The American Duende of the Blues March 7, 2015Posted by The Typist in Duende, music, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Tags: blues, cathay, Duende, Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca
Si me quieres dimelo
Y si no dame venemo
Y sal a la calle y si
Yo mate a mi dulce dueno
Con vememo que le di
Give me poison
If you love me, tell it to me
And if not, give me poison
And go out on the street and say
I killed my sweet master
With the poison I gave him
— Traditional cante jondo
I love Irene, God knows I do,
I’ll love her till the seas run dry
But if Irene should turn me down,
I’d take the morphine and die
— Variant verse of “Good Night Irene” by Leadbelly
The continuous glissando of the cantaor’s vocal cords and the bending of notes upon the guitar with hard calloused Black finger or the glide of a bottle neck slide.
What you must search for and find is the black torso of the Pharaoh.
— Andalusian cantaor Manual Torre, to Federico Garcia Lorca, explaining the duende–the “soul” if you will, of cante jondo or deep song; paraphrased from Greg Simon’s introduction to Ralph Angel’s translation of Lorca’s Poem of the Deep Song
Song born of pain, of longing, and of pride. Simon continues:
The apex of Moorish culture, which is represented for eternity by the Alhambra, was hallowed out from below by the brutal, secular incursions of the crusaders and brought to an abrupt end by the reconquest…By the time of the destruction of the Spanish Armada…Andalusia had splintered…and soon sank like a breached caravel from the sight of the world. I’m convinced that Andalusia’s Gypsy cantaores…began to be called upon for the consolation inherent in their art.
‘We are a sad, static people,” Lorca wrote of his fellow Andalusians, ‘people [who] cross their arms in prayer, look at the stars, and wait uselessly for a sign of salvation.’ ‘Static,’ Lorca’s description of the Andalusian…invokes the idea of the power of the force of life, potential energy waiting to be called upon by those who must have it to survive.
The further I go into the cante jondo and Lorca, in search of clues to the duende, a possible explanation for my own familiar demons that express themselves sometime in poetry, it seems impossible not to link the deep song, the cante jondo, to the blues. And if you listen for it, it lurks in the portamento of the fiddles in the saddest low waltzes of the Acadians, America’s closest native-born analog of the Gypsies.
“The black torso of the Pharaoh,” the common link in the Gypsy’s origin myth out of Egypt, out of Africa; the marginalization and suffering of a people who lived in caves above the city, and the Black American experience of their own harsh marginalization (the three fifths), the profound combination of sadness and hope, the constant portamento of the cantaor and the blues player, speaks to me of the universality of the duende. There is a force of unknown origin, the soul, the collective consciousness, or as Lorca relates (quoted from Archer) “…the words of an ancient guitar player who told him the duende pressed up through the crust of the earth and into him through the soles of his feet.”
I stood more than once in a tai chi class and felt myself rooted to the earth, the energy rising up through my own soles to the tips of my extended fingers and continuing by a tenuous but palpable thread to the sky.
As I read Archer’s translation, familiar poems in new clothes, the overwhelming presence of the earth, of the Guadalquivir and other rivers of Andalusia, of the olive grove and the flower, I hear echoes of haiku and the poetry of Asia generally. I am carried back to Ezra Pound’s free translations from the Chinese, in particular to the “Lament of the Frontier Guard” and the “Song of the Bowmen of Shu:”
When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,
We come back in the snow,
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?
— from “Song of the Bowmen of Shu”
(Wind and dust
Fashion prows of silver.
— Lorca’s “Clamor”)
Lorca, in his published lectures and essays, and in his poetry, speaks often of the cave dwellings of the Gypsies of Andalusia, as do his commentators. Caves, openings into the earth, the place closest to the spirits of the earth. As Lorca himself explains, the duende is not the angel or Greek muse born of heaven, but closer to a demon, a spirit of the earth. The duende follows the ley lines beneath the rock and flowers, circles the earth and–when conjured by by stout hearts with the scent of sorrow–comes forth in the voices and fingers of the poet, the player and the singer.