The young gypsy took his place in the middle of the circle, which the previous performers had left vacant. His long, copper-tanned fingers began thrumming his guitar. The prelude continued for some time and the shouts, clapping of hands and stamping of feet worked his audience up to a state of rhythmic excitement. Suddenly, in a convulsive movement, his features contracted into a mask of agony. He closed his eyes and lifted one hand to his forehead as he broke into a long, tragic high-pitched cry – ‘Aye … Aye … Aye … Ayeeeeee!’ He repeated this lament a few times against the frenzied accompaniment of his guitar, the open strings of which he played with the other hand. Then he began singing in a deep masculine voice as if telling the world of his sorrows and misfortune. He sang in Caló, the language of the gypsies, which Luz did not understand. Despite the tension of feeling in the full, vigorous notes, he sang with an air of dignity that the young woman had never witnessed before and she had listened to many Flamenco singers in the clubs of Cádiz.
Like the rest of the audience Luz stood breathless, spellbound, stirred to her innermost fibres. Tears in her eyes; the music awakened a fierce impulse that sent her heart hammering. He sang one song after the other, seemingly oblivious to his audience and of anything save the notes, which formed themselves in the air before him as if independent of his body. Some of the songs were passionate, heart-wrenching ballads about faithless or separated lovers, unending longing, death, prison and revenge, which he appeared to be improvising. Those few songs in Caló remained frustratingly mysterious to Luz but the words of his closing song she understood, though she found them strange. He sang in a kind of trance, as if reaching deep down into his soul to uproot the pain, drawing out the final notes in a prolonged, descending strain, with seemingly never-ending turns and tremolos. It was a haunting sound, so poignant Luz had great difficulty in controlling her urge to reach out to him.
This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Masquerade, and it brings forth an important theme in the book: the music of the gitanos – gypsies – of Andalucía. Since I first visited Andalucía as a young woman I have been entranced by songs such as these, and none more so than those performed by the queen of Flamenco, Pastora Pavón Cruz.
Here is a glimpse of her musicality:
So beautiful and moving, don’t you think?
Pastora was born in the Alameda de Hércules in Seville way back in 1890 with music in her blood. Her siblings and her aunt were very involved in the Flamenco scene, and Pastora made her debut at the Seville Fair aged just eight (when her brother got inebriated and she had to replace him on stage!). Her family was impoverished, and so Pastora sang for their supper in Seville, and then in Madrid and Bilbao, in cafes dedicated to showcasing singers.
Early on, Pastora acquired a new name: La Niña de los Peines. It means ‘The Girl of the Combs’, and was inspired by lines she sang referring to her hair combs. Although she never loved the name herself, it stuck and that is how she is remembered to this day, along with two other names: the Empress of Cante Flamenco, and The Fierce, which was what the great Flamenco singer Chacón called her.
Pastora built a very inspiring career in Flamenco. In 1922 she was one of several professional performers invited to sing at the Concurso de Cante Jondo, a festival that went along to promoting and reimagining Flamenco. Federico García Lorca, director and poet, later said of her: ‘This woman’s voice is exceptional. It breaks the moulds of all singing schools, as much as she breaks the moulds of any built music.’
Through her long career, Pastora sang with many of the greatest Flamenco artists of her time, and she married one, Pepe Pinto. She died in 1969, and has been revered ever since as the most iconic and influential Flamenco singer of the 20th century – a ‘sombre, agonizing angel, who surpassed all measure, who embraced all emotions’ (Álvarez Caballero) and ‘the incarnation of flamenco singing, as Bach was of music’ (Ricardo Molina).
While writing the gitano scenes in Masquerade, I often played the following CD in the background. I had to work hard to concentrate on my writing, though, because Pastora’s singing is so arresting! I pictured my gypsy queen Marujita sounding like an older Pastora, with a wonderful richness and huskiness of tone.