Sal's flamenco soapbox

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Duende essay

Today these three forms -- the barren and desolate Tonás, the shattered, death-obsessed Siguiriyas and the longing Soleá -- are collectively known as cante jondo or deep song. And while they can be performed by outstanding non-Gypsy flamenco singers such as the enormously knowledgeable and conscientious singer called Fosforito (here culturally equivalent to Ordonez in the bullfight) this is not the definitive rendition. To truly understand this music, one must listen to the handful of difficult, mercurial and seemingly haunted Gypsy singers who carry the blessing and the curse of the duende.


To experience cante jondo as it pours from the dark singer Antonio Nunez "El Chocolate" or the equally enigmatic Agujetas can be more than a revelation. It can be a phenomenon of searing beauty. When these performers connect, it becomes clear that the duende is an aspect or extension of the unconscious; not that of the singers themselves, it seems, but of their people.


When the psyche is invaded by the duende, it transforms the artist into a surrogate -- one who can speak for the victims. And it seems that these indispensable artist-creators are not involved in any normal creative act. Instead, they are functioning as human receiver/transmitters, establishing a communicative link between the normal frame of events and the echoes of the dead. And the dictionary, it seems, is right after all: The bullfighter and the singer really do have "ghost". If this disturbingly literal translation is accepted, further analysis becomes possible. The duende is not the creation of an individual artist; if anything, the reverse is true -- the individual is simply serving as its host. While in our experience an inspired performer projects a unique personality through art, a Gypsy seeking to summon the duende can only contribute to the process by peeling away the strata of individuality. The objective is fusion with a performing principle.



Such a conception may be a survival of the ancient Indian world-view which posits denial of specific selfhood or individual personality as the only path to union with a great universal consciousness. The impulse to subsume oneself to a universal self would thus be an aspect of the Gypsies' ethnic heritage. The duende presents a unique instance of possession as part of a non-religious ritual, possession in the service of secular art. The rigid and inviolable structure of the bullfight, as well as the seance-like situation of the traditional flamenco gathering, seem specifically designed to contain the lightning bolt if and when it strikes. While both arts can be rendered well and even brilliantly without it, the duende is the key to the vital role of the Gypsy in each. And -- in case it is not yet evident -- death is inextricably intertwined with the duende. Death lies at the center of the corrida. Death lies at the heart of deep flamenco song.


But the subject of these arts is not death: It is life in the face of death -- the continuing struggle for existence and dignity within the context of impending, inevitable death. This is the difference -- the difference between the duende and the mere inspiration that infuses a great performance of opera, or ballet, or all the other plastic arts which, irrespective of their pretensions, can be termed entertainments. They are scripted, scored, choreographed, rehearsed. They are inanimate arts, which a great performer must bring to life. But the bullfight and flamenco are animate; they are alive. There is no need to bring them to life. The equation changes, and a different kind of exchange becomes possible. The carriers of the duende have learned to make a deal. They have learned to strip away their personalities; to cease to exist.


They are willing to die -- temporarily, of course -- as a sacrifice. And this is offered in exchange for a special kind of life -- the fresh and new-born quality that can only result through the intercession of the duende. Yes, it exists. It resonates at the core of deep song and of the bullfight, lying in wait, seeking the moment when equilibrium is lost and it can emerge to shred the fabric of our familiar time and our familiar reality. It is the duende -- so hard to find, so crystalline to experience, so difficult to speak of, so absurd to try to analyze. -- Brook Zern


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