Saturday, April 28, 2012

El Cante de las Minas - Flamenco at its best


It's just after 2am and I'm in La Unión, a town of some eighteen thousand people just seven miles from Cartagena. My bum is aching and the pressure on my bladder is intense. I glance at my watch and then check to see that it's not stopped. I can't believe that I've only been three hours - it feels like a lifetime! It's nearly 2am in the morning. There's someone playing music up on the stage but I stopped listening to that ages ago. I set to thinking.

Why am I here? It's not a spot I would choose for a holiday. There are a couple of nice buildings but for the most part la Unión reminds me of some of the soot blackened, grim Yorkshire towns of my youth. To my eyes it still looks like the pit village it once was.

The reason I'm here is for the Flamenco competition, el Cante de las Minas, but I'm not that sure about Flamenco music either. Played live it often seems to be no more than stern women with firm chins stamping, clapping and whirling to an impenetrable tune. Or maybe two decidedly overweight greasy haired, tight suited men, one singing and one playing guitar. The singer claps occasionally, wails and contorts his face to suggest a serious bladder complaint or a bad bout of constipation.

Flamenco is a musical form whose roots are lost in time. It is music that is intimately connected with the Gypsies of Andalucia in the far south of Spain. Its supporters, who claim to understand the subtle difference between its many variations - tango, bulerias, fandangos etc., - maintain that it's as much a feeling as a technique or a definite style. They talk about duende - the inspiration, magic and fire of the music. So why is one of the biggest and most important Flamenco festivals taking place in the Region of Murcia miles from the music's ancestral home?

The answer is the mines. The Romans invaded Murcia to seize the silver, lead and zinc mines near the current day la Unión but by 200 AD the ores were exhausted. It took the new technologies of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to make them profitable once again. That's why the hills around la Unión are scarred by the battered remains of 19th Century winding gear, wash houses, and chimneys.

Mines need miners; people willing to crawl down dark, dangerous, hot tunnels and hack away at the earth. In La Unión lots of those people came from the depressed rural south, from Andalucia. They brought their singing with them and, over the years, it fused with the traditional local song. They sang about their lives, particularly their lives in the mines. The song is deep and melancholy.

With the mines closed for good the singing faltered and began to die away. But one local enthusiast was determined to keep the style alive. He organised a competition in a local bar. That competition, el Cante de las Minas, the Song of the Mines, began in 1961. Participants now come from all over the World. Last year a Japanese dancer got as far as the semifinals.

The modern venue for the competition is a big old Victorian style glass and steel market hall now converted into a performance space called the Cathedral of Song. The venue is impressive but it's hardly luxurious. The seating is red plastic chairs and the staging is a simple space for the performers with effective but unelaborate lighting.

The basic format of the event is that for the first few evenings of the festival there are performances by big name Flamenco stars. The final four evenings are taken up with a competition. It is the local song which is the heart of the competition so, although there are four classes: singers, dancers, guitarists and Flamenco musicians, it's the singing that attracts the big prize; the Miner's lamp trophy and the 15,000€ that goes with it.

I awake from my reverie. People are applauding, chairs are scraping, it's all over. I stand up and feel the blood rush back to the underparts of my body. A few moments later, bladder attended to, the cool night air greets me as I leave the building. The food stalls and other attractions around the concert hall are still all open. Lots of the Spaniards are going to have a bite to eat.

As we walk back to the car I'm wondering who they will have on next year. My bum should have recovered by then. I'll be there.

This year (the article was written in 2011) the event will take place from the 3rd to the 13th August. The big names are 'Pitingo’ on the 5th, Estrella Morente on the 6th, the dancer 'Farruquito' on the 7th, the guitarist, 'Tomatito' along with the dancer Blanca del Rey on the 8th and 'El Cigala' on the 9th. The Competition has three semi-final nights on the 10th, 11th and 12th with the Grand Final on the 13th. Ticket information via el Corte Inglés.

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