Essay: Aquarelle, a CD by Big Bend RTS & Samuel Blaser

The Duende

Mr. Jimpson had what the American Black people coined as the blues. I don’t know what the Serbians call this primordial tactile sense of emotion expressed in music, but the Bosnian culture and the Balkans in general are filled with an ancient and rural music known as “Sevdah.” The Andalusians of Spain have an extra-sensory perception term for it: the duende, one of those mysterious concepts that can only be rendered in words by literary parallels, such as the fluent descriptions the Spanish poet and literati Federico García Lorca gave in his 1933 Buenos Aires lecture Theory and Play Of The Duende. In that exposition, he called the duende “a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought,” and “not form but the marrow of form.” He gave the example of the Andalusian flamenco vocalist Pastora Pavon singing in a small  Cadiz tavern; she was a “sombre Spanish genius, equal in power of fancy to Goya or Rafael el Gallo.” But on that occasion for all the superiority of her vocal technique, she could not summon the spirits, and her audience  remained stolid with not so much as a hand-clap. But when she arrived at her limits she pushed again and crossed over to the duende, her voice becoming “a jet of blood.” Another example can be found on Sketches of Spain with the voice of Miles Davis soloing on “Saeta,” improvising in the manner of a woman singing in Arabic scales the passion of Christ. The duende possessed Davis, to the point where he stated he was so exhausted he could not play for months afterward. 

Which raises an observation. The duende is usually defined in terms of the artist as individual. Lorca’s definitive essay speaks to the lone voice, the dancer, or the painter such as Goya. But the duende is not only confined to the individual artist, it can also be the apparition of an ensemble. I have witnessed it personally in Vancouver Canada, the audience trembling as the butoh Kokoro Dance Ensemble performed Bats ( On the out-of-print campfire recordings of guitarist Manitas de Plata, he is surrounded by singers and percussionists who compel the summoning. The duende on “Saeta” was not confined to Miles Davis. Gil Evans, a wizard himself, added the orchestral drone and the percussion of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Cobb, and José Mangual as elements which had a catalytic effect of producing emotions as powerful as the scintillations of an aurora borealis.

“Spooky” possesses the duende of the rarest type, the collective duende. It takes all the elements cited above, the composition and its composer-soloist, the arranger’s boldness and subtlety, the creativity of RTS Big Bend and drives the whole to the duende. If any of those elements is in the slightest frail, the effort would miss the ability to break through the twilight zone between exceptional music and the transcendent.

Lorca points out that “Every art and every country is capable of duende.” So how did the elements coalesce to make a recording in a Serbia that is relatively isolated in today’s world? It was serendipity, one of those peculiarities of jazz. Vic Vogel (1935-2019) is the Montréalaise Canadian, big band leader who often travelled the European circuits. On occasion he also led the European Broadcasting Union (EUB) Big Band, made up of one musician selected by national radio stations each year. In the 2005 EUB Big Band, two of those musicians were trumpeter Dragoslav ‘Freddie’ Stanisavljevíc who now works at RTS and Samuel Blaser. A musical friendship developed and they began to gig together in Belgrade. It was from that friendship that that the sessions for Aquarelle came about. The best people meet in the best places, and it is also true that the best things happen in the best places. Some of those places have a big bend, and big bend of Belgrade ranks among the sweet spots of world cities.


Levee Camp Moan Blues concert video at Novi Sad Festival, Serbia

Samuel Blaser’s website

Note: The writing style in this essay was influenced by reading of multiple works by Ivo Andrić,  the Yugoslav novelist, poet and short story writer. Andrić won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961.


Pages: 1 2 3

Comments are closed.