Nathaniel Mackey | Cante Moro


I would like to touch on the topic of “The New American Poetry“ where it opens onto matters we wouldn’t necessarily expect it to entail—not necessarily “new,” not necessarily “American,” not even necessarily “poetry.” What I’d like to touch on is the New American Poetry’s Spanish connection: Garcia Lorca’s meditation on the “dark sounds” of cante jondo, deep song, the quality and condition known as duende. I’ll be talking about that in relation to an array of “dark sounds” which bear upon a cross-cultural poetics intimated by the inclusion of Lorca’s “Theory and Function of the Duende” in The Poetics of The New American Poetry, an espousal of not only cross-cultural but intermedia fertilization and provocation which I’ll relate to the work of a number of writers.

The title “Cante Moro” goes back to a recording which came out twenty-five years ago, a recording by Manitas de Plata, probably the flamenco musician best known to listeners in the U.S. at that time, At one point during one of the pieces on the album, ” Moritas Moras, ” after the opening run of singing by José Reyes, a member of the group says, “Eso es cante moro,” which means “That’s Moorish singing. ” Calling deep song cante moro summons the past rule and continuing cultural presence of the Moors in Spain; it acknowledges the hybrid, heterogeneous roots not only of cante jondo but of Spanish culture generally, of, in fact, culture, collective poesis, generally. A Gypsy doing so, as in this instance, allies outcast orders, acknowledging hybridity and heterogeneity to entwine the heterodox as well—heterodox Gypsy, heterodox Moor, Cante moro bespeaks the presence and persistence of the otherwise excluded, the otherwise expelled.

Let me begin by saying a bit about Lorca, Of the twenty-five writers in the anthology The Poetics of The New American Poetry Lorca is one of the anomalies, perhaps the anomaly—the only non-anglophone poet and one of only two non-Americans included. It’s fitting he should give the volume its heaviest cross-cultural, cross-pollinating touch. He himself was drawn to the marginalized, the anomalous, to those relegated to the outskirts of sanctioned Identity and culture. A large part of his importance to Spanish poetry is the respect he accorded the vernacular culture of southern Spain. He sought instruction in the mixed cultural inheritance of Andalusia, in the music of outcast Gypsies, in reminders of the expelled Moors, The book which made him famous is Gypsy Ballads, published in 1928. There’s a correspondence between what Lorca was doing in Spain and what was going on in this country among black writers during the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and thirties. The topping of vernacular resources was a defining feature of the Harlem Renaissance and it’s no accident that one of its most prominent poets, Langston Hughes, was one of the first translators of Gypsy Ballads into English. Lorca in fact had direct contact with Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance writers while studying at Columbia in 1929 and 1930. The work which came out of that stay, Poet in New York, contains a section called “The Blacks” which celebrates Harlem. The recently published translation of that work by Greg Simon and Steven F. White includes letters Lorca wrote his family from New York. In one of them he tells of meeting the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing, and of the party she gave for him at her house at which ‘there were only blacks.” Of the music they played and song he writes: ‘Only the cante jondo is comparable.”

lorca y amorim

In his essay on duende Lorca is working with the black aesthetic of Spain. One of the things he does early in the essay is quote the Gypsy singer Manuel Torre as having said, ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.” That, at least, is how it’s translated by J. L. Gili in the version which appears in The Poetics of The New American Poetry. Christopher Maurer, in the more recent translation which appears in Deep Song and Other Prose, renders it: ‘All that has black sounds has duende. ” Maurer also points out, in a footnote, that when Lorca met Torre in 1927, Torre, evoking the Gypsies’ fabled origins in Egypt, said to him, “What you must search for, and find, is the black torso of the Pharaoh.” He meant that you have to root your voice in fabulous origins, find your voice in the dark, among the dead. But that’s a side conversation we can’t go into right now. Anyway, the word duende means spirit, a kind of gremlin, a gremlinlike, troubling spirit. One of the things that marks the arrival of duende in flamenco singing is a sound of trouble in the voice, The voice becomes troubled. Its eloquence becomes eloquence of another order, a broken, problematic, self-problematizing eloquence. Lorca also quotes Torre as having told a singer, “You have a voice, you know the styles, but you will never triumph, because you have no duende.” So you see that duende is something beyond technical competence or even technical virtuosity. It is something troubling. It has to do with trouble, deep trouble. Deep song delves into troubled water, troubles the water. As a character in Leon Forrest’s novel Two Wings To Veil My Face puts it: “Still waters don’t run deep enough.”

Lorca tells a story of the Andalusian singer Pastora Pavón, also known as La Niña de los Peines. He tells of her singing in a little tavern in Cádiz one night before a group of flamenco aficionados. He says that when she finished singing she was met with silence, Her voice, though technically perfect, and her virtuosity, though impressive, didn’t move anyone. “When Pastora Pavón finished singing,” Lorca writes, “there was total silence, until a tiny man, one of those dancing manikins that rise suddenly out of brandy bottles, sarcastically murmured ‘Viva Paris!’ as if to say: ‘Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else.”‘ Which is not to say that you get there by not having skill. You get there by not being satisfied with skill. It’s the other side, the far side of skill, not the near side. Then Lorca goes on to say:

As though crazy, torn like a medieval weeper, La Niña de los Peines got to her feet, tossed off a big glass of firewater and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, without breath or color, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the “lucumí” rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Barbara.

