Graphic by Steven L. Fornal

By Elle McKenzie

"DUENDE IS A POWER and not a behaviour, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say, 'Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet'. Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action." -- Federico Garcia Lorca.

It is midnight, and the Naraimar bar has suddenly filled like a fast-forward film scene. It is a bar used almost exclusively by Spanish locals and a mixture of Colombians, Venezuelans and Ecuadorians who have returned to the country of their colonisers, working to send money back home to their families.

The bar is rather dark and dreary with only a pool table and a TV constantly tuned to Spanish football relieving the gloom. The centre of the room is filled with some flimsy tables and chairs that most days and nights stay unused, the men preferring to stand at the bar with their San Miguel in hand, chatting with the bartenders. It could be a bar in San Antonio, Texas rather than one in San Pedro, Malaga. It has little to commend it visually, but you will get a warm welcome and endless, free bowls of warm popcorn.

Women are noticeably absent, unless accompanied by a man, but tonight is an exception. Women have appeared in groups, dressed as only they know how here, which is to say, tight and revealing. Regarded as vulgar by many northern countries, it looks more like a celebration of the body from my seat at a table near the door, facing the stage on the far side of the long room. The men stare at them. There are no covert glances here, or in the street. When a Spanish man looks at you, he takes his time and he never hides the fact you are the object of his attention. This is machismo; a part of Hispano-American culture, which is a subversion of the spirit of ancient struggles experienced by people such as the Gypsies (Gitanos) and Celts, and which lies at the heart of the drama of their histories, revealed down the years through songs, music and poetry.

The bar is so full there is barely room for the musicians to make their way through to the low stage. One guitarist has long, black curly hair, a golden earring, a white shirt half open to reveal his olive-skinned chest. It is hard to know whether he is a genuine "gitano" or very practised at looking like one for the tourists. Whichever, it is the women's turn to stare. While they set up the microphones, a large woman slowly makes her way to the front. She must be about ready to give birth, but she holds herself as though unaware she carries any extra weight. She steps onto the stage, sits on a chair, her legs apart and after tossing her long, black hair over her shoulders, she places a hand on each leg, a posture of pride and defiance. Unlike the dressed-up women in the audience, she looks as though she has come straight from her kitchen to this stage. It is clear though that she knows her appearance is unimportant to everyone there, it is her voice they want. She is the "cantaora", a singer of flamenco. From a back room, a slim girl appears and sits near the edge of the stage. From her dress, her shoes and fan, it is apparent she is the "bailaora", the dancer.

The audience wants the performance to start and the tension is palpable. The guitarist picks up his instrument. He plays a few notes; the flavour as always is minor, the keys that awaken the duende. The cantaora throws her head back even more and lets out a mighty wailing sound that either comes from inside her or from some other world. It is not a world away from the sound of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer, Pakistani Q'awwali singers or Irish Sean Nos.

She sings, and even without understanding the words, it is clear she is telling a tale of pain, struggle, love, passions and grief. It does not really matter what she is singing about, all that matters are the sounds coming out of her mouth. She raises her hands and cups them together to make "palmas", the rhythmic clapping that is so intricate it seems to have no rhythm. Little by little the audience joins her. Still seated, her body is heaving up the sounds from within. The audience is warming up, allowing the sounds to seep into their own bodies. Suddenly she stops and there are cries of ¡Ole! around the room. She smiles, and throwing her head back she starts again. The atmosphere is infused with anticipation, a need for her to travel further into the depths of the song and draw up its blood and guts.

Suddenly the dancer walks to the centre of the stage. She arches her back and raises one arm over her head, in her other hand she unfolds her fan and gazes at the audience over the top of it. She moves slowly at first giving the audience time to absorb her movements. The guitarist picks up her rhythm and follows her. She stamps her feet, and moves her arms fluidly through a succession of positions it is almost impossible to follow. Her body is rigid, spring-loaded, and her feet stamp a rhythm into the floor that must surely waken any ancient slumbering spirit in the bowels of the earth. She whirls and stamps, faster and faster. It does not matter how good or bad she is technically, all that matters is that the audience is with her, experiencing a dark, mysterious primeval energy that contains a knowledge of where we came from and all that we might be, and which has risen through the voice of the singer and the dancer's feet. For a moment we are all connected in a collective memory that is charged with sex beyond our knowledge of it, and at the same time is indefinable, as are we in that moment. This is duende.

The Story of Curro Romero

Another arena where duende is sometimes experienced is that of the bullring. The encounter between man and bull is balanced on a drama between Death and Eros. As with flamenco, technical ability is not the source of duende, it is the sacrifice of the performer's, or the matador's ego to the collective memory that manifests it.

