Until five months ago there would be about 60 people every night of the week. A couple of Fridays back, however, six artists danced, sang and played the guitar for just two clients. "We can't go on like this. I'll carry on for a couple of weeks but if things don't improve we will have to close again," says José López Amaya, who runs Tablao de Los Amayas in Malaga city (Calle Vélez-Málaga, 6). "It's like a cascade, we're falling one after the other," admits Roque López, of the historical Taberna Flamenca Pepe López en Torremolinos (Plaza de la Gamba Alegre). In Malaga these flamenco bars were already finding things difficult, but now the pandemic could cause their definitive demise.
These 'tablaos' are crying out for help in a desperate situation, with no income and numerous expenses, despite flamenco being classified as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco.
"I don't know how they could let this be lost," says José López. If we were in the USA they would do everything they could to look after us," insists Roque López.
These businesses are raising their voices separately and now together for the first time in the new Asociación Nacional de Tablaos Flamencos de España (ANTFES), a collective which is fighting for the survival of a sector which is suffering all over the country.
The problem is their strong dependence on foreign tourists. With no cruise ships in port, hotels half full at best and the recent quarantine imposed by the UK on people arriving from Spain, there is nobody to occupy their typical rush-seated chairs.
"There are no clients. They have wiped them off the map," says López Amaya, who is only opening on Fridays and Saturdays at present. The Taberna Pepe López (formerly Jaleo) still doesn't know whether it will open at all this summer. "If there is no market, what's the point?" asks Roque López. His iconic stage has never been so empty since its inauguration in 1965.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. All I can think about is everything I have to pay," says Isabel 'La Chata', visibly nervous. She runs the Tablao Ana María Los Chatos in Marbella. She says that there, the problem isn't a lack of tourists. "There are some, but they don't want to be indoors, they only want to sit outside somewhere. If the virus doesn't kill us, the heat will... or starvation," she says. Her only hope of salvation is the permit given to her by Marbella council to hold performances on certain days this month in the square where her 'tablao' is located (Plaza Santo Cristo). She will only open the cosy salon inside if people reserve in advance, so she can guarantee that the artists will be paid. Businesses of this type are not cheap to run: her rent alone is 1,960 euros a month.
At Kelipé Centro de Arte Flamenco, which combines tuition with shows, they are "living off our savings". From the end of June the flamenco theatre has been open from Thursdays to Sundays in Calle Muro de Puerta Nueva in Malaga city. "But hardly anyone comes, 12 people at the most," says Susana 'La Yedra'. She and her family can keep going for the moment, because they are the performers as well as the owners. "We're really only opening for sentimental reasons, but if it carries on like this we will have to close," she says.
"Reinvent yourself" and attract local people, that is the strategy being tried at Tablao de Los Amayas, with discounts of almost 50 per cent for residents (29 euros with dinner, a drink and the show). Not even that is working. "So far, only the parents of one of the waiters have come." Very few local people have been able to get over the idea that "these things are just for foreigners".
"And that's not the case. When people do come, they love it," says José López Amaya. Some local people do book with Tablao de Ana María in Marbella, "but they all want us to give them a special price," she says.
The situation is so serious that for the first time in their history, the few tablaos that remain have joined forces in a national association run by Cristina Hoyos, Blanca del Rey and Luis Adame. They are calling for "urgent measures" for a sector which employs 90 per cent of the flamenco artists and normally attracts nearly six million people a year. Famous establishments such as Casa Patas and Café de Chinitas in Madrid have already closed down, along with four others, and the bleeding continues throughout the country, with barely 40 tablaos still in operation.
In Andalucía, the Junta has set up a line of assistance of between 8,000 and 15,000 euros for these businesses, but few have applied. In the conditions there is no mention of tablaos, only of 'theatre halls, music, dance and flamenco', so many are unaware. "Few people realised, it's too confusing," says Roque López. Also, to be eligible a tablao has to have room for more than 75 people and some are too small, such as Ana María which only has space for 60.
"We need those with an ERTE to continue to March 2021, not to have to pay the social security for the self-employed and grants to help us pay our bills," says José López Amaya. For the owner of Taberna Pepe López there is another fundamental issue: unfair competition.
"Flamenco has been prostituted and people are putting on so-called flamenco shows all over the place with no controls," he says. In the summer there are often cheap shows in village squares and hotels employ students to entertain their guests. "So clients go away thinking flamenco is two girls dancing to recorded music. You have to see flamenco in a tablao, with guitarists and real singers," he insists. "We will carry on somehow, one way or another, but at least let them leave us in peace".