The alleys are silent, lit by soft yellow lanterns glowing above plants gently breathing out the heat of the day into the clear mountain air. A pomegranate tree droops over a whitewashed wall and a bird sings softly from the unripened fruit, the spindly branch quivering beneath its weight.
The flamenco spectactular has finished in the Generalife, the gardens of the Alhambra. I was there tonight, at the show they are calling ‘duende’, but the mysterious Puck of the night the term refers to was missing on the stage.
For some reason I never feel duende in those big spectaculars, with their choreographed routines and pretty dresses, famous names and sophisticated lighting.
It is in the tiny bars and the back alleys, in the late nights with ties undone and shirt sleeves rolled up that I find it, and tonight has left me restless, yearning for that indefinable energy, wanting to feel what Lorca once described as that ‘dash of the diabolical’.
I follow the mosaic pebble pathways through the alleyways and up the endless uneven stairs of the Albaicin. Across the valley the Alhambra glows russet atop Sabika Hill, quiet now, ever watchful, mindful yet uncaring of the human travails below. It’s been watching for over a millennium, and it knows the impish spirit of duende well, smiles secretly to itself at the silvery madness that wraps like a spell around those who feel it.
Guitar is playing in the mirador, not just the lighthearted alegrias the buskers play for tourists and their cameras, but something else, a soft solea, the honeyed notes climbing like jasmine creepers through the night air.
The cantaor begins to sing just as I come into the square. There are three of them, still dressed in the black trousers and white shirts from their performance in one of the flamenco bars earlier in the evening. A bottle of Alhambra beer sits on the stone bench between them.
One has a wooden box, a cajon, and he beats it softly, his hands swishing across it like a breath underpinned by an old heartbeat.
The guitarist plays with his back to the Alhambra. Behind him the Sierra Nevada rears above the old palaces, streaks of snow still odd incongruous blazes across the balmy summer night. It is moon dark tonight and the stars are high and wild in an indigo sky, blazing down on the valley below and casting a faint glow across the blonde wood of the guitar.
He plucks notes of sweet sadness, the cajon sighing beneath his melody, and the third man brings his hands together in silent palmas, feeling the compas, as he puts his head back and opens the lament.
“Ayyy,” he holds the note for an unbearable length, in the cry that so often feels forced or contrived, as the singer finds his soul, finds the song, his pitch. The opening cry of cante jondo can be an assault on the senses, uncomfortably intimate. But this is a soft sigh, and what is not said but implied in it is as potent as the night.
“In the night,” he sings, “In the night, we are…..
“In the night
“In the silent night of Grana….
“It is done
“The night is over
“But it does not sleep
“However we who sing
“We feel it….”
The guitarist strums, deep and intense, and the singer stands, turns to the Alhambra, and his fingers come up over his head and he curls them, an oddly graceful movement for such a big man, and he brings them together in the palmas once more.
“Ale,” murmurs the man playing the cajon. “Eso, es.” It is this.
The guitar winds about the square and they play on, words coming at times, at others the palmas speaking where the voice does not, at others the cajon breathing for them all.
The musicians do not speak amongst themselves and it strikes me that they don’t need to, that they are having a conversation more profound than the spoken word, and that what they are saying is what I feel, that in these nights and beneath this sky there is magic unknown, a world of love and pain and lament and passion that rises from the earth and creeps through open windows, sings in the crystal snow melt of the rivers and cascades down in a thousand soft petals on the cobblestones.
In the early velvet hours of Granada duende fills the night, and the stars above smile as for the briefest moment, the musicians hold the threads of that dash of the diabolical, and weave a sorcery all of their own.
And I sit on a stone wall and look out over the city I love, and I dream.
I dream all the dreams I’ve ever had.