The gypsy in me

Last week I visited a Romani caravan.  It’s a delightful caravan, charmingly restored (and you can rent it out for your holidays: http://www.ramblingrosecaravan.co.uk/index.html) but as is often the case with long anticipated trips I wanted something more.  In this case what I wanted was a connection, a sense of recognition.  Because throughout the build up to this visit I’d been thinking of how my father and Aunt Addie used to say we’re descended from Spanish gypsies, and how I want that to be true.

You know what I mean by a sense of recognition.  It’s the feeling you get when you step off a plane, train or ferry in a country or city you’ve never visited before and although you couldn’t for the life of you find your way to the nearest bar, let alone a post office, something ancient inside you whispers I know this place, provoking a deep yearning that couldn’t possibly come from your own memory.

I’ve had it while drinking ouzo and eating a saucer of olives and feta cheese on a step that served as a terrace at a tiny taverna on Serifos but never in Italy or even in France.  And I’ve had it in Spain; it’s particularly strong in Spain, that sense of connection (you see where I’m heading with this).

I haven’t visited Spain in years; I haven’t been abroad in years.  But in the absence of actually stepping foot on Spanish soil, listening to music has a similar effect.  Take Gitano Camarón de la Isla (Gitanos are Spanish Romanies, Flamenco their cultural heart) accompanied here by guitarist Tomatito:

Listening to this I can see and smell the dusty sierras of Andalusia, mountain villages as white as aching teeth, the black silhouettes of metal bulls advertising ‘Brandy de Jerez’ standing proud and impotent on dusty hilltops.  The boiled dry heat of afternoons, cicadas whirring, everything lizard pale and dry; restless, febrile nights when you might as well drink brandy until morning because you know you’ll never sleep.

For a heartbeat or two I feel as if Spain is inside me, offering up a gift from the past.  My heritage, my blood!  But maybe, just maybe, it’s because I’m in the presence of true duende.

Federico García Lorca defined duende as a dark creative force, contrasting it with the angel and the muse in a lecture called ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’  (http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm).  The angel guides and the muse dictates, he says, but they both exist above and beyond whereas the duende has to be ‘roused from the furthest habitations of the blood’:  ‘All that has dark sound has duende, that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain … The great artists of Southern Spain, Gypsy or flamenco, singers dancers, musicians, know that emotion is impossible without the arrival of the duende … it 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.”’

It’s duende I’m really after with this longing for a gypsy heritage, in life and in art.  I was desperate for a whiff of it in what I call my pre-death years, watching Frida over and over, listening to Chavela Vargas (a Mexican singer who allegedly had an affair with Frida Kahlo and who features in the film), trying to pummel some life and colour into my heart, not realising it was cling-filmed in fear and foil-wrapped in rage.

If duende is a struggle, it was more likely there in the search itself, than in the desire to transcend it.  It’s also there at the conception of a poem, when the faint wingbeat of an impulse fights to be heard above the din of sandwich fillings and tax returns.  If the impulse isn’t shrugged off – and most are – it’s there in the ensuing battle to invoke it in words before it’s wrestled to the ground by the security guards protecting image and reputation, lured to its death by the siren calls of commerce and fame, however small, or mugged by petty thugs like irony and fashion.

Few impulses survive, few retain the magic and mystery of their original breath.  But my guess is that more survive in Spanish art than anywhere else.  Because, while Lorca said you didn’t need to be Spanish to be touched by duende, that every art and country is capable of it, he also conceded that the art of Spain, a country where death is a national pastime, is almost always stirred by duende.

Think about Goya, and in particular the nightmarish image of terror, anxiety, helplessness and despair in The Dog, one of the Black Paintings he painted directly on to the walls of his house in Manzanares, near Madrid.

'The Dog' by Goya

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~ by Lorna Thorpe on August 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “The gypsy in me”

  1. Nick Cave discussed the duende in his lecture on love songs here. It’s quite fascinating.

    • Oh, that’s sublime – a match for Lorca, I’d say, and touched by duende itself. Wonderful breadth of references. And I completely agree with the artists he singles out as having duende – particulary Leonard Cohen (well, I would), PJ Harvey and Tom Waits. Thank you for the link.

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