The bar is easily missed, a hole in the wall on one of the side streets in the Old Town of Sevilla, near Plaza Santa Cruz. But for a flier on the door, La Carbonerìa does not announce its existence, or that a show is on tonight. No more ostentatious is the outer room, where a doorman nods hello and old men play Othello, except on a board much larger than what you are used to seeing.
But the din of the crowd reaches that outer room, and when you enter the bar at five minutes to 11, it is full. A wide room with rows of tables, as well as an upper tier of nosebleed seats (though of course, the show is free for everyone), and bars on either end. The bar in the back serves food. The one in the front is reserved for drinks.
The bar is full with a clientele of three types. There are tourists, many of them middle-aged or older and from the U.S., or France, or other parts of Spain, for you hear all three tongues and others from their lips. Also among the tourists are the younger sorts, the backpackers and college students studying abroad, who have come in groups with their hostels or Let’s Go Europe! guidebooks. These tourists have affection for the second group: high school students, throngs of European high schoolers who go on field trips to all parts of Europe. They are supervised much of the time, but in this setting free to flirt and smoke and, for the older-looking ones among them, order alcohol.
Then there are the locals, who treat La Carbonerìa like any other dive. They tell stories by the bar for a laugh, and try to impress their lady friends, unconcerned with the anticipation that hangs over the room. Indeed, the level of excitement for the show decreases gradually from tourists to high school students to the locals.
By the bar there is a dressing room where the players wait backstage. The door is open at first, and the frills of the dancer’s traditional Sevillan dress can be seen. But as showtime nears, the door closes. Still, a steady clapping beat sounds inside the room, a final rehearsal of rhythms before the show.
As you wait outside with a sense of curiosity, or even anxiety, the time passes to 11:15, then 11:20. People continue filtering into the bar, finding seats with their friends who got their earlier, or else squeezing into open standing spaces from where they can see the stage. Along with the anticipation, the smog of everyone’s cigarettes thickens the air, so that each deep breath you take only quickens death’s onset. You breathe deeply and continue to wait.
At last the dressing room door reopens, and the group emerges. Two men and the woman dancer walk to the stage. She kisses a man at the table in between the dressing room and the stage, a table reserved for friends of the band. A 3rd man joins them on stage, getting up from that table and taking a seat on the far right of the stage. The dancer sits next to him, and then the singer and the guitarist.
The singer begins to speak as the crowd goes silent. It is clear he is the group’s leader, at least in spirit. He requests the crowd to be quiet during the show, to take all the pictures they want but no videos, and to not smoke during the songs, a request surely in vain. His introduction finished, he turns to the guitarist, who begins to pluck out a melody, while waiting for his three compatriots to clap the rhythm.
An intricate rhythm that contains a multitude of clapped beats begins, and over it the guitar floats and at the same time supports. The foundation is set. Now the tower of music can be built. The singer emits a wail, a long “A-hi” that rises and then falls, as he calls on the spirits, wordlessly. Then he sings words, in the same strong yet trembling voice, as if by the very words he sings he’s ripping himself asunder.
As the song develops over the initial strands, the three men fall into their different roles. The clapper, well dressed with his hair in a ponytail, solemnly keeps his time, showing neither pain nor joy, only smiling when he catches the eye of one of his colleagues, or of his friends at the table to his right. He is focused on the task at hand, and may as well be clapping in the middle of a desert, for all the attention he affords his surroundings.
In contrast, the guitarist is enjoying himself, a smile perpetually on his lips, his eyes always dancing. As he plays he cannot help but move, his head bobbing forwards and backs, his eyes bugging out as he looks at the singer next to him. He thrusts the guitar out at the crowd on key notes, teasing them with his music, as it seems he teases them when he hisses for silence, mocking the manner of the incessant worrywarts in the crowd. He is all tics and movement, his body as much in motion as his fingers as he goes from picking to strumming to both at the same time.
To his right the singer sits, and as he evokes the ghosts of past flamenco heroes, he serves as the emotional center for the men. His face is as pained as his voice, and as he sings the absurdly passionate romances that make up flamenco, he expresses that this is no pose, that this is art as life as art. He is the sign of devotion to flamenco as ART in the band, the adherent to the tradition.
All three are necessary, for flamenco’s essence is borne out by their collective roles. Flamenco descends from gypsy music. The Roma people brought it to Spain. But Spain added two key pieces to the formula. Flamenco is gypsy music plus humor and rhythm.
Well, there’s a third major piece as well, and that’s dance. And so when at last the dancer steps out of her chair and to the front of the stage, she embodies the essence of flamenco. She represents each of the men behind her, with a stern devotion to the act and a business-like attitude, but also a sense of the joy and passion behind the performance. She smiles at her friends, and she smiles at the feeling she gets from the performance, the memories it brings back.
