García Lorca, is inward-looking, mystical, reflective, and its art is the art of the miniature; no epics here, no empire. Granada, he also said, has the worst bourgeoisie in Spain. Both of the elements have formed the man Manolín has become. Like the city itself, trapped between its two rivers, the Darro and the Genil, Manolín is trapped between small town expectations and an art that challenges death.
IV. TIENE HISTORIA (HE HAS HISTORY)
Gabriel: birth, death and rebirth, Manolín vs. one Gypsy ideal
Manolín is not the only person, and not by any means the only character, in the Sacromonte. Gabriel who returned from a gig in Madrid, stabbed with a knife by his jealous wife (he showed me the scars) who left him to shoot out the streetlights with a stolen pistol and wind up two years in a Spanish jail, an authentic carcalero, emerged bulletproof hiding a perpetual smile behind his grief; Millán, the half-Basque former jazz trumpet player we called The International Guy, constantly intoning, “No soy facista, soy facismo,” I am not a fascist, I am fascism. “Se lleva por el sangre.” It’s bourn in the blood; Juanillo, the “Gypsy king” and restaurateur with a movie star wife and a leg shriveled by polio. The cast of people that surround Manolín explain themselves and the social problems that plague the Gypsies—jail, drugs, violence, the broken promises of fathers and governments—are visited.
V. HUMANOS SON HUMANOS (PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE)
The story of Manuel the Bricklayer, Manolín vs. the other Gypsy ideal
Despite the individuality of Gypsies life, the family and the village provide a counterpoint. Those two inclinations provide a major line of conflict for Manolín. Family versus individuality. The traditions versus the modern world. Building versus hoping. Manuel is a pronounced counterpoint to Manolín. A home-owner, a wage-earner, a husband and a father, a man of great calm and matter-of-fact dignity. His daughter, Belén, was a target of Ian’s affections during our first visit, where he and Manuel played guitar over dinner on the veranda as the Alhambra lit up under the deep blue skies of twilight for the night tour.
VI. LOS HIJOS DE BENJEMÍ (THE SONS OF BENJEMÍ)
Gabriel: birth, death and rebirth, Manolín vs. one Gypsy ideal
The Sacromonte is full of factions. Gypsies live not solely by family, but also by clan and in a complex of shifting relationships between clan and clan, family and family, family and clan, individual and family. It took time and patient to figure out that Manuel who played guitar at the whorehouse and had a Finnish girlfriend was not regarded poorly for either of those things but rather for his family’s machinations in the purchase of another family’s cave. Learning to navigate these relationships was like mapping a minefield.
VII. CANTE JONDO (DEEP SONG)
The development of cante jondo, the siege of heaven, soundtrack to Manolín’s life
The development of cante jondo, deep song, the characteristic expression of Gypsy life, is the story of an art—a folk art with the same high-art plasticity as jazz—the story of a people—although Gypsies gave the art its final form it has developed out of Byzantine and Jewish liturgy, native song and the chipped waver of the Gypsy’s Indian ancestry—and of a nation—to understand cante jondo is to understand what has happened between the Pyrenees, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Siguiriya, buleria, tangos, tarantos, soleá, saeta…
VIII.CARAS FAMOSAS (FAMOUS FACES)The world looks at Granada, visitors who’ve been taken, Washington Irving, Prosper
Mérimée, John Ford, Malcolm Cowley, Glinka, tourists, travelers and Manolín
Granada has been the destination of “European” travelers since before the 15th century, when it held on as the last Arabic kingdom in the Peninsula. Among the most influential travelers in the 19th and 20th centuries have been Théophile Gautier, Washington Irving, Prosper Mérimée, John Ford and Malcolm Cowley. And without exception each has been driven to write something that could only be described as “romantic.” Each of the travelers has been intoxicated by the Gypsies. The Gypsies in turn, have become well-regarded musicians and have traveled in turn. The Sacromonte has produced and hosted musicians like Tomatito, Pepe Habichuela, Cameron, Manuel Cano and Paco de Lucia. It has its own distinct, deep, aire taught by several families of musicians who have been praised by writers like García Lorca And all of them stayed in the Casa del Puchero, the combination tablao and hotel turned private residence that we rented (from a man who did not own it, we later discovered).
IX. SR. HEREDIA VA A MADRID (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON)
The political power of half a million Spanish Gypsies, the fight against racism in
Granada, Manolín’s nascent political consciousnessThe race situation in Spain is changing. Gypsies are not enslaved, nor shot in the streets; they have equal rights under Spanish law and there is even a Gypsy minister in the Cortes. Manolín’s older brother, Antonio, is a more politically-aware person than his brother. But Manolín too, as he ages and sees fewer opportunities for himself, grows more intent on understanding Gypsy power and poverty in modern Spanish life.
X. VERDES VOCES (GREEN VOICES)
Love, courtship, marriage, “Ay, no hay chicas?” Manolín’s salvation and damnationGypsy songs are evenly divided between songs about death, songs about jail and songs about love. Manolín, a perpetual bachelor, overwhelmingly sings the latter. A product of the contradictory impulse in a culture influenced by both machismo and matriarchy, Manolín, in his long train of relationships, is king and child, decision-maker and recipient of charity. Women have a great deal of power in the Sacromonte. A common sight is a clutch of Gypsy women, hair pulled back into a bun at the top of their heads and accented by a red carnation, clad in deep black dresses, clustered around the well on the Camina Alta, passing judgment that may not see the light of day in law courts but will be law in a thousand dining rooms by nightfall. Between the long shadow of Spanish racism, Gypsy xenophobia and concurrent loss of traditional Gypsy livelihood, and a compromised economy, the male part of the equation in the Sacromonte has been compromised.
