writer & photographer
|| Catalan Musical Stew Keeps
Barcelona Up All Night
Published in The New York Times, August 6, 2006
IT was past 2 o'clock one recent morning when the electronica duo the Pinker Tones took the stage in Arbúcies, a town about an hour's drive northeast of here. Wearing white-framed sunglasses, blazers and earphones, Mister Furia and Professor Manso, joined by a frequent guest, DJ Niño, stood behind tables laden with mixers, turntables, soundboards and a Theremin. As American-style funk boomed from the giant amplifiers onstage, a young woman tossed aside her bag and began to dance wildly. The band mixed in snippets of dub, Hawaiian twangs, scratching, jungle beats and a manipulated sample of a Robert Plant wail, bringing most of the crowd of 20-somethings, many with long overgrown mullets and delicate piercings, to their feet dancing. The music — and partying — went on nonstop until 4 — an early night by Spain's summer music festival standards.
A few days earlier, at the band's tiny workshop on the outskirts of Barcelona, crammed with guitars, computer monitors, art books and stacks of vinyl albums, Mister Furia summed up the group's sensibility: "We have a certain tradition of the Catalan weirdness."
The Pinker Tones' eclecticism is typical of the bands in the music scene taking shape in Barcelona, a city famous for its Catalan nonconformity. What began a decade ago with street musicians drawing on the likes of flamenco, hip-hop, electronica, funk, rock, tango and Cuban jazz, has grown into an informal network of bands, clubs and festivals. Still largely an underground phenomenon, with little support from local radio and major record labels, it remains in the shadow of the bigger, more commercial music industry in Madrid, a point of pride for many of its idealistic partisans.
"What's happening in Barcelona now is what was happening in New York in the 70's with early punk and later with hip-hop: handmade posters, no pretension, energy, authenticity," said Darek Mazzone, a D.J. at KEXP in Seattle who often features new music from Barcelona on his global-music show. "That was before public relations took over the music industry. In Barcelona the music is the driving force behind the scene."
Josh Norek, a founder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference and vice president of the Pinker Tones' United States label, Nacional Records, said: "Barcelona has been a thriving alternative scene, more so than any other city in Spain. It's cosmopolitan, international and has many immigrants. I think you'll continue to see even more hybrids, fusions, cross-genres, singing in four different languages."
The Pinker Tones' latest album, "The Million Colour Revolution," which they recorded in their Pinkerland workshop and released on their own label, is an exuberant and eclectic collection, swinging from electro-soul to bossa-nova-esque to a Catalan-Hawaiian instrumental. Think of a soundtrack for a blaxploitation or James Bond movie with a score by both Kraftwerk and Henry Mancini.
The band came together four years ago when the two men wrote music for a television documentary. "When we met," said Professor Manso, whose real name is Alex Llovet, "we wanted to feel free to do music we'd never done before and mix things that in the beginning you'd say, "How can you mix Cuban music with a Moog and a recorder?' Let's try."
Mister Furia (Salvador Rey) added: "An indie rock band is supposed to do an album with 12 indie-pop rock tracks in one kind of style that you can produce in 10 days. That's cool, but we've done that already."
Mister Furia pointed to Catalonia's Surrealist movement, spearheaded by Salvador Dali, as a big influence on the group's irreverence. Professor Manso told how his grandfather, an art book printer, was once made to wait two hours because Dali refused to see him until the artist had obtained and applied the correct wax for styling his mustache.
The Pinker Tones' iconoclasm is rooted in the region's history of anarchy, labor movements and wealth, as well as the Catalan language, which sets it apart from much of the rest of Spain. That lighthearted disregard for convention is palpable everywhere, from the biomorphic buildings of Antoni GaudŐ to the middle-aged man who recently walked down Las Ramblas, the city's most famous street, wearing nothing but a knapsack and sandals.
"There is a sense of unconformity because historically we have been pointed at from most of the rest of Spain, mostly Madrid," said Estanis Figueroa, a D.J. who is also a music manager and producer. "Our Catalan history and ancestry make a lot of Spaniards weary." Madrid, he added, is where most bands go if they want to make it big, leaving Barcelona the city for experimentation and innovation.
