Saturday, 31 May 2014

Flamenco song on Calle Rosario - the annual Cante competition.

Some of the competitors from the  2013 flamenco cante competition
Rocio Molina, one of last year's finalists
 Vejer’s annual flamenco singing competition takes place on Saturday evenings during the months of June and July at the peña flamenca Aguilar de Vejer on Calle Rosario. The peña is located in the Rosario Baroque church building. Damaged during the Civil War, it was deconsecrated in the 1960s. 

I can still remember the first time I attended the concurso, cautiously following the map from the tourist office and hoping I didn’t take a wrong turning. Despite the building's large capacity, all the seats were taken an hour before the competition began. Nowadays, I ariive an bit early and enjoy a glass of Rioja while the organisers make their final preparations.

It's an international competition - this entrant was French.
‘Cante’ or song, is the basis of all flamenco. Its origins are undocumented, but we know that it evolved as a fusion between the different musical elements of gypsy culture and Andalucian folk-culture. Indian, Jewish and North African styles all played a part in forming the flamenco genre, which seems to have emerged in the melting-pot of post-Reconquista Spain, when previously disparate ethnicities and cultures were thrown together in the resulting social upheaval.

Guitarist Victor Rosa, a competition favourite
There is no certainty about how the name ‘flamenco’ came to be attached to this unique art form, but we do know that in the 18th and  19th centuries, it was considered impolite to use the word ‘gitano’ -gypsy- and ‘flamenco’ was often used instead, referring to the arrival of some travelling people from Belgium. In his wonderful book ‘South of Granada’, Gerald Brenan tells us that ‘Flamenco’ was the vulgar name for what was properly called ‘cante jondo’ or ‘deep song’. We now use this term to describe the most serious flamenco styles and it seems possible that the word 'flamenco' was first used in early publicity to dignify the gypsy art.

An attentive audience
Flamenco song and dance consist of between 50 and 100 ‘palos’ or different styles. These are quite varied, ranging from the deep and tragic Seguiriyas to the festive and celebratory Bulerias, and they have distinctive rhythms, styles and sometimes tunes. Rhythm is probably the most important element in distinguishing palos, though it is not always easy to identify.Each competitor in the competition will sing 3 songs, each in a different style, choosing from a list supplied by the flamenco club.

The palos, many of which tend to be associated with different regions, can quite difficult to distinguish at first, but the most important ones soon become familiar. The Alegrias, one of the native palos of Cadiz, is easy to recognise by its cheerful tone and  its ‘tirititran’ refrain. 

You will hear the singer tell you the name of the palo before he or she begins to sing, the most favoured being the more demanding styles such as Seguiriyas, Soleares or Fandangos, which help the singer showcase his or her skills.

The lyrics – letras – of the different palos are varied and though they are not all about disappointed love as some people believe, romance probably provides the most heart-wrenching themes. However, there are many religious, narrative or comic songs, as well as proverbial ones, and some of these go back to Roman times, reflecting an oral literary tradition which has been circulating in Europe for millennia.

Another young finalist
Flamenco song is traditionally accompanied by guitar, and though other instruments are often used as well, the guitar is the only instrument allowed in the competition. Some guitarists are competition regulars, while others accompany only one singer. The guitarists are an essential element in the event, since they must be capable of supporting and enhancing the competitor's performance.

Try the  cante competition, even if only for a while and don’t be too concerned if you don’t understand many of the lyrics. All flamenco lyrics use the Andaluza dialect spoken here, and some are very old, so that the singer herself doesn’t always perfectly understand what she is singing and has to make an imaginative guess.

Gustavo Benitez Mera, who organises the competition.
The cante competition is an essential item in Vejer’s cultural diary and something everyone should experience at least once. You can order a meal there or just have a drink at the bar, but whatever you're doing, silence falls when the singing begins. 

For more information on flamenco in the area, ‘A Summer in Flamenco’ is available on Amazon:


Thursday, 29 May 2014

Vejer's patio competition - photos by Kelly Lawlor

 My friend, photographer Kelly Lawlor, was invited to judge this year’s Open Patio competition in Vejer, a process which involved taking a lot of photos. I was delighted to accompany her and her fellow judge Sol Sánchez de Muniain on their inspection of some of Vejer’s prettiest outdoor spaces.  You can see Kelly’s marvellous photos on this page.

