18 December 2010

Zambombás, buñuelos and villancicos

Round here the Christmas celebrations kick off not with mince pies, mulled wine and a couple of verses of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, but with a Zambombá.   

Zambombás have taken place in and around Jerez de la Frontera since the 18th century.   They were originally just gatherings of friends, neighbours, and relatives who met each year on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) in the patios and corrals of communal dwelling-places and farm labourers' quarters. Huddled round a campfire they would sing villancicos, while the wine, anisette, and punch flowed freely and Christmas sweets and pastries were handed out.

These days they are organized by local clubs and bars or, as in Alcalá last night, by the Town Hall as a big open-air public fiesta.  They usually feature buñuelos, little deep-fried ring doughnuts flavoured with aniseed, dipped in thick hot chocolate or washed down with anis.

The word zambombá is an abbreviation of zambombada (the omission of the final "d" is common in local dialect), referring to an ancient musical instrument called a zambomba.  These are made from a clay pot covered with hide, usually goatskin.  A long stick goes through this into the pot, which when rubbed  between the hands produces a deep sound a bit like a didgeridoo.  Together with the pandareta, a type of tambourine, it provides the rhythmic backing for villancicos, the traditional Spanish Christmas carols.  

This word comes from "little songs of the villages and of villagers" (de villa y de villanos).   The earliest known collections of villancicos date from the 15th century, but wasn't until the 17th century that they became associated with the Nativity. Over the years, their musical form acquired a distinctive Andalusian flamenco flavour.

Juan Leiva (Memories of Alcalá 21) recalls that in Alcalá in the 1940s bands of youths would sing them in the streets after the Misa de Gallos (Christmas Eve midnight mass):
"At the end of the mass, the young people took out bottles of anis and brandy. They went through the streets singing villancicos accompanied by the drumming of spoons on the bottles and the sound of the little bells that were kept at home for the goats. They asked for donations or sweets. We children copied them, but without drinking alcohol, and we went to bed earlier. When we went to bed, the others carried on singing villancicos. And in that delicious half-asleep state, we could still hear those melodies ..."
These days they are are more usually sung by choirs of angelic small children.  This is my favourite and I can't get it out of my head:

At the Zambombá held in Alcalá´s Plaza de la Alameda last night there was not a goatskin drum in sight, just piped music and a solo singer-guitarist belting out some villancicos on stage until the rain drove everyone into the bars.  But we did attend one a few years ago in what was then Bar Cristobal (now Casa Jimenez), with Cristobal's family in full swing:

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