Curro Romero is a matador who exemplifies this. Oddly, Romero is considered "sinverguenza" (a shameless coward). During most of his performances he hides from the bull while the crowd shouts insults at him. Yet, wherever he fights, the stands are packed. This is because aficionados know that Curro Romero is a vehicle for duende. Once or twice a year he gives a performance that is transcendental. He does things that cannot be done. The audience are frozen in their seats, some weep uncontrollably, some just smile. Is it mass hypnosis or mass hysteria, when thousands of people simultaneously lose contact with the world as it appeared to be a few moments before?

Observers, like Brook Zern, in his essay on Duende describe Romero as being "possessed."

"When Curro Romero has his annual moment (actually about eight to ten minutes, of which only two or three are spent in the vicinity of the bull's horns) it is not because he has suddenly become courageous. It is because he is possessed. He is literally not himself. His personality has been evacuated, and the void has been filled with some utterly distinct entity. This whatever-it-is which acts through the vessel of Romero is not cognisant of the normal boundaries of artistic expression; these limitations are transcended not through enormous effort, but unwittingly, as if they simply did not exist." Brook Zern – Duende Essay

Thus, as he goes on to say, the specific fight that the audience is watching becomes more than a unique fight, but all bullfights wrapped up into one, in which the audience is "abstracted, quintessential, symbolic," a part of the whole drama. A Spanish journalist writing for El Ruedo headlined his report of a Romero fight, "Romero Stops the Clock" to emphasise the timeless quality of the experience, of the brief transportation into an awareness of all time and no time. Another likened it to the sense of time experienced during a car crash. Hemingway was trying to convey a similar sense of performance through his character El Cagancho in Death in the Afternoon, a book, which despite Hemingway's machismo tendency, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the bullfight and why it endures.

A Longing For the Land

Lorca writes in In Search of Duende: "All through Andalusia…people speak constantly of duende and recognise it with unfailing instinct when it happens."

The experience of duende is of course not confined to Andalusia, although there are some who say that not only do you have to be Andalusian to manifest duende, you have to be an Andalusian gypsy. There is no doubt that Andalusian gypsies once had sacred rituals out of which flamenco emerged as a dramatic form. This little discussed aspect of Andalusian gypsy history would seem to point to an understanding of duende deriving from an earth religion.

The Celts are another race that has an understanding of duende, and, significantly, they were present on the Iberian peninsula before the Romans arrived. They have left their own legacy in the music, food and perhaps even in Spain's emotional culture, which is thought of as Mediterranean, but which history could not support as being exclusively so given the diversity of cultures that have formed the country, Islam being possibly the most important.

For the Welsh, the concept is "hiraeth" which is an intense longing of the soul for home and a feeling of connection to a place other than where you are. Often this is interpreted as a longing for Wales, but there is a sense in which it is not that specific, it simply means The Land. An anonymous Welsh poem captures it:

For there to go my heart does yearn
The hiraeth in my heart
How it makes my soul slowburn
My land and I apart.

The Irish term is "draoicht" from which Druid is derived. This word more specifically refers to magic, specifically to its connection with earth religions. At site , writer Jesse VanDermoak offers a translation of the word: "Draoicht is the name of our pathway and its mysteries are our truth. Draoicht is a gathering beyond time and place to the home of our spirits. It is our beginning and our never ending."

What hiraeth or draoicht are not is some form of sentimental attachment to country, although it can appear to be expressed as such, as a visit to many an Irish bar anywhere in the world may lead you to believe. However, beyond the "kitschness of sentimentality" as Milan Kundera calls it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being there are many songs and poems both ancient and modern that express this longing at a deeper level. They burrow under the skin, where hooking into the cell memories of pre-history they take the audience back along a timeline of shared tragedies, of Diaspora and exile, to the days before the legends of gods and goddesses started.

In short, some works and performances evoke the transpersonal. Think of Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, of Pablo Neruda and Leonard Cohen. Lorca tells us to look or the "dark sounds" in the words, the notes, the dance, for this is what stirs up duende. "These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art."

The Last Word On Duende

Duende, or whatever word you want to give to this mystery of performance, is not guaranteed, making it something we search for like the Holy Grail. Not every artist, no matter how talented, can manifest it. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that perfection will prevent it from appearing. In performance, the artist must surrender the ego and become a living vessel through which the spirit of duende is channelled. It is only through the surrender of perfection then that all present may experience the pure essence of oneness.

The last description of duende must be Lorca's who sought to understand it and in doing so, describe where art can transport itself, and us, beyond a form and into the mystery of life:

"As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, La Niña de los Peines leaped to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or colour, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the 'lucumí' rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Bárbara.

"La Niña de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing. It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni." The Play and Theory of Duende -- Federico Garcia Lorca.

Coming out of the Naraimar , I can hear singing from the Irish bar next door. Only a wall separates them. I stand outside listening, knowing that the song is one of loss, anger, pain and death. I don't go in. I don't need to. I have already been there tonight.++


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