More than 50 years ago, during a concert at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, Lluís Llach sang the most remembered version of L'estaca. That interpretation was recorded in a live show that became a fundamental piece of the nova cançó. Then, the reports of the Francoist police accused the singer-songwriter of "exalting the masses with his eyes" and his songs and those of figures such as Raimon or Núria Feliu gave encouragement to those who fought against the dictatorship. Later, groups from all over the world recorded versions of L'estaca in their respective languages and the theme became the anthem of revolts and protests as distant as the Jasmine Revolution (Tunisia, 2010) or the demonstrations against Lukashenko in Belarus (2020).
The nova cançó movement, formed six decades ago by anti-Franco singer-songwriters (such as Joan Manuel Serrat) remains, to this day, the most important manifestation (by repercussion and sales, with the permission of Sopa de Cabra and Manel) of popular music in Catalan. So much so that, as some young artists comment, a good part of the public continues to identify any proposal in Catalan with that genre.
Around 1980, Fermín Muguruza recorded the first songs of the mythical Kortatu in Spanish because, as he explained to this newspaper, he did not know Basque: "My parents are Basque, but nobody taught us the language. We've had to learn on our own." In 2023, Sarri, Sarri, one of Kortatu's latest songs, already recorded in Basque, accumulates more listens on Spotify than Mierda de ciudad (that success in crystalline Spanish that, as DJs know, triumphs on Saturdays in any city). If with the nova cançó, at least outside Catalonia, the part replaced the whole, with Basque radical rock something similar happened.
Fermín Muguruza photographed in 2013 in Sydney.Juan Naharro Gimenez (Redferns via Getty Images)
And Galician is no exception: for decades, the proposals in this language that have toured the rest of the peninsula have done so, above all, by folk or Celtic music festivals. Galician music also has its place and it is that of the roots, even if, lately and thanks, among others, to Baiuca, Fillas de Cassandra or Tanxugueiras those roots are being updated.
In any case, why are bands using any of the three languages hardly programmed in festivals outside the bilingual territories (while, in many Spanish festivals, English-speaking groups are the majority)? Is there an impermeable scene in each territory and for each language? Do we carry prejudices from decades ago and continue to associate each language with a single gender? What part of a song—besides its explicit content—is political? Is curiosity lacking or does the Spanish language push too much?
I didn't understand what you said: language and speech
During the 2021 American Music Awards gala (a celebration organized by the American industry), a reporter threw a question in English to Bad Bunny. The Puerto Rican replied with self-confidence and in Spanish: "I didn't understand what you said." So the interviewer, embarrassed by the misunderstanding, repeated the question vocalizing better. Something like this was unthinkable a few decades ago (when even Julio Iglesias apologized for his accent in American late shows) and gives the measure of the success of the Spanish in the global music market. What's more, this anecdote also reveals that power relations are changing within American society.
The Galician duo Fillas de Cassandra.
Philosophers such as Roland Barthes speculated during the seventies of the twentieth century about the confusion between language and discourse: two concepts that, they said, form a single object. Thus, the use of a certain language, regardless of the content transmitted, would be sending a certain message. And since we are talking about something as subject to rules (orthographic and grammatical, but not only), fashions, traditions and inertia as languages, much of that message is political.
A bilingual artist, as soon as he begins to compose, must make a decision that is not entirely innocent: which of the two languages he handles with ease he will use. Will you think about the audience you want to reach (potentially huge in the case of Spanish)? Will he remember the power relations that are established between the speakers of one language and another, that is, will he choose for political reasons? Will you do it for aesthetic reasons, such as the sonority of certain words or the placement of accents? What if he simply does what comes most naturally to him?
Julieta Gracián (or Julieta) is from Barcelona, she is 23 years old and has just released her third album, 5AM, a unique case because there are songs in Catalan, in Spanish and with a verse in each language. Julieta, one of the young promises of the Catalan scene, explains how she decides between languages: "For me it is something aesthetic. I think Catalan has a very different sound from both Spanish and English. I have listened to a lot of music in French and Catalan is a language that is very similar in terms of sound." Have you ever found it conflicting to use one or the other? "For those of us who live in Catalonia, bilingualism is something super natural, so normal that in my house we use one or the other interchangeably. I think of the two languages and the two languages represent something to me, both have something sincere and real."
The Barcelona singer Julieta Gracián, stage name Julieta.
María Rodès, with 7 solo albums among which sneaks some tracks in Catalan and collaborations in both languages, also refers to the language in which she thinks: "I usually write in Spanish because it is my mother tongue and the language in which I usually think. Even so, I am totally bilingual and although I write most of my songs in Spanish, I use Catalan with 80% of my friends in Catalonia." He also distinguishes different tones or properties for each language: "I think that each language has different expressive capacities and I love the phonetics of Catalan. The words are shorter and the sound of the consonants less 'aggressive'. That makes it easier when composing, I find it a kinder language for songwriting."
Catalan, Galician and Basque are "minority languages", that is, at some point in their history their use has been marginalized, persecuted or even prohibited. It is something that María Pérez and Sara Faro remember, who recognize that, inevitably, they are doing politics when they sing in Galician. They are Fillas de Cassandra, and this summer they caused a sensation in all the festivals in which they presented their album Acrópole. "Singing in Galician," says Sara, "regardless of what you say, is in itself a political act, because you contribute to the survival and transmission of a minority language." And he continues: "Speaking in Galician, and more in adolescence implies an active effort to consume culture in Galician and interact in this language. And for that, [that culture] has to exist, be available to everyone and be for all tastes. That is being the great conquest of the current musical panorama, and perhaps the reason why our music lives a good moment: because it speaks of what happens to us, it speaks to us and, undeniably, it is a political fact".
