Back in the old country, Walter Benjamin spoke of the Angel of History who watched the wreckage of progress accumulate before its very eyes. And while the ethereal angel would float incorporeally through time, caught in the storm of paradise, perhaps elsewhere there lived a material counterpart, a terrestrial Skeleton of bone and gristle, who would play about in the rubble, collapsing and opening topological space as they went.
An anthropophagic highwayman, the Skeleton could be heard riding on horseback into the villages, laughing maniacally, looking for sweet folk to devour. Wearing the innocent like a second skin, the Skeleton would make the villagers flail about in demonic rhythm, and after doing so, none of their old dances would ever feel quite the same again.
The Skeleton wears many faces and brings anarchy in its wake. Some call the Skeleton Mariana La Despaciada or Dick el Demasiado, while others know the Skeleton by the names Hygienica Gonzalez, Chancletamovil or even Virgen Vapor. I myself have known him as Cumbias lunáticas experimentos, or sometimes her as the infamous pedagogue of creole swing, Ana Maria Heredia. The number of names of the Skeleton is as infinite as the places that exist on this earth.
The Skeleton laughs at the temporality of the Angel, and also at the borders vaingloriously traced on the world by men. An inhabitant of the interstices, the Skeleton is a nomad, just as at home in the Netherlands, Guatemala and Argentina, as South Africa, France or Buñuel’s Spain.
When Columbus came to the New World they say that the Skeleton was there remembering the songs of The Empire, and when the African slaves were brought to the New World he was there too, singing the Guinean Cumbe and recounting the beats of the Yoruban god Obatala.
The Skeleton mocks the castes and rules of men. In the 1800s he was known as “El Gaiter”, and he would act as interpreter between the Africans and Natives of the New World. He taught the slave women to playfully wave their long skirts while holding a candle, and taught the slave men to wrap a red handkerchief around their necks and dance behind the women with one hand behind their back, while doffing their hats proudly with the other. This dance came to be known as the slave courtship ritual. The people would dance very near to each other with one leg always more agile than the other, marking the fact that they remained chained.
When the Spanish came, they brought their guitars. So the people gave them to the Skeleton to play in order to make ornate the songs they shared. This pleased the Skeleton and he thanked the people by boarding a passing German container vessel and crashing it into a rocky atoll, thus ensuring the ships cargo of squeezebox accordions would wash ashore the Colombian northwest coast, and so be added to the dance.
The Skeleton’s song, like him, travelled far and wide, and was passed down from Mother to Daughter. The people of the barrios remembered what the Skeleton taught them like it was a rascally secret. When the Argentine housemaids worked they would feel the song of the Skeleton in their own bones, and they would sing it to the people of the town. The maids would sing the Skeleton’s song even to a little Dutch boy, who found himself brought to the New World by the unknowable winds of the international consumer electronics trade.
It is said the Skeleton once visited the boy and taught him a secret. No one can be quite sure of this secret, but according to the great Carlos Amorales, it is a secret of a young maid who has just arrived in the city, directly from her family and from her town of birth, a short, slim girl, with straight hair and a slight gap in her front teeth.
The boy always remembered this lesson, and much like all those throughout the world who have had a Victorian train station built in their town, he learnt well that one should always “mind the gap”. For if there is a smile without a cat, the gap is what smiles at you after even that is gone. The gap is the placeholder of the fetish, the split that is the subject, the condition of all possibility, the nowhere from which we all sprang forth.
Some say the Skeleton is the custodian of the gap and that it is his task to always keep the gap wide open. On the one occasion I did meet the Skeleton he dismissed this conjecture as apocryphal legend, saying rather that if you know where to look that these “smiledoors” are everywhere, and through them one can take a shortcut to wherever they wish to go via a network of underground tunnels. As if to demonstrate, the Skeleton promptly disappeared, only to materialise in a time or place far beyond my reach and understanding.
Many years after meeting the Skeleton, the little Dutch boy found himself in the Honduras, a year after the great hurricane had destroyed the towns. The streets were still strewn all about with debris, and ruins remained everywhere. At the time of the hurricane all had seemed so chaotic and so imperilled. However now that the angry winds had subsided, the world just wanted to forget the unfortunate townspeople and to let the sea and sky take their dues.
Was this the real moment of danger, the moment when the cataclysm first seemed to have passed? And so it was at this very instant that the boy reached down into the wreckage (or was it the Skeleton? – it is so easy to forget) and pulled out a Cumbia at once strange and familiar, jarred but intact. Seizing hold of this future that never was, he made the people commit it to memory, to once again pass on, that mischievous secret of the barrios, the young girl, the housemaids and the slaves.
Words by Gavan Blau
Images, music and video by Dick El Demasiado (who is also the visual and media artist Dick Verdult, and is having a big show in Mexico City, Museum EL Chopo from 7 Dec—2 Mar 2014)