2000s Archive

Passion Plays

Originally Published April 2002
The flamenco throbs and the Manzanilla flows, but for the secretive Gypsies of Seville, the Feria de Abril is a chance to celebrate themselves.

It had been another long morning, and it wasn't getting any warmer in the damp, tin-roofed warehouse where 11 members of a Gypsy flamenco dance troupe and I had been holed up for the past four hours. The drizzly November day was about as inspiring as the grim alley outside-a rutted, desolate lane in an industrial section of Seville that sensible outsiders know to avoid-and our rehearsal hadn't been going particularly well. So much for the glamorous life in sunny southern Spain.

In an attempt to raise our spirits, I decided to slip out and splurge on a take-out lunch from a little hole-in-the-wall around the corner. Returning triumphantly with a steaming pot of arroz con pollo, I realized to my irritation that I'd completely forgotten about plates. I rushed to the restaurant and came back five minutes later only to find the dancers hunched over the pot, digging in giddily with their spoons. An earthenware jug filled with tap water was making its way around the circle, and the pungent smell of garlic, tomato, and saffron floated on the chilly air. Juan, our guitarist, waved me over to the group. "We don't need plates," he told me with a grin. "We're Gypsies. We make do with what we have."

Juan's words came back to me again and again during the four months I spent in Seville that fall. Whether they were banging out music with spoons on a beat-up tabletop or devising costumes from a bin of flea-market clothes, the Gypsies I worked with were models of resourcefulness, able to make do-and, indeed, to thrive-regardless of the limited means at their disposal.

Beyond that obvious trait, though, there was much about my new friends that remained a mystery to me. Centuries of persecution have taught Gypsies to hide all that is precious and meaningful to them, and their society is as tight-knit and closed to outsiders as any I've encountered. Even after spending years producing a Gypsy flamenco company, as a paya, or non-Gypsy, I have found it nearly impossible to penetrate beyond a certain level of gitano culture.

And so I've come back, three years later, to give it another shot. In addition to working my connections in the music business, I'm hoping to gain access to the Gypsy world through that other supposedly universal language—food.

There may be no better time to see Gypsy culture on display than during the Feria de Abril, a spring festival that began as a livestock show in 1847 and today celebrates Andalusian agriculture, flamenco, and horsemanship—three aspects of regional tradition to which Gypsies have made major contributions. The fair takes place two weeks after Easter and, following as it does several days of somber Catholic pageantry, rolls out an unrestrained celebration of what I've always suspected is the true faith of Sevillanos: The cult of themselves. And why not? This city, one of the most charismatic on earth, is a place of exuberance and emotional extremes that's known not just for its flamenco dancing and bullfighting but for its zesty cuisine and seductive, dark-eyed women. It's not for nothing that the composers of Carmen, The Barber of Seville, and Don Giovanni all chose to set their operas here.

On the first day of the fair, I meet up with some old friends at midnight to see the customary illumination of the entryway arch. Paper lanterns are strung up in every direction, and the pounded-earth streets are an explosion of color. Aristocratic dandies parade on thoroughbred horses as olive-skinned girls sewn tightly into ruffled gowns clack through sevillanas, the homegrown dances of the city. Counts and heiresses hold court in their private hospitality tents, or casetas (of the 1,000 or so tents at the fair, almost all are reserved for dues-paying "associates"), and nonstop eating and drinking are the order of the night.

We visit the casetas that will have us, engage in some sevillana dancing of our own, and sample all manner of golden pescaito frito. Whole anchovies are crisp and fresh, chunks of red mullet are marinated in pungent adobo, and tiny octopus and squid rings are dredged in sandy flour and crisped in olive oil. Afterward, we slake our thirst with Manzanilla Sherry straight from the barrel and with rebujito, a faddish concoction of Manzanilla and 7-Up.

By 3 A.M., I'm totally exhausted. I collapse at one of the wooden tables in the Gypsy enclave (where any paying customer is welcome) and soak up the fairy-tale atmosphere of cascading lace and red ribbons. Old Gypsy women are hawking sprigs of rosemary and red carnations, drunken tourists are attempting to decipher the offerings (meatballs, serrano ham, Manchego cheese, marinated olives) on the chalkboard menus, and slumming Valentinos are cruising the tents, on the lam from their upper-crust casetas.

In front of the tent, five or six raven-haired women with squalling babies astride their hips are swirling long sticks in cauldrons of burbling oil set over coal-filled barrels. They're making buñuelos, the puffy, sugar-dusted doughnuts that Seville's Gypsy population has sold at the fair for generations. Sitting there in the jacaranda-scented air, sampling the sweet rings with a dainty cup of thick, black chocolate as the aching cry of Camarón, the greatest of all Gypsy flamenco singers, erupts from the loudspeakers, I'm so overcome by a wistful sentimentality that I feel emboldened enough to reach out to my hosts.

A girl with the tawny skin, layers of gold jewelry, and dazzling hazel eyes that exemplify Gypsy beauty strikes me as relatively unintimidating, so I hesitantly approach her. When I ask if she might share the recipe for buñuelos with me, she turns pleadingly toward a gentleman with an open shirt and gold crucifix—a relative, I assume—who proceeds to rise from his huddle of smoking companions. "No Gypsy would ever tell you that," he says with a beguiling smile. "It's a secret."

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