The Butcher Who Sang Like A Bird

The Butcher Who Sang Like a Bird

By Lawrence Bohme

Poet and translator Lawrence Bohme reminisces in five essays on the summer of 1960 and his discovery of the Montefrio which became his home. In the last three essays Laurence returns to Montefrio in 1985, this time to live in the idealic 'Cortijo de los Siete Olivos'.

III. The Butcher who sang like a bird. 

In spite of the rapid changes which were beginning to affect Spain in the early 60's, Montefrio seemed, as it still sometimes does, timeless. Every time I came back from Granada, Madrid or Paris, there were the same smells of frying olive oil and goat droppings; there were the same slippery, round paving stones on the streets, which swarmed with almost as many four-legged beasts as they do today, under their cover of cast concrete, with four-wheeled ones; and there were the threadbare little fiestas without stereophonic loudspeakers which one didn't have to be Spanish to enjoy. But, for me, in my youthful fascination with the eccentric and the bizarre, there was, first and foremost, Manolo.

Many people think of Manolo as a skilled and original singer, which he certainly was, but I remember him as a very special, and at the same time very Spanish, man. Other writers, describing him in his older and more glorious years, compared him to a "gnarled grape vine" and "a butcher who sang like a bird", and both images are appropriate. When my mother painted his picture, in the winter of 1960, he kept falling asleep, so she simply showed him with his eyes shut. Being naturally haggard and gaunt, the similarity with a corpse was not lost on anyone, especially the hyper-sensitive model himself. "¡Me ha pintao muerto!", he would complain indignantly, for years after - "she painted me dead".

When I first came to Montefrio, he had his carniceria on the Calle Alta, in the same room where there is now a shoe shop, at the corner with the Calle de Marquesas. There was no comparison with the hygienic, well-stocked butcher shops we have now, with their rosy pink pigs hanging in the cold room and their digital weighing scales, which give the exact price. Manolo's place, even in the relatively unsophisticated 60's, was a throwback to the Civil War, a sort of morgue for some unrecognisable bits of stringy goat or sheep, depending on what he had culled from his flock the day before.

There would always be a gaggle of housewives fingering and poking the bloody tissue which he hacked up at random and scattered on the counter. The din was constant: Manolo arbitrarily decided what each lump cost, but as soon as he shouted "¡cinco pesetas!" the interested party would scream back "¡tres pesetas!", and so on; sometimes the argument became so heated that it almost seemed as if he would take his knife to the woman's throat.

But as soon as he noticed me step down from the street - his young amigo inglés, poeta y aficionado - he would open both arms and throw back his head to toss off a bar of cante hondo and, projecting his voice over the uproar, resume the conversation we had left off the day before, as if nothing had happened since.

Of course, it was never a normal conversation, but a "Manolo conversation", which could leap suddenly, but somehow always gracefully, from Spain's downfall 300 years ago at the hands of guess-which-pirates, to his arthritis, to the greatest singer of all times (Manuel Torres, because he was dead - the greatest living one could only be himself), inevitably pausing to remind me of the fact that no one could be trusted (because he felt that I was mistaken in trusting anyone else in Montefrio than himself), and, if we were more or less in private, bemoaning the cruel injustice of not having been a moro with a harem of wives. But then some gypsy matron would get hold of a mangled scrap of goat's liver and shout "¡tres pesetas!" and he plunged back into the fray, wild-eyed.

Other flamenco singers might have surpassed him in virtuosity, but none had the thrilling woody quality of Manolo's voice when, as he put it, he would dar el cambio or "make the change" from one register to the other. It was enough to give you goose-flesh, and as a matter of fact Manolo himself would often hold out his skinny, veined forearm and pull back his sleeve so that I could witness the impressive number of bumps which were being produced by his own music. Like all true artists, he was all the audience he needed.

What with all the current-day official encouragement (prizes, subsidies, razmataz), there are many professionally competent flamenco singers, but compared to Manolo the new breed seem more like vocal athletes than the wandering minstrel, the musical poet who was my friend. When I see them sitting on the brightly-lit festival stage or in the softly-lit TV studio, well-paid and well-fed, they remind me, with their prolonged bellows of simulated pain and their massive microphones, of someone at the dentist having a tooth pulled (or - as my father once humorously remarked - on the toilet suffering from constipation). Manolo softened his howls of despair with bitter-sweet irony, and gazed searchingly, almost pleadingly into your eyes, as if he were really trying to say something to you, something which could be expressed no other way than through his beloved siguiriyas and soleares.

