Last night Joel and I were invited to a delicious special gourmet dinner at Taco Abajo in Savannah. The atmosphere was simple but street-art cool, the wine pairing delicious, and the food tasty, surprising, and an absolute indulgence, but I kept getting distracted by the music playing in the background. It was Flamenco, some of it popular and unsophisticated (Gipsy King) and some of it more subtle and less known. The knocking and snapping and clapping kept calling my attention back. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Spain, and a while since I’ve indulged listening to Flamenco and Sevillana.
It brought to mind one night in the nineties, when I was still living in Miami and my sister in law was visiting us from Spain. I brought her down to Espanola Way in South Beach, to a Spanish Festival, where they’d roped off the streets and the area’s restaurants were serving garlic shrimp and paellas in plastic cups. We were both of us a little bit bored, a little bit embarrassed, when we noticed a stage set up and a troupe of Flamenco dancers climbing on, armed with guitars and timbales, rattles, fans, and the usual elaboration of skirts and shawls.
“Cono!” my sister in law gasped. “Joaquin Cortes!”
I wasn’t used to my sister in law making such sudden explicit exclamations, but she proceded to explain that Joaquin was the most popular Flamenco dancer in Madrid at the moment, and that you couldn’t get a ticket to his concert if you put yourself on a year’s long waiting list with recommendations from people in high places. We were getting to watch him perform for free, right there in Miami, only a few feet away from stage. She was thrilled, and I was relieved to have brought her to a venue that she found entertaining, but in the back of my mind I wondered how a Flamenco could possibly be any more impressive danced by a man when so much of the beauty of flamenco seemed to me to depend on the flaring skirts, the shawls, the fans, the accoutrements of the costume and the flirtatious, tantalizing swaying of the dancer’s hips.
Joaquin danced for us. Within minutes of his appearing on stage I was smitten. Not only because, let’s face it, he may still very well be one of the sexiest men to have ever lived, and with his flamenco pants so closely adhering to his thighs, and his high heel boots raising him up to cowboy sexiness, and with his glittery jacket reaching high on his waist, opening to reveal a naked torso, he was hard to resist. Could you look anywhere else but to his sweat-drenched hair, his fable-dark gypsy eyes, his sensuous lips? Yes. You could. You had to look at his feet, at his arms, at his hands twirling and chopping the air and coming to rest, composed as though they’d never moved, only to start swaying gently again like the wings of birds. For a moment he was a pressed, unmoving shadow against the bright lights, and in another he was a storm, his hair flying, droplets of sweat tracing his whipping moves, his kicking feet, his perfect wheeling and twisting of body and arms. Then he was again the embodiment of stillness.
He was sexy. He was passionate. He was vibrations and music and song, one thing and all things — he was the drum beats, the knocks on the guitar, the rumble of his boots, the cart-wheeling arms, the kicking and the stilling and the voice that spiraled and moaned not unlike a chant to Allah, to encourage him, “Ole! Joaquin! Ya se acaba el descanso.”
I had been to many Flamenco and Sevillana “tablao” both in Miami and in Madrid, but I’d never seen anything like him.
Last night, the simple sound of Paco de Lucia‘s thrumming strings brought back the thrill of Joaquin Cortes.
This morning, I wrote this little piece in my journal.
“I can’t begin to imagine you Joaquin with your hard-heeled leather boots, your Flamenco Jacket swinging around your legs, your clapping hands, your naked, twisting torso, your Romani face intense with the ecstasy of dance igniting the night with desire. Why are we so in love with you, gypsies, how do you travel so close to the blood, to the thrumming of earth and the knowing sound of the heels, and the guitar’s raking pulse waking the hungry ghosts of longings that can never be sated. You knock on the shell of a guitar, not a gentle beat, no, but a pound demanding, We are here, we are here. It’s a hard heart-break knock, and even the clapping of your hands isn’t to applaud but to remind us of the crackling fire and of the whipping of trials, the trailing Ala!, and Ole!, reminiscent of the Amen Sister of tent revivals an ongoing come-on in defiance of death. I exist! though it sounds like a moaning, a sharing of crowds it is the howl of the wolf, echoing from hungry mouth to hungry mouth, solitary even with the harmony of echoes, filled with the charge of loneliness, with the awareness of loneliness, and still turning a hard, wind-slapped cheek to God: So what? Strike me down if you can. I’m still here, God. In defiance of You. More beautiful then You. More urgent. More pressing . All God’s holy rituals and sanitized churches, orderly pews and draping, disciplined deacons and bishops can’t even begin to approximate your beauty, Joaquin. I am here, you say. I am here and I am life. How can we not love you?”
After I wrote this I indulged a couple of hours watching whatever videos are available on YouTube, none of them that do justice to that first, fire inducing live performance, or to the talent that lives in this man.
I also couldn’t help digressing to Carmen Amaya, a legend who embodies the spirit of this tradition, which is more than a dance, which is inseparable from the setting of side-street cafes, impulsieve get-together, inseparable from the palmear, from the guitar, from the singing banter between the guitarists and the dancers, or even from the pain of living in poverty and in the turmoil of constant changes.
In the words of guitarist Sabicas about Carmen Amaya:
“He tenido amor y lo he sentido muy profundamente. Yo conoci un artista, Carmen Amaya. Ha sido para mi el genio che ha dado mas grande en el baile. Era una gitana grandera, un embrujo, una sustancia, un sabor, una nobleza, pero esa nobleza de esos gitanos que no necesitan nada mas que el agua que va corriendo por el rio y las estrellas en el cielo. Carmen Amaya…y nos conocimos de cerca, muy cerca…Me enamore de esa personalidad, mas me enamore de ese arte inconfundible, inimitable, y que no volvera mas.”
“I had love, and I have felt it profoundly. I knew an artist, Carmen Amaya. She was, for me, the greatest genius that ever was in dance. She was a gipsy, a drama, a spell, a substance, a flavor, a nobility, but one particular to those gipsies who need nothing more then the water running in a stream and the stars above. Carmen Amaya. We know each other closely, very closely. I fell in love with her personality, but more with that art, unmistakable, inimitable, and one that will never come back as such.”
I don’t know why Spain doesn’t get the recognition it should on its cultural history, still very much alive today in film, arts, and music. I am nostalgic for Spain.