Saudade & Duende: Two Elusive Words that Defy Translation

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I’m a big fan of both Lusophone (Portuguese-language-based) and Flamenco music, and I’ve taught music salons that feature music from Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde, and Spain.

Saudade comes up constantly in Lusophone music: it’s a sad and gentle longing, maybe for one important person, a true love in the past, that has turned inward to an infinite sadness. It was once characterized as “the love that remains”.  It can also mean a sweet melancholy, taking pleasure in revisiting, if only psychically, some great romance.  Saudade is always about the past.  Cesaria Evora puts lots of Saudade in her music.  In fact, her song “Sodade” was her biggest international hit.  You could just feel the Saudade, never mind not knowing the word.

It is in Fado, former Portuguese African countries like Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, and of course Brazilian, goes back to when sailors would leave their women while heading for far-off lands.  It wasn’t certain if they’d ever return.  Those early voyages of discovery were perilous, and could take years.  The word, “fado”, which represents Portugal’s national song form, means “fate”.

Duende is more intense and sometimes violent: it’s a wrenching pain, perhaps over wrong done to us, an existential outrage at the vicissitudes of fate.  Like Fado, Tango, Flamenco, and the the Blues, it comes from society’s bottom rung: social outcasts, whorehouses, poor people.  Duende is intimately related to Flamenco and its expression.  A friend told me once that it was about energy withheld, kind of like a pressure cooker where the intensity is contained within.  Garcia Lorca, the great poet, said Duende is made of of four elements: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a bit of the diabolical.  Some people tire you out with way to much talk (the word ‘logoria’ means diarrhea of the mouth) by contrast,  the quiet person who talks less but with more economy and substance is more interesting.  Miles Davis had Duende.  Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck did not.

You can feel Duende in this clip of the late Flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla with Paco de Lucia:

This Baden Powell / Vinicius de Moraes song, “Serenata do Adeus” (Serenade of Farewells) drips with Saudade:

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