We are all just visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to grow, to love – and then we go home. – Aboriginal Proverb
Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is a collection of philosophical and anthropological meanderings quilted together by encounters with Aboriginals in Central Australia under the guidance of Arkady, a local expert originally from Russia. Bruce, the main character and narrator, explores human migration in parallel with his search for the etiology of his own restlessness. In one scene Bruce is in the British Museum library in London researching animal migration. He comes upon “the most spectacular of bird migrations: the flight of the Arctic tern, a bird which nests in the tundra; winters in Antarctic waters, and then flies back to the north.” Later, as he steps out into the street he sees a beggar rebuffed by a well-heeled gentleman and offers to buy the tramp lunch in exchange for the man’s travel stories. Over two generous helpings of steak, the tramp tells his life story, and then as they part, the tramp says: “It’s like the tides was pulling you along the highway. I’m like the Arctic tern, guv’nor. That’s a bird. A beautiful white bird what flies from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again.”
In the desert town of Alice Springs, Arkady tells Bruce that, unlike the creation myth in Genesis, aboriginal ancestors created themselves from clay in the Dreaming time. There are hundreds of thousands of ancestors, one for each species. Each scattered a trail of words and musical notes along these Dreaming-tracks – the Songlines, which became “both map and direction-finder. If you knew the song, you could always find your way.”
Jean “Django” Reinhardt (1910 – 1953) was a Belgium-born French guitarist. Django developed a fingering style to suit his injured fretting hand, mangled in an accidental fire that left him only two usable fingers in his left hand. Thousands still emulate his jazz guitar style and many more flock to Django festivals and workshops in over 30 countries. His music, a lugubrious but bodacious bounce, emanated from a soul who’d known suffering and displacement, with a heritage weighed down by years of oppression. A heritage of the road. Of exile. Django had been a descendant of Gypsies. Travelers. Roma roamers.
Django Reinhardt was famous for his blend of American jazz with traditional European and Roma music. Reinhardt’s father was also a musician, and his mother was a dancer (according to some reports). They were Manouches, or French gypsies, and they eventually settled in a caravan camp near Paris. Raised without any formal schooling, Reinhardt was practically illiterate.
Gypsies (Gitano, Tsigane, Rom, Roma, Romani) left India over a thousand years ago on what is believed to have been a forced migration, for reasons uncertain. As they travelled and settled foreign lands, they held on to their culture, and especially to their music and dance.
As a teenager, Reinhardt learned to play an instrument that was a hybrid of guitar and banjo. He was self-taught and never learned how to read or write music, always dependent on others to transcribe his compositions. He started playing popular French music in Paris clubs when he was twelve, but soon became interested in American jazz in the mid-1920s, especially the works of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Joe Venuti.
My four grandparents were Russian Jews. In 1905, thousands of Jews are killed in anti-Jewish riots in Western Russia (What was then called the Pale of Settlement: The archaic English term “pale” comes from the Latin palus – a stake, referring to demarcation of land enclosed within a fence or boundary.) My maternal great-grandfather, Asher Cucuy, finds out the Canadian government is offering 160 acres of prairie agricultural land for $10 in exchange for a commitment to work the land and build on it a home. This Canadian settlement project means to attract new immigrants to the western prairies. The plan provides an additional enticement of a further 160 acres for those who stay at least two years. And settlers who stay five years become the outright owners of the land. Asher’s life’s dream – to own his own farm in a free country – is now within sight, in a faraway land.
Asher leaves Russia, alone, and labours three years in the Canadian wilderness; sends money to the family back home in Russia for them to join him at the farm he builds in Oliver, Saskatchewan. The family lives in a mud house and tries to make a living from farming. But the chill and snow of prairie winters, crusty soil that refuses to yield to cultivators’ teeth, and the social isolation – from community but especially Jewish community – all contribute to a harsh life. So Asher and his family pack up and roam Canada working as salaried laborers or lessees of farms, engaging mainly in plowing, sowing, and threshing. For years they live in huts on wheels, carted around by horses. Five more children are born, and Asher’s family is now eleven souls to feed. Salvation comes from the East.
