28 February 2012

El Día de Andalucía

Today, 28 February, is Andalucía Day and a public holiday in Spain's second-largest region. Schools are closed today, but last Friday many schoolchildren will have eaten the traditional Andalucian breakfast (toast spread with olive oil and a glass of orange juice) before putting on plays and singing the Himno de Andalucía.

The festival commemorates the date of a referendum of 1980 in which the electorate voted for the Statute of Autonomy, as set out in the 1978 Constitution, making Andalucía an Autonomous Community of Spain.  This means it can raise its own taxes and set its own policies on health and social care, education and cultural development.

It is run by a body called the Junta de Andalucía, whose headquarters are in Seville. Its parliament is elected by Andalusian voters every four years on a system of proportional representation. The next election is on 25 March, and the present PSOE (Socialist) majority is expected to be overturned by the right-wing Partido Popular for the first time ever. Unlike the municipal elections, when EU nationals registered on the Padrón can vote, those of us resident in Andalucía can't vote in this one.

The green and white flag of Andalucía can be seen everywhere, flying from flagpoles and hanging from balconies. The green symbolizes hope and union, and the white symbolizes peace and dialogue. The coat of arms shows the pillars of Hercules, the ancient name for the promontories that flank the Strait of Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean. Hercules is shown dominating two lions, representing the power of animal instinct. Its inscription reads Andalucía por sí, para España y la Humanidad ("Andalusia by herself, for Spain and Humankind").

Monument to Blas Infante
on the site of his execution
near Carmona (Sevilla)
The flag, the coat of arms and the anthem were adopted in 1918 at the Assembly of Ronda, which approved a charter proposing Andalucía as an autonomous republic inside a Spanish Federal State.

The driving force behind Andalusian independence, and the designer of the flag and coat of arms, was Blas Infante Pérez de Vargas, known as the Padre de la Patria Andaluza. Every town in Andalucía has a monument or a street named after him.   During the Second Spanish Republic he led the Junta Liberalista, a federalist party dedicated to Andalusian independence, but like the independence movements in other regions of Spain such as Cataluña, the Basque Country and Galicia, it was swiftly crushed by Franco's nationalist regime.  Blas Infante was executed in 1936 without trial.

Today the Partido Andalucista (PA) still has some support, particularly in Cádiz and Sevilla, as does its splinter group, the Partido Socialista de Andalucía. Neither have any seats in the current Andalusian parliament, although they are more successful at local level.

Nevertheless there is a strong cultural pride in the region, and an emerging indignation fired by the long history of snobbery and contempt shown towards Andalucía by its northern neighbours. Andalusians are sterotyped as uneducated, lazy and wilful, descended from Moors, Jews and gypsies. People speak with a strong dialect, often difficult to understand, and use many words and phrases not heard in other parts of Spain.

Andalucía has always been poor economically, and until Spain joined the EU received very little investment other than from the tourist industry keen to exploit its favoured location in the Mediterranean sun. It has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, up to 40% in places, and what work there is is mainly seasonal.  But culturally Andalucía is one of the richest parts of the country.  Many of the things regarded as "typically Spanish", from flamenco to gazpacho, originated here.



Footnote: You will often see Andalucía spelt with an s, Andalusia. That is the English spelling.  In Spanish it is spelt with a c and has an accent on the i to indicate that the penultimate syllable is stressed - AndaluTHEEa.  This itself is the Castilian version of the Arabic El-Andalus, and was adopted in the 13th century to refer to the part of Spain still under Moorish rule.  If you want to be consistent (which I rarely am) the adjective in Spanish is andaluz (andaluza in the feminine).  There is no such word as "Andalucian".





The Andalusian anthem, sung by the late Rocio Jurado from Chipiona

22 February 2012

How not to make a roof garden

In Alcalá de los Gazules and other pueblos blancos of Andalucia, where houses tend to be built one on top of another, it is unusual to have a garden attached to your house. Many of the locals grow fruit and vegetables in nearby plots of land called huertos, and adorn their whitewashed walls and windowsills with pots of geraniums. But the traditional English-style garden, with flowerbeds and lawns, is rarely seen.

