The Red Butterfly, Part Fifteen – Starve or Live on Whiskey
A man began to sing el Cante Jondo, The Deep Song, his voice like a volcano eruption. How can I properly explain the sound coming from this man‘s face? Once, while stationed in Cape Town, I visited the Cape of Good Hope. When I arrived, I was startled to find packs of wild baboons, like some sort of archaic prehistoric tribe left here to be forgotten. I expected one, or two, but there were about thirty or so meandering about, entering and exiting the bathrooms, or sitting in groups of three or four. They were perched on the vehicles parked on the plateau. One of them urinated with glee on the windshield of a truck. They looked quizzically at me with their tiny little black eyes. I had heard that as long as they did not perceive you as a threat, they would leave you alone, except to beg for food. How could one appear to be unthreatening to a wild animal was a mystery to me; I tried my best and moved very, very slowly. They were clearly used to humans, as in recent years this part of the country had become a tourist attraction. Just to be safe however, I gave them a wide berth, in case a bull male decided that I was competition for a female and felt compelled to bite my off my testicles. I walked to the edge of the precipice and looked down to where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans met. Not satisfied to see it from a distance, I decided to climb down to get a closer view. I found a path that wound around the rocky crag and I switched-backed my way towards the sea. As I approached, giant thunderous waves ten stories tall crashed against the side of the cliffs. The spray blinded me but the sound…the sound. It resonated across the rocks and amplified in my head. The sound rattled my brain inside its skull and blurred my vision. This is what this man sounded like.
I could not see the singer. The audience surrounded him as if they were standing over a camp fire, trying to absorb its heat against a cold forest night. All the old men and women were quietly leaning into the circle, bracing themselves against a strong wind. The whole flamenco troupe was there, but unlike earlier, they were silent, studious as they looked and listened. All except Carlos, who sat apart from the group and stared at me with contempt. I ignored him, he was just a young fool.
Anna waved me over. “Go to her,” said Augustín, with a wink.
I floated to her as if in a trance. It was very late now and I was hungry. Sweat poured down my face, I felt a drop trickle down my back. The sherry was deceptively strong and I was afraid that I might stumble. I could not feel my legs moving, propelling me towards the music and the crowd and Anna. The man’s voice was overwhelming, made more intense by its forced imprisonment in the cramped room. I was relieved when the vocal breaks came, allowing space for the guitar to play fills, before the singer began again. It was more than I could bear. But still, I walked towards the sound and Anna stood there waiting. It was like I was traversing a great divide, across vast oceans and enormous mountains to get to where I needed to be. I was hot. And still, Anna waited for me. Then came the man’s voice again. The great sound assaulted me like the force from an explosion. I have felt the power of grenades and napalm bombs in the fierce Vietnam jungles but nothing was like this. I approached the crowd. The voice paused. I was afraid that my insides were going to turn to mush.
“Olé, Manuel, Olé, Huzza!” said a man in the circle. Others repeated the words like a benediction. Cries of Huzza and Olé echoed around the room. I was at the edge of the circle. I put a hand on Anna’s waist and was pleased when she let it sit there. I realized this was the first time that I touched her. In the center of the circle were three men sitting on chairs around a small wooden table which held a small opaque bottle and three copas filled with brandy. A young man with neck length chestnut hair, soft features and an oval face was playing the guitar. “That is Paco,“ said Anna, “el toca lo mejor, he is the best.”
Paco was something different, beyond what the young guitarist from earlier that night could do. I spotted that man, Juan was his name, just to the left of Paco, staring at the musician’s hands intensely, attempting to see what was un-seeable. They looked to be the same age, Paco and Juan. But Paco was on a different plane. His playing was both traditional and modern at the same time. In addition to standard flamenco lines, I heard bits of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; just the slightest bit of be-bop, that passing tone.
Next to Paco, playing las palmas, was the horse-faced old faced man. Anna spoke into my ear, “that is Agujetas el Viejo,“ she said, “and next to him, that is Manuel Agujetas.”
“Agujetas, el hijo?” I said
“He looks just as old as his father.”
“He was born at the end of the war.”
“He’s the same age as me, my god, he looks so old!”
“The Gitanos from the south, they have lived hard lives, they are often paid only with a drink, many of them starve or live on whiskey.”
Agujeta’s face looked as if it was carved from stone, his eyes were as black as tar and a scar ran across his cheek all the way to his right ear. Yes, he was my age, but much, much older.
Anna leaned in towards me. She whispered: “there will be no dancing tonight.”
more by SERGIO REMON ALVAREZ