Nostalgia for Duende

Only three weeks have passed since I left Spain and I already feel nostalgic for the cries that echo off hill tops and the notes that weave through alleyways.

I’m sitting at a cozy cafe tucked away on quiet Bainbridge Island where, apart from the fact that it’s a cafe, there is little here to remind me of Spain. A couple of older bearded men are picking guitars outside. They have a kind of folksy, blue-grass sound but a certain minor chord provokes a memory of last semester. The sound of Flamenco, even just one chord, sends my mind zooming back to Spain as fast as Jesse McCartney throws me back to middle school.

I’ve never learned to play Flamenco but the chords are easy enough to recognize if you hear them daily for five months, which, in Granada, is hard to avoid. Whether background music in a cafe or performed live in a plaza, Flamenco permeates the streets of Andalucía. It echoes off hilltops and seeps through cracks in thousand-year-old buildings. There’s a fervor to it, which, to be quite honest, is so forceful that it kind of stresses me out. Flamenco is the antithesis to my quiet island cafe where I sip jasmine green tea and stare at a beige wall. Flamenco is never beige, I think. It must always be red.

I saw my first Flamenco show on a program trip to Sevilla, one of the most important cities in the art’s development. One hundred and twenty of us crowded into a small theater for an intimate espectaculo (spectacle or show), where we were faced with a row of four empty wooden chairs.

When the performers emerged I was struck by their informalities: smiles and laughs, a pat on the back. While one or two dancers stood, others remained seated, blurring the line between performer and spectator. Casual but energetic exchanges continued throughout the show with claps, stomps and yells of “¡Olé!” — a word that, despite its constant appearance on t-shirts and postcards, felt authentic in the moment.

It was precisely this lack of formalities that made Flamenco so spectacular. The emotion was raw. My heart beat fast as my eyes fixated on the hands of the guitarist and the mesmerizing swirl of colorful skirts contrasted with the hard and fast stomp of black, shiny shoes. One woman danced so hard she launched her hairclip into the audience and a man spun so fast the sweat from his hair flew off and hit me in the face. This would have been gross if I wasn’t so impressed by the way his feet were moving faster than I could think. It didn’t matter that he left the stage to get water partway through the show: this just meant that there was no doubt he had given it his all.

Flamenco builds up the way a good symphony does. The guitarist tiptoes across the neck of the guitar, playing so fast I have goose bumps and am on the edge of my seat, sweating. It’s suspenseful, sometimes ominous, and I almost jump when he breaks into a bold, loud strum. Flamenco is known for provoking this kind of emotion, channeling a power called duende.

Before launching into a grander analysis, Wikipedia “loosely” defines duende as “having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity.”

I first came across the term in a book by Guardian journalist Giles Tremlett called Ghosts of Spain. Tremlett devotes a chapter to Flamenco in which he speaks about its origins  among the Romani people. The story of Flamenco is disputed: the oldest record of the art dates back to the 1740s, but Tremlett believes it to have evolved slowly, combining elements from the Muslim and Jewish populations present on the Iberian peninsula during the pre-modern period.  Tremlett recounts traveling to what is known to be one of Sevilla’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Las Tres Mil Viviendas (The Three Thousand Homes), where, he writes, much of Sevilla’s Romani population was sent to in the 1970s after being displaced by a flood from their former home on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Las Tres Mil Viviendas is also the birth site of many Flamenco stars. Tremlett refers to the neighborhood as Sevilla’s “beating, musical heart.”

Before investigating Flamenco Tremlett claims he had never fully felt the emotion that the music is supposed to provoke, never sensed the famed duende. In fact, it isn’t until Tremlett attends a Flamenco competition in Granada’s jail° that he finally experiences the music’s true magic. Reading this made me wonder if what I had witnessed in Sevilla was particularly impressive Flamenco, or if my taste simply isn’t quite as refined as Tremlett’s. Given the knowledge of our program director, though, I am tempted to believe the former.

While Wikipedia’s definition of Duende may serve as a jumping off point, it no where near conveys the full meaning of the word. In 1933, renowned Spanish poet and Granada native Federico García Lorca delivered a speech called “Play and Theory of Duende,” which is so artfully written that I’m almost afraid to discuss it.

Duende, writes Lorca, is “the mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.”* Duende is what sends chills through our bodies, what makes us clench our fists and gasp, momentarily forgetting where we are, or how we got there.

Lorca states that the artist must struggle with duende. It comes from deep within and “delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit.” Being on the edge is important, as the concept of duende deals with moments of death and birth, and is thus best expressed through dance and song, where living creatures participate, “since they have forms that are born and die, perpetually, and raise their contours above the precise present.” Flamenco is a deep recognition of the danger and wonder of life.

In order to truly grasp Lorca I would need to grapple with the text for much longer. Like Tremlett, Lorca mentions that many people who watch Flamenco, or another art for that matter, do not truly experience duende. According to Lorca, some artists deceive onlookers into believing they posses duende, when, in reality, this is only a facade.

I’m still unsure of whether or not I witnessed duende during my time in Spain. A high school teacher once recounted the words of her dad to my graduating class: he claimed that the music of a violin is impossible to fully appreciate until one is older, that a certain sadness must be felt before some notes can be heard. I wonder if this applies to Flamenco. Could the sounds of Andalucía grow even richer later in life? I suppose I’ll have to return to find out.

°For a number of years, a Flamenco competition existed between prisoners in various locations in Spain. Tremlett attended a final competition featuring performers from 12 prisons. The winner of the competition generally received a monetary award along with a recording contract. The first ever competition included an early exit from jail, amongst other prizes.

*English translation by A.S. Kline

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