What is Duende?

la definición del duende… Poder misterioso que todos sienten y que ningún filósofo explica”

-Federico García Lorca, Teoría y juego del duende

 I’ll never forget reading Federico García Lorca’s “Theory and Play of Duende” in college—a lecture he gave completely devoted to describing the indescribable, defining something undefinable. Duende, he says, is a “mysterious power that everyone feels and that no philosopher has explained.” A certain flamenco dancer in Cadiz, a particular performance of Bach, a Cézanne painting— García Lorca saw duende residing in each of these.

When I first learned about duende, I couldn’t help but think about my hometown, Memphis, a city that people describe as having some ambiguous “soul” or a nebulous “mojo.” You can try to break the appeal of Memphis down into its parts: rich, comforting food, wistful blues music winding its way outside of opening and closing bar doors– even the recent self-given “grit and grind” nickname feels like an attempt by Memphians to describe the indescribable, the city’s duende. Try as you might, you can’t quite identify the parts that make the lovable, enigmatic whole.


Memphis, TN

Madrid also struck me with its innate duende when I visited for the first time at 19, with two of my college friends and a beat-up Rick Steves guidebook. I was so taken with something I couldn’t quite pinpoint in Madrid that I returned the next summer to visit, the next summer to study, and then, the following fall, to live for 2 years. And I didn’t stop with Madrid. I suddenly needed to know if everywhere had this incommunicable essence that I had discovered in Memphis and Madrid. I thirsted to find out what it was that made each place tick, and why that made me tick.


Templo de Debod, Madrid


Have I been able to ever nail down that hazy, imprecise mojo anywhere I’ve been? I’m not sure that any place’s “it” quality is something you can tally up or understand. For me, the dinner table, where you meet with old friends or new acquaintances, learn something about the place you’re visiting, and simply enjoy one of human civilization’s longest traditions is where I find duende the most—but the beautiful thing about duende is that everyone will find it somewhere different.

Have you ever traveled somewhere that gave you those good travel vibes? Do you find your travel mojo in food? Art? Music?





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