The highlight so far of what will be my last summer in Spain was when I experienced “Duende” at a flamenco recital.
Deunde (Do-en-day) is literally a goblin in Spanish mythology, and “tener duende” (to have duende) is to experience a heightened sense of awareness, of a diabolical emocion, that gives you the chills, and raises the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck. Duende exists in all arts, but in its purest and most authentic form it exists in the first art forms of primitive man—the telling of folk tales in the forest clearing, and dance around the fire—and the accompanying music of drum and flute, the purest form of emotional expression— and in song, poetry set to music .
In Spanish flamenco Cante (can-tay) Hondo, literally deep song, is just that. According to the poet Federico Garcia Lorca cante jondo is the deepest most meaningful form of flamenco, “a rare example of the primitive songs of oriental people preserved in its purest form . . . and the oldest song in Europe”. And the people who sing cante jondo struggle with a duende that threatens to overwhelm their technique and strangle their voice. It is an authentic emotion that comes from the internal tribal memories of suffering and hardship, the spilling of blood and imminent death.
I attended a flamenco recital in the function room of a Parador, one of the chain of state owned 5 star hotels, and a rather clinical environment. And the singer was a 30 something pretty Spanish woman—not at all the elderly and severe and serious hawk faced North African gypsy with huge sweat stains under her unshaven armpits that I had heard in the catacombs below the Plaza Mayor in Madrid 40 years earlier that put Spain in my soul forever.
And the virtuoso guitarist who accompanied this modern and younger singer was just 19 years old. They started gently enough with soft flamenco patterns on the guitar and nice controlled modern flamenco, and tango, and sevillanas—she even sang some soulful Portuguese fados and a song that sounded like Jewish Kletzmer to remind us of the strong presence of Jews in Andalucía centuries ago —and finished with a rousing flamenco piece. But the encores were the highlight.
She came back and set aside the mic, and sang three Garcia Lorca poems in unaccompanied cante jondo that had the crowd growling: this affluent and elderly 60-something 5 star hotel Spanish crowd actually growling, and moaning like primitives. The applause was thunderous from a crowd on its feet.
And then the guitar player started to finger the delicate filigree of soft flamenco patterns while his thumb plucking the bass strings in an insistent rhythm. And the singer segued into flamenco with a deep and rich and low toned contralto gradually ascending and sliding back down those hair-raising quarter tone oriental Arabic scales. And the rhythm became faster and the volume grew, and the crowd were stamping their feet like flamenco dancers, and clapping their hands in complex cross rhythms, until at the end the singer was shrieking and wailing in an unearthly fashion, the guitarist was threshing the strings, and the crowd were on their feet again—ecstatic: this 60-something 5 star hotel affluent Spanish crowd were ecstatic. Truly climatic. Ole. Viva Espanya.
Freud was wrong. The most compelling human drive is not the primal sex urge and orgasmic gratification. It is the search for the primitive tribal memories that haunted Nietzsche—for community, for humanity—the search for our soul, and an end to Soledad, being alone, metaphysical loneliness. And in jazz, and particularly in The Blues, it is the same.
The Blues, and Jazz, is all about having soul, and improvisation, about creating spontaneously music of that moment. Of being sent: of having duende. Of something welling up from inside and taking control, and your fingers or voice go where they want to and not at your bidding. And in The Blues “the sound of a good man hurting” you have the tribal memories of slavery and oppression, of suffering, of defiant field hollers and work songs, and Christian gospel music—man’s hopeless search for pure true love and the search for God.
And that is Mick McCallister’s hopeless search, the harmonica playing, Blues musician protagonist in my book THE GULF “Reaping the Whirlwind”. It is a classic hero’s journey as Mick, an idealistic young journalist, tries to write as honestly as possible the first rough draft of the history of The Arabian/Persian Gulf through the stories of expatriates washed up there for whatever reason. The world as it is, not as The West wants it to be. He fights the corruption and hypocrisy and the indifference and prejudices of his London editors no matter what the cost.
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