Tuesday, April 15, 2014

¿A que está bonita la virgen?

 We’re pressed into the corner of the bright chapel where you can see the virgin’s face. She is crying. All you can see of her is her face and hands, held before her. The rest of her is covered by a huge triangular dress decorated with elaborate gold embroidery. She stands behind tall white candles and above her the ceiling of her float is a deep crimson velvet. The gold hilt of a dagger protrudes from her bosom where her heart has been stabbed. Little stars stick out around her gold crown that seems also to be a halo.

“¿A que está bonita la virgen?” a woman asks her son, holding him up. “Isn’t the virgin pretty?” He is just old enough to say a few words, but he isn’t saying anything now. Nearby a baby girl makes cooing noises as she points to the gold and silver metalwork around the base of the float. It is the evening before the float will be processed out of the tiny chapel that people are lining up to enter. The Virgin will leave her house at 5pm and won’t return home until after 2am.

She’s not the only one. Nine processions will occur on Palm Sunday alone. Crying virgins dressed in gold and silver will grace the streets of the entire city throughout Semana Santa (Holy Week). This one, La Virgen de la Estrella, will make her rounds from Triana across the river all the way to the Cathedral and back. Drummers and trumpet-players whose practices I have been hearing for the past few weeks will accompany her rhythmic march. 

It is the season of First Communions, when little girls dress in bright white premonitions of their wedding gowns and stand by the river at sunset for their photos to be taken. They smile angelically into the distance with their skirts almost touching the ground. The First Communion marks the Age of Reason, at which the child is able to discern right from wrong, and therefore is able both to sin and to be aware of her sins. But in her white dress, the little girl is perfectly clean of all sin and receives the Body and Blood of Christ with a clear conscience. The girl will grow up, her body will change, and it will be impossible for her to remain free of “sin.” But the photograph will remain in the family album, unchanging, a memory of a time when she was still “innocent.”

Why does the sinless, beautiful young virgin hold such power in Catholic cultures, and especially in Andalucía? The Virgen de los Mareantes, a Renaissance painting by Alejo Fernández in the Chapel of the Admiral in the Reales Alcázares of Sevilla, depicts a tall, luminous virgin in a long, gold-embroidered dress with a dark cape billowing out behind her. Her arms are outstretched as she somewhat superciliously looks down upon the much smaller figures of men at her feet. The ocean, filled with ships, is a puddle before her. The men are famous navigators, many of whom gaze up at her as if in total dependence, their hands clasped in prayer. A few women can be seen, too, but only in the very back, looking pious. Ominous storm-clouds and a fiery sky above her hint at the dangers of the sea from which her cape protects these people—if she wishes. It was my cousin who pointed out to me, upon visiting the Alcázares, the immense power of this woman. Is her power inherent in her virginity, or does it stem from the men’s perception of her? Or is it both? Is she powerful because her body, completely clothed, is hers and hers alone?

The statues in the processions are all “virgins.” They are not “Marys.” They have delicate young, anguished faces with graceful features. But their enormous robes with long trains leave the rest to the imagination. These are indeed powerful figures. People stand for hours in the hot Sevilla sun to watch them. Hundreds of Nazarenos—mostly men—march at her feet, sometimes barefoot. And sweating men carry her for hours in the curtained darkness beneath the float.

* * *

It is six-thirty p.m. on Palm Sunday. I have been standing outside so long that the sun has crossed the street and the shade has come to meet me. Young men in suits hug their girlfriends in Sunday dresses from behind as they wait. Little girls in Mary Janes and matching hair ribbons wiggle impatiently. The Cristo de las Penas passed by a long time ago—a float, or paso, bearing an anguished Jesus with his face upturned in the garden before his betrayal and death. “Let this cup pass from me,” he prays, and said chalice lies in a corner. 