Undaunted, when we moved here in 2008 I decided to create a garden on our large flat roof. I had a vision of a leafy haven for insects, birds and butterflies, with jasmine and potted citruses to scent the warm evenings, bougainvillea and geraniums for a riot of colour, and of course home-grown, sun-ripened tomatoes, peppers and herbs. The cats would have somewhere fun to frolic and snooze. Everything would be grown in pots, so we would be able to sit out and read all day, confident in the knowledge that we would would never again have to trim a privet hedge or mow a lawn.

The locals use their roof terraces to hang out the washing, tie up their dogs or occasionally keep poultry. Sitting out on the roof is purely for mad foreigners, and growing flowers up there is just plain weird (though the odd cannabis sativa plant has been spotted). But we carried on regardless, lugging sacks of compost and gravel mulch, giant planting troughs and clay pots up two flights of stairs in 30 degree temperatures.

We invested in four ridiculously expensive plastic troughs, each 120 x 60 cm, made of a kind of durable plastic which looks just like terracotta. The real thing would have been so heavy that the roof would probably have caved in under the weight, and would have absorbed water faster than I could top them up. We used broken polystyrene instead of crocks for drainage, again to save weight, and mulched them with two inches of pretty pink gravel. We put up a trellis for things to climb up and provide us with some privacy (a mule-track snakes up a cliff just behind the house).

We get no rain at all from May to September, and temperatures average 35°C in July and August, so watering has to be done daily after sundown. Fortunately we already had a water supply up there, though it was two years before we got round to attaching a hosepipe to it, when our plastic watering-can finally gave up and melted in the heat.

Lantana camara, the colours of
the Spanish flag
A compost heap is out of the question of course, and what goes up those two flights of stairs must eventually come down again. I made the mistake (once) of using a biodegradable plastic bin-liner to store leaf-mould, which biodegraded rather more quickly than expected and deposited said mould all over my feet when I picked it up.

The first few months were reasonably successful. Our little lemon tree produced nine lemons, enough for a whole summer's intake of G&T. The bougainvillea, hibiscus, plumbago auriculata, Spanish flag plant (lantana camara), mandevilla and Spanish jasmine (jasminum grandiflorum) grew vigorously in the troughs and soon had to be attached to the trellis with garden wire. Trailing geraniums planted amongst the shrubs flourished, as did the pots of thyme and rosemary. Cherry tomatoes and chili peppers germinated rapidly from seed and were quickly potted on and placed outside to enjoy the sunshine; no need for hardening off here, as the temperature rarely falls below 4 or 5 degrees even in midwinter.


The first setback was the wind. Our wind is so famous it has its own name, the Levante, which means “from the east”. Our garden faces east. That damn wind whips through the mountains on its journey from the Sahara and hits us full in the face, ripping washing from the line, overturning garden furniture and tossing the smaller pots around like shuttlecocks. Bye-bye, little tomato plants …   Then came the geranium moths, nasty little brown buggers which lay their eggs in the stalks so the plants rot from the inside. Their official name is cacyreus marshalli and they came over from Africa in the 1990s doing untold damage to Andalucia's most celebrated perennial. Not wanting to spray everything with pesticide, I had to rip out the affected plants (nearly all of them). Fortunately they don't like my scented geraniums, which have insignificant little pink flowers but a wonderful lemony smell and grow easily from cuttings.

The next plague to strike was woolly aphid. I spotted little white chewy blobs on the stems of the lemon tree (by now, and in fact ever since, bereft of lemons). Inside these blobs live tiny red aphids. Anxious to retain my green credentials (nothing gets through the white goo anyway) I carefully removed them all by hand and thanked my stars they hadn't discovered the bougainvillea, which they apparently love.   The ants mopped up the ones I missed.

