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Rhythms of the City: art, eats, blues : Madrid

Petit Espanish Blues Festival held a warm-up party in the Big Mamma Ballroom. I laughed out loud as I realised I was dancing to filthy lyrics. It was a blues song called Kitchen Man.

“Oh, how that boy can open clam
No one else is can touch my ham
I can't do without my kitchen man.
When I eat his doughnuts
All I leave is the hole…”

Later, when the singer Jesse Gordon asked us for requests, I called for more dirty songs. She began to sing a jazz song… after the first verse Gaston gestured us all to gather around. The small audience sat on the floor before the beautiful redhead with her ukulele and joined in for the chorus "... my girl's pussy!" Singing those lyrics in unison was probably the funniest, most intimate moment of the whole festival weekend. I wonder did everyone understand what we were singing about?

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Art about architecture

Mads is a dancer from Denmark who I had met at Mountain Blues in France. Now in Madrid for the blues festival, he joined me for lunch in Lavapies. We ordered the €11.50 menu del dia at La Sidreria: artichokes and ham, battered veal and jamon Serrano with chips, red wine, and flan for dessert.

When we walked out into the street after lunch, my Nordic companion, clad in a black puffa jacket, did not feel the cold. However, my wardrobe was not fit for the Madrid winter, even after the hearty meal. Walking the streets was like punishment for me during this extreme cold snap. So we walked a few blocks to the Tabacalera, to explore the great indoors. 

The exhibition had changed since my last visit. Social concerns and complex layers of imagery had given way to very different themes: reflexive, abstract, theoretical art. Created in and reflective of the building itself were large scale photographic prints, sculptures, paper, light, video and sound installations – its steel skeleton, peeling paint, corridors, voices, industrial off-cuts. The exhibition drew on the buildings current artistic function and its original tobacco factory priorities and documentation – productivity, number of days lost or products shipped. Walls and corridors of the building were hung with large-scale photos or projections of other walls or corridors within the complex. Dramatic lighting was also used. Many of the artworks raise the question of whether they are art or just junk, artistic interventions or random lines in dust.

Mads and I laughed at these artistic games, finding a shared sense of humour and sensitivity... playing with ideas of untouchable or sacred art, versus found/upcycled or participatory art – shadow play, touch. The unabashed ugliness of most of the works, somehow still recogniseable as art.

A huge wall was covered with handwriting in Spanish... black in on white, made more visually interesting by casual typographic changes in scale and rhythm. I translated a couple of lines for the Dane 'We can write on walls... but we rarely do.'

My favourite artwork was a large room with wall-to-wall carpet printed with a single huge black and white trompe-l'oeil style photograph of a messy office floor. It appeared to be strewn with documents and other mundane objects. Shoe covers and slippers at the doorway indicated that you could walk on it. We did not realise it was carpet ... until we stepped on it felt the soft bounce underfoot. This surprising bounce and texture made an otherwise potentially dour work playful, original. And however did they make that photographic carpet?

In another room, a video art work featured a dancer: a man in casual attire, dancing alone on the pavement, without music, facing a wall of graffiti. His back was to the camera. Abstract. If it had music, his dance could illustrate the cliche 'dance as if nobody is watching.'.. for your own pleasure. As there was no music, no company, nor any obvious discipline, his dance just looked a little crazy.

In the next room: speakers and a video projection – a poetry reading vaguely about ships and tedious video footage panning across dusty, decaying floors. Ships are a recurring motif in this exhibition-- maybe due to the international trade in tobacco. Still, the mind struggles to connect the abstract words with the irrelevant images. I like the idea of integrating poetry into an artwork/video, but would like to do something more emotional with it.

One room contrasted the industrial motifs by conjuring pre-industrial floral, animal and human spirits. Palm trees, birds and animals were painted larger-than-life onto fabric, which was then used to wrap the industrial archways. Life size, almost tribal white masks, were hung in a row to close to the ceiling. The faces looked down with suspicious expressions like spies, or vengeful gods. 

