So just who has duende?

Dan Rodricks

August 13, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

I come not to steal from George Frazier, but to praise him. To render tribute by picking up where he left off, to grope around in the dark for "duende," to find it and to bring it back into the sun. As a concept for a column, duende is irresistible, even if the late great Frazier, and not I, discovered it.

Frazier, who wrote for the Boston Globe and Esquire until his death in 1974, first began trying to define duende in 1963. It turned out to be such a good vehicle for his stylish views of the world that Frazier kept on writing of duende, trying to give it a modern context and to help Americans understand it.

The orthodox Spanish definition of duende is "hobgoblin" or "ghost." But it has much larger meaning.

In the Andalusian dialect, it means "black sounds." Federico Garcia Lorca called duende the "energetic instinct" that no flamenco singer or bullfighter could be without. Charisma, class, and style all have something to do with duende. It means "to have what it takes," and not all of us do, which gets to the fun. Frazier and his readers had a wonderful time dealing with duende, and so will we.

Frazier's idea was that duende was "that certain something that sets persons apart." It might be "soul," but it might also be "star quality." It is a power that transmits a profound feeling from the heart of the artist to his audience "with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of restraint."

Frazier remembered sensing duende when he first saw Joe DiMaggio grace, and therefore illuminate, an outfield. It wasn't merely greatness that he saw, nor majesty, nor merely aura. It was duende, and he had to learn more about it.

A definition of duende can only evolve through prose and argument -- and, more importantly, example.

"Clark Gable," Frazier wrote in his first lecture on duende, "had that certain something but others, like Rock Hudson, do not." In Frazier's view, Ingrid Bergman had duende. So did Billie Holliday. Fred Astaire had it, but not Gene Kelly.

Shirley MacLaine never had duende the way Judy Garland did. (( "It was what Ted Williams had even when striking out, but Stan Musial lacked when hitting a home run."

By declaring the haves and have-nots of duende we do not disparage the talents of those in the have-not category. Men like Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Sandburg and Lou Gehrig all achieved greatness, but they never achieved duende. Not the way J.D. Salinger, Robert Frost and Babe Ruth did.

"To say that duende is merely charisma or panache or flair is rather to demean it," Frazier wrote, "for while it is certainly all those things, it is the nth power of them. It is chemistry."

So I wish to continue what George Frazier started, for there is nothing more important, in this day of pop culture and ephemeral celebrity, for discerning audiences. On now with our contemplations on duende.

I say that if Ingrid Bergman had it, Candice Bergen certainly does not -- and never will.

Carly Simon has it, but not Cher; Mario Cuomo, but not William Donald Schaefer; Brooks Robinson, but not Cal Ripken Jr.; Frank Robinson had it, but Eddie Murray never showed one iota of it.

Paul Newman, yes, Robert Redford, no.

James Earl Jones had it before he started doing Yellow Pages commercials.

Dustin Hoffman has it but not Al Pacino; Sugar Ray Robinson, but not Sugar Ray Leonard -- never, never Sugar Ray Leonard.

Ennio Morricone, but not John Williams; John Sayles, but not Stephen Spielberg; August Wilson, but not Spike Lee.

Ali had duende, but not Tyson.

Ray Charles has it but not Stevie Wonder; Lennon had it, but not McCartney; Public Enemy, but not Milli Vanilli; Joe Morgan, but not Pete Rose; Patti Labelle, but not Madonna; Prince, but not Michael Jackson; Irv Kovens had duende, but not Marvin Mandel.

Nolan Ryan has it, but it is the one thing missing from Jim Palmer. Phillip Berrigan has it, but Mitch Snyder didn't; James Brown still has it, but not Al Jarreau.

Lisa Simeone has duende. Tracy Chapman has it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has one-quarter of the literary world's supply of duende. Marlon Brando had it, but squandered it. Raoul Middleman has duende. Wynton Marsalis has it, but not Kenny G. Willie Mays had it, so did Hemingway and Hank Aaron and Jackie Gleason and Lenny Moore.

I must echo George Frazier to say I am not done with duende, so let's get together on this fistfight.

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