This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Last summer I attended a world-class musical event in southern Spain: a three day celebration of the troubadour tradition as it is practiced today throughout the Spanish speaking 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 the art form, as well as descriptions of the town and the festival dynamics, I refer the reader to my 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 had included 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 my investigation of the presence of décima (the ten-line form most commonly used) on the Internet, and was planning a hands-on workshop to encourage poets to participate in on-line décima forums. But the organizers had decided to do away with all such conferences, on the grounds that people were just too tired to attend meetings after very long nights of performing that usually ended at dawn. Possibly as a result of this policy, several academics whom I had been looking forward to seeing were not present. There were some performers absent as well, including one wellrespected Spanish improviser who was spending the month of July lolling on a beach not far away. When I asked about these absences, I was met by evasions or whispered rumors, 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 de Mendonça, a Portuguese poet, was the first surprise. A dignified fellow with fastidious table manners who always appeared in full gaucho regalia, he spoke good Spanish but improvised in Portuguese, declaiming his décimas in a precise basso profundo that became more and more intelligible to me. Another revelation was Mauro Chechi, an Italian performer 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 troupe with a 25 year record of musical excellence and community involvement, most notably in support of people of Vieques to stop the U.S. Navy’s long-running use of the island as a live-fire training area. I had heard these artists in recordings and was very excited to meet them and perform with them. Day One Marilyn (my wife) and I checked in, as directed, to the hotel Escua, located just outside Archidona, a nearby town famous for its plaza ochavada (an unusual octagonal “town square”). The woman who took us to the rooms pointed out who was staying where: That’s México, Cuba’s here, Argentina’s across the hall... I was so excited. The hotel room was very nice; a suite really, with views and a jacuzzi. While bathing I heard the Panamanians across the hall and mentally composed a comic décima to greet them. I knew that Ariosto Nieto, the Panamanian’s guitarist, was there; he and I had sustained several long-running décima duels via e-mail and on a web site, so when I dressed and came out, I confronted him with my verse. He shot back his answer, a better décima than mine, and fresher too. I shut 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 for people who see each other only in these festivals. A bus came and took us unto Villanueva 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 Canary Islanders were ensconced. Backed with guitars, cuatros, tiples, an accordion, and improvised 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 settled down to eat, but as soon as that was dispatched, the Puerto Ricans pulled out three little plenera drums, frame drums like tambourines without the rattling disks, and began to sing in harmony. Again, there was a gradual migration to their side of the room as the others joined in, and still later, the Mexicans had their chance to start a son jarocho jam, joined as always by musicians and poets who improvised eight line stanzas. After dinner we all moved out to the terrace where the Moroccans, all costumed in jellabas and pointy shoes, were waiting patiently for us. Improvisers were on the program but they never showed up--the music we heard was skillful and interesting but not really what I was expecting, and, unable to understand the songs, my attention wandered. They were soon followed by various ensembles who did short sets, marred by a lousy (or lazy) sound tech who gave up on managing all the changes on stage. I performed one comic décima, all alone with my water-bottle congas, then left the stage, until cries of “otra, otra” brought me back. To honor the multilingual nature of this year’s festival (and to work my little tricks), I sang my bilingual décima, consisting of an English verse and a Spanish version of the same idea. I’ll include it here as a sample of how décima works (forgive me if you’ve seen it before): 1. Hace tiempo que quisiera 2. una décima cantar 3. en la rumba y gozar 4. su cadencia placentera 5. que proviene de la era 6. de Calderón de la Barca 7. y que luego se embarca 8. al gran mundo pan-hispano 9. donde se hable el castellano 10. la espinela es el monarca a b b a a c c d d c For a long time I’ve been wanting a fine décima to sing in the rumba for its swing its cadence so pure and haunting its structure, complex and daunting from Iberia's golden age on the farm and on the stage wherever people speak Spanish décima will never vanish from the tongue and from the page.
coro: Que la vida es sueño, y los sueños sueños son. Chorus: Life is but a dream The funny thing here was that my drums, which I wear around my waist and are held together with nylon straps, were coming apart, and I tried with increasing desperation to keep them in place with one hand even as I banged them gamely with the other. I was encouraged 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 finally separated I was able to get out one last line, “Discúlpenme señores, se rompió mi garrafón” (Excuse me, gentlemen, my bottle broke) which cracked everybody up; they kept repeating it to me the next day, so I was pleased with what might have been a debacle. Later, during a round of double-entendre décimas, I jumped in with a fairly clever piece of mine about a kind of comic spoonerism that begins “Qué yo tengo un hombre atrás” and ends “Que yo tengo un hambre atroz”. This evening broke up about 3:30 a.m.
