Duende: Finding the heart of Flamenco.

Written by

Andrew Millar


October 17, 2008

Most of my classical music appreciation came to me from Bugs Bunny cartoons. I think I have mentioned this in a previous blog somewhere. There were many that used great classic pieces as their soundtracks. But they didn’t restrict their inspirational pool to just white haired, stern looking, long dead composers. Jazz was also a common visitor to their musical muse.

One particular cartoon centred on the traditional story of the 3 Little Pigs under the name ‘The Three Little Bops’. And here it is on YouTube…. enjoy

There are far too many highlights to comment on… the script, music, layout, colour… it’s the perfect package. And I agree with those who think it is the highlight of Fritz Freeling’s art.

However it’s the last line I’ve been thinking about.

‘That Big Bad Wolf he’s learned the rule. You gotta get hot to play real cool.’

So, to Flamenco:… Do you have to be a Gypsy to play Flamenco?

I have to say I have been wrestling with this since I began studying. I am well aware that the more I know, the more I don’t know. Not just about musical theory… of keys and modes… but Flamenco is deeply complex.

If you want to paly the Blues, there is one rhythm pattern to learn – 12 Bar. With Flamenco – Wikipedia, for example, lists 20 styles or palo. And with my limited knowledge, I can see two that are not listed, namely Tangos and Solea Por Bulerias.

Each palo has its own beat, called compas. Which is usually based on 12 beats and then they confuse it all with accents on half beats. And then there are components that come together to make up a piece. The major component is called a falsetas. It’s like a musical idea… a lick or riff. You learn these from each other and swap them between guitarists. I was actually able to give one to my teacher, which gave me a bit of a boost, as it was the fist time I felt I was getting somewhere…

But my question is whether, even if you master the compas, and the speed you need (and some are blistering, Bularias, for example is traditionally played at 240 beats per minute) even then are you Flamenco?

Perhaps the answer is no.

I have several versions of the famous ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ featuring the likes of Julian Bream, John Williams or the genius Paco del Lucia. All brilliant guitarists, but there is something about the way del Lucia plays that captures the essence of the Spanish soul. Before he died the composer himself stated that Paco was the closest to his vision.

So what is the difference? What is this elusive entity? What’s the spark?

The Flamenco call it duende. But while it has a name, it has no agreed up definition.

Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet once tried…

“So, then” he stated “the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’

Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.”

I said to someone the other day that I thought to play true Flamenco you need to stop your heart and restart it to the Flamenco compas. And funnily enough later that night I discovered this that one of my teachers has written. “One must cultivate the ability to listen with the heart. What does that mean? When you hear the brooding sound of Seguiríya or the agitated riding gallop of the Buleria and it makes your blood flow in the other direction – Bingo! That’s listening with the heart.” The duende has taken over.

Paco del Lucia’s ‘Almoraima’ does that to me.

Once again to YouTube:
(It is 1976 so excuse the hair and the flared jeans.)

So you don’t have to go to Spain, or the place the wolf went. But it appears you do need to be hot, or get hot blooded to play cool Flamenco.