Voices filled with anguish and pain in cante jondo, rhythms of happiness and joy in sevillanas and rumbas. Flamenco is all that and so much more, always loaded with passion and intensity. These qualities confer the genre with an expressiveness that moves all viewers, regardless of where they're from or whether they understand the language. Flamenco makes feelings flourish. Who hasn't felt moved by a dancer tapping her feet to the rhythm of a guitar or by a flamenco singer's passionate cry?
Madrid is the capital of flamenco. The statement may sound a tad categorical, but this city is the place to be for anyone looking to succeed in the genre. Any day of the week, the city offers a wide range of shows, from grand performances in the city's theatres to small song and dance recitals in tablaos or venues. Madrid is the hub of the flamenco record industry and the starting point for artists who tour the world, dazzling the audience.
With the rise of cafés chantants during the 19th century, flamenco enjoyed its finest hour in the capital. These days, flamenco bars and tablaos carry on the tradition, offering a chance to see flamenco at its purest every evening while enjoying a fine meal or a drink.
Our journey begins in the most traditional flamenco tapas bars in Madrid. El Rincón de Jerez, in the Salamanca area, offers a most authentic atmosphere. Every evening, at 11 o'clock, waiters and audience together sing the salve rociera, a tradition which, according to venue manager Rafael Cantero ‘comes straight from Jerez'. ‘The lights go down, candles are lit to set the mood and the audience are given a song sheet so that they can join in.'
Customers can enjoy not only the finest local music, but also a range of traditional tapas and dishes like gazpacho, potato salad, fried fish and oxtail stew. To wash down the food they choose from one of the many wines on offer including dry Jerez sherry and manzanilla from Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
After an aperitif and a few mid-afternoon beers, we head off to enjoy a delicious meal next to one of Madrid's most long-standing tablaos, or flamenco bars. Some of the most prestigious artists of the flamenco world will take to the stage while we enjoy a glass of wine and a traditional Spanish dish.
Corral de la Morería is a world-acclaimed flamenco bar. Since 1956, it has been offering the very best in flamenco, courtesy of its own crew of dancers, guitarists and singers and acclaimed guest artists. Their fine cuisine is currently mentioned in the prestigious Michelin Guide.
A whole host of celebrities have visited this flamenco bar throughout its 55 years of existence, from renowned American actors and actresses of the 20th century like Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth and Charlton Heston, to politicians such as George Bush, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Carlos Menem, as well as great artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Many recent Hollywood stars have also spent an evening here enjoying the art of flamenco, including Nicole Kidman, Adam Brody, Natalie Portman and Richard Gere.
Café de Chinitas is located nearby and boasts an originally decorated stage with traditional Manila shawls. Built in the basement of an 18th century palace, close to the Plaza de Oriente, it has been offering the finest flamenco and national and international gastronomy since its opening in 1970.
Also known for its ties with bullfighting, the café has welcomed to its stage talented artists such as La Chunga, María Albaicín, Lola Flores, Pastora Imperio, El Lebrijano and Manzanita. In addition to these great artists, the venue also has its own flamenco group who perform every evening at 10.30 pm.
Without leaving the Hapsburg district, we come across our next stop: Las Carboneras. Opened a few years ago by three friends -Manuela Vega, Ana Romero and La Tacha - with the idea of recovering the traditional café chantant atmosphere, it has made a name for itself as an innovative venue, a breath of fresh air in the flamenco scene. The avant-garde decoration blends in extraordinarily well with the classical flamenco moves of its dancers.
Despite its short life, the stage at Las Carboneras has already welcomed artists of national stature like Montse Cortés, Manuel Reyes, Rocío Molina, Alejandro Granados and Belén Fernández. The four dancers, two singers and two guitarists, who make up the café's artistic crew perform from Monday to Saturday. According to Manuela Vega, the show is based on ‘the most traditional flamenco, but with plenty of room for improvisation.'
Casa Patas, a similarly innovative venue, has been offering one of the most popular flamenco shows in the capital on a daily basis for over 20 years. ‘Unlike other venues with a regular crew, at Casa Patas we have a different programme on offer each month,' say the managers. ‘The programme also varies from week to week and on weekends.'
The performers at Casa Patas are prominent figures in the flamenco world, such as El Negri, lead singer of La Barbería del Sur, or Lole Montoya, and dancers like Marcos Flores, Olga Penicet, Mara Martínez and Rafael Matos.
In addition to these flamenco bars, the capital also has other long-standing venues offering the finest flamenco performances, notably El Corral de la Pacheca, Torres Bermejas, Arco de Cuchilleros and Las Tablas.
For those who wish to carry on until dusk, Calle Echagaray is a great area. Amongst the many venues that line this street, Cardamomo is one of the finest, famous for its live performances and record launch shows.
Artists such as Diego el Cigala, Raimundo Amador, Ramón el Portugués and Ketama have all performed on its stage. It is not uncommon to see the audience clapping and dancing to the flamenco rhythms until the early hours of the morning. Cardamomo opens Tuesday to Sunday, from 9 pm to 3:30 am.
Not far from Cardamomo lies Clan, near calle Ribera de Curtidores and the Rastro flea narket. Decorated in an Arabic style reminiscent of the Alhambra, it is an ideal place to enjoy a quiet meal at the weekend, or a drink and a live performance by some of the most renowned artists on the flamenco scene: Elena Andújar, Angélica La Tremendita and Leo Treviño, to name but a few.
If you're looking to dance till sunrise, you might want to head to a couple of bars with a distinct flamenco atmosphere. Al Andalus and Ole con Ole (formerly known as Sala Axarquía, on calle Calatrava, 32), host live flamenco performances next to spacious dance floors, where the more courageous ones can show off their dancing skills to the tune of sevillanas, rumbas or the rhythm of zapateaos.