The Duende - Individual & Collective Rites - Flamenco Beirut  


El Duende (Gutierrez Montiel)

Without duende, there is no « authentic » flamenco. Duende is the proof, the evidence of the « becoming » of a flamenco act.


Duende is a Spanish word that is difficult, even impossible to translate. It possibly comes from the Latin « dominus » after becoming « dueno », the lord of the house. It is untranslatable, unless one turns to the language of religion. In the world of flamenco and bullfighting, duende may designate an invisible and mysterious animal, or as defined by the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua: “encanto misterioso e inefable del cante”, a mysterious and unspeakable magic of the flamenco singing.

 People have tried to equate « duende » with various better defined words: inspiration, muse, trance, nirvana, tarab (a term borrowed from Middle Eastern music), feeling (a term borrowed from jazz, an art form very distant from flamenco). All these definitions are flawed since the duende is intrinsic to flamenco, and indispensable to its existence. It is erroneous to say that a performer has or has not « reached » the duende; duende is not « reached », it is (or is not) part and parcel of the performance, an intrinsic component of the art.
What then is duende? The Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca has come closest to defining it. He is probably the only writer who has captured and transmitted the quintessence of duende in his own poetic and picturesque language.
Many flamencologists have also tried to define duende in a more rational language. But can one approach the duende rationally? Sociologically? via a musical science? Most certainly not. Yet I reproduce below 2 texts, one by
Alain Gobin (Le Flamenco, PUF 1975) and another by Jean-Marie Lemogodeuc & Francisco Moyano (Le Flamenco, PUF 1994). Their approaches are pertinent and helpful in providing the neophyte with a tentative, even if incomplete explanation of what duende is, a sort of foretaste.
It will then be easier to read and understand the text of Federico Garcia Lorca titled « Theory and play of Duende », from a conference he gave in 1930.

Alain Gobin (Le Flamenco) PUF 1975
Duende and Cante Jondo.

But the cante jonde is also a projection into the future. For rarely does the Andalusian or the gypsy think about the present. There are no songs in the Levant that evoke today’s vicissitudes. In that sense, the song form is velleitary. It endlessly reinvents the past, or creates the future. We can, therefore, consider it located in an orbit of eternal becoming.

This eternal becoming is the « duende ». It is a demon in the platonic sense, that possesses body and soul that are there to be transcended. But the flamenco duende cannot be compared to the demon that animates the maenads [followers of Dionysus] or the silens {mythical human-animal hybrids with a bestial appearance and antic behavior]. It comes out of spontaneous inspiration, it is the touchstone of flamenco esthetic. It is the element that blurs the structural components, to go beyond them.

Inspiration, breath, duende animates flamenco art. It is the point from which dynamism and intensity emerge, it is musical form made wholly subjective as Duende Flamenco!

Jean-Marie Lemogodeuc & Francisco Moyano (Le Flamenco) PUF 1994
Individual and Collective Rites.

Flamenco and toreo [bull fighting] are, before anything else, individual expressions. They provide a way to liberate a dramatic past, a nightmarish experience still profoundly anchored in the memory or the unconscious of its protagonist. The role of the performer is to follow Adriane’s thread, go back to the sources, leave the labyrinth, and remember the past so as to exorcise it. To write and to tell is firstly to remember. To face the bull in the ring, to sing, or to dance is to remember as well. The artist does not invent himself, he reenacts events that were lived in the past. They are filtered through fantasy and imagination, to become an individual or collective from of therapy, a purifying formula. Collective celebrations lead to self-knowledge and to the affirmation of a personal and collective identity.

This connection with the past cannot always be effectively established. It can even occur unexpectedly. Nothing is previsible. The performer himself does not even know if he is going to « estar a gusto », he may or may not. The « obscure root of the scream », to which Garcia Lorca makes reference, depends on a series of unpredictable phenomena. Neither the personal qualities of the performer, nor his « artistic » capabilities can guarantee that he will be able to achieve this communion with himself, a communion that has all the characteristics of schizophrenia, a doubling of personality.

The performer is alone facing his image. He engages in a tragic and desperate fight to express the unspeakable, to give body to an idea using his voice, his body, his steps, and his moves. We are very close to the trance, a privileged altered state in which duende will flow, an inspiration of genius. This stage is always short lived, during which the performer will meet his past, retrieve a lost image, and bring forth the collective unconscious of which he is an orphan child. The duende, in a way, posits the spirit of the performer in a site midway between the human and the divine. Its intense emotional content is the proper of gypsy expression, and only few payos are able to reproduce it. This is because song, dance, and the « lidia » of the bull are then considered an actualization, a reliving of past conflicts in a collective memory. The way this memory is expressed becomes beautiful and true in the sparseness of its forms.
Under these conditions, the words spoken by the performer are the ones, internal and unexpressed, of the group to which he belongs: he becomes the spokesperson of the group, its living and talking conscience. Manuel Rios Ruiz writes that the flamenco singer has always been « the sonorous conscience of his people ». Further, Frédéric Deval considers that « this artist who captures the collective spirit is not too remote from the scapegoat that is charged with all the sins of Israel ».

We start from a personal tension, a tragedy expressed as a first person narrative, but on which is projected the collective drama. The voice of the singer is above all the voice of all the marginalized classes, the Andalusian people as a whole that have to exteriorize and express the pain.

We then understand that the concept of « fiesta » is inadequate, even improper, when used to refer to this process of collective identification, trademarked with pathos. One should rather speak of a dionysiac ritual. The latter is characterized by the omnipresence of the sacred, where ecstasy and delirium are present, at the same time individual and collective. Everything converges to recreate the initial chaos in order to reestablish order, namely the mutual recognition of all the participants, who can then affirm their cultural identity and their adhesion to the cosmological order. Dionysius is a reference to the universal, and can be appropriately evoked for flamenco, an art form at the crossroads of countless civilizations and sensibilities. Flamenco is also indicible tragedy, pain and internal sadness.

“TEORIA Y JUEGO DEL DUENDE” lecture given by the Andalucian poet Federico Garcia Lorca in 1930, original text in Spanish,

"Theory and Play of Duende , in the English translation.

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