Emel Sherzad produces a radio program at KFAI in Minneapolis MN called Radio Duende and since he changed the name from International Jazz Conspiracy a few years ago I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around an understanding of duende. I’ve been listening to tracks from BALM! with various associates and friends on an array of sound systems trying to hear the record in different ways. When I listened with painter Emel the track Recipe For The Conjure was selected and right away the timbre of Katherine Pehrson’s voice stunned him, “who’s the vocalist?” he asked. Every time Kate’s voice broke through the music and poetry he’d ask again who she was and every time I’d give a little more information. I mention this because our primary topic of conversation that night was passages I shared with Emel from a book about the music of John Coltrane and the quality of duende in his sound.
Katherine’s voice in the context of our discussion broke through like an eighteen-wheeler on March ice in Lake Superior and created open water for the rest of the music and poetry on the album to flow in a similar artery. Donald Washington’s crying-man, laughing-man saxophone work is firmly in a tradition of ghosts challenging emotional and spiritual context and my own literary interpretations have been schooled by his commitment to remaining open to ancestor wailing. Tom Kanthak is a man who colors with blue, purple, burgundy and chocolate crayons no matter which instrument he plays; keyboards, hand sonic, flute or frame drum. The bass man Michael O’Brien played with such subtle brilliance on this project that nuance became a rumbling roar.
Whatever power this recording holds comes from a quality of duende living in it’s sound and rising from beneath our feet or above our heads. Immortal cries from long-suffering ancestors hold power too rich to ignore by any but the intentionally unconscious, the willfully unaware or the blissfully naive. This music and poetry represent generations of conjuring to relieve dis-ease from various forms of abuse such as torture, kidnapping, human trafficking, dispossession, enslavement and release without respiration, restoration or apology. We are healing and finding joy, we are searching through every note for an essential sound.
I appreciate duende through Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s dark creative force. Duende is present to challenge us to keep our ears open to ‘dark sounds,’ to remain connected with the earth and with ghosts of those who have gone on before, to never refuse struggle which is needed to keep spirits working on the side of truth and healing. Lorca says in a famous lecture titled The Theory and Function of the Duende: “These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art.” Lorca has called this quality duende: a slippery word that literally means ‘spirit’, and on a technical level refers to the granularity of the flamenco singer’s voice, a timbre ‘torn like a medieval weeper’.
In a thematic sense duende is also a lament for origins, an ache for loses never recovered. Above all, it is an abstract term: duende is what Nathaniel Mackey describes as a ‘reaching for another voice’, an eloquence of another order, a stretching to include that which exceeds technical skill, a striving toward a metaphysical and emotively powerful beyond.
Duke Ellington found a name for circumstances that inspire duende; a miasma produced by an oppressive culture is known as Transbluesency, defined as “A blue fog you can almost see through.” We live our lives in that fog. Imamu Amiri Baraka says in Funklore “That’s why our spirit make us the blues – we is ourselves the
blues.” Fred Moten, author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, called it “resistance of the object,” a conscious intention to resist as well as unconscious resistance to dominant cultural ways of being and knowing simply because they are values of an oppressive civilization. Resistance is not merely a particular set of survival skills but also a kind of balm for injury and deep harm, which results from chronic societal disease.
The way this music (and in my mind the words are also music) came together was like a rendition of an old Negro spiritual. I remember elders in our congregation in Huntsville Alabama would start moaning then hum into jagged harmony that sometimes found words and other times not. A pre-categorized free expression that synthesized inherited and found forms into ethereal meditation. The so-called “New Thing” which is what Black Arts Music is sometimes known as tended to be rooted in traditions of congregation singing, i.e.
a break from “jazz” forms of playing that had become formulaic. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston from The Sanctifies Church: “The harmony of the true spiritual is not regular. The dissonances are important and not to be ironed out by the trained musician. The various parts break in at any time. Falsetto often takes the place of regular voices for short periods. Keys change. Moreover, each singing of the piece is a new creation. The congregation is bound by no rules. No two times singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song not as a final thing, but as a mood. It won't be the same thing next Sunday.”
I advise the listener to practice hearing this recording that way; with ears mind and heart open to the “free” expression of it, without rules but in a noble tradition. We are bent on expression of feelings as well as sound effects, when the two come together at intersections where ghost gather things happen that no one is in
control of and that is where magic can occur.
- J. OTIS POWELL!
J. OTIS POWELL!: THERE IS A BALM IN MINNEAPOLIS
Actually, the notes J.Otis Powell wrote explaining this cd are hipper, I think, than anybody else could construct to lay out his poetic innards and outtards. His notes talk about Duende and Canto Jondo. I also got hip to Duende from Lorca. His Gypsy Ballads blew my whole mind at Howard University in the 50's, where I wd sit in my dormitory room in the now demolished Clarke Hall, in dark glasses and only one yellow light and read the poems aloud to myself, in Spanish and English.
Innocent dudes wandering into the room wanted to know could I see, “Uhuh” I would whisper figuring they cdn't dig the inner Duende that was lighting up my knot. That strange “Head Funk” both neurological and sensual, that sprung my intellectual aspirations like a trap door flashing open in your feelings.
J Otis, in this collection BALM!, wants to put you in touch with the lightning deepness (Canto Jondo) that lives from his feeling/brain/memory mouth, wearing our music like his skin. Try to get a bunch of people to dig this. The world needs to be hipper. This CD could help.
- AMIRI BARAKA, May 27, 2012 Decoration Day
TRU RUTS THANK YOUS
We want to thank everybody that assisted with this project. J. Otis Powell!. Tom Kanthak. Michael O’Brien. Katherine Pehrson. Donald Washington. E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage. Ben Durrant. Scott Radke. Karin Odell. Hipgnosis. The Baileys, The Cages, and The Sirleafs. David and Betty Klapper. Crazy Beast Studios. Copycats Media. Tru Ruts family and friends.
released December 18, 2012
BALM! - J. OTIS POWELL!
ONE - When It Matters
TWO - Eye Am Jazz
THREE - Autumn Dance
FOUR - Four (Afterlife)
FIVE - From Now On
SIX - Thirty-nine
a.k.a. Bruised Broken and Purple
SEVEN - Bottomless Love
EIGHT - Phloem
NINE - The Other’s World
TEN - Recipe for the Conjure
ELEVEN - Maturation
TWELVE - Pannonica
THIRTEEN - After the Fall
Executive Produced by e.g. bailey + Shá Cage
Produced by J. Otis Powell! · e.g. bailey · Ben Durrant
All poems written and performed by J. Otis Powell! Music composed, arranged and performed by Tom Kanthak, Michael O’Brien, Katherine Pehrson and Donald Washington.
Brought to you by Trú Rúts Endeavors: Harvesting the Tree of Life
All Songs Copyright © 2012 Tru Ruts Endeavors, Inc. All songs published by Verbal Reparations Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. International Copyright Secured.
Available on iTunes, Bandcamp, Napster, eMusic, Amazon + other download sites.
“Speakeasy Records” “Tru Ruts | Speakeasy Records” “Trú Rúts Endeavors” “Oni Management”, Speakeasy Records Logos, Trú Rúts Logos are trademarks of Trú Rúts Endeavors. © 2012 Tru Ruts | Speakeasy Records, P.O. Box 21305, Minneapolis, MN 55421. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.
J. Otis Powell! - Vocals (on Poetry) and Finger Snaps
Michael O’Brien - Electric and Acoustic Bass
Katherine Pehrson - Vocals and Violin
Tom Kanthak - Upright Piano, Roland Hand Sonic, Husului, Toy Piano, Rhodes Electronic Piano, Miscellaneous Percussion
Donald Washington - Tenor and baritone Saxophones, Clarinet, Flute, Gong, Thunder Sheet, Bells
Recorded at Crazy Beast Studio by Ben Durrant. Additional recording by Michael O’Brien at Sunnyside Studios.
Mastered by Scott Radke at Sonic Impact
Design: Venus Designs
Art Direction: J. Otis Powell!
Tru Ruts Endeavors
all rights reserved