I’m wandering in a shadowy part of town. It is dusk in my dream. I am lost. Can’t find my purse. I think I’m headed for a staircase when I hit a wall. I am told I’m in the Duende—which is the name of a trickster spirit or elf in the mythos of Southern Spain. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca insisted that duende was essential for the arts. For Lorca duende includes “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical” writes Christopher Maurer in the Preface to a lovely little book called In Search of Duende.
Duende is the force that drives this work. Duende is a difficult-to-define phrase used in the Spanish arts, including performing arts. From the original meaning (a fairy- or goblin-like creature in Spanish and Latin American mythology), the artistic and especially musical term was derived.
Gabrielle Lorca writes:
“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘It is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
“Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.” (ie emotional ‘blackness’).
“This mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya.”
“The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”
“All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”
Garcia Lorca, Play and Theory of the Duende
The meaning as in tener duende (having duende) is a rarely-explained concept in Spanish art, particularly flamenco, having to do with emotion, expression and authenticity. In fact, tener duende can be loosely translated as having soul.
El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as physical/emotional response to music. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive.