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My Spanish Heart

June 8, 2013

We respond to different types of music with different parts of ourselves. When speaking about Spanish music the following words will inevitably come up: passion, fire and romance. People saying these words will do so with their voice warming and eyes growing larger. While the same people can speak enthusiastically about Mozart or Bach, it is clear that the affection for Spanish music comes from a different part of them – a different room in the heart.

The words passion and fire reflect the ubiquity of the flamenco tradition, with the swirling red dresses, the clacking of feet and the percussive guitar style. From this viewpoint it is hard to imagine that only 100 years ago the tradition was endangered.  Federico Garcia Lorca and Manuel de Falla went collecting songs in the caves around Granada to preserve this animated and vital part of their country’s cultural history. Classical music from Spain has been so inflected with flamenco rhythms that the piano music of Albeniz is more known in the guitar arrangements than from the piano originals.

At the heart of the Flamimagesenco world is the term duende, which means life force as expressed through heightened emotion. The gypsies, or Romany people migrated from India about 1,500 years ago and have developed strong musical traditions wherever they have settled. They have also frequently been excluded from the mainstream, frequently enslaved and at various times been the victims of murderous persecution. Despite these travails or perhaps as a result of them, they have raised voices in song, and danced with verve. Unemployed and excluded, with few possessions they make a choice to live and to celebrate that choice. Perhaps duende refers to the moment one chooses to live and celebrate in spite of the surrounding calamities.

On the other hand duende can be true inspiration, and in music this happens at moments of risk, going into uncharted territory. I remember a wonderful duo concert in Montreal with vocalist Karen Young and bassist Michel Donato. It is pretty risky in the jazz context to perform with no supporting harmony: the harmony is one of the ways to keep the path clear. Both performers have to have internalized that aspect of the music so well that they convince the audience that the chords are there even when they aren’t. This concert was pretty exciting and the most notable part was during the last piece when Michel Donato had a solo. He took a couple of choruses and the audience approved politely and as he took a third they started to shout, exhorting him to take more risks and as he did the approval increased. Now they knew he could do it and they wanted more, they wanted him on a musical tightrope, wanted to see him teeter before bringing it on home. Dontato complied and the response was thunderous. I had never seen an audience so clued in to risk, with the confidence to demand it of a performer.

hqdefaultJulian Bream was invited to play on live television for Stephane Grapelli’s 70th birthday concert. They performed the Django Reinhardt tune Nuages and like all good classical guitarists Bream worked on his part and practiced diligently through his composed solo. Bream described the experience in the book A Life On The Road by Tony Palmer, saying that Grapelli forced him to take a second chorus. I have not found the video evidence to support this, but if it  did happen I choose to believe that Grapelli was responding like the audience in Montreal, wanting to see the risk and danger.

The video link to a bass and voice performance shows George Koller and Julie Michels – because I cannot find one showing Karen and Michel alone…

The Sultan had decided he was a poet and after working for several days and nights, he completed a poem and then asked Nasrudin, a noted scholar of poetry, to come hear it. After reading the poem, he asked for Nasrudin’s opinion.

“Are you sure, your majesty?”  he asked. Oblivious, the Sultan said, “That’s why I brought you here!”

“If it pleases Your Lordship, it’s terrible.”Nasrudin said.

Angered, the Sultan called out “Guards! Put this man in prison for thirty days.”

Having completed his sentence the Sultan again called upon Nasrudin to hear a new poem. This time when the Sultan had finished, Nasrudin rose to his feet and started for the door. “Where are you going, Nasrudin?” the Sultan asked.

“Straight to prison your lordship.”

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