Flamenco: Duende

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This is the second in a four-part series on flamenco, an art form that was named to UNESCO’s Representative List of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010, while I was traveling through Spain. The criteria for that designation requires that the practice must be transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity. It is something traditional that is passed on from the past but is also alive and constantly evolving. This series is intended to share my experience of flamenco as embodying Andalusia’s heart and soul, with its people as a prism, offering glimmers of the art’s history and future. This installment in the series features the history of flamenco and the magical phenomenon of duende. – MP

Seville, capital of southern Spain’s Andalusia region and Epicenter of Flamenco

Stepping out onto the sunlit cobblestones of the narrow street, I heard the unmistakable sound of a glorious day being heralded. Trumpets blared, drums rolled and cymbals clashed — literally. I recognized the brassy strains of a parade in progress and kicked up my heels, hurriedly heading to face the music. I sometimes have a knack for stumbling upon unexpected celebrations when traveling and Seville was smiling upon me.

With my ears as my guide, I trotted through maze-like lanes until I caught up with the tail end of a long line of marching band clubs at the broad boulevard of Paseo de Colon on the banks of the river Guadalquivir. The troop, a cross-section of Sevillenos, took a breather in front of Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza and enjoyed a few moments of camaraderie, many of them lighting up cigarettes. Their crisp navy uniforms stood in contrast to the golden hues of the bullring’s Neoclassical façade looming behind them.

Whatever one might think about the Spanish bullfighting ritual, the elegant architecture of these plazas feels inspired. Seville’s bullring dates from 1762 -1881 and was immortalized in Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” which centers on a fiery gypsy whose free-spirited ways hasten her end.

The gypsy community is alive and well in Seville today, an important part of the city’s cultural fabric and history. Indeed, the gitanos are credited with being the catalytic force behind the creation of flamenco, of which Seville has long been considered the epicenter.

“The gypsies left India in the 6th century and were wanderers through Africa and Europe,” Manuel Macías, Director of Seville Congress & Convention Bureau told me. “It is said that gypsies travelled in one huge caravan to Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq, where they split into two routes. There is evidence one group came through the east, and Hungary, Romania and Central Europe, then crossed through France and the Pyrenees into Spain.”

“While there is no proven history on this, it is said that a second branch of this caravan came through Egypt, where they worked in the mines,” he continued. “The reference of the gypsies working in Egyptian mines is very weak and comes from some flamenco lyrics. Nowadays it is said by experts that current gypsies coming from this flow have blonde hair and blue or green eyes. These were known as the gitanos béticos–Baetica was the name of Andalucia in Roman times.”

During my own wanderings in Seville and other parts of Andalucia, I got glimpses of the lore behind the renowned gypsy roaming. These stories were often shared with cautionary caveats that many were without evidence and could just as easily be manufactured myth. Yet the people passing on these legends did so with obvious delight. I was only too pleased to receive the tales in the same spirit. There is no denying the appeal for the romantic rebel in all of us of a mysterious, eternal existence in exile, one with few responsibilities–and perhaps royal roots.

(Left) Spanish Gypsies by Francis William Topham (15 April 1808 – 31 March 1877) (Private collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History of Flamenco: Cultural Legacy of 15th Century Gypsies Lives On Today in Andalusia

One story I heard claimed the gypsies descend from the Egyptian pharaohs; the term gitano is said to derive from “egipciano” or “egiptano.” Another explained that their nomadic lifestyle resulted from refusing to help Mary and Joseph. Yet another legend tells of a gypsy blacksmith being asked to fashion four nails. While forging the fourth, he was told they were to be used for Christ’s crucifixion. The flaming-hot nail was dropped and has ever since pursued and haunted the gypsies.

According to Macias, the gitanos béticos are well-integrated among Andalucian natives, many with jobs in agriculture or related to animals, mainly horses–where they are regarded as highly-skilled.

“The important point is that gypsies are all over the world–but only in Andalucía did they perform flamenco!” Macias exclaimed. “When they arrived in Spain in 1475 a special mixture occurred, with the gypsy rhythms combining with the influences of many civilizations that had left their seal on Andalucía — Greeks, from ancient Crete, Romans, Phoenicians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.”

