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“You have a voice, you understand style, but you’ll never ever succeed because you have no duende”, said the famous singer Manuel Torres. What did he mean?

By:  Thea Delavault
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Duende is a concept difficult to define. Duende is used to describe art, particularly Flamenco, and if something “has duende” it means it is a combination of special, authentic, charismatic, and magical, ie. “it has soul”. If a performance (musical or other) has duende it means it has succeeded. Duende is something instinctive, animal, dark and yet in touch with the divine. It is a struggle within the artist which creates true art. In the words of the spokesperson of duende, Federico Garcia Lorca, one of the few people who have examined its nature and who spoke of it regularly;

“All through Andalusia, from the rock of Jaén to the snail’s-shell of Cadiz, people constantly talk about the duende and recognise it wherever it appears with a fine instinct… Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that. Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’ So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation” (Lorca 1934 Theory and Play of the Duende).

So duende could be a form of genius, the genius of performance. It is as unreliable as it is indefinable, and it never warns you that it will come and bless a performance, a work, or a person. You cannot count on it or create it purposefully. You will probably experience it only after you have let go of any idea of perfection and found a certain emptiness of mind. The more you force it the harder it is to summon; it is a rebellious and free spirit that will not be confined, not even in a definition.

Álvarez Caballero (journalist and flamencologist) stated: “It seems there is an abundance of sloppy literature in which there are duendes here, there and everywhere, which brings with it the risk that we begin to believe that this is an everyday phenomenon within reach of any old singer in any old bar. And it’s just not so… Duende is something much deeper, and so hard to define that no one seems to be able to agree on a definition…” (Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado del Flamenco).

Fernando Quiñones describes possible side-effects of duende in a scene where Caracol and Chano Lobato perform together: “Driven crazy, one of the gypsies present bites down hard on the shoulder of a friend, who is himself so absorbed that he doesn´t even notice and seeks no apology. From that point on, he laughs a bit, cries, and screams in the patio. All of a sudden all the grace and pain merge and melt into the song, and there is no longer any way to distinguish them from the baroque, mounting repetitive sounds of clapping, stamping, and voices drunk on more than the Chiclanan wine in Ronda”.

Despite duende being a difficult concept to pin down with words, definitions include:

New Oxford English Dictionary
(De duen de casa, dueño de la casa)
1. A ghost, an evil spirit;
2. Inspiration, magic, fire.

Diccionario Espasa Concise: English-Spanish
1. Goblin, elf
2. Magic, charm: this dancer has a lot of charisma

Merriam-Webster´s Online dictionary
1. Spanish dialect, charm, from Spanish, ghost, goblin, probably from duen de casa, from dueño de casa, owner of a house.
2. The power to attract through personal magnetism and charm

Duende, a word you grow up with in Andalusia. A word that evokes magic. A word that does not translate well into other languages. Goblin. Gnome. Dwarf. Dark force. Black sound. None of them capture its´ pure essence. As a child duende “just was”, while today duende arouses all sorts of questions. What are its forms? Its roots? Does it exist in other cultures, and by what name? Does it have Arabic origins as some claim? Or gypsy ones? Is it Apolinic or Dionysiac? Or is it a form of genius? Duende of the west or duende of the east? A Chinese duende? My conclusion is to leave duende alone, because while it can be played and even grappled with, it cannot be defined.

Returning to Manuel Torres´s biting criticism above, the fact is that some people are capable of duende and others are not. The poet Joaquín Romero Murube laments at the “idiotic flamenco singers who believe that duende can be domesticated, who try to capture it with a movement of their jaw, some breaks in their rhythm, and some guttural spasms, and who are more like fat roosters than invisible duendes”. When someone has it they have all the things every artist aspires to. That extra inexplicable something: magnetism, authenticity, charisma, magic, power – all perfectly encapsulated in one word. Duende.


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1 comment

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El 9 April 2008 a las 2:13 PM, Lorenzo dijo...

Thea, me ha gustado mucho tu artículo, tiene duende. La ocasión más reciente que lo he experimentado, como espectador, claro, en el flamenco, fue el pasado fin de semana en Hay Festival. Enrique Morente y compañía en La Alhambra. Ese hombre es un tenor del cante, tiene un duende muy especial, hipnótico, sobrecogedor, un instinto inextricable de origen atómico, celular, el legado de los ancestros en sus genes, a través de una variedad perfecta de registros, que domina con la mesura de un monje, la belleza de una voz en estado puro, una explosión de endorfinas que pone del revés el hipotálamo y eriza la piel. Y es cierto eso de que el duende tiene ribetes negros, quizás por aquello del origen africano de todos nosotros. Por un instante, cuando Morente y sus palmeros se arrancaron un martinete al unísono, cerré los ojos y hubo un destello de gospel, de soul y música profundamente espiritual, un matiz sufí y otro tribal, de raza y tez muy morena, como llegada de una África gitana.

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