Updated: May 26
From a distance, I hear the echo of a female voice coming towards me. Within several moments, the voice is booming. The acoustics of the square are as good as a concert venue. It’s an old Spanish ballad with short, measured verses, punctuated by stately pauses. And now I see her. She looks twelve years old. That arresting voice is coming from a tiny Roma woman, old-young and big-eyed. Her North Face polar is four sizes too big, and her hair is matted. She’s wearing a loud floral skirt that has long since succumbed to its patina of city grime. She shuffles along in a pair of beat-up old crocks, singing as if this were no different than talking to herself. In her hand is a blue plastic cup, which she waves around in time to the swells of her song. I am thunderstruck by the sound of it.
From her appearance, one would say a substance abuser. The tourists don’t know what to think. Some are looking with expressions that mean ‘No Self-Respect’. Her imposing and vibrant singing needs no defense, but I can hear what they’re thinking: why doesn’t she take a bath? As if this were more important. Could it be the defiance of the spat-on that nixes the simple act of dragging a comb through one’s wild black hair? Maybe she just looks in the mirror and says, ¿Para qué? —assuming she has four walls to hang one on. Yet there’s a certain vanity in her. Of course there is; you can hear it.
Another song. She spots me watching her from my perch. I nod at her and clap when she finishes. Between tunes she is fussing with a bitter little shake of the head to express how bad business is. The tourists don’t care that she can sing better than a diva multi-millionaire. They greet her plastic cup with an air of perplexity or anxious dread.
She is still singing when she wanders away to the next terrace bar, where a pair of accomplished Roma musicians, guitar and violin, are tearing through Manouche standards. The violin snaps up her melody to coax a duet out of her, but something is amiss, and the tune dies away. She just isn’t feeling it.
She is in front of me again, saying, ‘Cada día es peor.’ It gets worse every day.
I tell her she sounds marvelous, but she isn't listening to me. What she wants is money, and I am of little help. I turn out my change purse: cuarenta y seis céntimos. She turns her head, scoffing, miles away from me. I say something meant to comfort her, but she’s already walking towards the opposite corner of the square. My uncompleted sentence trailing behind her. Anything other than Coin is just so much Bullshit. And I get up feeling worse for my good bicycle, shamefully sleek headphones and smartphone, equipped with three days' worth of my favorite music.
Image: still from Latcho Drom, 1993