The mysterious Spanish soul of struggle

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In 1933 a speech was given in Buenos Aires that changed lives and attitudes, which created excitement and a hunger to know more. I’m not talking about the kind of self help propaganda we see today, promising the world for a few positive thoughts. This was a speech given out of frustration and desperation, a harangue on a subject still not clear to its messenger, in the hope of gaining clarity from the off-loading of knowledge; and indeed the sharing of a burden.

“I’m going to see if I can give a simple lecture on the hidden spirit of suffering Spain.”

The arts are bound by technicalities. In these modern times the commercial and financial tend to determine the direction of most pieces of music, theatre and sadly even dance and visual art. For an artist of any type to obtain credibility, they must be seen to be technically accurate. In the areas of theatre, dance and poetry a structured, academic and well-tutored background can elevate a performer to a higher position of status. This is a typical scenario that reflects the world in which we live. An emphasis has been placed on the value of talent, reputation and a persons ability to bring financial gain — thus raising the profile of productions, the directors and (critically) the companies behind them. The raw natural elements of performance have been lost to an extent due to this.

Beyond these methods and formulas for success is a raw spontaneity, an innately artistic vein that is far superior to the pre-programmed talent, giving life and passion to performances. Those who possess this spirit and the ability to move an audience have something far stronger and more dramatically and emotionally powerful than a learned ability to perform. According to Federico Garcia Lorca — the controversial Spanish playwright giving the lecture — this spirit is the Duende.

The word Duende is as elusive as the power it seeks to describe, going by the troubles the playwright himself had in trying to define the term, or place it into any particular category. In the Spanish language, Duende is literally translated as imp, goblin or demon, as far back as can be traced. However, for many years the word has been attributed to this mysterious power by the Andalusian gypsies, who frequently experienced the Duende during their flamenco dances and song, accepting it as part of their everyday lives and culture.

Lorca’s lecture acted as a kind of catalyst for the rest of the world to learn about the Duende. Since his interpretation, many have tried to give the power a more accessible identity. A transition in the 1970s to a buzzword, saw it cross the borders of Andalusia and begin to play a major part in Spanish street culture. Though the spirit he spoke about has deep roots in the Andalusian culture – inhabiting the earth of the region and recognised by the people of the region – it was especially revered, sort after and achieved by famous or respected figures within the community. It is the views and quotes of these people that Lorca used to illustrate what he felt the Duende was, how it attaches itself to performers whilst singing, dancing or acting, and to the work of poets, playwrights and musicians alike.

Manual Torres, a great Spanish artist from Andalusia, quoted by Lorca said, “All that has dark sounds, has Duende.” It was on this ambiguous foundation that Lorca based his lecture.

“These dark sounds are a mystery, the roots pushing into the soil which we all know, which we all ignore, but from which comes what is real in art.”

Although he found it near impossible to define, he chose to draw upon the thoughts of others to illustrate his point, but in order to physicalise it he linked it to the Earth and drew on baroque ideas of spirituality. Many saw the lecture as a complete failure to actually describe the Duende, yet it plants the vital ideas in the minds of those who study and discover its concept.

The Andalusian Duende is something to be respected, more than death itself; it’s unnatural. A performer feels it, suffers it, lets it take them as low as they can be, so that through the struggle against the power to rise again, the pure, spontaneous art can flow.

“There is no map, no formula to seek the Duende. We only know that it burns the blood like glass, that it drains you, that it rejects all the sweet geometry you have learned; that it breaks with style.”

The location of the Duende is another anomaly. It’s in the soil, part of the the Earth, entering a performer through the soles of their feet, as opposed to being in the throat, body or mind. This is not such a contradiction in terms; the Spanish are people of the land, they are as much a part of the Earth as the trees and mountains, the Duende inhabits their land, therefore it inhabits them.

“The real struggle is with the Duende.”

Some believe the Duende is a philosophical motif of life, because it’s inside a person; therefore the actual struggle is with oneself. It’s the provoking of the subconscious that allows the Duende to take the emotions of the performer and transmit them to others, these emotions may originally be from the pages of a play script or a poem that itself has Duende. It gives vision, it breaks down barriers; many flamenco singers drink alcohol in order to lose their inhibitions, forget how to sing and just perform without concentrating or thinking — most importantly to be in touch with their suppressed self. Sometimes after a few glasses of good wine and with the right company, poems, songs or dreams can move something inside us.

In fact Death is what the Duende seeks. There has to be the possibility of death before it will visit a performer. In the theatre, a play with such a theme would suffice. The bullfight, (wherever one stands with its ethics) creates perfect conditions. Death plays a great part in Spanish culture, it’s seen as the most powerful entity, an event rather than an end.

“A dead man in Spain is more alive than a dead man anywhere else in the world.”

Given this status and respect by the people of Spain, the process of death becomes magical, one who cheats or flirts with it as a means of entertainment takes on an ability to move an audience and is placed in great esteem. This is where the bullfight and the Duende become related, the matadors bravery is praised and encouraged, the way that they play with their own mortality against a creature which has superior strength and power — and could kill in an instant — is the perfect recipe. Lorca believed that it is within the final acts of the bullfight that the matador is visited by the Duende.

“When some bulls die in the ring, in that moment between the final sword thrust and death, time seems to stand still and a temple is created; a space which stirs our senses. There are bulls that die magnificently, as if giving a lesson in dying to everyone in the building. The bull has his orbit, the bullfighter his, and between the two orbits is a point of danger which is the vortex of the terrible game.”

And it’s here where the Duende will be found.

First appeared in Europa (Air Europa) magazine, September 1999