By: Sam Murray
Welcome to another edition of Union of Sound, a unique exploration of Popular Music in Europe taking in music from acts that innovative, creative and exciting. Last week I talked about music that is exciting me from Germany and this week we are going to the land of Flamenco, Paella and pronouncing the letter ‘c’ in place names as ‘th’, Spain! Spain is a country with a musical heritage carved by its nomadic traveller population with the gypsy’s of Andalucía creating the most recognisable form of music from Spain, Flamenco. Flamenco is a form full of passion putting together musical virtuosity with breath-taking dance. I was lucky to witness a flamenco performance in Barcelona and was moved to tears by it. Spain also has a major place in world cinema being home to power couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem who started in Spanish cinema to then move into Hollywood. It also home to its greatest director Pedro Almodóvar a visionary auteur who has impacted the cultural identity of the nation.
It is with Mr Almodóvar we start today’s journey for he has a careful relationship with music to be used in his films. From his humble routes in Madrid to the he international success he has exposed the world to a wide array of Spanish music. The director was part of the influential La Movida Madrileña, an anarchic collective of post-Franco artistic dissidents who created the identity of Spanish Punk through their celebration of the excesses now available to a nation once crushed by supreme non=flinching dictatorship under the fear General Franco. His first film Pepi,Luci, Bom was the centre piece of this movement and was financed by locals in Madrid who paid to have a part in the film. One of the main actresses in the film is punk singer Alaska who performs songs in the film. Alaska is an icon in Spain for her attitude and image which is unique and original. Her first musical success was the song ‘Murciana Marrana’ which she performed in the film under the name Bomitoni Grup. The song is a wonderfully catchy punk tune that sounds like a 50s pop tune with the foulest lyrical imagery that I won’t repeat and let you research. Following the films of Almodóvar you can get a real sense of Spain’s musical timeline and the progression of Pop. His next film was Labyrinth of Passion and this time Almodóvar himself co-wrote the film’s musical hit ‘Gran Ganga’ a hypnotic electro-goth-punk tune that mirrors the film’s bizarre plot about a fictional Arabian prince being pursued by a nymphomaniac when he secretly visits Madrid.
After these forays into punk Almodóvar makes a foray into the influence of Latin American music in Spain within his seminal work ‘Dark Habits’ a mad cap tale of Nuns who have vices and take in a troubled drug-addicted bolero singer. The film includes music from the likes of Lucho Gatica and Fania All-Star Cheo Feliciano to express dark sexual emotion that troubles yet entices his audience. One of the unforgettable scenes of the film is where singer Yolanda performs ‘Sali Porque Sali’ by Cheo Feliciano with a backing band of nuns, she uses the song to tell the Mother Superior who lusts after her that she is leaving and not coming back, the song includes translated lyrics such as: ‘I left because I left’. This obsession with Latin American music carried through Almodóvar’s films and he started creating stars out of singers involved with soundtracking of his films. 1991 film High Heels gave Spainish singer Luz Casal her biggest hits when her voice was used in the film for the character Becky del Paramo. The two songs performed ‘Uno Año do Amor’ and ‘Piensa en Mi’ were highly successful in Spain giving Luz Casal great status as a performer. ‘Un Año do Amor’ is my highlight of the film as it is a dark passionate brooding ballad.
Almodóvar has continued his obsession with emotion marking music and finally came to flamenco for his film Volver where she voices Penelope Cruz’s character Raimunda performing a flamenco track sharing the film’s title. The song is stunning and mysterious and full of hope yet desolation. Estrella has appeared on the soundtrack for other films, she appeared as herself in the animated film Chico Y Rita performing a version of the song ‘Lily’ which the film is built around. This presents an unusual combination of a flamenco singer performing in a Cuban style and the stylistics combine in a fascinating manner. Estrella is of Flamenco pedigree but is a unique talent and as her name interprets is a star in the sky of Spanish music.
