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Duende essay

Date: Wed, 27 Sep 1995 10:25:19 -0400

From: Brook Zern

(This long post -- something I wrote long ago -- is intended to address the question of whether cante jondo is fundamentally a Gypsy creation, or is instead something which existed in Spain and was simply conserved and elaborated upon by the Gypsies. I believe cante jondo is a unique creation of the Spanish Gypsies, and since there is no documentary proof of this, it seems necessary to rely on intrinsic evidence. Perhaps the most compelling evidence is also the most elusive: the idea of duende, an aspect of performance which I regard as unique to a very few Gypsy artists.)


GHOST STORY -- Brook Zern

"Years ago, during a flamenco dance contest in Jerez, an old woman of eighty, competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists as supple as water, carried off the prize by simply raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping the platform with a single blow of her heel; but in that gathering of muses and angels, of beautiful forms and lovely smiles, the dying duende triumphed as it had to, dragging the rusted blades of its wings along the ground. -- F. Garcia Lorca


The people in Spain who know the most about the duende will tell you that it cannot be described or defined. But they're all a bunch of mystics anyway. We all know that a red-blooded, straight-thinking American with a healthy dollop of Yankee ingenuity can do darn near anything, so let's get started.


Now and then you find the word duende right there in black and white, in Spanish newspapers or books. A bullfight critic will say that a matador had duende, or a book on flamenco will talk about the duende of a singer. So far, so good. Now if you look it up in a dictionary, you'll find that duende means ghost or specter. That's not so good, since it doesn't make sense. But perhaps it's just a matter of confusion in the context. Maybe it doesn't really mean ghost, but spirit. Surely a lot of flamenco artists and bullfighters have spirit -- after all, they'd hardly be worth watching if they didn't. So duende must be a romantic word for spirit or inspiration.

Except for one thing: It is used only in reference to a few individuals, and always the same ones. And those few who are linked to the duende are not necessarily regarded as the foremost exponents of their arts, while others held in universal esteem may be praised again and again, without any need to use the peculiar word.


Let's get down to cases. Antonio Ordonez was the greatest matador of recent times. He proved it regularly, displaying an inspired classical brilliance which no other torero could even dream of matching. His courage, consistency and sense of honor (termed "pundonor") illuminated his profession. Curro Romero, on the other hand, is a "sinverguenza" -- a "shameless coward", according to the dictionary, a "chickenshit" in more idiomatic translation. Actually, that's a pretty charitable word to apply to someone who behaves as he does in a bullring. On any given afternoon, Romero will be found cowering behind the wooden barrera. He is either hiding from the bull or, after his vile assassination of it, dodging the expletives and the seat cushions which rain down from the packed stands.


Yes, the stands are packed. Because aficionados realize that Curro Romero is one bullfighter -- and in fact the only bullfighter of our time -- who is a vehicle for the duende. Because once a year, and twice if he is having a great season, Romero changes. In the process, he simply redefines the parameters of the art and its possibilities. He does things that cannot be done. Such transcendental bullfighting precipitates a total suspension of disbelief -- no, a total suspension of practically everything. Some witnesses are simply frozen in their seats, smiling beatifically. Others may break down and cry uncontrollably, sometimes joining hands with weeping strangers on either side of them.


An observer unfamiliar with the special dynamics of the situation might try to apply terms such as mass hypnosis or mass hysteria. And confronted with the spectacle of thousands of people who simultaneously lose contact with the normal world and undergo a psychic transport to God-knows-where, that's a most reassuring explanation. But that analysis tends to confuse cause and effect. Just what was it that triggered this startling reaction? Obviously, it had to be the performance -- a performance which differs qualitatively from even the most superb work of other artists. I think the explanation of that difference may possibly be found in its different, more direct, conveyance of art to audience.


In this view, the link which is missing from the normal chain of transmission is the individual artist himself. 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 cognizant of the normal boundaries of artistic expression; these limitations are transcended not through enormous effort, but unwittingly, as if they simply did not exist. Both Ordonez and Romero at their respective peaks work with consummate artistry and purity, but there remains the inescapable realization that the two men work on separate planes. A great fight by Ordonez is seen and experienced; it is always memorable.


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