Friday, June 06, 2014

Cante Jondo

for Jonathan Mayhew

"The true struggle is with the duende."
(Federico García Lorca)

Cante jondo, "deep song", is also called the "great style" of flamenco singing. I am well out of my depth here (as my sources reveal), but there is a sense in which we all are. Wikipedia tells us that cante jondo "deals with themes of death, anguish, despair, or religious sentiments", and I think it serves as a fitting way to close out a week that started in a "funk" and passed through "the blues". I'm not, of course, the first to make this connection between the roots of American and Spanish popular music.

It's interesting that Wikipedia describes the style as an "unspoiled form of Andalusian folk music" (my emphasis). Lorca, citing Falla, tells us that the siguiriya, which is one kind of cante jondo, "is the only song on our continent that has been conserved in its pure form, ... the primitive songs of the oriental people." That is, the mythology of cante jondo involves an appeal to purity, originality, authenticity. The word for this kind of "unspoiled" genuineness in Andalusian song is, of course, "duende", something that most commentators have the good sense to admit they don't really know what is. Wikipedia cites Caballero:

The singer who sings seguiriyas leaves in each line of the copla (verse of cante) a piece of his soul; and, if not, he is deceiving the listener, perhaps even himself. If there is one style to which the singer has to give everything, has to give every bit of himself, it is the siguiriya. I have seen José Menese completely overcome, broken, a literal wreck after doing this song and I believe that if the singer sometimes reaches the kind of state of grace that the Gypsies call duende - and I don't know yet what that is - it is in these unique and unrepeatable moments.

Lorca provides a detailed description of the problem in his account of one of Pastora Pavón's performances. She up like a madwoman, trembling like a medieval mourner, and drank, in one gulp, a huge glass of fiery spirits, and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, breath, colour, but…with duende. She managed to tear down the scaffolding of the song, but allow through a furious, burning duende, friend to those winds heavy with sand, that make listeners tear at their clothes with the same rhythm as the Negroes of the Antilles in their rite, huddled before the statue of Santa Bárbara.

La Niña de Los Peines had to tear apart her voice, because she knew experts were listening, who demanded not form but the marrow of form, pure music with a body lean enough to float on air. She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her Muse, and be helpless, so her duende might come, and deign to struggle with her at close quarters.

What does this have to with academic writing, you might ask? This morning I will not be so glib as to say, as I sometimes do, precisely nothing, i.e., don't deceive yourself into thinking that scholarly writing is an "art" in this profound sense (jondo means simply deep, after all), but a craft that you perfect through practice. Lorca tells us that "seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline," and as such I guess I, who always recommends planning and discipline to scholars who want to improve and control their writing process, am advising you not to imagine that your academic writing depends on finding yours. "It's not so deep," I can hear myself saying. "Don't think you have to leave a piece of your soul in each paragraph."

And yet, and yet…

Is there not all too often a desperate lack of duende in the writings of scholars? Is that not implicitly the complaint we have about it: that it is all "form" and no "marrow"? That we seek safety in the skill of writing a "standard issue" journal article, satisfying a set of conventions, but never really finding our voice? Is there perhaps a place for authenticity in academic writing after all?

More next week.

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