The following year I had wised up to the Levante terrorist threat and put the tomato plants (Roma and Tumbler varieties) in large heavy pots, placed up against the wall for protection. Dutifully watering them twice a day I managed to raise an impressive crop of fruit of both types, but the Roma succumbed to blossom-end rot and the cherries were tiny with chewy thick skins. At the time of fruition you could buy fabulous vine-ripened toms in the market for 50 cents a kilo … Another lesson learned.

The herb garden fared slightly better, especially sweet basil, coriander and flat-leaf parsley grown from seed. But I had sown them too late (April) and by the time they were ready to plant out (June) there was no shade left and they literally baked in the soil.

By year three the soil in the troughs must have been exhausted, despite regular feeding; the flowering shrubs gave a very poor show. Removing two inches of gravel mulch and replacing the top six inches of compost was backbreaking and messy. I'm not even sure it did any good, but we'll see what this summer brings. I've since been told that plumbago prefers damp shade and lantana hates being in pots! The jasmines are still thriving, filling the air with their exquisite scent, but the delicate white flowers tend to shrivel in the wind. The happiest plants are the bougainvilleas, especially a dwarf bush variety, and hibiscus, which flower all through the winter.

Happy grasshoppers
I finally admitted defeat last year and replaced the flowering perennials with a variety of low planters full of kalanchoes, cacti, succulents and sedums, mulched with white pebbles and seashells. They sneer at the wind, adore the searing sun and don't mind at all if I forget to water them for weeks on end. They have been colonised by a family of giant grasshoppers and some geckoes, who between them dispose of unwanted bugs more efficiently than any spray. I grow my herbs on the windowsill over the winter and freeze them, and I buy tomatoes and peppers in the market.

Maybe I am getting lazier as I get older, or the languid Spanish heat has drawn me into the culture of mañana - never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. But these days a deckchair and a good book have a lot more appeal than a sack of compost and permanently black fingernails ...

13 February 2012

Carnival in Cádiz

It´s carnival time again, or carnaval as it is spelt in Spanish.   While this ancient tradition is celebrated all over Spain and indeed all over the world, the Carnaval de Cádiz is unique because of its musical agrupaciones with their combination of bawdy and satirical lyrics, irreverent parody and flamboyant, sometimes outrageous, costumes.

Gran Teatro Falla in Old Cádiz
The competition for the best singing groups is entering its final week at the Gran Teatro Falla.  It is known as COAC - Concurso Oficial de Agrupaciones Carnavalescas.   The heats are broadcast live on Canal Sur TV for those not lucky enough to get a seat in this magnificent theatre; people queue all night to by tickets when the box office opens just after Christmas.

The groups also perform outside in the street and in other public venues, and on the weekend after the grand final there are giant parades and free performances all round the city.

The dates for Carnaval change each year because it is linked to the date of Easter.  In 2012 it will be the weekend of 25-26 February, and in 2013, 16-17 February.  It is virtually impossible to park in the city over the carnival weekend, so if you want to visit, get the bus or leave your car at San Fernando and hop on the train which takes you into the centre of Cádiz.

The musical groups and the songs they perform take various forms:

The groups

The chirigota is the best-known kind of singing group. They train for the whole year to sing about politics, topics in the news, and everyday circumstances, and all the members wear identical costumes. Their songs are all original compositions and are full of satire and wit.  They sing in the streets and squares, at improvised venues like outdoor staircases or doorways, and in established open-air tablaos (tableaux) organized by the carnival clubs.

The choirs (coros) are larger groups who travel through the streets on open flat-bed carts or wagons, singing with a small ensemble of guitars, bandurrias and lutes. Their characteristic composition is the "Carnival Tango", and their repertoir alternates between comical and serious, with special emphasis on lyrical homages to the city and its people. Their costumes are the most elaborate of all.