XI. “TENEMOS QUE IRNOS, PERO GRANADA QUEDA” (“WE MUST LEAVE, BUT GRANADA REMAINS”)
Leave-taking, hope springs eternal, history is a heartless machineTo live in Granada is not to “take a trip to Europe.” You share little with the self-celebrating post-college backpacker, the salt-packed package tourist, or that most disgusting of traveler, the culture-consumer, snapping his program against his thigh during intermission at Bayreuth or La Scala. If you dive straight in, with no safety measures, Spain in general, Granada and the Sacromonte in particular, change you forever, deepen your faith—no matter what kind: choose one—increases your strength, makes you taller, more handsome or beautiful, imperceptibly moves your eyes into the stars, rewards you with vast wealth, dismisses your fears. Living in the Sacromonte strips away the distractions of the world.
Un Gitano Legitimo
I woke on the train. I awoke in a field of light.
***Prior to arriving in Spain, I admired the Italian Renaissance master Titian. I loved everything about his paintings – the mythological carried in the quotidian, the voluptuous beauty of the real women who were his models, the glint off the armor and silverware – everything except for his skies. A pale, washed out blue, they seemed more decorative than evocative, more belonging to the ceiling of the ballroom at Sans Souci than the roof of heaven. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was the poor quality of the reproductions. Perhaps it was the age of the paintings. It was not. Titian was painting the sky he saw, the sky that surrounded him and bounded him, the Mediterranean sky.
I woke on the train to the rolling, loping clank of its interlocking scales, another age’s vision of the technological future, a relic from a time when the word “mechanical” was pregnant with the future – slightly utopian, slightly menacing – instead of the quaint hint of the past. Around us the treeless mesas, coffee brown and brick red, stepped down into a long valley, capped with an enormous vault of sky, the same sky Titian had painted, and countless others governed by that heat-washed blue.
We had boarded the RENFE train the night before at Atocha Station in Madrid after a long, creepy day. The waiters were on strike and, after half a day flying, eschewing the worse than usual clots and slurry of the airline food, with virtually no sleep, we had plodded through the strangely quiet, white-hot streets of the capital, coated in grit. The highlight was the afternoon at the Prado museum, where in a moment of unbearable excitation I rounded a corner to come face-to-face with Hieronymous Bosch’s phantasmagoric painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” With its tortured perversions, its monstrous livestock and hollow bowls, it lit the empty basement of my mind. My attempt, eyes fully transformed to spinning oblivion wheels, to corral McQuiddy and get him to come see it, were met with the surprisingly strong resistance of a feverish and panicked ring-tailed lemur. He had already seen Goya’s caprichos, he explained, and Bosch would have driven him off the rails on the crazy train.
I eventually succeeded in coaxing him out from beneath the claw-legged marble bench with a half-eaten bun I rescued from a trash bin and we resumed our marching, this time to El Corte Inglés department store to buy tickets. During the night-time journey, McQuiddy., who was notorious for, among many other neuroses, his sensitivity to noises, experienced a fantasia of sleeplessness. The four-bunk sleeping car we occupied, along with a tiny Japanese girl who spoke neither Spanish, nor English, nor German, was as hot and dry as a Laguna Pueblo bread oven. I attempted to jam the window open. It would stay put for a few minutes and then, with a jounce of the car, slam down. I wound up holding the window up with my arm until sleep overcame me and I had to let it go.
When morning came, I rose and stood by the open train window, in the hall of the car. 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 in to 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. Granada.
McQuiddy was not destined to stay long in Granada. He went half-mad by the egg stall in the Plaza Bibarrambla after a glassy-eyed night in the presence of a hundred lit crosses in the back streets of the city on the Dia de la Cruz. But Ian and I fell in love with the place and stayed. Of course, Ian and I had met Manolín.
* * *
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 …
Accompanying Ratón was a younger, slightly taller man, called Manolín, to distinguish him from the host of other Manuels that populated the Sacromonte, including his own father. His gaze was partially detached from the world around him, angelic, an innocent it seemed, and his skin was the color of burned cherries. Manolín Heredia Heredia, the first Heredia belonging to this mother, the second, to his father, though they were not related. The Gypsies, like the Welsh, came to surnames late, and they shared among themselves a small pool of them. Heredia was a not uncommon name among the inhabitants of the Sacromonte, where Gypsies have lived since the 15th century.
Legend says the forges of the Gypsies rang with fire and black smoke for months on the vega, or plain, below Granada when, in 1492, Kind Ferdinand besieged the city in an attempt to seize the Nasrid kingdom, the last Arabic foothold on the peninsula. He pushed out the king, Boabdil, who died in disgrace in Morocco, ending 800 years of Moorish presence in Spain. The hissing waves of Spanish arrows that broke on the battlements of the Alhambra, hastening Boabdil’s surrender, were said to have all been forged by Gypsy smiths. As a reward, they were given the Sacromonte, or Holy Mountain, to settle on.
The Sacromonte takes its name from the Abadia, or monastery that stands by the wood at its crest, and from the nearby church of San Miguel, built on the remains of a mosque. But also from a 16th century hoax, a set of lead tablets that purported to tell the story of San Cecilio, the martyr saint, the Arabic convert to Christianity. No one knows who sculpted and planted the tablets to this day.
