“Deep song shoots its arrows of gold right into our heart. In the dark it is a terrifying blue archer whose quiver is never empty.”
Flamenco began as unaccompanied singing, no instruments, no dancers, just the human voice at its most raw. A possible ‘all time greats’ list of singers=
 Manuel Torre;  Tomas Pavon;  El Terremoto de Jerez [“The Earthquake”]  Manolo Caracol;  La Nina des los Peines [Pastora Pavon, “The Child of the Combs”];  Antonio Mairena;  Don Antonio Chacon;  Camaron de la Isla [“The Shrimp”];  El Sordera de Jerez.  Fosforito [Antonio Fernadez Diaz].
Guitarists=  Perico el del Lunar;  Ramon Montoya;  Javier Molina.
The 10 singers are not really in any [hierarchal/numerical] order. They all are equally profound!
Certainly, any of the first five voices could arguably be declared ‘No 1’ of all time.. But Manuel Torre has been put first, because as one of the oldest [b 1878], his savage voice is rooted in the distant past from which Flamenco came. Still, Tomas Pavon is equally great, for the same reason [though a bit younger], and so too El Terremoto, Manolo Caracol, and Nina Pavon, the incomparable Nina [older sister of Tomas]. Just thinking of them brings tears to my eyes. But some people rank The Shrimp as the greatest ever, and he died not so long ago, yet here he only comes in at .. But he is magnificent too. The guitarists are old greats.. The guitar is there to amplify the singing, respond to it, not dominate or lead it.. An accompanist. Thus there is something un-Flamenco about non-accompanied guitar playing of Flamenco music. It does not work. Yet it has become common place. Similarly with dancers; they should augment the lone human voice. But that too has gone by the wayside..
This list is influenced by the authenticity, depth, power — the ‘duende’ — of the cante jondo — the deep song — of these singers. It also reflects services they rendered to Flamenco music. Several of this top 10 sang older song forms, or less well known and less often performed song forms, preserving them for future generations. Without the top 5 or so, Flamenco might have just disappeared from the world. Or worse, the ‘light’ café type of Flamenco, full of narcissistic grand gestures and posturing [pretend, not real, passion], might have taken over from the real Flamenco of heart passion at its most extreme. Every time a Flamenco singer raises his voice, he ‘mounts the rim of the well’, in the deep place of life and death, and he must fight for life against death, and be prepared really to die in every performance, because if he cannot die, then he is not in jeopardy, and duende will not come. In the old days, gypsies sang mostly for friends, spontaneously, when the spirit took them. Having to ‘perform’ to a set time and place in cafes, or music halls, much less formal concert halls, was always hard.. It led to short cuts.
Once Nina was singing for a group of aficionados and one chimed up, ‘this is worthy of the Paris Lido.’ She was so stung by this remark, equivalent to calling someone a coward, or saying they had no integrity, she stopped, paused, collected her forces in an eerie silence, like a gathering storm, then with tears in her eyes suddenly relaunched into some of the greatest Flamenco singing anyone had ever heard. It wasn’t recorded= the best of Flamenco never could be recorded. Even the scratchy old 78s we have from the earlier eras, now available in shiny CDs, give only an impression..
This list is also pretty much all Gypsies, with only 2 non Gypsy ‘Spaniards’ on it. Nothing could be more mistaken than terming Flamenco ‘Spanish music.’ It is nothing of the sort. It is Gypsy music — like the Roma music of Eastern Europe which is not Bulgarian, not Romanian, not Hungarian, not Balkan, not Russian.. It can be said this is Gypsy music influenced by dwelling for centuries in Spain, but stronger influences shaped it– the Arab music and culture of North Africa, and the sacred chanting of Coptic Egyptian Christians, Jews, and particularly, it is said, the Byzantine Greek Christians. Then there is the influence of all the places the Gypsies passed through in their westward migration; and their source itself, the music and culture of Rajasthan in the north west of Mother India. More than a year ago, a TV programme went all over Rajasthan and listened to the varied native musicians [usually living as outsiders at the fringe of the villages]. The parallel with Flamenco was audible..