Cristo de las Penas
The music is far away and no longer audible and at least a thousand Nazarenos have marched past, wearing purple velvet pointed hoods. I ask the man behind me if the virgin is going to come out last. He tells me she should be coming out in no time at all. A few minutes later, he points out the incense billowing from the entrance of the church. I stand on my toes and try to see better. Through my sunglasses I can see the white candles of the front of the paso already lit. The music starts up again, and here she is, resplendent in the sunlight against the flawless blue sky. The music is bright and triumphant, and the tassels on the trim around the roof of the paso swing from side to side with its marked time as she turns, little by little, to face forward and head off down the street.

Virgen de la Estrella
She doesn’t get too far before a chorus of shhh hushes everyone and I hear a saeta. That is, someone has started singing to the virgin in a highly controlled voice of anguish that matches the statue’s expression. The procession has stopped and everyone listens. It is a single, mature female voice, but it carries far. The praising lament ebbs and flows, getting louder and softer. It has the gypsy sound of minor chords, like the flamenco tunes so present in this neighborhood. The singer is in no hurry. Nazarenos re-light the candles that have already flickered out in the wind while she sings. There is a trancelike, prayerful quality to the song. And when it ends, everyone claps.

* * *

After midnight, many children are still up. The stream of Nazarenos, with their candles as big as staffs lit now, spans many blocks and snakes through the city. Spectators sit on stoops, yawning. One boy holds out a bumpy ball of wax about the size of a soccer ball and a Nazareno lets the wax from his big candle drip onto the ball. The boy turns the ball so it falls evenly.

The Giralda—the tall Islamic tower of the Cathedral—watches the Virgin as she dances steadily, almost imperceptibly, from side to side to turn a particularly tight corner. Her candles are white and bright against the night. There is the special moment when she is in mid-turn and is directly facing you. And then she has already turned further and is almost facing forward to head down the next street. The music hushes and swells. In a hushed moment, a few men in the front lines by the virgin call out to her that she’s damn pretty—just the way they would to a hot woman on the street, only with more intensity.

A couple of girls chuck their flats into their purses and bring out the platform heels. A tired septuagenarian sits down on the bank of the river, frustrated that she lacks the energy to follow the pasos. A couple argues about whether to push through the crowds on the Triana Bridge to see the Christ-in-the-garden paso.

An hour later, the virgin is finally back in her neighborhood. On her way home she takes her time. She stops frequently. Each time she stops and settles gracefully into place as the men who bear her set her down to rest, someone sings her a saeta. 

An impeccably dressed man beside me begins to complain about the saeta that’s being sung. He wants it to stop. “Que ésta es la Estrella, ¡no la Luz!” he says. “This is the Virgen of the Star, not of the Light!” The saeta ends and everyone claps as usual. I clap softly, having heard this man’s complaints. We’re all watching for the virgin to be lifted and to move again, when suddenly another saeta begins, this time right beside me.

The well-dressed man is singing. I can hear the words clearly this time because I am so close. (From far away, the saetas mostly just sound like floating notes to me. Like flamenco songs, they are sung in a strong Andalusian gypsy accent that eats consonants and changes vowels, making the words difficult for an outsider to understand.) The man compares her to a lily and sings, “¿A qué vienes a casa a estas horas?” “Why are you coming home so late?” His voice is impressive. “Hija de Joaquín…” But they cut him off. The virgin is up again, with a brusque bounce of the float that sends everything swinging but destabilizes nothing, and the band has started up again.

“Thank you for the saeta,” I tell the man as the virgin moves forward again. “I liked it.”

“They didn’t let me,” he says, but he is smiling. He got to sing to his virgin.

At the entrance to her house, the virgin backs up to the door slowly, slowly, like a child who doesn’t want the party to end. “But I’m not tired!” she seems to be saying, with her tiny steps as she sways gently from side to side. And when the music swells, she comes back out again, and everybody claps. We’re all like children who don’t want the party to stop.

This happens once more, and on the third swell of the music, she actually goes in. She’s safely home now in the house of her Father, and her foray into the wild world is all over until next year—when she will still be just as young and beautiful. The last of the candles disappears behind the doorway, and the people clap. It’s time for everyone to go home—at 3:20am.

