The song that kills: cante jondo



It was just outside of Granada that we found the source of this strange yearning for Spain. It was announced in the local paper that Jose Merce, a singer of cante jondo, deep song, the most profound form of Flamenco singing, was to perform that night in a Flamenco club, or peña, in Illora, a small town just outside Granada, near Montefrio. He was billed as ‘one of the most interesting of the young flamenco singers.’ We jumped in our little yellow car and set off.

We left early, found Illora with some difficulty – a dusty no account town of farm workers – and found the peña. Then, because we were early, we went for a drive through the country around Montefrio, rolling hills of wheat and olives, huge flocks of goats tended by old goat herds. But we could find nowhere to eat, so went back to Illora and ate at the Meson de Refugio next to the Peña.

At around 10.30 we went into the club. A large basement, walls plastered with white stucco like clichéd Spanish restaurants the world over,  hung with strands of plastic ivy. The tables were plastic, new and almond leaf green, the chairs,  also new, uncomfortable and faux rustic rush-bottomed. On every table was a vase containing 2 long stemmed carnations, one pink and one orange.

The audience began to build around midnight, a mixture of farm workers, Gypsies of all ages, from babes in arms to ancient grandmothers and beautiful black haired girls, pale skinned earnest intellectuals from Granada,  and a sprinkling of polo shirted “yoopies” from Granada, the latter two groups, like us, revelling in the authenticity of the atmosphere.

“Do we have to pay?” I asked the waiter as he delivered two finos and a lemonade for Laura.

“No” he replied, “it’s for members of the Peña.”

“We’re not members” I said stupidly and unnecessarily.

“You are now” he winked.

There was a support act, a young woman with dyed blonde hair in an outsize black and white polka dot dress. She was OK. The crowd applauded politely.

After half a hour, at around 1am, Merce walked onto the little stage. We’d heard the muffled sound of his singing back stage, limbering up his voice. But we were not prepared for what we now heard.

Jose Merce is a big man, big like a footballer or a farm boy, with a mouth full of strong white teeth, his light brown hair brushing his shoulders.  He sat awkwardly, too big for the flimsy little chair, staring at the ground, his shoulders stooped, next to his guitarist who looked expectantly at him. A hush fell over the packed room. Very faintly, he began to clap. The guitarist picked up the melody. They did this for a couple of minutes while Merce stared into space. It was as if he was searching  for something.

Then he threw back his head with his eyes closed and he bellowed, bellowed like a bull pierced by the lance of a picador. It was a sound he’d dragged up from deep inside the past of every Andalucian in that room. And that was the first sound he made.

In two hours, he sang only four songs. Not songs in any traditional sense of having melody or anything vaguely musical other than the rhythm that  inserted itself in between the  bellowed, shouted, whispered, twisted, zigzagging, hoarse, tearful, exultant, defiant – sounds he made, not with his voice but with his body, his whole being.

I couldn’t understand the lyric, only occasionally plucking out a word  – corazón, mujer, sangre, viento,  luna (heart, woman, blood, wind, moon) but a word was rarely allowed to leave his mouth without being given another 15 or 20 syllables of varying lengths and shapes.

Each song ended the same way. He stood suddenly, swung his arms in the air and stamped his feet before sinking back into the little chair, which threatened to break each time.

We too were drained by these songs –  these deep songs, cante jondo.

I was intrigued. Where did they come from? Not just the songs themselves but from this young man, this splendid male animal. I’ve seen his type all over the south, in Córdoba and Sevilla and the little country towns we stopped in, now wearing smart suits – Merce’s was sodden with sweat – what impulse made him want to wound himself this way for his art? And this singing is art, the way that the music of Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk or Philip Glass is art. Maybe more so.

In his essay on Deep Song, Lorca tells us that that almost all the great cantaors (singers of cante jondo) die of heart attacks.

There’s a clue in the clipping from the Granada newspaper. It tells us that Merce,  from the city of Jerez de la Frontera, comes from a ‘vasta  dinastia’ of singers of cante jondo. So it’s in the family. But more than that it’s in the blood. Those songs are from the deepest part of these people – that part that we guiris (a pejorative word for Anglos) will never understand.

Manuel de Falla’s analysis of the sources of cante jondo traces the influence of the Spanish church’s  adaptation of the Byzantine liturgical chant, the Saracen (Moorish) invasion and the arrival of bands of Gypsies, originally from India.

The Gypsy siguiriya – the prototype of cante jondo – has been described as singing of ‘pains without possible consolation, wounds that will never close, crimes without human redemption, the lament of the earth that will never be the sky, the sea that knows no limits, the goodbye eternal forever. It is the soul stripped bare’

Falla claims, without ascribing ethnic origin, that the siguiriya is perhaps the only genre of song on the European continent that has conserved all the purity and the most important characteristics of the primitive song of the oriental people.

Merce’s eyes are closed, his head thrown back, his voice is one long undulating bellow. Each note raised goose bumps on my arms – I have never before had goose bumps for two hours straight. At the end of a particularly searing passage, the crowd would murmur, rather than shout, “olé, olé, olé”. Lorca calls to attention the similarity of this to the Arabic cry of Allah! Allah!

If I close my eyes, I could be listening to the muezzin calling the faithful in to prayer in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, I could be in a water splashed marble temple on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi or trying to sleep in a Moroccan bus with the loudspeaker blaring out readings from the Quran. Lorca says it best.

‘Like the primitive Indian musical systems, deep song is a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice, a marvellous buccal undulation that smashes the resonant cells of our tempered scale, eludes the cold rigid staves of modern music, and makes the tightly closed flowers of the semitones burst into a thousand petals.’ It is anti-music, pro life, death and  glorious noise.

Si mi corazón tuviera

Birieritas de cristal

Te asomaras y lo vieras

Gotas de sangre llorar

If my heart had

Windows, panes of glass

You could look in and see it

Crying drops of blood

Nobody writes these songs. They have always been. Lorca sees similarities to the ancient Andalucian  poets, and cites one collected by Ibn Said from the 12th century:

To console me friends say visit my mistress’ tomb.

Has she a tomb, I answer, other than in my heart.

But the duende  was in that room in Illora  that night. Lorca, in his essay on duende in the book Deep Song and Other Prose quotes Goethe on Paganini to define duende: “A mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher can explain.” Writing on  the music of Manuel de Falla, a critic said ” all that has black sounds has duende.”

“We know the roads where we can search for God” wrote Lorca, “….But there are neither maps nor disciplines to help us find the duende….we only know that he burns  like a poultice of broken glass…..”

The Spanish, perhaps more than any other Europeans, understand that death is at the end of every journey. “The dead are more alive in Spain than the dead of any other country…” wrote Lorca. And this informs their life with passion and intensity. And at heart, I reckon, apart from the architecture and the food  and the wine and the landscape and the coffee laced with brandy for breakfast, that is what I respond to.

He sang for three hours. For the entire time, our three year old daughter stared, rapt, at the singer. No baby in the room cried, no child whimpered. At the end, we filed silently out, drained ourselves.

(In 2012, at 57, Jose Merce is one of the most popular of the cantaors of ‘new flamenco’. Then he was a kid from Jerez de la Frontera with a good flamenco pedigree. We had to go to illora to hear him:  you can go to YouTube.)


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