Those hermetic voile curtains are partly meant to preserve Café El Despertar’s clandestine atmosphere, but they’re also there to deter the naive walk-in customer. The steely elderly owner, with his enviable beard, is only interested in clientele who are specifically here for his jazz music, and most certainly not in the police, who – for good reason – he constantly fears.
If you weren’t aware of Café El Despertar before, you might have accidentally walked past it. And even if it catches your eye with its beautiful old facade, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s closed. But any day of the week, from around 7 pm onwards, you can heave open the heavy wooden doors, the second of which sports a treble clef handle, and step into a world you thought you’d never find in Madrid again.
Order a drink at the splendid marble bar and take the time to admire your turn-of-the-century surroundings, which hark back to the spiritual era of this club.
With 37 years under its belt, Café El Despertar sits among the creative greats of Madrid’s post-dictatorship era – along with the mythical Café Ajenjo. But, like that beloved Malasaña haunt, El Despertar is often quiet – no matter which night you come. Still, playing a gig here remains a rite of passage for local jazz musicians, just as it has been since 1981.
With your drink in hand, and having paid no more than €6 for the show, make your way to the matching pink marble tables at the back, where you’ll find the intimate stage and a wall of fame for local musicians.
Gigs are played here almost every night, and owner Juan Ruiz is a permanent fixture, either serving the odd customer or sitting at the back enjoying the jazz shows himself. But he may also maintain a constant presence here for a slightly more uneasy reason:
I’m in constant fear of the police, but I’ve never done anything wrong!
Juan Ruiz’s fear was once justified. In 1981, he took a risk: he opened a clandestine jazz club in the style of those typically found during Franco’s rule. Though the dictatorship had finally come to an end and officially been ‘forgotten’, Spain’s darkest era felt, at best, dormant.
For almost four decades, Juan has intentionally provided his clientele with a concealed space to discuss controversial topics behind net curtains. Timeless jazz is played at a moderate volume so that you can chat, yet loud enough that nobody can eavesdrop.
Oh, and perhaps my favourite part of Café El Despertar is the pristine ladies’ bathroom: that old tap, those hand-painted tiles, the fossils in the marble counter top, the clean hand towel and bar of soap – just like your grandmother’s bathroom.
Get a feel for the atmosphere already: this short film by Drakkar captures the clandestine jazz club perfectly.
If you’d like to see a jazz quartet or just love a good solo singer, check who’s playing tonight by visiting Café El Despertar’s website. Tickets cost €5-6 and can be booked in advance, although it’s not usually necessary.