Flamenco has combined some of the ecstatic yearning of the East, with a pained and struggling heart — like Jacob at the fast flowing river, who fought an unknown spirit in the form of a man all night, and won a blessing, but only through a wound. This suffering that deepens the heart, and this fight in the heart for something at stake it does not understand, is what Flamenco acquired by going West.
Anyway, these 10 voices of Gypsy ‘hard travelling and hard times’ can be commended to anyone who ‘enjoys’ a music that has the strange power to rip their heart out, and throw it bleeding on the ground. Manuel Torre, my personal all time No 1, sang from a duende so powerful, listeners ripped off their shirts, becoming moved so deeply that their hearts were bursting out of their chests. The power of duende, in the singer and in the listeners affected by him, is ‘wild.’
Everything tame; everything structured, organized, ordered; everything contained; everything shallow and superficial; everything far from the stricken and glorious heart deeper down, is ripped to shreds, pulverized, destroyed. The duende reveals the spirit that indwells the heart when true, and thus shows up the false heart; it does more than this, it puts the surface heart, the heart nice, and pleasant, and reasonable, the heart normal, conventional, and easy, to the sword. For us humans who have betrayed the true heart for all the centuries since we left the Sacred Beginning, its appearance in nakedness, in blood, in pain, is something like a huge natural disaster, a cataclysm; it reveals the different heart we could use to live a different life, the lost heart, the broken heart, but the heart that can be reforged by the power that must expose its tragic reality.
Duende plunges us into the life and death edge of the true heart. It exposes our fallenness, and charges us — with electricity — get up!
In all the ancient temples and churches there is very spiritually compelling ‘sacred’ music. Only the music of duende, only the music with “black sounds”, is ‘holy.’ The holy is terrible, it destroys us to remake us. Will we remain in that conflagration?
Miles Davis said, ‘when I hear Flamenco, I want to fall to my knees.’ Miles Davis understood the duende of Deep Song.
It comes from where we are liars and betrayers of the depth of the human heart, but it recalls us to that place, and it re-baptizes us in the truth of the struggle there, and it promises us that what wounds us and fights us will finally empower us to bear and contend in a new way, a way worthy of the heart.
A commentator says, on the nights when Manuel Torre found the duende, the dark sounds, ‘his song would become unbearable, leaving the listener breathless.’ Your heart stops, when the true heart, in its suffering, in its battling, ascends the stage and steps forth, to reclaim the world it has let go.
The true — not dishonest and nonsensical — meaning of ‘wild’ is Daemonic.
But the Daemonic gets confused and degraded in the lingua franca, almost worse than that which occurs with ‘passion.’ Van Gogh painted in the white heat of the agonized ecstasy for the last year of his life, creating more masterpieces in that one year than most other painters managed in their whole life. Yet, many people think the state of agonized ecstasy induced by duende is just an ‘out of control’ hysteria. The comic book accounts of Dionysic frenzy, eyes popping out and craziness abounding, are incompatible with the grace and strength needed to sustain duende, as Flamenco singers do over a long night [as in the “Black Nights” of Manuel Torre], or Van Gogh over a long year. This touches on trance, but it is more: the trance is seized, possessed, and indwelt, by the dark spirit of the Daemonic. Holy Fire courses through the blood; that is why, in this altered state of the heart, the veins bulge. I have heard Cheyenne and Lakota drummers, linked straight ‘down’ to the true heartbeat of humanity, pound out that rhythm with the drums over days without let up, and not missing a beat.
The duende of Deep Song in Flamenco is one of the most pure expressions of the Daemonic. To embrace it makes us conscious of the pain, the blackness, the deeps, through which the heart must pass, to reclaim its calling as the ‘secret agent’, the Spirit inspired and Spirit sparked, engine of God in a world without fire, but burned down to dead ashes. The Daemonic has to destroy our attempts to normalize the heart’s fallenness, our attempts to pretend nothing has happened when we threw away the heart; we try to just get on with life, as if no calamity marked our very Origin, and so we make of our nice, pleasant, reasonable, lawful, life the most terrible lie. Play the Game by the Rules, and all is well, we say, trying to be happy, and trying to succeed, without any heart, as if we need no heart. That is a Tower built over a vast and gaping Pit– as I saw in a vision in my 20s. The Daemonic lightning will strike the Tower, bringing it crashing down, to reveal the Pit which it ‘covers over.’
One day, at Easter, Manuel Torre sang a ‘saeta’ to the Mother of God, bringing the centre of Seville to a grinding halt for two hours during the Easter celebrations. This was no interference. It was an earth-shattering eruption of the truest meaning of the Cross.
Gypsy Flamenco does not provide an Answer, but it presents us with the profundity of the Problem, and keeps us nailed there, through long hours. Just to be nailed to the strange point where the heart is lost and can be regained, crucified in that paradox, just to stay there and not move out of the crossing of roads, shatters us and strengthens us. It sobers us. It puts us close to the fire that consumes us as the devouring worm, and close to the Fire of Holiness which, alone, can make any dent on our situation. In this cauldron of fire, no Light of God, no Light of the Eastern Eros, can penetrate. No Light overcomes the evil lodged here. You cannot prematurely harmonize this place of destruction and resurrection. Even before the possible process of violent reversal, and breath-taking change, happens, you must just stay, stand in the fire pit, bear it in your kidneys. The Bible calls this staying with it, bearing it, enduring it, ‘patience’, but it is active patience.
Duende is our struggle with the Holy Fire meant to indwell, inspire, ‘drive’, the human heart. In Flamenco, the heart’s loss of True Fire is exposed; and this also exposes its sorrow and mourning over that — the only fully sincere repentance — and its struggle to be true to the edge where the tragedy bites, and remain there. There is no hope in restoration; that would be dishonest, premature, fabricated. Instead, there is the terrible dignity of simply suffering and fighting to hold again the ancient ground that, in the far past, humanity abandoned, giving it over to the evil spirit, and making it the place of abandonment, of forlornness, of no hope in God, or in humanity, or in oneself.
This is the killing ground deep in the human heart and at the core of the world. In duende, we reclaim the killing ground for humanity, and then, once we can hold our ground there whatever the assaults of evil, of shallowness, of lesser forces inner or outer, then we reclaim this killing ground for God. With us holding our ground in this place of dereliction and heroism, life is possible and death is possible, and the Daemonic God comes. First to fight us, as a commissioning of us to fight evil, and fight for the world. Then to fight with us, as the power that chastises us, and breaks us open, remakes us in a furnace so terrible and so austerely beautiful, even angels hide their all seeing eyes from its mystery.
You climb no ladder of altered, ever purer, states of consciousness. You stay put, and the fires burn, and you are burned to ashes and yet you begin to burn with the Fire that does not consume.
“If your knowledge of fire has been turned
To certainty by words alone,
Then seek to be cooked by the fire itself.
Don’t abide in borrowed certainty.
There is no real certainty until you burn;
If you wish for this, sit down in the fire.”
Something has changed in the Abyss beneath our feet, as we walk the dusty ground.
We are back on the killing ground. The evil spirit does not have it all his way anymore.
We have not triumphed in any final sense. Never the less we are back on holy ground, back on the killing ground, and that lays down a marker. It says, I am making my stand. I am not going to be pushed off this hard and hurtful place where I will suffer and fight to stand.
Anything more is in the hands of the Daemonic God, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God. When we fear the Daemonic more than the world, people, evil, we will have taken a further step.. There are many more steps on the killing ground.
After the Black Night, we are spent, and strangely re-empowered. We have regained honour, regained integrity, regained the capacity to make the heart’s vow.
We cannot prevail on the killing ground. None the less, when the Daemonic God comes, and at that moment we again stand on the rim of life and of death, we can vow our heart to his heart.
This is the start of the different life, the life in which the heart comes back.