I found the quote you asked for among a chaos of notes from F. Garcia Lorca writing on duende, CD booklets on flamenco, a book of travels among the gypsies of southern Spain, and the like… I got so interested in all this material, I decided to write out segments for you. I am doing this also because, rummaging through this old stuff, I realised that my own near death outside Granada, at 17 years old around Easter of 1962, looking for the gypsies who lived in the caves and the true flamenco, has stalked my whole life. I should have died in the back of that car as it careened off the bridge into the void. Looking at these crumpled papers is like reclaiming the ghost who has haunted all my life: he has no face, and no name, but his cry is called duende. He is the dark wraith who took my American pie little life and stabbed it to the quick. I had asked for that as a child, at about 8 years of age. Surrounded by the superficiality of America, and feeling the hollow emptiness beneath, I prayed to God: give me something deep. He delivered on a hot, still day outside Granada, on a deserted and pocked road leading onto a bridge over a deep ravine into the void. The place of duende.
No one knows the origin of the gypsy music–singing [cante], dancing [baile], the vocal encouragement given to performers when the audience calls out [jaleo], intricate hand clapping [palmas], fierce foot stomping [zapateado] and guitar playing–known as flamenco. Its roots are obscure, but the gypsies who evolved it are said to have begun in Rajasthan, India, and from there migrated through the Middle East, Egypt [where ‘Gitano’ originated, from ‘Egyptian’], Northern Africa, into Spain. Andalusia in southern Spain is their heart-land. The Arab influence – southern Spain was Moorish for seven centuries – is beyond dispute, but scholars say that Indian [Hindu] and Greek Byzantine [Eastern Orthodox Christian] sacred chant, also contributed. Probably everywhere the gypsies went in their migration made a contribution, including possibly the other music of duende, Greek Rembetiko which evolved out of an older Greek and Turkish music of Asia Minor in Smyrna. Flamenco dancing is unlike any other dance form in the whole history and geography of Europe: its orientalism is undeniable, yet the drama, and driving-force is western. There is a terrible edge in this music, a visceral sense of danger. Flamenco has recast east and west, by merging them.
Flamenco does have a light side, like the cafe type of Rembetiko: ‘cante chico’, or light song, is known for gaiety. Where this expresses innocent passion’s exuberance, or as Kierkegaard described the child heart, its “thirst for the mysterious and prodigious”, it is vibrant, and alive, full of élan. However, cante chico should not be confused with the commercialised, light weight, sentimental types of flamenco that tourists go to see and hear. These people are nowadays bussed to ritzy cafes where no gypsy would ever be allowed through the door [nor would want to go in], to watch ‘performances.’ These are the kind of artistic fandangos that, in the austere language of true flamenco, “lack honour.” I feel disgust for those that promote this untruthful betrayal. They are like those who want a touch of passion, with all its rigours and losses, to massage them, at a safe distance. Passion cannot be ‘watched.’ You either join in, and resonate out of your own life’s ‘sacred pain’, or if you cannot do that, then you should avert your eyes. To see a human being in the throes of the true passion is to see something at an utter extremity, and it is raw, naked, ugly. It cannot be prettied up. It cannot be massaged into a more cosmetically beautiful appearance.
The real flamenco is the cante jondo, the deep song. This is the flamenco with ‘duende.’ Duende is Daemonic.
Goethe: “Daemonic.. a mysterious power that everyone feels but.. no philosopher has explained.”
Duende is a gypsy word, meaning ‘spirit’, or literally the ‘spirit of the house’, or the ‘spirit of the earth.’ This spirit is never pictured. It has no face, it has no name. It is an experience, not a thought. It is a strange presence that comes from the earth, when the person is close to the ground; it rises through the soles of the feet to lodge in the guts and heart. As I said to you in the letter sent yesterday [13 December 03], this spirit arises from the abyss beneath the earth and beneath the heart. Duende is a terrible power whose electricity runs up and down the spine, and whose edge and bite penetrates the heart. The duende in true flamenco dwells in the black pain. When we hear this music, the struggle and suffering of the ‘really deep pain in the deep heart’ is ratified, voiced, intensified. In this music is darkness, lit up by occasional sparks and flames of light. There is grieving in this music, but nothing of self pity. This music is itself simply ‘a suffering’ of the profound. Thus duende is also translatable as ‘the profound.’ Deep Song= Cante Profundo.
