What is Duende?

I’m researching ecstatic experiences at the moment, which involves looking at ecstasy in the arts. This morning I’ve been reading some Edward Hirsch, the poet and literary critic, who has a very ecstatic conception of art. That’s quite rare these days. There’s a danger, when talking about ecstasy, of sounding like some gushing New Age hippy. On the other hand, if you don’t talk about the ecstatic at all, there’s a danger of sounding like Daniel Dennett.

I’m reading Hirsch’ The demon and the angel: searching for the source of artistic inspiration. It was itself inspired by Hirsch’s reading of a famous essay by the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, about the Spanish notion of duende.

Duende, as far as I understand it, means those moments in artistic activity when something else takes over, when something speaks through you. It’s similar to the Muse or the angel, but these things come from some lofty height, while duende rises up from the chthonic depths, from the body and the groin, from the darkness, from death itself.The word comes from duen de casa, ‘Lord of the house’, meaning a sort of daemon or local spirit.

Lorca writes:

All through Andalusia, from the rock of Jaén to the snail’s-shell of Cadiz, people constantly talk about the duende and recognise it wherever it appears with a fine instinct. That wonderful singer El Lebrijano, creator of the Debla, said: ‘On days when I sing with duende no one can touch me.’: the old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach, and exclaimed: ‘Olé! That has duende!’ but was bored by Gluck, Brahms and Milhaud. And Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: ‘All that has black sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that.


Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Black sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’

You can never be sure if duende will turn up, or if a performance will simply be flat and mechanical. That is the mystery – it is not easily replicable in randomised controlled trials. It is most manifest in live arts like spoken poetry, music or (for Lorca) bull-fighting. You could be in a bar, and everything is stale and flat, and then

La Niña de Los Peines got up like a madwoman, trembling like a medieval mourner, and drank, in one gulp, a huge glass of fiery spirits, and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, breath, colour, but…with duende. She managed to tear down the scaffolding of the song, but allow through a furious, burning duende, friend to those winds heavy with sand, that make listeners tear at their clothes with the same rhythm as the Negroes of the Antilles in their rite, huddled before the statue of Santa Bárbara.

Suddenly the god is there:

In all Arab music, dance, song or elegy, the arrival of duende is greeted with vigorous cries of ‘Allah! Allah!’ so close to the ‘Olé!’ of the bullfight, and who knows whether they are not the same? And in all the songs of Southern Spain, the appearance of the duende is followed by sincere cries of: ‘Viva Dios!’ deep, human, tender cries of communication with God through the five senses, thanks to the duende that shakes the voice and body of the dancer, a real, poetic escape from this world, as pure as that achieved by that rarest poet of the seventeenth century Pedro Soto de Rojas with his seven gardens, or John Climacus with his trembling ladder of tears.

The poet Frank O’Hara remembers one such moment of duende, when he was in the Five Spot in New York to listen to Mel Waldron. Billie Holiday was in the audience, and everyone begged her to sing. It was actually illegal for her to perform in a venue that sold liquor, as she’d recently been arrested for heroin possession, but she did anyway. By that stage her voice was almost gone, but she still used it to convey an electrifying emotion (as Seneca said, ‘the skilled pilot can steer even with a torn sail’). O’Hara remembers:

she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mel Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

(from the poem, ‘The Day Lady Died‘)

Why does duende seem particularly to inhabit damaged souls? Why is it sometimes out of moments of brokenness and despair that people create art that soars? Perhaps you have to know spiritual imprisonment and despair to know the elation of moments of freedom. Perhaps it is when you are at the limits of your consciousness that you can find gifts to bring back. Perhaps that’s the idea behind the lines by Leonard Cohen:

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

It’s also worth remembering, in these vapid managerial days of ‘ten top tips for creativity’, that for people who really have duende, sometimes it destroys them. It can be both a gift and a curse. Like a torero with a bull, an artist is engaged in a sort of dance with their duende, flirting with disaster, seeing how vulnerable and exposed they can be to their own destruction while still emerging with a flourish.

Are there moments you remember of duende in music? Lorca’s essay makes me think particularly of Amy Winehouse, a queen of ‘black sounds’, whose voice could electrify like no one else’s in her generation. The electricity of her voice, shivering like an exposed wire, seemed to be connected to her vivid sense of her own vulnerability, brokenness, and mortality.  But this gave her music an occasional elation, a sudden soaring from the limits she was so conscious of.

So, for example, listen to the duende in this plaintive song, complaining wearily about her lover, and then suddenly soaring off from 3.10:

Or watch this performance at the Brits, where she goes on stage after Adele, and just completely out-duende‘s her, and puts in a performance so joyous and alive it seems to redeem the whole tawdry artificial spectacle of an industry award show.

Here, by the way, is an excellent Nick Cave lecture on duende and melancholia in pop music. Thanks to Eliot Whittington for pointing it out to me.