It is Hispanic Heritage Month so all the more reason to declare, now and henceforth, that Lamar Demeatrice Jackson, Jr., the 24-year-old quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, is blessed with duende. I suspected as much last year, but Jackson’s performance in Monday night’s game against the Indianapolis Colts confirmed it.
You can get plenty of analysis from the football writers and sports talkers, and I’ll leave the matter of luck to those who wish to argue its importance in the Ravens’ amazing come-from-behind victory. The statistics and records, the judgment of officials, the failure of the kicker for the Colts — all of that seems mundane compared to what really happened. That was not merely a great game, and not merely great performances by the quarterback and his receivers. What really happened the ESPN cameras could not show: The duende in Lamar Jackson.
Am I getting carried away? No. I just recognize duende when it appears. I look for it constantly. I have studied it for 30 years, since I first discovered this mysterious thing from Spanish folklore and literature. I have tried to be careful to never mistake duende for mere talent or fame. It is far more than that.
The common translation of duende is “hobgoblin” or “ghost.” But it has a much larger meaning that takes us up the philosopher’s elevator to the realm of the metaphysical.
Duende, defined by the playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, is star power, charisma, a kind of ghostly spirit that gets into the blood of artists — dancers, singers, writers of verse — and takes over. It gives the audience chills. It’s thrilling and sometimes even a little scary.
“To help us seek the duende there are neither maps nor discipline,” Garcia Lorca wrote. “All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles.”
Garcia Lorca heard “black sounds” in duende, a kind of dark emotional struggle, an artistic reckoning with deep feelings that animate a performance. He saw the duende in flamenco dancers and musicians overcome with passion.
Duende shows up in many forms. It’s what we hear in a song rendered by a soulful artist who understands the journey of love, from utter joy to pain and back again. It appears at times in the performances of the Portuguese fado singers. I am certain the best of the modern fados, Mariza, had it going in her rendition of “Chuva,” a melancholy song about rain and heartache, during a live performance at The Birchmere in 2017.
George Frazier, the late Boston Globe columnist and jazz writer, had a big hand in Americanizing duende in the 1960s and 1970s, judiciously noting its presence in certain artists of stage, screen and stadium. He described it as “heightened panache or overpowering presence … that certain something.” He said he saw duende in Joe DiMaggio, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Kelly. Frazier defined duende as “what Ted Williams had even when striking out, but Stan Musial lacked when hitting a home run.”
It’s what we saw in Muhammad Ali.
“To say that duende is merely charisma or panache or flair is rather to demean it,” Frazier wrote, “for while it is certainly all those things, it is the nth power of them.”
And so I come to Lamar Jackson.
I thought I saw the aura of the duende last December, when Jackson, suffering from cramps, left a wild Monday night game against Cleveland, then returned late in the fourth quarter to help the Ravens score 13 points to beat the Browns. It was exciting. It was thrilling. But duende? I might have been too casual in announcing its presence.
This time, however, I have to go with it.
As I said earlier, this is not merely about talent or success. There is plenty of talent in professional football; there are plenty of successful quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson is blessed with many gifts, but what I see is more than that — the playfulness and energy of a child, the poise and reassuring presence of an old pro, raw passion balanced with grace, all of it underpinning stunning athleticism on the plane of a football field.
Had Jackson and the Ravens come up short — had they lost in overtime to the Colts — would I feel the same way? Would I be taking the elevator into the metaphysical clouds? Yes. The duende is not merely about winning touchdowns or awards or even Super Bowl rings. As Garcia Lorca said, it’s “the mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher has explained.”
We saw it on Monday night.
This excerpt from Garcia Lorca could apply to Jackson and what he’s come to mean to Ravens fans: “The duende’s arrival … brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”
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We are in Baltimore during the Lamar Jackson era. We are in a special place and time. Let us give thanks and praise.