The barrio, a white poem of lime-washed cave fronts and facades, occupies the entirety of the hillside south of the cyclopean city walls. These walls once described the limit of the Albaicín, the original Arabic city build in the years after the 11th century demise of the powerful Córdoban caliphate that had united most of Iberia under a single ruler. The cities of Moorish Spain became factional kingdoms, or taifas, whose rulers competed to create the most intellectually and artistically distinguished court. The taifas were like the city-states of Renaissance Italy, and Granada was their Florence.
Heredia was a storied name, dating from at least the ejection of the Nasrids, though there is evidence that the Gypsies lived in Granada prior to that time. The name itself comes from the Late Latin heredium, meaning “hereditary estate.” Granada is a city of poetic street names, mysterious names, and one of my favorites was Avenida Rey Heredia, King Heredia Avenue. No one was ever able to tell me who this King Heredia might have been, not even Manolín. I remain convinced however, that the inherent majesty in my friend’s soul was not metaphorical.
The unemployment rate in the Sacromonte, which is double that of the country, is a function at least as much of Spanish racial attitudes as it was of Gypsy culture. “You will eat but you will not work.” These are the words Christ is said to have uttered to the Gypsy who gave him water as he hung upon the cross in one popular legend. But Manolín’s father did have a trade. It was a trade that must have been common in Arabic times and during the early part of Christian rule. His father was an arcero. He was a specialist in building and repairing the brickwork that secured the Sacromonte’s caves. Most habitations were literally caves, dug out of the soft earth of the hillsides, even if, as was sometimes the case, those caves were fronted and expanded by a facade containing a room or two. He was particularly adept at creating beautiful and functional entry arches.
In the Sixties, after a deluge, part of the hillside of the Sacromonte gave way and a mudslide that scarred the hill from the topmost track all the way down to the Darro River’s green ravine below killed a dozen people, including a grandfather, sleeping with his granddaughter wrapped in his arms. In the subsequent years the work had been steady but had long since petered out by the time we met him. The Gypsies whom the government had relocated to prefab housing on the dusty verge between the city and the vega, or plain, had never been given the funds they were promised to re-excavate and rebuild their family’s caves. So, as with many Gypsies, Manolín’s father hustled.
Manuel Sr. lacked both the grace of light his son possessed and the motherly vitality of his wife. He was dark as tea, with a shiny black pompadour and sideburns, making him a kind of sunburned Spanish Elvis. He was sullen, bitter and grasping. He was also, it later turned out, unintentionally comical.
“Where do you live?” asked Manolín, when Ratón and the rest of the crew had turned back to the business at hand. We told him we had rented Antonio Malla’s cave in the Vereda en Media Alta. We told him there were spaces at the top and bottom of the make-shift doors where the cold wind got in, no electricity or running water and that we slept on pallets to avoid the water that poured in under the doors when it rained. It was April and the rains had yet to stop for the season.
“You can live in my family’s baptismal cave,” he said with a shrug. We had no idea what this meant, but had visions of Memling’s St. Jerome. The inflated price we negotiated with his father was still a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. The Heredias were one of the few Gypsy families in the Sacromonte who did not themselves live in a cave. They lived at the bottom of the Camino del Sacromonte, on the corner of the Cuesta del Chapiz, a pilgrim’s route for tourists traveling up the narrow streets to the Albacín. Their two story house was a typical Andalucian-Arabic one, with an internal carmen, or garden courtyard, open to the sky and paved in terracotta tile, studded with glazed and figured white and yellow accent tiles. Here, Manolín’s mother hung the family’s laundry to dry on cords that crisscrossed the open air on the way up the well to the sky. In addition to Manolín, his father and his mother, his younger brother José also lived here and his younger sister, Alejandra. His older brother, Antonio, had recently moved to a nearby cave with his infant son and girlfriend.
The cave we rented was their ancestral residence, a deep-fronted, low-slung cave with elaborate blue-and-yellow tile around the barred windows, a galley kitchen with a tiled bar, a small bathroom, living room with old, weirdly soft and slightly damp couches and two bedrooms. Here, amid the Fajalauza plates and bowls hung on the stuccoed walls and the copper pots and ladles suspended from the ceilings, the Heredia families celebrated their baptisms, confirmations, marriages, birthdays and deaths.
We stood out on the gravel cart-path that ran in front of the cave. Manolín dropped the keys to the big, black iron door in Ian’s hand and we leaned, side-by-side, against the deep, flat sill of the main window and looked out together across the Valpairaíso, the Darro hidden in the palms, agave and herbs below, muttering down the lush little valley. From where we stood all the way up to the village of La Mosca, this “valley of paradise” was where the lords of Nasrid Granada had their summer homes and farms, cooled in summer by the spray from the fountains they charged with the little river’s waters and by the snow-chilled breeze from the Alpujarras and irrigated with a sophisticated series of acequias, regulated with antique wheels you could still find amid the rotting masonry of the channels.
As we stood and passed a sharp, blond Fortuna cigarette back and forth, the Alhambra’s reddish walls lit up from within, the lights of the night tour turning the ancient pile into an ardent crystal lamp that lit our way down the centuries. You trade one thing for another in this life, I thought. As Americans, Ian and I were men of moment in the moment. We were free of history, but locked out of the magic of time. Time is a mirror, like a genie’s treasure in a forgotten chamber lost in one of the Alhambra’s tales. Manolín would bring us through the traps and wards to stand, for the first time, before its luminous, mercurial surface and would guide us as we stepped through it. Manolín, as a Gypsy, was a man of the moment-as-it-passed, who stood face-to-face with the mirror from the day he was born. In return for his guidance, we would take his hand and lead him to a place where history was powerless over an individual’s dreams.
