KERA AND THE LESBIANS ARE BRINGING DUENDE BACK
Kera and the Lesbians’s live show, a rambunctious affair of self-described “bipolar folk”, harnesses a spectrum of juxtaposed moods, flirts AND fights with the indefinable duende, that “mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”
Two years ago, almost to the day, I walked into the Bootleg Bar, and found Kera Armendariz setting up her gear on the rectangular stage. Despite the home field advantage (Kera was, and still is, a bartender at the rickety, labyrinthine performance venue), she projected a “look-at-me” pandering, that self-centered/foolhardy, innocent/authentic urgency demanded of a talented busquer. That night, an overcast, cool October one, her act projected a carefree, carnival-esque nature. She was a street performer with no built-in crowd, a troubadour convinced of her potential and willing to earn the affection of inattentive passersby. This, not for lack of talent or experience (Kera had relocated to L.A. from San Diego County around 2010), but because Dirty Three was performing in the back auditorium. And Armendariz’s passersby weren’t easy-to-please Third Street Promenaders, no, these people paid money to see Australia’s most reclusively ubiquitous performer, Warren Ellis, the frontman of a band Nick Cave cites as a possessor of the elusive duende.
Denizens of L.A.’s underground music scene still consider Dirty Three’s Bootleg performance to be a finer moment in 2012. I’m embarrassed. I passed up on watching my own friend, Kera, perform that night. I was dizzied by the “black sounds” of Jim White, Mick Turner and Warren Ellis, “the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art.”
“The great artists know… no emotion is possible unless the duende comes. They may be able to fool people into thinking they have deunde—authors and painters and literary fashionmongers do so every day—but we have only to pay a little attention and not surrender to indifference in order to discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy artifice.” – Federico García Lorca, excerpted from “Play and Theory of the Duende”
In “Play and Theory of the Duende”, part of a lecture developed and performed in 1933, Federico García Lorca, the tempestuous and revered poet, defines duende as more than just a Spanish imp with hermetic, nationalistic import. Using flamboyant exonerations, and self-deprecating jabs, he crafts what could be the first TED Talk on sadness’s relation to evocative art. In just an aside, Lorca’s self-proclaimed un-academic work flippantly riffs on Apollinaire’s death-by-destructive-muse, Socrates’ hemlock sentence, Nietzche’s scorched heart, Goethe’s incidental defining of duende while referencing Paganini, etc., making the essay playfully contradictory. With the steamrolling inertia of today’s most gifted slam poet, Lorca contextualizes the deep, reverent aura of the Spanish guitar, its evocative murmurings welling up region by region—”All over Andalusia, from the rock of Jaen to the whorled shell of Cadiz, the people speak constantly of “the duende.”—and the untamable life force rooted in the true performance.
“I shall try to give you a simple lesson in the hidden, aching spirit of Spain,” swears Lorca during his spirited preamble.
In the end, Lorca bequeathed a great essay not only on why the allure of today’s popular, guitar-based bands tends to wane over time, but also why rare, obscure, non-commercial bands often evoke a spiritual experience that opens more direct pathways to something one might interpret as a higher power. It’s duende, or the lack thereof, that accounts for this disparity. What a tragic denouement, though—to know only the writer destroyed by his pursuit of Truth may create work which dances with new cultures, in new times.
Says Nick Cave in a lecture pertaining to the nature of love songs: “In contemporary rock music, the area in which I operate, music seems less inclined to have its soul, restless and quivering, the sadness that Lorca talks about. Excitement, often; anger, sometimes: but true sadness, rarely… Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly Harvey. My friends the Dirty Three have it by the bucket load… All in all it would appear that duende is too fragile to survive the brutality of technology and the ever increasing acceleration of the music industry. Perhaps there is just no money in sadness, no dollars in duende.”
Warren Ellis, violin/keys, Dirty Three, carries more emotive potential with merely a stream of conscious rant on Justin Bieber, his fiddle and a loop station than a theoretical Nordic nation who devotes their entire GDP to the arts.
And Warren Ellis, in light of his tremendous, transcendent, practically godly night of raconteuring made time to watch Kera’s 2012 Bootleg Theater performance. And he encouraged her to keep at it. The expression “takes one to know one” comes to mind. Perhaps it’s no different with matters of duende. Could it not be said “takes duende to know duende”?
So what is duende?
1.) Earthiness. It’s everything that Bobby Harlow loves in a good record: the mood, the vibe, the bhav. Duende is eliminating the contrived, all the slicked out, trying-to-please-everyone sycophancy, everything reeking of a car dealership bamboozling you into purchasing the bullshit warranty package. Duende is the highest step on man’s path to perfection, and the dirt caked on his tattered soles. Duende is the time Kera performed at A Rrose in Prose (hosted by L.A. Record New Music Editor D.M. Collins at the now defunct Pickle Factory). When her acoustic guitar wouldn’t cooperate during a retuning, she smiled, cast the instrument aside, and brought us to the verge of tears with a rattling a cappella rendition of Meredith Wilson’s “Till There Was You”.
2.) Irrationality. Duende is not some “rational” answer to a creative executive’s marketing brief. Duende does not systematically determine what a performer will or won’t say so as to please corporate sponsors. Duende does not tell Kera and the Lesbians to change their band name because it might limit record sales in the Bible Belt. Duende says what has to be said right now even if right now makes no sense at all.
