My flamenco education


We got into the car totally numb. “What do you feel?” he asked me. “I don’t know,” I replied. “Confused? Dumbfounded? How about you, are you alright?”

Visiting the grave of Camarón de la Isla, icon of flamenco and — for Vicente as well as for many others — Holy Grail of Spanish Roma identity was meant to be the cornerstone of our trip across Europe, a way to begin with humility. “I can feel it, this is the day,” Vicente said to me as we pulled out of Sevilla in the late morning. He had tried to convince many friends to come with him on this mission, but something had always come up. This, we both thought, was the time.

Imagine, now, our shared disillusionment as I cranked the wheel on our secondhand Chevrolet Alero, rolling out of San Fernando after seeing everything: the statue of Camarón, the streets where Camarón used to walk, the legendary Venta de Vargas where Camarón used to play, even the doctor that treated Camarón’s last sickness. Everything but the grave of Camarón.

After listening to a career-spanning compilation of Camarón songs all the way from Sevilla, we had pulled into his town on the perfect note — listening to La Leyenda del Tiempo, a song from the phase of his career when he started to experimentally mix elements of Rock into Flamenco. “When people first bought this album,” Vicente said, “many, many Roma turned around and brought their copies back to the store. But they finished by loving it. See, Camarón was like a physical manifestation of romanipe. After he did something, all Roma in Spain did the same! Look, when I was a child, Roma in Spain used to have short hair and moustaches. But when Camarón grew his hair long and shaved his moustache, people started to do the same.”

We got to the town on such a high — I felt the thrill of my quickly escalated flamenco education, which only really began this past December, and for Vicente this visit was a lifelong dream. But then the frustration began. I mean, how hard can it really be to find Camarón’s grave in a town that literally dedicated itself to him, we thought. We drove around a little bit after our early afternoon arrival, before acknowledging that despite our above-average spidey senses, we were unlikely to find the grave via telepathy. Putting our pride aside, we asked around, and a few different people weren’t sure, but pointed us instead towards the statue of Camarón in the center of town.

It was past two, which meant no flower shops were open, so we thought, why not see the rest of the legendary sites touched by Camarón de la Isla beforehand? His statue, dedicating the town of San Fernando to “his predilect son Jose Monje Cruz, ‘Camaron de la Isla’” gave us pause to reflect; we walked the streets humming, and then stopped in a grocery store to stave off our mounting hunger before the big moment. Half an hour later, we were downing the last of our salami sandwiches and Vicente was making fun of my vegetable-eating habits as a bearded man headed up the street towards us.

Vicente and I approached him, asking for directions to the cemetery. He said it was close, but asked why we were looking; “for Camarón”, Vicente responded. “So you’re Roma?” the old man replied, as if there was no alternative. “I am; she’s Canadian,” Vicente explained. “Well, the cemetery is closed. I don’t know, maybe… yes, for sure it’s closed,” the man said.

Our hearts dropped. How was this possible? A whole day of preparation, at the mouth of the gate, and still no success? But the man talked on, and something about his whitish beard and confident stance kept our feet in place. Soon, we discovered that he was actually Camarón’s doctor, who treated the legendary man before his death. “He was a good person, but what killed him was his company… he was exploited, and still is today,” he stated vaguely. I only learnt later that he must have been referring to several non-Roma (understood as “gadjos,” or “pallos” in Spain) who owned the rights to his entire work and legacy, while his widowed wife and children live with almost nothing, close to as poor as he had been in his childhood.

He talked respectfully, but as if he held a jewel of knowledge about this man. “Do you know about the funeral of Camarón?” he asked.  “There were 40 thousand people here, mostly Roma, and the Roma were taking his coffin as if he were the king.” But the most interesting moments followed his realization of who each of us were, and what we were doing.

“I’m a pallo,” he said at one point, “but I have seen Roma all my life. But now everything has changed. There is a lot of progress and modernity. Look at yourself. That’s what I’m talking about, that’s modernity! You two, together? That’s modernity.” He pointed from one of us to the other. “But we are friends,” Vicente rebuked him. “Even like this! In old times, to see Roma and non-Roma together was impossible, especially because of us. We always would say to each other, don’t go with a Roma. But you, you don’t look like Roma! You look Latin American…” as Vicente tried to rebut this claim, the man spoke over him, touching his leather jacket — “but really, you have nothing of Roma, you have very little of Roma.”

We soon retreated to the car, the shock of missing Camarón’s grave sweeping us both silent for a few minutes. But once we’d gotten over ourselves and firmed our conviction to return the next morning, Vicente was caught on the doctor’s statement. “He said I don’t look Roma! But really, he used the phrase, you have nothing of Roma. Such an insult!”

“Why do you care how Roma some old gadje thinks you are?” I asked — but even as I said these words, meant to comfort him, I knew that the speaker wasn’t the point. To assault a person’s identity is to strip them, whether from inside or out.

After a bittersweet day, we didn’t get to see Camarón’s grave, but at least we ended it laughing about exemplifying “true modernity.” And now we can say we spoke to the doctor of Camarón.

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