¿A que está bonita la virgen? Isn’t she pretty?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Paco de Andalucía

On the first day of guitar class junior year of high school, Mr. Anastasio asked us all to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to learn to play the guitar. The class was full of eager boys with dreams of making girls fall in love with them by screaming onstage with electric blue guitars. The boy I had had a serious crush on in middle school was in this class and fell into this category. When it was my turn, I announced as I cradled my mother's beautiful inlaid Spanish guitar that I was learning guitar because I wanted to play flamenco. Mr. Anastasio raised his eyebrows and told me that flamenco was absolutely the hardest style I could learn to play.

That was the beginning of my education on flamenco. I had thought that flamenco was the soundtrack to the Zorro movies. From Mr. Anastasio I learned what real flamenco was: the sounds of Paco de Lucía, often considered the best flamenco guitarist.

Paco de Lucía’s death on Wednesday has significance for anyone who has been touched by flamenco and flamenco fusions. For me, it meant the death of the first and perhaps most important flamenco name I knew. The allure of flamenco tremolos and swirling red skirts is a large part of why I am currently living in Sevilla—and more specifically, Triana, the birthplace of many flamenco songs. Flamenco today is what it is largely because of Paco de Lucía’s revolutionary musical creativity that blended flamenco with other styles without leaving behind the flamenco essence. His death has brought into sharp focus the fact that the twenty-first century experience of flamenco, which to me often feels so electrically intimate, has been marked by the genius of an artist whose legacy overruns borders from Algeciras to New York.

Yesterday in Alcalá de Guadaira as I approached the city’s castle with its Islamic foundations that date from the twelfth century if not earlier, I heard the unmistakable sound of a cajón and palmas marking rhythms. It was the Day of Andalucía and the town, not far from Sevilla, was sparsely dotted with clusters of families enjoying meals in the sun and high school students getting up to no good on their day off from school. A group of adults, teenagers, and children were eating, drinking, and making music beside the castle. Paco de Lucía’s influence was present in this ancient space just above the uber-modern dragon-shaped bridge in the valley: his musical group introduced the cajón, a square Peruvian instrument, to the flamenco scene in the 1980s (NYT). Here, on this sunny day in Andalucía, it was being used to accompany the handclaps and folk singing. The music was perhaps not precisely flamenco in the purest sense, but the rhythms and minor sequences, sung in voices that always sounded a little bit pained, channeled the same deep Andalusian heritage. With the cajón and the dragon and the castle the scene was Andalucía globalized—but Andalucía nonetheless.

Music by the castle walls in Alcalá de Guadaira
Andalucía is not a land of purity. Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions and structures combine. Flamenco combines with rumbas and tangos, and flamenco itself combines many elements of the diverse gypsy-Moorish-Andalusian experience. One form of expression that typifies this tendency to combine cultures and art forms is the song and dance called Sevillanas. Although dancers wear flamenco outfits and shoes, and the dance itself is complete with flourishes of the arms that very closely resemble flamenco movements, it is not technically flamenco. It has four set parts that are always danced the same way, so that in parties and social gatherings people can dance it in partners. It is a folk tradition of Sevilla that has incorporated many flamenco elements, and it is largely the dance of choice at Sevilla’s annual Feria, a big to-do in a huge field with dancing and celebrations that falls in May this year.

I got to practice the sevillanas I have been learning at a bar with flamenco on Thursday night. So far I have only learned the first part; I look forward to dancing all four parts in full regalia for Feria. After the sevillanas and a few rumbas, the two guitarists in the bar played Entre dos aguas in homage to Paco de Lucía. 