Looking outside the rather wonderful domain of Mr Almodóvar there is still a plethora of Spanish musical choices. One of my first exposures to world music was through the Spanish group Ojos de Brujos which loosely translates as the eyes of the wizard. Trust me their music is better than the awful prog you might expect form a name. Their album Techari is a historical lesson in the roots of Spanish folk connecting their musical lineage with eastern influences be it through the remnants of Moorish occupation. There are wonderful links between flamenco and Indian musics. On one track ‘Todo Tiende’ there is combination of flamenco with Indian popular music sounds from the accompanying guitar line, use of table and the stunning vocal lines that are almost tongue twisters using complex syllables. Ojos de Brujos have exploited these musical links to good use teaming up with British Asian Composer Nitin Sawhney on his 2008 album Undersound on the track ‘Shadowlands’ for an inspired collaboration. I would love to hear Ojos and Sawhney team up for an album as I’m sure it would blow my mind. Ojos de Bruos Alumnus Macaco has also made his unique mark on the Spanish music scene. He has a national smash with his summer pop anthem ‘Moving’ that has taken elements of flamenco from flourishing guitars to the complex clapping rhythms and shouts into superb pop. His record ‘Puerto Presente’ is just classic Spanish pop.
Rather like most European popular music that is sung in national languages as opposed to English, most Spanish pop fails to cross borders. This is incredibly interesting as it does potentially have a second market within Spanish language countries in Central and South America. You could argue that popular music from countries such as Mexico and Cuba have had more success particularly helped by the growing expanse of Spanish speakers within the US. However there has been a small number of Spanish based pop acts that have broken through. At this point I’m going to stand up for Las Ketchup, whose ‘Ketchup Song’ had global appeal after being synced with a viral advertising campaign. It was a clever piece of pop that reconceptualised Rapper’s Delight within a Spanish context, pretty genius if you stand out of things for a minute. The Las Ketchup ladies had continued success and entered the Eurovision Song Contest with the awesome ‘Bloody Mary’ that is lounge pop genius that makes me want to go to a trendy cosmopolitan bar and drink something out a martini glass with its Santana-esque guitar and lounge sounds.
Eurovision has also been a great place to discover some pretty darn good Spanish pop. You only have to look at last year’s entrants El Sueno De Morfeo (EDSM) who are another act combining Spanish tradition with great pop. This time it is the folk traditions of the region of Galicia. Galician music is tied with a lineage of Celtic music similar to British folk and Breton music in France. It is mainly driven by its distinctive Bagpipes, another clue to its Celtic heritage with relations to Breton, Scottish, Northumbrian and Uilleann pipes. EDSM use the pipes to create pretty epic folk pop that is full of vivacity and uplifting feelings. It is totally worth checking out to get lifted. To begin you should chec out their recent record Todos Tenemos en Sueno which is an anthology of their best racks reworked with some special guests including Italian pop legend Laura Pausini who featured in my Union of Sound on Italy. The record also includes their proposed Eurovision entries alongside their chosen song for the contest ‘Contego hasta el final’. After a listen of them I think they may have had better success with ‘Atrévete’ with its scrubbing string and kick ass pipe riff that is just wonderfully dancey making me wish I was at a festival. With this year’s WOMEX journeying to Galician city Santiago de Compostella following last year’s expo in Cardiff it’s awesome to see the celtic link and hope it will be exploited for the performances side of the expo. At WOMEX ’13 it was a Galician performer Budiño who proved a surprise hit with his contemporary folk music that was full of positive Celtic vibes. Budiño’s set was full of such eminent festivity and joy as he played the pipes with the world’s biggest grin stepping back to allow Galician folk dancers to dance the stage with such occasion. Get stuck into his record Sotaque for a marvellous folk collection with edge.
I have only really touched the tip of the Spanish pop iceberg with my journey today and there’s a whole lot more to discover within its regions. I haven’t even begun to mention the region of Cataluña, which may possibly soon be an autonomous state if citizens are afforded secession from the Kingdom that the majority wish for. That region alone has a mass of pop genius from Antonia Font to the folksy Renaldo and Clara. Our journey may not be done yet…