The comparsas are the serious counterparts to the chirigotas. Poetic lyrics and criticisms are their main ingredients. They usually tend to have a more elaborate polyphony, and they are easily recognized by the typical counter-tenor voice.

The quartets (cuartetos), oddly, can be composed of five, four, or three members. They don't use musical instruments, just a kazoo and two sticks to mark the rhythm. They use set-piece theatre scenes (pre-written sketches), improvisations and music, and are pure comedy.

The oldest and most traditional carnival characters in Cádiz are the romanceros. A romancero is a single individual in costume who uses posters on an easel to help him illustrate his story, reciting humorous verses while pointing at aspects of the pictures and drawings with a long stick.

The names chosen by the groups are very much part of the fun. The same group of singers will have a new name each year, reflecting their theme. They often involve dreadful puns, e.g. "Puretas del Caribe" (Pirates of the Caribbean), with pureta (old geezer) instead of pirata.

The songs
The specific musical forms have evolved over the years. In the early days popular music was used, and tropical rhythms were mixed with European dances and songs; only the lyrics changed. Towards the end of the 19th century, the musical identity of the Carnival was already mature, and, although most of the names (tango, pasodoble, couplet etc.) are shared with other musical forms around the world, their melodies, rhythms, and character are unmistakably original.  The lyrics, or letras, are often sung in a heavy Cádiz dialect, making them hard for us guiris to understand, but copies can often be found on the internet or in printed leaflets.

The Presentation is sung first, to present the characterisation (tipo) of the group. The style of the music is free and unstructured. It can take the form of a well-known song, an original composition, or even a spoken-word recitation.

The Couplet (cuplé) is sung by the chirigotas, comparsas, coros and cuartetos. They are short satirical songs with a refrain that is always related to the costume and the characterisation tipo of the group.


The Pasodoble is a longer song without a refrain, and it is usually serious, criticising something that happened during the previous year or rendering an homage to someone. They are sung by comparsas and chirigotas.

The Tango, with its characteristic gaditano rhythm, is sung only by the
coros, accompanied by their orchestras.  The lyrics are mostly poetical compositions.

The 
Potpourri (popurri), sung by all the groups, is a medley putting new lyrics to the tunes of well-known songs.

Here are some of the semifinalists for 2012:


Mejó no Salgo - "I´d better not come out" (chirigota).  A group of singing foetuses tell us why they would rather stay attached to their giant pink placenta than be born into 21st century Cádiz.
Viva la Pepi (chirigota) - A pun on "Viva la Pepa", Long live the Constitution.  Pepi the cleaner and her friends describe the trials and tribulations of life in Spain during el crisis.

Los Hijos del ´78 - "The Sons of '78" (coro).  
While Cádiz celebrates the bicentenary of the 1812 Constitution, these guys take us back to the heady days of 1978 when the latest version was signed.
Los que hundieron el Vaporcito  - "The ones who sank the little steamer" (cuarteto).   The Vaporcito is the local name for the ferry between Cádiz and El Puerto de Santa Maria, but this three-piece quartet are complaining about the catastrophic management of their local football team, El Vaporcito FC.

Bollywood (coro).  A beautifully turned-out choir, with fine singing and choreography.  Topics covered in their songs include an attack on members of the aristocracy being rude about the good people of Andalucia. 
Llámame Jesús - "Call me Jesus" (comparsa).  "Suffer little children to come unto me"; from the mouth of Jesus Christ comes a fierce attack on paedophilia concealed in the bosom of the Church.
The Cádiz Gospel Choir (coro).   The Choir's final popurrí , a wonderful, rocking, boisterous celebration of their native Cádiz,  left the audience stamping its feet for more at the Teatro de Falla.  There is reputedly an Alcalá man in there somewhere!




El que está resfriao, que arríe las velas
"Let the one who's got a cold lower the sails."  (cuarteto).  Sorry, haven´t got a clue ... everything was sung with a bunged-up doze!