Manolín looked at us in that contradictorily guileless way that Gypsies sometimes have.
“We’re going to be friends,” he said.
“Yep,” said Ian.
“Yep,” I said.
* * *
WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, GYPSIES ARE LIKE CAMELS. Camels will drink as much as they can, whenever they can. But they can go long periods with little or nothing.
Manolín told us the farthest away from Granada he’d ever been was Sevilla. He’d been there once for a week, hitchhiking from Granada with fifty bucks in his pocket.
“Those Gypsies in Sevilla…” he said, shaking his head, almost shuddering. “Those Gypsies are scary.” Granada has a population of only 240,000 and is in many ways more a village, or collection of villages, than a big city. Sevilla, on the other hand, has a metro population of well over a million.
He slept the balmy nights away in the Alameda de Hércules, he told us, his thin coat balled up under his head for a pillow, and, once or twice, in the bed of a partner. He ate cheap cakes and fruit from stalls and the occasional bowl of puchero, a Gypsy stew. But he spent the bulk of his money bar hopping from one tablao to another in the famous Triana district, sipping cheap beers, and watching the dancers and singers. The Triana is second only to Madrid as a showcase for the talents that the flamenco traditions attract.
Once back home, Manolín never ventured quite so far afield again. His situation is not uncommon among the Gitanos, or Spanish Gypsies. One of the many clichés a Gypsy comes freighted with is that of the exotic traveler, with earring and head-cloth, moving from town to town in his carven, painted wagon, a crystal ball and deck of tarot cards secured beneath the seat. Although it is true that Gypsies are an historically peripatetic people, they have become less so over the years, as rulers who have confused “mobile” with “criminal” and pressed them to settle in one place.
Gitanos, however, have been largely sedentary for centuries. There are still some who move over the plains of La Mancha into Estremadura and back to Castile, but they are few. Most Spanish Gypsies travel only to fairs and festivals. Gitanos are notorious horse traders, literally as well as figuratively, and once upon a time a horse didn’t move in Spain without a Gypsy middleman. But as horses were replaced by cars and became the province of the decayed remnant of the aristocracy and the occasional farmer, Gypsies, an entrepreneurial lot, moved from selling horses to selling cars, as well as motorcycles, scooters, motor homes and boats. Most Spaniards’ only direct dealing with a Gypsy takes place on the lot of a second-hand automobile dealership.
But the most common cause of extant Gypsy circumambulation is the festival. Less the seasonal trading get-together of medieval times, most festivals in Spain today are religious or musical, sometimes both. It is not uncommon to see whole extended families packing their gearing into their overloaded Renaults to drive to another city for a try at the fat purse of a flamenco competition.
The modern Spanish flamenco festival was the brainchild of two of Granada’s most honored sons; one, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, native; the other, the composer Manuel de Falla, adopted.
Lorca was a fixture in the Sacromonte during his lifetime, that true-brief period between his birth in Fuente Vaqueros, a village a couple of miles from Granada, in 1898 and his death at the hands of a fascist firing squad 38 years later in another nearby village of the vega, Viznar. The early part of the century in Spain was a period of extraordinary political and artistic fecundity, to rival anything going on in Paris at the time. An entire generation of artists, the so-called Generation of ’27, emerged seemingly at once. These included, besides Lorca, the poets Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, Damaso Alonso and Gerardo Diego. In the visual arts they included Lorca’s close friend the painter Salvador Dalí, Manuel Angel Ortiz and Ismael González de la Serna (both from Granada) and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
The art of this time was propelled forward on the winds of a political change that gave birth to the democratic Second Spanish Republic, whose successes inspired the fascist backlash that brought the execrable Franco to power and washed the streets of Granada with the blood not just of the famous poet, but of the Gypsies he loved and whose music he helped to promote and preserve.
Fearing that the vulgar flashiness of the commercial tablaos with their crystal lamps and velvet wallpaper, was destroying cante jondo, that vessel for ancient Andalucian truths, Lorca, with the assistance of de Falla, created the Cante Jondo Festival.
European musicians had long been drawn to the native music of Andalucia, including the Russian Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka—who spent time in the Sacromonte in 1845—the French composer Claude Debussy and the Spaniard Isaac Albéniz. De Falla in his turn was seduced by cante jondo and, unlike the others, with his scholastic inclinations, undertook the first musicological research into the origins of the music. He traced it to the Byzantine liturgy used for a period in Spain’s churches, to the music of the Arabic court and street that once sounded from Cadiz to Zaragoza, to Hebrew prayer and to the Gypsies’ Indian ancestral music.
On a velvety summer evening, June 13, 1922, after a week of prefatory concerts and lectures, including Lorca’s ground-breaking “Cante jondo: Andalucian Primitive Song,” based on de Falla’s research, the first Cante Jondo Festival began on the Plaza de los Aljibes in the Alhambra. “Wherever one looked there were exquisite figures in gay, flowered shawls and high combs,” said the American writer John Trend, who was in the audience, “while many had put on the silks and satins of bygone days.”
Among the winners of this first flamenco festival was “El Tenazas,” or The Pinchers, as Diego Bermúdez Cañete was known. El Tenazas was a washed-up singer from whom no one expected much. But, penniless, he walked 80 miles cross-country from Puente Genil in Córdoba province, to compete. He received a prize of 1,000 pesetas for his performance. That the duende has a strange way of working was also evident in the performance of another unlikely prize winner, eleven-year-old Manuel Ortega, known as “El Caracol,” The Snail, who later became one of the most celebrated cantaors, or singers, of the 20th century.
