The soul of flamenco

The musical collective Desterrados searches for the transcendent power known
as duende in its mystical
world-fusion rhythms
Sunday, November 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:28 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

It’s hot in the basement of the house on Hendrix Street. The dark room is filled with the smell of corn tortillas and ground beef from the kitchen upstairs. Guitar cases line the wall beneath a poster of the Dave Matthews Band, and musical instruments are strewn about.

A group of men from around the world — Spain, Iran, Morocco, Missouri — have come together to make music. They are artists, students, teachers, professionals and casual philosophers. Seated on benches, stools and anything else they can find in the cramped space, they face each other — and the case of beer they share — and begin to play.

It is the music of Desterrados, a word that means exiles, and the music they play is the music of the Gypsies: flamenco.

“No. Wait,” guitarist Norberto Aguado says in a thick Spanish accent, and the music stops. The sound of another guitar has overpowered Aguado, and he is not pleased.

“I am the diva on this one,” he says, triggering a heated discussion that turns into something of a cockfight. Meanwhile, the bongo player continues slapping the drums and the electric guitarist begins tuning his instrument.

Bongos and electric guitars are not identified with the history of flamenco. Although the members of Desterrados — Aguado, Ali Arab, Rashid Octabia and Walt “Moondog” Goodman — are schooled in the tradition, they are hard at work transcending it.

Traditional flamenco music is a fusion of Arabic, Jewish, Spanish and North African rhythms that were brought together by nomads who settled in Andalusia, Spain. The sound, at once mournful and passionate, tells the story of a gypsy lifestyle that is culturally rich yet chauvinistic, proud yet often filled with pain.

“Flamenco is not a music; it is a way of living,” Aguado says during a break in the session. “It is an attitude, it is a way to live and think.”

Like all folkloric art, flamenco has a mystical quality. The gypsies call it duende — a trait inherent to any creative enterprise that inspires the artist to transcend the ordinary and create something beautiful.

“They have something called soul here. Duende is something similar,” Aguado says. “It is not what you play but how you play, how you feel when you play. Duende requires two things — first is technique, and second is passion. You can play the same song 500 times, but one day it sounds different. It sounds beautiful, and everyone can feel it, not only you. That’s duende.”

The poet Federico García Lorca struggled to put this almost-religious concept into words for those outside the gypsy world. In his essay “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement,” Lorca wrote that all art is capable of attaining duende, but it is most present in music that has “black sounds.”

The members of Desterrados — the “collective,” as they call themselves — encompass a variety of sounds, from Persian music to hip-hop. Yet to call them a band would be to overstate and even undermine their purpose. They rarely organize their musical sessions, preferring to gather when the mood strikes, wherever they happen to find themselves together.

“The idea is that everyone in this collective has their own unique background and their own other projects,” said Goodman. “We are coming together in a kind of an experiment where we are collecting different influences, with a foundation in flamenco and rumba particularly.”

At 30, Goodman, a volunteer firefighter, looks like anything but a flamenco guitarist or a gypsy. Although he’s an ethnic mix of German-Irish, Puerto Rican and Spanish, he has an all-American look.

Goodman says he fell in love with flamenco during college, when he spent a semester in Spain. Since then, he has been trying to capture what might always remain elusive.

“Duende is a lot like a puff of smoke,” he says. “Every time you reach for it or try to grasp it or define it, it disappears. To go in search of it is like a wonderful journey with no end. It is an impossible thing to do, but it is worth it.”

Rashid Octabia, known as El Moro or the Moroccan, adds an authentic gypsy element to Desterrados and its sound. A local producer of hip-hop artists, Octabia once lived in Spain, where he spent time listening and learning flamenco from the gypsies.

Originally from Granada, Spain, Aguado followed his wife from the Iberian Peninsula to Michigan and then Missouri, where he has lived for seven years. Arguably the rooster of the group, he directs the collective and assumes power when necessary.

A native of Iran, Ali Arab adds a Middle Eastern element to Desterrados. Before coming to the United States in 2000, Arab studied classical and Persian music, but he became intrigued with flamenco after it enjoyed a wave of popularity in Iran. In St. Louis, Arab established Sepantha, a band that explores Persian music, Eastern music and jazz. He transferred to MU in 2002.

“I love the flexibility of this gypsy music,” Arab says. “I see the Klezmer influence, the Indian influence. The music and the culture are not separable anymore. In gypsy fusion, I can discover all different types of music within one.”

Thom Howard, a guitarist and solo performer, was schooled in classical music, but says he is taken by flamenco’s many layers and unexpected elements.

“There is a lot of surprise in the music,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen moment by moment, which arguably is the problem with pop music.”

The desire to create something new, to weave different musical elements into flamenco, is what drives Desterrados.

Aguado compares flamenco to a religion. A person’s first encounters with it are deep and moving, and there is a desire to stay within tradition. However, like the disciple who needs to explore to reach a greater understanding of his or her faith, the musician must push past boundaries.

“There was a time when I felt there was a right way to do any particular thing,” he says. “And if you are not doing it that way, are you really doing it?”

The collective is experimenting with nontraditional percussion, electric instruments, even a banjo. They’ve incorporated Latin music, such as the Cuban son, and are experimenting with flamenco rumba — a Latin-influenced form Aguado describes as “cante de ida y vuelta,” or “it went to the Caribbean and came back.” Lately, Desterrados has been tinkering with infusions of American jazz and pop.

“We are mixing pop because I want to give Americans a chance,” Aguado says. “I want to find a common ground so no one gets bored. The closer you get to pop and rock, the more comfortable the audience is with it. Flamenco itself is just too much … Most people aren’t ready for it.”

The members of Desterrados agree, however, that by injecting flamenco with a hybrid of sounds, the collective somehow inches closer to the original spirit of the music. It was born of various ethnic backgrounds, personal histories and musical traditions yet had the same goal: duende.

“The most beautiful kind of flamenco is made when gypsies just get together and play and do their best performances,” Aguado says. “Flamenco has a rhythm that releases the pain and anger, but it is not about destruction. It is about a longing for harmony.

“Music is about life. We are trying to bring together that harmony.”

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