I’ve been thinking a lot about duende lately. It’s been on the edges of my consciousness since I started thinking about folk music while writing the Eurydice Rising Sequence (which seems a long time ago now). I was looking at traditional forms, the sean nos of Ireland, and the ‘traditional style’ of Scots Gaelic, and the most interesting thing I discovered is that there is almost nothing written down about it. Even the Mods, where the judging is exact and technical, don’t seem to have any defined criteria. There is slightly more discussion about sean nos, because there has been a significant style shift, from a melody heavily ornamented with grace notes to something much more simple, but again, no definition. The best I can find is ‘it’s got to have soul’. I can recognise it when I hear it, though.
The stillness of the old musicians,
singing at the bar’s end, eyes closed,
is a thing you wouldn’t notice, unless
you sing yourself. The skill doesn’t show
in dynamics and drama, it’s rubbed hard
down into the song’s grain till the voice
glides silky and free and nothing comes
between mind and melody. Sean nos
is of the soul, a music gathered,
in-dwelling, sung from the quick of the heart.
If you want to hear the real thing, the best sean nos singer I have ever heard is Iarla Ó Lionaird from The Gloaming. Check out especially the track Necklace of Wrens, which is the setting from a poem by Michael Hartnett.
While I was thinking about ‘soul’ however, the word duende kept cropping up, and I’ve been reading Lorca’s In Search of Duende. Lorca describes the duende as an earth spirit, possibly related to the Scandinavian trolls, or the British boggart, someone to keep on side if you want to live in places it has chosen for its own. More northern creatures are mostly seen as mischievous and unruly, although Halldor Laxness writes about a truly destructive demon called Kollumkilli (possibly a distortion of Columcille, because the demon lives near Celtic monastic ruins which the first Icelanders found when they settled the country) in his novel Independent People. The Spanish duende, on the other hand, is downright inimical. Peasant life in Spain is a fight to the death with the thing.
And it’s a particular kind of fight, a bit like tai chi. I only had one tai chi lesson, and I’m so dyspraxic I couldn’t follow the instructions, but I did grasp the concept. In most fighting styles, you attack and recover, you are concerned with self-defence and holding a little energy in reserve, but in tai chi you commit totally to one mighty move, pouring all your energy into the most effective blow you can. A fight with duende is like that, and the art forms with duende, particularly the canto jondo, have that distinctive sound. I imagine that blues does too. Music is a powerful weapon against the thrawn-ness of adversity.
We are experiencing adversity on a global scale and there is no doubt about it, even in the comfortable bits of the first world, and music and arts of all kinds are responding to it. The Dark Mountain project is one that I have been involved with, but everywhere you look, something is happening as people are trying to articulate the meaning of what is happening. But there are other patterns of behaviour too – spiritual renewals on a parallel with the Ghost dancing movement of the First Nations, or the development of monasticism in post imperial Europe; a return to nature as in the rivers and mountains movement in Classical Chinese poetry or pastoral poetry in Latin; an engagement with the ancestors and tribal traditions, radical politics and a fascination with magic.
And here my thinking comes back to its origins. Because wherever these changes and upheaval and renewals happen, herbs become iconic. The shape of the herb poems I’m going to work on is beginning to come into view.