I Come From A Silence by Michael Eaude

In 1958, a 17 year-old working-class lad from Xàtiva, an industrial town in the province of Alacant (Alicante), wrote an apparently conventional teenage song about riding pillion on a motor-bike. He was called Raimon and the song was Al vent, In the wind.

Face in the wind
heart in the wind
hands in the wind
eyes in the wind
the wind of the world.

In the raw, rhythmic voice of Raimon, backed by just a strumming guitar, and at the particular moment of the dictatorship, it became a song about riding free. This was the voice of the new generation, not cowed by the terrible defeat of the Civil War. For many who heard this voice coming out of the far reaches – for a Barcelona resident – of where Catalan was spoken, its impact was like hearing Jacinto Verdaguer at the 1866 Jocs Florals. New and authentic.

And all/ all full of night/ searching for light/ searching for peace/ searching for God/ in the wind of the world.

Raimon’s early songs did not analyze the world. They expressed what masses of young people felt. They wanted to ride in the wind, free, and they were longing for a better life. It showed that music could reach beyond the censorship. Even Franco’s censors, notoriously inconsistent and foolish as they were, might draw back from censoring a song about a motor- bike. Yet these crits cantats (sung shouts) were profoundly political.

The nova cançó (new song) was a movement of cantautors (singer-songwriters) which swept Catalonia in the early 1960s. It started with a loose group of singers who called themselves the Setze jutges (16 judges). It was a name derived from a Catalan tongue-twister, containing sounds difficult for a Castilian Spanish speaker to pronounce correctly, though curiously the tz, tj and tg are easier for an English speaker: Setze jutges d’un jutjat mengen fetge d’un penjat, 16 judges from a court eat liver of a hanged man. There were not 16 singers in the group, though later, by 1968, they expanded to 16.

The 16 jutges and Catalan song festivals were not seen as any great threat by the Franco authorities at the start of the 1960s. It was a folkloric, minority activity: as Raimon put it, “Singing in Catalan had to be: oh! What lovely mountains, oh! What a beautiful sea, oh! What a beautiful land we have here!” The economic boom of the late ‘50s, based on foreign investment in a country with a cheap labor force and on the arrival of tourism, thawed slightly the fear and repression. Very slightly, but it was enough for the 16 jutges to emerge and for Raimon to present a song in Catalan to the Barcelona international Festival of the Mediterranean in 1963 -– and win. The thaw didn’t last, neither culturally (the Festival was closed down) nor politically: repression of working-class struggle returned with a vengeance in the late ‘60s.

The nova cançó grew quickly. This mass cultural-political movement welded together a new generation fighting for its liberty. Under the censorship, it was of course not possible to sing protest songs as explicit as Víctor Jara’s in Chile or Bob Dylan and Joan Baez’s in the United States; but when Raimon stepped on stage and sang so powerfully and directly Diguem No! – Let’s say No – goose-pimples stood out on his audience’s arms and everyone knew what he was talking about. Later, for many years, he was forbidden to sing Diguem no! by the censorship, which demanded a list of performers’ songs before each concert and crossed out what must not be sung -– arbitrarily, for the censorship varied from province to province. But Diguem no! was forbidden everywhere, so clear was its message:

We have seen fear/ made law for all/ We have seen blood/
– that only makes blood -/ become law in the world. No,/ I say no/ let’s say no./ We are not part of this world.

It is worth putting the Catalan, to show the aptness of this language of short, spat words for protest songs. How powerful the single two-consonant syllable ‘tots’ is:

Hem vist la por/ ser llei per a tots./ Hem vist la sang/ – que sols fa sang – /ser llei del món./ No,/ jo dic no, /diguem no./ Nosaltres no som d’eixe món.

At the end of his concerts, when Raimon was about to leave the stage, the audience would begin to sing this song. He was not himself infringing the law; and the police could hardly arrest the whole audience. That was the collective, political power of the Nova Canço.

The immediate influences on the Nova canço were Juliette Greco, Jacques Brel and George Brassens, French singers of the 1950s. Brassens, in fact, was born at Sète, the ‘Venice of Languedoc’, very close to Catalonia. The Nova cançó also showed the breadth of the Catalan linguistic area: Raimon came from Xàtiva, Ovidi Montllor, the most worker-radical of the cantautors, from nearby Alcoi, while Maria del Mar Bonet was from Mallorca.

It was Raimon, still today a singer of great personality and power, who made the Nova Cançó a mass movement. Though he was not one of the setze jutges, when they heard him they brought him to Barcelona, where his directness broke with their more French, intellectual airs. His first recording came out in 1963 and by 1965 he was singing to mass audiences. In 1966, with problems to perform in Spain, he was acclaimed at the Olympia in Paris, where he was the first of several banned Catalan cantautors to find refuge. Raimon’s concert, entitled Chansons d’amour, Chansons de lutte, demonstrated his refusal to distinguish between a love song and a political song. Any song that stood for freedom was both intimate and political.

