As much as I love words, I hold enormous respect for what can be achieved without them. While they are certainly useful tools, they aren’t always necessary to communicate effectively — and sometimes they’re not necessary at all. Not everything can be captured in words. Some things just have to be felt, to be known implicitly and instinctively; at the end of the day, words are just vessels. A work of art can be captivating because of what it inspires more than what it contains. The visual arts achieve this through elements like color, movement, and composition; music does it by taking advantage of tempo, key, and dynamics, and even when it includes words it still relies on the delivery of the singer. And the written arts aren’t immune, either. Poetry makes use of the structure and flow of the lines and the tint of the words that often don’t represent what they traditionally mean anyway. Even in literature, so much power lies beneath what is written.
Duende refers to this particular kind of power. It’s the moment in art, whether written, painted, or performed, when something beyond what’s on the surface shows through. It occupies the same general vicinity as tarab, the trance-like state caused by a strong emotional response to music, in that both are something akin to an alternate state of being that takes over in the presence of art. But duende is not like the ecstatic bliss of tarab. Duende comes from the darkness within the human soul, from the depths that we don’t often explore; the part that usually lies dormant, carefully hidden away and shut out, but which seeps through the cracks when our guard is down. The artist whose work has duende is able to tap into this part of their psyche — not always at will, but rather at the behest of its captor — the part from which is often born the art that is most poignant, most visceral. The kind that owes its appeal not to technical skill, but to sheer raw emotion, resonating with the secret darkness in all of us.
According to Spanish folklore, a duende also happens to be a type of mischievous spirit, like a goblin or an elf, that is said to inhabit a home. The word is a contraction of dueño de casa, “owner of the house”. The two seemingly disparate meanings of the word are not at all a coincidence. The duende in the artistic sense lives like a demon within the artist, looking for opportunities to make itself known — and when the moment is right, it slips out into the world so that others may see it. It’s there in the break in the singer’s voice, in the fragile tenderness in the dancer’s steps, in the fragmented lines penned by the poet. It’s when the audience holds their breath, captivated by the sight or sound of the artist laying out all that’s inside of them, broken, cracked, and vulnerable, baring themselves to the world; it’s when they demonstrate their craft with an expression of raw emotion that seems to shake them to their very core.
There really is truth in the old adage that the most tortured souls produce the most beautiful work. Those who know true darkness are the most sensitive to true beauty; those who have struggled the most know better than anyone what it is to feel free with nothing holding them back. Not everyone has duende, and even those who do can’t always be sure when it will show up. It’s a strange and mysterious force, a spirit that dwells within you and obeys only itself. And it’s beautiful. It’s dark and despairing and vulnerable and beautiful. In a way, duende represents the duality in all of us. We are complex, and that complexity is reflected in the art we produce, all the good and the bad and the ugly. Duende is at once otherworldly and undeniably human, and that’s the power of it all.