Sunday, October 09, 2016

From Cuba With Love: Havaneres

In 1860, a composer by the name of Sebastián de Iradier Salaverri went to Cuba. He himself was from the Basque Country and was born in the small town of Lanciego. Sebastián was to die five years after his voyage to Cuba. He didn't live to appreciate quite what he had done, because musically Sebastián had in effect created a musical genre.

One hundred years after he wrote his defining song, a version of it was to be sung by someone who was very much responsible for a musical genre. In the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii", Elvis Presley adopted a somewhat less raunchy style than the one he had been previously famed for. He sang a song that was like a lullaby, but it was an upbeat lullaby with a lusciousness that may have been appropriate for Hawaii but which had been created in Cuba. The song was "No More". Don Robertson and Hal Blair were credited as the writers, but a third name was credited as well - Sebastián Iradier. The song was his. Its original title was "La Paloma".

This is a song that has been recorded hundreds of times. It has been renamed, reinterpreted and reproduced in different languages. Notable among those who have sung it in Spanish is Julio Iglesias. An English version of the original was to be recorded by Nana Mouskouri. What all these versions shared, including the one transported to Hawaii for Elvis, was the genre that Sebastián Iradier was responsible for - the habanera.

Strictly speaking, Sebastián didn't invent the genre. He popularised what already existed. Some twenty years prior to his composing "La Paloma", an article had appeared in an Havana newspaper "La Prensa". It spoke of "the love in the dance". The habanera was both song and dance, something rooted in Cuban culture.

In 1875, the opera "Carmen" by the French composer Georges Bizet was premiered in Paris. It featured a habanera - "Love Is A Rebellious Bird" - and so the style, it might be said, had entered the musical mainstream, where it has stayed ever since.

The habanera, through its clear association with Spain because of the one-time colonial relationship and Sebastián Iradier's song, was to follow different pathways. One of these led to Catalonia where other musical traditions from the Americas, such as rumba, were to undergo a Catalanisation. A popular culture of the Catalan "havanera", a song typically sung in a tavern, took hold, but as with other aspects of Catalan culture it was to suffer from Franco's repression.

Despite this, in 1948 a book was published of the scores of various songs, and these were to help what was a havanera branch line of the so-called "Nova Canció", the new song of the Catalans that was a movement from the 1950s.

In 1966 in a tavern in the tiny fishing village of Calella de Palafrugell in Girona (Catalonia), they held a small song festival. That 1966 "cantada" has become one of the most celebrated occasions in marking out the rediscovery of Catalan folk music tradition. There is still an annual festival, a gathering of havaneres. The tiny village, and it remains tiny, attracts some 30,000 people each July. This year, as will be obvious, marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the more extraordinary moments in contemporary cultural development.

The havanera and groups of havaneres crossed over the sea to Mallorca. Local groups began to be formed and were part of the peculiar mix of traditional and modern that characterised Mallorcan popular music by the late 1960s. That was an era of cheesy pop, of angst-filled folk and of the truly bizarre - I really must tell the story some time of Los 4 de Asís, the quartet of singing Franciscan monks.

Havaneres are now highly popular. Groups such as Sotavent, who come from Alcudia, are regular performers at fiesta time. These aren't exclusively fiestas in coastal areas, but these are where you might most typically run across havaneres. And in one coastal area - Puerto Soller - they've been holding a gathering ("trobada") of havaneres: the seventh such festival. This is a gathering just like it was fifty years ago in a tiny fishing village in Catalonia.

* The video comes from an IB3 "Alcudia special" from 2010. Some of you may be able to recognise town hall councillors past and present.

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