Reinventing rumba, Catalan style

Barcelona-based bands wrap the traditional Spanish gypsy music into urban rhythms in an ever-evolving new fusion.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    La Troba Kung-Fú: The Barcelona-based band is one of many in Spain's Catalan region creating new musical fusions from rumba Catalana.
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    The King: Known as the king of rumba Catalana, Peret has embraced the new generation of musicians experimenting with the gypsy rhythms.
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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.

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.

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"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."

La Troba Kung-Fú, the popular Catalan group who opened for Peret at the Lincoln Center, is an example of a Barcelona fusion band that embraces rumba Catalana. "We use the rumba Catalana like a surfboard, to navigate the waves of different musical styles that we like," explains singer/accordionist Joan Garriga. "It can be funky, or cumbia, or boogie boogie."

Mr. Garriga squeezed his accordion and sang his original songs with his bandmates to the keyed-up audience of Spaniards, Latin Americans, and a smattering of English-speaking New Yorkers. They mixed rumba Catalana with cumbia, rock, blues, reggae, and "Pachanga," Spanish village party music, changing from song to song.

When it was performance time for Peret, known in Spain as the king of the rumba Catalana, the rambunctious audience doubled in size. Peret was dressed in black, sporting a trim, white beard. He strolled on stage singing into a microphone and later peppered his set with jokes, witty commentaries, even a brief, modest butt shaking, demonstrating that people should dance as they please.

The rhythmic music had the audience on their feet, from the balding Studio 54 veteran in space-age glasses to several women exorcising their inner Flamenca, stomping their feet, swinging their hips, and rotating their hands above their heads. Former Talking Heads band member David Byrne, who has collaborated with Peret, was in the audience and hard to miss with his electric-blue auto mechanics jumpsuit, swaying and singing along to the songs.

"Um, I don't remember any more songs," Peret said playfully from the stage, making the audience laugh and yell out his classic song titles. The band, a mix of gypsy and "payo" (nongypsy), then launched into a racing guitar riff, accompanied by drums, electric bass, rapid hand-clapping, and the cajón – a wooden box played by beating its side.

"I created rumba Catalana in 1957 when I recorded a song called 'Lola,' " said Peret earlier that day in the lobby of his hotel across from Lincoln Center. He explained that rumba Catalana evolved from mixing foreign musical elements that were seeping into Barcelona in the late 1950s with his traditional Catalan gypsy music. "Rumba Catalana is a fusion of Afro-Cuban, Flamenco, and" – he thumped out a fast, catchy beat on his chest while tapping the floor and beamed – "Elvis!"

Peret's lyrics range from simple street stories of late-night cavorting to championing the rights of the poor and marginalized. One could draw parallels between it and some of the American black soul music of the 1960s and '70s. Oppressed people created both genres and both have lyrics about enjoying life despite hardships, often told in a clever, witty, yet emotional, voice. The most obvious similarity is that both kinds of music incite dancing.

Peret heartily em­braces this new generation of musicians who are championing rumba Catalana. He has recorded and shared stages with many of them including La Troba Kung-Fú and Ojos de Brujo. Other Barcelona-based bands include Macaco (Dani Carbonell), who is deeply rooted in rumba Catalana despite his more polished, pop sound, and Muchachito Bombo Infierno. Peret affectionately refers to them as his "grandchildren." He also loves the fervent reception he's been getting when he plays for Spanish youth at rock concerts.

Does he object to the remixing, slicing, and dicing of rumba Catalana in the more experimental groups? A resounding no. "It is not pure," he says of rumba Catalana, acknowledging its hybrid form. There is a natural evolution in music, Peret observes, similar to food dishes, as people move around the world. Fusion and adaptation is inevitable and exciting.

"Nothing is pure," he says. "Pure has no future."

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