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CRITIC'S CHOICE | BARCELONA

Barcelona's new beat

Latin music is the vibrant, heart-thumping essence of Catalonia's capital, where the sound never stops.

June 26, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Barcelona, Spain — If you come to Barcelona for its nightlife, jet lag will be your friend.

At midnight when bands are tuning up, a traveler on L.A. time will be wide awake. And in the hours before dawn, when clubs crackle with pulsing electronica or inventive flamenco fusions, you'll feel as though the night's still young.

In this city where the sun rises over the Mediterranean and Saturday night fever lasts all week, locals joke that if partygoers get home before 4 a.m., they probably didn't have a good time. Die-hard revelers carry on at after-hours clubs that only open at dawn.

During my five-day stay in May, I never lasted long enough for the oxymoronic experience of a "sunrise nightclub." I long ago lost my stamina for the all-nighter, but my lifelong compulsion to seek out the best in Latin music kept me constantly alert on this trip. As a journalist who covers Latino music and culture, I can't think of another place that is as grounded in its own culture yet as open to others, a formula for creative effervescence.

Here in Catalonia, the independent people of northeastern Spain have their own language, their own cuisine and, in Barcelona, their own cosmopolitan capital. The city has long enjoyed a reputation as a sophisticated showcase for bold and beautiful artistry: the fanciful architecture of Antonio Gaudi, the colorful swirling art of Joan Miro, the cutting-edge work of Pablo Picasso.

Now it's also emerging as a major mecca for music, again asserting its good taste in a variety of styles, both homegrown and imported.

The city is perhaps best known as a lightning rod for electronica, the chic club music that washed ashore from the jet-set disco scene on the island of Ibiza. But I wasn't lured here by this anonymous genre, which leaves me cold.

Instead, I was drawn by a new sound that has been trickling out of Barcelona, music made with a heart, a purpose and a strong sense of identity. They call it musica mestiza, a rhythmic fusion created in this Mediterranean melting pot where most bands have a member who's from somewhere else -- Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan, Cuba or even other parts of Spain, which is really several countries in one.

The style's prime exponent is Ojos de Brujo (Eyes of the Wizard), a magical ensemble that won BBC Radio's 2003 award for best world music from all of Europe. The band's soulful second album, "Bari," a harmonious blend of Gypsy sensibilities, intricate flamenco timing, Afro-Cuban rhythms, electronic accents and stirring social messages, also topped my list of 2003's best albums.

The group's newest protege, the rousing and irreverent Muchachito Bombo Infierno, has its own finger-popping style -- brassy, swinging and a tad debauched.

For more mainstream tastes, Barcelona has the uplifting pop of Jarabe de Palo and the rock-cum-rumba-catalana of the brash young duo Estopa.

A city that produces music this smart, inspiring, fresh -- and fun -- is worth exploring. Young people walk around with musical instruments in their cases. Old couples dressed to the nines crowd into old-fashioned ballrooms such as La Paloma for afternoon dances. Promoters pepper club patrons with fliers for upcoming concerts.

"The fact is," says Miguel Rojo, the ticket taker at Sala Apolo, a ballroom-turned-nightclub near the heart of the old city center, "in Barcelona, you can start on Monday and end up on Sunday without ever going home."

Poetry of Serrat's city

Although this was my first visit to Barcelona, I discovered the city three decades ago through singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat. He's Barcelona's pop poet laureate, a bilingual bard (Spanish and Catalan) whose songs sketch the characters and chronicle the lifestyle of the city's streets and barrios.

As a California kid raised on rock and rancheras, I found Serrat's music refreshingly foreign at first. It bristled with Catalan colloquialisms and was replete with lyrical images and complex arrangements.

Thirty years later, I found myself roaming the places Serrat had etched in my imagination, especially Las Ramblas, the city's fabled pedestrian walkway, once frequented by merchants, sailors and prostitutes and now packed with tourists.

There's a wonderful walking tour on a Serrat website (www.jmserrat.com/index2.html) that uses his song references as milestones throughout the city. The virtual tour, written by a fan, includes three itineraries that start at the same point, the enormous Placa de Catalunya, at the top of Las Ramblas.

That was also my first stop for CDs. The French-owned FNAC, on one side of the square, is a multistory emporium for books, magazines and music, with good display and helpful attendants who look hip but don't try to act it.

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