It’s interesting that Lorca makes the Old World-New World connection, a black connection, a connection between duende, black song in Spain, cante moro, and black song in Cuba, the music of the Yoruba-Catholic mix known as lucumí. That’s one of the reasons Lorca is relevant to new American possibilities, to an American newness which is about mix, the meeting of different cultural styles and predispositions. He was interested in Old World predecessor mixes like those in Andalusia, whose further inflections in the Americas he recognized and embraced.

Lorca doesn’t so much define duende as grope after it, wrestle with it, evoke it through strain, insist on struggle. He says, for example, that ‘one must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood. ” He says that “the duende loves the rim of the wound” and that it “draws near places where forms fuse together into a yearning superior to their visible expression.” He writes: “Each art has a duende different in form and style but their roots all meet in the place where the black sounds of Manuel Torre come from—the essence, the uncontrollable, quivering, common base of wood, sound, canvas, and word.” One of the ongoing challenges of Lorca’s essay is how to bring duende, which he discusses mainly in relation to music, over into writing, how to relate It to writing. So what I’d like to do now is touch upon four American poets whose work intersects with Lorca’s and then play you some music I’ve put on tape, weave back and forth between tape and talk. Three of the four poets were included in the anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960: Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Amiri Baraka. The fourth, Bob Kaufman, was not included, though he should have been.


First, Jack Spicer, who was based in the Son Francisco Bay Area, a San Francisco poet, Though he began writing in the forties he felt that his real work began with After Lorca, which was published in 1957, It’s a book of poems and prose pieces, poems which are presented as translations of poems by Lorca, translations in a very loose sense, loose translations. Some of them are translations in an even looser sense, in that they’re translations of Lorca poems which don’t exist. Interspersed among these translations are the prose pieces, which are written as letters addressed to the dead Garcia Lorca. Lorca was killed during the Spanish Civil War. He was executed by Franco’s troops. Which is another reason he has attracted a lot of attention—as a symbol, a sign of the times, times we continue to live in. Here is this poet of cultural openness, cultural mix, cut down by the emergence of fascism. A lot of writers have identified with Lorca and the position, implicit and explicit, he took against fascism. Remember that the Gypsies he celebrated so were one of the targets of fascism, that a million Gypsies were killed in concentration camps.

Lorca was killed in 1936 near Granada. Spicer, a very playful writer, albeit a bit grim, begins After Lorca with an introduction attributed to “Federico Garcia Lorca / Outside Granada, October 1957,” The gremlin, the imp, is very active in what he’s doing, Also, he’s picking up on something that’s very important in Lorca’s discussion of duende, which is that, among other things, it’s a conversation with the dead, intimacy with death and with the dead. “The duende,” Lorca says, “does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death’s house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation.” The disconsolate character and tone of Spicer’s work agrees not only with this but with the fact that one of the phrases which recur a great deal in cante jondo is the phrase sín remedio, ‘without remedy.” You’ll also hear the assertion no hay remedio, “there is no remedy.” Pepe de la Matrona, who has one of the darkest, gruffest voices you’ll ever hear (more an extended, variegated growl than a voice), sings a song called “Remedio No Tengas,” which means “You Would Have No Remedy.” Duende often has to do with a kind of longing that has no remedy, not simply loss, unrequited love and so forth, but what Lorca calls “a longing without object. ” He talks about this in relation to Gypsy Ballads, to a poem which has to do with a woman named Soledad Montoya, who, he says, “embodies incurable pain”: 

The Pain of Soledad Montoya is the root of the Andalusian people. It is not anguish, because in pain one can smile, nor does it blind, for it never produces weeping. It is a longing without object, a keen love for nothing, with the certainty that death (the eternal care of Andalusia) is breathing behind the door.

So Spicer opens After Lorca with an introduction written by Lorca, at that time some twenty years dead. In it Lorca says that several of the pieces in the book are translations of poems he has written since his death, though he doesn’t say which. In the essay on duende he writes: “A dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than any place else in the world.” Spicer seems to have taken him at his word. Impish play and disconsolate spirit—”The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy,” we read—repeatedly embrace one another in an introduction whose antic humor gathers troubling undertones. The words execution and executed, used in reference to Spicer’s technique, resonate with and are darkly inflected by the circumstances of Lorca’s death. Likewise the joke with which the introduction ends:

But I am strongly reminded as I survey this curious amalgam of a cartoon published in an American magazine while I was visiting your country in New York. The cartoon showed a gravestone on which were inscribed the words: “HERE LIES AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN.” The caption below if read: “I wonder how they happened to be buried in the some grave?


