Sal's flamenco soapbox

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Niccolo Paganini

Nicolo PaganiniTo take a well known example in classical music, the legendary violinist and master showman Niccolo Paganini (1782 - 1840), was believed by many to possess superhuman abilities on the violin."His flamboyant indulgences gave rise to stories of his being in league with the devil. "The devil was at his elbow" was the claim made to explain his technical prowess at the violin. Someone even swore that he saw the devil directing Paganini's arm and guiding the bow. As a result, his burial in consecrated ground was actually delayed for 5 years."
From "an inktroduction" by Ong Yong Hui and Chia Han-Leon


Duende is not a geographical phenomenon

To some purists and academics, it's not good enough to simply be a gypsy to deliver good flamenco; you also have to be from Andalucia. This is a little too self-conscious and ego based to be a serious threat to the truth of the matter. Did I mention self-righteous? Does this mean that a flamenco "foreigner" is incapable of producing the right atmospheric chemistry to excite and enchant through the mysterious alchemy of Duende?


This common myth imposes unfair territorial rights on what is really a tangible manifestation of un-self conscious intuition and human passion. It didn't't matter to me that the Beatles were from Liverpool. Who said good rock n roll had to come from America anyway? I supposed many people believed that myth at the time. It was how the Beatles music made you "feel" that changed the pop music landscape forever. Much the same as it is with with flamenco songs, I didn't even care if I understood what they were singing about. If we are emotionally moved enough, we all possess the ability to translate an intangible sensation such as Duende into something you could almost reach out and touch. The magic may be tragically brief and fleeting, but at the time you are likely to be too lost in a hypnotic state to be objectively asking if this person is a Spanish gypsy or not. Like the hazy, timeless state between wakefulness and sleep, the analytical part of the brain has taken a short holiday while the rest of the brain enjoys the freedom of floating in a nowhere land without borders.


To illustrate my point, almost every critic and major book on flamenco unkindly dismisses Manitas de Plata on the basis that he misses a beat now and then and is not always true to traditional compás "rules". The between the lines implication, as I see it, is that apart from being located in France, he is also out of touch with tradition. So be warned. If you play flamenco outside of Spain, or were not born in Spain, your credibility is automatically in doubt and the traditionalist bullies will eventually corner you in the schoolyard and poke their tongue out at you. But the fact remains that his music appeals to a great many more people than some of the lesser known (and more traditional) guitarists of Andalucia. In his recordings he is able to generate a kind of un-self conscious energy that was easy to get drawn into emotionally. One could argue that all you need is good manager to make it big time. But does a manager have the power to force record store customers to keep buying an artist's recordings 30 or 40 years after they were recorded? No, of course not. Does it have something to do with Duende? Could be!


The way I see it, if you've got what it takes, there will always be people out there who can appreciate good flamenco without the extra baggage of ego-based ideologies to intellectually modify the nature of what reaches the ear or the heart. Sabicas, Mario Escudero, Juan Serrano, Carlos Montoya and many others did alright in America, didn't they? What about Paco Peña and Juan Martin who are based in England? At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what the purists and the critics think. When you next see a purist sprouting their nonsense, gently put your hand over their mouth to shut them up and then give them a big hug. That's all they really need. 


Angels are no fun on stage

With the exception of a spiritually uplifting performance in a Catholic church, or at a religious festival, the expectation of a public stage performance is one of excitement and wild abandon. The audience demands passion. Part of the appeal of flamenco after all, is the wild, almost diabolical wantonness, which can be observed when this fiery inner demon is released. Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) described it as "a mysterious indefinable power summoned up by the black sounds of flamenco". A friend of Lorca's, the guitarist Manolo de Huelva (1892-1976), had a slightly different view. He described it in terms that implied that he didn't believe a word of it. In fact, the word on the street is that Lorca created the concept of the demonic goblin which some like to associate with Duende.


Well! So what? The intellectual description of Duende may have come from Garcia Lorca, but the essence of what it is (or is not) does not belong to the Spanish. Neither did Beatlemania belong to the English. In my opinion, Garcia Lorca can only be credited with popularizing a concept which has existed in all human cultures since Adam had a full set of ribs. 


Summing up

I believe Duende is part of the fabric of human nature and expresses itself in different ways. Access to it is normally denied due to practiced social graces and our natural inhibitions. Having a self conscious and shy nature is not an asset in flamenco. But sometimes a few drinks and some encouragement can momentarily change all that. One night I was performing in a restaurant with some gypsies in the audience. One of them came up to me and offered me a glass of wine. He said it was all part of the tradition and will make me play better.


What he meant was that in a traditional party atmosphere at home, everyone plays a part and takes turns to play, sing and dance. And of course, everyone is making merry as the evening wears on. In this environment, there is no separation between performer and audience. They have all come together as family and friends with the purpose of enjoying themselves and becoming involved. Furthermore, you do not have to be in a gypsy cave dwelling in Granada to feel the effects of Duende. A isolated hovel in Mongolia or a seedy bar in downtown Tokyo will do. If the magic is there, a mystical invocation will occur automatically without prompting and Duende is sure to make a special appearance .



The heart doesn't understand ego or borders because these concepts are alien to it's "vocabulary". It doesn't think. It only understands and absorbs the right-brain "language" of feeling and this language is common to all. How's that for a piece of soggy tissue, New Age reasoning. You can disagree if you want but that's one way to look at it. Hands up those who are adventurous enough to travel a little further down that path? OK. Take three deeps breaths, turn inwards and let the color violet wash over you. Now I don't think the metaphysics of it can be adequately explained, but if you have a bent for such things, here goes. In a temporary state of trance, which is what Duende is, the soul consciousness temporarily leaves the body and visits it's timeless homeworld, taking you (your physical consciousness) with it. On your return seconds later, you will know and remember what real magic felt like and feel sad because it's gone now. Whatever Duende is or isn't, it remains an important, almost sacred element to those who feel passionately about flamenco.


Visitor Comments


29 July 2009

I think the word 'duende' is shrouded in mystery because people haven't a word for it in their own language. It's only an inspiration - a bullfighter can get the duende when he is really scared of a certain bull and go on to fight that bull brilliantly. The duende took many a horsemen into battle - it's a very powerful feeling. Unfortunately,the nearest some ever get to experiencing it are those who take drugs to get 'high'. I'm sure President Obama has duende.
Dorina from Andalucia

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