Catalunya (or Catalonia) is an “autonomous community” within the Kingdom of Spain, which sounds as if the “nation” of Catalunya should be at least semi-independent. Spain, however, continues to maintain sovereignty over the region (which includes the metropolis of Barcelona). Thus it is by no means inappropriate or unexpected for a Catalan singer to program songs calling for Catalan freedom in a televised performance in a major concert hall.
The singer in question, Marina Rossell, is a long-time superstar in Catalunya, with a career dating back into the 1970’s, though she is little known in the US. This is unfortunate, because as a performer and as a representative of her culture, she should rank alongside such former International sensations as Edith Piaf, Nana Mouskouri, and Mercedes Sosa. Many of her own songs, as well as the older Catalan songs (about which below) that she interprets, may be regarded as somewhat equivalent to the South American nueva cancion, in that they are poetically worded songs which examine the lives of the common people, leaving it up to the listener to decide what must be done if things are to change. There are English subtitles available for the lyrics, which I tended to ignore at first, so captivating is the lush beauty of Rossell’s voice. Fortunately, I soon realized what a serious mistake that was, as the lyrics hold the key for a full understanding of the songs and the entire nationalist nature of the concert.
Rossell’s original material dominates the first half of the 90-minute concert, and a very substantial (and entertaining) body of work it is. The second half of the proceedings, however, may be even more valuable, as the singer has done considerable research into long-forgotten Catalan songs from the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. She has retained the heartfelt lyrics and memorable melodies of these songs intact, but has very successfully updated the styles of their arrangements to suit her musical approach and the taste of the contemporary listener.
Her accompaniment is focused largely on a variety of “Mediterranean guitars”, as well as piano, occasional accordion, strong bass playing, light percussion. This is supplemented by a variety of well-chosen guest artists - a choir of young women (teens, it would appear) called the Vivaldi Choir of Young Voices of Catalonia, two musicians playing tenoras (long double-reed woodwinds generally found in coblas; see below), the great Basque trikitixa (localized version of the accordion) player Kepa Junkera, and a largish percussion ensemble called the Coetus Iberian Percussion Orchestra.
In addition to the concert, there is a half-hour feature focusing on the songs themselves, showing how Rossell combed archives filled with sheet music to resurrect gems from her nation’s past. We are treated to an outdoor performance by a Catalan wind band called a cobla, which has the traditional role of supplying music for the Catalan circle dance known as the sardana. We also hear the background of several of the older songs featured in the concert, and learn a bit about their composers. In all, this lone bonus feature is an invaluable adjunct to a fuller understanding of the music.
Since this concert was filmed in 2008 for Catalan television, it would seem to make sense for someone like PBS to make it available for American viewers. But that would probably make too much sense. Certainly, there is far more substance and passion in this DVD than in a full week, even two, of the bland concerts by international pop singers trotted out by PBS during Membership Pledge Drives. Get this DVD -it’s the really good stuff.