“Another poet who was engaged with Lorca’s work, another Son Francisco poet, is Robert Duncan, an associate of Spicer’s. In his book Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50 there’s a preface Duncan wrote in 1972, the year the book was published, and in that preface there’s a section called “Lorca.” The book includes a poem called “What Have You Come to Tell Me, Garcia Lorca?” and in the preface Duncan recalls the forties and fifties when he was reading [77] Lorca. He talks for several pages about Lorca’s importance to his development and he mentions Spicer as well, He talks about a number of things. He talks about the historical predicament, the historical moment that was Lorca’s fate, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. He talks about duende. He also talks about Lorca as a gay poet, a troubled, conflicted gay poet who was important to him and Spicer as gay poets. Not that he advanced a gay poetics but that they saw in him and his work some of the trouble, for him, of being gay—a certain depression and self-censure, a censuring of his own homosexuality. He writes this about duende:

In his lecture “Theory and Function of the duende,” Lorca tells us: ‘The dark and quivering duende that I am talking about is a descendant of the merry demon of Socrates.” The madness, then, however it may relate to the practice of deliberate alienation which Lorca’s intimate friend from student days, Salvador Dal’i, had brought into Surrealist circles of Paris from their Spanish conversations, and which led to the work of Breton and Eluard in L’Immaculée Conception. contemporary with Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York, with Breton’s essay on the simulation of verbal deliriums from various categories of insanity—this madness is not ultimately a surrealist simulation drawn from a clinical model in a program of systematic alienation but, past that state, means to return to the divine madness of daemonic inspiration, the speaking more than one knew what, that Plato tells us his Master, Socrates, thought to be at once the power and the dementia of the poet in his art.

He speaks of duende as a ‘mode of poetic dissociation” and of “disturbed meanings,” The poet speaks in tongues, multiply, troublingly: “Freed from reality, the trouble of an unbound reference invades the reader’s sense of what is at issue.”

So duende, for Duncan, is “the speaking more than one knew what,” the taking on of another voice, and that’s very much what [78] duende is in cante jondo. It’s a taking over of one’s voice by another voice. I’ll be playing some examples of this, not only from flamenco but from the African-American traditions that I’m Interested In, jazz and blues musicians who seek another voice. This wooing of another voice, an alternate voice, that’s so important to duende has as one of its aspects or analogues in poetry that state of entering the language in such a way that one is into an area of implication, resonance and connotation that is manifold, many-meaninged, polysemous. One has worked beyond oneself. It’s as if the language Itself takes over, Something beyond the will, the conscious design or desire of the poet, is active, something which goes beyond univocal, unequivocal control. That’s what Duncan means by “the trouble of an unbound reference”—an inordinacy, a lack of adequation which is to language what sin remedio is to a longing without object. Bound reference, univocal meaning, is no solution to the riddle of language.

Let me move on to Amiri Baraka, who cites Lorca as an influence in his statement on poetics in The New American Poetry. There’s an early poem of his called “Lines to García Lorca,” which he prefaces with an epigraph taken from an African-American spiritual: “Climin up the mountain, chillun, / Didn’t come here for to stay, / If I’m ever gonna see you agin / It’ll be on the judgment day.” By doing so he not only acknowledges Lorca’s interest in African-American music and culture but furthers the analogy, the sense of rapport, between African-American spirituality and Andalusian spirituality. Gypsies, though they don’t appear explicitly in this poem, come in elsewhere in Baraka’s early work to embody a mobile, mercurial noninvestment in the status quo, One of the things going on in “Lines to Garcia Lorca” is the implicit connection between that mercuriality, that nomadism, and the lines ” Didn’t come here for to stay,” behind which lies a well-known, resonant history of African-American fugitivity and its well-known, resonant relationship to enslavement and persecution. Thus the resonant apposition of the poem’s opening lines: “Send soldiers again to kill you, Garcia. / Send them to quell my escape.” At the end of the poem Lorca’s voice, ‘away off,” invested with fugitive spirit, laughs:


But, away off, quite close to the daylight,
I hear his voice, and he is laughing, laughing
Like a Spanish guitar.

The way in which fugitivity asserts itself on an aesthetic level, at the level of poetics, is important as well, The way In which Baraka’s poems of this period move intimates fugitive spirit, as does much of the music that he was into. I recall him writing of a solo by saxophonist John Tchicai on an Archie Shepp album: “It slides away from the proposed. ” That gets into, again, the cultivation of another voice, a voice that is other than that proposed by one’s intentions, tangential to one’s intentions, angular, oblique—the obliquity of an unbound reference. That sliding away wants out, Musicians like Tchicai and Shepp were called “outside” players. Robin Blaser called Spicer’s work “the practice of outside.” Let me, though, let another poem of Baraka’s, “History As Process,” say it, show it, Lorca doesn’t explicitly come in, but the Gypsies do and so does the guitar:

The evaluation of the mysteries by the sons of all
experience. All suffering, if we call the light a thing
all men should know. Or find. Where ever, in the dark folds
of the next second, there is some diminishing beauty we might one day
understand, and scream to, in some wild fit of acknowledged Godliness.
Reality, is what it is. This suffering truth
advertised in all men’s loveliest histories.
The thing, There As Speed, is God, as mingling
possibility. The force. As simple future, what
the freaky gipsies rolled through Europe
(The soul.) 

What can I do to myself? Bones
and dusty skin. Heavy eyes twisted
between the adequate thighs of all
humanity (a little h), strumming my head
for a living. Bankrupt utopia sez tell me
no utopias. I will not listen. (Except the raw wind
makes the hero’s eyes close, and the tears that come out
are real.)

You hear the pronouncements, the propositions. You also hear the slips, the slides, the shifting ratios—rhythmic, predicative, quick.

