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narrative2004tapia

narrative2004tapia

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Published by Philip Pasmanick

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Published by: Philip Pasmanick on Jun 21, 2009
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The Fourth International Festival of Improvised Musical Verse P. Pasmanick2,700 wordsIntroductionLast summer I attended a world-class musical event in southern Spain: a three daycelebration of the troubadour tradition as it is practiced today throughout the Spanishspeaking world. I have just returned from the most recent version of this annual festival.Rather than repeat the background information relating to the history and characteristics of theart form, as well as descriptions of the town and the festival dynamics, I refer the reader tomy 7,500 word report of last year’s festival, available in the RAP and RMAL archives.This year’s event was different in one fundamental way: while the 2003 festival hadincluded academic papers and round-table discussions by researchers and practitioners,this year’s schedule did not include any such meetings. I had come prepared to share myinvestigation of the presence of décima (the ten-line form most commonly used) on theInternet, and was planning a hands-on workshop to encourage poets to participate in on-linedécima forums. But the organizers had decided to do away with all such conferences, onthe grounds that people were just too tired to attend meetings after very long nights ofperforming that usually ended at dawn.Possibly as a result of this policy, several academics whom I had been looking forward toseeing were not present. There were some performers absent as well, including one well-respected Spanish improviser who was spending the month of July lolling on a beach notfar away. When I asked about these absences, I was met by evasions or whisperedrumors, and I gave up my inquiries. I had the distinct impression I was infringing a taboo(“Here we do not speak of the dead.”)On the other hand, there were new faces (new to me, anyway). Paulo Freitas deMendonça, a Portuguese poet, was the first surprise. A dignified fellow with fastidious tablemanners who always appeared in full gaucho regalia, he spoke good Spanish butimprovised in Portuguese, declaiming his décimas in a precise basso profundo thatbecame more and more intelligible to me. Another revelation was Mauro Chechi, an Italianperformer who wrote and sang pretty songs and who improvised in Spanish and Italian.He was also the author of a scholarly tome on poetic improvisation in Italy.Most exciting, though, was the presence of Grupo Mapeyé, a Puerto Rican folkloric troupewith a 25 year record of musical excellence and community involvement, most notably insupport of people of Vieques to stop the U.S. Navy’s long-running use of the island as alive-fire training area. I had heard these artists in recordings and was very excited to meetthem and perform with them.Day OneMarilyn (my wife) and I checked in, as directed, to the hotel Escua, located just outsideArchidona, a nearby town famous for its plaza ochavada (an unusual octagonal “townsquare”). The woman who took us to the rooms pointed out who was staying where: That’sMéxico, Cuba’s here, Argentina’s across the hall... I was so excited. The hotel room wasvery nice; a suite really, with views and a jacuzzi. While bathing I heard the Panamaniansacross the hall and mentally composed a comic décima to greet them. I knew that AriostoNieto, the Panamanian’s guitarist, was there; he and I had sustained several long-runningdécima duels via e-mail and on a web site, so when I dressed and came out, I confrontedhim with my verse. He shot back his answer, a better décima than mine, and fresher too. Ishut up--I wasn’t going to push my luck. My real-time improvising is still hit or miss.
 
At 8:00 we all began to gather in the lobby, all abustle with instruments and greetings forpeople who see each other only in these festivals. A bus came and took us untoVillanueva de Tapia to the Nascimiento restaurant, where we sat at tables laden with beer,wine, and tapas.As the first plates emptied, music began to sound from the corner where 15 or so CanaryIslanders were ensconced. Backed with guitars, cuatros, tiples, an accordion, andimprovised percussion, they were blasting out Cuban standards like “La Negra Tomasa”and “Lágrimas Negras”. Little by little, others began to join them: a Cuban on claves,Puerto Ricans on guitar, a Mexican jarocho player on his “bass”, a kind of giant kalimba(thumb piano) that the Cubans call a marímbula. A first course was served, and we settleddown to eat, but as soon as that was dispatched, the Puerto Ricans pulled out three littleplenera drums, frame drums like tambourines without the rattling disks, and began to sing inharmony. Again, there was a gradual migration to their side of the room as the others joinedin, and still later, the Mexicans had their chance to start a son jarocho jam, joined as alwaysby musicians and poets who improvised eight line stanzas.After dinner we all moved out to the terrace where the Moroccans, all costumed in jellabasand pointy shoes, were waiting patiently for us. Improvisers were on the program but theynever showed up--the music we heard was skillful and interesting but not really what I wasexpecting, and, unable to understand the songs, my attention wandered. They were soonfollowed by various ensembles who did short sets, marred by a lousy (or lazy) sound techwho gave up on managing all the changes on stage. I performed one comic décima, allalone with my water-bottle congas, then left the stage, until cries of “otra, otra” brought meback. To honor the multilingual nature of this year’s festival (and to work my little tricks), Isang my bilingual décima, consisting of an English verse and a Spanish version of the sameidea. I’ll include it here as a sample of how décima works (forgive me if you’ve seen itbefore):1. Hace tiempo que quisiera a For a long time I’ve been wanting2. una décima cantar b a fine décima to sing3. en la rumba y gozar bin the rumba for its swing4. su cadencia placentera a its cadence so pure and haunting5. que proviene de la era a its structure, complex and daunting6. de Calderón de la Barca c from Iberia's golden age7. y que luego se embarca c on the farm and on the stage8. al gran mundo pan-hispanod wherever people speak Spanish9. donde se hable el castellano d décima will never vanish10. la espinela es el monarca cfrom the tongue and from the page.coro: Que la vida es sueño, y los sueños sueños son. Chorus: Life is but a dreamThe funny thing here was that my drums, which I wear around my waist and are heldtogether with nylon straps, were coming apart, and I tried with increasing desperation tokeep them in place with one hand even as I banged them gamely with the other. I wasencouraged when the other poets took up my coro and I began to improvise my soneo,making everything rhyme with “son” (an easy rhyme in Spanish), but when the drums finallyseparated I was able to get out one last line, “Discúlpenme señores, se rompió migarrafón” (Excuse me, gentlemen, my bottle broke) which cracked everybody up; theykept repeating it to me the next day, so I was pleased with what might have been adebacle. Later, during a round of double-entendre décimas, I jumped in with a fairly cleverpiece of mine about a kind of comic spoonerism that begins “Qué yo tengo un hombreatrás” and ends “Que yo tengo un hambre atroz”. This evening broke up about 3:30 a.m.
 
