From ‘In Search of Duende’ by Federico Garcia Lorca

Why bother writing anything at all when you can read Maestro Lorca? Here translated into bright words scooped from the searing wind of shared and bloody pain by Christoper Maurer.

The great artists of the south of Spain, whether Gypsy or flamenco, whether they sing, dance, or play, know that no emotion is possible unless the duende comes. They may be able to fool people into thinking the have duende—authors and painters and literary fashionmongers do so every day—but we have only to pay a little attention and surrender to indifference in order to discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy artifice.

The Andalusian singer Pastora Pavón, La Nina de los Peines, dark Hispanic genius whose powers of fantasy are equal to those of Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was once singing in a little tavern in Cádiz. For a while she played with her voice of shadow, of beaten tin, her moss-covered voice, braiding it into her hair or soaking it in wine or letting it wander away to the farthest, darkest bramble patches. No use. Nothing. The audience remained silent.

In the same room was Ignacio Espeleta, handsome as a Roman turtle, who had once been asked, “How come you don’t work?” and had answered, with a smile worthy of Argantonius, “Work? Why? I’m from Cádiz!” And there was Hot Elvira, aristocratic Sevillian whore, direct descendant of Soledad Vargas who in 1930 refused to marry a Rothschild because he was not of equal blood. And the Floridas, whom the people take to be ranchers, but who are really millennial priests who still sacrific bulls to Geryon. And in one corner sat the formidable bull rancher Don Pablo Murube, with the air of a Cretan mask. When Pastora Pavón finished singing there was total silence, until a tiny man, one of those dancing manikins that rise suddenly out of brandy bottles, sarcastically murmured “Long live Paris!” As if to say: “Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else.”

As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, La Nina de los Peines leapt to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or colour, 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.

La Nina de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing. It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni.

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Clonakilty: A Night with Friends

Ach ja… I hate poxy iMovie! But for love of the Dreas I struggled (manfully) all morning to make a slideshow of last night’s session at the Dodo in Kreuzberg for your delectation. The result is iffy, at best. Please don’t try watching it full screen because the photos get extremely fuzzy. At least, though, the audio (the important bit) no longer sounds like a rattling tin.

Sonam Chöpel’s Chicken Story

Although I can’t remember exactly why, Ron asked me a few years ago if I’d write up Sonam Chöpel’s chicken story. (It was something to do with producing a text to read out loud to test a recording device—Ron will remember.) I agreed because I’m a bit of pushover, but as Sonam Chöpel never tells a story the same way twice, I had to take notes for a couple of weeks (Rinpoche was asking for it every other night) before putting fingers to keyboard. The result was the following, which, as you can see, is a pastiche of the Heart Sutra. Looking at it now I can see it doesn’t really work, certainly not as well as the Football Sutra, but I’ve decided to swallow my pride and post it nonetheless, as it’s topical.

Homage to the Master of all Chicken Stories!

Thus have I heard. Once when Sonam Chöpel was serving supper at Khyentse Labrang, together with a great gathering of the Sangha from Vancouver, Hong Kong and Taiwan, he entered the samadhi that expressed the paranoia of the Chicken Farmer from Bhutan.

And at the same time, noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, whilst eating his food, saw in this way: he saw a vision of the story of the paranoid Bhutanese Chicken Farmer.

Then, through the power of Sonam Chöpel, he-who-must-be-obeyed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche asked noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, “Tell us a story, Ron.”

Addressed in this way, noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, said to he-who-must-be-obeyed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, “Oh Rinpoche, there once was a Chicken Farmer in Bhutan who hated his nasty neighbour and felt sure that one day he would do him wrong. And sure enough there dawned a day when one of the Farmer’s chickens was gone! ‘Oh, Oh, cried the Chicken Farmer as he jumped up and down with glee, ‘My neighbour’s robbed me! I must go to town and seek justice from a court of law!’ And off he went to court.

At the law court, a lawyer told the Chicken Farmer, “Oh Chicken Farmer, you cannot press a suit against your nasty neighbour for theft unless you have a witness to the crime!” And so the Chicken Farmer hurried to the local bar where he asked a poor Nepali immigrant, “Oh poor Nepali immigrant, my nasty neighbour stole from me, but I can’t take him to court without a witness to the crime. Here, take the handsome sum of fifty rupees and come to court. Tell the judge you saw the crime, and justice will be done!”

Bent and brown, the poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, I really need the handsome sum of fifty rupees, so kindly offered, but if my lie is found out I will be ejected from Bhutan before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, so please find yourself another stooge.”