Of course, the lean, gritty atmosphere back then was so much more conducive to "natural" flamenco - I recently heard a young cantaor at a flamenco club whose car keys were fashionably dangling from his trouser pocket, as he sang a heart-rending copla about a man whose mother died unattended because he could not afford to call in the doctor. But with Manolo, every word was personally felt, even personally experienced: he had served in the Civil War with the Anarchists and spent the rest of his life herding goats and sheep over the hills of Montefrio - day-dreaming and singing as he went.

I would hang about outside until he closed up (he only opened in the morning) and went to the matadero, the village slaughter house, to get the next day's meat ready. It was a cavernous and sombre place, and in Manolo's hands what would normally have been a rather sorry scene took on airs of a pagan ritual. I wrote a long-since mislaid poem about it, speaking of him as a wizard or priest sacrificing the lamb as he chanted, although in reality Manolo just couldn't stop singing, whatever he was doing. The poem also spoke of a little girl with long braids who came with a bucket to collect the entrails, which her mother cleaned out at a cement tank. When he was done, he carried the bucket home with the intestines and blood for Maria to make morcilla - black pudding - for the store. The lid of the bucket was turned upside down to hold the tastier bits of offal, such as the mollejas (sweetbreads) which we would take to my place for Lilo to fry up on the charcoal stove with olive oil and garlic, for our tapas.

While this was being done, I was ordered to put on the record player. I had brought with me from New York a "portable" high-fi set, quite boxy and heavy, which created a sensation in the village, since none of the flamenco boys owned a machine on which to hear their favourite singers. I also brought from Madrid a new long-playing record of the great singer Antonio Mairena, who was then at the peak of his career, and once word got around I had Manolo, Cristobal the baker and the two gypsy brothers, Melchor and José, knocking on the door at every odd moment asking to hear it once more. I always complied, because they were learning from it, and once both sides had been solemnly heard, would treat me to their own improvised concert.

After Manolo had listened to the record player and had his wine and tapas, he would forget about going home for lunch and, what with the heat, fell asleep on the big straw-filled mattress we had spread on the floor. Soon he was snoring loudly and a cloud of black flies was hovering around each of his rumpled, smelly socks. Before long María would be wailing up from the street, "Manolo, la comida, Manolo, la morcilla". She was less concerned about him missing lunch than the blood congealing before it went into her big iron pot on the hearth.

Many years later, when he began to win prizes and appear on TV, the villagers granted him a certain amount of respect; but back them he was just plain loco "perdío" for all but the handful of flamenco lovers. He had in fact a quality which is most rare among Iberian males, spontaneity, which is why they misunderstood him, and why I loved him.

I will close this tribute to Manolo with an anecdote which caused much grief at the time but which, many years later, he and I would often laugh about as the story of "el tomate de la Lilo".

Lilo stormed out of his butcher shop one morning and marched up to me in the plaza, red-faced with Teutonic indignation. It seemed that instead of attending to her properly (as if he ever attended to anyone properly!), Manolo had looked over the contents of her shopping basket and casually taken out a large tomato, which he then proceeded to munch on (something he was very fond of) as he turned back to his housewives - all without saying a word. In retrospect it sounded silly, just another of Manolo's theatricals, but I was (still) highly influenced by Lilo and her rigorous ideals of behaviour, and stormed into the shop, loudly accusing him of offending my mujer, in front of all of his amazed customers. I got some sharp words in reply, and went off.

I quickly cooled down and realised how stupid I had been, but the damage was done - I had made him lose face in front of "the others". When I saw him in the street, he turned his back on me; I went home in absolute despair. This intolerable situation went on for several days; even Lilo (who was always quick to take offence because she was a German and dressed like a boy) realised that it had got out of hand. I wrote him a long letter begging for his forgiveness, saying how much his friendship meant to me, and threatening to leave Montefrio immediately if he did not forget what had happened. I put the envelope under his door in the night.

The next day I ran into him in the plaza, on the way home with his bucket of offal, and after quickly grinning at me he instantly picked up where our last conversation had left off... that is, the last conversation before the tomato.

Manuel Avila Rodríguez, 1912 - 1993


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