With the Balfour Declaration of 1917 expressing British support for a Jewish state in Palestine, as wells as growing prominence and financial health of the Jewish National Fund, Asher now looks to the biblical Jewish homeland of Zion.
When the first British high commissioner for Palestine arrives in Jerusalem in June 1920 he is met with a seventeen-gun salute and profuse words of welcome. Sir Herbert Samuel serves as high commissioner for five years, to the delight of Jews. For his part, Samuel is moved by the outpouring of emotion that greets him in Palestine. Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, he is keen to help resolve the Jewish problem.
On January 18, 1923, Herbert Samuel grants Asher Cucuy a 99-year lease over 420 acres near the mainly Arab city of Akko (an area called al-Rakayek in Arabic). Jews in those times rarely live outside the city’s walls (populated then by Arabs, of course), and the only building near Asher’s house is a match factory. They settle in. The younger children attend a Jewish school in Akko. But the water they have for irrigation is too salty and the family is forced again to find work in various menial labors nearby and also further afield.
On a vacation to visit family in Israel in the mid-eighties, we made a day trip to Akko. I walked around the old city not with a camera but with my cassette player. Akko is a city with a four thousand year-old port, ancient stone walls, mysterious passageways and tunnels, stone-paved alleys and houses of worship signifying its value to four religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Baha’i. I remember looking up at the rooftops of large stone houses that might have been a thousand years old with hundreds of television antennas aimed up to the blue sky like modern towers of Babel, alongside towering minarets with muezzins’ chants calling Muslims to prayer.
In Old Testament times Akko was part of Judaea, ruled by King David and King Solomon. As part of the land of Canaan, Akko was conquered by the Hebrew Tribe of Asher. The Romans came in 63 B.C.E. and Parthians from Persia invaded. Jesus walked here during Herod’s rule, and after the fall of the Second Temple, and the last stand at Masada in 73, the Jews dispersed.
In the 13th Century, Akko was captured by Crusaders from Europe and became the capital and stronghold of the Christian Crusader Kingdom. The Crusaders were ousted by Mamelukes, an army of warrior slaves, in 1291 and the Turkish Ottoman Empire fought its way in and controlled Akko from 1519 to 1919. In the 1800s, Baha’u’llah, a pillar of the Baha’i faith founded in Persia (Iran), was expelled to the Ottoman jail in Akko, and in the 1900s the British took control of Palestine after defeating the Turks. Palestinian Arabs resisted British rule and after Akko’s Arab revolt in 1939, Jews left the Old City and formed New Akko just beyond.
But perhaps the most interesting ancient visitor to Akko was Marco Polo, the world’s first great travel writer. In 1271, Marco Polo, then 17 years old, with his father and uncle, sailed from Venice to the city then known as Acre, and made it their point of departure to the East. They rode camels to the Persian port of Hormuz and continued on across the deserts and mountains of Asia, arriving at Kublai Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu three years after leaving Venice.
Soon, all of Asher Cucuy’s descendants make a home in Palestine, which in 1948 becomes the Jewish State of Israel, except for my grandmother Leah. Her husband Saul, whom she had married in Winnipeg in the 1920’s, prefers the relative comfort of Winnipeg to a pioneer’s austere life in Palestine’s wasteland. My mother is born in Winnipeg in 1932. And I am born in Winnipeg in 1955 (although conceived in Israel) after my mother leaves my father in Israel and comes to stay with her mother.
My Brooklyn-born father and Winnipeg-born mother meet in New Jersey at a Jewish youth movement agricultural prep camp. They become Zionist pioneers; settle and marry on a kibbutz in the Negev desert. On a clear day, from Kibbutz Urim, “lights” in Hebrew, you can gaze out to the West to Gaza and Egypt, 15 kilometers away, and maybe catch a glimpse of whitish blue that is the Eastern Mediterranean.
