A las cinco de la tarde. Over and over again. That‘s how it went. A las cinco de la tarde. It was the time when Ignacio Sanchez Mejias died — that time, that afternoon frozen in words by the pen of Federico Garcia Lorca.
I remember because it’s the line that helped me learn to speak Spanish, Castilian Spanish, the Spanish of regal dons, blood sausage and long afternoon naps. The Spanish of the lisp. The c of cinco was more th, your pursed tongue moving out from behind your front teeth and coming to rest in exhaled, airy wetness under their bottom ridge. The icy whistle of the English c moistened into a flaccid splash.
A las cinco de la tarde. August 11, 1934. Mejias, a renowned Sevillian bullfighter, is gored to death by the horns of a bull named Granadino. Lorca, a close friend of Mejias, turned the time of his death into the refrain of a play built on poems, Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. Lorca was classically Spanish like that, a writer obsessed with the tragedy and lyricism of beautiful, violent death.
I don‘t want his face to be covered with handkerchiefs. I want him to get used to the death he carries.
Lorca’s relationship to death isn‘t about flight or fear; it’s about the sensuality of death‘s inevitable arrival, the poetry of that which we cannot avoid. Even the sea dies.
Lorca repeats a las cinco de la tarde so that the moment of death is etched into our minds, so that we hear the proud, grieving lisp of cinco, cinco, cinco like a memorial echo. When the great flamenco singer Vicente Pradal delivers the line in a very unflamenco setting (over piano and saxophone) on the newly available live recording of his 1998 production of Llanto, it sounds remarkably just like that, like a llanto, a deep, aching cry, a moan by the living in the name of the dead.
Mejias is dead — muerto para siempre — and the task of the Spanish poet and the Spanish singer is to turn that death into lyric, into a transcendent song that joins the lone mourner to a community of sorrow shrouded in generations of black. I sing of his elegance in words that moan, and I remember a sad breeze among the olive trees.
Pradal sings of Mejias with the tense duality Lorca intended, as both an expulsion of grief and a documentary statement laced with matter-of-fact resignation and astonishing exactitude. At exactly five in the afternoon. Pradal sings it so that forgetting is an impossibility, so that we will always remember the hour of this one solitary death, the precise hour of a precise afternoon.
The songs on Llanto are so soaked in blood that they approximate its sound. Pradal knows that blood flows everywhere in Lorca’s writing: the blood of Mejias, the blood of a wedding, the blood of Harlem blacks spilled like the blood of Andalusian Gypsies. Lorca wrote from blood as if blood had a point of view, as if blood saw the world through its own redness and wetness.
There is less blood on Lorca, a wider-angled musical tribute to the poet by another great flamenco singer, Enrique Morente. Less blood and more quejando. In Spanish, queja means something like complaint, but with Lorca queja is really more of a lament, an emotional protest that starts deep down in the body. Queja implies its own sound, the throaty wail of the soul‘s complaint that Morente’s liquid rasp channels into fluttering song — the deep song of the dark south, the cante jondo.
Ay, como quejaba quejaba. Morente crafts Lorca‘s line from Yerma into a chorus of ache on the song “Fandangos.” And we have no choice but to get it, to make one woman’s protest over her barren destiny into a protest of our own against the circumstances of a life determined by the anguish of fate.
Instead of being tied to a single work, Morente‘s Lorca is a sweeping, almost grand meditation on Lorca as the bard of Andalusia, the voice of a region, the poet of a particular people — the Gypsies whose romance for life is made invisible by the romance of the Spanish crown, the heartbroken miners who see through the eyes of lovers who suddenly leave them. There are hearts purple with loss and hearts bathed in the erotic perfume of absence.
Even though Morente never sings a las cinco de la tarde, I still hear it in his voice. His queja brings all of Lorca’s quejas back to life. Just as the lisp of cinco marks the death of a man who dared life in front of hundreds of spectators hungry to face their own death, Morente‘s voice has a dangerous spectacle of its own. As listeners, we face the tragedy of our own solitude by losing ourselves in the tragedy of his song.
The heart left alone. Ay, ay, de mi.