The last of the four poets I’ll touch on is Bob Kaufman. His work was not included in The New American Poetry, even though it was very important to the Beat movement. He was very involved in the development of the Beat movement in San Francisco, in North Beach, and is said to have coined the term “beatnik.’ Some people consider him the prototypical Beat poet. Steve Abbott has called him ‘the hidden master of the Beats.” Anyway, he was a poet of African-American and Jewish descent to whom Lorca’s work was very important. He refers to Lorca in a number of poems, echoing lines from his work, sometimes quoting or paraphrasing them outright. In “Lorca,” for example, you find the line ‘Give Harlem’s king one spoon” harking back to Poet in New York, where “The King of Harlem” begins with the lines “With a wooden spoon / he dug out the crocodiles’ eyes.” What spoke most to Kaufman was Lorca’s valorization of African-American presence. In his lecture on Poet in New York Lorca argued that “the blacks exercise great influence in North America,” that ‘they are the most delicate, most spiritual element in that world,” The “great sun of the center” he encourages black people to seek in ‘The King of Harlem,” to continue seeking, is, among other things, the covert centrality of an otherwise marginalized people, a ‘sun” which cross-linguistically puns on “soul” (“el gran sol del centro”).

Kaufman’s apocalyptic, ironically patriotic prose-poem “The Ancient Rain” generously samples, as we would say nowadays, “The King of Harlem” and “Standards and Paradise of the Blacks.” Its embrace of Lorca’s endorsement of new American possibilities, new American mixes, resounds in telling counterpoint not only with Kaufman’s non-inclusion in The New American Poetry (only one non-white poet’s work was included) but with the negligible attention accorded him and his work in the numerous writings on the Beat Generation as well:

At once I am there at the great sun, feeling the great sun of the center. Hearing the Lorca music in the endless solitude of crackling blueness. I could feel myself a little boy again in crackling blueness, wanting to do what Lorca says in crackling blueness to kiss out my frenzy on bicycle wheels and smash little squares in the flush of a soiled exultation. Federico García Lorca sky, immaculate scoured sky, equaling only itself contained all the distances that Lorca is, that he come from Spain of the Inquisition is no surprise. His poem of solitude walking around Columbia. My first day in crackling blueness, I walked off my ship and rode the subway to Manhattan to visit Grant’s tomb and I thought because Lorca said he would let his grow long someday crackling blueness would cause my hair to grow long. I decided to move deeper into crackling blueness. When Franco’s civil guard killed, from that moment on, I would move deeper in crackling blueness. I kept my secrets. I observed those who read him who were not Negroes and listened to all their misinterpretation of him. I thought of those who had been around him, those that were not Negro and were not in crackling blueness, those that couldn’t see his wooden south wind, a tiltin’ black slime that tacked down all the boat wrecks, while Saturn delayed all the trains.

“Crackling blueness,” out of “Standards and Paradise of the Blacks,” is the sky cracked by lightning, the imminence of thunder and rain,  wrath and redemption, “the bitter freshness of . . . millenary spit,” as Lorca puts it, It’s also the raspy, cracked voice of duende, the ominous, black vocality of the blues and of cante jondo.

Those, then, are four instances of American poets making use of the work of Lorca. They relate to the question of how one’s writing can draw upon that of predecessors, the sense of tradition, a lineage one creates for oneself, that one seeks out in the work of others. Influence without anxiety call it. As a writer one has t~find one’s tradition, create one’s tradition, and in doing that you’re creating lines of affinity and kinship which can cut across national boundaries, ethnic boundaries and so forth. They also relate to the question of how one’s writing can be informed and instructed by other artistic media, how one can create or pursue lines of kinship and conversation with nonliterary media. That’s one of the useful senses the phrase “cultivation of another voice” I used earlier has. A different medium is a different voice, an alternate vocality. Lorca’s sense of duende comes out of his engagement with music, the Andalusian music he was obviously moved and inspired by. Attentiveness to those of her, alternate voices which speak to you—painting, sculpture, whatever—can make you susceptible, impinge upon you in ways which alter your own voice.


My work has a pronounced relationship to music. I was always struck by Louis Zukofsky’s definition of poetry as a function whose lower limit is speech and whose upper limit is song. He uses the integral sign from calculus to suggest that we’re integrating that lower limit, speech, and that upper limit, song. Poetry is an integral function, But even before I came across Zukofsky’s formulation of it I heard poetry as a musical deployment of language, the music peculiar to language, language bordering on song, speech bordering on song. From doing a lot of listening I’ve gotten certain ideas about music, a thematics of music, but also an impulse towards a musicality in the writing. Years ago I wrote a poem for John Coltrane, “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun,” in which there’s this passage:

I grope thru smoke to glimpse New
York City, the Village Gate, late
’65. 1 sit at the bar drinking scotch between
sets, some kid comes up and says he’d
like to hear Equinox.

We play Out of
This World instead, the riff hits
me like rain and like a leak in my
throat it won’t quit. No reins whoa
this ghost I’m ridden by and again
I’m asking

myself what “climb” will Nut ask of
me next? …

This has to do, among other things, with a surge, a runaway dilation, a quantum rush you often hear in Trane’s music. the sense that he’s driven, possessed—ridden, as it’s put here, which recalls the African possession religions in which worshippers are spoken of as horses and the gods, the spirits, are spoken of as horsemen, riders. To be possessed is to be mounted and ridden by a god. You find that imagery in vodoun in Haiti, in candomblé in Brazil, in lucumí or santería in Cuba. Possession means that something beyond your grasp of it grabs you, that something that gets away from you—another sense in which fugitivity comes in-gives you a voice, Like Lorca, who, remember, refers to lucumí, I think of this as related to duende.