3.) A heightened awareness of death. Cathartic melancholia. Tremendous beauty juxtaposed by an absolute sadness. These virtues are fundamental to duende. One cannot enchant an audience with a love song if that performer does not themselves sense the awe of death, if they do not accept that something (death) WILL PREVENT THEM FROM EVER TELLING SOMEONE THAT THEY LOVE THEM AT ALL. Duende is Hamlet’s soliloquoy, the madness of trying to make sense of existence, the rationalizing of our inherent madness, madness complicated by the feeling individual’s insanely sensitive calibrations, emotional attunements exhaustively haunted by the inevitability that man’s lone insanity will soon cease to be at all. When Kera smiles while crooning, from what feels like miles behind her uvula, with a sadness many decades deeper than she could possibly have circled the sun, “You’ve got something that I need,” a heartbreaking desperation floods the auditorium. She takes joy in expressing what we all have—something we do not but wish we did. Her charm in expressing this existential tragedy, that’s her fighting the duende.
4.) A dash of the diabolical. Kera grins like she knows something we all have yet to figured out. There’s comfort in surrendering yourself to the performer, in trusting that there’s a secret too big for mere mortals and yet this person on stage, they can handle it. At the same time, is it just me or does Kera seem like the kind of woman who might take your girlfriend home with her? Is it bad that I wouldn’t feel bad for her doing so?
Why does it feel like some performers have robbed you of your time? No duende. Why can Bob Dylan “not sing” but embody a generation, even those outside of his own class? Duende. Why can Lou Reed employ a racial slur and still bedazzle us? Duende.
Ever felt like a branded concert series is a smarmy effort to manipulate your behavior? Maybe that’s because it’s principally opposed to the four tenets of duende.
Kera told me days after her 2012 Bootleg Theater performance that Ellis watched her perform, and was impressed. Even if this were the touring musician’s necessary anal-fuming, it was a smoke-blowing Ellis felt obliged to. “Warren Ellis talked to me after our set and said he dug it!” Kera told me, rightfully stoked. It makes sense that a harbinger of duende like Ellis would see directly into Kera’s authenticity. Even in a less polished, less powerful, less perfected state of artistry, Ellis immediately sensed Armendariz’s authenticity.
Duende isn’t tiny thoughts hiding inside big words. It’s tiny windpipes transmitting impossibly big feelings. Duende howls at the primordial Moon Goddess. Duende unashamedly calls out the fraud. Duende trusts new duende, with the slightest of hesitation, the way savvy grandmothers trust new, respectable houseguests.
October 2012, Kera showed us a performer who believed in herself more than the audience. But devoted time does wonders. October 2014, on the same rectangular Bootleg stage, Kera showed us her struggle with duende. The Lesbians have realized their performative alchemic, their ability to project solitary sadness and invoke collective joy. Yes, this phenomenon has happened before, and will so again, but this make it no less marvelous.
“I’m so happy,” blurted an elated Marketing Director of fhe Fold midway through Kera’s performance. Even if she didn’t mean it (put it this way, there’s no way to truly determine another’s sincerity), there’s no denying the room compelled her to HAVE TO SAY IT. Kera lifted the collective spirit. Our existential dread was momentarily abated, our anxieties temporally calmed. Our mutual feelings of actual feeling (scary in 2014) was undeniable. No philosopher will ever be able to articulate it (perhaps because today’s philosopher knows they’ll have more success calling themselves a comedian).
It says something, though, when I leave a show and wish I could have invited Lorca to attend (perhaps that thing is that I should reevaluate my sexual orientation). A shame, Lorca is now the selfsame ash that he swore himself NOT to be (namely the dreary soot of academic monotony). Lorca, I’d tell him, instead of us hemming and hawing about art and pompous matters, you, a tour de force of poetic personality, you, a dashing figure of literary mythology, let’s enjoy the Lesbians tonight. I swear THIS… this is 2014’s definition of duende. Look at Kera, the swivel of her knees, the heavy stamp of her boot, the invisible miasma wrapped in and out of her and her band’s mutual joints, that loose harmony that only bands who’ve sweat through years of rehearsal ever attain. Dirty Three have it. The Lesbians have it. It’s duende. It takes years to cultivate. It’s risky. But the petals of its blossom form the finer bouquet of experience.
Perhaps sadness is inherent to duende—knowing that in order to unleash it, one will sacrifice years of alternative joys. One expedites death struggling to master the untenable life force… the duende.
Lorca, I’d say, listen to Kera’s pleas, it’s as though they sprang from deep in the Earth, crawled through a mile of shaky crust, bore through her rubber tread, tickled the tips of her toes, raced around her ankle bones, ran up her jeans and around her torso and broke her heart and blossomed in her throat, sad petals of our sensitive generation gushing from her mouth, fluttering over us, tucking themselves in places that suspend our own disbeliefs. I would say none of that, because when Lorca asks, “The duende… Where is the duende?” I’d gesture towards the knee-knocking, wise cracking frontwoman knowing he’d better convey her majesty:
“Through the empty ache comes a wind… a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed grass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.” – Lorca, in the conclusion of “Play and Theory of the Duende”
Let’s hope Kera’s newly created thing—her bipolar folk, a juxtaposition of histrionics and earnestness, introspection and collectivity—disproves Nick Cave. Let’s hope Kera sells records, fills venues, dances with the branded devil, and shows us there is money in duende.
-Daniel Austin Warren