duende: a journey into the heart of flamenco

Monday, May 20, 2013:  I love preparing for travel by reading books set in my destination.   For my upcoming trip to Spain and Portugal, I’ve made a list of 22 books I would love to read.  Sadly, I won’t have time to read most of them before I go.  No matter.  I will read them upon my return home.  Either way, reading gives me a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of a new culture.  Reading BEFORE a journey fuels my imagination and prolongs my anticipation.  Reading AFTER a journey allows me to linger in the place long after I’ve returned to my humdrum existence.

Tonight I finished reading Duende: a journey into the heart of Flamenco, by Jason Webster.   It took me awhile to get into this book because I’ve never really had a great interest in flamenco.  I used to think flamenco was just a form of dance, a form that frankly made me impatient whenever I watched it.  I learned in this book that flamenco is a genre of Spanish music, song, and dance from Andalusia, in southern Spain, that includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps) (Wikipedia: Flamenco).

Author Jason Webster left Oxford and went to Spain when, after “four dry, affectionless years,” his Florentine girlfriend left him on the day of his last exam.  Heartbroken, he went to explore the passionate world that had inspired him as a teenager.  After being an academic, he wanted something to do with his hands and decided to learn flamenco guitar in Spain.  His quest was to find duende, “the intense and mysterious emotional state — part ecstasy, part melancholy — that is the essence of Spain’s signature art form: flamenco.”

In Alicante, where he first landed, he took up guitar lessons with a hard-driving, but heartbroken and distracted guitar teacher.  While in that city, he met a passionate flamenco dancer, Lola, who happened to be quite a bit older, and married.  He began an affair with her that was a roller coaster of emotions, often leaving him confused and off-balance.  Personally, I couldn’t see why he would get involved with someone so unpredictable and self-absorbed. I felt this part of the book was not as developed as it could have been, as I could never get a good feel of their relationship from Webster’s portrayal.  It seemed he was just blindly looking for passion in his life.  The passion he found with Lola was ultimately self-destructive and unfulfilling.

When the affair ended abruptly, Jason ran off to Madrid, where he lived a depressed existence in a dingy apartment and joined a group of flamenco-absorbed gypsies.  One of the men he befriended was Jesus, a gypsy that was passionate not only about flamenco, but about stealing cars and taking them for joy rides.  Jason often accompanied Jesus on these car theft sprees.  I couldn’t understand why Jason allowed himself to get involved in this criminal activity with this character who, from what I read of him, wasn’t remotely likable.  When Jesus died in a car accident, in which luckily Jason wasn’t along for the ride, and when Jason’s gypsy friends all abandoned him to get a fresh start in Barcelona, Jason headed for Granada, where he began to get some perspective on his life.

It wasn’t until Jason met Grace, an English woman at least in her 70s, that he started to gain some wisdom and balance in his life.  The first time he met Grace, he was playing his guitar in the gardens of the Alhambra.  She stopped to listen to him and asked him, “How long have you been playing flamenco?”  There was a flash in her crystal-blue eyes that betrayed a much younger spirit inside her aging body.

“A couple of years.”

“Oh really?  As long as that?” She laughed.  “It looked as though the guitar was playing you,” she added.  “Not the other way round, if you see what I mean.  Ha ha!”

Jason was enraged by her comment, and he pondered what she could have meant by it.  Later as he sat trembling and drinking a whiskey at an outdoor cafe, he ran into Grace again.  They struck up a conversation that went on for four hours.  She made him feel comfortable; he felt he could open up to her about anything.  He told her that it was flamenco that brought him to Spain.

She said to him: “Yes, there’s nothing like an obsession to stop us from thinking about what we should really be paying attention to.”  He found an echo in her words and slowly, as their friendship developed, Jason started to realize that he lacked balance in his life.

I love how the author slowly comes to this realization through his friendship with Grace:  “Stifled by the academically oriented life I had been leading in England, I had thrown myself to emotional extremes with Lola and then with Carlos and Jesus.  Now I found myself seeking some sort of balance: neither the madness of what I had lived in Alicante and Madrid, nor a return to the passionless life I had led beforehand.”

Toward the end, Jason said to Grace: “I’ve been thinking about a line of Lorca’s.  He says: ‘A mi se me importa poco que un pajaro pase de un alamo a  otro.'”

“He doesn’t care about little things, about whether a bird flies from one tree to another.  The only things that matter to him are big events.  Life, death, blood, passion.  But he’s wrong.  There’s as much life in a bird, or an insect for that matter.  You miss so much if you only concentrate on the dramatic.”

I love books like this, where the writer goes through an awakening and then changes as a result of his experiences.  I also love learning something that I can relate to in my life.  Yes, balance.  I believe that’s what life is all about.

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5 thoughts on “duende: a journey into the heart of flamenco

  1. Both this one and Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucía sound fabulous. You’ll have to post your list for all those who ever go to Spain. It’s on my bucket list, but not in the near future!

    1. Both books were really good in totally different ways, Marsha. Good reading for Spain….. I’ll definitely post reviews of all the books I read about Spain or Portugal. 🙂

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