A place of dreams, where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.
Granada is a name so rhythmic it positively strums. Strung beneath the glistening peaks of the high Sierra Nevada, it has long balanced on the fulcrum of Europe and Africa. Here, the stones are alive, the streets and spires straddle the Medieval and the Renaissance, the Gypsy tangos and strums, the poetic knight tilts at shapeshifting windmills.
The fabulous castle overlooking it all, the Alhambra, dates from the Moslem kingdoms of the high Middle Ages. At the start of the Early Modern, the Reconquista returned the city to the Catholic faith. Before, during and after all those upheavals, Granada has been the focal point of travellers who have left their dust of cultural diversity in the stones, in the air, in the rivers of the town.Little wonder that the guitar is said to have been born here.
The weeping of the guitar begins,
The goblets of dawn are smashed,
Useless to silence it.
(Federico Garcia Lorca)
Plaza Nueva is my base camp. It merges into the Plaza de Santa Ana. A step beyond the modern city centre, it distends with eerie vagueness into the cramped ravine of the Darro River. The winding way to the Alhambra begins near the Fontana del Toro. A drink from its waters has magical qualities. Drink once and you will return forever. I have had my day there, in the soft redness of the Alhambra, that lasted forever and never and within my formation. This day I will walk along the clefs and staves and the surging river, carried forward note by note to the Sacred Mountain.
Climbing up from the Darro River, through the bleached alleyways of Alcaibin, the houses melt into an ancient silence. The winding streets flirt with Surrealism, the hush of desertion somehow expectant. I sense the outskirts of paranoia, cross diagonally a deserted square beneath an abandoned church, pause enigmatically with a smouldering Gitanes to notice a slice of the Alhambra between the shuttered Moorish villas. At last the route regains its connection with all other routes. Footfall swells, the whine of mopeds rises and a car is glimpsed. The road meets a t junction, where I turn steeply upwards by way of Cuesta del Chapiz.
At the apex of a punishing climb, the road veers right at a taverna, El Rincon del Chapiz. A gnarled tree and an eccentric statue preside over the small terrace. Here, the city of Grenada abruptly ends, and morphs into an ancient hilltop village, houses scattered like pearls on the steep hillside. Across the Darro ravine, the Alhambra and Generalife shimmer in the afternoon haze, while ahead the distant Sierra are snowcapped beneath the virgin blue sky. I choose to be lost in this view: red gold palaces set in viridian, purple mountains with their sharp white summits, the blue sphere of the relentless sky.
The transition from urban to bucolic is a volte face of all the dialogue transacted this day in the city. The history, the fabric, the setting still run, but parallel, their projections and perspectives distorted. The Sierra Nevada hem the horizon which seems close enough to touch. If you sense a breath descend it may be from the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro where Granada’s last Moslem ruler, Mohammad XII, Boabdil, looked back in anguish at the Alhambra, exhaling that famous final sigh. This was the pinnacle of the Reconquista, in the year 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile took Granada and the modern idea of Spain took shape.
Now I stand on Sacromonte, the sacred mountain. This was the haven of the Gypsy, when first they came to Granada in that same year, 1492. They hollowed caves from the soft rock, out here on the periphery. The culture that flowered fed the rivers of the new Spanish identity, a step beyond the rationalist identities of western Europe. And a stepping stone, also that year, to the American continents across the pond. These first rooted in our consciousness with the expedition of Christopher Columbus, an Italian in the service of the Catholic Monarchs. The popular conception of the world was limited. After Columbus, European isolation would fade.
The term, Gitanos, is synonymous with Gypsy, derived from Egyptian. According to popular myth, they came from Egypt but are, in fact, Romany, an Indo-Aryan group from northwest India. Romany identity has persisted through half a millennium, with its bloodline and culture, but there is much disparity between their far flung settlements. In Andalusia, Gitanos are particularly immersed in local culture, to the point that they’re seen as embodying quintessential Spanish traditions, with Flamenco to the fore. Flamenco, the form of music and dance, derives from a synthesis of Moorish and Christian influences, Jewish folk music and dance, infused with the Oriental spice of the Gitanos. Itself an illustration of a particular social and emotional stance, from Flamenco springs those rhythms of sex and seduction, sorrow and grieving, suffusing the Latin world from Valparaiso to Valencia
In Andalusia there is little to be gained by dissecting its identity. It is more than the sum of its parts, a rare blossom that could only grow in this red soil, from such scattered seeds. Yet, here is a culture that is not perplexing, not a thing to be admired within a hard carapace. It has travelled well, it is well known. Here is something we all understand, whether or not we have done it yet. Here is something we know of the human condition. We are all Gypsies, spinning like dandelion seeds through the air. I have travelled, dipped a toe in different oceans, felt the heat of the desert, the swell of mountain and the cool air of forests. Through all of that runs the constant soundtrack of the music of Christian, Moslem, Gypsy and Jew.
I heard your voice through a photograph
I thought it up it brought up the past
Once you know you can never go back
I’ve got to take it on the otherside
So I sit on a wall in sunshine cold, amidst glare of white houses and sauntering travellers and do nothing. Inside I’m spinning slowly, breathing every song I’ve ever heard. I feel I should do something, enter a museum, buy a souvenir, take out my sketch book and submerge in the quirky scenery. I think of other things, returning to that bold truth, that here was first fashioned the guitar.
Antonio de Torres (1817-1892) was a carpenter by trade. In his twenties he came to work in Granada where he learned the craft of guitar building. He returned to set up shop in Seville and in 1850 began to develop the guitar which we recognise today. Torres’s guitar was symmetrical, larger and lighter than previous instruments. Their distinctive sound and greatly improved volume made de Torres’s guitar the standard from which modern guitars derive.
How long, how long will I slide
Separate my side
I don’t, I don’t believe it’s bad
Slit my throat, it’s all I ever …
(Otherside, Red Hot Chilli Peppers)
In its shape the guitar is a key to unlock the secrets of sound. More suggestive still, the guitar is personified as woman. My Graphics maestro at Rathmines College in the seventies was Martin Collins. One evening our class gathered before a still-life assembled by Martin: a guitar, a wine bottle, a bowl of fruit. As we set about our task, he hovered, waiting to pounce with advice. One unfortunate was having difficulty. Martin’s voice boomed through the hush: “A guitar is like a woman. You cradle her on your lap and stroke her.”
In the Art of Spain it is a signature motif.The paintings of Picasso and Juan Gris pay homage to those curves, sinuously evoking its music and mood. With grapes and fine wine, its shape settling in city and skin, with a knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork. From Andalusia to New York, Troubadours have trooped with guitar slung rakishly over shoulders.
Lovers, fools, thieves and pretenders, and all you’ve got to do is surrender!
Andres Segovia, Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, Paco de Lucia, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix towering over the close of Woodstock, a beautiful ghost. The muse has manifested her reflection too: Gabriela Quintero, KT Tunstall, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde. Joan Osborne. In cherry red or ebony, sunburst finish or sultry blue, this is the emblem of our time.