My mother named me Yitschak Shlomoh (Isaac Solomon). But when we return to Kibbutz Urim someone tags me with the nickname Tziki. I celebrate my first birthday on the kibbutz, and then when I am two or three my mother leaves my father again and the two of us shuttle around for a couple of years between friends and relatives, like vagabonds almost. After our peripatetic wandering, my mother and father reunite and we move to the city of Beer Sheva, where a sister arrives, and then a brother. But we’re not done traveling. The family makes two more cross-Atlantic moves Israel to Canada (where I become Siggy) and back (where I become Itzik), until I leave Israel for Canada on my own at 21, now adopting the name I use now. To fit in.
It was while living in Winnipeg in the late 80s that I first heard Roma music, over pizza at an Italian restaurant on Corydon Avenue. Winnipeg’s Little Italy is located on Corydon Avenue between Stafford Street on the west and Pembina Highway on the east. Nowadays, the term “Little Italy” is somewhat anachronistic, since several of the Italian restaurants have closed and non-Italian restaurants and shops have filled in the gaps.
I remember Corydon Avenue as a working class family neighbourhood, where I had once lived in a rented apartment for a year or so, and where, at the intersection of Corydon and Arbuthnot I found my first job in Canada after three years in the Israeli military. For six months I sold Filter Queen “Home sanitation systems,” the Cadillac of vacuum cleaners, on commission, earning a weekly pay check one Friday in July 1977 of 888 dollars. It would be another fifteen years before I would earn that much money in just one week.
At the restaurant on Corydon Avenue, I don’t remember who I was with that evening but I do remember excusing myself in the middle of our conversation to go and find out the name of the group performing the music streaming from the speakers, and that is when I first heard the Gipsy Kings. I’d never before heard music like it. I was entranced by an arresting barrage of four or five Spanish guitars and deep male harmonies, fast-tempo Spanish folk songs with mellow laments and love songs in the mix. A distinctive and exotic chromatic of emotion.
One song I remember distinctly is “Bamboleo”. The refrain says: “Bamboléo, Bamboléa, Porque mi vida yo la prefiero vivir asi” (Swaying, swaying, that’s how I prefer to live). Part of the song is an adaptation of a Venezuelan folk song called “Caballo Viejo,” composed by Simon Diaz. But “Bamboleo” is originally Brazilian and had been performed decades earlier by Carmen Miranda. Julio Iglesias, the Spanish singer-songwriter known for singing “the language of love,” performed it as “Caballo Viejo (Bamboleo)“.
Iglesias has Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side, referring to her in an interview as “de la Cueva y Perignat” (“of the cave”), which in Spain refers to people in hiding and is associated with Jewish people. Iglesias had studied law and had once been a professional soccer goalkeeper for Real Madrid Castilla, a career that came to an abrupt end when his spine was fractured in a car accident. He couldn’t walk for two years but when he was rehabilitating in hospital, a nurse gave him a guitar to keep him occupied. He taught himself how to play and discovered his musical talent.
The Gipsy Kings grew up in Arles, France in an idyllic countryside setting, among Roman ruins and immersed in the Roma culture, traveling around the south of France. From the festivals and weddings, to the dancing and the music, the Reyes and Baliardo children had grown up celebrating life and love through song. Their father, Jose Reyes, had been a renowned Flamenco singer, admired by the likes of John Steinbeck, Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis and Salvador Dali. In the 1970’s, the Reyes boys came together as Los Reyes, playing traditional Flamenco locally and performing with their father until his death.
The Reyes brothers kept up their music around the campfire and at parties and then one summer they made the traditional Roma pilgrimage to Saint Marie de la Mer Gitan, where they discovered the musical talents of their cousins, the Baliardos. After playing together around the fire, they quickly realized that there was magic in their musical mix, so they joined together to form the Gipsy Kings, bringing their uniquely boisterous Rumba Flamenco to Europe, and then to the world. And to me sitting in a pizza restaurant in Winnipeg.
