From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY JASON WEBSTER
In the two and a half years that these articles have been appearing in Classical Guitar, one subject has been mentioned in passing on several occasions, but never dealt with specifically. It is, however, essential to any understanding of flamenco—and the whole of flamenco, not just the art of the tocaor. Such is its importance that without it one could say there is no flamenco to begin with, and so I intend to address it here.
Duende is a complex and subtle concept, so much so that whole books could be written on it (in fact, your correspondent had a stab at it himself some years back). Despite lying at the very heart of flamenco, any definition of it can only ever hope to be an approximation, for duende has to be experienced to be understood and appreciated. To borrow a term from Sufism, “He who tastes, knows.”
Look the word up in a dictionary and it will tell you that the Spanish “duende” means “goblin” or “earth spirit” in English. That gives us a clue, for the duende experience exists outside ordinary reality. In a flamenco context, it encapsulates the moment in a performance when, inexplicably, your hair stands on end, something disturbing and magnificent seems to stir in your blood, and you have the sense of possibility—a whisper, only partially heard—of the existence of worlds beyond worlds.
The feeling may be fleeting, gone almost as soon as it is registered. Or it may be sustained for a considerable period. But how long it lasts is of relatively small importance for, in essence, it exists outside of time itself, and a single, concentrated point of a duende experience may take years to digest, can—and frequently does—cause significant change in people’s lives.
Flamenco is not the only vehicle for duende: In a Spanish context you may also, on occasion, hear the word used in the world of bullfighting. Yet, it is with flamenco that it has become more closely associated, the very strangeness of Andalusian sounds and rhythms hinting at realms of experience which lie beyond ordinary ken. Certain performers have been closely associated with it: The great cantaor of the late-20th century, Camarón de la Isla, was said to have an almost unique ability to produce duende at will. This is no idle claim, for the majority of flamenco artists will talk about duende as something akin to a gift, a quality which, with a will of its own, can come and go, can bless a performance with its presence, just as soon as it vanishes again. All that the musicians and dancers can do is provide a setting, the right circumstances, for it to manifest.
The most powerful duende experiences can be had during live flamenco acts, but personally one of my earliest was listening to La Niña de los Peines—a giant of the mid-20th century—singing a Lorquiana, a song with lyrics by the Granadan poet Federico García Lorca. I practically wore the vinyl out playing the same track again and again, such was the impact it had on me and the curious, intoxicating nature of the feeling it evoked.
Lorca himself tried to explain duende to non-Spanish audiences: “All that has black sounds has duende,” he wrote in 1933, and went on to describe how a Gypsy woman he knew had exclaimed on hearing Bach for the first time that the German composer’s music also had duende.
Lorca was, of course, later murdered outside Granada shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and has become not only a symbol of the bloody repression that took place at that time, but a revered figure within flamenco. Something of the nature of the man and his work—his brilliance, intuitive power, poetic talent and also his tragic end—carry with them hints of duende itself. For duende can be as disturbing as it is vivifying, can speak as much of “distance” as of “presence.” I have seen men rip their shirts open with near madness and grief because of it, while others sat in total silence, motionless, heads bowed as though in communion.
Duende is one of most powerful, but also most personal, experiences that anyone can have. Which is why it can never be defined. It can speak of joy, grief, ecstasy, emptiness, solitude, oneness—all manner of feelings, often several at once. Much depends on the vessel into which it is poured.
Its existence, whether perceived or not, goes a long way to explaining the perennial attraction to—and not infrequent rejection of—flamenco within many different people all over the world.
And for a performer—a guitarist, singer or dancer—is there a correct way to approach duende? Perhaps by not trying to “approach” it at all. Duende exists, but is rarely spoken about among flamencos, treated almost as something sacred, to be treated with respect.
“You cup your hands,” one elderly cantaora once told me. “If it rains, you may catch water. But only the sky can make it rain.”
Then she jabbed her finger hard into the center of my chest.
“The question is, if it comes, do you deserve it?”