Sunday 31 July 2016

Niño de Elche at Manchester Jazz Festival

El Niño de Elche has come to Manchester. This, according to De La Puríssima (Eva and I bumped into her in Tampopo last week), because a “visionary” at Instituto Cervantes recommended him (and De La Puríssima) to MJF programmer Steve Mead. This wouldn’t be the person from Instituto Cervantes who introduced the afternoon set by claiming that Elche was in Valencia. (“Alicante! Alicante! Elche is from Alicante,” corrected a voice in the audience from the seat next to mine.) 

Presumably in homage to the host city, Darío del Moral, the synth player (he later strapped on a bass), wore a t-shirt sporting Peter Saville’s monochrome art-work for Unknown Pleasures. We can argue about the play of dark and light forces in the music of el Niño de Elche, but there was a sense of occasion that no-one present will soon forget. The concert was both an exemplary exercise in catharsis and a brush with immortality. Most people were expecting the Gypsy Kings. 

An ominous drone that builds. Resonating guitar strings. The stocky figure of el Niño, already half sunk in trance, is swaying. Utterly mesmerising, and el Niño has yet to speak. He holds out a poetry book (Porción del Enemigo by Enrique Falcón, as el Niño later told Eva). What follows next is not a straightforward recitation, more like a call to prayer from a muezzin blessed with a golden voice. The hairs involuntarily rise on the back of my neck (Reem Kelani was the last singer to have this effect). Eva leans forward and offers a hasty translation: “Do not let your children play in the gardens of torturers.” 

(And now echoes of distant voices. The last words of M: “We should keep a closer watch on our children”; Kevin Coyne’s ‘In Silence’: “Don’t hurt them.”)   

It isn’t that el Niño de Elche sings protest songs, it’s more that he’s somehow receptive to the pain generated by evil acts throughout the world, and transmits the intensity and rage through the medium of a powerful voice trained in flamenco. Of course, the transmission of rage is what flamenco has always done, but this is duende on a cosmic scale. And because suffering has no words, so el Niño resorts to shrieks, gasps, moans and, finally, a sustained scream. His body is subject to a paroxysm of jerks, but his hand movements are graceful. This is telling, and somehow symbolic. He has something in common with Phil Minton, the great non-verbal articulator of the visceral, and, as we know, with Ian Curtis, who took the sins of the world on his skinny shoulders. 

But perhaps I’m not adequately conveying the charisma and humour of el Niño de Elche. One song, ‘Nadie’. – “Nobody knows me / Nobody has discovered me yet / Not even the artichoke of my shower” (this free translation comes from Eva) – has him chuckling away, taking the audience into his confidence and exposing the psychosis that lurks behind charisma and humour. In short, he’s a consummate actor as well. There was a comic note too, when Raúl Cantizano exchanged his axe for a Spanish guitar (at last, flamenco!) modified by two tiny fans whose whirling blades recreated flamenco’s rapid thrum by mechanical means. The song was ‘Canción de Corro del Niño Palestino’, where suffering quickly outstrips the power of words, and the laughter soon died.

I shall go and live in Madrid if only to hear again the passion and sincerity of el Niño’s performance. 

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