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The Essay
Show #436
Seņora del dolor
David Gunn

Ever since "Lady of Spain," the acknowledged Anthem of Accordionology, burst onto the musical scene in the early 1920s--some might say ruptured like a harmonically vile pustule--squeezebox aficionados the world over have wondered who, exactly, that Lady was. Speculation has ranged from Ladyfinger Landowska, the diminutive inventor of the oval sponge cake that would one day bear her name, to Blanche Burdock, the third woman of the eponymously titled painting of Fernand Léger. To learn the answer, we need to hitch a ride on Professor Warbler Hadley Blackmoor's tachyonic space-time ectoplasma defibrillator as he journeys back to 1922, to the chalky cliffs of Dover on the southeastern coast of England. Incongruously built into one of the caves at the base of the cliffs is the Zacatecas Cantina, a Mexican-themed public house that, no matter its isolated location, is often overflowing with patrons. But at this moment, the place is nearly empty. Two waitstaff in colorful serapes chat idly by the bar, their accents a nearly indecipherable blend of cockney and Spanish Main. The barkeep, clad in sombrero, bolero and kilt, is mixing up a precursor of a Jello Shooter for his lone patron, a woman sitting in a booth in the establishment's northeasternmost corner. On the wall directly above her hangs a huge portrait of King George V, the reigning monarch. It seems conventional enough from a distance--the King is depicted hovering piñata-like over Windsor Castle, with dozens of courtiers leaping up and trying to poke him with poles and sticks--but a closer encounter reveals that the goiter on his neck is animatronic. It pulses in response to alterations in either frequency modulation or traces of protactinium in the atmosphere. And the liver spots that cover his hands change color, like mood rings of half a century in the future. It is Dover's first multimedia work of art.

The front door opens and a man enters. He is carrying an accordion and wearing a "Mi nombre es Señor Evans" nametag. He vestibules as his eyes adjust from the bright outside light to the cantina's murky interior. His glance takes in the bar, the waitstaff, the King's portrait--though he is too far away to make out the suddenly aquamarine liver spots--and finally the woman in the booth. Dressed in bright red poncho and yellow knickerbockers, and with an adobe hat perched jauntily atop a mop of Medusæn curls, she is a knockout, briefly rendering him both speechless and unconscious. When he comes to, a waitperson is kneeling over him, applying to his forehead a cold compress of bitters and protactinium, causing the nearby goiter to virtually dance the fandango. The woman in the booth is gazing at him with a mixture of concern and queasiness, the latter a result of just having sampled the barkeep's experimental cocktail. Señor Evans gets to his feet, brushes from the accordion the little bits of ectoplasma that our out-of-time visit has left on the cantina floor, and strolls over to the northeasternmost booth.

He stares at her the way a dog-tired albatross in the middle of the South Pacific might gaze upon a barkentine's mizzinmast: with unbridled yearning. "Puedo sentarme abajo? May I sit down?" he asks in two of the three languages he knows.

"Jes," she answers Esperantically, somehow intuiting his third language. "Akordiono?" she queries, pointing to his instrument.

He beams, vigorously nodding his head, which shakes loose the final screw holding the steel plate in place. Strapping on the harness, he plays a succession of tone clusters. Overhead, George's liver spots morph to a golden pink.

The woman raises her cocktail in a gesture of mock appreciation, but some of the drink spills onto her head. Setting down the glass, she runs her fingers through her hair. Unselfconsciously, she pulls out a serpent and transfers it to the booth's parcel shelf above her head. But the snake is loath to leave its nest in the nether regions of her hair, and it slithers back to her. As she tries to ward it off, it attacks her, biting with a ferocity rarely seen in Zacatecas Cantina. The liver spots abruptly turn white in concert with her shrieks of anguish.

However the screams are music to Señor Evans' ears, and he immediately begins to vamp an accompaniment to her caterwauling. Frantically, the woman jumps up and staggers out of the establishment, the snake's jaws still firmly clamped down on her levator scapulæe. Meanwhile, the accordionist writes down the simple melody and chord pattern on a napkin, and the rest is almost but not quite history. The composition, originally entitled "Lady of Pain," is a huge flop. In those days, there was very little interest in overt sadomasochism, which the melody skillfully reflected. So he changed a dozen of the chords from minor to major, changed the name from "Señora del dolor" to "Señora de España," and then he had the hit that quickly led to the outbreak of accordionophobia that lasts to this day.

This day is the 436th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, a program normally loath to play "Lady of Spain," even when it serves to illustrate an important musical example, one ready and willing to be refuted by that champion of oft belittled instruments, Kalvos.