Jerez: How I ended up in the middle of a Peña Flamenco scene

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To be honest, I’d given up on Jerez, having only arrived that afternoon. Perhaps it was a mid-trip slump, or perhaps it was the heat, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I was underwhelmed by it, and was missing the sea breeze and the buzz of Cádiz, a place that had made me smile all day long. So how did I end up in a small Peña, surrounded by raw, vibrant, drunken, real-people flamenco (Don’t miss videos below) in Jerez?

Jerez, Flamenco, peña

Not wanting to go out, in Flamenco Town

It was approaching 9pm. If I’d been at home, I would have just eaten whatever happened to be in my fridge and gone to bed. Only I was not. I had to go out for dinner. It’s not often that I don’t feel excited about eating, but this was one of those nights.

I shamefully decided on the shortest-distance option, a restaurant right next to the hotel – only to find it still preparing to open when I dragged myself there. Not in the mood to be hanging around either, I crossed the street and went into an unassuming bar called Abacería Cruz Vieja. I immediately liked its rustic interior, not in a staged, expensive way, ready to be shown in Country Homes & Interiors magazine, but inelaborate and unpretentious, it looked like it could have been like that for centuries.

Sherry, or Jerez, of course, was the drink to have. Being a complete amateur at it, I asked for something that was neither too sweet nor too dry – and what they do all over Jerez is something I’d never seen before. They actually mix two different kinds of sherry to make it just right for you! Together with my custom-mixed glass of Sherry, I ordered a number of Tapas.

A glass, on a pension

Just as I was tucking into my Tapa of cod roe in vinegary tomato and onion salsa, an elderly man walked in. And by the time he’d shuffled up to the bar, a caña (small beer) was ready for him – I guess he’s a regular. He placed a One Euro coin on the bar, had a sip of his beer, said something about the football, and told me he used to be a driver for Tio Pepe (one of the largest Sherry producers), adding that he had been to the UK many times for work. He later ordered a glass of Sherry for me, pulling out an envelop with a small bunch of Euro notes inside – it looked like he’d just been to collect his pension. I looked across the bar to the guys who worked there, and seeing I wasn’t sure how to turn down his offer, they made a gesture that somehow made me understand I should just let him pay for it. Saying Gracias for my drink, I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty of having taken money from a pensioner in a country that’s supposedly suffering from an Economic Crisis.

The pensioner paid for my drink and left, telling me to be careful because there are bad men out there.

“They might try to buy you a drink.”

And with that, he was gone.

Getting drunk on Sherry, remembering Flamenco

I’m not the biggest fan of Jerez, but a few glasses of it had reminded me of my original plan of visiting a Peña, a kind of bar /club where the Flamenco crowd gathered to drink, sing and dance. According to the guys from the bar though, it was perhaps getting a little late for that.

Just then, entered Pepe Salas. Carrying several large boards with photos printed on them, and not one, but two camera bags. He was perhaps in his late 60s, or 70, with a flop of white hair, and he spoke very gently.

“He’s a photographer, he takes photos of Flamenco people”, someone said.

By now, after 3 glasses of Jerez and a couple of glasses of Rioja, my Spanish was excellent (in my head). So I immediately started asking Pepe about the Peña scene – What is it like? Who goes there? Do people perform as a group? Is it rehearsed?

No rehearsals, no orders, no rules. What you see in a Peña, is real Flamenco. It’s how Flamenco started.

I’m so intrigued that I’m almost about to abandon my plan for the following day, of visiting the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. So I couldn’t believe my luck when Pepe offered to take me to a Peña nearby – the very place he’d just come from.

“Are you sure?”

Praying he won’t change his mind, and to make sure he didn’t, I asked for the bill in the same breath.

Rincón del Arte

Barely 50 metres away was a tiny bar, which looked very much closed from the outside. Inside, were perhaps 10 or so people, – and they all cheered when they saw Pepe return. And then, turning to me, the question:

“Baile o canto?” (dancing or singing?)

Apologetically, I had to admit that I could do neither.

“Never mind”, they all said,

“come in, join us.”

It really was like a club. Everyone knew each other. A seemingly drunk guy going by the name of “Shoco” played the guitar and sang, pausing only to take a sip from his sherry glass. He both looked and sounded the part. A younger man, Manuel, did the accompanying clapping and feet-tapping –  he told me he quit his job in Madrid and moved to Jerez, because he wanted to be part of this kind of Flamenco scene. Enrique, a painter in his 70s (prints of his paintings were on display on the walls together with prints of Pepe’s photos), almost had a fight with a very very drunk guy for cutting in in the middle of his “recitación“. All along, a very smiley Andrés sat on a rectangular wooden box with a round hole on one side, and  did the drumming thing, if that’s what it’s called.

Here, Flamenco wasn’t performed. It evolved. It was built, with layers and layers of people participating in whatever way their feelings led.

I really should have been utterly lost in this chaotic scene of communal, spontaneous, sherry-soaked Flamenco. And yet I felt remarkably at home and comfortable. At 1am on that Wednesday night, the bar trying to close, with Flamenco still all around me, I realised I’d come to really like Jerez – both the city and the drink.

Enrique, the painter

Shoco and Andrés, joined by Manuel

I can’t tell if he’s good or drunk

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