Hidden from my sight behind the column of smoke bellowing out from an old fifty-five gallon drum sit the heroes of the night: two big round men with two big round zambombas secured between their two big round thighs. They’ve been sweating away at the bizarre instrument for hours on end. Made of Grecian-style urns with an animal hide stretched over the opening, the instruments are played by poking a bamboo stick through the animal hide and plumbing it up and down with bare hands to produce the sound of a Jerezano Christmas; the deep whop-whop-whopping of a toad on heat.
Into the whirling smoke strides another enormous man, seven foot high and four wide, red-faced from a chilly evening warmed with countless glasses of aniseed liquor and sweet sherry wines. Silence follows him; the audience and the zambomberos see his intentions in his calm eyes. Then, into the night air echoes this giants voice: the man is singing a Christmas carol, not the jingle-jingle Santa Claus stuff we know of in the Anglosphere, but a painful villancico about Christ’s crucifixion, Los Campanilleros:
At the door of an avaricious man Jesus Christ arrived and asked for some charity / And instead of giving him some charity the dogs were set on him / But God wanted that the dogs died of rabies and the rich man turned poor.
If you knew the entrance / that the King of the Heavens had in Jeruselum / who wanted neither car nor buggy / but a little donkey he had rented / He wanted to show / that the divine doors of the heavens / are opened by a little humility.
His baritone cry ceases, and the boom of cheers and oles that follow soon blur into a synchronised clapping, or palmas, and a tambourine man brings some cheer into the room.
These flamenco-infused villancico songs they sing tell not only Bible tales but also stories of love and humour, and can be as scandalous as they are sacred. One song tells of the young Michaela, who went to the doctor to see about her ‘fever’ – and putting doctor’s hand on her forehead, her lips, her chest, her belly-button (you get the picture), she tells her confused doctor that she’s ticklish, and further down she moves his hand. And yes, they do sing it. Another tells the story of a slowly unwinding love in the Garden of Venus, in which the author cut five rosebuds, five feelings that he put in his lover’s love; “Of the five I give you one / and I keep four / for having known you / and for having loved you so much… De los cinco te doy uno / y yo me quedo con cuatro / por haberte conocío / y haberte querío tanto”. One by one the rosebuds disappear through the song, leaving the lonely lover with nothing, regretting the day that he met the ‘girl of my heart’. Songs of love and lust, this is Christmas in Jerez.
The zambomba is a truly original celebration. Of all the events that this city celebrates throughout the year, the zambomba is the most representative of Jerez. It is a mass event in which everybody can participate. But the recent boom in zambombing has meant that the traditional zambomba held by a flamenco, religious, or neighbourhood association now must compete with a plethora of zambomba-lite events held by bars and restaurants keen on pulling in the punters. The visiting tourist, traveller, or wandered would be well advised to follow this sound piece of advice offered to the author by a friend; “if it’s in a bar, it aint no goddamn zambomba!” (or words to that effect) – look out instead for zambombas held by a local peña, cofradía, or asociación de vecinos, and you’ll be sure to find yourself a warm-hearted zambomba humming along from the Spanish ‘midday’ (see: 2pm) till the madrugada early morning.
Arriving, you will want to join in with the collective clapping, you will want to grab a tambourine and smack away at your palm, and several sweet sherry wines in and aniseed liquors down you’ll have in your hands the book of Spanish psalms and you’ll be singing along glory glory glory to the Christmas anthem about two poor wanderers who;
…arrived at the inn / to ask for lodging / the ingrate innkeeper declined / ‘I don’t give lodging / at two in the morning / to pregnant women! / If you’ve got money all the house is yours / but if you don’t have it then there’s no room!’…
But at a zambomba, in Jerez, there’s always a warm welcome reserved for travellers and newcomers. Be it a glass of aniseed forced into your hands or a hand offered to dance in front of the cheering crowd, the zambomba will invite you in and well wish you goodbye.