Duende is not the victorious outcome ‘at the end’, but the struggle itself, in the middle, which ‘could go either way.’ This struggle contains heaven and hell, joy and sorrow, mourning and comfort, loss and gain. But it is on a searing edge, in danger, all the time. You don’t know if it is God or the devil who has wounded you like this, but more vital, you don’t know if the wounding is for heaven or for hell: if it will break and make you, or just be your ruin. It is the heaven only found in hell, and it is the hell that gives no birth to anything, only dereliction. The point is, in the duende it is not certain yet: we cannot know, we have no guarantee, we must undergo it, stay in it, see it through. It is the room from which there is no exit. The duende is both for heaven and for hell. It must be, to be truthful. We are in the long dark tunnel, and if we could claim light at the end of it, this would be lying, and premature. It would be fake. Passion is ‘passing through’ every fated, deep, hard, thing life can throw at us, and plunge us in to. We are, in the throes of this, not cool, calm, and confident. We are hot and bothered, torn, stretched, brought to breaking point, and beyond. Duende is the wrestling with the profound that is our desperate hurt, our ecstatic joy, our inescapable destiny. Duende has to be truthful to where we are. At times it is sacred and holy, at times it is broken down and crazed, at times it is a flight into the superficial, humdrum, everyday, or the brittle gaiety of the cafe where we put a garishly lit-up mask over the void… But always it is heroic. Always it faces the faceless, steps up and takes on all that mysteriously wounds the heart, and by this very wounding, raises it up and casts it down. Duende is sparse in expression because the battle in the depths is with the nameless. No Jungian images can penetrate its darkness and portray it. No words can express it, no thoughts can explain it. It is the one koan that cannot be solved. In the throes of it Bodidharma sweated white beads. Christ sweated blood.
In duende is the cry of the heart, gripped by every fate in life– death, loss, the inexplicable and unacceptable, God. In the duende, we bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable ‘in our kidneys.’ Duende is a spiritual power that possesses us, in our art, in our deeds and words, and even bodily gestures, when we are true to this fate in our struggle with and suffering of it. It is a greater power that renders us powerless and yet, paradoxically, bestows upon us the only real power we will ever have that is our own, a power of the heart. Only by what touches and moves us can we touch and move anybody or anything.
The people in this life seized and left with the scars of duende are the afflicted ones and the ardent ones. The power in their heart is a reproach to the half living, and also an encouragement and a hope.
The poor and socially disenfranchised with dust on their feet are closer to duende than the rich and protected.
To say of a given flamenco singing and playing and dancing that it ‘lacks duende’ is to say it is inauthentic. It lacks depth: it has not been forged in suffering the profound. It is a fake. It might be too timid and inhibited and shyly curtailed and contained, or it might be too grandiose and exaggerated in drama, or it might be too powerful in the human trying, on its own account, to assert itself or aggressively dominate, as in false heroics or superman tough guy control and violence. It is always protest and at the same time it is acceptance. Its power always comes from a wound. That wound exposes us where we really live for who we really are. Doing flamenco in public is a test: it shows everyone present the ‘true’ or ‘real’ temper [the steel] or quality [the excellence] of the one who sings, plays, dances. If they are evading the wound of fate, or faking a response to it, this is brutally exposed. This is why an artistic event must have ‘honour.’ The struggle and suffering in life that the artistry conveys must be respectfully and fully conveyed, warts and all, with all the piss, shit, vomit, puss, blood, sweat, and tears of existence. If a person ‘hasn’t lived the life’, this will be revealed. There is no hiding place. It is an honour to see artists trying to honour existence’s wound. This is why, as in Rembetiko, other performers and even the audience shout encouragement. They are shouting from their own passion, and its fearful pathos, ‘go for it’, ‘do it’, hoka hey!
