Said to have been the invention of the mighty Manuel Torres; the villancicos were originally peasant songs (canto de villano) which have since become the flamenco Christmas carol that are traditionally sung in the week leading up to Christmas.
In Andalucía the villancicos are also known by the name of zambombas, a name that derived from the instrument that is traditionally used to accompany them.
The zambomba is a percussive instrument that would normally have been made from an old paint tin or flower pot, over which a membrane is stretched: a stick attached with small cymbals is inserted through the skin and this is moved up and down to create a droning rhythm.
Tambourines, cowbells and an array of home-made rhythmic instruments will also be used in this lively festive song and together with the clapping rhythms and boisterous jaleo; the whole atmosphere will become a swirling, noisy festivity.
It is a gathering, especially, but not exclusively, among gypsies who light fires on their patios – around which they form a semicircle to take turns in singing a line or two, before everyone joins in with the chorus. The tunes are of all sorts and rhythms but they are always lively and joyful and may be in the style of the bulerias or rumbas.
The whole family will join in from the grandparents down to the smallest of children and these parties are natural flamenco schools where the children learn by simply watching, and being totally engulfed in, everything that happens.
The buleria is also an integral part of this celebration and everyone is expected to sing, dance or simply clown around to the thumping of table tops and clapping of hands.
It was once, and still is in some villages, customary for the gypsies to hold a fiesta during the week leading up to Christmas and this celebration would start with a Matanza; the ritual killing of the pig.
The women would then prepare the pig and make an array of pork products, which would include chorizo, morcilla, manteca and chipparones, They would also prepare sweet delicacies like pestiños, which are small fried dough cakes that are flavoured with anise, and dipped in honey.
The most customary celebration takes place on Noche Buena - Christmas Eve – a night when families congregate en mass to celebrate the coming of Christ..
The twenty-fourth of December is celebrated throughout most of the Christian world but few cultures celebrate Christmas Eve like the gypsies of Andalucía, especially those in Utrera, Lebrija and Jerez de la Frontera.
It is a night where the whole family will gather to eat, drink, sing and make merry, and whilst the rest of us are retiring to our beds, the gypsy fiesta will be in full swing and will only cease when they can consume and sing no more.
This celebration is renowned for being a night of celebration and not a night for sleep and a constant flow of food and drink will keep the revellers fuelled for a night of flamenco and fun. The night will progress into a riotous fiesta of bulerias, tangos and zambombas, which will ring out from the tiny houses that are packed to the seams with people.
At around midnight the woman will prepare the turkey, which is then placed in a large cauldron along with plenty of wine, garlic, bay leaves, a wad of rosemary and a good dose of salt and pepper.
This is then left to simmer for a few hours whilst the celebrations continue. Plates of marinated olives, Serrano ham and tangy Manchego cheese, along with an array of other andalucian delicacies are consumed to keep the effects of the whisky and wine at bay.
When the feast is ready (at around two in the morning) the singing will cease and the turkey will be served with plenty of bread to mop up the delicious cooking juices.
After the meal, and a brief time to recharge, glasses will be refilled and the singing and dancing will take up again until the early hours.
Christmas day is not such a big event and this day will normally be used to sleep off the hangover and recuperate from the previous night’s carousing.
Jerez de la Frontera is the foremost city where the zambomba fiesta takes place in the week leading to Christmas, but many of the main cities like Seville, Granada, Málaga, and Madrid will have zambomba festivals.It is advisable to see the local press for details of Zambomba nights that are held in the main squares or flamenco tablaos.
In Madird; check out Corrales de la Moreria, Casa Patas and Café de Chinitas, as they will normally hold zambomba nights throughout December. Feliz Navidad!
- Flamenco; an Englishman’s passion (Sol y Sombra Books ISBN: 978-0-9563132-5-6)
- A Time-defying Heritage ( ediciones flamenco sapiens, museo del baile flamenco ISBN- 13:978-84-9727-429-6)