The dancer is in at least her late 40s, and only looks that young because her long, curly hair remains boldly black. A cruel observer might say she looks a little like a female Mick Jagger, current edition, but that cruel observer would suffer from time just as much as she.
Once, she must have been a star, a high-profile dancer. Her grace and ability speak to this, if nothing else. Now, she performs at a small bar buried in the old town of Sevilla with three men, boys, who cannot be closer than 20 years to her age. She has to deal with a crowd of tourists and strangers who don’t understand when to clap and when to stay silent, the cadences deceiving them at every turn. She wears each disappointment on her face.
But, like the rest of the band, she performs with passion and rises above the inadequate aspects of their setting. To the unknowing eye her dancing is flawless, from the steps to the sashays of her skirt to the passion in her face. She dances and reminds us that before we dreamed of fame, of performing in front of the masses and earning their attention and applause, we danced in our room, alone, to the music in our head.
The dance goes about 10-15 minutes, and then she returns to her seat. Again, there is undesired clapping from the audience, and the singer calls for silence. There impatience in his voice, but eventually everyone, talkers and hissers alike, quiet down. They play a song that features the guitar, with hard chords and several near endings. The dancer sings quietly in harmony with the singer, so that you can see her lips moving but not make out the words.
Then it ends. The band goes to the front of the stage together, takes a bow, and exits stage right, back to their friends. No formal announcement came on whether the show would resume or not, but they have only played for 30 minutes, so it’s safe to expect more. Many in the crowd exit, and many others settle into the newly vacant seats. The night approaches midnight, still an infant in Spanish terms.
As the crowd waits and talks and smokes again, the band does the same. The guitarist sets up a “No Pasar” sign by the door leading to the courtyard, then goes out to smoke a cigarette and nurse a beer. The singer also imbibes, mingling a little bit with his friends but also soaking in the sweat and the alcohol. He lost a lot of weight on the stage, and needs to replenish. The dancer talks with a man by the bar, and the clapper again blends in with the crowd to join the hometown table.
Offstage, the respective images of the performers change. The guitarist looks small, slim, and perhaps petulant, rather than merry and brilliant. The singer smiles as he talks, the pain washed away. The clapper is just as much a part of the background as on stage, but he too is no longer solemn and committed to the beat. Only the dancer's on-stage mystique remains. She is tall, and as the only one dressed in Sevillan fashion, she looks just as she should, like she just stepped off the flamenco stage, and like she might step right back on.
The room stays full through the long wait, even if of a different populace. Their certainty that the show will go on is affirmed, as the band at last steps back on stage. Either the crowd is less aware of the issue or the novelty and respect has worn off, because it takes much longer for silence to be achieved. Once the singer is satisfied with the attention level, he turns to the guitarist, and they pick up right where they left off.
The second act largely mirrors the first in structure. The first song involves no dancing, with a focus on the singer. For a twist, the band asks a friend of theirs, Elena, to join the main dancer for a duet on the next song, the dance. The song is a romantic, finger-pointing song about what two characters have done right or wrong. For each verse, the dancers face off, then dance past each other, touching each other’s arms stretched above their heads as they pass by, before ending up on the opposite side. They then cycle back through in the same fashion to get back to where they started.
Elena is much younger, and also prettier than her counterpart. She is dressed in a modern outfit, jeans and a see-through white shirt over a tank top. But Elena is not just looks; she holds her own as a dancer. The dancer in the band is graceful though, and smiles more during this dance than she does the rest of the evening. She plays off her new partner’s energy, and they both come off looking better for it.
The duet ends and Elena returns to her seat, the dancer to hers. The band goes through a quick number, and then the singer announces that this will be the last song, and that someone will be playing flamenco in the outer room afterwards. You brace for another guitar-focused song like the first set, or maybe a romantic finish. It begins that way, and the end is near.
Then in a huff the dancer storms out of her seat. She moves to the front of the stage and starts a new dance to the song, a ferocious dance where she does not step as much as stomp through her paces, yet she maintains her technique and lightness of foot nevertheless. No more smiles are allowed on her face, and she is at her most passionate as she twirls from one side of the stage to another, all in time.
Her path takes her to the back part of the stage, near the seats. She storms back into her seat, the song ends, and the applause begins. The group gets up this time and in concert takes a bow to the audience before exiting. “Olès” and whistles are heard amongst the clapping. The band returns to their corner of the room, and the crowd ceases cheering and turns for the exits.In the outer room, a man in the corner warms up on his guitar, ready to catch the masses as they leave. At the tables, the old men still sit, playing their Othello.