The sultan sits.
Around him the royal party recline; the tinted light from the cumarias stains their skin and bounces brightly from the polychromed walls – every inch of them covered in script and elaborate tile work; geometries in blue, green, yellow and black. Shells, flowers, stars…
The floor is glazed in blue and white and the high hall is a perfect cube; its immaculate symmetries offset today by shadow, the scent of fruit-flavoured shisha, heady perfumes, cushions, throws and music.
Bleary-eyed blinking ambassadors adjust as they come in from the courtyard and its water-refracted glare.
Nervous functionaries nestle in the nine alcoves.
The boy’s voice joins the shisha smoke and rises quietly, curling through koranic quotes and climbing towards the seven concentric crowns of the cupola.
It wavers skillfully as he sighs his music into the vaulted space, scanning the oriental scales – the augmented seconds of the East – that have found their way here from Byzantium, Arabia, Persia and India to fill Andalucian halls and hearts.
As the serpentine melody crescendos someone is moved to cry “Allah!”
The song is a lament and resonates with the brooding ruler who will soon abandon his city of pomegranates – his beloved Gharnata – and the red citadel in which he lounges; Al-Qal’at al-Hamra…
…we think we’re late so we duck into the little club quickly and down to the long narrow cavern and our seats.
It is dim and the ceiling is low. The space is basic – a cramped cave. A PA system at one end and some coloured spotlights; red, green. There don’t seem to be many Spanish people here. We’re not late, it turns out; in fact we’re kept waiting for the next hour while we’re overcharged for sangria.
Why did I order sangria? I don’t like it.
The benches are uncomfortable and we feel like we’re being played. K gets up to complain about the delay. She’s an excellent person to have around when that sort of thing is required. Five minutes, she’s told. Fifteen minutes later they finally appear; Jorge, Victor and David.
At least they’re Spanish.
They take their places at one end of the subterranean tube. Jorge begins. A teasing tune is strummed between slow silences; he seems to know what to do with a guitar. David sings, his voice skimming the scales – the phyrgian, the dorian – like a stone across water. It is mournful, tortuous even as it negotiates a malagueña.
It wobbles; skilfully, orientally, loudly. Drama, unresolved. The crowd fidgets. I glance at K’s mother, U; she grimaces with every high note hit.
Then the descent; a slide into the lower notes through a multitude of miniscule intervals. Snaking cadences; a series of tiny drops that produce stomach churn like an aeroplane in turbulence. Microtone, ornament, flourish, portamento and…
…Boom! Spontaneous applause as Victor and David pound the floor with their feet, one hand with the other. A symbiotic meeting of musics as vocal outpouring and instrumental tinkering shift in an instant to the insistent rhythm of the bulería – a driving vocal line, each phrase beginning with percussive highs and sinking smokily into Arab rasp, wrapped in Victor’s clap and tap, Jorge’s toque airoso, his rasgueado…
…Boom! Applause. Hairs on end, nobody is fidgeting – we’re all Spanish now. Continued bursts of it for flourishes and phrases particularly well flung – left to fade and float – the small crowd of foreigners become aficionados in the space of a few cantes…
…Boom! Victor is up. Eyes forward, arms out; flamenco puro – improvising and unchoreographed he dances, observing a lively alegria. The salida, the paseo, the silencio. Footwork and body posture that have found their way here from Byzantium, Arabia, Persia and India. The applause rapturous. David at his most brilliant out of the spotlight. Victor himself excited. What is it that hits us so hard? The booming percussion of his feet or the silences that follow? The castellana, the zapateo, the bulería…
…as the dance crescendos in the dim tunnel someone is moved to shout “Ole!”
We pour ourselves out onto the narrow street still filled with flamenco. The Alhambra is high above us. We can see the Comares tower from here – the great Hall of the Ambassadors. The music fades, the roar becoming a sigh in the mind – el suspiro del moro. I can still feel the thud of Victor’s stamp. I can hear the brilliance of Jorge’s string; I can hear David’s voice.
I can hear Saïd’s.