So that’s one place in my work where ideas having to do with duendecome in. Another place is Bedouin hornbook, which even more extensively and graphically has to do with music. It’s prose, written mainly in the form of letters addressed to an angel by a musician/composer, N. Duende is a term which comes up a number of times in these letters. One instance is this one, towards the end of a letter which accompanies the tape of a composition which N. has written:

The name of the piece is “Opposable Thumb at the Water’s Edge.” Its basic theme I’d put this way: Graspability is a self-incriminating thirst utterly native to every hand, an indigenous court from which only the drowned hope to win an acquittal. The piece makes use of two triadic phrases which I call utility riffs: “whatever beginnings go back to’ and “an exegetic refusal to be done with desire.” These generate a subtheme which could be put as follows: Thirst is by Its nature unquenchable, the blue lips of a muse whose refusals roughen our throats with duende.

Unquenchable thirst is a longing without object. Blue, the color of its ostensible object, plants a disconsolate kiss.

What I want to do now is play some music which relates to these matters, First let me play a piece by the singer Lorca talks about in his essay on duende, Pastora Pavón, La Niño de los Peines, It’s a piece called “Ay Pilato” and it’s a type of song known as a saeta (“Ay Pilato,” La Niño de los Peines (Le Chant du Monde LDX 74859)). The saeta is a form of song which is heard in Andalusia during Holy Week, the week before Easter. A procession takes place, a procession through the streets, a procession which includes musicians sometimes playing nothing but muffled drums but often including horns, brass instruments. The procession carries an image, which is either of the Virgin or of Christ, sometimes both. At each point where the procession stops there is a singer on a balcony overlooking the street, overlooking the procession. The procession stops right beneath the balcony and the singer sings to the image they carry. Saeta means arrow. The song is piercing, heartrending. The singer sings from a position of being pierced.


Next I’ll play another saeta, the first one I ever heard. It’s by Miles Davis, taken from his album Sketches of Spain. Miles was very attracted to flamenco early on, On the Kind of Blue album there’s a cut called “Flamenco Sketches” and on a later album, the famous Bitches Brew that came out in 1970, there’s a cut called “Spanish Church.” All of which lends itself to the Andalusian/African-American rapport we’ve seen Lorca and others get at, Anyway, in 1960 Miles teamed up with pianist/ composer/arranger Gil Evans and recorded Sketches of Spain. One of the five pieces on the album is a saeta, with Miles, on trumpet, playing the role of the cantaor, the singer on the balcony. They even simulate the procession, opening and closing the cut with march music. You can hear that tremulous, piercing sound Miles gets out of the trumpet. There’ve been various attempts to describe it. One critic called it the sound of a man walking on eggshells and there’s the story of a little girl who said he sounded like a little boy crying in a closet. Anyway, that was recorded in 1960. Like Kind of Blue, it was a very important album for a lot of people. Ezra Pound called poetry “news that stays news.” That’s what albums like those two are.

The next piece I’ll play doesn’t relate as explicitly to Andalusia but it still has to do with the things I’ve been talking about. It’s John Coltrane with Miles Davis’s group, from the last concert tour that Trane made as part of Miles’s band. It was recorded in Stockholm in 1960 (“All Blues,” Miles Davis & John Coltrane Live in Stockholm 1960 (Dragon DRLP 90/91)). 1 want you to hear the solo he plays on Miles’s composition “All Blues,” because the quality of reaching for another voice, stretching the voice, passionately reaching, is very, very audible in Coltrane’s playing, especially so in this particular solo. It has that quality of duende that Lorca talks about as a tearing of the voice, a crippling of the voice that paradoxically is also enabling. I’ve talked, in an essay called ‘Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” about the connection between limping and enablement in relation to the African god Legba, one of the gods of vodoun, candomblé, and lucumí. Legba is the god of doorways, gateways, entrances, thresholds, crossroads, intersections. Legba is crippled, the limping god who nonetheless dances. That conjunction of limping disability with the gracefulness of dance is one of the things I hear coming through in Trane’s solo, I think you’ll hear what I’m talking about. This also relates to a forking of the voice, so that you have the intersection of two lines of articulation—doubling the voice, splitting the voice, breaking the voice, tearing it. There’s a dialogical aspect to African-American and African music that’s very strong. It comes across in call and response, the antiphonal relationship between lead singer and chorus, preacher and congregation. It comes across in the playing of musicians like John Coltrane who use the upper and lower registers of the instrument as though they were two different voices in dialogue with one another, In a sometimes quarrelsome conversation with one another, competition with one another. In this instance Trane gets into doing some things with overtones, multiphonics, that make it sound almost as If he’s playing two different horns, trying to play in two different octaves at the same time. It makes for an unruly, agonistic sound in which it seems that the two lines of articulation are wrestling with one another, that they are somehow one another’s contagion or contamination.