Throughout my travels, it was easy to see how Andalucía had enticed all these cultures, even the wandering gitanos béticos, to call this region home. Most believe like Macias that it was the gypsies who stirred the cultural pot, adding more than a dash of their own spices, to create the artistic gazpacho of flamenco, today consider as the quintessential emblem of Andalucia.

“Flamenco music is Andalucian history,” declared Judy A. Cotter, a professor of Spanish culture and art history in Seville. “When the gypsies arrived from their ancestral home of India in 1477, they encountered almost eight centuries of Arabic musical tradition and over 10 centuries of Jewish musical elements. Both the Arabic muecin who called the faithful to prayer and the Jewish cantor intoned the “Oriental scale” based upon quarter-tones and eighth-tones, which still today give the flamenco song its “wailing” quality. It also lends flamenco cante, or song, its great emotive and creative quality.”

“The notes sung cannot be written down in Western sheet music,” Cotter added. “Hence practicing and rehearsing in the traditional sense are not part of the flamenco repertoire. The singing is an explosion of a particular emotion that is unique and unrepeatable.”

Fitting of an art form that exudes mystery, sensuality and the exotic, the very origins of the name “flamenco” is uncertain. Consensus is that its origins come from the Arabic Felah-Mengu which means “wandering country person.”

Tablao El Arenal Owner Fran Velez Explains the Mysterious Spirit of Duende

If Seville is flamenco’s mecca, then the Tablao El Arenal is where aficionados come to pay homage to some of the art’s brightest stars.

El Arenal means “the sandy area” from the word arena, meaning “sand.” For about 300 years, from the discovery of the Americas to the end of the 17th century, Seville was one of the most important ports in the world, referred to as “The Port and Portal” to America. The entire riverbank is referred to as El Arenal; it is one of Seville’s many barrios, vying with Triana across the river, El Centro, and La Macarena for being one of the city’s most historic and emblematic neighborhoods.

Fran Velez manages the renowned Tablao El Arenal, which was opened in 1975 by his father and mother, Curro and Antonia. The couple were famous flamenco dancers who bridged the world between gypsies and non-gypsies through their continent-hopping performances.

Fran’s father grew up in la Cava de los Gitanos in Triana and began dancing when he was 12. His mother was not a gypsy and was already dancing when they met. Curro was described to me variously as gorgeous in a rough-hewn way, swashbuckling, and mysterious-looking. I was told that he and Antonia were profoundly connected both artistically and emotionally, and that Curro was devastated when she died. While Antonia’s DNA may not have been gypsy, it was said to me that she was the very essence of gypsy soul.

Curro Velez

Curro collected antiques, as well as Spanish and taurine art and many of these pieces contribute to the rich atmosphere of El Arenal. Works by the early 20th century Spanish impressionist painter Sorolla adorned the walls, and beautiful bronze sculptures of bull-fighters and flamenco dancers graced niches and pedestals.

While gypsies are very much a part of Andalucia’s broader community, Curro was one of the first gypsy impresarios, parlaying his performance career into a successful business enterprise and integrating into the payo, or non-gypsy, community through his ambition. He and Antonia were known for their active management of the tablao, attending every single performance, fussing over details and quick to rebuke any member of the audience not paying sufficient attention with a pointed “Shhhhh.”

I joined Fran at his corner table, where he had a bird’s eye view of the room. A dapper man in a crisp white shirt set off with gleaming cuff links and an ascot, we spoke through an interpreter. I recognized Fran’s command of English couldn’t have been too bad as he often began answering my questions in Spanish before they had been translated.

Fran told me that most of the artists he hires come to him seeking an audition although sometimes he will seek them out. He mentioned a new performer who would be dancing, a gypsy named Moises. With an admiring grin, Fran described how the newcomer had just showed up one day and wanted to try out. There are now more than 15 artists with the tablao–more than half of the dancers are gypsies; the singers are almost always gypsies.

I asked Fran about duende, a term I had heard used to describe certain performers.

“For duende to appear, the artists have to be in the right place, connected with themselves and each other,” Velez said. “If the public is receptive, they transmit that interior force. The environment has to be intimate, being close is important.”

“Some of the flamenco evolution is good, and some is screwing it up,” he continued. “Flamenco has its roots–you can evolve but you should never forget your roots. When people make a spectacle out of it, go for it, but don’t call it flamenco. Clubs in Malaga and along the coast have bastardized it.”

