We continue our “From the Cave” series with an essay by Martha Ezell. Martha joined us on our Deep Travel Andalusia workshop as we went in search of duende. We invite you to read what she found—umbrellas, flamenco, and all….
By Martha Ezell
“Simple, real mystery, sound and healthy, without gloomy forests or rudderless ships; a terrible question with no answer,” said the Spanish poet Lorca ” of the concept of el duende.
The rain comes down steadily on the windows of the train taking me from Barcelona, where I have landed, the 8-hour journey south to Granada where I will explore this Spanish theory of duende and how to invite it into one’s writing.
The rain comes down harder as I arrive in Granada. I am drenched walking the few blocks from the taxi to our meeting spot in an old downtown bar. Christina and Anna, our hosts for the week, meet me with warm hugs and what will be the single most useful item for this particular week in “sunny” Spain: a large umbrella.
Clear of color, with see-through sheltering sides trimmed in turquoise, the umbrella lets me keep an eye on the narrow, twisting passageways and smooth cobblestones as well as the high tan walls of the Albayzin, the old Moorish quarter of the city. The Sacramonte neighborhood, where we will stay, is now a mix of locals and tourists that dwell in and near caves carved out hundreds of years ago by gypsies and other marginalized communities. The Alhambra, the massive palace and fortress that towers majestically over all of Granada, is on the opposite hillside, visually rooting all of those below firmly and continuously in Spanish history.
This unusual spring weather keeps Madrid and Paris in snow, and Granada, for this week, will be seen from under the sheltering umbrellas. We dodge in and out of small bakeries, tapas bars, and cozy cafes to seek shelter. No lounging in the sun for us!
Still, it suits our subject matter and our temperaments. We are studying Lorca, for God’s sake. An outspoken poet, playwright, and gay man in the time of Franco’s dictatorship and takeover of Spain’s morality, Lorca was put to death for the crime of being himself.
The duende Lorca wrote, “is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. The duende seizes not only the artist, but also the audience. [It is] the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives in the heart of certain works of art.”
If Lorca’s poetry is duende’s voice, flamenco dancing gives it physical expression.
A flamenco ensemble introduces us to duende in a small, dark nightclub late on the first evening. The dancers’ intense and oft-times anguished expressions are worn like a part of their costume. Their gestures display their emotions as they perform. They are staring down the enemy, stomping their feet, clicking their fingers, ruffling their skirts, grabbing their jackets, feet in continuous movement, arms aloft, passion erupting.
Is this always a dance of darkness?
My answer comes later as we visit a traditional cave home where one of our Spanish guides with gypsy heritage welcomes us into the family cave. We are greeted by smells of saffron and shrimp from a large pan of steaming paella on the outdoor stove. We are high above town with the Alhambra facing us like a painting on the opposite hillside. Their cave home is painted white inside and opens into several rooms. As we gather in the cave after eating, the family’s father begins to play the guitar.
Our hostess gets up to dance. She teaches flamenco locally, but this is a family circle, and it is a party. The dance is more relaxed. Family members and friends begin to clap and sing in the traditional style that always accompanies the dance. The singer behind her creates a high-pitched mournful song, almost mid-Eastern to my ears, as he claps. It is a mystical and mysterious melody and driving rhythm that plays background to the drama unfolding on the dance floor.
Her dance is performed with all the traditional elements of flamenco, one hand reaching, the fingers snapping, the twirling of the full skirt, heels stomping the ground quickly and rhythmically. She is telling her story and it is not without an occasional smile. She improvises elements that insert her own meaning, creating her own testimony, sharing her unique struggle. It is beautiful and fierce.
This is the flamenco dance of the people, the flamenco I have come to find. Flamenco demands the expression of one’s deepest emotions, recognizing the difficult forces in a life, embracing the dark with the light. The dancer appears to be chasing away suffering, staring down despair, scaring away the urge to give up—her body writhing, her feet flying, her soul proud.
This is not a sad tale, but a human one. The flamenco dance and duende reflect a human life taking us from the depths of despair straight up to the joyful celebrations of conquering life’s greatest difficulties. Olé!
I live in Petaluma, CA, one hour north of San Francisco. I have recently left full-time work (yay!) at Sonoma State University where I taught technology to faculty for 14 years. I am committing my future life to travel, writing, and all things creative.
My journey into writing came by way of Book Passage Bookstore classes by travel guru Don George. My stories have story been published in Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vol. 8, Gadling.com, and the Deep Travel Blog.
I love being near the ocean, on or near water, hiking and camping in the wild, kayaking, and surfing (badly). I have always been drawn to art, music, writing, and travel, but my pesky job got in the way. Now I’m going out there to find it all!