The best flamenco voices are hoarse, searing, unadorned, in their crying. Though there is tremendous discipline and self-control in flamenco, it is not perfection of technique that allows duende to be invoked, but some heart truth that the singer has only attained through the pain of their life. Early flamenco singing was unaccompanied by any instruments. Even now, the guitar must complement and never overshadow the expressive power of the human voice.
The song form replete with duende and most indisputably gypsy is the ‘siguiriya.’ The song form capturing the wisdom of age in these heart cries is the ‘solea.’ The ‘alegria’ is a fiesta song sun-lit by Andalusia, and the ‘buleria’ is an explosive and rhythmic fiesta song with tragic drama always lurking underneath. Also part of the canon is the ‘fandango’, thought to be of Moorish origin; ‘tango’, another fiesta song; ‘taranta’, thought to be a mining song. Before all of these came the ancient ‘tona’, which included the ‘marinete’, named after the blacksmith’s hammer, and the ‘carcelera’, from the Spanish for prison [carcel]. Tona, siguiriya, and solea, are the very heart of flamenco; while solea, alegria and buleria, are probably the leading dance forms.
All performers carry a particular place in their soul as well as the fated injury to the heart. Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Jerez, Cadiz, are the best known towns: but there is also Huelva, Alcala, Malaga, Santiago, Lebrija, Ultrera, Ronda, Almeria, Cartagena. One writer says the trough of cante jondo lies along the River Guadalquivir, south of Seville.
Flamenco is a paradox: sophisticated, but rooted in something simple and plain; born of poverty and oppression but rich in spirit; rhythmically strictly bound, but requiring constant improvisation; respectful toward tradition, but always beset with the urge to break away; terrible suffering–the deepest level of ‘deep cries to deep’–but a joy and sensuality, and love of life, born only from its deep pain= from this black pain in the deep heart is vanquished all grey, all compromise and boring flatness, and is born the vividness, poignancy and vibrancy, of colour.
There are many truly great flamenco men and women, too many to name them all. F.G. Lorca’s own collection of 78s included Manuel Torre, Nina de los Peines, Tomas Pavon. Other names worthy of mention include Pepe de la Matrona, Ramon Montoya, Carmen Amaya, Manolo Caracol, Gregorio Tio El Borrico, La Perle de Cadiz. But two should be picked out, as exponents of the duende at its most savage and holy.
Cameron de la Isla [The Shrimp of the Isle] was a pale, thin gypsy. He got his name because when his uncle first saw the white skin and clear eyes, he exclaimed, “he is so pale he looks like a shrimp.” But this man had a heart that could barely be contained in his chest. Unusually he began singing early, at age 8, when he stood on the platform of the buses and trams running between ‘the island’ and Cadiz. Already then, the temper and quality of the heart was visible in his voice.
They say that time threatens me.
They say whether I am alive or dead.
And I tell them: while my heart boils,
I will conquer my enemy.
He wrote this song not long before his death. His heart stopped boiling three years later.
This was sung at his funeral:
How sad not to be a gypsy
from the island of Leon,
to weep as they weep
for the death of Cameron.
The other gypsy singer who was an exponent of duende came from an older generation. His name was Fernando Monje. He was born in Cadiz, or Jerez de la Frontera, which gave him his name, Terremoto de Jerez [The Earthquake of Jerez]. Physically he was known as ‘the human mountain.’ Heaped with awards in his life time, he hated receiving recognition of any kind, and would only sing when he felt like it.
This man some called a ‘black demon’ who was the ‘terremoto del cante’ [earthquake of the cante] died of a brain haemorrhage one morning, at 47 years old. El Cameron was 41 yrs old when he died. What Lorca said about the gypsies of flamenco could be applied to both men= “Nearly all of them die of heart problems, I mean to say, they explode like enormous cicadas… They sing as if they were under the spell of a shivering, very bright point in the horizon. Geniuses are like that: strange and simple…”
The Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis said, upon hearing a recording of Terremoto de Jerez for the first time:
“An earthquake is a natural phenomenon. So is this gypsy. This kind of music cannot be analyzed at an artistic level. This music is existential. Each time I hear a gypsy sing a big cante with all his body and soul, I feel as though I have come face to face with a question I cannot answer. This is when I say Life-Death. It is fundamental. This performer can sell his soul to God or the Devil just as well. He does not even know.”
