At the Zambomba by Tosh Hayashi
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
“Olé, my Francisco! Give us another one!” I cried, as my cousin Francisco finished the fandanguito he had been singing with a drawn out soulful ayeee, going out with a gasp, José right there next to him with a gentle flourish on the guitar which peaked, just as Francisco did, and then closed with something that made me think of how webs of waves form, skipping little rocks.
"Eh-hey!” the crowd bellowed. It had been a very good fandanguito.
None in the neighbourhood could play the guitar like José. He was kind of a figure in town now, if you followed what was going on with flamenco, and we were all delighted that he had come to our little zambomba along with Francisco. One of the most sought after guitarists around the tabancos, the peñas, and the teatros, his technique was precise and his guitar was educated and scientific while remaining intensely evocative and deeply emotional. His instincts on the guitar while accompanying a singer were truly a wonder to behold. He could follow the whim of a singer in any direction and to any destination, seeming sometimes to turn a moment of near tragedy, total collapse, into one of singular beauty.
And Francisco?! He was becoming an artista of the world, traveling to America and Japan with companies from Sevilla, Madrid and Jerez de la Frontera. His singing sounded like the old masters even though, at only 23 years of age, he was still a very young man. Furthermore, he was so handsome and carried himself like a bullfighter. We are all singers in my family, but Francisco shone the most brightly among us younger ones. Why, he’d been invited to the stage by the likes of Manuela Valiente and Antonio Sanchez and had just returned from singing for the great guitarist Vicente Carrasco, touring music festivals in Germany and across the south of France.
“It goes very well with Francisco,” I heard the old men playing dominoes saying earlier that morning over coffee at the Cafeteria la Vega, "Very well, indeed."
"Eat, drink, and live!” was a fashionable thing to say to one another in those days. A saying of the gitanos—the gypsies—it was an affirmation for life as it should be lived: simply, festively, and with all of one’s heart. In Spanish, it goes, “Come, bebe, y vive, y ya'sta” - eat, drink, and live, and that is all - ya'sta. There should not be so many things. Francisco made a toast of this gitano wisdom then, lifting his glass of fino as he intoned it, taking a long sip.
Many glasses were raised. Loosely huddled around the fire, some sat on benches or portable chairs, and some swayed on their feet. Some swayed more than others!
And the zambomba? This is what we call our parties in the streets during the season leading up to Christmas. We had set up between the trees of a small square which jutted into a wide, level opening between the tightly packed stone buildings along the slope of Calle Limón as it curved down towards the catedral. It was a warm, late autumn evening, and the moon behind the clouds cast a silhouette of palm trees above the catedral and of the stone flats stretching off under the setting Andalusian sky.
"Yes, Francisco, give us another one!" someone else called.
“Oh, alright!” agreed Francisco, dabbing the sweat from his brow and wiping down the back of his neck with a folded up kerchief, hot from the fire and from the singing. “But, afterwards we must all sing! This is not a performance, but a Zambomba! I begin to feel selfish! Am I right, José?!” José shook his head vaguely and, grinning softly, shrugged smoothly through another light flurry of picados and arpeggios.
“Let’s go for Bulerias, capo on the 4, please, fenómeno.” Francisco, tossing these words at José, wiped his forehead one more time before folding the square piece of silk cloth back into his shirt pocket.
José took the half-smoked cigarette from his lips and propped it on the head of his guitar, pinching it between two strings so it could stay there, smoking like a stick of incense as he played on. Squinting from the smoke, he obediently repositioned the capo to the 4th fret, checking the guitar's tuning with another short display of virtuosity, a fast tumbling run of ascending and descending picados. Making a few small adjustments to some of the strings as he went along, José was soon satisfied and, letting his notes trickle and fade, he wordlessly signaled to Francisco that he was ready for him to begin.
Their bulerias echoed off the stone buildings up Calle Limón and into Plaza San Sebastian. The flames leapt from the rim of the fire barrel in the dim light, casting embers. I saw faces dancing like demons, wild shadows. In their eyes flickered and flashed the festive spirits of the night.
I heard the wailing of generations who have endured deep sorrow. I heard the expression of pure, ecstatic joy in this small corner of our beloved Andalucía.
Tosh Hayashi is a flamenco aficionado, guitar practitioner, sporadic doodler, and fiction dabbler based in Calgary, Canada