Most of the world’s Roma live a more or less settled life in Europe. Some say when they first arrived 700 hundred years ago, people assumed their dark skin meant they were Turks or Egyptians. One legend claims they descended from 12,000 musicians gifted to the Persian king in the fifth century, and were sent away after the king grew tired of them. Linguists, though, figured out they must have come from the deserts of northwestern India, spreading in waves over many generations westward. First to the Balkans and Egypt; then to central Europe, France and eventually to Spain, where they settled in Andalucía and gave the world Flamenco.
In 1940, the Nazis occupy Paris and declare the Roma undesirable. Thousands of Roma die in concentration camps. Remarkably, Django Reinhardt is allowed to continue performing in Paris nightclubs, in the Nazis’ military entertainment playground. Reinhardt’s sadness over the occupation inspires his song Nuages (“clouds”). In 1953, Django Reinhardt, now a legendary guitar improviser, jams with Dizzie Gillespie. He records his final album while touring in the U.S. On May 16, Reinhardt dies of a massive stroke in Fontainebleau, France. Jazz aficionados consider Reinhardt the most prominent European performer to have influenced American jazz.
The migration of the Gypsies brings to mind the exodus of the Israelites. But the Israelites, enslaved by the pharaoh in Egypt, had a very powerful ally. With God’s help, they persuaded the pharaoh to let them go. A journey of forty years, with a thirty-eight year sojourn at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea in the Sinai, took them out of Egypt to the east; to Canaan, the Promised Land. To Gaza and the Negev desert, and eventually the kingdoms of Israel and Judea.
Dr. Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, and author of The Pariah Syndrome, tells me in an email that while there are several historic similarities between Jews and Gypsies, “the difference between these two peoples is that Jews are outsiders on the inside, while we are outsiders on the outside.” Jews are also a literate people, adds Dr. Hancock. “We are not. Jews have always had Israel, and in 1948 finally got it back. We forgot our roots in India, and we are only now rediscovering these roots, but not with any desire to return.”
Legend tells of persecuted Lazarus expelled to sea in a boat with his sisters Mary Magdalene and Martha, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobe and Maximin. Arriving in France, they were looked after by Saint Sarah, also known as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the Black) and in Romani Sara e Kali. Sara was known for her charitable work, which led people to believe she was a Roma, and ever since, Saint Sara has been the adopted patron saint of the Romani. To this day, Gypsies make an annual pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue, in southern France, in veneration of Saint Sara.
In France today, many Tsigane still travel in horse-drawn caravans; possessions onboard, always on the move. If they do settle, word soon gets out and locals come and persuade them to move on. And they move on, like the migrating starlings in the sky. If you come to see your Tsigane friends, and find them gone, you can follow their tracks by finding the string-bound clumps of wildflowers they leave behind along the road they’ve traveled.
Today I’ve nowhere to go and no one is chasing me, but like the Wandering Jew who taunted Jesus, cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming, I am a homeless fool. Legend from the 17th century gave the name Ahasver to the Wandering Jew, adapted perhaps from Achashverosh, the Persian king in the Book of Esther, who some believe was a benevolent king, but he had actually been wicked from the very beginning to the very end.
Carl Gustav Jung had something to say on the psychological aspects of Ahasver, the eternal wanderer. Perhaps the most striking and controversial concept in Jungian theory involves the archetype; part of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. One archetype, for example, is the “shadow,” the dark or negative side of the human psyche. The idea that the Wandering Jew might be related to biblical Cain and other wandering figures in various cultures was suggested by Jung himself in an essay first published in 1912. Jung even offered a solar interpretation of the legend of the Wandering Jew. He claims “the wish-fulfillment idea of the legend is very clear. The mystic material for it is the immutable model of the Sun’s course. The Sun sets periodically, but does not die.”