Among the Gypsies there was no greater pride than to arrive home having secured first prize at a festival. In that respect, nothing has changed.
Manolín is a guitarist. He has the fastest right hand I ever saw but all the discipline of a poet. In fact, Sad Sack that he is, he did not even own a guitar. His brother Antonio played regular gigs in the bars of Granada, as well as the occasional job in Madrid as a sideman for a singer; he had students of his own in addition to teaching at the Escuela Carmen de las Cuevas. But he couldn’t catch his brother’s right hand on his best day.
In flamenco guitar, playing is divided into two aspects: the right hand and the left hand. The left hand, the one which for most players forms the chords and falsettas, as the occasional runs of notes are called, is the “intellectual” hand, the hand of learning. Flamenco is a very formally complex music and there are only two ways to express oneself extra-formally. One of these is in the falsetta. Falsettas are like gold or cocaine in Gitano society: traded for, stolen, reverse-engineered. When a master teaches a student it is not unknown for that master to wait to pass on his most distinctive falsettas until he is on his death bed. And even then sometimes the master refuses, so that something of great, almost magical, beauty dies with him and his falsettas are remembered but never again played.
The right hand, however, is the unteachable hand, the hand of spirit, of passion, the hand of the soul, the individual hand. The right hand in flamenco is used to hammer, pluck and strum. The strumming, which is so distinctive and is the element of the music most people would recognize, is accomplished by employing a number of different rasqueados, or strumming patterns. These can sometimes be nearly as complex-seeming as the falsettas, but are of limited number. So anyone, with minimal talent and a little patience, can learn the repertoire of rasqueados. A normal Gypsy boy like Manolín will learn all of them before his fifth birthday.
But playing the right hand in flamenco is like playing golf or chess: it takes an afternoon to learn and a lifetime to master. Manolín, though, had mastered the right hand without trying; it was part of him. He is the right hand. His rasqueados—all of them—were smooth as a breeze over corn silk and the speed at which he can discharge them is blinding, like the Sugar Ray Leonard of the guitar.
The central philosophical truth of flamenco is that of duende. Duende, which means “spirit,” comes from duen de casa, lord of the house. But in the moral universe of Gypsy life duende is the struggle, the fight between life and death, Jacob and the angel, light and darkness, the mortal mind and God’s will. “All that has black sounds has duende,” said the cantaor Manuel Torre. The cantaora Pastor Pavón, known as La Niña de los Peines, or Girl of Sorrows, was, it is said, a genius, so far above what her peers were capable of that most of them refused to sing in her presence. What would be the point, after all? Her talent had taken her, as it still takes the most talented flamenco artists today, not just around the Peninsula, but around the world. She had performed to sold-out houses full of adoring crowds from New York to San Francisco, Tokyo to Istanbul, Rome to Paris.
One evening, back in Cádiz, she sang at the tablao where she had made her reputation. The house was full not of fawning know-nothings, wowed by the brightness of her star, but of aficianaos, those who knew flamenco, from the inside out, who lived it. La Niña de los Peines sang. Her voice was crystal, virtuosic, a fountain of diamond, with which she carved soft ceilings out of gesso in the air above her like the stone skirts of the Alcázar of Sevilla. No olés. No shouts. Afterward, silence. She was baffled. Finally, one man stood languidly and began desultorily to clap. “Viva Paris,” he said. Long live Paris. The performance he said with this cameo of dismissal was vapid, technical, worst of all “perfect.” Contemptible in other words. He, the whole room, was insulted. This kind of thing is fine for Paris and for America but who do you think we are? La Niña was hurt, stabbed to the core. Then she grew furious, enraged. She broke every wine glass and ashtray she could lay hands on. And then she sang again.
She sang again, tears streaming down her face, lips flecked with spit, brow shining with sweat, blind, screaming, with a voice that forced itself through smoke and sand, over the thousand chunks of jagged glass she had strewn across the floor. And when she finished, unaccompanied, her voice strained to the breaking point, cracked and hanging on its hinge, the room exploded with applause that rolled over her in waves and cries of bravo! and olé!, the air filled with all the flowers thrown from every vase on all the tables in the place and first among them, weeping, holding his hat over his heart, the man who had said, “Viva Paris.”
Manolín’s right hand was the best I ever saw.
* * *
ONE EVENING WHEN WE WERE FIRST GETTING TO KNOW MANOLÍN, Ian and I went drinking with him downtown. Susan, the woman who would later become my wife, had yet to arrive and Ian had gotten familiar with a German tourist named Sabine. Sabine was one of those young women you find, more often in Europe than in the United States, who, having read Nin’s “House of Incest” or Jean Stein’s biography of Edie Sedgwick, decides to dedicate herself to the pursuit of “experience.” Ian, being a red-blooded American boy—young, tall and lean, with sandy hear, wearing cowboy boots he broke in on his father’s ranch in Yoncalla—was willing to immolate himself on the altar of her single-minded dedication to authenticity.
We made our way over to the Tres Torres, a bar on the Calle Cervantes. Like many in Granada, the bar took advantage of the venerable ceramics industry that grew up from the 13th century construction of the royal palaces on the Alhambra hill. Timbered and whitewashed, the bar was a series of small rooms around a central hall where the four-sided bar of dark, polished wood faced out onto the street. The walls were paneled with blue tiles, topped by a row of red, yellow and light green eight-pointed stars with red bordering. Patrons sat in low, sling-backed leather chairs, like those found in the Alhambra, surrounding even lower, round tile-topped barrel tables. There we settled ourselves with water glasses full of whiskey and plates of spicy chorizo.
On the street outside Manolín had pulled Ian and I back as Sabine went in.
“Lend me a thousand pesetas.”
“I’m a Gypsy,” he said. “We have no money. Plus, I’m your guide.”
We spent the good part of an evening in the Tres Torres, telling stories in parts of three languages, Sabine laughing at my Köln-accented German, Manolín clowning. When time came to settle the bill, Ian and I chipped in and he covered Sabine.
“You’re short,” said one of the bartenders, a pipsqueak with the rimless glasses of a self-consciously “European” Spaniard.
“How much?” I asked.
“One thousand pesetas.”
I looked at Manolín, whose face was as blank as a method actor at the supermarket. Ian pulled his star-child bit and I was left looking like the responsible party.
“I paid my part,” I said, and waited.
Seething with the racial and cultural hatreds he spent his café hours decrying in others, the bartender folded his arms.
“Do you understand English?” he asked, his little face twisted into a sneer. Before we could answer he said, “You get out of here right now and never come back. We don’t need your kind here.”
“Do you understand Spanish?” I asked in return. I proceeded, in quick if imperfect Spanish, to sketch his mother in a series of improbable amatory vignettes, featuring multiple partners, often of non-Castilian origin and non-standard employment backgrounds. I figured prominently among them. He grew furious and, nothing if not equitable, invited him to leave his post and accompany me outside to continue our discussion. He declined and we left.
Outside, Ian’s cowboy boots and Manolín’s wooden-heeled flamenco shoes make a hollow, echoing rhythm in the narrow street, widening as we emerged onto the deserted Plaza Mariana Piñeda. We walked into and out of the copper spray of the streetlights.
“What kind of a con artist did you get us hooked up with?” I asked Ian. Ian shrugged.
AFTER WE HAD GOTTEN TO KNOW MANOLÍN BETTER, and had learned how to hold onto our pesetas, we frequently went out in the evenings, sometimes until the morning. It was part of the culture we had signed onto and we took our obligations to it seriously.
One evening I received a check, poste restante, waiting for me at the post office in the Puerta Real for an article I had written and we went out to celebrate. The evening drove us deeper into the hot, glassy summer. Susan had arrived by that time and used some of the money that came to buy herself a dress for pennies at the flea market on the Plaza Larga, an olive silk skirt that flowed nakedly over her behind and a matching sleeveless, scoop-neck blouse. I wore my blazer and club tie and Ian his jeans and University of Oregon t-shirt. Manolín wore a pair of pointy-toed maroon flamenco boots, a seersucker jacket and a mauve polyester shirt and a medal of the blessed Cerafino. We looked like a million bucks, and we knew it.
“Knives!” I barked. The three men, as it were, pulled out their horn-handled Arabic knives and snapped the blades fast like Ian, an erstwhile physicist, had taught us. Then we folded them back up and put them into our pockets again, where they would remain until the next time we went out.
“Muy Gitano,” we agreed. Very Gypsy. Susan rolled her eyes and slipped her shoes on.
We walked down the Camino, past the Primer Puente and up the terraces to the bars of the Campo del Príncipe. Manolín’s brother Antonio was playing a private gig at the Hotel Alhambra and wanted to meet us for some pre-show drinks. We found him outside of a bar favored by pretty young things and their paramours, including Swedish, Portuguese, Danish and Argentine foreign students at the university. The DJ played an odd combination of Detroit house, Europop and old disco.
We had a couple of drinks with Antonio. He drank up his last and took his leave, stopping to kiss Susan on the cheek. Antonio liked Susan. He stopped by the cave most mornings and watched her paint while I got dressed. “She is a painter of some power,” he said, as we walked up the Camino toward La Mosca to meet his brother and Ian for coffee.
The bar had a mixed crowd, with one glaring exception: after Antonio left, Manolín was the only Gypsy there. After a while, the atmosphere in the bar grew strained. A group of Spaniards clotted near the door, adjacent to where we stood. They were older, shabby and had the pallor of experienced drinkers. One of them said something I couldn’t make out to Manolín.
“Let’s go,” Manolín said, steering us toward the door.
“Let’s go to El Bodegas.”
We made our way back town the terraces to the Via Colon. Bodegas was behind the cathedral in the narrow streets near the Plaza Nueva. Manolín’s face was ashen.
“Oh my God,” I said, snapping my fingers as the Spanish finally caught up with me, “he called you a ‘dirty Gypsy.’”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“It’s a big deal,” I said. “Let’s go back and beat them to the ground.” I was usually the sole voice of unreason in our little group but this time I was not alone.
“Gitano mio,” said Ian, echoing a popular Lole y Manuel song, “no one talks to our friend like that.”
Even Susan agreed. “I’ll claw his eyes out.” She wasn’t just whistling Dixie, either, she would have done it.
“I have the strength of ten men!” I roared, “and am very rich!”
“No,” said Manolín, quietly. It was final. This was his house and he was the final arbiter of its rules.
We pushed open the doors of Bodegas to a whoosh of light and smoke, voices shouting and music playing. The music was Ketama. Some of the smoke was as well. Bodegas was a warm bar with sand-colored stucco, wine barrels and exposed timbers. The walls were decorated with murals depicting scenes from Don Quixote and El Cid. There were always plenty of Gypsies there. People shouted to us, “Carlos! Susanna! Manolín! Illán!” women in miniskirts and guys in Iron Maiden t-shirts and dress slacks. Our kind of people. The warmth washed over us, carrying away the bitter taste of the racism from the Campo.