DAY TWO On day two, we were rounded up and loaded up on the bus for what was supposed to be a quick promotional trip to Málaga. Unfortunately there was a major accident on the freeway that has us stuck in traffic for hours. The bus had a sound system though, and someone had the bright idea of using it, not for poetry or song, but for jokes. So we told jokes, usually of an X-rated nature, which I will spare you. We generated a little press and handed out some programs, 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 I was too tired to wonder. But after we had finished eating, she stood up and announced in a clear voice that she had a poem to sing. The room quieted immediately and the assembled poetic luminaries of the Spanish-speaking world listened raptly as Marilyn sang me a birthday greeting. She did a good job and was met with enthusiastic applause; her poem was not an extraordinary text, but it was sincere, charged with emotion, and perfectly timed, all important values in this art form. I was immensely proud of her. But she wasn’t done. The waitress then produced a delicious decorated birthday cake, adorned with two candles spelling out my age (51). The poets all sang ” japi burdei” in the internationally approved manner, but then the Canary Islanders sang their peculiar variation, and then the Puerto Ricans, all in harmony, with cuatro and guitar. I have never had a more musical or emotional 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 jam sessions. There were plenty of poems flung around, however, including a genre new to me, 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. We made 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 was projected on a screen while some of his rough-voiced quintillas (the five-line ababa form favored here) were played over the sound system. The mayor presented a plaque to his survivors and dedicated the festival to his memory. Then began the traditional rounds of introductions, in which almost every poet delivered a verse, often citing Pedro Rama, or simply introducing themselves to the audience. I had prepared something different, and even though it was not exactly a proper introduction, I decided to perform it at this time. Bear with me: Spain and all the EC nations had just introduced a new law that required all motorists, under threat of stiff fines, to carry in their cars a “chaleco homologado” an officially sanctioned reflective vest. I had one of these vests with me, and I brought it up on stage hidden in an envelope. My décima had two stanzas; I noted that while others sang of love, or praised (or attacked) their fellows, I had come with a simple 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 were deeply puzzled, but the Spaniards ate it up. Following the introductions, there were a number of performances. The big Canary Island ensemble (Parranda Rebotallo) sang popular songs without improvisation, and a sixperson Mexican band (Grupo Estanzuela) performed the music of Veracruz, with several décimas and other forms mixed in but again without improvisation. Soon enough however, the improvisers began, both in homogenous groups (notably the Puerto Rican sextet Grupo Mapeyé) and in “cruces” (crosses) that pitted diverse poets against each other. A sonorous Brazilian in gaucho gear sang with the Puerto Ricans of the beauty of décima, the comic duo of Panamá and Spain peppered each other with rude jokes, and the Cuban
organizer, the multi faceted Alexis Díaz Pimienta, astonished everybody with his seemingly effortless and perfectly rhymed streams of consciousness. he also showed off his 10 year old son, a dangerous improviser who told his father during the controversia “Enough with the insults, you may be the adult, but the real poet here is ME’, cracking up the audience and the band as well. A Gallego and a Canario traded insults in cuarteta format (abcb); the canario began by calling his chubby rival “Sancho Panza”; this worthy responded that if he were Sancho Panza, the Canario was not Don Quixote but rather Rocinante (Quixote’s pathetically bedraggled horse). This went on until 5:00 a.m. or so. I staggered off to bed after observing a half hour of the raucous after-party; I learned that many poets stayed up till 7:00 or later, and one claimed at lunch the next day never to have gone to bed at all. DAYS THREE AND FOUR The last two days are now a blur of brilliant improvisation, each lasting from 11:00 p.m. to nearly dawn. I must share just a few highlights: • El Carpintero, the elderly local poet who was our “host” was surprised when his three year old grand daughter climbed up on stage, took his hand, and refused to be shooed off. So Carpintero continued his turn with his rival Chaparillo, the habitual rival of the tiny childlike Panamanian named Camaño. When Chaparillo’s turn came, he squatted down to the granddaughter’s eye level and said ‘You are very young/but you’ve given me a great idea/when you got on stage/i thought to myself/this must be Camaño’s girlfriend.” They worked this slender joke a while. Later, when the Argentine Marta Suint (once again the only woman improviser present) delivered a décima that suggested an eventual love match between her infant grandson and Carpintero’s granddaughter. Her partner on stage, Alexis Díaz Pimienta (from Cuba) continued with the theme. Other surprises that set off rounds of improvisation included the church clock striking three, a knee injury resulting from a fall off the stage (provoking a phony cell phone call to the hospital), delivery of drinks on stage, and even the gift of a condom from one poet to another. • Two different pairs of improvisers traded hats on stage. Hats were big this year. Many of the Latin Americans wore their distinctive national headgear, and trading them set up lots of camaraderie and opportunities to shine. There was also a funny turn when one young man (a hatless Canary Islander) mocked his Puerto Rican rival, saying “a man who wears a hat might have something to hide” while making the two-finger cornudo (cuckold) gesture. The Puerto Rican calmly removed his hat, hung it on a mike stand, and continued the show bareheaded, defending his honor admirably. • Roberto Silva of Grupo Mapeyé enthralled the crowd with a piece that was not improvised; rather it was a six stanza décima in the Puertorican pie forzado style, in which each stanza must end with the same line, in this case “Es terrorismo también” (That’s terrorism too). His voice cracking with emotion. he sang of his disdain for war and terror, then denounced one by one the attack on the WTC, the war in Irak, the blockade of Cuba, US meddling in Venezuela, and finally the horrible Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people last March 11. Wild applause and shouts of “olé!” I could go on, but you get the idea. It must be seen to be believed or appreciated. The closing ceremony was brief this year, but heartfelt. I was overwhelmed once again by the depth of talent and the commitment to this venerable art form among people who are mostly campesinos (peasants) who come with their sunburned faces, calloused hands, and beat up guitars to sing together, to celebrate a tradition, to live a paradoxical relationship of comradely rivalry.
I hope you have enjoyed this account and I trust I have conveyed my pleasure in seeing how this precious form of poetic performance art maintains its vitality over 400 years after the death of Vicente Espinel, inventor of the décima. Philip Pasmanick firstname.lastname@example.org
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.