It was Raimon who, while Franco was dying, sung to a mass audience in the Sports Palace on Montjuïc the extraordinarily moving Jo vinc d’un silenci, I come from a silence, in which he places his working-class heritage at the centre of the struggle against Franco. For Raimon, there was no separation between the national struggle for Catalan rights and a working-class social struggle. He is the Woody Guthrie of Catalonia, a socialist poet.

I come from a silence,
ancient and very long,
of people who keep rising up
from the depths of centuries,
of people who they call
subordinate classes,

I come from the squares
and from the streets full
of kids who play
and the old who wait,
while men and women
are working
in the small firms,
at home or in the fields.

I come from a silence
that is not resigned

Who loses origins
loses identity.

Music was a vital part of the rebirth of struggle in the 1960s. Raimon came out of the silence caused by the fear that Franco’s executions and dictatorship had imposed. He often says: “all songs are against fear”. Song helped unite the struggle that the underground unions and residents’ associations waged more immediately. They were heady days when art really could affect politics. In 1969 Raimon, part of an undefeated generation, connected quite consciously to the earlier generation that had experienced the Civil War defeat and had endured, in his song To Joan Miró: “In lit-up red, I want songs”. It was the famous double-meaning of people living under dictatorships. Of course, the fiery red balls of Miró’s late paintings were suns, but red was politics, the sun rising on a new age. “In lit-up red/ I want the world /and to tell things/ just as they are”.

The nova cançó was a movement whose history clashes with received wisdom. Before the death of Franco in 1975, Raimon was not permitted more than 8 minutes television time in his entire career. He was hardly played on the radio; between 1968 and 1972 he could not publish a record. All the songs he submitted were censored. Yet he was one of the biggest selling singers in Spain; his concerts were packed by people who knew his songs by heart. And this, of course, was before the age of downloading songs from the Internet. In a time of mass struggle, culture can bypass the market.

Raimon has explained how he spent six months in England when he was 20, working on the motorways and then traveling. When his workmates learned he was Spanish, they teased him with a Spain of bulls and El Cid. Shocked, Raimon realized he came from a different country. Castilian ‘austerity’, bulls and religion had nothing to with him: he came from a Mediterranean Valencia of light and pleasure, of fire, orange groves and paella. The people of Xàtiva were known as socarrats, the burned, because the city had been burnt down in 1707 by the Spanish King Philip V’s troops. Today Philip V’s portrait hangs in the city museum -– head down.

At school Raimon was taught the Castilian poets, but nothing (not even the fact of his existence) was mentioned of Ausiàs March, a Valencian who was the major fifteenth- century poet in Catalan. Raimon identified strongly with March, who wrote of love and domestic affairs in a practical way, breaking from the Provençal courtly love tradition. March questioned religion and brought a rich philosophy into his down-to-earth poetry. Raimon’s songs of March’s poetry and of others such as Salvador Espriu helped make these poets widely available to Catalans. Espriu (1913-1985) spent the dictatorship in what was known as ‘inner exile’, somewhat like Joan Miró. An inner exile expressed beautifully in one of his poems sung by Raimon:

We have lived to guard words for you.
To return the name of each thing.

You lose names, you lose precision, you lose your place in the world if your culture and language are crushed.

Raimon came from a silence where his language had been suppressed. And not just his language. He told Uruguayan socialist Eduardo Galeano in an interview:

Any history that is not sectarian of what we now call the Spanish state recognizes that the process of affirmation of Spanish nationality as such involved the destruction of the Galician, Basque and Catalan nationalities. How have they achieved this? By stealing the collective memory of the popular classes within these nationalities.

The achievement of Raimon is not just to have made great poets newly accessible, but to address directly through music the mass of Catalan speakers. Profoundly democratic, in a way which went way beyond the confines of party politics, he was able in the ‘60s and ‘70s to connect his art with the people he came from. He was offered TV and radio space under the dictatorship if he sang in Castilian Spanish, but he chose not to do so. When Galeano asked him why he didn’t sing in Castilian to reach a Latin-American audience, Raimon countered with “Why don’t you write in English to reach a wider public?” There is no need: great songs or poems in minority languages can reach beyond the linguistic barrier. If you translate them, you water them down, they lose the edge of your native language. Especially in Raimon’s case, as his vital force came from his feeling that he belonged to an oppressed people and that his songs were part of the struggle of that people.

Michael Eaude lives in Barcelona and is active in the city’s anti-capitalist movements. Contributor to Guardian and Independent, inter al., he is the author of the books Catalonia, a Cultural History (signal), Barcelona (Five Leaves) and Arturo Barea, Triumph at Midnight of the Century (Sussex Academic Press).



Leave a Comment