Although in Britain, we describe a paved outdoor space adjoining a house as a patio, the Andalucían patio is quite different. It is an outdoor room within the walls of a house, and traditionally, it was left open to the sky.

Although the Romans are often credited with inventing the patio, its origins go further back, to Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Patios were originally used for keeping cattle safe from thieves, and this type of indoor enclosure can still be seen in parts of Turkey and Syria, as well as Afghanistan.

  As time went by, however, the patio became an outdoor utility area and later blossomed into a space for leisure and recreation. The large and beautiful patios of the Alhambra at Granada are the most perfect of examples of this type, which, until comparatively recently, was only found in the houses of the wealthy. 

These patios linked indoors and outdoors by a series of elegant archways, giving a protected walkway. Stairs to the first floor were usually outdoors. In general, living accommodation was provided on the first floor with storage and utility areas beneath.

Even a decorative patio, however, has an important function. Scholars of environmental architecture have described how perfectly the patio works to control temperatures in hot and arid countries. The patio, ventilated by small openings at ground floor level, allows the accumulated heat of the house to rise, acting as a kind of chimney in reverse.

 The flowers, shrubs and fountains which are often found in patios also have a job to do. They cool the air and provide a pleasant shade in which to rest or work. A traditional patio house is many times more economical to run than an air-conditioned tower block, and uses fewer environmental resources.

 Here in Vejer, we have three different types of patio. The first type, at the centre of a house, conforms to the description above. The Casa del Mayorazgo, the Palacio Castrillón and The Casa de las Viudas are good examples, though Vejer has many others. Although they are now in multiple occupation, these were once great houses, owned by wealthy families. The Casa del Mayorazgo is typical of the larger houses in having two patios, one for utilities and one for relaxation.

  The second type of patio, mainly found in the Province of Cadiz, is the ‘Patio de Vecinos’, the shared patios in which many of us have our homes. In generally, they are a nineteenth century invention, though my friend Virginia Almazo tells me that this system of space-sharing was first used in North Africa. 

Unlike the elegant and symmetrical house patios, these come in all shapes and sizes and exist for a variety of reasons. One of the most common is the conversion of larger houses into smaller units, and especially, as the need to keep animals on the patio diminished, the conversion of stables and outhouses into living accommodation. Some, however, were purpose-built with the intention of squeezing the maximum accommodation into an unpromising space. Very few are symmetrical and some seem downright zany – nevertheless, behind the white walls and barred windows, some beautiful houses and apartments have been created.

The third type is the 'patio moderno', which takes the form of a small paved or planted garden outside a house, and these are usually fond in the new housing developments at Buenavista, San Miguel and La Noria.

 Vejer’s patios were traditionally occupied by labourers and other low-paid families, many of whom also owned a country house, only visiting the town for special occasions. Nineteenth- century life on a communal patio must have been demanding. Rooms were small, and most families enjoyed no more than two. Cooking and washing were done out of doors all year round, using huge, leaded pots which can’t have done much for the family’s health. 

The patio was the preserve of the women and children, as well as dogs, cats and donkeys – men stayed out of the way, either working or gathering in bars and clubs. Until recently, a‘retrete’ in the corner provided toilet facilities and baths were often enjoyed outside too, probably using water drawn from the ‘aljibe’ or underground water cistern which provided all but drinking water.

Social relationships were sometimes strained, especially when someone took it upon themselves to reprove another woman’s child. The staircases were clogged up with courting couples and when our Andalucían rain came down, people had to manage as best they could. Nevertheless, it was commonly said that ‘the wealth of the house is in the patio’.

As the twentieth century advanced, the number of dwellings in each patio declined, apartments became bigger and bathrooms and kitchens came indoors. It was time to exploit the restorative potential of the patios and residents began to create the beautiful and floral spaces which had previously existed only in the houses of the wealthy. The first Open Patio competition was held in 1992 and has grown more popular every year.

I asked Kelly how she found her first experience of patio judging. 

‘Well,’ she said, ‘you see a lot of geraniums…’ She told me that she had been impressed by the variety of the different patios and by the ability of Vejer vecinos to create small paradises out of almost nothing.

‘It was the everyday items that touched me,’ she said, ‘the birds, the brooms, the neatly stored bicycles. It’s a triumph of the human spirit.’

Vejer's patios will be open to the public for the rest of this week. The results of the patio competition will be announced at the Teatro San Franciso on Saturday May 31st at 8 p.m.

