Diego Bermúdez is not a name that immediately comes to mind in association with the creative life of the poet Federico García Lorca, but under his nickname, el Tenazas (Plyers/Pincers), you might recognise him as the surprising winner of the 1922 Cante Jondo Competition organised primarily under the auspices of musician Manuel de Falla, supported by a handful of Granada’s cultural elite, Lorca included, of course.
For Manuel de Falla, the cante jondo and in particular the siguiriya was the outstanding form of contemporary popular musical expression that had kept its purity over centuries and had its roots in the ancient traditions that the gypsies had brought with them from their origins on the Asian continent.
Diego Bermúdez, el Tenazas , el Tenazas de Morón, had helped keep this tradition alive, largely thanks to his friendship with and admiration for the cantaor Silverio Franconetti, recognised as one of the historic greats of flamenco music and who merits a vignette in Lorca’s poem Poema del cante jondo, inspired by the Competition. Franconetti is reckoned to have rescued from oblivion some of the finest primitive forms of gypsy song.
Lorca speculates in his “Portrait of Silverio Franconetti” on how the “dense honey” of his Italian ancestry might have blended with the Andalusian lemon in his rendering of the “deep song”. People who knew him said their hair stood on end and mirrors shattered at the sound of his heart-rending cry. For Lorca, his music, once so definitive and pure, represented the last echoes of that fading tradition.
Diego Bermúdez was, then, one of the few performers to have first-hand experience of this old style of flamenco, to which his own clear and powerful voice would prove that it could still lend an unexpected intensity. One might say that these were, indeed, the last echoes of that legendary music of an almost bygone age.
He was born in Morón de la Frontera (Sevilla), in 1852(?) and died, in dire circumstances, in spite of the recognition his prize must have given him, in Puente Genil (Córdoba) in 1933, where he was already living at the time of the Competition in 1922. He was born into a rural, practically peasant environment, but at the age of 25 he gave up working the land to dedicate himself to his singing, making a name for himself as an entertainer at public and private parties and gatherings throughout Sevilla y Cádiz.
Although Lorca wrote his poem and his talk about the cante jondo before the competition itself, we may say that El Tenazas’ voice fulfilled to perfection the essence of the Deep Song as understood by Falla and his like-minded peers. The gypsy siguiriya, said Lorca in that talk (Arquitectura del cante jondo) starts with a heart-rending cry: “A cry which splits the landscape into two ideal hemispheres. Then the voice stops and gives way to an impressive and measured silence.” This is given poetic expression in Poema de la siguiriya gitana, from which I quote, selectively:
“The ellipse of a cry goes from hilltop to hilltop. From the olive trees, it will be a black rainbow against the blue night. - Oh! - Like a viola bow, the cry has made the long strings of the wind vibrate” ...
[La elipse de un grito,/va de monte/a monte. De los olivos,/será un arco iris negro/sobre la noche azul.//¡Ay!// Como un arco de viola,/el grito ha hecho vibrar/largas cuerdas de viento.]
... while the “ondulating silence” that follows is a silence in which valleys and echoes slip and slide and by which heads are bowed towards the ground.
[donde resbalan valles y ecos/y que inclinen las frentes/hacia el suelo.]
This contextualisation gives us some idea of the wonder and awe El Tenazas’ voice suscitated in the hearts and minds of the Competition’s organizers, as described by Manuel Orozco Díaz in his Figuras en la Granada de Lorca: What started in a murmur ended in the tremendous heart-shattering, violent and brutal cry that made them all shiver with that a rare thrill of authenticity and succumb to the emotion of the performer’s powerful spell.
With his training in the school of the honoured and acclaimed Silverio Franconetti, El Tenazas must have fancied his chances in the Competition, because he set off to walk the 100-odd kilometres between Puente Genil and Granada to take part. That he needed the money need hardly be added.
What appealed to Falla here was the musical purity of the traditional form that he felt had been devalued by the degenerate milieu that had enveloped the cante, where the proud tradition of “our old popular songs” had been reduced to little more than pub sing-songs, easy listening, and somewhat ridiculous in the minds of the majority of people.
But what the purist Falla found hard to accept was that this milieu become to a certain extent part and parcel of the gypsy flamenco performance. Orozco says that while Falla delighted in El Tenazas singing, he found the vulgarity and obscenity of much of his conversation hard to stomach. He also quotes the violoncellist Segismundo Romero as confiding in him, saying: “You understand now, Manolo, Falla’s regret with Amor Brujo, don’t you? He seems to imply that Falla re-wrote this work as a more classically orchestral piece, distilling it of its more low-life Andalusian folk elements, removing the possibly banal dialogue and reducing the flamenco-like vocals from the first version, dissatisfied as he was with its gypsy orientation and storyline, with its more blatantly cantaora voice.
Lorca was more at home with the expressions of unbridled passions, as likely as not to end in a knife fight, that was the stuff of flamenco, as can be seen in sections of the Poema: Puñal and Sorpresa from Poema de la soleá to give two examples. This was less a part of the tradition that attracted de Falla.
El Tenazas, it seems, was no stranger to the world of gang fights or family feuds and himself received a life-threatening knife wound that pierced his lung and affected his ability to perform. Yet this handicap was also a sort of asset in the context of “deep song”. For deep song was the expression of the life experience of its performers and its audiences which the now 70-year-old singer gave free reign to at the Cante Jondo Competition, casting his spell on his appreciative audience, reducing them to tears of compassion and emotion. El Tenazas’ performance , we can imagine, was the net product of a lifetime’s experience of poverty, hardship, marginalisation and oppression that at last found an outlet.
Falla, the old ascetic, and Lorca, the young hedonist, had a lot in common as well as a great deal of respect for each other’s artistic endeavours, but at the same time their contrasting character and lifestyle were the cause a fair amount of friction between them. Their differing outlook comes to light here in their approach to the cante jondo, perhaps for the first but not for the last time.