In Andalusia’s Jerez de la Frontera, where impromptu gatherings often burst into extended flamenco sessions, the holidays offer numerous opportunities for celebrating the season. In another sign of Bay Area Flamenco’s steadily expanding footprint, the decade-old organization presents its first ever Zambomba Gitana, an evening of dance and music Friday at Brava Theater in San Francisco and Saturday at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley.
The show features a cast of Gypsy flamenco artists from Jerez, including Jose Gálvez, El Pele de los Reyes, María Bermúdez, Angelita Agujetas, Kina Méndez, Antonio de Jerez and Luis de la Tota. More than a concert, the gathering is designed to capture the energy and spirit of the zambomba, a celebration by the Gypsy community that transforms traditional Spanish carols, or villancicos, into slow burning bulerias, a flamenco form strongly identified with the region.
“There are all different ways a zambomba can happen,” says Nina Menendez, Bay Area Flamenco’s founder and artistic director (and an accomplished flamenco vocalist herself). “It emerged as a celebration at home, where people live in these buildings with rooms arrayed around a central courtyard. Families often live together in these buildings, and everyone comes out to courtyard, chips in for nice meal, lights a bonfire, and sit around and have a jam sessions on these flamenco-ized holiday carols.”
Informal zambombas are still common, but over the years the celebration has also moved indoors to theaters and flamenco houses, or peñas. But even in more professional settings, the zambomba retains its community vibe. “It’s not only that zambombas usually feature amateurs and professionals performing together,” Menendez says. “I’ve never seen one where the more professional artists are featured or presented as something different. It’s all very blended.”
The celebration takes its name from an instrument that only gets built at the holidays, a percussion implement constructed out of a large clay pot with a thin cloth or skin stretched across the top. A stick runs through the membrane and when the stick is rubbed it creates a low whooping sound. Menendez says that the zambomba is usually left by the wayside after the first few numbers, and what really sets the gathering apart is the repertoire. The Gypsies not only transform lilting villancicos into turbulent bulerias, they also recast the stories in their own image.
“A lot of the lyrics are irreverent rewritings of Bible stories,” Menendez says. “In one Joseph and St. Ann are Gypsies, and the Virgin Mary is a gypsy too. They don’t take the religious side terribly seriously, and the songs are often very playful.”
While Bay Area Flamenco brings this singular Christmas celebration to the Bay Area for the first time Zambomba Gitana also highlights the long-running ties between Andalusia and California. Dancer María Bermúdez, a Chicana from East Los Angeles, has lived in Jerez for the past quarter century. She’s become a renowned flamenco performer and she’s married to a prominent Gypsy rock musician. Antonio de Jerez was born and raised in his namesake city, but has long lived in Los Angeles.
The cast also includes the guitarist and vocalist Jose “El Duende” Gálvez, a celebrated Jerez performer known as a director of zambombas who performed at the Bay Area Flamenco Festival in September, singer Angelita Agujetas (the sister of the legendary singer Manuel Agujetas), and the celebrated percussionist Luis de la Tota. Whatever venue Zambomba Gitana plays, it offers a Christmas show unlike any other in the region.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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