Chef Tom Herndon – Barcelona: Flamenco and the State of Grace Known as Duende

September 24

On my bucket list for Barcelona was seeing an authentic performance of Flamenco. What I meant was Flamenco in the style that’s been around for centuries, since the dance form was first introduced by Gypsies; flamenco, con duende! The style that catches you up in deep emotion, takes you on an excruciating journey, and leaves you feeling wrung out.

Some Background

Flamenco originated in the music and dance styles of Southern Spain, in the area known as Andalusia, which is mostly related to the Middle-East (side note, when the performer moves the audience, in Arabic people call out “Y’allah!” which sounds very close to what a Spanish audience cries out, “Ole!”).

The roots of flamenco, though somewhat mysterious, seem to lie in the Romani migration from Rajasthan (in northwest India) to Andalusia, between the 9th and 14th centuries. These Gypsies brought with them tambourines, bells, wooden castanets, and an extensive repertoire of songs and dances. In Spain they encountered the ancient cultures of Sephardic Jews and Moors. Centuries of intermingling of these rich cultures produced the art form known as flamenco, starting first as singing, then adding dance, then guitar and finally more instruments.

Today’s flamenco is made up of three parts: guitar playing (“guitarra”), song (“cante”), and dance (“baile”). The essence of flamenco is cante, or song. Flamenco songs fall into three categories: cante jondo (“profound song,” or “deep song”), cante intermedio (“intermediate song,” also called cante flamenco), and cante chico (“light song”).

The cante jondo, based on a complex 12-beat rhythm, is thought to be the oldest form. It is characterized by profound emotion and deals with themes of death, anguish, despair, or religious doubt. Cante jondo was what I was after. I wanted to be deeply moved. This is the form that demands the evocation of duende.

Duende loosely translates as having soul, but it is so much more than that. It can also mean the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm. This heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity – the performer being taken over (possessed) by the more literal definition of duende: “spirit” of “demon” – is often associated with flamenco.

This quote says it for me:
The singer who sings seguiriyas leaves in each line of the copla (verse of cante) a piece of his soul; and, if not, he is deceiving the listener, perhaps even himself. If there is one style to which the singer has to give everything, has to give every bit of himself, it is the siguiriya.

I have seen José Menese completely overcome, broken, a literal wreck after doing this song and I believe that if the singer sometimes reaches the kind of state of grace that the Gypsies call duende – and I don’t know yet what that is – it is in these unique and unrepeatable moments.
— Ángel Álvaro Caballero, Historia del Cante Flamenco

I Saw Two Shows

For this first show, we were ushered in to twenty or so seats set in front of the stage. A few moments later the musicians came out. Right off the bat, my spidey sense said, “This isn’t right.” There was an electric guitar and a sax/clarinet player. What? The music ended up being some kind of modernized flamenco/jazz infusion. No, no, no. If I wanted jazz, I would have gone to a jazz club. This was some kind of “Flamenco Light” obviously designed for tourists.

Yuck. Disappointing.

Then the dancers walked on stage. Throughout the long-ass show, the dancers were, how should I put this, less than graceful. Rather than the svelte, poised, sexy dancers of flamenco fame, our male dancer was pot-bellied, unkempt and awkward. He looked like Murray the Bartender had seen the real dancers enough times, he knew he could wing it, so he just stepped out from behind the bar and started “dancing.”

Pretty sad. I sat through it all, but left mighty disappointed.

The second show, however, was right on the money.  It took place in a romantic, mysterious building down a darkened side street in the heart of El Born. I entered through an old doorway that led into a baroque courtyard; part of a centuries old palace called Palau Dalmases.

Ok, this is more like it.

We were once again ushered into a small room with a bar off to one side and a small stage in front. This time the seats were assigned. I got one free drink with my ticket and I had by that time fallen in love with one of the more popular drinks in Barcelona, the Gin and Tonic. Refreshing, light and just enough kick to get my happy juices flowing.

The musicians stepped onto the stage. People applauded. That was a good sign. Plus, there was one guy – with an acoustic guitar! Ok, this is good. No electronics, except for a mike worn by the cantaor (singer). Very promising. These musicians and their instruments could have stepped out of the 17th century. And we were sitting in a very old palace. So far, exactly what I wanted.

And here come the dancers. More applause. Louder this time. Obviously these folks are well known. The performance ticked all three boxes for classic flamenco: the baile (dancers), the toque (guitar) and the cantaor (singer). They also had a young gentleman playing cajón, the box drum. What’s the Spanish word for eye candy?

The dancers were magnificent. Sometimes flamenco is choreographed, but when the dancers and the musicians are in sync and doing their best to evoke duende, dancing is improvised. They are digging deep and drawing the audience in. Steps and twirls and loud syncopation on the stage are in response to the words of the singer and the rhythms of the guitar. Like watching a good jazz band, each dancer would take their turn and perform a long solo. Sometimes they’d dance in pairs or threes. But each segment would be an attempt to go deeper; raw, passionate, moving and intensely emotional.

The cantaor might have left pieces of his soul on the stage, because his singing went straight into my heart. The dancers intensified the story being told.  Didn’t matter that I could not understand the words. The rhythms were powerful. I especially loved the syncopated clapping known as toque de palmas, that drove the story forward

Intoxicating, mesmerizing, moving…it all applied. In fact, at times, I found the performance to be…heartrending. Although the evening wasn’t very long, witnessing this true act of duende will be in my heart for a very long time.

Here is but a taste. Make sure your speakers are on (in fact, take a tour of the other vids from the Palau Dalmases):

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Click here to better understand Duende.  


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

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