Handmade guitars

One night, while walking in the little lanes behind the Opera in Madrid I came across the workshop which you can see above. It is exactly the kind of shop that you might want to find near an opera. The next morning I walked into the shop, and into a world I did not know of.

Mariano Conde and his son run this workshop. I learnt about the subtle difference between a classical and a flamenco guitar. The flamenco guitar is louder, so it has a thin top, usually made of spruce. This is lightly attached to a hardwood back and sides, often cypress. The classical guitar, on the other hand, often has rosewood on the back and sides. The workshop specializes in using different kinds to wood to modify the sound of a particular instrument. For the uninitiated, like me, it sounded like the makers of magic wands, Olivanders, from Harry Potter.

More resemblances arose. The father-and-son also make something called a poem guitar (guitarras del poema). This is a guitar with a poem written into the inside, a collector’s item. I might have heard of a guitar with a dragon’s heart string next. I looked at the prices, heroically suppressed a shudder and walked out again.

A brush with Flamenco

My first exposure to the most famous dance form of Spain must have been through Carlos Saura’s film trilogy on Flamenco. Of the three, I may have seen Carmen first, because I spent a while immersed in Paco de Lucia’s music, and he acted in the movie. Soon after that I encountered the dance in a live street performance in Tokyo around the "Eiffel Tower". It took me a lifetime to get to the world’s capital of the dance and music known as Flamenco.

Flamenco shows advertised in the city hall of Seville

Before starting our trip I asked The Family about the three must-dos of Spain: Flamenco, bullfights and soccer. She agreed to Flamenco. Then there was the difficult choice of whether to watch a performance in Madrid or Andalucia. We decided that the birthplace of Flamenco should be good enough for us, so Seville was what we settled on. It is clear that Seville takes its Flamenco seriously. The city hall was plastered with posters of performances and competitions. We had come to the right place.

Between performances at Tablao Los Gallos in Seville

Flamenco developed as a popular entertainment about a century ago in music bars called cafes cantantes. It has become very professional now, and shows are held today in tablaos. The Spanish word means stage, but it seems to imply something like the gharana of Indian music, with each tablao playing a larger role as a training ground and keeper of a style. The Tablao Los Gallos was highly recommended, and we found tickets for a show which lasted a little longer than an hour. The music which accompanies the dance is clearly descended from the middle eastern tradition, with large borrowings from other sources. Apart from the dance, there were interludes of flamenco guitar. The guitar tradition is about sixty years old, and, taken out of the context of the dance, sounds quite different.

Later I encountered Flamenco again in Granada. In southern Spain, this music and dance is never too far away.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.