Hidden Spain

Pubill 'Peret' Calaf's new album celebrates a new form of gypsy expression.

He spoke of moons on the run, of black angels carrying snow water, of winds that brandished hot swords against hearts made of olive oil. It was 1935 and the Andalusian poet Federico García Lorca was giving a lecture on Romancero Gitano, his book of poems about gypsy life in southern Spain. Though his poems celebrated the anguished cries of gypsy song, Lorca insisted they were decidedly "anti-flamenco" because they contained "not one short jacket, suit of lights, wide-brimmed hat, or Andalusian tambourine." He was after not the "visible Andalusia" of castanet flamenco tourist kitsch but the "hidden Andalusia" that castanets and heel-stomping table dances cover up--the pain and anger of a people stepped on by a state that has turned making money off their soul into a national pastime. A year later, Lorca would be assassinated by the forces of Franco during the first days of the Spanish civil war.

Lorca's poems remain principal documents of not only "hidden Andalusia," but of hidden Spain--the Spain of Moors and Arabs, the Spain of African immigrants and Basque separatists, the Spain that longs to renew itself in the Latin American cultures it once colonized. Hidden Spain is the Spain beneath the folklore, undocumented Spain, Spain without papers or passports. "I am a border in the sea, a ghost in the city," sang one son of anti-Franco Spanish exiles, Manu Chao, in his 1998 song "Clandestino." "The authorities say my life is prohibited."

The prohibited lives of these ghosts in the city haunt Rey de la Rumba (Narada), the new album from Barcelona gypsy singer and guitarist Pubill "Peret" Calaf, who grew up selling fabrics in gypsy street markets with his itinerant merchant father. In the late '60s, after years of relying on the cry of his throat and the palmera clapping of his callused brown hands, he grew Elvis sideburns, re-tooled his native Mataró gypsy song on an electric guitar, and fused it with enough rock, jazz, and mambo to help birth a new language of gypsy expression, the rumba catalana. Rey de la Rumba, which contains new versions of some of his most successful gitano pop rock hybrids, is Peret's first album in years. The Spain it reveals is the mestizo Spain that Spain has always been and the mestizo Spain that Spain has always denied through the promotion of a European identity that eclipses the clandestino others it's built on.

These others are everywhere on Rey de la Rumba. Peret invites some of Spain's most vital and controversial young musicians--many of them fellow Barcelona gypsies--to re-invent his songs and in turn wage a battle between pop flamenco visibility and the aggressive underground invisibility of the Spanish margins. There is Afro-Cuban rumba and mambo, Tex-Mex norteño and cumbia, Jamaican dub, militant breakbeat. There is Dusminguet, who perform in Arabic and Spanish. There is Manuel Malou, whose last album Mixa Cooltura resonated with immigrant voices from Cameroon and Senegal. There is Tonino Carotone, a madrileño who has traded in his Spanish urbanity for the provinces of the Spanish countryside and his Spanish birthright (Antonio de la Cuesta) for an Italian alterego.

And perhaps most importantly (and most surprisingly for a gypsy record that went gold on the day of its release in Spain) there is Fermin Muguruza, the former leader of punk radicals Negu Gorriak, who has emerged as the Basque country's most prolific audio activist. Los vascos, or euskadi, are Spain's oldest indigenous population--before the gypsies, before the Moors, before the Jews--and for years have been an Euskera-speaking thorn in the side of Spanish nationalism. Not only does Fermin sing in Euskera when he joins Peret on a jungle jacked version of "Voy, Voy" but so does Peret, and the two trade verses in Romaní, the native language of the gitanos. And so a song that many critics dismissed in the past as exemplary of sell-out gitano pop is now re-born in two of Spain's most disenfranchised unofficial languages over a spiral of ballistic breakbeats on transcontinetal loan from Kingston sound systems and UK ghettos.

Two artists from Mexico--the colony Spain seems to have the hardest time shaking in its quest for post-colonial innocence--also work their way into the hidden Spain that Peret curates: the Monterrey cumbia-hop conjunto El Gran Silencio and Professor Angel Dust, who has himself left the colony for the crown, now lives in Spain, and has worked with, among so many others, Sevillian rapper Mala Rodríguez. Rodríguez's own debut Lujo Iberico, which plops hip hop down in the center of Southern Spain, is a record Lorca would have loved--he relished the similarities between New York blacks and Spanish gypsies as early as the 1920s.

If you listen closely to her song "La Cocinera," you can hear her rhyme flow dissolve into the throaty trill of gypsy song. Her words elongate, flutter, and scrape and they get close to what Lorca once described as "the scream of dead generations, a poignant elegy for lost centuries." It is the same sound that perforates Rey de la Rumba's chart-topping polish, the sound of the past forcing its way into the present, the sound of the hidden pushing its way back into visibility.

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