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The public and private life of the Catalan rumba

Alexandre d'Averc. Barcelona, April 2003
Translation: Gary Cook

Dismissed as an illegitimate genre, barely worthy of accompanying a wedding or even a drinking binge, and a distant and unwanted cousin of flamenco. Promiscuous music, defying all attempts to classify it. The hybrid, eternally restless and changing nature of the Catalan rumba has meant that it's been looked upon with suspicion ever since its birth. Artists from the more orthodox school of cantaores have always expressed their skepticism. Even ethnography studies in Spain's northwestern region fail to provide us with a firm handle on which to hang this phenomenon, though without a doubt its origins lie within a well-defined section of Cataluña's cultural heritage: the gypsy population.

Hence the no man's land in which rumba has tried to make a name for itself these last seventy years. Exempt from strict codes and rigid governing laws, it's been contaminated by whatever sounds have taken its fancy, and has contaminated all who have dared to cross her path. And following this almost clandestine course it has appeared and disappeared from view without any prior warning, defenseless against the whims of its all-consuming hometown of Barcelona. And defenseless too against the opinions, sometimes favorable others condescending or adverse, of audiences and critics alike. But even the most vociferous in their opposition have been unable to cover the tracks left by the legends of the "bomba gitana", nor the striking influence that rumba has exerted on popular Spanish music over the years, and more recently on new branches of flamenco. What follows is an analysis of the origins, adventures and positive or corrupting influence of the Catalan rumba.



Most quests as to the origins of a concept are merely a thinly-disguised excuse for that most Mediterranean of pastimes, the heated debate, rather than a true search for clarity. This one seems to be no exception. According to certain sources(1), the seedling of the Catalan rumba was brought from the East by a group of gypsies who settled in Barcelona, in the Barrio del Portal and the vicinity of Plaza del Raspall in the Gracia neighborhood. The first arrived in the 17th Century, although the group swelled notably in the late 1800s. These gitanos prospered in the antiques trade and as textile merchants, and they became firmly entrenched in their new surroundings - so much so that by the early 20th century the community all spoke the local language, Catalan. Even so, they remained true to one distinctive feature of their cultural identity: the cultivation of their own music. And this is the point where we start to lose the scent, as there is no consensus over what sounds echoed along Calle de la Cera and its neighboring streets. Some speak of rumba andaluza, a direct Andalusian descendent of the Cuban guaracha. Others trace the ancestry of the Andalusian rumba back to flamenco - to the tango, which in turn takes its framework from the Afro-Cuban tango. Some scholars point to the possible influence of the garrotín, a style of cante associated with the gypsy community of nearby Lérida. And there are even those who complicate things still further, assuring us that the Catalan gypsies weren't moving to the tune of a rumba andaluza at all, but drew their influences from Cuban bands such as the Lecuona Cuban Boys, who for the first half of the twentieth century found themselves in Barcelona, and from the Caribbean sailors who came ashore at the "Platxeta" of the port.

"'El ventilador' (the fan) consists of using the guitar to provide rhythm, melody and percussion"

This protracted debate, entertaining and intriguing as it may be, could go on for ever if we exhausted all the possibilities, without ever hitting upon a definitive conclusion to fully explain the sequence of events. Perhaps better to simply skip over the obscure origins and move on to the forties, when a group of gypsies played rumba in 2:4 or 4:4 time on the streets of Barcelona. Was it imported or home-grown? Who knows - what we do know is that they used bongos and guiros as accompaniment as they played at private events and neighborhood street parties. And there was one final refinement which was to give the rumba catalana its freedom and autonomy: that unmistakable background sonsonete known as "el ventilador" (the fan). Dubbed by an admiring Gato Pérez an "ingenious trick that's so easy to do", it consists of using the guitar to provide rhythm, melody and percussion: strum the instrument and simultaneously tap on the soundboard with your hand.

The credit for this technique is owed to a gitano known as El Toqui who frequented taverns and played at private parties, though it became better-known when it was adopted and popularized by a peculiar family of guitarists and fishmongers, dubbed the Pescadillas. The first Pescadilla, Antonio González, and his sons Manuel, Baldomero Onclo Mero, Joan Onclo Polla and Antonio, played long into the night at Charco de la Pava on calle Escudellers, and got carried away with the Cuban tumbao rhythms that were snooping around those parts at the end of the decade. Antonio González was also less affectionately known as El Legañas - Bleary-eyed; it was Antonio junior who was to become most indelibly associated with the family nickname Pescadilla.

After that first stone had been cast, the González family began to neglect their business interests and threw themselves headlong into their musical endeavors. Antonio junior and Antonio senior wasted no time in taking their new concept to the capital Madrid, and the other brothers all followed suit. The fifties were decisive years for the family: they gave concerts, formed their own groups, El Legañas became one of Manolo Caracol's henchmen, they released various albums on the Belter label, and in 1957 Antonio el Pescadilla tied the knot with the best-known artist in Spain at the time: Lola Flores. The rest is history, and their life together warmed the hearts of three generations of Spaniards.

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