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Three Jam Night in Barcelona’s Multi-Tiered Musical Cornucopia

May 11, 2012

Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família

The Sagrada Familia is an iconic weird looking incomplete church in Barcelona that was designed by Gaudi, as most people know. Last night’s adventures in Barcelona’s music scene for me were about as weird looking and seemingly never-ending as the Sagrada Familia. But while it is expected to see the church and other Gaudi buildings when you come to Barcelona, the kind of musical night I had last night was far from expected for me – given my experiences here in the past.

Not that I had bad experiences, but they were limited mostly to the highly organized jam sessions of the Jazz-si venue or the Big Bang bar, or the classic expat open mic of the George Payne Pub. Last night, I ended up having a three-tiered experience, a whole cross-sectional experience of the open mic and jam session, from three different levels and kinds of society. Or maybe it was all an expression of the same thing, in this country with such a high unemployment rate – especially amongst the young – and where music is one of the few releases for a suffering population, but also where it is also illegal in most venues at nighttime due to the strict anti-noise laws.

For the four years that I have been coming to Barcelona I have been hearing always in the background of my musical adventure the talk of the police crackdowns on live music at nighttime. The death of live music in Barcelona, etc. Last night was no different. But I saw one of the outgrowths of it too.

The first place I went to was more or less an expatriate open mic, run by an Englishman named Matt Kemp. It is held at the Bar Ese Efe in a cosy maze of tiny streets in the El Raval area, which has been compared to the Lower East Side in NYC. I had started the day thinking I would find no venue until Sunday, and then I received a message from my friend LadiesDi whom I met at open mics in Paris, who has lived in Barcelona and is currently in Finland but who originally hails from South America!

So I was saved by LadiesDi who told me about Matt Kemp’s open mic. I went and found a neat little bar with a back room and a cool mural of a kind of apocalyptic image behind the small stage and what turned out to be an acoustic open mic, ie, no mic. That, I later learned from Matt – and you can hear him talk about it in my next in the year’s series of podcasts – was directly due to the Draconian music laws that outlaw loud music at night.

barrilonia barcelona

barrilonia barcelona

There were a few Spaniards in the place, but mostly it was an open mic with foreigners – from England, the United States and elsewhere. It got quite full with a warm audience, and given the small size of the room it was quite possible to do it without a microphone. The ambience actually reminded me a lot of the Ptit Bonheur la Chance open mic in Paris.

I got to go up twice, as I was the second performer of the night and later went up on the second half of the evening too. In fact, Matt prefers to call it an open stage as opposed to an open mic, as he allows and encourages everyone to take to the stage – magicians, actors, poets, musicians, etc.

Just after I finished that evening and interviewed Matt, I started to make my way back to my hotel when I suddenly heard music emanating from a building on the corner of Carrer de San Rafael. The front of the building was wide open and I walked in to see what looked like a jam session going on, acoustic, but with a mic and amplified guitar and some South American-sounding vocals. I was immediately invited to go up and start playing, by some man whose face I could barely see in the shadows.

I wanted to case out the joint and the music first, and said, “No.” I turned out to be a squat called Barrilonia. And in my mind I equated it with the current economic and real estate situation in Spain, and the crowd was a vast mixture of people from different social classes. But the overall vibe, of course, was that of an illicit squat and people bearing with life’s vicissitudes through a need to express themselves and listen to others in music.

If live music is not allowed in Barcelona late at night – and it was after midnight – it will find its way out nevertheless. Music has healing powers, and Barcelona has a huge need for that now. All of Spain does. And far from not being a musical city, there is live music all over the place. It is just highly regimented, and where it cannot be done with amplification, it will be done acoustically.

I did go up and play a song at the Barrilonia squat, and I was joined on my guitar and vocals with the other guitar player and a guy drumming on his knees. I spoke to a couple of middle-class looking guys about the place, and one of them gave me a link to a web site to find more music, and told me that the area around the Cathedral is full of live music and jams at night.

I left the squat and continued heading towards my hotel when not far up the next street I heard live acoustic music emanating from a bar, a real bar, a bona fide middle class person’s bar with wooden interior. I glanced inside and as someone saw me with my guitar on the back he gestured me in to join the jam. There were a couple of guitarists and a flute or recorder player, and one of the guitarists also sang.

I was not there long before I was asked again to join in. So I did. This time I played along to a few of their songs, they played along to my songs, and I spoke to a couple of them about life in Barcelona. One man in particular, a teacher, was angry about how Spain was in the south of Europe and had a southern culture – like Greece and Portugal – and that it would never be able to fit into the norther culture and economy pushed by Brussels and the big European Union countries of the north. And he lamented the death of such things as impromptu jams and music in the streets, and again complained about the crackdown on live music.

But had I not just lived a full evening with three live music events that the city is apparently teeming with? Everything is a matter of perspective and expectation….

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