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August 2007 - At first glance, the streets of El Portal, that part of the Raval around Ronda Sant Antoni, don’t look as if they would be a great place to nurture musical genius. Yet they lay claim to what many would argue is one of Catalunya’s most important cultural contributions of the 20th century: Catalan rumba.
While Catalan rumba has had many exponents over the years, one man is generally acknowledged to be the foremost performer in the genre, and he is known by a single name: Peret. Born in Mataró in 1935, Pedro Pubill Calaf, known to one and all as Peret, soon moved to Barcelona with his gypsy family, where he grew up surrounded by music. “We’d go down Calle Salvadors or Calle Amalia, guitars in hand, playing all day long,” he told Metropolitan, smiling.
Years later, in the Sixties, he would firmly establish himself as the main protagonist of a new, emerging music whose popular success opened the door to a long career, lasting 50 years to date, with a new album out this year. But is he a relic? Does Catalan rumba have a future as well as a past?
First, some history. Legend has it that in the Forties, gypsies from the Calle de la Cera, in the Raval, invented a style of guitar playing which combined the three essential ingredients of rhythm, melody and percussion. “I was just a jovencita back then, but I remember the music filling the streets,” said life-long Calle Amalia resident Rosa Albert. “It’s not the same as it used to be.”
Gràcia was also an important neighbourhood in the development of Catalan rumba, with the likes of musician ‘El Gato’ Pérez who found inspiration in the local gypsy community. Whilst most musicologists agree that Catalan rumba draws influences both from Cuban son and Spanish flamenco, the rumba’s exact musical origins are somewhat obscure. What is certain is that, like flamenco, it is essentially gypsy in origin.
Within Spain, and later abroad, it put Barcelona on the musical map, giving the city something of its own to celebrate. It is typically characterised by 2-4 or 4-4 tempo, palmeros (hand clappers) andcombining a fast up-tempo guitar beat with percussion instruments such as bongos. Above all, however, it is the method of guitar playing called the ‘ventilador’ that makes the difference. Dubbed by Gato Pérez an “ingenious trick that’s easy to do,” it consists of using the guitar to provide rhythm, melody and percussion: strumming the instrument and simultaneously tapping on the soundboard with your hand, according to Alexandre d’Averc, writing on the website www.flamenco-world.com. Peret put it succinctly: “The ventilador is the essence of the rumba.”
Coinciding with the tourist boom in Spain during the Sixties and Seventies, Peret notched up a string of hits such as ‘El Muerto Vivo’, ‘Una Lagrima’, ‘Saboreando’ and ‘A Mi Las Mujeres Ni Fu Ni Fa’. His big international breakthrough came with the cheerful and catchy sing-along ‘Borriquito Como Tu’ in 1971, which launched him in the international market. Following this success he received more international attention when he was called for national duty: he represented Spain in the 1974 Eurovision competition, which he maintained he was reluctant to do. Nevertheless, his ‘Canta y Sé Feliz’ managed a respectable mid-table finish.
Although his Catalan rumba grew out of Barcelona’s neighourhoods, Peret said his early influences came from some surprising sources, far removed from Catalunya and Spain. “Above all, I was influenced by Elvis Presley and Pérez Prado. Often many artists won’t even realise they’ve been influenced, but on return from an overseas tour you’ll notice something different in their next songs.”
This mix of mambo and rock-and-roll, both of which were becoming popular in the Fifties, meant that Catalan rumba was open to experimentation, embracing a variety of different styles over the decades. It is no wonder that unlike many other musicians from specific genres, Peret has never been opposed to fusion. Such mixing of different kinds of music often draws criticism from traditionalists in the Spanish music scene as contaminating traditional art forms. Peret disagreed. “Catalan rumba has always been fusion from the very start, just like you can make a good paella in many different ways, meat, seafood, etc., so you can make a good rumba in many different ways.”
As he sipped a beer in a little tapas bar outside the Sant Antoni market he proudly spoke of how, unlike many other artists, he still lives in his neighbourhood despite his fame. “A lot has changed over the years here,” he said, reminiscing about the days when the gypsy community was a much more visible presence in the Raval. He is certainly proud of his roots, and Barcelona has never forgotten him despite a period in the Eighties when he more or less disappeared completely from public view, becoming a preacher at a local Evangelical church. In 1992, he re-emerged in the limelight with an unforgettable performance alongside other Barcelona rumba bands Los Amaya and Los Manolo at the 1992 Olympic closing ceremony. “Of course, I was very proud; it ended with Spanish music, with music from the city itself. It’s only logical that it should have been like that.”
Peret’s music has undergone a considerable transformation as his religious commitment has deepened. “I consider my best discs to be Jesus de Nazaret (1996) and my new album Que Levanta el Dedo. His latest release touches on themes such as prostitution and the hypocrisies of fame, and goes beyond the light-heartedness of his earlier work. The new CD features a mix of ballads, Cuban guajira rhythm, classic Peret and even some electric guitar. Clearly the intention is to show that rumba can go forward, using its typical backdrop with combinations of modern music and contemporary lyrics. ‘Xavi’, the last song of the album is sung in Caló, a gypsy language, and the album provides an interesting listening mix.
Despite rumba having highs and lows over the decades, Peret remains optimistic about the future. The present is an excellent time for it, he said. The rumba scene in Barcelona may not be as glorified as it was in the Seventies, but it is experiencing a steady resurgence, and there has been a renewed interest in recent years. The 2000 re-recording of Peret’s greatest hits, Rey de la Rumba, was done by some of the top contemporary bands and performers, including Ojos de Brujo, Amparanoia and David Byrne. Popular bands such as Estopa also attribute a lot of Catalan rumba amongst their influences. Recently- formed Papawa offer a vibrant showpiece of Catalan rumba in its simplest form: vocals, guitar and bongos. Performing regular weekly sets at both Sidecar and KGB nightclubs, they are an excellent way to get a taste firsthand of how infectious Catalan rumba can be.
“The gypsies of Barcelona are born dancing rumba, it’s in their blood” said Peret Reyes, Papawa’s frontman. “The local youngsters are discovering rumba once more, and people are also looking for something pure again, and that’s what we do.”