“No, no,” cried the determined Chicken Farmer, “my poor Nepali immigrant, that is not how things will transpire. You will not be found out! And I will give you the princely sum of one hundred rupees, and justice will be done!”

Again the bent and brown, poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, I really need the princely sum of one hundred rupees, so kindly offered, but if my lie is found out I will be ejected from Bhutan before you can say, ‘Where is Ali!’, so please find yourself another stooge.”

“No, no, no, no, no!” bawled the frantic Chicken Farmer, “you infuriating poor Nepali immigrant, that is not how things will transpire. You will not be found out! Just say two words, “I saw”, when the judge questions you and I will give you the kingly sum of two hundred rupees, and justice will be done!”

Once more the bent and  brown, poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, you have won my help. I really need the kingly sum of two hundred rupees, so kindly offered, and will say the two words you require.” And off they went to court.

Beady-eyed, the judge stared hard at the poor Nepali immigrant and asked, “Did you, poor Nepali immigrant, see the Chicken Farmer’s nasty neighbour stealing something from his farm?”

“I saw!” replied the poor Nepali immigrant, much to the relief of the Chicken Farmer who clapped his hands with joy.

“How big was it?” continued the judge, beady-eyed and staring hard.

Shocked and confused, the poor Nepali immigrant raised his bony hand up as high as his shoulder—he had no idea what it was the nasty neighbour stole! The judge’s beady eyes bulged bigger and he exclaimed, “Can a chicken be so big?” And the poor Nepali immigrant raised his other hand in graceful mudra to indicate the height of an ordinary chicken.

Thus concludes the story of the paranoid Bhutanese Chicken Farmer.

Telling Stories

Have you ever met Sonam Chöpel? He’s one of Khyentse Rinpoche’s Bhutanese attendants who trained as an artist (as in ‘thangka painter’), but most of the time assumes the role of ‘fool’ to Rinpoche’s King Lear (not that Rinpoche has three daughters… yet). Sonam Chöpel is famous, amongst other things, for telling ponderously long and wholly pointless stories at Rinpoche’s behest, often as a kind of cabaret after dinner. And he landed this job in spite having a memory so colander-like as to rival even my own. Perhaps if he could at least extemporize… but alas, that particular art was missing from the curriculum of the monastery he attended, making even the thought of being forced to sit through another rendition (the ‘chicken story’ and the ‘pig story’, for example, not to mention the ‘eagle story’) makes solitary three year retreat in a toilet-less cave, living on grass and cold water a far more attractive alternative.

Have you ever met Suresh? He’s a filmmaker and one of Rinpoche’s Indian friends who is famous for his many long, convoluted arguments with Ron (everyone knows Ron). Well, I say ‘argument,’ but the reality is something less easy to define. It’s more like an unstoppable monologue, punctuated with Ron’s valiant, if sluggish, attempts at opening a rebuttal that almost always fail to penetrate Suresh’s instantly renewed assaults (usually tangential), mounted with such vivacity and commitment that he might well have been an American divorce lawyer in a previous life. Six year retreat without the grass and water would be my preference.

Over the winter months of 2006-7, Rinpoche gave the Kangyur lung for the better part of ten hours a day in the icy shrine room of the Dzongsar Institute in Chauntra, and one of his favourite forms of relaxation was to ask Sonam Chöpel to tell a few of his stories at dinner (the ‘chicken story,’ the ‘pig story,’ and the ‘eagle story’), over and over and over again.  

In those days (a mere six or seven years ago…), we still used the old dining table which was long and thin and only sat about a dozen. In those long-gone halcyon days, no one even thought of bringing a camera to the table (come to think of it, I didn’t even own a camera), and we therefore have no record of the regular performances Sonam Chöpel was chivied (by Rinpoche) into giving Suresh (the rest of us were incidental to the process).

Why is this relevant? Because try as I might, I really can’t think of any other reason why Rinpoche (who is now inseparable from his iPhone 5) would even think of setting Sonam Chöpel on Suresh again, as he did one lunchtime in January this year (see photographic evidence below). But Rinpoche being Rinpoche, I doubt we’ll never know.

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More blues…

But of course, my mind turns in this direction when it’s indulging in pretty high-end ‘luxury suffering’—which may be why I never had the guts to attempt to sing the blues. A rather stiff and starchy inside hiding behind a provocatively louche veneer was one of the contradictions that so successfully inhibited many of my activities in the days when I cared to experiment creatively. Still, various forms of inspiration sometimes helped me slur my way through a Torch Song or two without disgracing myself completely; not the blues, though. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much. Do you know this one?