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

But I am not Spanish. I can´t understand Flamenco.

Wrong! (whip sound here). Furthermore, not only can you understand Flamenco but more importantly, Flamenco can understand you.

Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky were not Spanish either but still they made significant contributions to the existentialism that is a big part of the flamenco universe. Jazz from New York or Cuban son aren´t Spanish either yet Lorca highligthed how full of duende they are. Surrealism was originally born in France yet its mimicking the way the brain actually thinks (as oppossed to how it reasons) with its dream-like symbolism is the same that flamenco vocabulary uses to convey its concerns.

This is what we usually know about flamenco:

Overall sound – modal scales, rich harmonies and unique timbres (the singer with the scary voice and the amazing guitar)
Vocabulary – surreal, allegedly simple but rich in metaphors
Structures – highly developed and complex
Rhythms – we could fill 7 more articles just on this!

Not much new about that. But what does flamenco actually talk about?

In flamenco you always find the opposition of two titanic forces that rule our life experience: the existentialist sorrow (living hurts) and the life force itself (celebration of the mere experience of being alive by accessing an ancestral connection to the roots – usually within a group, where the individual expresses himself surrounded and actively encouraged by his companions in a cheering called jaleo). And any of these two forces, and any position in between, can only be fully experienced, expressed and exorcised through Duende (remember, the own flamenco version of enthousiasmos).

In the true flamenco experience (there are many different “versions” of flamenco; the most pure, respected and defended by Lorca is called Cante Jondo (Deep Song), quite away from the flamenco cliché of a group of gypsies just having fun) people are not just hanging out and idly entertaining themselves. They are celebrating that by the end of the day somehow they are still alive, and letting briefly go of their daily sorrows, blowing off as much steam as they can – there is always a tad of catharsis to this celebration, just as there is always a tad of life pulse behind their crying sorrows. And laments and joy are interspersed in a sequence of, well, human experience.

And if you think of it, those gypsy sorrows were many, since the gypsies were a traditionally repressed collective throughout their history. Much of Lorca´s work had the oppressed collectives as central element, such as women in the rural Spain, the Harlem population of 1929´s New York or some of the black population of Cuba (hence his interest in their artistic manifestations: New York´s Jazz as well as the Cuban son).

Flamenco is not pretty or polished. It´s raw, can be brutal or extremely delicate, as it exposes these two extremes in between which life (and all human questions about it) unfolds. The voices you hear in Flamenco are “broken”, sounds and harmonics that could pretty much come from a wounded animal instead of a human throat (because no rationality can turn us invulnerable against extreme emotions), a whole sonic universe that is organised around those fragile concepts.

So how does it apply to you? Well, if nothing else, Mondays and Fridays! The daily tragedy of our duties and responsibilities (I hate but need my job, why can´t my crush notice me, why can´t I just do what makes me happy and actually, what is it that makes me happy?? what is the point in anything?) and how you wash it away to oblivion with drinks with friends after work (the ancestral need for celebration in group where you feel you belong) or seeking shelter in meaningful, self-expressing, rewarding activities (unconsciously searching for the elusive Duende to make it all make sense).

And Duende is so important because it validates and reconciles both the intellectual and the animal part in man, that is otherwise incomplete.

Before we put this article to bed

Next time you hear true Flamenco, remember that every syllable sung, every beat pounding and every string vibration is deliberately full with all the vast richness of tragedy and bliss, in a titanic dimension, of human condition.

And for this and many other reasons, Flamenco is recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2010.

Thanks for reading, drop a line if you feel like commenting on something or if there are any questions and I´ll try my best to answer, of course…with duende.

You can find Lorca´s essay ‘Theory and Play of The Duende’ translated to English here: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm