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Flamenco Music in the heart of Andalucía

               Before going to work for Armani in Italy,  I had the good fortune to spend the first half of my Third Year Abroad in the heart of Andalucía, in Córdoba. This is a piece that I submitted to the British Guild of Travel Writers travel writing competition. Although it didn’t win, I still enjoyed recalling the story in minute detail to be able to put it down on paper, and I like having the excuse to write a narrative piece in a different style from my normal posts. I hope it gives you a sense of my amazement with what I had stumbled into by moving to Córdoba – this is just one of the many tales I have to tell from those 6 months, of which I have such fond memories. I suggest you play the video below while you read the story, to give you a flavour of Flamenco music. And if you haven’t seen it, the film ‘Flamenco, Flamenco’ by Carlos Saura is just beautiful. Enjoy!

          The delicious heat continued late into the night, and I found myself heading to the only part of the great old crumbling house where any semblance of a breeze arrived, on the roof terrace overlooking other rooftops in the historic Jewish Quarter. Not far away I had a clear panorama of the illuminated bell tower of the Mezquita. Two stories below me in the tiled courtyard, and on the balcony which surrounded the courtyard one story below me, were groups of people chatting, drinking copas, laughing infectiously, flirting, dancing, smoking. I was a little unsure of how I’d ended up here at this party, having only arrived in Córdoba little more than 4 days beforehand. Laden down with 6-months-worth of belongings stuffed into one suitcase, I had found an adorable flat within earshot of the main square, which came complete with a feisty kitten and three eccentric actors, all four of them born-and-bred Andalucians. Knowing absolutely no one in the city, I had moved from the monotony of a family home in Hampshire to the former capital of the Arabic empire in Spain, a Moorish city in the heart of Andalucía, whose cobbled streets lined with orange trees wound like a maze around centuries-old squares and postcard-perfect crumbling houses adorned with flowerpots.

         I faintly knew only a handful of people at that party, but that didn’t last long as the Spaniards took me under their wing and were intrigued by this new stranger who had arrived. It was here that I met Paco, a córdobes through and through. I had seen him playing the guitar down in the courtyard below. I don’t know quite how I came to be talking to him, but I complimented him on his music and he proudly explained to me in Spanish:

         “My music is my life. You see, I am studying Flamencología, the highest art form there is.”

         “Flamencología?” I asked, rather surprised to find out that one could get a degree in Flamencology, or rather, the art of Flamenco music. He laughed at my ignorance and exclaimed:

         “Of course! You will see. Don’t you worry, I will show you.” I half expected him to whip out the guitar once again, but he didn’t say another word on the topic of Flamenco music and instead told me to meet him the following day in the Plaza de las Tendillas at midday. And then just like that, he called some friends of his over to meet me, and the night continued in a haze of smiling faces, names I had no hope of remembering, endless kisses on cheeks and glass after glass of iced tinto de verano, in an attempt to keep cool.

Paco playing the guitar at Medina Azahara

Paco playing the guitar at Medina Azahara

         True enough, Paco met me in the Plaza de las Tendillas the next day. We drove a little way out of the city to the west, to Medina Azahara, the ruins of a grand Muslim city that was built, and also destroyed, over 1,000 years ago. Weaving through the ornate arches we reached a terrace overlooking the ruins and took a perch in the shade of a cypress tree, in the complete still and quiet of the early afternoon. Paco had brought his guitar with him and began to strum some chords, playing a Flamenco melody that danced across the contours of the ancient city. He provoked in me a whole new appreciation for this music genre that so perfectly belongs to Andalucía, and even defines it. I was utterly mesmerised. What I didn’t know was that this was only the beginning of my “education” of Flamencología.

         Whenever I had seen Flamenco danced beforehand I had always focussed on the ruffles of the dancers’ dresses and their frantic footsteps, and I had failed to get the full picture, never paying enough attention to the musicians. Paco was eager to teach me that the guitarist was only one element of Flamenco music and a few weeks later he invited me, in a similarly mysterious fashion, to a music recital to say farewell to a retiring professor from his university department. This is how I found myself propped up against a wooden pillar in a dimly-lit, husky bar hidden deep within Córdoba’s historic Jewish Quarter, with the taste of an intense Pedro Ximénez wine on my lips, with the vibrations of 30 or so individual feet tapping the floor beneath me. My ears were assaulted in every sense by the palmistas, the 30 or so pairs of clapping hands that punctuated the guitarist’s rhythm, and of course by the profound passion of the singer herself. The students took it in turns to sing and I longed to be able to join them in their wistful songs.

         Paco opened a window for me into the rich cultural identity of these people, who so warmly welcomed me into their lives and into the heart of Andalucía, and through him I discovered an art form that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

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