Duende is the effect that flamenco, the national dance of Spain, seeks to achieve – a particular emotional impact. Suddenly in the room there’s a collective rapture.

Some hold that the word flamenco implies that Spanish soldiers developed the music in the Duke of Alba’s campaigns in Flanders, but to me this is excessively unlikely, like its Gypsy practitioners’ claim that they came from Egypt, rather than India. I can, however, well believe that the wild cry that starts a flamenco song comes from the muezzin’s call, acquired during Islam’s centuries-long occupation of Spain.

Mostly, though, flamenco is Gypsy, the soul of that strange race, who for a thousand years have lived on petty crime and music, as well as fixing pots and trading, notably horses. Many of the great bullfighters have been gypsies. They refuse to be integrated into any European society, and indeed act so as to arouse hostility. They are usually not conscripted for military service. Their millennium-long history of living on the border of society, frowned on by the law, appears in the sadness underlying their art, like the melancholy of Jewish humor.

One thing I do know, and that is that Merimée’s Carmen really is a Gypsy, a Gypsy through and through.

There are good old books on Gypsy life, notably Lavengro and Romany Rye by George Borrow, author of The Bible in Spain, and In Sara’s Tents, by Walter Starkie (Sara being the Gypsies’ patron saint) but they seem idealized. In any event they aren’t based on the particular tough and exclusive Gypsies in the world of flamenco. I do recommend a movie about Gypsies that that seems accurate: Angelo, My Love.

Today’s itinerant Gypsies, such as those one encounters in Central Europe, notably Romania (whence Romany and Romansh), Bulgaria and Slovenia, are antipathetic. They cruise around in big cars and then take over a village green, spread laundry everywhere, fan out seeking opportunities, legitimate or otherwise, and leave the area a wreck. Here and there in Central Europe, you see a fairly splendid house that you are told belongs to the local “king of the gypsies.” All this is easier for a foreigner to sympathize with than for the local authorities.

Fortunetellers in Gypsy tearooms try to put susceptible widows in touch with their late husband, and if the scam works may extract a lot of money from their victims.

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Flamenco has its own rites and its own terminology, plus a parallel specifically Gypsy vocabulary. The Gypsy language is called by others Romansh, but by themselves Caló. Its words have few obvious connections with other languages: camelar, love; sobar, sleep; jalar, eat.

In flamenco, the first problem is how to hold the guitar. To lift the frets up to the left hand, you need to have the right leg, which supports the body of the instrument, above its natural position. For that, you can put a block under the right foot, or stand the foot on tiptoe, perhaps propped up against the chair leg, or cross the right leg over the left.

Then the left hand assumes a strange grip, with the thumb and little finger supporting the neck of the instrument and the index finger – nails carefully treated – touching the strings: completely unnatural. The spot on the finger of the right hand that hits the strings develops a large, tough callous, which the musician cherishes. If it falls off, he is bereft. (That actually happened to a school buddy of mine named John Perrin, a singular fellow, who having moved to Madrid and set up as a performer, showed me around this strange world.

The underlying beat of flamenco music is called the compás, which the musician must maintain while the singer-dancer may depart from it. It has a strange twelve-beat rhythm: one two THREE four five six SEVEN EIGHT nine TEN eleven TWELVE. One two THREE…

There are many styles or palos of flamenco. One is “deep song;” cante fondo – including the seguirya, soleá, and caňa. Cheerful palos include the alegria and bulleria. Then the erotic tango, beloved of the Argentines, and the sad taranta. At gypsy weddings you hear the alboreá… there’s no end to them.

Unlike other performances (except for sermons in black churches, with the recurrent “amen, brother”) the spectator is expected to pump up the performer, but only in the appropriate way, such as an occasional ole. Not, however, the ole of the bullfight – oLAY – but flamenco style: Ah-lay. This may be said at a moment of high emotion. Some say it comes from Wallah, Arabic “by God.”(1)  Simple encouragement may be eso es – “that’s it” – or vamas ya – “let’s go.” A jaleo, a specialist in these cries, may be at the side of the stage to give proper encouragement to the performer, and is seen on the left of Sargent’s wonderful painting.

When the dancers are a couple, the man keeps circling around the woman while she circles away. He will snap his fingers loudly, or, if the woman does too, many use castanets (which she can use solo, as shown in Whistler’s painting). The woman on her own performs an elegant motion of rotating and opening her hand.

Flamenco songs have extremely brief texts, but packed with immediate, vivid emotion. Those few dozen words – preceded by the llanto, or cry – are then spun out into the whole song. One of the first I remember hearing, in Madrid, was, approximately, “I came around the corner and saw you. Suddenly we were both weeping. For love there is no cure.” That’s all. Profoundly touching! Another: “In this cursed life things are always missing for whoever needs them most.” And, “If one day you didn’t come when I called, death would come instead, and I wouldn’t feel it.” (2)

I remember when as a young fellow I first experienced the passion of duende. Near Granada a local Spanish friend and I went to a venta, a very low-grade tavern. After a while he asked the patron if he could summon up some Gypsies who would like to perform for us. In due course they trickled in and, suitably lubricated, began. They set each other off. After an hour or so they moved to a wonderful sustained platform of true duende. Magic!


(1) Justice Douglas writes of the delight of his Arabic audience when he mentioned attending university in Walla Walla, Washington.

(2) Once I was walking on the beach in Malaga with my local Spanish teacher, Manuel Queipo, watching men hauling in fishing nets.  One called out, “Que se le muera la novia al que no haga fuerza” – “May his sweetheart die who doesn’t pull hard.” Only in Spain!