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Cultural Remedies For Vancouver: A City Without Duende

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Is Vancouver a city without duende?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a creative force evoked in the art of flamenco, I defer to Garcia Lorca -- the poet killed by right-wing Spanish civil war era assassins whose work seems ever more resonant in our time of vulgar demagogues and neo-liberal pretenders.

In his "Theory and Play of the Duende," Lorca explains:

"The duende works on the dancer's body like wind on sand. It changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic, or covers the cheeks of a broken old man, begging for alms in the wine-shops, with adolescent blushes: gives a woman's hair the odour of a midnight sea-port: and at every instant works the arms with gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages."

He writes of the duende as, "A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained."

"The duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: 'The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning, it's not a question of skill, but of a style that's truly alive: meaning, it's in the veins: meaning, it's of the most ancient culture of immediate creation."

I pondered Lorca's heady prose the other evening, after a night of "flamenco royalty" -- at our city's annual festival of the Andalusian art -- when the fabulous Mercedes Amaya came to town.

The flamenco legend and her troupe of dancers and singers -- hosted by our city's own Rosario Ancer - managed to pierce through the rain and local cultural inertia to inject a pure burst of duende into our laconic West Coast souls. As arms twisted into frenzied fandangos and singers sang songs inspired by ancient Indian, Jewish, Islamic and Persian traditions that fused together in 15th century Spain -- for a moment, the world was on fire.

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Image courtesy of Vancouver International Flamenco Festival

And then just like that it was all over, and we retreated into the dark night of the #22 bus, into a rainy, reasoned place where we destroy our indigenous duende and tear down everything that is old. Our late capitalist moment finds us shunning what is real in favour of the bright, the shiny and the commodified. We live in a place where sports stadiums and real estate marketing centres have replaced the public realm, and where the young and the creative must live in basements at the edge of town, while aging boomers with detached houses are entertained. A place where global wealth and digital culture have only served to heighten the sense of disconnect our former colony already engenders.

For the real is problematic in colonial culture. It is fetishized and feared, decorated and dissected, discussed and destroyed, but rarely allowed to breathe and be. A town without duende is in great spiritual peril no matter how much funding -- or not -- as they case may be -- we throw at it.

How to get to what's real in a rainforest where Tudor houses grace boulevards built on grid systems superimposed over Musqueam middens? In a town where culture ends abruptly at the theatre door, as if it were separate from the land, the streets, the buildings and the bus stops.

Indeed the difference between watching the local flamenco students perform before Amaya and her troupe pointed sharply to the fact that duende is not incidental -- it is in the DNA not only of the dancers but of the places they come from, of the plazas and churches and histories they have ingested and the ancestral spirits they have communed with. It is no accident and cannot be faked.

A week earlier in the same Vancouver Playhouse that once housed an actual theatre company, Veda Hille and the Plastic Acid Orchestra celebrated Canadian icons Emily Carr and Buffy Sainte-Marie. While the exploration of Carr -- the well-meaning colonialist whose romantic notions of a "dying race" belied the fact that Coast Salish peoples were thriving- is notable, it was the set of Sainte- Marie songs that inspired. With orchestration by Giorgio Magnanensi lending a slightly surreal quality to the familiar tunes, it was Cod'ine that shone -- even beyond the problematics of a non- native singing a song about getting hooked on the drug 500 metres from the downtown eastside.

Buffy's unforgettable chorus And it's real, and it's real, one more time stayed on the brain for quite some time.

But I am no purist. I am not advocating walls between cultures. It was after all the unique Andalusian fusion of Jewish, Christian and Islamic culture that created the art of duende spawned flamenco.

I think of my great-grandparents -- Syrian Christian refugees fleeing the Turks whose son was adopted by Haida chief William Matthews, and our family by extension into the eagle clan. Of a newly arrived refugee family from Damascus down the street, with whom I sang old Fairouz songs on Canada Day after they served svihah in their basement. Even of the strung out looking puppeteer who sang how much is that doggie in the window on the temporarily pedestrianized Robson Street shortly before the Burrard arts Foundation sponsored Façade Festival projected artists images onto the neo-classical exterior of the courthouse turned art gallery.

And I do not exclude my English ancestors -- who came here like many as miners and missionaries -- from our cultural reality.

Indeed I thought of them at Handel and His Rivals -- an inspiring Early Music Vancouver concert starring Amanda Forsythe and the Pacific Baroque orchestra held most appropriately at the newly renovated Christchurch Cathedral. Why can't Handel be deemed "ethnic" music after all?

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Image courtesy of Early Music Vancouver

And in this town of settlers and missionaries and resource extraction morphing into global real estate commodification, the concert's focus on the Opera of the Nobility- set up to rival Handel's Royal Academy of Music -- made me wonder what our town's equivalent might be. Perhaps rival reality TV shows about real estate developers and exotic money launderers?

What exactly has rendered Terminal city -- once edgy in the late 70s/ early 80s (Art Bergmann I love you!) into something soul-less and smug? Poor city planning? Creeping corporatization? Lack of funding?

And more importantly, what can we create together here now that is real and raw and not homogenized, infused with our own sense of duende?

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