While no doubt Fran had a vested interest in his chosen style of presentation, he felt great conviction that Tablao El Arenal’s intimate approach to the art was the correct one. I was about to experience the palpable force made possible by that kind of proximity, the phenomenon of duende, defined by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher can explain.”

Duende Comes Alive with Passionate Call & Response of Palmas, Pitos & Bailaor

As I took my seat at a banquette that abutted the small stage, the house lights lowered. At the back of the stage against the wall were five men in black. Three were seated at high-backed chairs, flanked by two men who stood. The men sitting began playing their guitars, weaving together meandering rhythms, as the two men standing began laying down a syncopated percussion beat that at first I found awkward and irregular, but within moments had me mesmerized.

The flamenco clapping is known as palmas and the finger-snapping is called pitos. Many flamenco elements are onomatopoeic: the sound of the blacksmith’s anvil created the martinete; rhythms of different gaits of horse hoof-beats inspired the intricate footwork.

The first dancer, or bailaor, to take the stage was the newly-hired Moises, wearing a fitted jumpsuit, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. One of the men standing uttered an earthy cry that lowered into a chant and then soared into a righteous proclamation, lowering again into what sounded like an insistent warning. The singer segued from one mood to another, and the bailaor went with him, as did each performer on stage.

The call and response became fiercer and wilder, whipping into a crescendo. I was transported by the savage grace and proud bearing of the dancer, the alternately tender finger work and fierce strumming by the guitarists and the lilt and keen of the cantaor’s voice.

Drenched in sweat, his wet hair flying, Moises seemed to have been elevated to another realm, his eyes wide with rapture, when his neck scarf fell to the floor. In a fluid motion he kicked it toward my ringside seat, where it landed on the tablecloth. I realized I had been holding my breath and exhaled deeply, joining the rest of the audience in heartfelt applause.

“Duende is something you are born with or not,” Maria Angeles Carrasco of Agencia Andaluza para el Desarrollo del Flamenco later told me. “It’s an intangible part of flamenco that can’t be explained, that either happens or it doesn’t. You have it, or you don’t have it. In some performances, the magic of duende may appear, or not, depending on the venue, the atmosphere, the people, the small details.”

“But duende is not only a moment, or improvisation,” she continued. “Flamenco is a very defined art. You must train for many years to develop the skills–singing, dancing or playing the guitar. And once you have mastered these facets, you can improvise. The duende may appear. But if you don’t have the skills, if you don’t have the technique, duende is not possible.”

Moises most certainly had it, as did the other performers I came to know that night.

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar, in front of Charles V Pavilion.(1851) Alfred Dehodencq [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the next set, an older woman named Carmen took the stage, walking toward the audience with the saunter of a seasoned veteran, her legs surprisingly shapely for her years. She issued a few emphatic claps, as if a mother claiming our respect. Looking out, she spoke to the audience in a matter-of-fact way, appearing to be conversing with us. All while, she paced across the stage, snapping her fingers and sizing us up with a shrewd eye.

Adjusting the shawl or manton around her shoulders, she sat down in a small chair center stage and began to shake her finger at the audience as she sang in a weary, hoarse voice. The beat of the song seemed tailor-made for someone of her stature, and she seemed to be saying “I am going to tell you something important about life, and you better listen.” Behind her, each of the men periodically shouted out, as if underscoring a vital point.

According to flamencologist Mariano Baguena, flamenco does not depend so much upon vocal perfection as on the ability of the singer to convey an intense emotion – and on the receptivity of the listener as well. The flamenco perfomer expresses in his tone, in the harsh quality of his voice, all the suffering of his life and of his people.

“You can be short, crippled, fat, homely and ancient, and still have duende,” observed Cotter. “Carmen’s got it. She is, in fact, the matriarch of one of the most important gypsy flamenco families in Spain – the Montoya’s. The famous guitarist Carlos Montoya was a member of this family. Carmen is now in her mid-to-late seventies. When she moves and emotes, the duende is released. Everyone is her captive and can see glimpses of a beautiful, sexy and passionate female, a true inner beauty.”

“Carmen’s son died several years ago” Cotter told me. “I didn’t see her perform for several weeks afterwards, but on the night she returned, I was moved beyond words by her heart-felt, heart-wrenching performance. She sang like I had never heard her sing before; she keened on the stage; her heart was rent asunder and it was not just a performance.”

