We're thrilled to share this great article written by author Carl Nagin especially for the 5xLorca program. It's full of great insights into Lorca's deep connection to the art of flamenco. ENJOY!
Lorca and Flamenco
Flamenco is an old tree with deep roots and many branches. The words inspiring the artists in tonight’s production come from the essay Deep Song: the Primitive Song of Andalusia, written in 1922 by Federico García Lorca, Spain’s pre-eminent twentieth century poet and playwright. That year, Lorca presented it as a lecture to promote a festival and contest in Granada, organized with his friend and mentor, the composer Manuel de Falla. A much-heralded event, the Concurso de Cante Jondo, was controversial and marked a turning point in the poet’s life.
Lorca was only 23 when he gave the talk at the prestigious Arts Club of Granada. It was his first attempt to articulate aesthetic ideas that informed much of his work. Deep Song mixed polemic, music theory, historical musings, and poetic imagery in a farrago of reflections about the origins and artistic genius of cante jondo, a song tradition born and bred by the Gypsies of Andalusia, the mother lode for the music collectively known as flamenco. It remained a core inspiration for Lorca’s writing: The Poema del Cante Jondo, which he debuted, accompanied by guitarist Andrés Segovia, at a benefit for the festival; the Gypsy Ballads, his most famous work, which he likened to a “carved altar-piece (retable)” depicting Andalusia, its “gypsies, horses, archangels, planets, its Jewish and Roman breezes, rivers, crimes, the everyday touch of the smuggler and the celestial note of the naked children of Córdoba”; and Blood Wedding, a play written while listening to recordings of the gypsy singer Tomás Pavón.
How astonishing to recall the breadth and depth of his creative output in light of its brief time span: Only fourteen years separate his emergence in 1922 as a rising literary star and his execution by Nationalist military forces in August 1936 at the outset of the Spanish Civil War. No less remarkable is its enduring impact within and outside the flamenco world. His poems became letras sung by the great gypsy cantaora, La Niña de los Peines, who participated in the 1922 Concurso and, nearly half a century later, by singer Enrique Morente in his experimental fusion effort Omega. Filmmaker Carlos Saura adapted Blood Wedding as part of a flamenco trilogy. Far from the Andalusian heartland, another devotee, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, discovered in Lorca the key to his calling: “He [Lorca] gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.” Finally, there’s the legacy of Lorca’s profound meditation on the mysteries of art and death, Play and Theory of the Duende, a touchstone of flamenco debate in countless books and scholarly articles.
Lorca’s earlier Deep Song essay is an emblematic example of a long-standing discourse about purism and authenticity in flamenco. Lorca and Falla had organized their festival to revive and rescue what they saw as a neglected and moribund art form, a cultural heritage whose humanity and artistry belonged, they argued, not only to the Gypsies of Andalusia and to Spain as a nation, but also to the world. In 1922, flamenco was disdained in its own country as a low-class artifact associated with brothels, taverns, and immoral behavior. Lorca and Falla countered by elevating its pedigree, highlighting its antiquity, oriental roots, and influence on foreign composers such as Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Debussy. They recognized its quintessential value as a raw and pure expression of the human spirit. The deep song, wrote Lorca, opened “lyrical channels through which all the pain, all the ritual gestures of the race can escape.”
Less persuasive was the attempt in the essay and Concurso to re-brand cante jondo by segregating it from cante flamenco, which Falla had called a decadent, commercialized caricature. A dubious distinction at best, it was a bone tossed to the cultural nabobs of the day who disdained flamenco. (Falla and other organizers did not even want the term flamenco used in the Concurso’s title and sought to limit contestants for its prize money to amateurs and no professionals over the age of 21, restrictions that offended many veteran professional gypsy flamenco performers, including some who served as judges in the competition).
Lorca’s afición for cante jondo would evolve as did his understanding of its relation to flamenco. He had first heard it sung by fieldworkers on his family’s estate in Fuente Vaqueros, a farming village close to Granada. As a son of the pueblo’s wealthiest landowner, he grew up in a house full of music. His bible was Felipe Pedrell’s four-volume cancionero of Spain’s popular music, songbooks whose lullabies, ballads, and romances he memorized. A pianist and amateur folklorist, Lorca recorded his own version of Zorongo Gitano with a great innovator of flamenco performance, La Argentinita. And Falla put the same folk melody in several of his own compositions, as would Lorca in his play, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife. A year before the Concurso, Lorca was taking flamenco lessons with gypsy guitarists from his pueblo and wrote a friend that he considered flamenco one of the greatest inventions of the Spanish people. The Concurso itself deepened his appreciation of flamenco as a performance art, in part through his association with some of its leading gypsy singers.
Four thousand people attended the 1922 Concurso de Cante Jondo. (Falla had invited and enlisted support from his friends Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, but the festival’s municipal funders refused to cover their travel costs, outraging the composer). The performances took place over two nights during the Feast of Corpus Christi at a venue that could not have been more picturesque: the Alhambra’s Plaza de los Aljibes, overlooking the old city of Granada and the gypsy caves of Sacramonte. Participants included amateurs, unknowns, and gypsy flamenco luminaries like Manuel Torre. Among the performers, an unknown 68-year old singer named Diego Bermúdez, “El Tenazas de Morón de la Frontera,” who walked three days to attend, won first prize for his singing of siguiriyas, an award he shared with a child prodigy who soon transformed flamenco, the twelve-year old singer Manolo Caracol, a rising superstar whose talent and future commercial success would embody the very excesses and contradictions the Concurso had sought to expunge. Whether or not its ambitious artistic agenda was realized, the Concurso spawned decades of new festivals and contests throughout Spain (Sevilla’s Bienale among them) that continue to showcase the art and deep culture of flamenco. Tonight’s performance pays homage to a passionate advocate and aficionado, one of flamenco’s most admired and beloved figures, Federico García Lorca.
Notes for further reading and listening: Much of the historical information about the Concurso de Cante Jondo summarized here is drawn from two Lorca biographies: Ian Gibson’s Federico García Lorca: A Life (Faber & Faber, 1989) and Leslie Stainton’s Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999). Lorca’s lectures Cante Jondo, as well as his Play and Theory of the Duende (presented in Buenos Aires in 1933) were translated by Christopher Maurer for the collection In Search of Duende (New Directions, 1998). The 1922 “Deep Song” lecture/essay was revised by the poet in 1930 and retitled “Architecture of the Deep Song.”
A recording of Lorca’s and Falla’s personal collection of flamenco singers entitled: I Concurso de Cante Jondo (Sonifolk CD 20106, 1997) includes several cuts recorded immediately after the 1922 festival including the Contest’s first prize winner Diego Bermudez (“El Tenazas de Morón”). The CD includes recordings of La Niña de los Peines, Tomás Pavón, and Manuel Torres. Lorca’s recording with La Argentinita of Zorongo Gitano and other folk songs are available on the Sonifolk CD Colección de Canciones Populares Españolas. Manolo Caracol’s discography is vast and his 2LP History of Cante Flamenco accompanied by guitarist Melchor de Marchena is a classic anthology. Another good collection of his cante is Vol. 7 of the Chant du Monde series Grandes Cantaores du Flamenco. Enrique Morente released two recordings of Lorca infused cante: Omega (2009), which also includes versions of Leonard Cohen lyrics and Lorca (2008). Leonard Cohen’s quote about Lorca cited above comes from his poignant acceptance speech, “How I Got My Song,” delivered in October 2011 in Ovieda, Spain when he received the Prince of Asturias Award in Literature. A video of the speech can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIR5ps8usuo