As far as you can go - and one step further

As far as you can go - and one step further
  • books

  • Jason Webster (b. 1970), Duende: A Journey in Search of Flamenco (2003)

Jason Webster has written what is surely the most arresting opening sentence in recent travel literature, a sentence that forces difficult, searching questions upon you: “Often we end up doing what we almost want to do because we lack the courage to do what we really want to do.”

I read this book for the first time shortly after graduating, on a dark, oppressive English winter evening in my south London flat. I couldn’t get that opening sentence - with its bluntly-stated challenge - out of my mind, and I was deeply affected by what followed it: Webster’s wildly exciting account of moving to Spain in search of a new life and the indefinable essence of flamenco.

Webster read Arabic at Oxford and was at risk of drifting into an academic career after graduating, an uninviting prospect for a young man in search of adventure. A tutor’s suggestion that Webster remain in Oxford to do some research proved to be a life-changing recommendation, but probably not in the way the elderly don intended it to be: Webster “bought a ticket and guitar and caught a plane the next day”. Spurred on by adolescent fantasies set in a vivid land of towering cathedrals and flamenco dancers, brilliant blue skies and death-defying bullfighters, there was only one possible destination for Webster: Spain.

Realms and realms have been written about “duende”, an untranslatable word that refers, at least in part, to a feeling or emotional state induced by flamenco. As a result, writers are always at risk of tedious repetition when discussing it, or of getting lost - and losing their readers - in esoteric, impenetrable musings.

Webster’s masterstroke, though, is to frame his quest for duende not only as a quest for the intoxicating feeling itself, but as part of complete immersion in a particular way of life. In this book, flamenco is not only an art form, it is a lifestyle choice, an existential commitment without which any attempted pursuit of duende is futile.

As Carlos, the drunken leader of the gypsy flamenco band Webster falls in with in Madrid, tells his guiri guitarist: “You want to experience real flamenco? You want to know what ‘duende’ is really about? It’s about living on the edge…. It’s about taking yourself as far as you can go, and then going one step further.”

Webster first flew to Alicante, where his only contact in Spain lived. He spent a year there, practising guitar for hours and hours every day, and had a passionate affair with an older married woman named Lola. Webster realised later on that to Lola he was a plaything, a fad, one of a string of young lovers she habitually took to brighten the stifling monotony of her marriage - but Webster fell madly in love with her, and she broke his heart. This book was written about ten years after the events it describes, but it is clear from the way Webster writes about his beautiful, capricious ex-lover that he still bears the emotional scars from their affair. You sense, in fact, that his love and loss of Lola became a crucial part of his quest for duende. After all, suffering and loss, captured in the haunting laments of ‘cante jondo’ - ‘deep song’ - are crucial elements of the flamenco creed this young Englishman was trying to live by.

Forced to flee Alicante when he feared that Lola’s violent husband suspected their affair, an utterly heartbroken Webster travelled to Madrid. And it was in the capital that his quest for duende took on a new, more complex, emotional dimension. Amazingly, Webster was accepted into a hard-drinking gypsy gang of flamenco performers, whose dedication to what they saw as the true flamenco lifestyle eclipsed their limited musical ability.

With their crazed guitarist Jesús, Webster races stolen cars through Madrid’s streets at night; he becomes addicted to cocaine, the flamenco drug of choice, and smokes Ducados black tobacco, the cigarette of the ‘counter culture’; he tours as a guitarist with the band in Valencia and lives, as a true flamenco should, on the margins of respectable society. This drug and booze-fuelled, anarchic lifestyle is the backdrop to his inner grappling with questions of self-identity, flamenco as both music and philosophy and the nature of duende.

His quest ends on an ambiguous note, reflecting the chameleon-like nature of duende itself. What, exactly, is it? Webster put the question to himself in Granada, where he headed to recover from the excesses of Madrid. A definitive answer to that question, he realises, is impossible - but that very realisation, in a sense, constitutes the answer. If duende can be a state of melancholic ecstasy induced by true flamenco, it can also be many other things to many people: “Certainly it existed, but I wondered if the quality of what each individual felt depended on what he or she brought to the experience.” For some, he reflects, duende can even be love.

In March this year, after years of procrastination in London, I finally moved to Spain myself. For this life-changing experience, I am partly - and happily - indebted to Webster and to ‘Duende’. Indeed, anyone who has lived abroad or who is thinking of living abroad, especially in Spain, will find plenty to identify with or inspire in this exhilarating book. For it is a testament to the rewards of doing what you really want to do, not what you almost want to do - a path that perhaps also leads to one’s very own duende.