DAY TWOOn day two, we were rounded up and loaded up on the bus for what was supposed to bea quick promotional trip to Málaga. Unfortunately there was a major accident on the freewaythat has us stuck in traffic for hours. The bus had a sound system though, and someone hadthe bright idea of using it, not for poetry or song, but for jokes. So we told jokes, usually ofan X-rated nature, which I will spare you. We generated a little press and handed out someprograms, many of which ended up in a nearby dumpster. At least they don’t litter.At lunch I noticed that Marilyn seemed to be conferring way too much with the waitress, but Iwas too tired to wonder. But after we had finished eating, she stood up and announced in aclear voice that she had a poem to sing. The room quieted immediately and theassembled poetic luminaries of the Spanish-speaking world listened raptly as Marilyn sangme a birthday greeting. She did a good job and was met with enthusiastic applause; herpoem was not an extraordinary text, but it was sincere, charged with emotion, and perfectlytimed, all important values in this art form. I was immensely proud of her. But she wasn’tdone. The waitress then produced a delicious decorated birthday cake, adorned with twocandles spelling out my age (51). The poets all sang ” japi burdei” in the internationallyapproved manner, but then the Canary Islanders sang their peculiar variation, and then thePuerto Ricans, all in harmony, with cuatro and guitar. I have never had a more musical oremotional birthday. Marilyn, ever practical, had me collect the birthday candle digits,pointing out that our older daughter Natalia is turning 15 this year.Dinner was served at another restaurant with a single long table, less convenient for jamsessions. There were plenty of poems flung around, however, including a genre new tome, the décima as “piropo”, a kind of Spanish romantic flattery, often comically exagerated,offered to an attractive “azafata” or general helper assigned to us by the mayor’s office. Wemade our way (late again) to the Plaza and began with a solemn tribute to a local poet,Pedro Rama Aguilera, recently deceased. It was quite moving, actually; his portrait wasprojected on a screen while some of his rough-voiced quintillas (the five-line ababa formfavored here) were played over the sound system. The mayor presented a plaque to hissurvivors and dedicated the festival to his memory.Then began the traditional rounds of introductions, in which almost every poet delivered averse, often citing Pedro Rama, or simply introducing themselves to the audience. I hadprepared something different, and even though it was not exactly a proper introduction, Idecided to perform it at this time. Bear with me: Spain and all the EC nations had justintroduced a new law that required all motorists, under threat of stiff fines, to carry in their carsa “chaleco homologado” an officially sanctioned reflective vest. I had one of these vestswith me, and I brought it up on stage hidden in an envelope. My décima had two stanzas; Inoted that while others sang of love, or praised (or attacked) their fellows, I had come with asimple public service announcement. I then produced the vest, put it on to great laughter,and praised the vest as a most virile form of clothing. The Latin Americans there weredeeply puzzled, but the Spaniards ate it up.Following the introductions, there were a number of performances. The big Canary Islandensemble (Parranda Rebotallo) sang popular songs without improvisation, and a six-person Mexican band (Grupo Estanzuela) performed the music of Veracruz, with severaldécimas and other forms mixed in but again without improvisation. Soon enough however,the improvisers began, both in homogenous groups (notably the Puerto Rican sextetGrupo Mapeyé) and in “cruces” (crosses) that pitted diverse poets against each other. Asonorous Brazilian in gaucho gear sang with the Puerto Ricans of the beauty of décima, thecomic duo of Panamá and Spain peppered each other with rude jokes, and the Cuban

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