“After the show, I approached her to give her my condolences on the death of her son and my congratulations and admiration for her performance,” Cotter continued. “She told me that her son was the energy behind the performance and that she was singing and moving for him, releasing her demons in a cathartic explosion over which she had no control. A Spanish line describes a degree of this same feeling: Cantando la pena, la pena se olvida, or ‘Singing of sorrow, sorrow is forgotten.’”

The next bailaor to take the stage goes by the nick-name of “Antoñete.” I learned that most performers use one-name monikers and was told that only Fran’s accountant at El Arenal likely knew the last names of the tablao’s artists.

A sleek man with not an ounce of body fat, his motions were both electric and fluid, with no wasted movements. His performance was high voltage from his first step through what must have been his millionth; Antoñete struck me as likely the fastest human being on the planet. At the dramatic conclusion of his piece, he displayed a long sequence of rapid-fire leg motions, in which his legs seemed to vibrate.

This leg-work is called zapateado, with taconeo referring specifically toheel-work. In order to perform the technique properly, the dancer has to “sit” – meaning to bend his or her legs slightly so the knees don’t lock. This releases them to perform the rapid leg-work, which is enhanced by the shoes and the platform. The wooden platform is called a “tabletop” or tablao in Andalucian slang–also the name for the flamenco clubs. The dancing is always performed on a wooden surface in order for the golpes, or “blows,” of the shoes to resonate.

All flamenco dancers’ shoes have a corrugated rubber sole on the ball of the foot, for traction. The tips of the shoes and the heels have had tiny nails hammered in–the point, of course, is cut off. In this way the striking of the nails on the wooden platform creates a sound akin to the tap, but the flamenco dancer’s shoe is not a solid piece of metal, so the sound produced is different and unique.

Antoñete’s artistry and stamina were astounding and clearly deeply respected by his peers. Throughout his performance, the guitarists and cantaors smiled and cried out with sounds of support — either Olé!” or Eso e, meaning “Way to go!” At the zenith of the dance, Antoñete’s hair was dripping, his nostrils flared, and lips moving. One of the singers who had been watching with awe, moved out toward him, and put his arm round him, shouting exuberantly. It seemed the entire audience sat back, happily depleted, when Antoñete took his bows.

If Antoñete was motion personified, the next performer put a human face on the quality of balance. The women’s name was Maria, and she wore a dress with a long train–I later learned this costume is called a bata de cola – a “robe with a tail.” The “tail” is enormously heavy–8-10 pounds–and no doubt it had to be extremely difficult and physically taxing to maneuver gracefully while, at the same time, concentrating on leg work and arm work. The precision and style of Maria’s braceo, or arm motion, in and of itself seemed like an entire language.

If one observes the hands of a female flamenco dancer, the motions very much simulate the sensual movement of the snake. The motions are begun by leading with the middle finger, “the “heart finger” and forming a circle with the thumb. According to Cotter, in the Andalucian city of Cadiz, 1,500-year old frescoes were found on the walls of an ancient temple depicting earth goddesses. The women’s hands held writhing snakes, a symbol of fertility.

Like Antoñete, Maria enthralled both the audience and her fellow artists. She reeled about the very small stage, engaging in repeated bouts of intense spinning that would have challenged someone without a 10-pound appendage. The performance required supernatural balance, as well as an acute awareness of the physical space around her. Breathing heavily and clenching her jaw , she spun like a top, twirling the tail dexterously this way and that, moving dangerously close to the musicians and then backing away.

There was a strong element of suspense in the air — would she be able to exercise the seemingly inhuman focus and concentration necessary to bring the performance to its conclusión? She herself exuded utter confidence as to where the tail would land in relation to her fellow performers and even the audience– a miscalculation could have meant her “tail” ending up in my tapas!

Just like those of us in the audience, the performers on stage with Maria couldn’t take their eyes off her, their countenances lit with amazement and joy. As her spinning reached its apex, the guitarists and cantaors each called out her name, punctuated with a cry of Vámonos! or Guapa! When the dance was done, the audience stood and cheered, as if for a champion matador who had impressively wielded a magnificent cape.

I ended my day as it had begun, mesmerized by music on the banks of Seville’s Guadalquivir. In this city, a visiting payo can cheer a parade in the morning and bailaors at midnight, and, in between, enjoy roaming its charming streets. With a little luck, chances are some duende will be discovered along the way.


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