Monday, 22 December 2014

The Living Nativity: a beautiful way to begin Christmas.

The Zambombá

Like many refugees from the more materialistic British Christmas, I love to spend the season of goodwill in Vejer. Rather than struggling to heap up extravagant gifts for ever more demanding youngsters, or toiling over a giant turkey roast, it's relaxing to be in a place where Christmas is a bit more about community and family. The little town is bright with lights and Christmas music will play throughout the Christmas season. These are things we can all share, and the streets are crowded with people, not stressing about finding that final gift but enjoying a celebratory outing with family and friends. Gifts are not exchanged until January 6th, leaving Christmas itself free for socialising.

Two street events dominate the run-up to Christmas: the Zambombá and the Living Nativity. The Zambombá is a social event which often takes place in the late afternoon. The traditional format includes a brazier to keep participants warm, food, sometimes complementary, and live performance of popular Christmas songs. If you are lucky, you could even see the eccentric musical instrument the event is named after, the Zambombá, a kind of friction drum which in German-speaking countries is delightfully named the Rummelpott. The up-and-down action of this instrument can cause hilarity among foreign visitors, but it's fascinating to visit a traditional zambombá where this unique sound can be heard.

The other big public event, the Living Nativity, takes place on the Sunday before Christmas day, and it is only one of several nativities which can be seen around town. If you are lucky enough to get an invitation to one of the schools' nativities which are held at the end term, you'll be charmed by the inventiveness of the event, not a theatrical one, as in the UK and the USA, but a series of tableaux in which every child gets to take part.

The main event, however, involves the streets of the old town and most of its inhabitants in a recreation of the entire town of Bethlehem, with its craftspeople, animals, and of course, its Holy Family. King Herod, accompanied by a bevy of dancers, Pontius Pilate with his Roman soldiers and the Three Kings are all depicted, despite the fact that they don't appear in the accounts of Christ's birth which appear in the gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew.

The tradition of the nativity seems to have started in the thirteenth century, with St. Francis of Assisi. The saint deplored the materialism and commercialisation of Christmas celebrations and wanted to
put the emphasis back onto the spritual meaning of the Christian festival, suggesting that nothing much has changed in seven hundred years. The first nativities were, as Vejer's, living nativities which involved animals and children, mobilising most of the resources of the medieval village.

Since then, the nativity has become a popular event in every Christian country, though its form has evolved differently according to the cultures which presented it. While northern countries adopted the theatrical tradition of the medieval mystery plays, the living nativity has remained popular in southern Europe and the Spanish and Italian versions are regularly presented on television.

Both Vejer and Medina Sidonia present living nativities and both are well worth seeing for anyone, religious or not,  who wants to experience the rich and vibrant culture of out town and to enjoy the wit and creativity of its inhabitants.

The sevillanas dance.

Adrián Brenes and Cristina Zájara dance Sevillanas at the Hotel Fuerte in Conil
Feria is over and it’s time for Vejer to get back to normal. Shops and restaurants have reopened and the countdown to summer has started in earnest.

Before the memories fade, it’s a good time to remember that typical event of feria, the sevillanas dance which can be seen in every caseta from the Horse Club to the Partida Popular. Sevillanas are danced in Andalucía whenever there is something to celebrate, be it a wedding, a birthday or just a party, and many people have some expertise. You don’t have to be a skilled flamenco dancer to dance sevillanas because it is not a flamenco dance but an old folk-dance which was influenced by flamenco after that style emerged in the late eighteenth century.

Despite the name, sevillanas did not originate in Seville, though they are now identified with that region. They came from the Castille region and evolved from an older dance form called seguidillas.

Sevillanas is a couple dance, but there is no pressure to team up with a partner of the opposite sex and it is now more usual to see women dancing together. Nevertheless, the dance describes the process of courtship. There is very little touching between partners because when the dance evolved, courting couples had to dance it under the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents who were constantly on the lookout for any impropriety, but despite this, the dance has an erotic quality, especially when performed by seasoned professionals.

Sevillanas follow a strict choreography. The dance is divided into four sections and each one is a separate ‘sevillana’. Each sevillanas consists of three parts, or ‘coplas’ which combine a variety of steps. The most important steps are the basic ‘sevillana’ step, the ‘pasada’ where the two dancers cross each other to reverse positions and the ‘cierre’ which closes each sevillana. It takes about four minutes to dance the full set. 

Dancing Sevillanas at Feria is part of the Andalusian way of life.

 The sevillanas we see here in Vejer is just one of several different forms you can see in various parts of Andalucía, which include Romeros de la Puebla and Corraleros de Lebrija. These different forms share the unmistakable ¾ rhythm and the characteristic tone of celebratory gaiety, as well as a number of similar steps.

I once tried to learn sevillanas with the help of my friend Adrián Brenes, a professional flamenco dancer. Adrián has a cupboard at home bursting with awards he has won for dancing sevillanas. When he dances with his friend Cristina Zájara, the couple seem to float above the ground, inspired by angels.You can see them dance sevillanas here:
 However, despite his skill as a dancer and a teacher, Adrián didn’t make much progress with me. I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time and I couldn’t help wondering why my feet had been placed so far away from my brain. Combining the feet and arm movements was difficult and in the end I gave up in despair.

