Sal's flamenco soapbox

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Duende essay

Because of his incomparable technique and the craftsmanship which structures his art, the critics often fall back on a pet phrase that says Ordonez "offered a majestic lesson in bullfighting". From Curro Romero, there is no lesson; nothing can be learned. Imitation is unthinkable. But his performance dilates the mind's eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable. It is assimilated directly into the recesses of of the psyche, at normally inaccessible levels where one might expect to encounter such fundamental elements as early trauma. When Romero is under the control of the duende, specifics fall away; the matador, the bull, the ring and the crowd are no longer concrete entities of the particular moment. They become abstracted, quintessential, symbolic of the respective components of the art. It is no longer a bullfight, but "The Bullfight" -- all of them, it seems, rolled into one and summed up in a single moment.


If you've seen this one, you've seen them all. There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal, and this is characterized by a remarkable time-distortion effect which is frequent in nightmares but otherwise quite rare. Ernest Hemingway observed this phenomenon some sixty years ago, when he wrote in Death in the Afternoon about a bullfighter called Cagancho, "Cagancho is a Gypsy, subject to fits of cowardice, altogether without integrity, who violates all the rules, written and unwritten, for the conduct of a matador." But then he went on to mention those infrequent occasions when Cagancho "can do things which all bullfighters do in a way they have never been done before and sometimes, standing absolutely still and with his feet still, planted as though he were a tree, with all the elegance and grace that

Gypsies have and of which all other elegance and grace is just an imitation, moves the cape spread full as the pulling jib of a yacht so slowly that the art of bullfighting, which is only kept from being one of the major arts because it is impermanent, in the arrogant slowness of his veronicas becomes, for the seeming moments that they endure, permanent."


A friend of mine, emerging shaken from Seville's bullring after Curro Romero's last great triumph there in 1966, put it less eloquently: "Time moved like that for me once before -- when I was in a crashing car." And the taurine critic for El Ruedo, describing Romero's 1973 fight in Granada, headlined his piece "Romero Stops the Clock". A funny thing: Like Cagancho, and like Rafael "El Gallo" who also displayed the syndrome, Curro Romero is a Gypsy. And stranger still -- so are all of the flamenco artists who sometimes incarnate the duende. They are not prone to inspiration, which enables an artist to focus his personal technique and work at maximum capacity.


They are instead stripped of their own volition and character and placed at the disposal of forces which defy present comprehension. Spaniards, hardly immune to a certain chauvinism, nonetheless seem content to leave duende to the Gypsies. They will gladly pay good money just to be present where it might break through, but they are not inclined to attribute the duende to non-Gypsy performers. They suspect it's hardly a coincidence that bullfighting and flamenco -- the only arts to which the term is traditionally applied -- are also the only traditional means of expression for Spain's Gypsies. And they seem to feel that the roots of the duende are to be found in the historical experience of these strange intruders. The Gypsies apparently left their homeland in Northern India in several waves. One major westward migration, possibly triggered by the invasion of Tamerlane's legions -- occurred around 1400.


The subsequent struggle of the Gypsies to survive in Europe is epic, and Hitler's extermination of more than half a million of them was just one extreme example of the genocidal forces arrayed against them since their arrival -- including, most recently, semi-official pogroms in much of central Europe. In Spain, which they entered from France in the mid-1400's, the Gypsies faced a cruelly prolonged ordeal. For three centuries beginning around 1500, the Gypsies were targets of a brutal barrage of edicts designed to eradicate their way of life. The country which had spawned the Inquisition to destroy its brilliant citizenry of Jewish and Moorish origin was hardly inclined to tolerate the Gypsies' animistic religious ideas, occasional thievery, apparent indolence, spiritualist hokum and fortune-telling, and lascivious tendencies toward dancing and song. These dark-skinned, inferior aliens were not only different -- they also had the gall to be proud of it.


They did not consider themselves equal to other people, but better -- better, even, than Spaniards. And during generations of jailings, enslavement in the galleys, random executions and terror raids through the ghettoes which entrapped them, they clung to this conviction while continuing their passive resistance. The Spaniards sealed the Gypsies in. The Gypsies sealed the Spaniards out. By the time the oppression eased in the Nineteenth Century, the Gypsies of sourthern Spain had been permanently scarred; illiterate, they had documented their anguish in a strange kind of song. Now three great song forms -- regarded by most scholars as the crux of flamenco -- contain the fearful record of what happened to the Gypsy in Spain. Stark and unornamented, rendered in a murky and damaged voice, with strangely twisted melodic lines that can extend to agonizing length, these songs are the bitter legacy of a heroic attempt to defend a unique identity.


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