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On Flamenco: Ellison, Lorca, and Me

“Cante Flamenco, or cante hondo [sic] (deep song, as the purer, less florid form is called) is a unique blending of Eastern and Western modes and as such it often baffles when it most intrigues the Western ear. In our own culture the closest music to it in feeling is the Negro blues, early jazz, and the slave songs (now euphemistically termed ‘spirituals’).”

-Ralph Ellison, “Introduction to Flamenco,” The Saturday Review, December 11, 1954

In 1954, Ralph and Fanny Ellison heard flamenco, real flamenco, in Madrid. From there, they went to Paris, where at a restaurant they were eating soul food when “a gypsy woman” entered and read Ralph’s fortune. In their subsequent conversation, she recommended he see a master flamenco dancer named Escudero, and when he did, he was astounded. The music, song, and dance of flamenco captivated Langston Hughes before Ellison, and would entrance many black musicians and writers after him, as legends such as B.B. King routinely collaborated with later generations of flamenco guitarists. Like these Americans who traversed Europe long before I came along, I discovered flamenco while studying in Granada, Spain, home of the late playwright, poet, and piano virtuoso Federico García Lorca, who worked with legendary Spanish composer Manuel de Falla to try to preserve cante jondo in the early twentieth century, and wrote the most eloquent treatment of that mysterious spirit that gives power to flamenco performance, the duende.

The duende, that strange and unmistakably familiar force that visits us in transcendent moments of flamenco or blues or soul performance—Camaron de la Isla’s meandering and perfect runs on “Que He Dejado de Quererte,” James Brown’s concluding pleads on “Bewildered”—is something I have seen, heard, felt, on several occasions. To say felt is misleading: I became flesh that is also somehow sheer, and the duende blew through me. That wind was the same wind described by Lorca in his lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende”: “The duende ….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odor of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.” This language, like the duende, cannot be understood in the conventional sense, for in it, Lorca abides by what he calls the “poetic moment,” a way of (un)making sense that cannot quite be called an aesthetic. It is truthful without being rational; it cuts to the heart of things like scripture, without being allegorical. The sensibility that invites the duende does result in an aesthetic beauty, however, a beauty Ellison could hear in the very abrasiveness of deep song. He wrote: “The nasal, harsh, anguished tones…are not the results of ineptitude or ‘primitivism’; like the ‘dirty tone’ of the jazz instrumentalist, it is the result of an esthetic which rejects the beautiful sound sought by classical Western music.”

In short, what Lorca captures that Ellison does not, however, is that the music, the dance, song, is all terrifying. I do not mean that I was afraid at performances, for fear is an emotion directed at some undesirable possibility looming in the future. What I felt was a primordial reminder that every single moment contains the possibility of ever thing, every possible thing, happening. Being thus terrified, we are also made alive to the world. When I saw Ana Calí dance at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla, it was not the rapidity or gracefulness of her movements, the precision of her technique that stunned me most deeply—though they were startling enough—but her presence. With a few twists of her wrists, I gained the awareness that anything could happen, and she became something other than human, not animal, but something eternal—I could not imagine her shopping for groceries, for instance, or brushing her teeth, or making small talk. By the time the rose pinned in her hair was flung to the stage and her hair fell in black tranches from its pinning as her dance reached its crescendo, there was not a single performance I had witnessed in my life that approached the power of that single woman, those two guitarists, and those few others clapping on that small stage.

I saw performances more spectacular, in grander settings, such as Sara Baras’s production of Mariana Pineda at Teatro Isabel, but there was something kindred in all of them at their apices, from the 20-person show to the small cipher. I must say, though, that Baras stood out as a true master amongst all that I saw, including the celebrated Rafael Amargo, whom I saw perform an adaptation of another Lorca classic, Poeta en Neuva York. Artists like Baras, and later Camarón de la Isla, for me, forge a subtle vocabulary at the upper reaches of sonic expression. The vocabulary cannot be expressed in notation, Laban or otherwise. But you can know it, recognize it, and if you master the techniques, you can work toward surrendering your mastery to the irrational grammar of possession. This is what Ellison, Lorca, and I heard and saw.

But now that I have used that term possession, I want to conclude on a point of clarification, explained long ago by Lorca, in words as effective as words can be: “…I don’t want anyone to confuse the duende with the theological demon of doubt at whom Luther, with Bacchic feeling, hurled a pot of ink in Eisenach, nor the Catholic devil, destructive and of low intelligence….” The duende Lorca describes is “secret and shuddering…descended from that blithe daemon, all marble and salt, of Socrates, whom it scratched at indignantly on the day when he drank the hemlock, and that other melancholy demon of Descartes, diminutive as a green almond, that, tired of lines and circles, fled along the canals to listen to the singing of drunken sailors…” As “there is neither map nor discipline” that will guide one in seeking the duende, we can “only know that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand…” Though mysterious, some of us can recognize it when we hear it, as Lorca did in the singing of Pastora Pavon, which he described in a way that brings us closer, more poetically and less academically than Ellison, to a description of the duende‘s sonic storm: “with her voice of shadows, with her voice of beaten tin, with her mossy voice, she tangled it in her hair, or soaked it in manzanilla or abandoned it to dark distant briars.” As in possession, during such performances time abandons its masquerade as chronology, and, for Lorca, and for me, it is the resulting immediacy that also links together summoners of the duende across all eras and places: “it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.”