Monday, February 13, 2012

The (Not-so) Typical Spanish Experience

        I’ve been very fortunate since my arrival to have been given the opportunity to experience things that I can’t imagine a lot of spanish people get to experience, let alone an exchange student from the US. From authentic japanese food cooked by my room-mate Azusa, going to a flamenco fashion exposition and runway show, listening to my host-father play flamenco guitar, and my favorite experience yet, going to a country-swing/bluegrass night at a very authentic spanish bar.
        As I’ve mentioned before in one of my blogs, we had a room mate from Tokyo, Japan for a 2-week period while she went to an intensive spanish school. Azusa has since left to do more traveling before returning back home, but before she left she fixed an authentic japanese dinner for us. I don’t remember the name of the dish, but it involved chicken and a sauce made out of soy sauce, sake, onion, and it was pretty good! The best part of that experience was watching my host mother, Gumersinda, and Azusa work together in the kitchen to make the meal. Despite some slight language barriers they cooked and laughed and in the end made a delicious meal that Jenna, Azusa, Gumer, and I all sat down to enjoy together. Picture this: two americans, a japanese exchange student, and an Andalusian host-mother gathered around the table sharing a meal of authentic japanese food in Spain.
        The next evening I was sitting at my desk in my room when Gumer came around the corner with a big smile on her face, which with her is always a sign that something great is about to happen. She went on to explain that her daughter, María Dolores (Lolo), had given her some extra passes to get into the SIMOF (Salon Internacional de la Moda Flamenca {translation: International Flamenco Fashion Fair}), where her designs were being put on display, and she wanted to know if I wanted to go. Unfortunately I was busy so I said no. Of course I’m only joking! I would have to be crazy to pass that kind of offer up, so I quickly got dressed, and Azusa, Gumer, and I headed out to the street where Paco was waiting in the car. 
        The car ride, always nerve racking experience in Spain, was an especially white-knuckle ride with half-deaf Paco behind the wheel. He and Gumer shouted back and forth debating the best way to get there, eventually we had to stop and ask directions. We ultimately made it to the fair, it was held at a giant open arena much like the exposition areas at the Greensboro Coliseum (local reference for my NC readers). There were dozens of booths featuring all of different fashions typical of flamenco world: shoes, hair combs, fans, jewelry, shawls, and, of course lots of dresses.
Lolo with the owners of the shoe company
that chose her designs, she made that shoe!
Mercedes (the host sister that lives with us), her boyfriend Alejandro, and a few of their cousins were there with Lolo, who was all smiles. The fact that she had made it to this showcase is a very big deal, she was very excited and you could tell how proud everyone was of her. 
         She didn’t have enough tickets to get Azusa and I into the runway show so we wandered around the different booths while everyone went in to watch the catwalk. 
This was my favorite dress booth in the exhibition center.
I had circled the booths a few times when out popped Gumer from behind the door, again with a big grin on her face. She preceded to sneak me in for the tail in of the show. We walked right through the VIP entrance and I got to watch the final presentation of the dresses on stage. 
Cousins, Mercedez (brown jacket), Alejandro, Lolo, and her boyfriend
        I now understand the draw of such shows; I was surrounded by glamorous people (some of which are famous here in Spain, but none of which I knew), I was seeing the latest fashions before anyone else, and upon leaving the show we were given free stuff (eye-liner and nail polish). Six months ago if you would have told me that I would be going to a runway show at any point in my life I would have chuckled, let’s just say they aren’t really my kind of thing. Not only did I go to one, I went to a flamenco runway show, was snuck in by my adorable host mother, and actually enjoyed it! The flash-bulbs of cameras, the live music, the fabulous dresses, and serious models marked another surreal experience for me, again it was like something out of a movie (well okay, maybe Project Runway). 

