Gypsies for jesus
Once they were passionate, ear-ringed bandits who inspired Bizet and Mr ime; then they became a byword for drink, drugs and dissolution; now, converted to `the cult', the gypsies of Madrid are trading in flamenco songs for a place in the choir eternal. JUSTIN WEBSTER reports. Photographs by MIKE GOLDWATER
Saturday 11 February 1995
Ramn, however, says the most puritan side of the cult is already getting less rigid. "It's changing. Singing gypsy flamenco in church was banned to begin with - `Ooh,' they'd say, `this is too wordly' - but God is changing people's attitudes because He knows it comes from the heart. Those of us who have been in the profession for 25 years and have sung in the best theatres of the world don't go to church to steal the show, we go to thank God and sing in the way that is natural to us. If God wanted us to do it differently, He would have put it in our hearts." Still curious to find out what the cult in Los Focos is like, I go back on a Saturday evening to try one last time to persuade Jesus to let me in. As I arrive I see his white van turn up the road and then head off down the main street. Little groups are already forming outside as it begins to get dark. Some of the men are wearing ties with their leather jackets; all are spruced up. As I have lost sight of the van, I decide to wait with the rest of the congregation. The ones I have not met before ask me the usual questions: are there any gypsies in England? How long does it take to get there in an aeroplane? But I am struck by how two clean-cut boys talk about the cult in almost fanatical terms. "This life isn't worth anything," says one. "The devil opens your mind, but God opens your heart," says the other. One of them turns out to be Jesus's son, and when I say I want to attend the service he says he will ask his father on my behalf. I go along with them to the church door and as the service is about to begin I am ushered in to a pew near the front. A man shuffles in alongside me, and exclaims, "Hombre, you are coming to heaven with us!" The service begins with a hymn, but the sound of the guitar is drowned by the distorted sound of one of the members of the chorus bent double, singing furiously and tunelessly into the microphone held between his knees. None of the voices from the women's side of the church can be heard. Two visiting preachers give sermons. The first is severe, but the second, a short man with an ample beard and wild, staring eyes, builds up to a climax of passionate ranting, his screams distorting into an indescribable blur of noise. "Why do I live in poverty after 23 years of knowing the Lord?" He searches the faces of the congregation in the dim light, and then bellows the answer at the top of his lungs: "Because I want to be poor on the earth to have riches in the Kingdom of Heaven!" Lowering his voice, he turns to a passage in the Old Testament and slowly, with great significance, reads the story of a man who was put to death for breaking the law. "He and all his family were stoned to death outside the village," he dwells on each word and repeats the line menacingly. In Spanish the word for village, pueblo, also means "people", so the message to a purely gypsy congregation carries an extra meaning. When it is over, we file out into the darkness. I say goodbye to a few of the faces I recognise. On the shantytown's main street I feel someone touch my arm. "Pedro!" I recognise him from his rotund outline. "I saw you in the cult," he says. I stand uncomfortably for a moment in the darkness without knowing what to say. I feel a sense of disgust at the preacher's sermon, as if he had forced his listeners on to their knees for their small dose of hope. I wonder if, in shaking off the stigma of wolves, the gypsies are in danger of becoming sheep. So I just make a farewell gesture and turn to go. "God bless you," I hear him say, as I stumble off up the uneven mud track, past the shacks now all lit up by their own generators and past the walls of refuse.
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