Duende on Hudson Street:
A Flamenco Master Sings for His Sangria
An essay by Brook Zern, from The Village Voice, June 14, 1976
One of the world's great singers - an acknowledged master of a staggeringly difficult and demanding tradition - is working unnoticed in New York. Or maybe he isn't in New York. He is a Gypsy, and the fact that he was here last week doesn't mean he will be here next week, or even this week. Bu he says he will be around for a while, and that is a good omen.
He is called Agujetas, and he sings flamenco. Specifically, he sings the kind of flamenco called cante jondo, or deep song - music of such shattering intensity that those who really dominate it can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
It has been a dozen years since New Yorkers last had the chance to encounter this style of singing - when a woman known as La Fernanda de Utrera sang at the World's Fair. But then circumstances were abominable. The formal setting, the transient and unsophisticated audience, the absurd scheduling (flamenco matinees, yet), and La Fernanda's innate tendency to freeze up when appearing off her own turf made the engagement forgettable at best.
Things are better this time, but that doesn't mean you can hear good cante jondo on a predictable schedule. Agujetas sings in a small restaurant called La Sangria, at 569 Hudson Street on the corner of 11th Street. He does perhaps three short and spread-out sets each night from Wednesday through Sunday, starting at about 10:30 and finishing late, usually around 2:30 a.m. The songs are rendered while Agujetas's wife, an extraordinarily good dancer named Tibulina, pounds out the rhythms. (Actually, the footwork is the easy part; she also dances well with her arms and upper body, in accordance with the canons of female flamenco baile.)
A typical set consists of a light alegrias, a driving tango, and a soulful solea. Only the last form is normally regarded as cante jondo, and because it is sung behind a dancer it hardly merits the name. Whenever a singer works with a dancer - even in rare cases like this when they are perfectly simpatico - an important degree of leeway is sacrificed. The song, always the central component in an authentic flamenco session, is subordinated to what in Spain is an intermittent and always secondary element.
So hearing Agujetas really open up and sing, just him and a guitar accompanist, is a matter of luck or sheer tenacity. The first night I went early, hung around until the 4 a.m. closing, and barely noticed the singer and his wife slip quietly out the door. During the sets, his singing had been interesting but tightly contained. Only briefly did hints of something special show through.
I left suspecting that he was overrated - understandable, since Spain has been losing her venerable flamenco singers far faster than replacements appear. I decided that the sensation caused by Agujetas's sudden emergence a few years ago - news that had run through the world's scrawny but tenacious flamenco grapevine like a hit of Rapid-Gro - was probably the result of impatience or even desperation.
Figure that he came from Jerez, the nucleus of flamenco's small spawning ground in southwestern Andalusia; this alone must have counted for maybe 25 points. By trade he was a blacksmith - the special occupation of that Gypsy clan most steeped in the tradition of deep song - and there's another 20 points. His voice sounded like someone had run his vocal chords through a cheese grater - it had that raw, cutting quality which has characterized most of flamenco's great singers, and must have been worth at lest 25 points. Give him 10 more points for his dark color - undiluted and still bespeaking the north Indian ancestry of all Gypsies; another 10 for his gleaming gold tooth - no one knows why, but it seems to help; and throw in some more because his father was a noteworthy singer so he had the early exposure and breeding. Hell, he didn't really have to know how to sing at all.
Besides, I already had a favorite Gypsy singer. During three years of scratching for this kind of music in Spain, I had hung around the cantaor called El Chocolate (after the color of his skin) like a mooning groupie, trying to accompany his eerie songs. I had heard him sing very badly and very well, and several times during those years I had also heard him make the cosmic connection: He had hooked into a different energy source, opening his mouth and letting his essence gush out like - well, never mind what it was like; it sounds silly when I try to write about it. Garcia Lorca called it the sonido negro, the black sound. He said it could make the quicksilver of mirrors open up. I can report objectively that men wept and tore out their hair, and that women fell on their knees and crossed themselves. I also recall that an electric clock stopped, but that was no doubt because of a line voltage irregularity.
For all I knew, two singers like that couldn't even exist at the same time. Maybe there just wasn't enough flamenco fairy dust left over to support this upstart. And besides, I had traveled thousands of miles, misspent thousands of hours, and blown thousands of dollars in my quixotic search for real cante jondo. The notion that I could hear it again for the price of a subway token and an inexpensive Spanish dinner was nonsensical...
I kept my reservations to myself, though. I hadn't seen Agujetas really try to produce; besides, I had invited another aficionado to check out La Sangria the following Friday, and I could hardly stand them up.
We had just walked in that night when one of the regulars came up to us and started babbling: "Two nights ago...unbelievable...two nights ago...incredible...you can't believe..."