Other popular performers like Macaco, Ojos de Brujo (the Eyes of the Wizard) and Muchachito Bombo Infierno (Little Boy Hell Drum) have created their own homegrown musical mixes. But virtually all the music is infused with the rumba Catalana, a frenetically rhythmic technique that involves simultaneously strumming and banging on the flamenco guitar that originated here in the 1940's. Earlier rumba Catalana masters like Antonio Gonzŕlez, known as El PescaŐlla (the Little Fish), and Gato Pérez, an Argentine whose music flourished in the early 80's, are often cited by the bands as heroes.
"My two pillars are Bob Marley and Gato Pérez," said Dani Macaco, the goateed, tattooed singer for Macaco. "When Gato Pérez played the rumba Catalana, he had the funk. It would be like James Brown for Americans."
American record stores may have a difficult time figuring out a category for Macaco's latest CD, "Ingravitto," due to be released in the United States this fall. The album builds on a base of rumba Catalana with staccato rapping, singing, jungle beats, scratching, rock, reggae and pop, adding blasts of African-Brazilian percussion, and its 14 tracks are sung in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and English.
Sometimes categorized as Nuevo Flamenco, Ojos de Brujo is an octet fronted by Marina la Canillas (the Skinny Legs), who sports a Gypsy-fly girl, flamenco-punk look. Her voice slides from soothingly soulful to raspy rap and climbs up and down the flamenco scales with frequent interjections of "Olé!" over hip-hop beats, Cuban trumpet, funk, tablas, congas, palmas (hand claps) and a cajón (a wooden box, played by sitting on top of it and banging on with hands). Ramón Giménez, Ojos de Brujo's flamenco guitarist and backbone, grew up in a Gypsy family, and he possesses an electrifying command of the rumba Catalana, perhaps enhanced by his detour in the 80's into hip-hop, when he taught himself how to break dance.
"One thing that keeps us together," said Xavi Turull, the group's cajón player, who has long silvery hair pulled back in a ponytail, "is that nobody is looking to make the big business deal of their life and get rich."
The group began playing on the streets roughly eight years ago. It now has an office and its own label. Its third CD, "Techarí," is due out in the United States in October on Six Degrees Records. "We've sold 30,000 in the U.S., around 50,000 to 60,000 in Europe and another 100,000 in Spain," Mr. Turull said of the group's earlier album sales, adding, "We're a self-managed group, with no sponsoring from big multinationals."
The huge influx of Latin-American immigrants has helped to enliven the Barcelona scene: Che Sudaka, Black Baudelaire, the collective 08001 and BarXino are mostly made up of Argentines, with a smattering of Colombians. The bands also include musicians from Morocco, Turkey, Guinea and other parts of Europe. Playing in clubs and Barcelona's many festivals, they toss raï, or samba, reggaetn and other Latin beats into the city's musical blender.
At a recent show by BarXino, Beto Bedoya, the group's Colombian frontman, flailed away on a fortress of congas, bongos and timbales. His Afro-Cuban sound, paired with MC Stormy's rapping in English, warmed up the deafening drum and bass beats of DJ Max. Beto then whipped out a triangle and played it with such self-possession that the crowd seemed almost frightened by the music's intensity.
Another Argentine, Federico Aubele, performs a mix of Astor Piazzolla-inspired tango, electronica, dub and hints of reggae, a sound usually called Nuevo Tango. "I think it takes a while to really know tango music," the laid-back Mr. Aubele said from underneath his unruly afro. "It's music that deals with really complicated feelings. You have to have suffered a little bit."
Mr. Aubele played virtually all the instruments on "Gran Hotel Buenos Aires," his first CD produced by the Washington-based Thievery Corporation. The vocals, supplied by, among others, him and his mother, an amateur singer and professional notary, add a haunting element, as does a snippet of an Evita PerŃn speech. Mr. Aubele is scheduled to perform in the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas on Sept. 16.
While Barcelona's new music may not be widely available in America, that situation may be changing. Mr. Mazzone, the Seattle D.J., said American record labels have their eye on Barcelona, keeping in mind what the commercial success of the Buena Vista Social Club albums did for Cuban music. "But I think it's going to take a while," he said. "Barcelona is still a little too real, a little too raw, to be packaged up for people to get."