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Another fine voice gone, a fiery liquid, and a Lorca quote or two

[ by Charles Cameron — Whitney Houston, RIP, Rumi, a broken reed, Federico Garcia Lorca, the duende ]
Live performance — Whitney Houston singing Amazing Grace.


Blog-friend Peter J Munson just recently tweeted this quote:

“Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead”

That’s from the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, from an essay of his that I remembered vividly when I heard the other day that Whitney Houston had died. I wrote, then:

So Whitney Houston has died, far earlier than one might have wished, and the question comes up again whether some gifts essentially “demand” a life that breaks one — as though there’s a liquid inside the anger, the pain, the hurt, that must be set free for the voice to sing.

I didn’t post that here, because it felt at the time a little too private — but Peter Munson’s quote from Lorca reminds me that I followed up that observation about the “liquid” with this:

My sense that there might be “a liquid inside the anger, the pain, the hurt, that must be set free for the voice to sing” comes from the way her voice breaks, and breaks again, as she’s singing “a wretch like me” — from about 1’45” with the liquid finally spilling at 1’51″….

in the Amazing Grace video above…


If you’re interested in the background to that idea of mine about the liquid, I’ll admit to two sources here — the first is Jalaluddin Rumi, who compares himself in the opening of his Masnavi with a reed, severed from its roots in the marshes to become a flute:

“Ever since I was cut off from my reed-bed, men and women all have lamented my bewailing. I want a breast torn asunder by severance, that I may fully declare the agony of yearning. Every one who is sundered far from his origin longs to recapture the time when he was united with it. In every company I have poured forth my lament, I have consorted alike with the miserable and the happy: each became my friend out of his own surmise, none sought to discover the secret in my heart. My secret indeed is not remote from my lament, but eye and ear lack the light to perceive it. Body is not veiled from soul, nor soul from body, yet to no many is leave given to see the soul.

As Rumi himself comments:

This cry of the reed is fire, it is not wind; whoever possesses not this fire, let him be naught!

My second source, echoing to us perhaps from the Cordoba of the Sufis, is Garcia Lorca, in his astounding essay, Theory and Play of the Duende — from which these paragraphs, like Peter Munson’s quote, are torn:

Once, the Andalusian ‘Flamenco singer’ Pastora Pavon, La Niña de Los Peines, sombre Spanish genius, equal in power of fancy to Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was singing in a little tavern in Cadiz. She played with her voice of shadows, with her voice of beaten tin, with her mossy voice, she tangled it in her hair, or soaked it in manzanilla or abandoned it to dark distant briars. But, there was nothing there: it was useless. The audience remained silent.

In the room was Ignacio Espeleta, handsome as a Roman tortoise, who was once asked: ‘Why don’t you work?’ and who replied with a smile worthy of Argantonius: ‘How should I work, if I’m from Cadiz?’

In the room was Elvira, fiery aristocrat, whore from Seville, descended in line from Soledad Vargos, who in ’30 didn’t wish to marry with a Rothschild, because he wasn’t her equal in blood. In the room were the Floridas, whom people think are butchers, but who in reality are millennial priests who still sacrifice bulls to Geryon, and in the corner was that formidable breeder of bulls, Don Pablo Murube, with the look of a Cretan mask. Pastora Pavon finished her song in silence. Only, a little man, one of those dancing midgets who leap up suddenly from behind brandy bottles, sarcastically, in a very soft voice, said: ‘Viva, Paris!’ as if to say: ‘Here ability is not important, nor technique, nor skill. What matters here is something other.’

Then La Niña de Los Peines got 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. And how she sang! Her voice no longer at play, her voice a jet of blood, worthy of her pain and her sincerity, opened like a ten-fingered hand as in the feet, nailed there but storm-filled, of a Christ by Juan de Juni.

Perhaps we could say that Houston’s inspiration was a duende-haunted angel…


Another live performance a few years later… the solo:


Pondering these things, and thinking of that “liquid” I mentioned, my friend William Benzon quoted Lena Horne to me, as reported by David Craig in On Performing:

And then when they killed [Robert] Kennedy and Martin Luther King, it seemed like a floodgate had opened. There had been a lot of deaths in my own family. … and when I say, I was different. I began to “listen” to what I was doing and thinking. I listened to the audience. Even to the quiet. I had never listened to it before. … I was different because I was letting something in. The tone was developing differently. I could do what I wanted with it. I could soften it. I wasn’t afraid to show the emotion. I went straight for what I thought the songwriter had felt at a particular moment because he must have felt what I’d been feeling or else I couldn’t have read that lyric, I couldn’t have understood what he was saying. And I used my regretfulness and my cynicism. But even my cynicism had become not so much that as … logic. Yes, life is shit. Yes, people listen in different ways. some nights they’re unhappy at something that has happened to them. OK. I can feel that knot of resistance. OK. That’s where I’m going to work to. … And the second “eight” would be different than the first because the first was feeling it out and the second would change because I could come in “to my mood.” … It developed out of this relaxation … a tone that was softer, more liquid.


My life had no troubles while I was listening to those tracks.

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