Okay, Agujetas was for real. In fact, I had heard that same babbling, practically verbatim, several times in Spain after missing one of El Chocolate's psychic transports. Again, it was the raving of an ordinarily blasé aficionado who knew the art cold, and who couldn't be snookered by even the finest counterfeit.
Agujetas did his three shows. Again, the dancing of Tibulina was impressive. The austerity and dignity of her bearing offered an interesting contrast to the broader and more theatrical work of a couple known as Edo and Azucena, whose performance was striking and warmly received. Fans of the flamenco dance left after the last show, while a few people who had somehow acquired a taste for the cante stuck it out.
Then Agujetas came out and sang, if that's the word. It's more like a well-modulated primal scream - an exquisitely controlled shriek of anguish and despair. I have heard it described as inhuman, and it does have a sheer animal quality to it; at the same time, it is the most human sound I have ever heard. It demands the breath control of an opera singer, the lung power of a tuba player, the stamina of a boxer - but you don't notice this while it is happening. You notice instead that direct human contact has been made, that someone has opened a new channel to your mind at terrible risk to himself.
Everything that a person learns to hide is suddenly laid out in patterns of sound. I don't know what is really going on when these barriers break and cante jondo emerges. It seems to involve possession. Like a Holy Roller speaking in tongues, a Gypsy in the throes of an attack of duende (a world which literally means ghost) appears to give voice to something beyond himself. He seems to be speaking for his people - for all the Gypsies who uprooted themselves and began their ceaseless migration to no special place, who endured centuries of persecution in Spain as elsewhere, and never wavered in their belief that the Gypsy way is the right way.
The cante jondo singer does not attempt an artistically creative act in any normal sense. Instead, he seems to suddenly start functioning as a human receiver/transmitter, establishing some sort of communicative link between our reality and something else. The echoes of a vast racial tragedy resonate through the songs, whose separate and unconnected verses function as a testament and a warning distilled from a distant memory. There are the bleak and barren martinetes, the earliest form of deep song:
Los geres por las esquinas
Con velones y faro
En voz arta se desian
"marrarlo, qu'es calorro"
(The horsemen on the corners
with lights and torces
"Kill him! He's Gypsy")
There are the siguiriyas, speaking of death and destiny with a strangely defiant resignation that borders on insanity - itself a distinct occupational hazard among the form's great interpreters:
Que desgracia yo tengo
Mare en el andar
Como los pasos que palante daba
Se me van atras
(What misfortune I have
mother, even as I walk;
the steps I take forward
carry me backward.)
Finally, the solea - a later form that took shape after the worst epoch of persecution had abated and which left enough emotional headroom to consider Gypsy love:
Hay lenguas en esta calle
Que te cortan un vestio
Como tijeras de sastre.
(There are tongues on this street
that could cut you a suit
like a tailor's scissors.)
Agujetas came across. He delivered. He melded with the music. Fused with the cante jondo. Like all great Gypsy artists - bullfighters like Cagancho and El Gallo, dancers like El Farruco and La Malena, guitarists like Melchor de Marchena and Diego del Gastor - Agujetas had made the transition to another lever. He had shed the successive layers of his personality in order to become host to something else.
I strongly suspect that this is the first time such music has ever been generated in New York. The occasional fine singers who have previously passed through were evidently overcome by culture shock, since there are not even rumors of such an occurrence here before.
But it is happening now. New York's two dozen or so aficionados of hard-core, down-home, flat-out, low-down funky flamenco song - freaks who've had to settle for nothing but crowd-pleasing approximations of flamenco until now - are soaking up Agujetas's incandescent music.
This strange and disturbing ethnic survival is in no danger of attracting a broad following, of course. But people who love the music of Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and America's other great blues singers, not to mention those who are looking for the inspiration behind much of Garcia Lorca's haunting and luminous poetry, would be well advised to listen to Agujetas.
His song can be unorthodox, and some knowledgeable people are disturbed by the liberties he takes in the ligature, the way he ties his tremendously extended vocal lines together. He is not an encyclopedic singer, and his limited repertoire plus a certain cockiness bordering on arrogance guarantee him all the enemies he will ever need.
But despite these issues, he is still the only singer of our time to be measured against Garcia Lorca's idol, the legendary Manuel Torre.
Agujetas is still a young man. When he sings, you can measure his age in centuries.
Journalist Brook Zern, who has written about flamenco in The New York Times, Guitar Review and many other American and Spanish publications, is a guitar aficionado dividing his time between New York and Andalusia. He is the director of the Flamenco Center USA, and frequently speaks about the art on radio programs and at cultural conferences, music festivals and universities.