Lorca and The Duende – A first approach to the universe of Flamenco by the hand of Federico García Lorca.

Have you ever felt nothing quite makes sense in your life only to experience a bit later this great spark and inexplicable connection that really rocked your world? Congratulations, you are flamenco! Or simply human. This article speaks about you.

So, who is this Lorca and why is he talking about me? Have we met before?

Well, unless you were born before 1936 chances are you didn´t take a selfie together. But that didn´t stop Lorca from knowing you well!

Let me quickly introduce you to Lorca (Federico, meet the reader; reader, meet Federico):

Federico García Lorca was one of the most remarkable Spanish poet and dramatist of the early XX century, who among other things changed the perception of flamenco that the general public had – he did so much more but we´re trying to focus here. His interest in the more traditional folklore of Spain (mainly of Andalusia but not only) had a very intellectual approach; unlike his predecessors, he was not merely compiling songs or tales here and there or writing about local traditions but he was digging in their meaning and exposing his findings to other contemporary intellectuals by comparing those to both the cultural trends of the time (such as existentialism and surrealism) and the classical genres (don´t yawn, we´re getting there).

Explaining great, deep and very subtle philosophical concepts using a very down to earth language that involved music (sometimes using the same metrics) and the familiar and unique vocabulary of flamenco was his genius way of understanding the universal through the local, connecting the concept with the human (I said don´t yawn).

And it just so happens that Lorca wrote a wonderful essay called Theory and Play of the Duende where he explains the main conductor element of the flamenco universe: the Duende.

So, what is this Duende thingy Spaniards go on about?

In flamenco, nothing is possible without Duende.

Duende means art, spirit, magical creature, soul, charisma, glamour. It´s that inexplicable and unique quality that makes something apparently ordinary become special, understood by anyone, anywhere and anytime, without logical explanation. Duende is the difference between eccentric and weird; when a person stands out from the rest, that person has duende.

Either you have it or you don´t. And definitely, you can´t have it all the time (one concept Lorca underlines is the temporary nature of Duende, that never repeats itself). But chances are in some moments of your life you had duende too.

Duende spurs us to do this or that with ineffable certainty; it makes us feel as if the whole universe spins around that precise moment and place and everybody else is watching – because duende is recognised by others and shared, it is witnessed in real time. It´s not really what you do, it´s more about how you do it.

Duende is there to make everything make sense without explaining. It installs notions directly in the lizzard brain, skipping the cortex logical processing. Like love or fear or other deep instinctive reactions in the guts, without reasoning. One just knows.

You can understand then why having duende is of such importance to artists in general: because it moves the audience, it deeply connects with other people right away. Hence, artists are always chasing duende wherever they see it!

Ok, so what did Lorca find so interesting about Duende?

You have to understand something about Lorca and other artists and intellectuals he worked with (like Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Manuel de Falla or other intellectuals he met in Residencia de Estudiantes – a cultural and scientific hub in Madrid that attracted among others Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, Howard Carter or Le Corbussier): he was highly educated. To scary lengths! (and since he most definitely had duende himself, we´ll refer to him as “brilliant mind” instead of “nerd”).

Being as he was a great connoisseur of both the classic and the contemporary cultures, every study he made on “non-educated” subjects had, for the first time, an extremely educated validation behind. No one had done that thoroughly and systematically as he did! Until him, flamenco was considered to be solely the domain of Spanish gypsies and its intellectual recognition had lacked depth, to put it mildly.

Now, in his study of flamenco, Lorca was the first one in recognising, studying and validating the one central concept around which the whole flamenco universe spins endlessly: the concept of Duende. In words of Lorca, Duende ‘is a power, not a labour; a struggle and not a thought’ (you have the potentiality for it but no one can “work it out”, so to speak).

In his essay, Lorca validates the concept of Duende by comparing it to Angels and Muses – respected Christian and Classical bringers of inspiration, respectively. When they touch certain humans they bless them with divine insight, and all is tidy and nice.

We can also trace this back to Classical Greek Enthousiasmos: enthousiasmos in Ancient Greece literally meant ‘state of being possessed by a God’. So, a sort of divine rapture, a trance-like state! Ancient Greeks referred by it to the people who were illuminated, and had a divine insight or inspiration. They were believed to have direct line with a God, so even if they didn´t make much sense (especially if they didn´t make much sense), the actions or words by someone under enthousiasmos would be highly respected and considered as the truth.

However, the concept of Duende is not religious or associated with any external divine source (you don´t pray to the Duende for it to inspire you) but it´s a force within. Consubstantial to the human being but not tameable or subject to any form of control. Like earthquakes, one can only analyse them once they´ve happened, they have the ability to shake up our lives greatly and yet we can´t do anything about it!

More importantly, Duende means struggle. Angels and muses’ divine origin is supposed to enlighten us to higher understandings like a blessing, but Duende is terrenal, it deliberately makes us suffer first, it plays with us (hence the title ‘Theory and Play of The Duende‘ of Lorca´s work), it toys us.

And it is precisely this paradox and all its subtleties that fuel most of the concerns expressed in Flamenco (not a petty thought for a collective that was vastly illiterate, hey?) What a discovery!