If you would like to read more about Vejer’s patios, I recommend ‘Los Patios de Vecinos de Vejer de la Frontera’ by Jesús Melero Callado Manuel, available at the library in Vejer.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Five Winds of Vejer

The Buenavista mills in their spring garden
Implements in use during the recent past, 
now in the San José windmill

 The traditional economics of La Janda depended on fishing and agriculture. Land was held in large estates called ‘Latifundias’, a legacy from the Reconquista, when generous allocations were made to incomers from the north in order to repopulate the area with Spanish-speaking leaders and managers. In the 13th and 14th centuries, this usually meant members of the minor aristocracy, who had been educated to rule but did not hold much land in their own areas. The offer of significant holdings was a strong incentive to migrate, just as it was in the USA in the 19th century.

Agricultural workers led an unstable existence, with starvation wages and no guarantee of regular employment, while fisher-folk were constantly threatened by the Atlantic gales and the ever-present Barbary corsairs. Most of the production in the area was managed by the powerful Dukes of Medina Sidonia, the historical equivalents of today’s corporate magnates, who drew profits accordingly.

Smaller enterprises also derived from agriculture. Vejer, as the most important town in the Comarca, housed the normal range of cobblers, merchants, mule-drivers, brothel-keepers, builders and every other trade necessary to the existence of a thriving town. Some of these are reflected in the street names – ‘Laneria’, ‘Tripería’, ‘Arrieros’, ‘Vino’.

Vejer was famous for its beehives, and often described as ‘Vejer of the honey.’ It is sometimes claimed that the cultivation of bees began in the area during the Tartessian era, 3000 – 500 years BC. Olive oil was produced in several local mils but as time went on, most of the milling in the area was devoted to grinding wheat into flour.

Until the 19th century, flour was produced at the water mills in Santa Lucía, but when the aristocracy lost their privileges in the mid-century, they were obliged to make other arrangements. The first windmills were constructed at Buenavista. They were not a success and were replaced by sturdier versions a few years later. One of these, San José is now open to the public. More mills were constructed to the west, and two of these now house the Poniente and Los Macininos restaurants.

A little while ago, I caught up with Juanino, who looks after both the mills and the mules which stand a little way off, ready to give rides to the public. He showed me the old photographs of the mills in their original glory, with their four triangular sails. 

The roofs of the mills were turned to meet the current wind using a stout beam, which slotted into a housing on the roof provided for the purpose. The roof was turned frequently and fortunately the operation was fairly straightforward. I was fascinated by Juanino’s description of the five winds which blew through Vejer, and their different characters.

There is always a wind in Vejer. Most of us are aware of the two main ones, the Levante and the Poniente. They are named after the rising and setting of the sun and therefore it is easy to deduce that they come from the East and West respectively.

 The Poniente is a consistent wind which doesn’t cause much trouble, but the Levante, gusty and hot, drives strong men to despair and causes general dismay. ‘I feel it in my body,’ a Vejeriego friend once told me, and the Levante is blamed for most of the mishaps which occur in the town while it is blowing. It blows back through the sewers and creates an unpleasant smell in bathrooms, prevents kite-surfing and is condemned as an absolute nuisance. It is often followed by clouds and rain, and is particularly unpleasant in Vejer, owing to the town's high position.

 Intriguingly, Juanino was also able to describe three more distinct winds which would have been old friends to the millers of the recent past. The Norte, the north wind, is a cold, dry wind while its cousin, the Rondeño, blows from the direction of Ronda in Malaga, the North East. The Bendabal arrives from the sea via Tarifa, a noisy wind which stirs up the sea and creates waves for surfers.

Earthenware 'lebrijas' for washing clothes

The Poniente is the hero-wind of millers, warm and hospitable, turning the sails evenly and making everyone’s life easier. Fortunately, it blows on more days of the year than any of the others.

The windmill ’San José’ is open to the public from 10 to 2 and 5-8 every day except Sunday and includes a range of furniture and implements as well as photographs from the past. While you are there, you might also try a ride on one of Juanino’s Andalucian mules. Taller than the traditional donkey, these mules are not hybrids, but were bred in the area to produce an animal with strength and endurance to carry out the many necessary tasks of haulage and transportation which were required from them in times gone by.

Along with flour, the mills produced great quantities of straw, and this was traditionally worked into baskets and other containers. A large variety of examples of this work are available at Juani's shop on Calle Trafalgar.