El Suavecito

E. Eastman

“About those lessons,” I had persisted in the middle of sixth grade.

“No,” he said. “We can’t afford to indulge your oneiric—dreamy—interests—don’t bother looking it up. There are five of us dining from the same trough, so to speak.”

“But Ellery,” my mother said, “we could economize; a bullfight, a night out.”

I offered a bake sale.

“A bake sale?” he said, flabbergasted.

*     *     *

The imprecise history of the gypsy of the Iberian Peninsula lies in the invasions of Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians who bequeathed to flamenco its postures, bronze castanets and rhythmic clapping, adopted by the descendants of the Indian Punjabi tribe, the untouchables—animal trainers and traders, acrobats, dancers, musicians, palmists and metalworkers—who in 800 AD migrated across continents to the ports of Africa, sailed to El-Andaluz, the land of vandals, and assimilated into the outpost of the Islamic Empire that became the cultural center of the western world. Writings of this period tell of singers that under the influence of tarab—the Arab equivalent of flamenco’s duende, a state of ecstasy brought on by the singing—affected listeners so profoundly that they ripped off their clothing, broke jars on their heads, then fell to the ground, spinning.

In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella captured the last Muslim stronghold of Granada, and seven years later, under the influence of the Catholic Church, they breached the treaty that had granted religious tolerance to Muslims, Jews, and gypsies. With the Inquisition’s required baptisms came uprisings, leading to either African deportation or a brutal and systematic elimination. Some of the gypsies and Christian dissidents who could not tolerate the Inquisition, escaped to the mountain caves above the city, where the disparate cultures found themselves united against a common enemy.

In this forced exile, flamenco thrived and with the Leniency Edict of 1782, Charles III restored some freedoms to the gypsies who had been herded into gitanerias—ghettoes—where family groups had safeguarded the purity of the art.

Flamenco, possibly named for the Flemish soldiers of the Spanish-Belgian Territories known for their confidence, style and ostentatious pride, qualities reflected in the character of the gypsy, became a national art form.

But within the family circles of the gypsies, a more private kind of music existed, songs whose verses possessed an almost sacred quality, expressing the pain of prison, of hunger, of a love worth dying for; songs sung a lo gitano, in the gypsy manner, con aficion, with love, with a raw fierceness that turns emotion inside out, making it visible and palpable, sung with startling and surprising moves—an intensity of expression, a pause, a breath, a sob—that deepen the singer’s vocal prowess and virtuosity, shatters the audience and transforms the performance into a cathartic event. It is in the jaleo, the call and response, where, singing from pure spirit, from duende, the artist draws inspiration, improvising lyrics on the broad canvas of Andalusian life.

*     *     *

I advanced a relentless campaign for the lessons, but only when my mother vowed to donate her bowling league money to the cause did Mr. Paterfamilias relent.

“Enough,” he said. “But no fussy outfits.”

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