“I’m an Apache,” said one Gypsy.
“Are you now?” I asked.
“I’m an Indian.”
“I’m an Indian. I have red skin. And look at my hair.”
His hair was a vaguely American Indian-styled super-mullet.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Gerónimo,” I said. “My name is General George Armstrong Custer, commander of the Seventh Cavalry Division of the United States Army.”
Gerónimo and his group laughed. It was good for an amontillado.
Gerónimo, it later turned out, was the brother of the wounded drunk and street poet we knew, Emilio, who had tried to attack us when he grew convinced the suicidal German classical guitarist he’d unloaded on us was paying us rent—she was not—and that we owed him a fee but were refusing to pay him. Emilio had been discharged from the army for his alcohol problem. One afternoon we saw Gerónimo carrying his brother up the Cuesta del Chapiz from the Paseo de los Tristes where he had drank so much at the street fair there that he had pissed his pants. Their mother was a crass, bitter old apple-doll in a death shroud, who treated her sluttish daughters like princesses while treating her poor damaged son like one of the dogs I saw her kicking at one day in the Plaza Larga. “Fuera!” she screamed at one. “Busca la vida alla!” Get out of here! Look for “life” somewhere else!
As the night deepened, Susan and I found ourselves inclined toward romance. We excused ourselves and walked back up the Sacromonte, the summer night redolent with the smell of oranges and rosemary from the Valparaíso, which floated up to us in our room where we lay together.
Later, lying on top of the sheets, we felt the warm breeze on our skin. Then we heard a banging and Ian’s voice calling up from the street. “You guys decent?” We got decent. He and Manolín burst up the stairwell into our room as Susan turned to pull her blouse down.
“They opened Francois’s disco!” cried Ian. “We want to go make them play
Dwight Yoakum.” Manolín nodded vigorously. “Country-western!” he said with a smile.
Francois was the diminutive Breton painter who lived in a cave on the hill above us. Known as “Soif,” a play on the French word for thirst and the Breton variant of Francois, “Soa,” he painted on the small terrace before his cave, surrounded by a group of French women in animal print bikinis and Gucci sunglasses.
“Soif,” one would whine, “I’m bored.” “When are we going back to Paris, Soif?” another would ask. Every visit was a scene out of La Dolce vita. He knew how ridiculous it was, you could see it in his eyes. Later, he had the good sense to kill himself.
Francois painted in the daytime, not so much to catch the good light, as to preserve the night for those activities he valued above painting. He had spent most of the late spring and early summer painting the mural in a new disco in a cave at the top of the Sacromonte. An unbroken band of ochre ran the length of the disco, in and out of the club’s nautilus-like chambers, on which blue figures danced. It was like he had cut the cigar band on Matisse’s “Dance” and ran it over the walls, like a color-reversing cylinder seal, a monotint on an endless banner pressed against the walls, like one long poster he pasted to an infinite fence that turned onto itself without ever repeating.
The whitewashed cave was booming away, bass to splash of high-hat while the door opened, stuffed to the gills with young Spaniards trying to shake off the fetters of Franco’s vision: a dour, isolated Spain, Bernarda Alba’s house. It was a storm of miniskirts and open shirts and shining skin. Ian and Manolín ran toward the DJ booth, Ian clutching “Guitars, Cadillacs” in his hands, accosting the confused jockey with imprecations to hillbilly up the place, which he agreed, reluctantly, to do. We kicked up our heels to the shift in rhythm with the few Spaniards willing to brave the change. Manolín danced, flamenco style, stiff-legged, chest jutting out and hands on his hips, cracking his heels on the floor as he sidled up to a group of would-be modernes affecting a world-weariness, only to be turned down, turn on his heel, dance back as though nothing had happened, then shuffle off in the direction of another possible love interest, and the next and the next.
“I don’t think they like Gypsies,” he said with a smile shining in his dark olive face. He didn’t care. He liked them. The music shifted back to disco and electronica and we drank and danced and talked to Francois, holding court in the corner with his mannequins, with the small groups of curious Gypsies who stopped by to see what oddity had been spawned in their midst. And finally, when daylight shone through the crack in the doors, we took our leave, wobbling and weaving down the gravel paths to the Camino.
We waved a wavering Manolín off home and Susan and I climbed up the stairwell to the terrace above the cave where we embraced and kissed as the light of the rising sun, promising heat, rocked momentarily at the summit of the hill, then fell over, rushing silently down over the houses and the agave and prickly pear, gilding the cypress and the figs, the birds waking to song in the sedge. Ian, his Ricardo Sanchez in his arms, walked slowly up the echoing stairs, playing rondeñas, the mode that is played to welcome the morning. He stood beside us and played as the light grew strong enough to sleep by.
Here is my Salon article on the same topic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Curt Hopkins is a journalist, marketing communications manager, playwright and poet. His essays, plays and poems have been published in Good Foot, Exquisite Corpse, Bluelawn, Amelia, Catalyst, Timberline, Dada and Big Talk. His plays have been produced at New City New Playwrights Festival in Seattle, Northwest Playwrights Festival in Oregon, Venue 9 and Doc’s Clock in San Francisco, among other venues. He is co-founder of Emergency Horse Magazine and of the Big Time Poetry Theatre and Making House/AutoImaginary Clown.com theatre groups. His journalism has appeared in Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Salon, Seattle Times, Reuters, National Post, public radio and others. He is the founding director of the non-profit organization, The Committee to Protect Bloggers.