        Everyday we eat our meals in the living/dining room, and everyday I notice a guitar case peeking out from behind the door. Gumer had mentioned that Paco used to play flamenco guitar, and since losing his hearing he hadn’t played much in 10 years, but she said that if I asked he might just play for me. Yesterday my curiosity finally got the best of me and so after he served us lunch I asked if I could see his guitar. His son had mentioned that it was a very special and expensive guitar, and I used that as an excuse to see if he would show it to me. He shuffled into the living room, pulled the it from the corner it sat in, and placed it on the table. He opened the worn case to reveal the very beautiful instrument inside it. 
        He explained that the guitar had been given to him many years ago. It had been passed around between many musicians throughout the years and, while a little dinged up from use, it had history and a great sound. Being a musician and losing your hearing must be devastatingly frustrating but despite that, and despite not having his nails grown to the proper length, I sat down across from Paco and he played for me. While the guitar was slightly out of tune, and Paco out of practice, his ability was evident. He told me how he had played in many flamenco bars throughout the years, that the guitar had played music for dancers all over Sevilla. He smiled as he pointed out that the guitar was at least twice as old as I. It was a very special experience for me and I think Paco enjoyed the attention too, he says he’ll try and grow his nails back out and play for me again sometime.

        Before I left North Carolina I had emailed around to see if I could find anyone who played ‘banjo-music’ in Spain, not really expecting to find anything. Sure enough though I was directed to a man named Ramón, a Sevillano and Scruggs-style banjo player. He plays with a group of people under the band name of Blue Mountain for their bluegrass band, and the Surrounders for their country-swing band. Ramón told me about their up coming concert and invited me to come check it out. Erin and I met up before and enjoyed a lovely dinner, then we walked to the Albaceria Casa Tono where the show was. The place was packed with locals, I think we were the only Americans there, but the music coming from the bar was most definitely not Spanish. 
        The first sounds that I could hear were the twangy slides of a lap-steel guitar. We made our way through the crowd which revealed a stage of four musicians surrounded by a plethora of instruments: Dobro, acoustic guitar, drum-set, stand-up bass, lap-steel, mandolin, fiddle, and a banjo. We had successfully found, in my opinion, the most unusual musical experience to be had in Spain. Erin and I posted up right next to the stage area, we had a front-row seat to one of the only bluegrass shows to be found in this part of the world. 
        I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire night. They played and sang a variety of country-swing and bluegrass classics. My American-ness was noted by Ramón (the banjo player) when I began to sing along to Man of Constant Sorrow, he turned and gave me a huge smile. In between sets I finally got to talk with him in person. He is most definitely Andalusian because his spanish accent was thick and difficult to understand, especially in the crowded bar but nonetheless, we had a nice conversation.
        His love of bluegrass started when he was 18, someone had given him a cd of the Kentucky Colonels and from that moment there was no turning back-he was hooked. A few years down the road he found a banjo, began learning Scruggs-style, and convinced his friend to learn fiddle. Since then they have played all over Spain, Europe, and have even made a couple of appearances at IBMA in Nashville. Ramón, quite humbly might I add, told me that he’s played on stage next to Sam Bush. His bass player, originally from Sevilla, lived in California for quite a while, has spent time in the Asheville area, and speaks impeccable English. The man on the fiddle, who’s name I have yet to catch, used to play rock and roll, but has taken it upon himself to learn bluegrass-style mandolin, Dobro, steel-guitar, and lead-vocals. 
        Our friend Sabrina arrived just as they were getting back on stage; she had her friend with her too which raised the American count up to 4. When the second set started the crowd was very excited, they were loving the music and quite a few people got up to dance. As Sabrina pointed out, when the band was playing it was like being in the US, it wasn’t until they began speaking in spanish to introduce the next song that we realized that we were actually in a bar 4000 miles from home. Below is some video to serve as proof that this actually happened, something that I still have a hard time believing. (I’m still learning with my new camera so some of the video gets cut off)
        They play once a month in Sevilla and so there are still quite a few of their shows to go to. Ramón has invited me to come play with he and a few other people at a local park once it warms up enough to play outside, I’ll be sure to write about that when it happens. 
Bluegrass in Spain. Who-da thunk it?


  1. Josie,
    I literally almost cried from irony when I saw these videos. Congratulations, you are officially have the best possible experience abroad.
    Also, why the heck weren't you up there flat-footing during Cumberland Gap?
    All the best from Appalachia,

    ~ RBJ