Written by

Andrew Millar


November 3, 2008

About 30 years ago I followed fashion and renovated a house in Payneham. At that time, unlike now, if you wanted to restore a period feature you had to either patch up what was there, or you went to great expense and had someone reproduce it. These days all you have to do is wander over to a restoration retailer and buy a hall divider or wooden screen door made in their hundreds in Malaysia.

I needed a fire grate. And as the forges of Korea had not woken up to the possibilities of making money exporting repros, I had to find a genuine blacksmith.

Thankfully there were still a few about and one was working in a shed across the road from the Maid and Magpie Hotel in Kent Town. (Scammel’s Auction Rooms occupy the site now.) And I stayed a while to watch him work.

I liked the deep, dark shed lit by a glowing forge. His anvil was close to the door to make use of the natural light. It gave him that kind of chiaroscuro glow of Renaissance paintings. In fact he seemed to have stepped right out of a 18th Century. Mostly he made a living fashioning wrought iron gates and sharpened pick axes by heating the blade to white hot and beating the point back to a tip.

And now and then he’d be called upon to craft a set of horseshoes. I watched with a camera in hand as he rained savage but accurate blows on a mild steel bar, gradually curving it and crafting the stereotypical shape. And as I watched I heard pattens emerge in the way he struck the metal. When he was rough shaping he had a regular two beat, allowing the tempered steel hammer to bounce once on the anvil between blows to the metal. The bounce-blows on the anvil allowed him to conserve energy. He would use the potential energy of the bounce to gain height ready for the next strike.

Bang, clang, bang, clang, bang, clang…

But when he was satisfied with the rough shape his blows became more thoughtful and purposeful. He meditated briefly on where to strike next. And to gain time to consider his next strike he allowed the hammer to bounce twice…

Bang, clang, clang, bang, clang, clang…

Today I realise he was beating out the eternal rhythm of the blacksmith. The Spanish gypsies of the Andalusia named the palo or style ‘Martineta‘. From the caves of Sacomonte on the eastern edge of Granada, lit by spark filled forges came these deeps songs, the Conte Jundo, of the outcast blacksmith.

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Even my soul feels the pain
Of so many tears,
Because these griefs will never get smaller,
Will grow with the years.

Martinetes are always sung palo seco – without guitar – just the blacksmith’s voice, anvil, and hammer. These songs are mostly about love – or love lost… gut-wrenching laments sung in a cave, they come straight from the cave of the human heart. Each word contains a portion of the singers’ soul. They are exhausting to sing and even more exhausting to listen to. You come away from listening to a Martineta feeling as though your emotions have been on the anvil he’s used to beat time….

It’s stirring stuff…