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Reinventing rumba, Catalan style

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

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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."

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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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