In contrast, other scholars suggest the Wandering Jew can be associated with the waxing and waning of the moon. Both the moon and the wanderer seem to be dying, and, yet, they are both always rejuvenated. An old Ukrainian text, for example, tells the story. Every four weeks the moon is reborn, and, with that, the Jews who crucified Christ and kept watch over the Lord’s tomb in Jerusalem are also reborn. These Jews are still standing there, and when they are asked by passers-by, “When were you born?” they answer, “Yesterday.” “When will you die?” “Tomorrow.”
In a Galician story of the Wandering Jew linked with the moon, from the 1880s, when the Romans were taking him to be crucified, Christ, with the heavy cross on his back, wanted to lean awhile against a Jew’s house to rest, but the Jew cried: “Go hence! Go hence!” Christ turned to the Jew and said: “I shall go, but you too must go, and roam the earth until the Last Judgment.” That Jew is still wandering. But it is hard to recognize him, because when the moon is old he is very, very old, and when the moon is young he turns young again.
Jung’s comments on the Wandering Jew aren’t limited to his solar interpretation. In an essay on Wotan (another name for the archetype of the wanderer) published in 1936, Jung describes Wotan as a wanderer who creates restlessness and stirs up strife, or engages in works of magic. Christians change Wotan into the devil, one who lives on in local tradition as a ghostly hunter and appears with his retinue on stormy nights.
But the role of the restless wanderer, says Jung, was taken over in the Middle Ages by Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, which is actually not a Jewish legend at all, but a Christian legend. Jung proposes that the motif of the wanderer, who has not accepted Christ, was projected onto the Jews, “just as we always rediscover our own psychic contents, which have become unconscious, in other people.”
Other scholars suggest that the Jewish people, collectively, and individually if they live in the Diaspora, carry inside themselves an Ahasverian base structure; that the myth of Ahasver reflects Jewish character traits expressed by an inner restlessness and drive to move. The cause of this inner turmoil and restlessness can be attributed to the inner conflict between the originally nomadic and later sedentary way of life of the Jewish people in their exodus from Egypt and their subsequent arrival in the land of Canaan.
Astonishingly, with this perspective, we could see in the Jewish people collectively, but also in every single Jew, a tendency toward nomadism, a life in a foreign country and among a foreign population. Jews could be said to live in continuous inner conflict between two mutually opposing tendencies. On the one hand is the tendency towards assimilation, integration, and identification with “the foreigners.” But, this leads to the denial of the characteristic Jewish nature.
On the other hand, the ancient drive toward nomadism leads towards an escape from sedentarization. In this sense, the soul of the Jew who lives in the Diaspora struggles with the conflict between longing for the lost homeland and self-denial in a foreign land. And in this struggle, Ahasverian destiny prevails in the end. The Jew is forced to wander from within.
I’ve finally identified that mysterious arresting quality in the music of the Romani. It’s what the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called duende. Duende embraces both light and shadow. Perhaps I am bedazzled by Flamenco because it is infused with the dark sorrow of loss as it exposes my inner struggle of not being able to choose between my lost native land and never feeling quite at home anywhere else.
Duende or tener duende (“having duende”) means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with Flamenco. The musical term was derived from the duende, a fairy or goblin-like creature in Spanish mythology. El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a visceral response. It chills while it excites; brings laughter as well as tears.
The music and dance of Flamenco express an authenticity that comes from a people whose culture is enriched by Diaspora hardship and sorrows. Drawing on popular usage and Spanish folklore, Federico García Lorca first developed the aesthetics of duende in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1933, La Teoria y Juego del Duende – The Theory and Play of the Duende. Lorca says:
“All through Andalusia . . . people speak constantly of duende, and recognize it with unfailing instinct when it appears. The wonderful Flamenco singer El Lebrijano said: ‘When I sing with duende, no one can equal me.’ . . . Manuel Torres, a man with more culture in his veins than anybody I have known, when listening to Falla play his own ‘Nocturno del Genaralife,’ made his splendid pronouncement: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there is no greater truth. Thus duende is a power and not a behavior; it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”
Just after the turn of the millennium, on my two-year round-the-world backpacking quest to find a small community to live in harmony with nature, I visited the ecovillage of Tamera in the dusty south of Portugal. After a week of encounters with eco-types from all over the world, but mainly Germans, a week that had included two one and only experiences for me, one of which was helping to construct a concrete bio-composting toilet house and the second an almost threesome with a thirty-something woman from Austria and a Swiss man my age (I was the squeamish one), I hitched to the station and took the train to Seville.