Flamenco and fusion will go on. In the Plaza del Altozano and the Plaza de Santa Ana in Triana, women and men will keep singing and dancing and playing guitar and clapping their hands. But what will it take for someone to reach the level of technical mastery and inventiveness of Paco de Lucía? I trust the land of Andalucía and its capacity to meld art forms into something new and at the same time very, very old. It is a land of venerated old poets and energetic young ones. Perhaps today there is a little girl near the Guadalquivir somewhere, learning her very first guitar chords, who is as familiar with the wooden curves of the instrument as she is with the sleek silver silhouette of an iPhone—and perhaps she will revolutionize this world of globalized flamenco.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The River

Right behind my backyard is the playground of what used to be my elementary school, and just beyond that is the creek. Of course we were never allowed near it during recess. But after school or on weekends I would sometimes go there with my neighborhood friend and we would try to make it across on the natural stepping-stones without getting wet, all while incorporating everything we did into the larger story of our Let’s Pretend game. The grown-ups could cross the creek on a small green wooden-plank bridge that led to the other neighborhood. Technically I think we are supposed to be all the same neighborhood, but the creek decidedly divides us.

When I went away to Harvard, I lived on the other side of the Charles. Cambridge faces Boston but is removed from it. From the eighth floor of Leverett F-tower in the evening you can watch myriad pairs of headlights move along the highways and crisscross the city that is lit up in all its urban beauty. You can watch Boston live, but you don’t live there. If you are munching on goodies at the Resident Dean’s study break on the eighth floor of F-tower, you live in Cambridge. More specifically, you live in Harvard Square. Normally, you think, Why go into Boston, when on this side of the river I can eat sinful chocolate-raspberry cake at Finale and slurp raw oysters at First Printer? When Zachary Quinto is acting in The Glass Menagerie at the American Repertory Theater and Salman Rushdie is signing books at the First Parish Church? And then you go into Boston and you think, Why don’t I come here more often and sit and read in Boston Common? Or eat sesame chicken in Chinatown or lobster ravioli in the North End?

The Charles

Even when I studied abroad in Granada, I lived on the other side of the river. The Genil is a sad, mostly dry little rivulet that divides the main part of the city from a suburban area. But I still sat by it many a time and thought about Carlos Fuentes and life and boys as I looked into its glassy surface. The outer area of the city beyond it wasn’t particularly pretty—although you could still glimpse some of the little white houses up on the mountain with their orange lanterns—but there was more space here. The host family I lived with had a garden with a dog and a pool. It was a thirty-minute walk to the center of town, but it felt worth it to live in this house with this family.

Now I am living on the other side of the river again. Just across the Guadalquivir from Sevilla proper is the old, picturesque neighborhood of Triana. My neighborhood.

Technically Triana is part of Sevilla. But as Antonio, a doorman at the office where I write, has told me, “Mira si soy Trianero—que cuando cruzo el puente, me siento extranjero.” (“See if I’m not from Triana—when I cross the bridge, I feel like a foreigner.”) The river seems so benign now, the breeze ruffling its surface so it’s hard to tell which way it’s flowing. But before its tributaries were re-routed, it used to flood Triana every other year with its angry swells. And even today, as it flows ever so calmly, it marks an inescapable divide--it is not innocent.

The esplanade by the Guadalquivir

The divide is more evident than ever on weekends. While on the Triana side old men wear hats and take small steps with their grandchildren as they walk up and down the length of the Calle Betis, across the way on Paseo Colón cars roar by in four lanes and young people drink beer and mixed drinks as dance music blares from the kiosks where they ordered them. While on Calle Betis people dance flamenco without costumes, across the way on the promenade down by the river people go jogging and young couples hug one another to each other with their legs dangling over the water. 

The crowded esplanade today

Perhaps I am drawn to the “other side” of the river out of familiarity. Perhaps I like it because there are always gems on the other side that you can’t find in the main part of a city, and not so many people fighting over them. Perhaps I like it just because then I get to look out over the wide river at the loud streets, the touristic landmarks, and the people—but I don’t always have to be there. The river gives me breathing space, and inspiration, and calm. And when I cross it—in either direction—I cross into another world.

Flamenco on the steps to Calle Betis, with Sevilla proper in the background across the way