Uneven markets and figures
In Spanish festivals there is a lack of variety. Especially in the largest ones, which are also the most visible and those that receive the most public subsidies. It is something that music critic Nando Cruz delves into in his recent essay Macrofestivales, the black hole of music. In his book, Cruz explains that we live in a "festival groundhog day": the posters are repeated and the circuit depends on opaque international agencies and "older bookers, victims of their own network of friendships, inertia and weaknesses." If it is difficult to access news at major festivals, it is even more difficult to listen to a band that uses a language other than English or Spanish outside bilingual territories. Sometimes, it is complicated even within them. There are paradigmatic cases, such as the FIB of Benicàssim or the Low Festival of Benidorm: both are held in places where Valencian is a co-official language and in recent years they have not programmed any group to use it. From the Professional Association of Representatives, Promoters and Technicians of Catalonia (ARC) indicate that "it is very worrying that festivals with magnitude do not program any band from the nearby territory". And they continue: "In cases like Benidorm, there is no infrastructure or rehearsal rooms or exhibition of local bands. It is alarming that there is a lack of economic resources for culture and tourism and the few that exist are destined to festivals where local groups do not play and excessive caches are paid to foreigners. Local groups don't have opportunities and festivals become a circus that comes and goes."
Singer Raimon in 1964 in Madrid.Gianni Ferrari (Getty Images)
Every year, the ARC publishes a yearbook that includes the main statistics related to music in Catalonia, as well as the opinions of dozens of experts. In the Anuari de la música 2023, data appear on the presence of Catalan musicians on stages in Catalonia or on the language they use. The pandemic and its restrictions were favorable: in 2020, 70% of the musicians who performed in Catalonia were born there. This effect has already been diluted and in 2022, on average, just over a quarter of the Catalan festival line-up was made up of local artists, so during the last season only 17% of the performances were developed in Catalan.
Given these figures, Ruth Carandell of Plateforma por la Llengua complains that "the most important part of public aid to festivals is invested in proposals where music in Catalan is a minority". Although there are exceptions such as Canet Rock or Acústica, festivals program little Catalan and that despite the fact that listening to music in this language has grown in recent years. According to the Anuari, 75% of Catalans say that "they listen to music in Spanish every day", "70% listen to it in English" and "42% listen to it in Catalan". In 2012 this last figure barely reached 10% and, as can be seen, they are not exclusive customs.
There are no such detailed statistics on the consumption of culture in Basque or Galician, so we must pay attention to subjective impressions or less detailed studies such as Eustat, prepared by the Basque Institute of Statistics. It indicates that 58% of the Basque population "listens to music by Basque groups regularly", but does not specify which language these groups use. For her part, María Pérez has felt that on several occasions they have hired Fillas de Cassandra "for complying with feminism and language." And there are also those who give him advice that he has not asked for: "Older people, above all, recommend us to change to Spanish to continue advancing. There are generations that think of Galician as something that closes doors instead of opening them."
Variety and hope against old clichés
"Unfortunately there is still too much separation between Catalan culture, or rather in Catalan, and that of the rest of Spain," says María Rodés. "There are still many Catalan artists such as Ferrán Palau and Pau Vallvé who play it in Catalonia but receive little attention in the rest of the peninsula. It's a shame that those barriers exist, music should be above that."
The singer Maria Rodés, photographed in 2023 in Madrid. Samuel Sanchez
Although groups like Manel reached number 1 in the Spanish charts, others like Antònia Font have toured throughout the country and proposals mainly in Basque such as the Navarrese Chill Mafia fill in their performances outside Basque territory, bridges are still missing. But not all the fault lies with the programmers, the media or the public in the rest of Spain. Julieta confesses that from within she has noticed that "the music industry in Catalonia does not look outwards and has stagnated. I got into this because I heard it said that music in Catalan was a genre. Music in Catalan is not one genre, but has to include many genres. And the posters have been the same for years: groups of guys playing trumpets and such; that I respect them, but you can't base an entire industry on that. That mentality is changing, but it's hard: a lot of boy groups don't have half as many listeners as Mushkaa or I have, but they get more opportunities because they make big party music."
So, on the one hand, music in Catalan, Galician or Basque faces a problem of projection outside their territories and, on the other, the excessive inertia due to what is already known from local promoters. Still, the outlook is good. Julieta herself recognizes that a change is beginning to be noticed and that more and more young people produce reggaeton, techno or house in Catalan.
And Sara Faro believes that things have already changed in Galicia. "There were years when music in Galician was somewhat metainguistic: it spoke, for the most part, of the language as a political weapon, usually in very specific styles. Perhaps this new generation has not only integrated that message, but, consciously or unconsciously, has assumed those conquests, allowing itself to talk about other things without prejudice about rhythms or sounds."
"We can sing in Galician about what happens to us as young people," he continues, "about our worries, loves and heartbreaks, about our desires and frustrations, and do it both from the trap of Boyanka Kostova, and from the indie-funk of The Rapants. Also from the folk of Caamaño and Ameixeiras or from the pop of Berto. Numerous Galician projects are demonstrating, in reproductions and concerts, that young Galicians and in general, the public, demand music of all kinds".
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