KESSE 08 International Music Festival: Tarragona

Readers of my last blog, Monument Valley (July 24, 2008), will no doubt have questioned my sanity at leaving such a wonderful place just to go back to the big city. Notwithstanding the fact that the following day was Monday with all that that entails, they wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But I had other motives, both general and specific, and it’s only now in retrospect that I see that I was marking a transition from a landscape of natural monuments to those of a built environment. I won’t attempt to emulate Lucy’s wonderful blogs and images on urban wildlife; in any event she literally pipped me to the post! Now that the swifts have gone, vanishing as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared a month or so ago, I’ll have to leave my description of their frantic ‘race’ around Tarragona’s Roman Circus until next year. But to underline a point implicit in these posts; the urban environment is just as ‘natural’ as out in the countryside, but that the impact of mankind is so much more obvious. Furthermore, we, that is, those of us who have an interest in nature and wildlife, de facto readers of Iberianature, sometimes tend to regard towns and especially cities in a negative light, holding the illusory belief that without them nature would revert or maintain itself in a ‘pristine’ state. This is an illusion because the rural environment is so profoundly influenced by human activity that you’d have to go a very long way, certainly away from anywhere on the Iberian Peninsular, to find a completely, natural, i.e. pristine, environment. Indeed, now that we have a scientific onsensus on humanity’s influence on climate change there is nowhere on this planet that isn’t subject to this impact. And even our closest celestial neighbours, the Moon and Mars, now support restos humanos! Be that as it may I just happen to love both the rural and the urban environment, or rather those that conform to my tastes, and that Sunday evening I had a particular wish to observe and indeed participate in, the arcane behaviour of its dominant indigenous species, Homo sapiens!

KESSE, Tarragona’s annual world music festival is small beer by comparison to those of other cities, but the availability of superb open-air venues, mainly based on the medieval plaças, Roman remains like the amphitheatre or the purpose-built Auditori Camp de Mart, a renowned modern ‘tent’ design which has the towering Roman walls as a backdrop, make it something really special. Moreover, its timing, at the end of July, means that it really belongs to the citizens; much of the student population has gone away for the summer recess but the residents don’t start their holidays until August, when the city more or less dies for four weeks or so. KESSE draws some big attractions like Calima (above, more on them later) but the show that drew me back early from my weekend break was the Orquestra Àrab de Barcelona. I’m fascinated by Arabic culture and history, and highly conscious of my lack of knowledge of either, but what made the Orquestra most interesting to me was that it is firmly rooted in Catalonia, which has a very large Arabic population, including many of my friends and neighbours. Although their music is based on traditional Arab sources, specifically from Moroccan and Andalucian cultures and the Sufi traditions, I was sceptical of the description of their last album, Báraka, as being influenced by world music, jazz and Mediterranean music. One of the great things about the trend for World Music is its ability to transcend cultural and political frontiers, facilitating cross-cultural awareness and understanding, and this is a wonderful end in itself, of course. But I can have a bit too much of World Fusion Music, sometimes feeling that the music is reduced to its lowest common denominators, just in order to get a recognisable theme in there. I’m very pleased to say, however, that the OAB has not fallen into this trap, their music only has slight overtones, hardly more than a salpica, of these influences and sticks very clearly to its ‘base’, and very beautiful it is too!

What struck me more, however, was the way that the band represented itself very clearly as being Catalan, the leader, Mohamed Soulimane from Chefchaouen (dressed in white), spoke to the audience in fluent Catalan, even making a few ‘in jokes’. Furthermore, two of the musicians are Catalans; you could hardly find more Catalan names than Jordi (George) Gaig and Joan (John) Rectoret if you tried! Underlying the band’s ‘agenda’ is that Barcelona has absorbed Arabic culture to the extent that it now faces back out into the world as part of the panoply of Barcelona’s and by extension Catalonia’s and perhaps Spain’s, cultural kaleidoscope.

Calima, in contrast, could hardly be more different. The band was founded by Juanlu, ‘El Cani’, bassist from Ojos de Brujo, who brought Flamenco to the world stage thanks both to importing electric instruments and influences from the orient in the form of the related Bhangra sound from the Punjab. But Calima’s objective still is Flamenco, Flamenco and more Flamenco. So here the project is reversed; Spain’s most well known traditional music is drawing to it musicians from all around the world, in this case Argentina, Venezuela, Sweden and the United States, but keeping its ‘purity’; the ‘World’ influence is really synonymous with being contemporary in our globalised age. It’s curious to note how Calima’s line up, including the foreign musicians, is given very much in the Spanish manner, using nicknames only rather than the musicians’ full names, strengthening this cultural identification. In contrast the OAB, while identifying itself as being contemporary Catalan, also maintain their racial and cultural origins very clearly.

It strikes me that the cultural diversity and dynamism that is such a feature of contemporary Spain has, or will have, a vast importance for the broader environment. Spain has suffered, indeed is suffering, many environmental threats that originate, at least in part, in influences that are now obsolete; the rush for development at no matter what environmental cost dates from Spain’s need to develop quickly, both to get up to speed with its European partners after accession to the EU in 1986, and to escape the stagnation of  the Franco years; or the influence of ‘Big Government’ that still lingers on from those years of despotism and is evidenced in so many current environmental controversies like the corruption of city councils from Malaga to Mallorca. Many foreign residents of Spain’s rural regions have, like me, been exasperated by a common attitude dubbed, ‘como siempre’, meaning it is as it always was, that is a barrier to changing attitudes about the importance, and the sensitivity, of the environment. But is in the furnace of youthful urban life that new ideas and beliefs will be forged, not least because they attract so many of Spain’s rural youth.

After the party was over I got chatting to the soundman from a local band, Tumbuktu (residents of Tarragona but Argentine in fact) that was also part of KESSE. It just so happens that I too used to be in the sounds business, last working at that in 1979, the year of my new acquaintance’s birth! Apart from the technology it seems that nothing much has changed; the old rock’n’roll is still a crazy business and above all jobs in it, although well paid, are very short-lived (especially if you want a long life!). I was impressed with the clarity and sense of purpose my new friend stated his plans for the next ten years or so: reach the top of his profession in terms of technical skills and then dip out of the ‘rat race’ and move into the country, his living there supplemented by short seasonal work away on tour. It’s people like him who are our hope for the future.

Postscript: as an afterthought I simply couldn’t let the opportunity pass to feature what was for me the musical highlight of the week: Habib Kointé (guitar) & Bamada, from Mali, were quite simply a marvel!