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Federico García Lorca: Tres morillas de Jaén

As I prepare for the April 24 concert, I have become increasingly immersed in the life and poetry of Federico García Lorca. The more I know about this great Spanish writer the more astonishing I find him. His neatly bound volumes of poetry and his famous stage works don’t give a true picture of his chaotic creativity, his unique mix of sophistication and naivety, his long-frustrated sensuality, and his complex heart. At once a fountain of vitality and a death-haunted soul, he longed for the one thing Spain was unwilling to give him: a man he could love without shame or punishment. The songs I’ve chosen for the concert examine some of the many facets of Lorca: the Andalusian outsider who loved the wild cadences of flamenco, the visionary poet, the child-man who longed to be a father himself.

Lorca’s early ambition was to be a pianist, and he always maintained a close connection to music. At parties he’d sit down at the piano and belt out Andalusian songs till the wee hours. But there is only one recording of Lorca-the-pianist: a 6-record album (78s, of course) in which he accompanies a folksinger named La Argentina in his “Colección de Canciones Populares Españolas.” In his early twenties Lorca formed a close friendship with composer Manuel de Falla, and the two of them would roam the countryside gathering folksongs. Each of them published a volume of arrangements. De Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” have become the most often-sung Spanish pieces in the canon, but Lorca’s get performed with some frequency too, either with piano or guitar. Here’s a beauty, “Tres morillas de Jaén.”

The poem, written in the repetitive style of villancico, is not so easy to translate, and there are some hilariously incorrect English versions floating around the internet. (Certain words have a very different meaning in Latin America than they do in Spain, it seems.) Here is what the song really is about: three Moorish women have caught the fancy of the narrator. They go out to gather olives and apples, but they find that the trees are bare. They have nothing to eat. Why? Because their land has been stolen by the Christians. They have also been forced to convert, to leave their religion behind. There are beautiful linguistic subtleties—the way the word “mora” (Moor) is embedded in the word “enamoran” (stole my heart), and the ambiguity of “thieves of my life,” either because the singer has lost his heart to the Moorish women, or because he feels they have come to steal their property back from him. Either way, the song creates a magical atmosphere.

How moving to work on “Tres morillas” at this moment in history. The writer Dorothy Potter Snyder put it best: “At a time when Muslim people are being massacred in their places of worship and threatened by our President, I cannot think of a better moment to present this melancholy song of loss, its cadences so reminiscent of those of Northern Africa that weave through all traditional music from Southern Spain.”

Lorca and La Argentina

Teresa Berganza, with guitarist Narciso Yepes

Three Moorish women stole my heart in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
Three strong Moorish ladies
Went off to pick olives,
And found them all picked in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.

And they found they all were picked
And the they all came back dismayed
And drained of color in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.

Three Moorish ladies all aglow
Went to pick apples
And found they all were picked in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.

I said to them: Who are you, ladies,
Thieves of my life?
“Christian women, we were once Moors in Jaén,”
Axa and Fátima and Marién.

La Marelu: Si mi novio no me quiere

Friday has come at last! ¡Olé y olé! And with it my last blog post in this series, ‘Girl Got Duende’. What fun this gig this has been! It is appropriate that we end the week in Spain.

I would not want to be the guy who tells Magdalena Montañéz Salazar, ‘La Marelu’, that he doesn’t love her anymore; even her heartbroken desperation sounds like there might be a dagger hidden in her decolletage. Or maybe I would want to be that guy (or girl), because then, before I died, she would sing to me like she does here.

My first experiences with flamenco were thanks to my musical partner Aaron Gilmartin. A classically-trained musician and composer, Aaron is also a singer-songwriter whose stylistic mastery on the guitar won him a gig teaching bossa nova and flamenco guitar with Happy Traum’s Homespun Music Instruction label. For many years he accompanied dancers in the great Dionisia Garcia‘s classes at the Ballet Hispánico in New York, as well as at regular soirées at La Tapería Madrid on the Upper East Side. I remember sitting in that blue and yellow-tiled bar one night watching Dionisia and her dancers pound the stage, and in the final number she made a beeline to where I was sitting in the shadows and tried to pull me up on stage to join in. Perhaps I needed a couple more glasses of wine, but at that moment there was something about the serious, dark, passion of the flamenco vibe that inspired something akin to terror into my heart. Dionisia, dressed in one of her gorgeous red flamenco dresses, tugged at my arms while I held my ground saying no, no, no, somehow managing to cling to my barstool. In my memory, the incident practically turned into a bar brawl. All these years later, listening to La Marelu and writing this, I wish I had risked my little scrap of pride and gotten up to dance.

Aaron tells me that “Si mi novio no me quiere”, is “a rumba (rumba flamenca, but it’s just called just rumba). It’s related to the tango (flamenco) because both are in 4 and are part of the palos (styles) called ida y vuelta (literally, “round trip”), thus called because they originate in countries outside of Spain. The colombiana, guajira, tango, and rumba are all names of flamenco palos that have influences from other countries, but of course, not all are in 4.”  In the vast and complex genealogy of flamenco, the rumba flamenca is a fairly modern phenomenon, born of the contact between flamenqueros and Cuban rumberos at the turn of the twentieth century.

