Attempting to Live Inside Federico García Lorca’s “Poema del Cante Jondo” for a While

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I'm convinced that some languages, languages we neither speak nor understand, are familiar to the ear. For myself, the romance and Semitic languages, the languages of the Mediterranean and the Middle East are familiar to my ear, as opposed, let's say, to Slavic and Asian languages.

I come from a household of three languages-Ladino, Hebrew, and English-one that I could understand but not speak, one that I could sing but not understand, and one that is the language of my country, at some distance, always, from my own home.

So I understand Spanish, can speak it somewhat, and am still studying its nuances. I can read the poetry of Federico García Lorca in the original. And I was drawn to one particular book of his, Poema del Cante Jondo / Poem of the Deep Song, in part because I was drawn to the music it pays homage to, which also, strangely and surprisingly, was familiar to my ear. It resembled the incantatory medieval singing of the Sephardic synagogue that I grew up in.

The petenera, in fact, evolved from Sephardic-Jewish synagogue song, and the Jews perfected its form. In "Description of the Petenera," Lorca dispenses with the narrative strategies of the songs, but the poems pay beautiful homage to the cry of their highly-charged metaphors.

Death travels down a road crowned with withered orange blossoms. Death sings and sings a song with her ancient white guitar . . .

Wind and dust fashion prows of silver. (from "Clamor")

I won't indulge myself here by recalling all the reasons why I took on the project of translating Poema del Cante Jondo, or the obstacles I encountered along the way. It is enough to say that music itself became a constant companion. Lorca was a minstrel, and he understood poetry as an oral expression. I found that in order to come to terms with these spare, peculiar poems, I had to come to terms with cante jondo, and especially the four palos or genres of Lorca's book: "Poem of the Gypsy Siguiriya," "Poem of the Soleá," "Poem of the Saeta," and "Description of the Petenera." Only by studying cante jondo, and translating lyrics of songs that moved me, and listening to cante jondo while I worked, did I begin to hear the strange, subtle rhythms and silences and accents of the poems.

But I found myself listening to other music, as well. To other forms of flamenco, for example, to medieval Arabic and Jewish music, and to American jazz. I found myself going to the music of duende, in other words, of which cante jondo is a supreme example, including the American duende of Billie Holiday and Cassandra Wilson, of Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Bill Evans, of John Lee Hooker and Rambling Jack Elliot.

American duende was especially important to me during those periods I spent living and working in Granada. There I was thinking and speaking in Spanish. I slid into the ways of Andalusian culture, and it helped me to hear the language of the original poems. But listening to the music of American duende, music I've known and loved for years, helped me to hear my own language, the language of translation.

What is the language of this translation? It isn't anything without Granada, the Spanish language, English, music, the almost mythological life of García Lorca, and the elements of Deep Song.

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In 1921, Federico García Lorca made a book of poems, to be titled Poema del Cante Jondo. He was twenty-three. It was his first mature work in the sense that the poems were not centered on his own interior life. In fact they were not about him at all, but were inspired by a festival of cante jondo that he and the great Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, were organizing. The festival would take place in 1922 in the Alhambra, and, like its ancient Moorish setting, would remind Andalusia and all of Spain of its deep musical soul.

Lorca referred to cante jondo as "a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice . . . [that] makes the tightly closed flowers of the semitones blossom into a thousand petals."

"Cante jondo . . . is the trilling of birds," he said, "the song of the rooster, and the music of forest and fountain."

"It is a very rare specimen of primitive song, the oldest in all Europe, and its notes carry the naked emotion of the first Oriental races."

Cante jondo is highly stylized singing. In each song the cantaor must convey his or her own suffering within the compás of its complex rhythms. And compás is a strange, unique fluidity-full of discrete interruptions, accents, and silences. In Poem of the Deep Song, Lorca did not try to imitate the lyrics or music of cante jondo, but he did, I think, rely on its compás in order to craft poems that would enact the experience of the solitary anguish that is cante jondo.

The wineglasses of dawn are broken. The cry of the guitar begins . . . (from "The Guitar)

The cry is essential to cante. Not unlike the guitar, in fact, the voice of the cantaor is considered an instrument of the cry, the cry that dares to break the silence, just as the hands are an instrument to break the stillness, and the feet.

The Cry

The ellipse of a cry echoes from mountain to mountain.

From the olive trees a black rainbow veils the blue night.

Ay!

Like the bow of a viola the cry vibrates long strings of wind.

Ay!

(The cave dwellers' oil lamps begin to appear.)

Ay!

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Lorca loved cante jondo, and he believed it had to be preserved because only Gypsy music, the music of the persecuted and oppressed, truly embraced the diverse and ancient Andalusian culture that the Church, ruling monarchies and crass commercialism had so nearly destroyed. From Indian and Andalusian folk song, together with the song of the Arabs and Jews, the Gypsies of Southern Spain developed and defined cante jondo, the song of Andalusia, and infused it with duende.

In a lecture that Lorca first delivered in Buenos Aires in 1933, he described duende as a "black sound."

"The duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet . . . [a] mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains."

"Spain is moved by the duende, for it is a country of ancient music and dance where the duende squeezes the lemons of dawn-a country of death. A country open to death . . . Everywhere else, death is an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live indoors until the day they die and are taken out into the sunlight. A dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man . . . [h]is profile wounds like the edge of a barber's razor."

Poem of the Deep Song did not appear in 1922, as Lorca intended. It was published ten years after it was begun, in 1931, in part because he abandoned it to work on a brilliant, even more traditional collection, The Gypsy Ballads, which was eventually to make Lorca hugely famous. Deep Song's publication, then, occurred only five years before he returned to Granada for the last time, in the summer of 1936, to be part of his family's annual celebration of his and his father's saint's day. Four days after Lorca returned home, Francisco Franco, with the blessings of Hitler and Mussolini, initiated his famed rebellion from the Canary Islands. The Spanish Civil War had begun, and a month later, by then in hiding, Lorca was arrested. He was taken to the barranco de Víznar, to the hills northeast of Granada, and murdered. He was thirty-eight. And not until after Franco's death in 1975, were his writings or the details of his assassination openly discussed in Spain. And ever since Franco's death all the great cante singers of Spain have been turning Lorca poems into song. It has been my privilege to join them in their homage to the art of García Lorca.

(All quotations from Lorca's prose were taken from Deep Song and Other Prose, trans. Christopher Maurer, New Directions: New York, NY, 1980.)