A friend came back from visiting the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Poland. She had found there this utterance: “I have seen and felt everything of heaven and everything of hell.” The words do not tell us if this seeing and this feeling was for heaven, or for hell. Any resolution to the tension, and koan, of the story of our life is trite: it betrays the profound.
Don’t tell me you found the answer. That is 99.9% certain to be a lie.
Sing me your deep song.
Rembetiko, the music of the Greek exile from Smyrna in Asia Minor, also has duende, though its form differs from flamenco. Its greatest singers include a man known as Dalgas [Antonios Diamantidis], a Turk whose name I recall as Hafiz Burhan, and two women whose voices are burnt in to me, like clean incisions of a sharp knife: Rosa Eskenazy, and Rita Abadzi. There is a song Dalgas cries, or screams, that shreds my heart every time I hear it. I personally would trade in the whole of Mozart just to hear a snatch of this song.
In America there is the blues, and Johnny Cash. Both strain towards but do not attain duende. I ask myself why. Then I realised it: the form is simply not an adequate vehicle to the depth it wants to incarnate. Then I realised, this statement– the form is not an adequate vehicle to the depth it wants to convey–could be the summation of America. Depth cannot be uttered= the forms there will not release it. No wonder the place is so crazed.
What might be called the Americanisation of the world will spell the end of duende. Either it will be suppressed, still born and stifled, shut in the depths out of which it needs to come forth, or even sincere attempts to reach it will flounder. The ‘form’ isn’t there, culturally, spiritually, artistically, because the ‘bearing it in the kidneys’ has disappeared. In the Americanised west we all have fall back positions these days. The gypsies didn’t. They were on the line. We all know we do not have to walk the line, whatever we say. It is only when we are forced, and there is nothing else but walking the line, that a form adequate for duende will be found.
The supposed heroes of duende in current times are all play acting. It is not serious for them. They can always go somewhere else, do something else, even re-invent their identity — a sport in America which everyone plays.
Duende needs the heart to be tied by its feet to a stake driven into the hard and dusty earth. For duende, the heart must be grounded, and precarious precisely because of that. This is why flamenco, Rembetiko, and other musics of the struggle and suffering of passion ‘out over the deep’ have duende. They have depth only because they are earthy. It is our vain and foolish attempt to vanquish the earth, through our high rise towers, that guarantee we will continue to be without any form–in art, religion, society, politics, daily life–with which to be the vehicle for releasing the terrible eerie power of duende. Our current forms show us to be deprived of any way of telling, and sharing, our depth.
Lorca [fragment from ‘Ballad of the Three Rivers’]:
two rivers in Granada
one of weeping, the other of blood.
Written in Arabic on the walls of the Alhambra palace in Granada:
“No conqueror but God [Wa la ghalib illa Allah].”
Only God knows if it is for heaven or hell.
Only God can make heaven from hell.
In the duende, only God is as deep as we are, when we are fighting a battle half lost, half won, half only just beginning; and in a journey going somewhere we do not know, adrift on wave after wave.
“Kima to kima”, as the Greek song says.
Listen, my son: the silence.
It is the silence of waves,
where valleys and echoes slip past,
which turns faces
to the ground.
If I remain a Christian it is only because I believe Christ took the duende to the utter, absolute extreme, for both God and for humanity. Other than God, only he has conquered. Conquered not for God alone, but for the human.
Was Christ in peace and calm on the Cross? No he was not. He was in the eye of the storm, stretched and broken in the wound of God in humanity which is God’s passion, and the wound of humanity in God which is human passion. Christ passed through the defeat of heaven in hell, which alone can secure the victory of the heaven only found in hell.
His deep song embraced ours.
Hence, I can give my own description.
Duende: ‘earth spirit.’ The spirit who rises from the depths only when we are staked to the ground, mixing with the earth in equal measure our tears and our blood.
