Reinventing rumba, Catalan style
Barcelona-based bands wrap the traditional Spanish gypsy music into urban rhythms in an ever-evolving new fusion.
Sporadic "Olés!" erupted from the boisterous audience at Lincoln Center's outdoor stage one recent summer night. Ten Spanish musicians rapidly thumped their instruments, sang, and rhythmically clapped their hands while Pere Pubill Calaf, better known as Peret, the legendary Catalan gypsy singer, dazzled the New York crowd. A half century of performing had not dulled his ability to sing, play guitar, and move anyone within earshot to dance – the main objective of rumba Catalana.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent years this traditional party music that was born in the gypsy ghettos of Barcelona has been fused or remixed with modern, urban musical forms such as hip hop, rap, electronica, as well as the old staples of rock, reggae, blues, salsa, and cumbia.
The most internationally recognized young band out of Barcelona might be the hip hop flamenco group, Ojos de Brujo (Eyes of the Wizard). Their guitarist, Ramon Giménez, is a Catalan gypsy who expertly strums and bangs out rumba Catalana along with other rumbas, to meld with the group's rap, reggae, electric sound.
"The percussive nature of rumba Catalana lends itself to pop and rock music," says Tom Pryor, editor of National Geographic's world music website. "For a long time, Peret, who played on TV, was considered kind of corny but now these kids see he's cool. I think these younger Catalan groups want to assert Barcelona's musical identity and Peret is part of that."
The Spanish music industry and media often describe fusion music out of Barcelona as "mestizo," meaning mixed. This label makes musicians cringe, averse as they are to being labeled or put in a box, and true to Catalonia's long history of anarchy, irreverence, and individuality.
Today's Barcelona-based bands are not the first to mix rumba Catalana with modern music; an assortment of congas, brass, bass, and keyboards have already been added over the years. Indeed, Peret and his contemporary El Pescaílla were responsible for rumba Catalana's initial explosion in the late 1950s. Pescaílla is sometimes credited with cocreating this musical style, although Peret says Pescaílla's music is rumba flamenca. In the 1970s, Los Amaya, two Catalan gypsy brothers, expanded on the music, as did the Argentine transplant Gato Pérez, who created a funky South American salsa version.
"But in the '80s after the death of [Spanish dictator General] Franco, Spaniards all over the country euphorically adopted the international music that they had limited access to for decades. They looked to London for their influences and played rock, ska, punk, pop, and new wave. Most young people were not focused on anything that could be considered Spanish folklore," says Judy Cantor-Navas, managing editor of the music website Billboard en Español. "Starting in the '90s, a new generation of Spaniards began to look for their roots, so the rediscovery of rumba Catalana was a part of that for Catalans, whether they were digging out their parents' old records or playing the music themselves."