Lessons and info for the nylon string guitarist


“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.”(Brook Zern) Duende essay

The magic elf
Variously defined as ghost, specter or goblin, the word ‘Duende’ could also be interpreted as the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm. In flamenco, this word is used to describe the trance like fixation, or haunting feeling one may experience while enjoying a flamenco performance.

What is Duende?
Duende is an inner spirit, which is released as a result of a performer’s intense emotional involvement with the music, song and dance. If you experience a shiver of recognition, even for an instant, it means the duende has successfully transferred a lifetime’s worth of joy and pain from the performer to you.

If you’re still young enough to believe, I’ve heard tell there is a mysterious singing frog called Coqui Duende that lives in the Dwarf Forest of Puerto Rico. To the people who named this frog, Duende is another way of saying ‘elf’. Flamencos also sometimes describe Duende as an elf, although I’m not really sure why. While we’re on the subject of elves, check out this Portuguese site for children called Duende. Anyway, where was I? Our flamenco frog elf apparently has magic powers that enable it to place the audience in a state of trance not unlike mass hypnosis. It will reach inside the heart and sprinkle magic seeds of emotional excitement, which transfixes the attention and captures the imagination. This may result in a heady rush of hedonistic fulfillment that will cause you to spontaneously shout “Ole!”

“DUENDE IS A POWER and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say, ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet’. Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.” Federico Garcia Lorca.

The spiritual connection
I don’t remember where I read it, but someone once described flamenco as being a sacred ritual to the Gitanos. In this context, Duende is that spiritual calling connecting the soul to the essence of life, or an inner yearning to become one with nature. That’s an interesting and valid viewpoint, but I don’t particularly like the underlying implication that the phenomenon is exclusive to gypsies. One begs to ask if the rest of humanity is excluded from “that spiritual calling connecting the soul to the essence of life.”

Without forgetting that many flamenco songs started out as part of gypsy rituals and ceremonies with some culturally specific spiritual meaning, we can easily overdo it out of respect. I, for one, have a great deal of respect for gypsy culture. But that’s not the point. As a living, breathing human capable of the same inner yearnings as the average gypsy, I dare to step up and claim Duende as a natural part of everyone’s spiritual heritage, not just gypsies. No culture or race is any more spiritual than another.

To intelligently analyze this thing, and to better understand how it relates to flamenco, we could do well to approach it from different angles. After all, relevance is a key issue when one is not a gypsy like myself, so let’s step out of this gypsy mind set circle and try to understand what it really means to all of us.

If we prettify or spiritualize Duende too much, we could easily go all poetic and romanticize the whole concept as something that is beyond our understanding as mere mortals. Furthermore, if we walk through life with rose colored glasses on we are likely to adopt a distorted view of reality and if we don’t watch our step, it could lead us dangerously close to the edge of mystery. So let’s gently back away from this noble, spiritual perspective and look at Duende with our feet firmly planted on the ground. Well! Sort of.

The psychic connection
Somepeople believe in telepathy. This can be broadly defined as the transfer of thoughts across space from one person to another. In a similar sense, Duende could be described as the transfer of emotions across space. If we are passionate enough in what we do, the audience will sense the projected emotional content and be touched by it. They will realize at a deeper level that they are witnessing more than just a showy display of tourist flamenco. To quote from my favorite philosopher, Yoda from Star Wars, “Do, or do not. There is no try”. And there is no worrying about whether the dance has been rehearsed enough, or whether anyone noticed the missed note in the picado passage of the last falseta.

From this perspective, it is more than just a transfer of thoughts or emotions. It becomes a psychic phenomenon where the very essence of who you are at that moment is transferred to others, with a little help from the force.

In order for this to work, I believe the basic approach is not to copy someone else or to pretend to be something you’re not, but simply to be yourself. To take a lesson from the psychologist Carl Jung (1865-1961), the collective unconscious is the psychic connection that binds us all across time and space. It has no affiliation to any specific culture, race or language, and it doesn’t judge you by what you believe about yourself.

The demonic connection
Duende is sometimes portrayed wearing darker clothes. From this point of view, it can be described as a seductive and primal form of “channeled” energy from the twilight zone, which enters the body and takes over for a while. I see nothing strange about that.

There are those who believe that Duende is essentially a demon, which the performers themselves inwardly summon up in order to grace the venue with a special ‘spiritual’ quality. This quality, when it arrives, casts a spell over the audience and everyone becomes involved.

This is a paraphrased quote from some book. Sorry, I don’t remember which one. Anyway, the demonic character of Duende is not my invention, I just think it makes sense and I agree with it.

Duende in folklore
The Duende are best described as gray little old men. They are one-eyed, big-nosed, and have only one nostril…….. Regardless of how the parents treat the Duende, the Duende will steal children at night…..And like a leprechaun, the gold it gives disappears after some time and must be spent quickly….. Read full text of Duende folktales

The sexual connection
Have you ever seen the wild look on the face of an accomplished dancer in full flight. It may be considered theatrical and well rehearsed by some, but the sexual overtones are not exactly subtle when that special something takes over. The seductive moves and gestures are part of what a dancer would learn in class, but the passionate expression of these moves comes from somewhere inside. Whether it’s put on or not, it works for me.

Of course, not all dances are designed to be seductive. We are talking here about buleria, tangos and similar dance forms. The elegance and grace of the more stately dance forms are a different subject altogether.

It’s been around for a long time
While we’re on the subject of demons and sex, another obscure connection just sprang to mind. It may be stretching the imagination a bit, but I can’t help thinking of the similarity between Denude and the seductive demons Incubus (male) and Succubus (female), appearing in Medieval Christian folklore. These were supposed to be responsible for any display of unbridled sexuality, public or otherwise.

The usual excuse was, “the devil made me do it”. Mention of the devil in this way (in modern times anyway), does not imply overtones of evil, but rather a playful and unexpected deviation from our normal behavior. The flamenco dancer Antonio Canales goes a little further with this sexual connection by stating simply that he thinks Duende is “God’s orgasm”.

Rock concerts and a wild violinist
What’s this got to do with flamenco? It’s all a matter of context. I just think it’s worth mentioning here that even though Duende (the wild, untamed version) is normally associated with flamenco performance, it is not exclusive to flamenco. In all but name, the same thing can be experienced at any good rock concert. Those of us who witnessed the hysteria of Beatlemania for example, will know exactly what I’m talking about. Their music breathes life and energy. In my opinion, the Beatles possessed duende in abundance because they were able to push the right buttons deep inside.

The Beatles were a mystical happening that many people still don’t understand. Phenomenoligists (and psychologists) had a ball in 1964 with Beatlemania, a generally harmless form of madness which came from Britain in 1963.

As a child of 12, I can still remember how their early music enchanted me like some kind of fairy glamor. The effect on me was profound and lasting. Even now, it is capable of transporting me to a stimulating, multi dimensional head space that can only be described as pure magic (without drugs).

Niccolo Paganini
To 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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