Thursday, October 3, 2013

Flamenco Lessons

The magic of flamenco. I have to say: I'm pretty proud of this photo

On a cold, grey day last March, I arrived early to the nondescript door, and it was still locked. That meant I had the time to sit on the stoop and look around. The neighborhood was modern, bordering on industrial, marked by a vivid mural of a lighthouse. Finally, about fifteen minutes later, I was greeted by a grizzled man in a button down shirt with the top three buttons open, slicked back hair, and wrap-around sun glasses: my teacher. I had signed up to learn to sing flamenco, that intense Spanish musical tradition whose intricate rhythms and sinuous melodies are a world apart. Ever since my arrival in Spain, I'd sought out flamenco concerts any chance I could. Now, a flamenco school was opening in town, as the municipal government sought to keep alive a rich tradition fed by the terrible mining life many Linarenses led during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The man was Jose, or in public Joselete, a nationally renowned Gitano (gypsy) singer whose fame had earned him the right to one name. Over the next four months he would guide, coax, and laugh me through my love affair with flamenco. We'd spend many hours inside the Peña Plomo y Plata, a music-lovers' social club whose canary-colored walls were stenciled with green snaking vines and red guitars. But that was all in the future; for now, we were still strangers.

We sat, introduced ourselves -- I had one other classmate, and the school's director was also in attendance-- and began with a simple lesson. Jose sang the first line of a fandango, and I was expected to repeat it. As if in a nightmare, I opened my mouth but couldn't make a sound.The silence seemed to expand as they watched me and waited. The florescent lights flickered, almost in slow motion; the table was sticky with beer. After what seemed like hours, I managed a squeak, then a croak, then a rough melodic line; and finally something acceptably similar to the line Jose had sung.

My first fandango wasn't easy, of course, or particularly good. I didn't understand the lyrics until they were dictated to me, and not having grown up steeped in the culture and tradition put me at a distinct disadvantage in following the complex rhythms and unpredictable key changes. I spent that class, and the ones in the weeks that followed it, feeling overwhelmed and outmatched. I'd always loved flamenco, this I knew. But I worried perhaps I'd been overly ambitious in beginning my studies. Maybe this was a terrible mistake.

However, later that evening, at home reflecting on my first lesson, I realized something important: as adults, we rarely force ourselves out of our comfort zones. After the rigors of high school physics or geometry (well, in my case), we are no longer required to do things we aren't already good at. In fact, adult life encourages the creation of a niche; each individual doing what he or she does best, finding his or her 'calling'. That, as they say, is what makes the world go 'round-- and that is also what made singing in front of other people such a challenge for me. I'd always enjoyed singing in the shower, was in chorus for a year in middle school, and tried out for a handful of a capella groups in college. But this was entirely new territory: new language, new skill, new world. I had no training or applicable knowledge. I felt entirely out of my depth, and it made my vocal cords freeze.

A concert at the Peña Carmen Linares, fall 2012

When I managed to get over my fear and insecurity, however, the following months were rich, fascinating, and deeply fun. I have a good auditory memory, which helped me in developing my own learning system -- writing down lyrics overlaid with squiggles that attempted to approximate the loops and dips Jose's supple voice executed with such ease. Little by little, I stopped worrying about what would come out when I started singing, whether throaty, creaky, or off key. I barely even minded when Jose giggled at my accent, especially once I noticed that it usually happened because I had faltered, uncertain of the next run, giving him tacit permission with a nervous laugh of my own. Doing something I knew nothing about and wasn't yet good at was actually wonderful. It was freeing. And it was all the more rewarding when, little by little, I improved. I left my comfort zone and then reconstructed that comfort zone around me.

This blog was silent for some months over the summer, and here I'll explain why. For reasons that are boring and long, my application to renew for a third-year in the Spanish Ministry of Education Language Assistant program was denied on a technicality. With some scrambling, I was able to come up with a few stop-gap measures to keep myself in Spain the following --that is, this--year. One, in the north, would not provide me with health insurance. Another, in Linares, would require lengthy and complicated visa procedures and a pay cut. The last was in a completely different, unknown-to-me part of the country and in a much more serious program.

None of the options seemed ideal. At that point I had settled comfortably into Linares. The flamenco community had embraced me in a flurry of cramped, intimate concerts; sweaty, half-drunk dinners; and one 17-hour countryside music-and-food adventure that merits its own recounting. I was happily ensconced in my own apartment with a few good friends and a lot of favorite tapas bars. The idea of leaving was difficult, but the pay cut and visa complexities made it impossible to avoid. Finally, I made the more difficult, practical decision.

A flamenco concert in a cave in Almeria, southern Andalucia

... All of which is a complicated, long-winded way of saying that I find myself now in Talavera de la Reina, Castilla La Mancha, a Roman-founded city of 90,000 an hour and a half southwest of Madrid, in the same county as the more famous Toledo. I am in still a language assistant, but this year I am an employee of UCETAM, a group of American universities developing bilingual programs here in Spain. This means more hours and more money per month, but it also means being the only language assistant in the city: the Ministry's program was cut here two years ago due to continuing economic issues, and UCETAM is a Madrid-based program that is just beginning to expand outside the capital.  There is no established curriculum, dynamic, or social system, no pool of other foreigners for me to turn to for easy friendships. Luckily, I've stumbled upon a friendly, funny roommate to keep me company. Luckily, I've found a few couchsurfers with friendship potential. Luckily, my coworkers are by and large easygoing, helpful, and kind. Still, though, I know by now that the first months in a new city are not easy under any circumstances; and these in particular seem like breeding grounds for loneliness and discouragement.

This summer, I spent 10 weeks in Boston working at an English school and remembering everything I love about my city-- the diners, the live music, the intellectual atmosphere, the diners, the old friends and shared history, and the diners. I was fresh from my late-spring Linares tapas/flamenco adventure filled with warm nights and good people, and as I started packing and mentally readying myself, I couldn't quite believe I'd chosen the hard choice AGAIN... another new city AGAIN, another new school AGAIN, another new life AGAIN. I was mad at myself, freaked out, scared, but I took a deep breath and left anyway.

In these first few weeks, the beats, lyrics, and melodies of some bulerias and tangillos I learned from Jose have occasionally come to me unbidden, in my apartment or the hallway of my new school, and I think I know why. If being brave is feeling afraid or uncomfortable and doing something anyway, then singing taught me an important lesson in bravery. Learning flamenco meant learning to push through and continue to do things I'm not good at yet, instead building that confidence little by little where I am. At the beginning of my time in Talavera, it's important to remember that I already learned this skill. Flamenco taught me how to do this: to step out of my comfort zones-- in this case literally, physically--and build something new.

Joselete in concert at Los Patios in Cordoba

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