Thousands of people crowded onto the dirt floor of the bull arena in Jerez de la Frontera. Plastic chairs stood in long rows where matadors usually roamed. Rhythmic, syncopated clapping reverberated through the bleachers that circled the arena.
There was a happy fiesta mood in the air and long lines at the refreshment counters under the stands, deep inside the arena. The local fino (sherry) flowed into pitchers. It was a long-anticipated night and the famous flamenco performers were ready.
This was a bulería festival. The bulería is a fast and dramatic style of flamenco music. Jerez is the home of the bulería which originated there in the 19th century. The music involves one or two guitarists, a lead singer, and several people clapping in unison as the percussion section. The guitar playing is fast and incredible. The singing is intense and very dramatic with a narrow range of notes.
The clapping is distinctive because it is very fast and the complicated rhythms accent the guitar playing. Despite the complicated rhythms, as each performer gained speed through their performance, thousands of people joined in and kept up. Between acts there were call-and-reply clapping challenges sent from one side of the arena to the other. Inside the halls of the arena, where people went for refreshments and restrooms, impromptu groups of young adults started clapping and singing performances. Rather than being cynical about traditional music they relished it.
These performances were a highlight of the autumn fiestas (Fiestas de la Vendimia) in Jerez in September. There were many musical acts but very little dancing. We expected more dancing. It was a long evening and when we left at 3:30 am there was still one more performer before the finale and jam session.
The evening did feature one act headlined by a dancer. Of course a still photograph can not portray the speed and intensity of a flamenco dancer. This photo is only a frozen instant. This is Andrés Peña. Even though it was after 2 am his performance was a furious and extended virtuoso exhibition. The sounds of the racing guitars and staccato clapping barely kept up with the flurry of piercing taps from his flying boots. It was a memorable end to an immersion into flamenco and Andalusian culture.