It’s appropriate that that solo should come in a piece called ‘All Blues.” This business of the pursuit of another voice, an alternate voice—in Bedouin hornbook N. calls it the pursuit of a meta-voice—is very much a part of the African-American musical tradition, very much a part of the African musical tradition. The dialogical quality in music of this disposition can be heard in a number of different Idioms and forms. The blues is certainly one of them. What I’m going to play next is something by a blues musician from the Mississippi delta. One of the striking things about the blues tradition is the way the instrument becomes that other, alternate voice. Everyone talks about the speechlike qualities of instruments as they’re played in African-American music. Built into that is some kind of dissatisfaction with—if not critique of—the limits of conventionally articulate speech, verbal speech. One of the reasons the music so often goes over into nonspeech—moaning, humming, shouts, nonsense lyrics, scat-4s to say, among other things, that the realm of conventionally articulate speech is not sufficient for saying what needs to be said. We’re often making that same assertion in poetry. That’s one of the reasons that in poetry we seek out that “trouble of an unbound reference” Duncan talks about, That’s one of the reasons this music has been so attractive, so instructive, such an inspiration to poets.

Let me play a bit of music by Mississippi Fred McDowell (“Everybody’s Down On Me,’ I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll (Capitol ST-409)) Listen to the interaction between his voice and the guitar, a slide guitar, the way that the line between speech and song is very fluid, frequently blurred. That’s very much a part of the tradition. There’s an album called Singing Preachers which features preachers whose sermons would toper off into singing, speech into song, and vice-versa, back and forth. At any rate, notice that he starts off talking and that he works that talk into song, but notice also what he says, the mini-lecture, the sermonette he gives as to what this recourse to sound, a sound peculiar to the slide guitar, a raucous, unruly wail, is about, what it comes out of. He’s talking about being betrayed and he’s saying that you need an unruly, outrageous sound when you feel there’s no other way you can get satisfaction. What you can say, what can be stated within the limits of conventionally articulate speech, isn’t enough. What you need is this sound. Notice too how he starts stumbling, how he stumbles as he tries to talk about that sound, stumbles until the sound itself comes to his rescue. Notice how the sound itself rescues crippled speech—which, again, is the eloquence of Legba, the limping eloquence, the limping enablement of Legba.

I’ll play another piece by Fred McDowell, but before I do that I want to give you another context in which to think about this recourse to an alternate voice, this movement into a voice beyond one I s voice, into a meta-voice. That context is shamanism, the shamanic roots of music evoked by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in his novel The Lost Steps. It was published in the fifties and it has to do with the journey of a composer/musician into the jungles of South America in search of the origins of music, something of an ethnomusicological expedition. Carpentier was, among other things, a musicologist. He did research, for example, into the African roots of Cuban music and culture, Into lucumí and so forth, and his first novel, Ecue-Yomba-0!, has to do with that. Anyway, the recourse to another voice, the need for an alternate voice, is something he goes into in several passages in The Lost Steps. In the depths of a South American forest the narrator witnesses a shamanic rite performed over the body of a hunter who was killed by a rattlesnake bite. He takes this to be the origin of music, the shamanic confrontation with death to be the birth of music:

. . . the shaman began to shake a gourd full of pebbles—the only instrument these people know-trying to drive off the emissaries of Death. There was a ritual silence, setting the stage for the incantation, which raised the tension of the spectators to fever pitch.

And in the vast jungle filling with night terrors, there arose the Word. A word that was more than word. A word that imitated the voice of the speaker, and of that attributed to the spirit in possession of the corpse. One came from the throat of the shaman; the other from his belly. One was deep and confused like the bubbling of underground lava; the other, medium in pitch, was harsh and wrathful. They alternated. They answered each other. The one upbraided when the other groaned; the belly voice turned sarcastic when the throat voice seemed to plead. Sounds like guttural portamenti were heard, ending in howls; syllables repeated over and over, coming to create a kind of rhythm; there were trills suddenly interrupted by four notes that were the embryo of a melody. But then came the vibration of the tongue between the lips, the indrawn snoring, the panting contrapuntal to the rattle of the maraca. This was something for beyond language, and yet still for from song. Something that had not yet discovered vocalization but was more than word.

He later speaks of this as his having seen ‘the word travel the road of song without reaching it,” and later still of “its verbal exorcism turning into music when confronted with the need for more than one intonation.”

Think about that, then, in relation to the music we’ve been listening to. Think about it in relation to La Niña de los Peines, whose voice breaks, seems intent on some higher octave, some higher voice. Think about it in relation to the John Coltrane solo, where, working with multiphonics, he sounds, voices, discontent with the given intonation, bent on going beyond it. Think about it in relation to antiphony, the call-and-response, dialogical impulse which can be heard even in music played by a ]one performer, the interplay between voice and Instrument especially within the blues tradition, in the music of someone like Fred McDowell. One of the reasons for the development of slide guitar was the need to get a more human (but not quite human) sound out of the guitar, out of the instrumental line-human-but-not-quite-human speech as well as human-but-not-quite-human cry.

You can hear that in the next thing I’m going to play, another piece by Fred McDowell. It’s called “Jesus Is On The Mainline” and one of the striking things about It is the way he lets the guitar speak, actually lets it take parts of his lines (“Jesus Is On The Mainline,” I Do Not P/ay No Rock ‘n’Roll (Capitol ST-409)). He’ll begin singing a line only to break off and let the guitar finish it, suggesting a continuum, a complementarity, between human voice and Instrumental voice, an Interchange between speech and song, verbal articulation and nonverbal articulation.