The early afternoon was hot, and still. We were in a car, Joe, me, and the Moroccan driver who had picked us up hitching on the road from Alicante. For some reason, as we came closer to Granada, he accelerated. Suddenly we hit a wall at speed, bounced off, shot at an acute angle onto a bridge spanning a deep ravine: hundreds of feet straight down into a misty river far below. The car catapulted into the flimsy fence on the bridge, lurched out over the abyss, and I looked down into the certainty of death [I was locked in the back of the van, with a wire mesh between me and Joe and the Arab up front]. I knew I was going straight into that black maw. Then the car rolled back, the give in the fence acting like some rubber band that gave way and then shot back… The car rolled over, and we ended upside down. None of us three was hurt.
The car was crushed and a total write off, hard on the Arab who was obviously set to enjoy motoring through Spain. I was very stunned, and per usual for me, angry. I went back down the rutted, heat hazed road a spell, and kicked a rock off the side. It rolled down into a ditch. Suddenly, a black clad Spanish mama stormed out of a wood and paper hut, seized the rock, strode back up the bank, and with force placed it back at my feet. I don’t remember her exclaiming a word, but her face was thunderous. ‘Don’t pollute my front yard with your carelessly kicked stones.’ I hadn’t even seen the hut, and the little ground in front of it was dusty, rock strewn, and hardly a candidate for ‘Better Homes and Gardens.’ But, when I gazed at it more attentively, I noticed there was no garbage there, no thrown away debris of existence. The ground before her hut was dirty, from natural accumulations, but no careless human jettisonings had been allowed… Why should I kick stones into this, even if death had like the bull’s horns passed close to my ribs?
I turned away from her wrath, and walked back, helping Joe Record [I will always remember his name] push the van upright. Joe was on the run from England. His story was: as a new trainee teacher in a backward school, he hit upon the idea of hypnotising his disengaged children. It worked a treat. After starting every day with a group trance session, they became bright sparks and the performance of the school suddenly shot up. You would think people would be grateful. Not a bit of it. First the parents, then all manner of busybodies got suspicious, and pretty soon the game was up. The whole education regulatory body was horrified and came down on Joe with a ton of bricks, totally anathematising him, but the parental reaction was worse: mutterings to burn him at the stake were heard, so he took the better part of valour and vacated England. I met him on the road, somewhere in Andalusia. He was like a body-builder before there were any such. A powerful man. He and I righted that car, with brute strength, mostly his [I was 17, he was 23]. Then we walked the rest of the way into Granada, leaving the Arab to the Spanish police. I recall that the rest of the afternoon was passed in a Spanish patisserie shop in the centre of the town, eating sweet cakes and drinking coffee. It took a long time for the adrenaline to pass…. In our disorientation, we didn’t even stop for the Alhambra [the Red Palace]. We hitched up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, and were gone by dark. I don’t recall why we had to depart with such urgency, or where we were going. Once back at school in England, I got a few letters from Joe, who stayed in Spain. They were sent from Almeria. He never found the gypsies, but spent pages on the Spanish senoritas. Near the end of our travels, we picked up an American flake-head, who had offended a gang of Arab drug pushers in Tangiers, and was running from them. It seems they were determined to kill him. We let him tag along for a while, but he had no sense of humour, and his views on William Blake were disrespectful and foolish, so we didn’t try to hold on to him when he went his own way somewhere near Malaga. I never knew if those Arabs caught up to him, he saw them loom out of every shadow every day. Somehow I still picture him on the run… Over the years, I have wondered how Joe’s life went. Did his youthful hopes come true? He came from Richmond, Surrey. I always promised myself to look up his name in the phone directory, but never did. Maybe he remained in Spain. A piece of me did. My death.
Seville to wound, Cordoba to die, said Lorca. And Granada to breathe death’s clear air in through my nostrils and throat, and to let it settle in the upper left hand chamber of my heart, which they tell me is faulty now, because the muscle is too big. There are four chambers to a heart, and it is in one of these that there still dwells the chill clarity of death, and the questions that cannot be answered.
Long live Granada, the Moorish queen,
a land watered by the river Genil:
and bless the morning I first saw you
with your gypsy face.
It is what it is.
So be it.