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Zambombas and flamenco christmas celebrations

Fernando González-Caballos Martínez

The zambomba and the flamenco mass are the most authentic manifestations of the Andalusian Catholic celebration.

Whether of religious or secular nature, the fact is that 'villancicos' (Spanish Christmas carols), were at the outset, "little songs of the villages and of villagers" (de villa y de villanos). So the word villancico comes from villano - Latin, villanus - a term which originally was applied to peasants, or farm workers. This is a characteristic folk composition which comprises a chorus and various verses intended for solo voice, generally accompanied by one or two instruments. Others however, attribute its origin to the 'moaxaja', a poetic form created by Muqaddam Ibn Muaffa, also known as El Ciego de Cabra (the blind man from Cabra).

In any case, it is difficult to determine the precise date and origin of these songs due to existing gaps in the corresponding historical and musicological data.

The earliest known collections of these songs date from the XV and XVI centuries. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the XVII century when villancicos acquired the typical religious character with which they are today associated. Over the years, the musicality of these songs has evolved to the present form. It appears that beginning in the XIX century Andalusia conferred its unmistakeable touch, flamencoizing them little by little. Regarding the lyrics, we find that while in one place the subject matter is based on religious passages, evolution has favored the incorporation of quotidian episodes and circumstances, sung with extraordinary poetic force.

Apparently in Jerez de la Frontera zambombas were organized from the XVIII century on. These were simply gatherings of friends, neighbours, and relatives who met each year on Christmas eve in the patios and corrals of communal dwelling-places and farm labourers' quarters. Huddled round a campfire they would form a chorus and sing and dance villancicos, in a purely spontaneous manner and for an indefinite time, while the wine, anisette, and punch flowed freely and Christmas sweets were passed out. The basic instrument is the zambomba, hence the name of the celebration. These zambombas are usually the work of an artesan, being a clay vessel covered with animal skin - usually goat - or some sort of thin material. In the center of the covering a long cane is secured which produces a deep sound when rubbed with the hand and this is what forms the rhythmic basis for the villancicos.

"In Jerez de la Frontera this tradition has been conserved in such a way that today it could be said that it is going through a period of true splendor as a result of the upsurge in recent years" states Juan de la Plata, director of the Cátedra de Flamencología de Jerez.

In the Zambomba there is a fundamental difference in contrast to the rest of flamenco fiestas, since it is a celebration with a strong element of participation. While in other fiestas there is a clear separation between the participants - singers, guitarists, and dancers - in the Zambombas everyone joins in singing or playing some instrument. In this way the individualistic nature of cante flamenco is lost, becoming a choral type of singing with a flamenco sound. "It is this difference that has caused villancicos to sound so flamenco, to the extent that many aficionados believe that villancicos are in the process of becoming another flamenco form, as occurred with the saeta" according to Juan de la Plata.

On top of this, the television broadcast of Navidad Flamenca (Flamenco Christmas), which has for years been carried out by the Andalusian autonomous television channel, has also contributed. "The Zambombas were the perfect vehicle for hearing and seeing amateur dancers and singers who were unseen the rest of the year, as they were not professionals, and for this reason we are surprised to come across elderly singers, especially women" says Manuel Curao, journalist and presenter of flamenco programs on Canal Sur.

These television broadcasts have given rise to the hiring of choral groups such as those of Parrilla, or of the Peñas Fernando Terremoto and Tío José de Paula, in order to reproduce this fiesta as a show, thus becoming an authentic Andalusian Christmas product which the record companies are marketing as a result of the Caja de Jerez' initiative of several years ago.

Although Sevilla and Jerez, with their celebrated Zambombas, are the most important nucleii of villancico singing, all Andalusia has sung the praises of the Christmas holidays. A quick geographic tour brings us from villancicos to the verdiales in Málaga, the campanilleros of Pozoblanco, and on to the forms belonging to Torredelcampo and Andújar, those of Huelva, and the auroro or aguilandero groups of Almería.

Fernando González-Caballos Martínez
Translation: Estela Latania

Photos: Miguel Ángel González

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