Dancing in Spanish: Flamenco in Seville

My War Against the War Against Cliché
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 8 2004 12:25 PM

Dancing in Spanish: Flamenco in Seville

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Travel companions
Travel companions

Shops all over Seville sell tickets to flamenco shows, but these tourist-oriented productions are fakes, I'm told. If seeing "real" flamenco is like finding a genuine Etruscan pottery shard in the sand, attending the spectacles around town is like buying a mass-produced imitation.

How do I know this? My guidebook, Time Out Andalucía, has told me so. So have foreigners who have no strong interest in flamenco but who are very concerned about having authentic experiences and who appear to have read the same guidebooks as me. And a few Sevillanos have told me so too. You can't buy tickets to "real" flamenco, one strain of the argument goes. "Real" flamenco is only that which bubbles up spontaneously, when conditions are just so.

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This isn't exactly true, though there's something to it. Flamenco is not just an art but a folk art, a local lingo of song and dance, rhythm and music practiced by ordinary men and women in backstreet bars. I get it. But while I appreciate that side of flamenco, I quickly grow irritated with the arbiters of authenticity, and Time Out Andalucía becomes the focal point of my irritation.

Anyone who has used the excellent weekly Time Out guides to London or New York is familiar with their self-consciously savvy voice. It works beautifully for reviewing new bars. It's utterly grating when describing 15th-century architecture.

Time Out Andalucía is littered with schoolmarmish admonishments not to embrace orthodox thinking. Don't idealize the past: "It's tempting, but it's overly simplistic," says the anonymous authorial voice. (An editor, Jonathan Cox, and a long list of contributors are listed in tiny type on the masthead page. I suspect the whole book was massaged into uniform hauteur by one or two wordsmiths in London.)

The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic church in the world
The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic church in the world

The editors have made a special sidebar headlined "Cliché" for anything deemed stereotypical or stereotyped—including flamenco, bullfighting, bandits, sherry distilleries, and Moorish Spain. They are especially concerned about that last one, an 800-year historical period that was not, repeat not, "a utopian golden age." Just think of the danger you could blunder into without those sidebars. You might romanticize the past. (Is there a better reason to look at old buildings?) You might do things in Andalusia that other vacationers have done before. And worse, you might do them without realizing how common they are. That could get you into all sorts of humiliating conversations when you get home, if you run with the tragically hip.

But wait, even beyond the sidebars, it seems that the landscape is strewn with cliché bombs. In the book's food section, I'm warned to leave my preconceptions about Andalusian food behind. (Who has preconceptions about Andalusian food?) In the literary section, the great poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) gets a rap on the knuckles because he "did much to perpetuate the romantic clichés about Andalucía." If the Time Out writers ever stooped to buy a souvenir, their tone suggests, it would be with layers of irony I couldn't begin to understand.

And, silly me, I didn't even know that bandits were cliché. Which illustrates exactly what's wrong with hiring, as a guidebook writer, the sort of person who'd rather take a mortal wound than fall off the cutting edge. The squeamish Time Out approach to tourism doesn't serve people who know nothing about a place, because they don't have any preconceptions to dispel. And they probably want information, in place of which Time Out often offers disparagement. The "legends about Boabdil" are "tired," it says. I'm sure they're exhausted, but could you explain what you're talking about?

A garden wall in the Alcázar, the fortress-palace of Roman, Moorish, and Catholic Spanish rulers
A garden wall in the Alcázar, the fortress-palace of Roman, Moorish, and Catholic Spanish rulers

Likewise, the Time Out approach doesn't serve people with strong interests—in bullfighting, sherry, or, yes, flamenco—because if you actually do know and love something, you don't care if it strikes others as excessively typical.

Rather, my Time Out destination guide was written by and for people who think the optimal amount to know about anything is a little. Knowing nothing is bad, because it shows. But knowing too much about one thing is bad too, because it takes up brain space you could devote to shallower things, like the names of all the nominees in the lesser Oscar categories. The Time Out mind-set is all about achieving a vast, shallow pool of knowledge.

A single word for "vast, shallow pool of knowledge" is "list," of course, and listing is what Time Out does best. Let me be clear: I think the Time Out weeklies are first-rate, and capitalizing on their audience by wading into the guidebook business was no doubt a shrewd business move. Guidebook users tend to return to the same publishers, and I'm sure there's a travel niche for the Time Out brand.

Personally, though, I'll take my information without the snarky bells and whistles. In traveling, I don't want to be counseled on what to enjoy. I cling to the hope that visiting a new place can be about more than what's hot and what's not; that I can still do a few things without mediation. After all, I travel partly to escape the sort of place where knowing the names of obscure bands has become a substitute for enjoying music, and getting into the newest restaurant a stand-in for appreciating food.

There's no need to take prepackaged urban attitude with you. The music section of my 3-year-old Rough Guide to Spain, for instance, contains vastly more information about flamenco and other Spanish music than Time Out Andalucía, without the implication that eagerness would be a disgrace. An even better companion on my trip has been Jason Webster's travel memoir Duende: A Journey Into the Heart of Flamenco. This book has a novelistic pacing that's rare in travelogues, and it's enjoyable precisely because the author gets carried away with his own yearnings. Sometimes they're wacky. When he falls in with people who steal cars and keep a defecating donkey in their fifth-floor apartment, he writes, "[T]his was the bohemian, flamenco life I had been looking for." But it's all in the service of ripping storytelling, which he couldn't have pulled off without a simple willingness to get enthused.

My Time Out Andalucía makes me think of a scene from the charming 2003 movie L'Auberge Espagnol, a sort of Real World-in-Europe wherein students from various countries share a cramped Barcelona apartment. The English girl falls briefly for a bandana-wearing, Bob Marley-singing American boy. Her French friend—and the audience—are horrified: How could she be seduced by someone so lacking in irony? But she soon tells him—and us—to shut up already. She's just having fun.

The things we go to see when we travel are often those with immense staying power. Visiting Egypt may go in and out of style, but the pyramids endure. I don't want to read about Havana or Istanbul—some of the volumes in Time Out's travel series—in the same breathless tones used to cover a nightclub that will close next week. Especially when the Istanbul book's blurb on the Time Out Web site tells me that the city is "more complex" than its "cultural cliché."

Thanks again, Time Out authors. I'm convinced that you know a cliché when you see one, except for the one you have become. It's been downhill for cliché-spotting writers ever since Martin Amis titled his 2001 essay collection The War Against Cliché, and now you are officially you-know-what. So could you please shut up and tell me how to get to the cathedral? I'm just trying to have fun.

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