La Marelu herself emerges from the flamenco-rich culture of Extremadura in Western Spain, which shares a long border with Portugal. She reminds me physically of Dionisia. And of Ana Moura. She has that elusive quality we look for in a great singer, that spirit, daring, power and soul—sometimes called duende—which La Marelu has in abundance.

¡Hagan palmas a La Marelu!

La Lupe sings “Qué te pedí”

It is hard for me to think of a performer whose life and art covered more ground in a shorter time than Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymond, La yiyiyí, La Lupe, the Queen of Latin Soul. Let’s put it this way: when they retire a fairly common Hispanic name like Lupe in the world of Latin American popular music, it’s like retiring a player’s number in the NBA. You get my point.

In Cuba, she attracted an all-star international following, from Ernest Hemingway to Simone de Beauvoir; and fellow Cuban singer Celia Cruz, whom she admired and who gave La Lupe’s career a boost and a new trajectory by recommending her to New York bandleader Mongo Santamaría. La Lupe could do it all: bolero, son montuno, cha cha cha, boogaloo, salsa.

That made it hard for me to select one tune for this post: should I show you La Lupe singing “El Carbonero” (The Coal-seller), all her limbs in motion like a bird trying to escape a cage as she rides the rhythm and then ends the song by cheekily smacking her own lamé-wrapped bottom three times? Should I share the soaring bolero “La Gran Tirana”, its extended and serrated notes, reminding of a young Eartha Kitt?

My friend, trumpetist, composer and bandleader Tim Ouimette, used to study with the great Panamian trumpetist Victor Vitin Paz. Tim would go nuts in his sessions with Paz, because month after month, all Victor said to him was: Find your note Teem! Or, Teem, have you find your note yet? Paz kept insisting on this as my friend wore out his embouchure in the effort. (I am glad to say he finally found “his note”.) What Paz was insisting on was not just accuracy, not just tone: it was duende.

I choose this searing bolero, “¿Qué te pedí? (What Did I Ask of You?) by Mexican composer Gabriel Luna de la Fuente because it demonstrates to perfection La Lupe’s “note”, that piercing gemido, that inimitable wail that was hers alone. We hear it in the first phrase into which she packs all the searing agony of not being understood by the person you love the most, and your fury when you realize you’ve thrown away your devotion on someone who doesn’t appreciate it. Here, La Lupe seems to be in a last, mortal effort to pierce the incomprehension of her lover, traveling an emotional roller coaster that, at its heights, condemns him and, at its depths, accepts that her mortal wound will be her only reward.

¿Qué te pedí?
Que no fuera leal comprensión,
que supieras que no hay
en la vida otro amor
como mi amor.
¿Qué no te dí?
Que pudiera en tus manos poner,
que aunque quise robarme la luz para tí
no pudo ser.

What did I ask of you
But your faithful understanding
That you should know there is
No love in this life
Quite like my love?
What didn’t I give you
But whatever I could place in your hands?
And even though I wanted to steal the very light for you,
It wasn’t to be.

Damas y caballeros, les presento: La Lupe singing “¿Qué te pedí?

Chavela Vargas sings “Mi segundo amor”

Chavela Vargas died in 2012, leaving the world without that voice that Pedro Almodóvar, who featured her in his film La flor de mi secreto (My secret’s flower), called la voz áspera de la ternura (the rough voice of tenderness). She was born in Costa Rica, where she worked as a street musician, singing and accompanying herself on the acoustic guitar; only in her thirties did she begin to sing in clubs and, finally, to record. Her idiom was the Mexican slow ranchera, a style of song that she often decelerated even further to emphasize the depth of emotion, as if to imitate the slow, drawling speech of a drunken man who, while clinging to the bar in some cantina, tells you all about the woman who destroyed his life. A man, you say? Yes. Vargas, who nearly died of alcoholism, was re-born (sober) as an artist at age 70 and began to sing again at El hábito, the famous bohemian nightclub in Coyoacán, México. At age 81, she publicly came out. At 83, she debuted at Carnegie Hall.

I know what the life of a street musician is because I was one. I played guitar and sang in the subways in New York City, and then in the early years of this century toured as a troubadour around the smoke-filled bars of Germany, France, Norway and Denmark with songwriter and guitarist Aaron Gilmartin. In between gigs, Aaron and I would set ourselves up on cobblestoned street corners and in the hauptbahnhofs (train stations) that were our second homes in those days, and sing for tips. It was one of the best, most musically and spiritually instructive four and a half years of my life.

To sing as Chavela does you have to spend a lot of time on the street and in bars. You have to sing until your instrument is wrecked, and then keep singing. Sing until your life is wrecked, and then keep singing. Sing until all the hypocrisy is burned away, and then keep singing.