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War and peace in Madrid

While in Madrid, I was immersed in Spanish Civil War journalism and biography by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. I also visited Picasso's Guernica, and it remained powerful in my minds eye as I listened to Hughes wartime story unfold. In the audiobook, I wonder as I wander, Madrid is on the front line, besieged by Franco and his Fascist Italian and German allies. Hughes describes social life in city – how flamenco music, theatre and cinema sustains civic morale, despite many hardships and casualties. Like the citizens, he learns to stoically endure frequent shelling and air raids, hunger and winter cold in fuel-rationed Madrid. While many of the citizens had fled, one million souls were holding out, living on slim rations through many months of sustained Fascist bombardment.

I'm grateful for the peace and ease of this era, this dancing visit to Spain. Madrid is notable now for the abundance of food. On weekdays, traditional no-frills bar restaurants serve a €10-12 menu del dia at lunchtime. This includes 3 courses, including meat and veg, unlimited bread and a whole bottle of wine... really enough for two meals. In these hostelries you'll often see whole dry cured pigs legs hanging from the bar ceiling and a variety of seafood, meat and vegetable dishes under glass on the bar. This bar food is what they keep to satisfy customers when the kitchen is closed, as I learned when I made the mistake of waiting till after 16:00 to have lunch on a Sunday.

First I tried the supermarket – it was closed. Two restaurants that I tried were closed and another two said "The kitchen is closed." I walked wintery streets, cold and shuttered under a grey sky. The local bar also said "The kitchen is closed," when I asked for lunch. Before turning away, I asked "What about this food on the counter?"
“Oh yes you can eat that.”
"And will it all be cold ?"
"No" said the bow-tied barman, listing the many hot dishes that were in fact available from the bar. I placed my order, very hungry after a morning of writing. The barman poured me a small beer, then swiftly brought me out a substantial hot meal: a large meat empanada, a plate of garlic oyster mushrooms and bread. Then he offered me home-made dessert list, so I had a huge slice of apple pie. I washed it down with a complementary cream liqueur from the friendly barman. Not bad considering that the kitchen was closed! Including one small beer, I paid double what I would pay on a weekday... about €22. Sunday is an expensive day to eat out, I was learning. At least there was enough left over to reheat for dinner later.

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While Madrid rations have improved since wartime 1930s, not all change has been so progressive. Having experience segregation, employment discrimination and other bigotry in America, Langston Hughes praised the anti-fascist Spain for its egalitarianism and resilience. In Spain, Hughes found no evidence of racial discrimination, no ‘colour line.’ I wish the same were true today… unfortunately it’s not so. I think Spain is about as egalitarian as many other European countries. Personally I’ve experienced no obvious racism in Spain – but darker skin tends to attract more prejudice. An ebony-skinned Kenyan woman who had lived many years in Barcelona shared her experience of employment discrimination. Photos are required with job applications in Spain. After being offered the job in a phone interview, she was asked to send a photo. A silence followed. When she followed up to enquire about her start date, she was told that "the wealthy parents of the children at this summer camp would not want a black tutor on the staff." No doubt, employment discrimination contributes to the evident desperation of some African immigrants in Spain, reported in my earlier blog post ‘Beggars’.

Dance unites

Friday, the first official day of Petit ESBF, saw an influx of dancers from all over Spain, Europe and beyond… many affectionate reunions. The talent on the dance floor was inspiring, as were the musicians – Dan Nash (London), Jessie Gordon (Australia), Stefano Ronchi (Italy). 

I enjoyed many beautiful dances, 'flow states', blissfully riding waves of sound, like a leaf floating on ripples. Relaxing, playful or erotic connections... made possible with many people by the safe, respectful boundaries of the dance. There were memorable dances with a tall guy from Barcelona, a black guy from Paris, Eduardo from Milano, Helios from Pamplona, Olga from Dublin, Mads from Denmark, Tara and Michael from New Zealand/Portugal, Gabriella from France, and local female leads.

Walking home alone at 02:45, euphoric and exhausted, my feet were still moving to the rhythm of the last song, looping in my head. The diamond pattern pavement stretched into the future, with the pattern of bricks on the wall, and the chiaroscuro of street lights, intervals shrinking away in the distance – rhythms of the cityscape.

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I didn't take photos specifically to go with this story, so instead I've included others: two dance-inspired artworks from a contemporaneous exhibition at La Casa Encendida called “Drawing on a Revolution”, by Marcel Dzama. The soldier image is Madrid street art, captured at estaesunaplaza.

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