Joan Manuel Serrat – 1971

The track of the day, Joan Manuel Serrat’s “Mediterraneo” is quite the unique rebel song. Its one thing to rise up against the oppressor, and its another thing to rebel against dug in beliefs and traditions that threaten to replace one for another. You can uprise and dispose places/people but changing minds, that takes some substantial power. If, you’ve never heard of the Nueva Canción musical style I wouldn’t blame you. Its protest music based on sung poetry, usually with little musical accompaniment, detailing injustices committed by someone and in a language foreign to much anyone in the US.

In Spanish-speaking countries, from Spain all the way down to Chile, musicians would use abstract lyrics or roundabout phrases to get around and in front of to attack despotic governments. Its a style very different from what we know as protest music, which is folksy and very straight, to the point. Sometimes, folk singers in America, forget the straight up danger that musicians could face operating under dictatorships like ArgentinaChile, Colombia, and Joan’s own Francoist Spain. Sometimes, we forget how there are myriad unique ways of toppling oppressive forces. In Spain, no one had the gravitas and vision to do so quite like Joan Manuel Serrat.

Born in Barcelona, Joan Manuel lived through the first consolidation of Francoist power and final purge of academics and rabble rousers during the late 40s. He came from a working class family struggling to make ends meet, this informed his musical life. Growing up he would view firsthand the quotidian changes his hood was going through (rampant unemployment, rise in crime and substance abuse) and the unseen (disappearances of political opponents, battered fleeting appearances of the returned, Falangist suppression of “deviants”). All thing that touched him deeply and informed his musical career.

When he first picked up a guitar, as a young agricultural student, he fell in love with the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but as he became increasingly more liberal, and combative in his views, he started to fall in love with his own homey Catalan language and the music of artists like George Brassens, Leo Ferre, and Jacques Brel who spoke in even more roundabout ways, about personal and public rebellion. Rock music couldn’t present the delivery and swings of emotion quite like the new breed of Chanson singers would.

As his career commenced he devoted himself to singing only in Catalan. This Catalan language, that Francisco Franco overtly tried to suppress and stamp out by forcing Spanish as the official language of Spain and forbidding literature/teaching of this more colloquial dialect, only served to endear it more to Joan Manuel and other musicians in the Nova Cançó movement who purposely sang and wrote in this language in order to sway people to their cause. Using Catalan they would translate and record older George Brassens songs, or in Joan Manuel’s case the poems of Antonio Machado or Rafael Alberti, while interspersing their own songs which touched in very symbolic terms the plight of the common man in the face of tyranny.

Joan Manuel in Argentina.

His first album released in 1967 Ara que tinc vint anys (Now that I am twenty years old) was a highwater mark set for other Nova Canco artists, it displayed a distinct Spanish sound, one at times regal, and at other times provincial full of little instrumentation that would tie it to rock music. The use of classical guitars and modern flamenco rhythms was distinct. It was such a popular album that when everyone clamored to hear a brand new single called “La, La, La” he tried to use his clout to get it entered into Eurovision and sing it with its original Catalonian lyrics. Franco’s government refused, and Joan refused to give in. Either way, the power of the song was so strong, Massiel, another singer, translated into Spanish and won the contest regardless. This however set the tone for his career. As much as he wanted to make a statement someone else would have to run with his message.

By the time of 1971’s Mediterraneo Joan Manuel, had seemingly exhausted the various ways he could promote Catalan protest and to lend his hand/artistry to other musicians who could use his promotion to combat social injustices. He had already traveled to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil using his increasing musical stature to enter and win many famous songwriting contests like Viña del Mar, or the Festival Internacional de Cancao, or simply just make TV/radio appearances to give a second-hand voice to many who had no voice.

Many times Joan would take songs from forgotten or censored leftist poets in those countries and turn those same songs into brilliant covers done in his own inimitable style. These reimaginings serving both as to keep such sentiments au courant and living. His exploits serving to steele artists like Victor Jara, Chico Buarque and Mercedes Sosa for the truly hard work that lay ahead. In many ways serving to shed light worldwide when many countries were averting their eyes elsewhere. However, by 1971 he himself personally needed some rest. Retreating to the beach locale of Calella de Palafrugell in Girona, Spain he set to record his own personal history. Rather than focus on others, or macro level problems he went deep into his own. Much like Dylan, he knew that the most personal of songs could serve as universes for expansive revolutionary thoughts.

Mediterraneo album cover.

“Mediterraneo” from 1971’s masterpiece Mediterraneo takes its inspiration from the bittersweet view he saw looking outside during his stay along the Mediterranean sea. Within the lyrics of the song exists an ode to the sea and the sand that forever shaped his life. All of these things are related: The area surrounding the beach serves as a symbolic place to forget pain, suffering, and torment when the sun is up and when there is time to enjoy yourself. The sea itself touches on all those small hamlet shores cities where struggles are being fought through and through to maintain their identity. The sea itself informed how he was brought up from infancy to manhood, from fisherman and explorer, to sailor and tourist in a foreign land. Then, if so be it, the sea would be the final resting place he goes to if he has to face death for what he believes passionately about. The lyrics, quite possibly, hold some of the most beautiful humanist thinking you’ll hear in any language and rightfully so remain treasured by all Spaniards.

Joan taking a break from a Mediterraneo session.

Luckily, musically, his expansive reimagining of the Take 5 groove becomes its own surging sonic personality that lives on, building with strings, horns, electric pianos, and Joan Manuel’s almost-Brel’ian-like vocals an aural affirmation of a sound that’s uniquely mediterranean. This track was so fervently opposed by a lot of the Novo Cancao singers because it wasn’t a protest song as they knew it, sparse and self-serious, no, this song was full and vivid. No matter for the millions of listeners who heard it in Spanish (which angered many of those same singers), Joan let everyone know exactly what he meant and this became their wake up call: you can’t wash away tradition…you can only absorb it and build from it, like Joan does here. Little wonder then, that one of the first things he did was take his song and perform it con much gusto at Viña del Mar a year before the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a coup by Pinochet. Suffice it to say, for Joan, much work still lay ahead. In the future, he would hone in further on this power (the fruits of his labor being 1972’s Miguel Hernandez) but in this instance the public at large heard a taste of something uniquely of his own creation…


Listen to Mediterraneo at Grooveshark.

Bonus track time, from Mediterraneo, his brilliant take on Chilean-poet Pablo Neruda‘s “Aquellas Pequeñas Cosas”:


Listen to Aquellas Pequeñas Cosas at Grooveshark.

and one of my personal favorites, from the Miguel Hernandez album, the airy, pastoral ballad “La Boca”…

Listen to La Boca at Grooveshark.