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by John Sledge

In so many ways, flamenco seems the very essence of Spain. Colorful, passionate, exotic and intense, its origins shrouded in mystery, this artistic melding of music and dance has long provided stock imagery for Iberian tourist brochures and posters. But what of the people who live their lives immersed in flamenco? Are they simply pandering to the touristas, or are they motivated by some deeper artistic impulse?

Fascinating insight into the murky world of these guitarists and dancers is provided in a new book, Duende: A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco (Broadway, $23.95) by Jason Webster. The book’s title refers to the elusive quasi-mystical dream state -- part emotional, part physical -- that is the goal of the true flamenco artist.

Webster, a handsome, 20-something Briton, confesses that he has always been beguiled by Spain. Languishing in graduate school and hurting from a broken romance, he determined to chuck everything and live in the country of his dreams. In contrast to his academic work, he wanted to pursue a more useful, meaningful craft. So it was that he decided to study the guitar, more specifically flamenco guitar, “the musical heart” of Spain. For Webster, flamenco was “exciting and wild, everything my life wasn’t.”

According to Webster, no one knows how flamenco began, but it was recognized and commented upon in Roman times when Juvenal described young Iberian dancers “with bronze castanets.” Some scholars have suggested that it is a blending of many cultural strains -- Phoenician, Visigothic, Greek, Roman and Arabic -- while still others have proposed such quirky influences as the “the Byzantine liturgical chant.” But all agree that flamenco found its truest expression among the Gypsies, who arrived during the Islamic period of Spanish history. Thus, from very early on, flamenco has been identified as the “music and dance of outcasts.” The word itself may be a corruption of the Arabic “felah manju,” meaning “escaped peasant.” Though flamenco spread throughout Spain, it is most closely identified with the southern province of Andalusia, “with its poverty, arid heat, and proximity to Africa.” Webster began his quest there, taking guitar lessons and gradually coming to know the region and its people.

Webster’s musical progress was excruciatingly slow. It took months simply to learn how to properly hold the guitar, right leg over left, instrument dug into the hip, pitched away from the body with “the fretboard almost invisible,” navigated by touch rather than sight. But his instructor encouraged him, “It’s worth it. It gives you a more relaxed feel. And more important -– you look really cool.”

Webster soon met a female flamenco dancer, and though she was married and somewhat older, began a torrid affair with her. At one point she takes him to a remote, abandoned house where they experience something close to duende. “I started playing, hesitantly at first, missing the beat for a couple of seconds until finally coming into line. She swayed, pounded, arched, while my fingers hammered the strings. Watching her footwork intensely, I worked hard to keep the tempo. And for a moment, just a moment, it was as if her dancing and my playing became one. The divisions between us faded and a surge of energy passed around my arms and neck.” But their relationship proved stormy, and Webster eventually fled to Madrid in fear of her thuggish husband.

While in Madrid, Webster latched onto a traveling Gypsy flamenco troupe. Despite warnings by alarmed friends mistrustful of Gypsies, he worked to win his way into the troupe and began touring. Just as his friends had feared, by degrees Webster was drawn into a criminal underworld. In order to gain favor and acceptance he did cocaine, helped steal cars and fled the authorities in high-speed chases.

These episodes were punctuated by small-time, wine-soaked gigs, mostly for tourists. Webster began to suspect that the troupe valued him more for his blond good looks, and the effect this had on the foreign customers, than for his musical skill. Duende seemed a remote possibility under such circumstances. At one point, one of the older men grabs Webster by the arm and snaps, “You want to know what duende is really about? It’s about this. It’s about living on the edge. It’s about singing so hard you can’t speak anymore. Or playing until your fingers bleed. It’s about taking yourself as far as you can go, and then going one step further.”

Webster describes his adventures in simple and engaging style and concludes his book with a short but useful discography. “Duende” is an absorbing and sometimes frightening glimpse into an unusual subculture. As a sadder and a wiser Webster writes, “There was far more to flamenco – and to Spain – than I could have imagined.”