There are many taurine words and expressions that lose a great deal in their translations to English. The word “bullfight” is a prime example.
Literally translated, “a bullfight” would be a combat between or among bulls. But, that would hardly come close to describing the “corrida de toros”, (“running of the bulls”).
Contributing to the problem, rodeo clowns call themselves “bullfighters.” But, for the purpose of this commentary, we’ll stick with “bullfight” as it applies to tauromachy.
In the lexicon of toreo, what is meant by “cargando la suerte,” “fuera de cacho,” “corriendo la mano,” “al quiebro,” “poder a poder,” “parar,” “mandar” and “temp-lar”? What are “terrains”? None of those terms can be precisely defined by mere words. Demonstration is far easier. But, sometimes, even that resource doesn’t cut it.
Take the word, “duende.” Certain toreros are known for possessing and demonstrating it, yet those who are not capable of achieving it cannot call upon it to appear; nor can they emulate it. Adding to the difficulty of defining it is that duende doesn’t apply exclusively to bullfighting. It can be used to describe other performing arts, especially flamenco and progressive jazz. It often takes form in artistic improvisation. But, what is it?
In an effort to define it, Bullfight World solicited opinions from several experienced aficionados. Yet, no real consensus was reached.
Duende’s roots are in Southern Spain and seem to be a property exclusive to gypsies. The New Oxford English dictionary defines it as “a ghost, an evil spirit, inspiration, magic, and fire,” while The Random House Dictionary describes it as “a goblin, demon, spirit, charm, magnetism.” The American Heritage Dictionary calls it, “The ability to attract others, through personal magnetism and charm.”
Let’s examine that which historians, both old and new, have said about duende.
In a lecture, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca said, “All through Andalusia, people speak constantly of duende and recognize it with unfailing instinct when it appears.”
The famous flamenco singer, El Lebrijano, said, ‘When I sing with duende, no one can equal me.’
Manuel Torres said, “All that has dark sounds has duende… These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which genuine art emerges.”
Thus, according to Torres, duende is a power and not a behavior; it is a personal struggle, rather than a concept. He continues.
“I have heard an old master guitarist say, ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet, which means it is not an ability, but of real life form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action’.”
Therefore, we must conclude that duende deals with space, rhythm, time, courage, and inspiration, the melding of two entities. When it happens in bullfighting, it is in the form of personal expression“soul” if you mustan expressive, improvisational art that far exceeds the norm. It transcends even the extraordinary.
But, what do contemporary historians have to say about it?
As one responding aficionado, Jeff Pledge, put it, duende is “the dividing line between those who think that good technique makes good art, and those who sense that art can sometimes transcend technique to express a further dimension of human communication.”
But, perhaps the most realistic description of duende was provided by the fine amateur torero, Jim Verner, who wrote:
“As I see it, the current taurine sense of the word is closely linked to the flamenco meaning, and I would describe it as inspiration, or soul, in the artistic sense. In a more traditional artistic sense, it would be similar to being touched by a Muse, when performing. This concept is pretty simple, but many aficionados seem to take duende into a house of mirrors, with distortions and convolutions that go with such reflections, often limiting their meaning of duende to their preferred style, which really goes far off the track from the rather straight forward, taurine sense of the word.”
So, the next time that some aficionado asks you to define duende, perhaps the best answer would be: It’s an elusive, almost mystic quality, something magic and mysterious; it’s spiritual, even superstitious, something that dramatically transcends the established mechanics, science, and techniques of the performance, something that cannot be precisely defined or explained in any manner that is acceptable to all; it’s akin to a torero, stepping out of his own body to communicate, ever so briefly, with higher powers. It’s indefinable, yet indelible. But, we know it when we are privileged enough to witness it, and when that happens, we’ll never forget it. All else fails, by comparison.
So, have we responded to the question, “What is duende?” Not by a long shot. It’s still something that is in the eye of the beholder, something mystical that is both romantic and surreal, and those who have never witnessed it will never understand or appreciate its passionate intensity.
It seizes one’s heart.
But, in any case, it is not a term to be bandied about as being either common or traditional. It far exceeds tradition, being more in line with genius or even the supernatural. It’s an orgasm, celebrated by otherwise opposing forces, a joyous happening, formed by the union of heaven and hell, even to those who do not believe in those concepts. It’s an awakening, an epiphany, a serendipity. It appeals more to the heart than to the mind. It touches a magic chord that resonates throughout the performance. It’s hypnotic. It’s thunder and lightning in an otherwise clear blue sky. It makes one feel like crying.