Going to Spain? Barcelona comes to mind, as does Valencia. But the country’s cultural heart actually beats in Madrid. Our author took a look around the city’s liveliest neighborhoods just before Holy Week, or Semana Santa, as it’s called there.
Diversity, anger and hope in Lavapiés
Beats pound from the speaker stacks. On stage, a slender figure forces her anger into tightly honed verses: “We are determined – who’s gonna stop us? Abuse of power – more visible every time!” she raps. The woman with the powerful voice is Emi Rap, 26, and her performance has drawn hundreds to Plaza Nelson Mandela in Lavapiés, an immigrant district that’s home to people from 88 nations. Asian groceries, Arab snack bars and Indian restaurants abound in the narrow streets. Three North African men, one wearing a traditional djellaba, stand chatting on a corner. A few paces away, Spanish retirees gesticulate wildly while two Indian women in saris poke around in a store.
It’s the afternoon before Emi Rap’s performance. On our way to meet her, the photographer and I walk down a narrow, cobbled street called Calle del Oso, where brightly colored, traditional Spanish shawls, mantones de Manila, are knotted together and strung across the street like garlands. Empty now, the street will be packed when the crowds start celebrating tonight. Emi Rap (aka Noemi Laforque) is quiet and reserved when we meet her at the small, designated bar – very different from the raging fury she is on stage. Like her, Lavapiés has two different faces. One of them is self-evident: the pure, multicultural beauty of the neighborhood. “People here aren’t just on the street to go to work or shop,” she says. “They’re here to meet other people and enjoy themselves.” Another reason she loves Lavapiés: “It’s got the best Indian food, and it costs half as much as in the rest of the city.”
But there’s another side to Lavapiés, the lack of prospects. For many immigrants, particularly teenagers, opportunities and role models are rare. Instead of just complaining about the problems, Emi Rap gives music workshops at a neighborhood youth center. When she was younger and going through difficulties with her parents, music helped her, too, she explains. Now she wants to pass the experience on. “There was a 13-year-old Spanish/Arab kid,” she tells us, “who was constantly picking fights and always in a foul mood.” She showed him how rapping can channel aggression. “I also saw a 15-year-old Sinti guitar player make great progress here,” she says, giving us another example. “The center gave him the opportunity to record his songs.”
Rainbow celebrations in Chueca
Alfonso Llopart steps off his motorcycle, right on time. We meet in front of an imposing, white, late-nineteenth-century building on the edge of Chueca, one of the city’s most elegant districts. Spotless streets, restored facades. Wrought-iron balcony balustrades glisten in the sunlight. Chueca owes its present luster in large part to Alfonso Llopart, 52, editor of Shangay, a mouthpiece for the LGBT community in Madrid.
As we walk through Chueca, Llopart tells us how the area was far from hip back in the 1970s. “It was run down, full of drug dealers, and muggings were commonplace – until they came along.” He points to the Black & White on the corner, Madrid’s first gay bar, which opened in 1980. Chueca was a great hideaway, a perfect refuge. The gay movement shaped the district and ultimately made it socially acceptable. More and more members of the community moved in, more and more bars and clubs opened, and today, there are gay-friendly restaurants and supermarkets. With the gay scene came money, then Madrid’s bohemian set.
Every year, Llopart and others from the LGBT community organize Spain’s biggest pride parade, the Madrid Orgullo, which commemorates the anti-gay raids that took place in New York in June 1969. The first parade was held in Chueca in 1978, but the festival has long outgrown the neighborhood where it began, so now the procession passes along the great boulevards of downtown Madrid. “Only the high-heeled race for people with shoe size 43 and up still takes place here and attracts thousands of cheering fans,” Llopart tells us, grinning. “It’s quite a spectacle!”
First the gay community arrived, then came the bohemian crowd
Now even bigger things are in the works. In June, Madrid will host the international World Pride festival, for which Llopart is booking gigs, negotiating prices, making deals. His phone rings: “Hola amigo, thanks for getting back to me. We need you to sing in Madrid again this year, but it has to be for free. You know how small our budget is.” Llopart listens attentively: “Oh, the musicians need a hotel? We can arrange that.” That was Falete, he tells us, “A gay flamenco singer from Andalusia.”
Creative minds in Malasaña
We enter another district and it’s like tumbling into yet another world. Carlota Ferrer, 40 – chic pants suit, hat, red mane – looks like she just came from a theater premiere. She has long been a fixture on the Madrid theater scene. A few years ago, she became better known to a wider Spanish audience as the director of the José Manuel Mora play Los Nadadores Nocturnos, in which nighttime swimmers search for lost values in a fragmented world. The play satirizes Madrid as a commercial capital where subway stations bear the names of sponsors (this actually happened!). “We ask what constitutes the right life today, but audiences have to come up with their own answers.”
We meet at the Ojalá restaurant with its plants hanging from the ceiling. A group of hipsters is sharing a liter of sangria at one table, a couple is sipping gin and tonics at the bar. New places keep opening in the nightlife district of Malasaña, whose turbulent history dates back to 1975, when a hedonist movement called La Movida Madrileña sprang up after dictator Franco’s death. Here, in the drinking holes around Plaza Dos de Mayo, Pedro Almodóvar – the future world-famous film director – overindulged in drugs and alcohol.
Ferrer particularly loves Malasaña’s galleries and theaters. “The scene is changing,” she says, lighting another cigarette. “Companies are experimenting with modern forms of theater and many young people are interested in what they’re doing, more than ever before.” Ferrer’s colleague Gon Ramos, whom we meet in the next bar, confirms this: “Audiences are looking for more than a distraction.” The 27-year-old acts and directs in alternative theater spaces in Malasaña. His most recent play, Yogur Piano, is based on the song “Fjögur Píanó” by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, and paints a picture of a cold, psychopathic society. It became a huge success on the small-theater scene. Ramos feels motivated: “Spain is rocked by crises and corruption scandals, and we theater people cannot sit around with our hands in our laps.” Shall we have another beer and drink to that? “Can’t, sorry.” He has to go to a rehearsal of his new play.
We move on to our next appointment. Jal Hamad is similarly driven. The sign on the door says “Sabrina Amrani.” It’s the name of his wife and the gallery they run together. The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Amrani gave up a well-paid job in the food industry to achieve her dream. Hamad – his mother is Spanish, his father Syrian – owns a multimedia agency and provides the necessary funds. The gallery is hardly bigger than a good-sized living room and often features artists who call more than one place home: a South Korean from New York, a French artist from Madagascar, and Marlon de Azambuja from Brazil, who lives just a couple of streets away. “It’s pure coincidence,” Hamad says. You can believe that if you like.