Since then, I’ve looked carefully at the way sevillanas are danced by everyday mortals, and it’s clear that they often don’t follow the prescribed sequence of steps. Keeping to the rhythm and remembering the pasadas and arm movements appear to be the priority and what the feet are doing is often concealed by the generous skirts of the ‘traje flamenca’. Many men particularly, are skilled at combining the maximum effect with the minimum effort.

Dancing sevillanas is something we can all do in our own way, but even if you don’t want to take part, this colourful dance is an essential part of feria.

You can see part of Carlos Saura’s film ‘Sevillanas’ here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Arte Vejer: a home for artists.

It’s been a while since I added to this blog. The busy summer, several trips overseas and the loss of my camera, not to mention my novel ‘The Three Witches’ have all kept me away from my page. Now it’s time to come back with some exciting news about a new community association which will benefit anyone who is interested in the visual arts in our town.

Walking around the town on a Saturday morning, you might have noticed a posse of artists sketching one of our many beautiful buildings or fascinating corners. These are the Vejer Sketchers, a group of artists linked to the international ‘Urban Sketchers’ movement, who devote their Saturday mornings to creating art from the street. One of the sketchers is Vejer artist Sol Muniain, who last year held a successful exhibition at the shop ‘Ya En Tu Casa’ on the Corredera.

For some time now, Sol has had a dream. A permanent space where artists could meet to share their skills and show their work, where contacts could be made, information exchanged and the profile of art in the area could be raised. The contribution of Vejer’s informal exhibition spaces, The Tetería del Califa, the Tetería Chokolata and Ya En Tu Casa, as well as the Casa del Arco gallery and the Ayuntamiento’s Casa de la Cultura can’t be underestimated, but there was a need for a permanent centre, somewhere which would act as a focus and a point of reference for art all the year round.

Preparing for the inaugural exhibition
Sol’s dream took a big step forward this autumn when she had the chance to tell the Mayor of Vejer, José Ortiz Galvan, what she had in mind. He was enthusiastic about her ideas and offered the support of the Ayuntamiento, including the possibility of using premises owned by the local authority to kick-start the project.

Since then, plans have moved forward rapidly. Five individuals have united to create a steering committee for the project, and documentation has been prepared to make a formal presentation to the Mayor and council. This will take place on Wednesday December 3rd. The project has been named ‘Arte Vejer’ and an application has been made to register the project as an official community organisation.

Sketching on the roof of the Casa de la Cultura
Arte Vejer already has a well-supported Facebook page and will shortly appear on Twitter and email. Its aims are two-fold: to create networks and display spaces for artists and to provide access to art education for the whole community. The project has already attracted support from local artists and will make its debut at the Casa de la Cultura on Sunday December 7th, as part of the Vejer Open Town day, when an exhibition of work by the Vejer Sketchers and a open art workshop will be offered as part of the event. For anyone who is interested, it’s a great opportunity to find out more and maybe get involved.

November 2016

Visitors to the popular inaugural exhibition
Since I wrote this blog in 2014, many people have seen it and it's about time I gave an update on Arte Vejer's progress. In fact, the project has gone from strength to strength in the two years since Sol first put the wheels into motion and has become a feature of Vejer life, with many different events and classes being offered.

Arte Vejer was inaugurated on Vejer Open Day in December 2014, when Vejer sketchers produced an exhibition of watercolours in the Casa de la Cultura. This proved extremely popular and the video which played throughout the day is still available on YouTube.

Arte Vejer judged a schools' art exhibition
The inauguration was followed by a fund-raising Christmas party at the Peña Flamenca Alquilar de Vejer just before Christmas. Twenty or more local cafes and restaurants contributed food for this buffet which raised some useful working capital for the group. 

In 2015, Arte Vejer was formally registered as one of Vejer's recognised cultural associations, a big step which brought changes with it. Arte Vejer was now expected to provide education and cultural development for the whole community, and this aspect has proved to be an enormous success, with courses in life drawing, graffiti, and everything in between. Children's activities have proved especially successful, and in 2015, Arte Vejer was asked to judge an art competition in local schools. A video of one children's art activity can be seen here:

 One of the group's group's most spectacular event occurred in the spring of 2016 when artists took to the street for a 'walking exhibition'. Holding their work aloft, and accompanied by a drum band, artists paraded the town, drawing an admiring audience. The event included flamenco dance and a drumming display.
The walking exhibition was a huge success
The Mayor visits the inaugural exhibition in the Castle
A big breakthrough came earlier this year when the souvenir shop on the Castle closed and the Ayuntamiento offered the premises to Arte Vejer as a base and exhibition space. The group has
made good use of the opportunity and has used the space to mount exhibitions and courses on a wide-ranging basis, including photography and design as well as painting.

One of Arte Vejer's many workshops at the Castle centre
Since Arte Vejer began, changes have inevitably occurred. Sol resigned the post of president earlier in 2016 when she and her family moved away from Vejer, but visits regularly and keeps in close contact. The new president, Ismael Virués, an architect who has been involved with Arte Vejer from the outset, works untiringly for the group and has developed it as a vital and innovative institution from which the whole town benefits.

Arte Vejer is on Facebook:

The committee at the castle centre