Jerez, the Heartbeat of Flamenco
Jerez is fondly known as the home of flamenco – Jerez-based flamenco guitarist Sebastian Lapostol calls it “the true heartbeat of flamenco” – and while some aficionados say that flamenco here lacks the sophistication of flamenco in Seville or Madrid, it is exactly this, Jerez’s festive and fun form of flamenco called la buleria that makes it so special.
If we wanted to feel the pulse of the town, and attempt to get beneath the skin of Jerez, we had to experience its flamenco. That was our excuse for timing our stay to coincide with the XIV Festival of Jerez, the city’s fantastic flamenco festival, and for spending two weeks taking in vibrant flamenco performances at theatres, peñas, and bars around Jerez.
We’re by no means flamenco aficionados – although we learned a lot about flamenco over the last two weeks – but we are fans. When we lived in Sydney years ago we’d often finish a night of tapas bar hopping on Liverpool Street watching flamenco at the Spanish Club with Sydney’s Spanish-speaking community, so we came to Jerez knowing a little about flamenco dance (baile), song (cante), guitar playing (toque), and hand clapping (palmas) and how they magically work together to produce one of Spain’s most passionate and dramatic art forms.
What we didn’t understand until now was that for many Spaniards, and for the people of Jerez in particular, flamenco is a way of life. During the festival, the Jerezanos, as well as visitors to the town, live, eat and breathe flamenco 24 hours a day. And when they’re not out seeing it, they’re at home watching it on TV!
There are casual performances in the early evenings at cafés and bars like La Medina, upstairs at the Zoco de Artesania, and the hip Damajuana on calle Francos, which fills with a mixed crowd of young locals, families and groups of friends (although weekend nights are another thing when the vibe is muy international). At Damajuana, we saw ‘Habivi, Flamenco Arabe’, a raw, fiery flamenco with an Arab flavour performed by some of the happiest flamenco performers we were to see all week.
Professional shows by Spain’s flamenco greats and finest companies, from Lola Greco to Compañia Joaquin Grilo, take place at Teatro Villamarta and a handful of other venues throughout the evening as part of the official festival programme. We saw Jerez’s own Compañia Maria Del Mar Moreno perform a slick, polished show, although we were more impressed by the flaming flamenco of Rafaela Carrasco and her company whose innovative and often androgynous show just sizzled, and earned the group a fifteen minute standing ovation.
Around midnight, aficionados fill the free, atmospheric peñas, or flamenco clubs, in the old gypsy neighbourhoods of Santiago and San Miguel (close to where we stayed), for more intense and powerful performances. Sebastian Lapostol has an excellent detailed overview of the peña scene, which is as friendly and unpretentious as he describes, on his website. (There’s loads more info on flamenco, peñas and performers on Flamenco World and the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco site too.)
One of our most interesting experiences began around 1.30am one morning at Peña Sordera, on calle Carpinteros in the barrio Santiago. The only two foreigners among a small hard-core gypsy crowd in the tiny, smoke-filled peña, we watched a heady performance of folk-style flamenco by a bohemian Jose Soto ‘Sorderita’ (who looked handsome in a cravat and artist’s smock), the son of the late great Manuel Soto Sordera, who took over the bar after the death of his father.
Our favourite experience was an especially passionate performance at Peña Flamenca La Buleria on our last night in Jerez, which coincided with the closing night of the festival. An emotional crowd of weary aficionados with bloodshot eyes were knocked over by a vibrant performance by a group that surprisingly still had loads of energy after what must have been an exhausting two weeks.
After the peñas those with stamina will often kick on to a flamenco bar in Jerez, such as Bar Colmao on calle Arcos, where, if they’re lucky, a spontaneous flamenco performance might take place. However, I don’t think too many people were kicking on that night. Like us, most people staggered home, a little delirious, along Jerez’s dimly-lit cobblestone streets, the sound of hands clapping still pleasantly pounding in their heads.
Make sure you click on the photos above for a sampling of the best of Jerez’s flamenco from our tastings over the last two weeks.