If you’ve read Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo you may remember the episode where he talks about an ancient musician named Jethro, an ancient Egyptian musician whose sound he describes as a kind of muddy, delta sound, blurring—muddying—the distinction between the Nile delta and the Mississippi delta. Fred McDowell’s guitar has the kind of sound he’s talking about.

Another example of multivocality I’d like you to hear is from an album with the shamanic title I Talk With The Spirits. It’s by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and on it he plays flute throughout. It’s the all-flute album he recorded In the sixties (“The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” I Talk With The Spirits (Limelight LS82008)). I’ll play a bit from a piece called “The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues.” You’ll notice that he hums while playing, which Is something you’ll sometimes hear other flute players do as well, Yusef Lateef is one of the first I ever heard do it, It’s become something of a standard technique in the repertoire of jazz flutists. On the current scene, James Newton is a flutist you’ll hear make use of it a lot. Interestingly, it wasn’t something that Eric Dolphy, who was a great flutist, did that much with, but that’s another conversation. Anyway, you’ll hear Rahsaan humming and even speaking as he plays. Again, it’s the play of voices, a move into multiple voices which is analogous to speaking In tongues. So you have a braiding of vocal and instrumental lines. I’ve even heard some saxophone players do it, hum while playing. Pharoah Sanders does it from time to time. I’ve heard Dewey Redman do it. It’s a wild sound. It’ll take your hair off, Anyway, there’s a piece in Amiri Baraka’s book Tales in which he writes: “The dialogue exists. Magic and ghosts are a dialogue, and the body bodies of material, invisible sound vibrations, humming in emptyness, and ideas less than humming, humming. It sounds like he’d been listening to I Talk With The Spirits.

One of the things I’ve been talking about is cross-culturality, sensing rapport across cultural lines, picking up on rhymes between cultures, dialogue between cultures. What I’m going to play next relates to that. It shows the multivocal technique we just heard from Rahsaan, humming while playing the flute, in another context. This is a piece from Iran, a love song from Luristan (‘Love Song,” Folk Music of Iran(Lyrichord LLST-7261)). It’s performed by a singer accompanied by a flutist playing a reed flute known as a nay. The nay has quite a special place in the mystical traditions of that part of the world. Rumi, for example, writes of the nay: “Listen to the reed, its lament speaks to us of separation.” He goes on to say that the reed was cut from rushes and that what we hear in the sound of the nay is the remembrance of that cuffing, that the very sound calls to mind the cuffing which brought it into being and which it laments. The sound subsists on that cutting. The nay not only mourns but embodies separation, Fittingly, the song I’m about to play contains the lines “I am burning, / I have the taste of separation.” That’s typical of the poetry and music of Iran, You’ll hear the flutist humming while playing the nay, In Iran this technique is known as zemzemeh. In this piece the splitting of the voice, the cultivation of a multiple voice, seems to embody at the instrumental level the “taste of separation” that’s being talked about in the lyrics. So there again you hear humming, the additional voice and vibration it brings in, the buzz it elicits.

Think about that buzz, that vibration, that multiply-aspected vocality, in relation to poetry, to f he cultivation of multiple meaning in poems, the play of polysemous articulation. A poem’s order of statement is what one critic called “the buzz of implication,’ something you can hear in even a very brief passage. Take, for example, these lines of Robert Kelly’s in a book called Songs I-XXX.

I was not a tree,
I hung In my bones like a man In a tree,
the tree talked. I said nothing.

The play of assertion against a recanting of assertion amounts to a buzz. The changes it registers concerning the status of freeness, the status of the speaker and the status of speaking make the passage what Rahsaan took to calling his band: a vibration society. The words buzz, whisper among themselves, vibrate with such implicit assertions as that the tree which talks is a skeleton, the man is not his bones, bones are gallows and so forth. I think of this also in relation to the cultivation of resonance in African music. In Zimbabwe, for example, they not only place the mbira, the so-called “thumb-piano,” inside a calabash gourd which they call a resonator, but they also attach cowrie shells to the outside of the gourd, shells which rub against the gourd and make a raspy, buzzing sound when the mbira is played. The African predilection for a burred, “dirty” sound, which the Camerounian musician/musicologist Francis Bebey, among others, has commented on, is reluctant to let a tone sit in some uncomplicated, isolate, supposedly pure sense of itself. Poems likewise buzz with meanings, implications and insinuations which complicate, contaminate, “dirty” one another.


Let me now come full-circle, back to Andalusian/African-American resonances, by playing you part of a piece by Sonny Rollins. It’s a piece called “East Broadway Rundown,” the last few minutes of which I’ll play (” East Broadway Rundown,” East Broadway Rundown (Impulse! A-9121)), What you’ll hear is the bass player, Jimmy Garrison, soloing, playing the bass like a big guitar (which is what it is), playing it, more specifically, like a Spanish guitar, playing the flamenco riffs which came to be one of his trademarks. You’ll hear Sonny Rollins come in. What takes place is an interesting interchange which has remained a suggestive, poetic image for me over the years. Rollins removes the mouthpiece from his saxophone and plays it, sans horn. So, again, it’s a kind of separation, breakage, amputation. Bedouin hornbook opens with the idea of music as a phantom limb, a phantom reach with/after something you have but don’t have. It’s a kind of re-membering, a mended dismemberment. This is one of the pieces which put that idea, that figure, into my head, It’s perfect—a bassist playing flamenco while a horn player makes a voice, a high, falsetto voice, out of breakage, an alternate voice out of separating the mouthpiece from the horn.

