My friends, I have been misleading you. It was inadvertant, I assure you. Based upon my own shallow memory of an afternoon or two watching The Merv Griffin Show some 40 years ago, I had formulated a concept of duende and for years have operated on the assumption that I had it right.
Only now, when I bring it up again, I find that my narrow definition -- confining the quality of duende to a performance measurement -- am I challenged to do a little study and admit I have been wrong.
First off, I said duende was the Italian word for “devils.” A reader who is fluent in Spanish corrected me – it is instead a Spanish word for mischievous elves rather than devils. Playful, rather like Irish leprechauns, they enchant and heckle, but are not threatening. I liked that better. Another reader informed me that the concept of duende in the arts comes from the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcìa Lorca, whose very name is a poem, and whose titles, like The House of Bernarda Alba, evoke the heart of Spain.
I certainly hadn’t known about Lorca and the duende, so I’ve been to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, my old college theatre textbook, and the Internet (in that order) to do some research on Federico Garcìa Lorca. All I knew about him was scenes from plays done in acting class, and a song I used to hear in a café in New Orleans run by a couple from Spain. (I always requested the Garcìa Lorca song. It was melancholy and fatalistic – not that I understood one word, but the melody was melancholy and fatalistic.)
Now I find that is quite fitting that his song was melancholy and fatalistic, as Garcìa Lorca was preoccupied with death in the way so many poets are. In somewhat delicate health all his life, he translated Spanish culture and folklore into high art. In later years he devoted himself to La Barraca, the Spanish traveling theater. He died in the Spanish Civil War, a victim of zealot hoodlums, having lived the life of an artist and lover of his country.
Of duende, he wrote a powerful essay which is available on the Internet. In it he says
The great artists of southern Spain, both gypsies and flamenco, whether singing or dancing or playing their instruments, know that no emotion is possible without the mediation of the Duende. They may hoodwink the people, they may give the illusion of duende without really having it, just as writers and painters and literary fashion-mongers without duende cheat you daily; but it needs only a little care and the will to resist one's own indifference, to discover the imposture and put it and its crude artifice to flight.
Once the Andalusian singer, Pastora Pavon, "The Girl with the Combs," a sombre Hispanic genius whose capacity for fantasy equals Goya's or Raphael el Gallo's, was singing in a little tavern in Cádiz. She sparred with her voice - now shadowy, now like molten tin, now covered with moss; she tangled her voice in her long hair or drenched it in sherry or lost it in the darkest and furthermost bramble bushes. But nothing happened - useless, all of it! The hearers remained silent.
So there is a great deal more to duende than a tantalizing talent which enables a performer to mezmerize a crowd. According to Lorca, it is the duende with which the artist struggles, not with his muse, nor with his angels. If he is not fighting with the devils -- the adversary imps -- for his very life and ability to work at his art, he is impotent. Which is to say, to a real artist, he is dead.
Well, so much for that definition. We’ve got to get this back on a lighter note, back to Merv Griffin and me, slapping this back and forth as if its just a matter of who’s cuter. But the underlying truth is, the duende are out there, infecting all performers. All wish they had it; few, even those who do have it, understand it. Marlon Brando tried in interviews to trivialize it, Jack Nicholson tries time after time to wrestle it to the ground, and we are but the witnesses. Sometimes we need a trained eye to identify its presence. As Lorca wrote, we can be hoodwinked. But when we are truly moved, we know the performance had the blessing of the trickster-devils we can call duende.
And some of us pray that we never be seen as literary fashion-mongers.