I’d seen the Tony Gatlif film Latcho Drom in Vancouver a couple of years earlier, and I’d had it in my heart to witness Flamenco up close, although it wasn’t until much later that I came to know Lorca’s notion of the duende. In Seville the hostel manager recommended a local tapas bar for authentic Flamenco.
On a hot August evening I walked the stone alleys through the Tablao Huelva and past the Plaza del Salvador. About twenty people sat casually at small round tables sipping cerveza and munching on appetizers, waiting expectantly for the show to begin. The restaurant, small and modestly decorated, made me feel welcome, and I presumed by the sounds of voices and accents that most of the people were Spanish. A painting of an older black-haired Flamenco queen hung on the wall and candles flickered on a fireplace hearth. At the back, three sturdy wooden chairs sat empty.
When the musicians arrive, everything goes quiet. Two young men and a woman in her thirties or forties, all dressed in sharp-looking greys and blacks. It is the guitar player who sends us on our journey, flinging an avalanche of chords with powerful right-hand fingers as his left-hand fingers nimbly slide across the fretboard. In the middle sits the singer, the canto. But the singing itself is called quejillo, which means “to complain,” though I hear it as a lamentation.
Quejillo cries out against one’s fate in a raging, roiling plea aimed at once at the gods and at men. The canto starts as the guitar’s accompanist but gradually asserts herself more and more. She clenches her fists to her heaving chest, bellowed cries engulfing the room and beyond. Her face grimaces in pain; eyes closed. Her soul stands there naked before us.
Just then the third of the group comes in with staccato handclaps, called palmas, a vigorous and steady rap-rap-rap; then the singer, raising her own hands, joins in, clapping in syncopation with the first. The guitar player stops and listens for a moment, then pounds his instrument with even greater fervour as they all march on to an astounding climax.
Lorca’s duende was born of the Gypsy tradition of the “Deep Song,” a predecessor to Flamenco. He had stayed in New York in 1930, and he’d been influenced by American jazz, blues, and spirituals, leading him to hone his notion of the “dark sounds” and their relationship to life and art. Lorca said everything that has black sounds in it has duende, what he calls an emotional darkness, a mysterious energy we sense but can’t explain. It is the spirit of the earth, bringing radical change and “feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” All arts can express duende, says Lorca, but it manifests most fully in music and dance, “for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.” Like the moon and the sun.
Dr. Hancock thinks an oppressed people need their own nation state. But I wonder who we should admire more, the Jewish people, with their obstinate determination to return to Zion by resettling Palestine, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” (except for the Palestinian inhabitants), or the Romani people, not seeking a state of their own. Wanting only to live free of oppression.
Oh, do not mistake the sadness of my face.
It is the sister of joy.
Oh, do not mistake the lunacy of my heart.
It is the source of my pain.
- from an old Roma song
Jimi Hendrix played electric guitar like Django Reinhardt played the acoustic jazz guitar; both infused with the spirit of Lorca’s duende. Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942 and given the name Johnny Allen, but his father later changed that to James Marshall. Friends and family called him Buster, and later a fellow musician gave him the name Jimi. Jimi was In London in 1970, working on the album Cry of Love, when one night he swallowed too many sleeping pills and died choking on his own vomit. “Drifting” is Jimi’s lament. Jimi, two guitars, gentle drums. Reminds me of the soft whoosh of the sea, the tides, the moon, and the sun:
on a sea of forgotten teardrops.
On a lifeboat
on a sea of old heartbreaks.
On a lifeboat