It is a pleasure beyond my power to express it to have witnessed an ex-student dance flamenco last night. The little innocent six-year old who sang “Doctor Foster went to Gloucester” with her sweet confident voice on our school recording turned to the emerging 8th grader playing drums and jazz piano and now arrived at the 35-year old powerful woman pounding out powerful rhythms with her feet, weaving graceful circles with her arms and embodying a whole culture’s grief-cry with the spirit of duende. The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca gave a famous lecture on this word in 1933, summarized in Wikipedia as follows:
“Duende is associated with irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is an earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding them that "ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head"; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps them create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca's lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call "angel"), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; they have to battle it skillfully, "on the rim of the well", in "hand-to-hand combat". To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca's words, "a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience... the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.…The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
Last night’s performance was in a small room above a coffeehouse, the right setting for this power to be palpable. And it was. In a small question and answer period, someone lamented to the singer that she doesn’t speak Spanish and thus, felt like she was missing something by not understanding the words. The singer replied, “The words are last. What they mean is secondary to how I sing it. The important thing is to feel the loneliness, isolation, anguish, pain in the quality of the singing and guitar-playing. The beautiful thing about singing flamenco is that there’s nowhere to hide, you can’t sing it coolly and with detachment. It requires every fiber in your body, it is 1000 percent commitment.”
This music, developed in the living blood of Andalucian gypsies, is a conglomeration of North African, Indian, Jewish and Spanish influence, a hybrid mongrel just like the blues in the United States. Like the blues, it deals with the dark side of the matter, exclaiming in no certain terms the grief that is our rightful inheritance and that we all struggle so hard to hide from. I’m reading a powerful book by Martin Prechtel about Grief and Praise (The Smell of Rain on Dust) that states in no uncertain terms that our ability to praise life and live fully is wholly dependent on our ability to meet grief head on. When a culture goes to great lengths to shut it out by building well-lit shopping malls, stuffing itself with sophomoric entertainment, pasting on “have a nice day” smiles, preferring life without bugs and dirt, hiding in wimpy faith or carefully constructed dry intellect, all that unmetabolized grief has to go somewhere. And it does. Into depression, into violence, into arts ripped out of schools, into schools as killing fields, into Wall Street playboys eating the world with their money-greed, into Donald Trump bidding to run the country. It’s a serious matter.
So whenever the blues is wholly sung or flamenco fully danced or Ghanaian drums are roaring or Balinese Rangdas battle the Barong, Soul stands up and claps its hands, our great grief cry is sounded and an inch of healing takes place for all present. What a joy to see my former student commit to this path, to cook darkness into unbridled joy through her disciplined practice and efforts. Good choice. Art is not the only way to achieve it and flamenco (or blues or jazz or Bach or virtuosic ukulele) is not the only form with enough heat to cook us, but it’s a damn good one. Authentic spiritual practice, gardening, raising kids, immigration or environmental law and a thousand other things could do it if we allowed grief into the practice. But a tradition like flamenco that demands the hand-to-hand combat with the suffering of the world is a worthy path.
Last night’s performers were from Argentina, Palestine-Israel, Texas and San Francisco. Not an Andalucian gypsy amongst them. Not having been born into it, I asked what attracted them to it. The singer replied that he was in crisis and he saw an ad in the paper “Flamenco workshop.” As simple as that, art saved his life. A dancer said she loved the way she could go to the depths of a masculine and feminine quality to feel her full power as a woman. The guitarist remarked, “I guess I was drawn to it because this music is everything I am not.”
The Dalai Lama famously said, “Kindness is my religion” and I think that he would affirm that such kindness is hard-won through a face-to-face encounter with “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” I suppose that initiating children into the power of the arts is my religion, teaching with kindness, with passion, with innocence ripening into mature embodiment of the light and dark (and thus, real innocence preserved), with learning how to become large enough to contain all of life’s power through the struggle with rhythm, melody, harmony, form, technique, ensemble and more.
Thank you, Christina, for your dedication, for your work, for your commitment, for your power to become wholly yourself on the dance floor and heal the world. Perhaps Doctor Foster was prophetic— you are now a doctor of the soul paying house calls.