If my brother hadn’t gone on that Tinder date; if I hadn’t been irritatingly hyperactive on the plane seat next to him, then I wouldn’t be here, almost two months later, hiking up a Spanish motorway. I’m in Gijón (written Xixón in Asturiano and pronounced Hee-hon), an industrial beach-town in Northern Spain that’s on the route to Santiago de la Compostela. Maps of the city have the scallop shell motif of Santiago (St James) informing pilgrims just which streets, petrol stations, cafes and kiosks they have to pass on their way. There’ll be more churches as they get closer, to remind them that their mission is holy.
Surfers, skulking around the bay of San Lorenzo are also on a pilgrimage. But their divinity, the sea is imminent and capricious. A day of blue sky and towering waves is auspicious. The tide is high in the morning; but by afternoon, when there’s barely a sliver of beach, the waves have come to meet the surfers. It’s more than some of them bargained for; only the bravest will descend the concrete steps, climb a wave.
I’m here on pilgrimage too, to see a singer called Rosalía. Two months ago, two days before Christmas, following a December that took more than it gave, I was sitting next to my brother on the plane. The five-hour fight to Paphos seemed overly long and I was restless. My brother lent me his headphones in an attempt to ‘sedate’ me. Playing was the music ‘TinderDate’ had introduced him to –Rosalía.
Descriptively it would be called urban flamenco – Rosalía, a young woman from Barcelona takes this indigenous Andalusian art form and makes it her own. Just a voice and a faithful guitar. But as an experience, it’s the kind of sound that makes you realise what other musics are missing.
I daydreamed I would spend a few weeks in Spain, work remotely from there, on the last day of a holiday in November. In December when I had to leave the place I was living, a vague timescale was hatched – I’d go sometime around February. Now I’d add a Rosalía concert to the journey. I originally wanted to see her in her home-town, Barcelona, but only listening seats were available. However, in an obscure (to me) town called Gijón, you could have the full experience. I booked my tickets and diverted my journey.
I decide to walk to the concert hall, somewhere called Teatro de la Laboral, fifty minutes away from where I’m staying, which doesn’t sound too bad. Past residential areas, a few roundabouts, an avenue named after the German physicist Albert Einstein. Did he ever come here?, I wonder. Or can town planners name a street after anyone. Still walking, I follow the instructions on the route I copied down beforehand. A new moon sprouts to keep me company as the sun sets, turning the sky purple. As I pass a stream, a horse-riding track, a technological park and a botanical garden with a camellia festival, I don’t feel like I’m going to a concert at all. But I’m to keep going straight as as a deserted clock tower and amphitheatre come into view.
By Calle de las Clarisas, it gets dark. The road with its diminishing pavement leads to the clock tower. To my mind, Las Clarisas sounds like a remote nunnery. There are even fewer cars on this stretch of road; I wonder once more if I have the wrong route. My hands get cold and perhaps my feet too; I doubt that I have the right way. But the map, even the one on my phone, says to continue. I’m to keep walking, keep the faith, past the little cottage with the ceramic groves, up, up, up, until I reach the clock tower. Even cars are few here – but I’m to keep going, past the little house with the ceramic roof and the orange groves, until I reach the clock tower – one and the same as the concert.
Travelling to places I don’t know is the biggest test of faith. At times the way is so intricate and unlikely. At the end of granny’s cottage is your dream concert; Fireworks and a Hallowe’en parade are two stomach-swirling bus rides away; that strange man named Joey will drive the two of you to your destination – you’ll arrive interrogated but unmolested.
‘Laboral’ in Spanish means ‘labour’ – so hearing on that the concert would be at a Teatro de Laboral, I pictured a brick-red venue, bustling and beer-powered. The place, surrounded by columns, topiary gardens and terraces with a view of the mountains and moon, is nothing of the kind. We’re each assigned a seat and we’re to stay there unless to give an ovation. But as soon as the show begins, I see why we’ve been placed in this stilling fashion. Because we’re in the dark and all we see of Rosalía are her open palms and the shadow of Raül Refree, her quiet guitar player. Isn’t it odd to describe a musician, a person employed to make noise that people listen, as quiet? Maybe, but it seems that the while the guitar plays, the man is mute, not especially caring to promote himself. As for her, there’s enough variation in her voice, even the movements of her fingers for the little girl in front of me to start swaying wildly, as though it’s a Stones concert she’s at.
Rosalía’s voice has been described as magical. While flesh or paint or plaster sticks to the other arts, a voice is itself; made up of sounds you might or might not find in nature. The voice could be a divine gift and the singer carries it. It’s fascinating to watch Rosalía carry her songs – seated bolt upright, her legs in a wide squat, her palm an opening flower; slouching towards the guitarist as she hides behind dark hair; standing directly before the audience in the light. Throughout, you have the impression that the hands deliver the sentiment as much as the voice. My yoga teacher back in London describes the palms as the pathways to the heart; apparently, there’s a direct energy line between the two. Though it’s cold in the theatre and I’m inclined to shiver, fold my arms; I place my hands in my lap and unfurl my fingers, receptive to whatever spell is being cast.
Luckily, the route home is different, a bus-ride shared with fellow pilgrims and a walk back by the beach.