I present to you La Gloriosa, La Llorona, la única Chavela Vargas singing Víctor Yturbe’s Mi segundo amor (my second love).

Ana Moura: Desfado

Fado is a sort of Portuguese blues that contains elements from traditional Cape Verdean music, and the songs nearly always mournfully contemplate lost love, death and the full range of dark emotions. The elegant Ana Moura is one of its primary exponents in the world today and, in addition to having caught the attention of Prince, she also recorded with The Rolling Stones. But her popularity with rockstars is not why she’s on my list of favorites.

From the first note, I belong to her. Her intention and vocal attack is like a silver wire being expertly slipped into my spinal column and then delicately electrified—I know that doesn’t sound nice, but it is exquisitely pleasurable to me. Her contralto voice, gorgeously dark, husky and sprinkled with silver dust, takes risks while remaining under her complete control during every second of the song. She leaves me swooning. I swear, I would follow Ana Moura into battle— and I have a feeling the men in her band would, too.

This song, by Pedro da Silva Martins, is called “Desfado because while it features the usual sorrowful nostalgia in the lyrics, the melody is as cheerful as it can be. In other words, it is a study in contrasts, an “un-fado”, that plays a game with the bipolarity of the human heart, which is never so happy as when it is sad, and never so sad as when it is happy. I saw Ana perform this, the title song of her fifth album Desfado, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC in 2015 and was unable (unwilling!) to sleep that night, so drunk was I on her hypnotic voice. Here is the chorus in Portuguese and English, so you get an idea of what’s going on:

Ai que saudade
Que eu tenho de ter saudade
Saudades de ter alguém
Que aqui está e não existe
Sentirme triste
Só por me sentir tão bem
E alegre sentir-me bem
Só por eu andar tão triste

Oh how I long
To have something to long for,
To have longings for someone
That has been here and does not exist,
To feel sad
Just because I’m feeling so well and happy,
To feel happy
Just because I’m feeling so sad.

Please enjoy Ana Moura performing “Desfado”.

Totó la Momposina: Chambacú

After hearing from mi querido guapo Steven Blier last week about his plan to create an entire NYFOS program around García Lorca, I decided to devote my week as NYFOS guest blogger to five of my favorite Hispanic women vocalists so that I might demonstrate duende by example.

What is duende? In Theory and Play of the Duende, García Lorca writes:

All through Andalusia, from the rock of Jaén to the snail’s-shell of Cadiz, people constantly talk about the duende and recognize it wherever it appears with a fine instinct. That wonderful singer El Lebrijano, creator of the Debla, said: ‘On days when I sing with duende no one can touch me.’ The old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach, and exclaimed: ‘Olé! That has duende!’ but was bored by Gluck, Brahms and Milhaud. And Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that. (Translation: A.S. Kline)

But lest you should think duende exists only in Spain, let me assure you that it is here in the Americas and the Caribbean, too, though here it sometimes goes by other names. The  women I am going to write about this week are an eclectic group, singing in a variety of different styles from several countries and two continents; all have magnificent instruments and sing in traditions deeply-rooted in the lands from which they arise; and they all have that extra element that sensitive artists everywhere in the world recognize, though they call it by different names. Simply put, these gals got duende.

They are not necessarily the Latin vocalists who are better-known by North Americans, though they should be, and there are definitely some missing. I choose these five, selfishly, because I love them best; they demonstrate vocal courage, artistic invention, and tonal genius as well as possessing powerful instruments. I choose them because ellas me ponen los pelitos en punta—they make my small hairs stand on end.

At 70, Totó La Momposina is still the premiere exponent and voice of Afro-Colombian music. She is an elegant stylist and dancer from the colonial village of Mompox, a World Heritage Site on an island in the middle of the great Magdalena river which acts as a cultural vein connecting the musical tradition of the Andes to the Afro-Colombian coastline. I had the pleasure of singing some of Totó’s repertoire in the 90s as part of the voice and percussion ensemble Fiesta de Tambores directed by Colombian singer Lucía Pulido in New York, an experience that still stands as some of the most physically-taxing, sweaty and insanely fun singing I have ever done.

Totó has almost single-handedly kept alive the roots tradition of Colombian cumbia and bullerengue, and she is the matriarch of a large clan of young musicians who are learning this tradition at her feet. Totó’s blend of indigenous, African and Hispanic elements, her (super)natural vocal power that emerges from the Earth itself, the rawness and breath of her tone, and her no-fault rhythmic sensibility win her the number one spot on my list of gals with duende.

I choose Totó’s rendition of the cumbia, “Chambacú” because of the long, water-clear notes and the way she floats on top of the rhythm as if she were improvising (she isn’t). It is a cumbia herida (a wounded cumbia), a call to action, and an artifact of generational suffering and persistence of joy amongst Afro-Colombian people.

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