Zip Off to a Zambomba
This boozy bonfire singalong is the spirit of Christmas in Andalucia
It’s a makeshift musical instrument, it’s a raucous Christmas carol singalong, it’s a fireside flamenco feast. It’s a ZAMBOMBA - and there’s nothing like one for getting you into the’ festive zone’ in Spain during the one-month build-up to Christmas.
Zambombas date back to the 18th century when neighbours shared communal patios for cooking, clothes washing and ablutions. In December they fired up the brazier, drew around it on rickety wicker chairs and burst forth into Christmas carols, fortified with sticky pastry treats and shots of aniseed liqueur!
Moorish & More-ish
Aniseed, marzipan and nougat known as turrón add an Arabic twist to a Spanish zambomba
For backing they’d use anything that came to hand. It’s amazing what great sounds you can make with a pestle and mortar, an aniseed liqueur bottle and a spoon, or a stick agitated in a flowerpot covered with cloth or leather which is how a zambomba-the-musical instrument evolved.
The low grating sound you get when you chafe the stick in your hands gave the zambomba friction drum its name and it was inspired by a flower pot!
As for the songs - villancicos - they’re unlike any Christmas carol you ever heard. The lyrics are often irreverant and frequently bawdy and the vicar would blush. There’s one about the baby Jesus getting drunk on strawberry juice and another about a ‘millionaire business’ called the Vatican - an incentive for brushing up on your Spanish!
Alas, as standards of living rose and everyone moved into condos these traditional courtyard carol fests nearly died out …
… until 2015 when the Zambombas of Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera were given Cultural Heritage status as authentic oral traditions.
Now every town in southern Spain is jumping on the ‘Zambombandwagon’ and what were once impromptu private celebrations have become premeditated events, with food stalls, cash bars and professional singers in the mix.
Zambomba in the Patio
The garden courtyard at the Atalaya Museums in Jerez is a wonderful spot for a sing-song. IMAGE Salvador Monge
Some are organised by religious brotherhoods and flamenco clubs (but often open to the public). Others are held in bodegas, flamenco bars, leisure centres and even discos!
Zambomba in the Square
Zambombas are part of the yuletide fun at Plaza Canterbury open air leisure centre.
The best and most accessible are the outdoor celebrations held in plazas and beautiful gardens, where the smell of chesnuts and firewood, the sweetness of anis on the tongue and happy singing voices come together in a warm Christmas hug.
Zambomba in the Plaza
The outdoor squares of Jerez resonate to the music of a zambomba in December. IMAGE Pepe González Cabello
Everyone’s welcome at this fiery winter fiesta, although understandably you may have to contribute towards the vittles these days.
Deep-fried fitters called pestiños flavour the zambombas of Jerez.
Audience participation is encouraged - if you sing like a strangled cat you can always join in the clapping! Bring a smile, a spoon and a bottle of aniseed liqueur (for Dutch Courage)and you’re all set!
The grooves on a bottle of Anis de Mono make music when hit with a spoon but it sounds better when empty … Enjoy!
Are you ready to zambomba?
There are over 175 events to choose from, held throughout December until and including Christmas Eve. Sometimes the action is slow to get going so be prepared to hang around a bit. All our suggestions are outdoor events with food and drink sold on site or nearby.
Zambombas in Jerez
In the chic Andalusian city of Jerez the zambombas are flavoured with fine Jerezano sherries and stylised with flamenco cante, castanettes and acoustic guitar. Some of the singers may be professionals, some of the songs have been written down and set to music.
Palacio del Virrey Laserna
Dec 1, 6, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 23, 14.00
Zambomba among the cypress trees in this bijou classical garden attached to the palace of the last Viceroy of Peru, now a magnificent antique boutique hotel run personally by the Marquis of Mortara.
December 1, 6, 8, 15, 22, 17.00
This purpose-built leisure square is a popular hub for night owls with an Irish tavern, sports screens and food all on site.
Atalaya Museums, December 15, 15.00
A rustic courtyard surrounded by neoclassical gardens is the incomparable setting for the Andalusian Institute of Flamenco’s annual zambomba.
Plaza de la Angustias, December 22, 19.00
Zambomba Flamenca in the gypsy district of San Miguel with the Abuela María y de Juan Lara Choir
Plaza Belén, December 23, 14.30
Zambomba Flamenca in the gypsy barrio of Santiago organised by the International FIamenco Institute with a full programme of performers
Download full Christmas in Jerez programme (Spanish only)
Zambombas in Arcos de la Frontera
In this Moorish white mountain pueblo the festivities are fewer but more rustic and intimate. The almirez (pestle and mortar) is still used as a musical instrument, along with cowbells, panderetes (tambourines) and even the time-honoured anis bottle and stick. The songs of the Arcences are all in their heads, handed down from memory for generations.
Does your town or village celebrate Christmas with a zambomba? Drop the time and place in the comments box to share with our readers.