Duende: A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco


Jason Webster
Broadway Books ($23.95)

by John Toren

Flamenco, one of the world's great art forms, is also among the grittiest and most abjectly fatalistic. We therefore accompany Jason Webster in his attempts to penetrate its inner heart with a degree of skepticism. He informs us early in his narrative that he studied Arabic in Egypt to no real purpose and spent years at Oxford without learning a thing. Finding himself at loose ends when his girlfriend dumps him, Webster decides, out of the blue, to explore the world of flamenco; he buys a guitar, though he's never played one, and hops a flight the next day to Alicante, a Spanish city with no flamenco associations, because a friend of his happens to live there.

Webster's prose is painfully jejune: time and again he remarks, as some new aspect of Spanish life confronts him, "My head was spinning." At one point he refers to Franco flippantly as "the odd little dictator," and when it dawns on him that there is no flamenco culture to be found in Alicante, he reflects, "as my limited searching led nowhere, I began to understand how ill-prepared I had been. I had no idea where to start or what to expect." Perhaps the leitmotiv for the entire project surfaces when a fortune-teller stuns him with the observation that he's emotionally immature. "Her words rang inside me like a bell and I sat back on the cushions, confused. How could one be emotionally immature? It seemed such a strange idea."

In short, Webster lacks both the temperament and the discernment required to develop a serious appreciation of flamenco culture. All the same, he does succeed in befriending a number of gypsies operating on the fringes of that notoriously inbred and impenetrable world. In fact, within a few months of taking up the guitar he's accompanying flamenco dancers at village festivals! He names his chapters cutely after the traditional forms—bulerías, soleá, tientos—and passes on many nuggets of flamenco lore in the course of relating his adventures with his boss's wife, his aged guitar instructor, and various landladies, musicians, and gypsy friends in Madrid and Granada.

In time Webster's search for the heart of flamenco picks up speed; he begins dabbling with drugs, gets taken up by a struggling group of flamenco musicians, goes to a bullfight, becomes an unwitting accomplice in the theft of a car, and even attends a gypsy wedding. Yet his naiveté never deserts him, and after all his escapades Webster can still glibly observe: "I had slept well and wanted to maintain the momentum. Playing with dancers and another guitarist would be ideal for this mild, sunny day." After more than two years in Spain Webster is still largely clueless: "Duende, I was beginning to learn, could not be produced on demand."

The mix of fatuous truisms and glimpses of authentic experience makes for bumpy reading, and Duende is unlikely to find a place on the shelf beside such classic accounts of the subject as George Borrow's The Zingali (1842), Irving Brown's Deep Song (1929), D. H. Pohren's The Art of Flamenco (1972), and Michael Jacobs's uncommonly astute A Guide to Andalusia (1990). Then again, these books are all out-of-print. Clearly Webster has experienced the grip of that thing called "duende," a dark beauty that erupts from the midst of flamenco's flurried anguish, and he's spent a good deal of time and effort in pursuit of it. Yet he lacks jondura, the depth to do it justice. What we're left with is Bright Lights, Big City, Andalusian style.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003