I’ll finish by mentioning some of the music I hoped I might have time to play but don’t, some further extensions and elaborations of cante moro, One of the interesting things which has been happening lately with flamenco in Spain is the assertion of its ties to the Moors, to some of the Arab musics of North Africa. This Includes collaborations between flamenco musicians and North African performers of a type of music whose roots are in Muslim Spain, a type of music still known as Andalusian throughout the Maghreb. Two recorded instances are José Heredia Maya and the Andalusian Orchestra of Tetuan’s Macama Jondo and Juan Peña Lebrijano and the Andalusian Orchestra of Tangier’s Encuentros. In the seventies and eighties Lole Montoya, of the group Lole and Manuel, recorded a number of songs in Arabic, traveling to the Sono Cairo studios in Egypt in 1977 to record a song made famous by the legendary Om Kalsoum, “Anta Oumri.” Also interesting are the connections some of the younger flamenco musicians have made with New World extensions of the African-Iberlan mix. A group called Ketama blends flamenco with Cuban rumba, Brazilian samba and so forth. They’ve also collaborated with a kora player from Mall, Toumani Diabate. One of their influences is a musician named Manzanita. whose 1978 album Poco Ruido y Mucho Duende presented him accompanied by, as its liner-notes explain, ‘dos músicos de color en razón a su sentido improvisatorio y a su ‘feeling,’ muy próximo al gitano” (“two black musicians because of their improvisatory sense and their ‘feeling,’ very close to that of the Gypsy”).
The two musicians are bassist David Thomas, from the United States, and percussionist Pepe Ebano, from Cuba. Another of Ketama’s influences is singer Camor—n, who V) the late seventies expanded his instrumental accompaniment to include trap drums, keyboards and electric bass. Finally, I would also have liked to play you something by a group called Pata Negro, which a few years ago released an album called Blues de la Frontera. As is clear from the title, they play a flamenco-blues mix. It builds on the rapport which has long been noted between the two, I remember hearing a radio documentary on Jimi Hendrix. One segment was a tape from a recording session, maybe a jam, and Hendrix was talking to the other musicians and said, “What I want is a Muddy Waters/flamenco sound.” The other musicians said, “Yeah!” Everyone knew exactly what he meant. No problem.

8 & 11 July 1991



Donald M. Allen (ed.), The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (New York: Grove Press, 1960).
Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman (eds.), The Poetics of the New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1973).
Amiri Baraka, “Four for Trane,” Black Music (New York: Morrow,1967), pp. 156-161.
——, History As Process,’ Black Magic: Poetry 1961-1967 (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), p. 38.
——, Lines to Garcia Lorca,” New Negro Poets: USA, ed, Langston Hughes (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 55.
——, Words,” Tales (New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 89-91 ~
Alejo Carpentler, The Lost Steps, trans. liaffiet de or)is (New York: Noonday Press, 1989).
Robert Duncan, Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50 (Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1972).
Bob Kaufman, The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New York: New Directions, 1981).
Robert Kelly, ‘Song XVII,” Songs I-XXX (Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall Press, 1968), pp, 52-53.
Federico Garcia Lorca, Deep Song and Other Prose, trans. Christopher Maurer (New York: New Directions, 1980).
——. Poet in New York, trans. Greg Simon and Steven F White (New York: Noonday Press, 1988).
Nathaniel Mackey. bedouin hornbook (Lexington: Callaloo Fiction Series, (1986).
——. “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun.” Eroding Witness (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), pp 70-74.
——. “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” Callaloo, Volume 10, Number 1 (Winter 1987), pp 29-54.
Jack Spicer. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975).



Camarón. Calle Real (Phillips. 814 466 1)
——. La Leyenda del Tiempo (Phillips 63-28-255).
Juan Peña Lebrijano and the Andalusian Orchestra of Tangier, Encuentros (Ariola1207240).
Lole and Manuel, Casta (CBS S-26027).
——. Lole y Manuel, (CBS S-82276).
——. Nuevo Día (Movieplay 15. 2320/3).
Ketama. Ketama (Hannibal HNBL-1336).
——. Songhai (Hannibal HNBL-1323).
——.Y Es Ke Me Han Kombiao Los Tiempos (Mango 539.879- 1).
Manitas de Plata. Manitas de Plata-Flamenco Guitar. Volume 2 (Connoisseur Society CS965).
Manzanita. Poco Ruido y Mucho duende (CBS S-83188).
José Heredia Maya and the Andalusian Orchestra of Tetuan, Macama Jonda (Ariola 1295400).
Pata Negra. Blues de la Frontera (Hannibal HNBL-1309).
Pepe de 1a Matrona. Pepe de la Matrona. Volume 2 (Hispavox 150-055).
Singing Preachers (Blues Classics BC-19).

Source: Nathaniel Mackey | Cante Moro

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