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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

This comes to you from Spain where the morning coffee shoots down the spine and electrifies every single nerve ending in the body. No doubt why locals breakfast on it with red wine, beer, ‘firewater’ and unfiltered cigarettes. In August, Aspe – a largely ignored spot inland from Alicante – is, as the lights strung across the dusty streets testify, ‘en fiestas’.

Music is everywhere: the Moors and the Christians – first encountered in 2011 (fR373) – in heavy velvet robes and sturdy leather boots again tramp the streets behind marching bands in relentless sunshine and 36º heat. You can still only tell them apart as the Moors’ dress is more flamboyant: more Versace than Ralph Lauren. The entire town lines the street the night the Moorish king in glittering attire arrives on horseback to take the wooden castle, a feature in the middle of the main road for some days now. The king, accompanied by sparkling beauties in diaphanous robes and beefy, bronzed blokes in baggy trousers, sets immediately to partying on the flimsy battlements.

But, then (drum-roll) ‘El Cid’ or someone like him arrives on the horse along with primly-dressed girls and men in more sensible trousers and appears grinning, to take control of the castle. The Moors, also grinning, don’t seem to mind and the party continues pretty much unabated, the crowd on the battlements just gets bigger and more joyous. The townspeople clap and cheer, honour is satisfied, their collective history, their myth preserved intact: all is as it should be and they too carry on with the party, which is similar to breakfast.

Later in the palm tree-ed square by the old covered market, on a stage from which dry ice billows, out step ‘Abba’: sturdy girls in gold tunics and white plastic knee high boots, one in a long blonde wig, the other sporting her own reddish curls. The guys wearing white ‘satin’ flares and blue silk shirts, unlike in the original line-up, are skinny. It’s a sort of Abba inversion. A Spanish Abba.

The audience are all seated: “in shock,” says the Spanish A&R man beside me. But the band launch confidently into the classic tunes. They sing and play perfectly whilst performing little dance routines and not choking on the billowing dry ice. Introducing each song with a few words, ‘the story of Abba’ is revealed in English and Spanish and I realise that this is not Spanish Abba: ‘Bjorn’ or ‘Benny’ – I’ve no idea which – translates for the locals in an accent strongly suggesting Wolverhampton.

Everyone young or old joyfully claps and sings along. Fernando is greeted most enthusiastically, some more certain of the words than others, and no-one cares that it’s not Abba. The band’s spot-on. It’s a tribute, not a parody: it’s a tribute to all our pasts, wherever we’re from, whatever our history. With each song our individual stories spring forth with our memories. The music, the dry ice, the blue silk and white satin, the white plastic boots, all are conduits for our own narratives – and these pour silently into the starlit Spanish night, swirl in the warm breeze and embrace us all. I leave as Bjorn or Benny exhorts the audience to a rousing chorus of “Ring ring…”. For a moment I wonder if they tour in Japan.

Elizabeth Kinder


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