Most of the reading public has grown up with the image of a Gypsy as an exciting, exotic personage. Many have read Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” in school and have a sense of Granada as the locus of Gypsy life. Few, however, really know what a Gypsy is, and that he or she is the member of a thriving culture, a viable ethnic group, and not just a figure of speech.
In recent years, Gypsies have been made popular again by, among others, Isabel Fonesca in her book “Bury Me Standing.” That book, however, was about Eastern European Gypsies. There is in fact a paucity in English of books on Spanish Gypsies, ironically, the very Gypsy people with the most to offer culturally. Most books on Gypsies are academic, like David Crowe’s “A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia,” or Bertha Quintana’s “Qué Gitano,” the only book on the Gypsies of the Sacromonte that I have ever been able to find in English.
Flamenco music, the characteristic art of Southern Spain’s Gitanos, has become increasingly popular through the movies of Carlos Saura, including “Carmen” and “El Amor Brujo,” the records of Ketama and other young players, as well as the older generation of Paco de Lucia and El Camarón de la Isla. These windows into an authentic culture have created an unfulfilled 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.
Generally speaking, the reading public craves 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. That same public has been primed by books like “Memoirs of a Geisha” to read history through personal narrative.
I have to confess to a certain “antiquity” of taste in travel books. My models are not the cutesy books about towns full of books and quaint characters who exist well within your comfort zone, nor the travel books popular a few years ago detailing the non-adventures of average people doing nothing special in increasingly-uninteresting places. My models are those books from the golden age of travel books, books like “Reflections on a Marine Venus” and “Bitter Lemons” by Lawrence Durrell, “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron and “The Colossus of Maroussi” by Henry Miller. I think people have become bored with their own comfort zones, with books that attempt to verify the very lives from which they are dreaming of escaping.
The book whose approach and structure may be closest to mine is Gerald Brennan’s 1939 classic, “South From Granada,” about his experience living in one of the “white villages” of the Alpujarras, the snowy foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Another book with a similar feel might be Jan Yoor’s “The Gypsies,” originally published in 1967 and reissued in 1987. “The Gypsies” was a best seller when it was released. Also, it shares the enthusiasm, form and tenor of Norman Lewis’s “The Tomb in Seville,” about which Dorothy Gallagher, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said, “There is a plot of sorts, but it hardly matters. What matters is the journey, and that Lewis saw everything: the landscape, the people, the poverty, the intimations of war to come, the medieval strangeness of Spain to modern European eyes. In a style that only seems artless, he tells an entranced and entrancing story, beautifully observed, of a young writer’s meeting with the people and the country he loved at first sight.”
Maria Rosa Menocal, the Yale Univeristy professor and author of “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” noted that books on Spain are becoming popular. There can be no doubt that this is due to people’s desire to find proof that, unlike today’s world, there once was a time and place where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together not merely without tearing each other’s heads off, but in a kind of creative commerce that simply cannot exist without multiple voices. My book contributes to this discussion, underlines both the challenges and triumphs, the history and legacy of real-life multiculturalism.
My book will also appeal because it presents people with a world of romance and color, but one that both lacks the paternalism of earlier books on the Gypsies and possesses a sense of the immediate, living reality of Gypsy life. In other words, a romance that actually exists. What those readers feared, hoped for, secretly believed—that there was another world outside their increasingly circumscribed lives—is true, real and only a plane-ride away.
“My Life on the Holy Mountain” can be marketed in a number of different categories: memoir, history, history of Spain, history of Granada, history of the Arabs, Gypsy studies and music.
In addition to the accustomed methods of publicizing a book’s release, I bring two other options, not available to most authors. First, as a longtime journalist, I have an extensive list of editors and writers at publications and news organizations ranging from Newsweek to No Depression to Foreign Policy to the BBC. I know how to pitch stories because I know what makes a good story for a writer or editor. When interviewed, as I have been dozens of times, both for print and for broadcast stories, I present an articulate, knowledgeable voice. I speak in such a way as to assist reporters and hosts in creating the most interesting and complete story. I am also comfortable and experienced speaking in public.
I know a number of well-known poets, screenwriters, scholars and novelists I can ask for jacket quotes.I am writing about a person, a people and a subject, all linked indelibly with song, dance and the guitar. Knowing these people personally, I am in a position to extend successful invitations to them to accompany me on readings and media events. A good reader can make a world of difference to the sale of a book, but a good reader performing with a fascinating troop of dedicated, soulful musicians, reading to intoxicating can capture a reader, heart and soul, not just intellectually.
Due to my experience field producing radio stories and my close personal relationships with sound engineers and others in the music industry, a promotional CD could be recorded and distributed featuring readings by the author and music played and sung by the people from the book, recorded in the caves and salas of the Sacromonte itself.
Finally, in conjunction with Famous Radio Reporter™, I am producing a half-hour radio documentary on the Gypsies of the Sacromonte to air late summer or fall. We plan to visit Granada in June to gather tape and do interviews and research. At this time we will also gather the performances to be released on the above-mentioned promotional CD.
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This book will find ready audiences not just in the United States. In addition to English-speaking markets in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, it will be of interest, in translation, to Spanish readers. Speaking Spanish myself, I can readily contribute to that process, as well as to the German. Japanese, Italian and French markets will also be interested.
As the book has a cinematic feel, and features interesting people in an exotic locale, it has the potential for optioning. It would also be worth exploring a documentary television tie-in as well.