Cante jondo or hondo (deep song) is a medium almost as inaccessible for the Spaniard outside (even sometimes inside) the southwestern province of Andalusia as it is for the foreigner. Indeed, the basic musical terms flamenco and cante flamenco did not enter the official Spanish dictionary until the edition of 1925; hondo not until 1936. In 1961, Webster officially introduced to American English the words flamenco and cante hondo or jondo. Conversely, the proper Andalusian form, jondo, surfaces in the Spanish dictionary only in 1992! Other basic flamenco terms are still absent even there: cantaor, -a (the singer) and tablao (the “stage” set and group of performers), for example. For now, let us make do with the brief definitions from the Spanish dictionary; cante flamenco: “Gypsy-influenced Andalusian song”; cante hondo, jondo: “the most genuine Andalusian, of profound sentiment.”
Timothy Mitchell takes an approach that is “multidisciplinary” and “scientific in the broad sense of the term,” adding that his “overall ambition is to consolidate and give impetus to the drastic reorientation of flamenco studies that has just begun” (pp. 1-4). His lenses are primarily historical and sociological, secondarily musicological, and he uses them generally in a shifting, eclectic blend. A few chapter titles illustrate: “Deep Song Sociology: An Overview” (3), “Traumatic Ethnogenesis in Spain” (4), “Missing Links in the Evolution of Flamenco” (5), “Deep Song as Psychodrama” (9). Footnotes are generous and excellent. This book is decidedly not for the neophyte, but even the excellent synthesis of flamenco and cante jondo by Ann Livermore (A Short History of Spanish Music, 1972, pp. 164-72) can be rough going for the uninitiated. The reader first must clearly understand that the lyrics of cante jondo are in “heavy” dialect—words and pronunciation. The average northern Spaniard is frequently unable to understand very much. Where does that leave the foreigner, even when possessed of fluent aural command of standard Spanish?
The author discusses many aspects and themes of deep song lyrics but only rarely reproduces them in the original or in translation. His conclusion that “the flamenco style is not only about trauma but about the quest to recover from trauma . . . about taking pain, expressing it, playing with it, and possibly working through it” is accurate and well stated (p. 227). Three brief items would have enhanced this book as a reference tool: a selected bibliography; a short list, with capsule biographies, of the major cante jondo singers; and a highly selective discography.
With no intention of detracting from this work, it must be noted that one is always left “on the outside” even in the best of written studies on any type of music meant to be apprehended musically—that is, in live performances or even through recordings. We must accept that fact and witness the music itself and learn its dialect if we are truly to “understand.” In this regard, Louis Armstrong’s legendary reply when asked to define the blues remains authoritative: “Man, if ya gotta ask, y’ain’t neva gonna know!”
Nevertheless, Mitchell’s book is one of the most elucidating accounts of cante jondo in English that I have seen.