Sax on the Streets
Chapter 23:
Barcelona, Spain


© Dan Gordon, 2003

After the headaches of the East, the regulations in Munich, and the jail fiasco in Zermatt, we sought the safe and familiar haven of Barcelona to pull us out of our busking rut. The mighty busking pendulum had swung again. Gary and I had not been able to suspend that fleeting instant at the arc’s positive extreme in Helsinki for long enough; the ponderous weight had shifted somewhere in Scandinavia, began its descent in Eastern Europe, gained inertia back in the West, and now swept with a reckless abandon toward its opposite peak in Barcelona.

Reunions with all of my friends and former students in Barcelona offered respite. We stayed with my good friends José-María and Marga, whose warmth and hospitality brought back memories of the miraculously happy years I had spent there. José-María and Marga were largely responsible for that happiness. I had met José-María, a fellow saxophonist, in my very first days in Europe three years earlier on a music program in France. We became fast friends then, when neither of us had any idea I would soon end up living in his city. Some months later, when I arrived in Barcelona, exhausted from too much travel and desperate to find work to allow me to settle down, José-María and his girlfriend Marga opened up their home to me while I looked for a job and a place to live. They offered me then, and throughout my two years in Barcelona, the kindest and most valuable commodity that any foreigner could possibly ask for: sincere friendship.

The dynamics of our relationship were an enlightening experience for all three of us. By integrating me into their lives, José-María and Marga transformed me into a Barcelonian. And I showed them that foreigners were not the mysterious entities that they had always believed them to be. Their backgrounds hadn’t put them in contact with many foreigners. Fifteen years earlier, José-María’s family moved to Barcelona from the poor southwestern Spanish region of Extremadura in search of a better life. Marga grew up in a small village outside Barcelona and rarely left her corner of Spain. She was well-read and intelligent despite her lack of much formal schooling, yet her small-town roots gave her a provincial view of life.

When I arrived in town, José-María and Marga couldn’t believe an American needed the help of two humble Spaniards. They marveled at how I managed to find a job in a country plagued by unemployment, and in doing so, find a happiness that evaded most of the native population. They concluded that I was blessed with luck, or as they put it, “born with a flower up my ass.” José-María and Marga had a hard time understanding my footloose lifestyle of running off to a different country at every opportunity; they shook their heads and chuckled at the crazy American who couldn’t stop traveling. But when I returned to Barcelona again and again with more stories to tell each time, they delighted in how I brought the whole world into their living room.

This time was no different, except that Marga was aghast at our slovenly appearance. The moment we stepped in the door, she ordered us to take off our clothes so she could wash and mend them. Marga hadn’t changed a bit from the maternal figure who served as my mother away from home. She even looked the same. Her long, straight brown hair highlighted her face, which sparkled when she smiled. José-María had the same hollowed cheeks and wavy black hair. He still wore a goatee on his chin, which he stroked when in a pensive mood. His slight physique belied the power that he could pump through a saxophone when he played.

While my friends had remained the same over the year, Barcelona itself had changed considerably. Cranes and back hoes all around the city worked at building and remodeling several areas for the 1992 Olympics. I still felt that spirit and passion of the city as I walked around, only this time I saw it from a different perspective. Coming from other points in Europe to Spain, rather than the other way around, everything looked decidedly poorer, less developed. Barcelona was growing, yes, but it looked like it was having growing pains.

Yet if Spain lacks in some respects, it excels in others. The laid-back lifestyle is refreshing to return to, and the food is incredible. Gary and I gorged ourselves on all the regional specialties, particularly the one night we dined at a Catalan restaurant with a bunch of former students. We feasted on escalivada (grilled eggplant and pepper), i pernil (salty ham), and pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato). We washed it down with wine from a porrón, a glass container with a thin spout to pour wine into your mouth at arm’s length. The less skilled at the fine art of porrón drinking end up spilling far more wine on their shirts than down their throats. The more Gary and I practiced, the messier and tipsier we grew. I stood up, tilted my head way back, held the porrón up as high as I could, and announced, “To the ultimate ‘Enjoy this meal’!” I then proceeded to spill wine all over myself as half the restaurant roared with approval.

Good times with good friends helped Gary and me forget our busking woes. Our first pitch on the streets, however, quickly reminded us of them. The primary culprit this time was the heat. Excessive heat does not prevent busking like rain does, but it is almost as bad. It drains the busker’s energy and makes everyone irritable and less appreciative of the music. The oppressive heat in Barcelona felt like a blow dryer blasting in our faces as we played. The music wilted before it even came out of our saxophones. Our earnings wilted, too. So even in Barcelona we couldn’t escape our busking blues.

We gave up busking for a while and instead let other musicians entertain us. José-Mariá, Marga, Gary, and I treated ourselves to a concert of the traditional Catalan folk ensemble, the cobla. We went to the plaza in front of the old cathedral to hear this band play and watch the natives dance their refined and delicate folk dance, the sardana. The cobla band is the most peculiar musical ensemble I’ve ever seen. It consists of two trumpets, two flugelhorns, one valve trombone, one 3-stringed bass fiddle, two tiples, two tenoras, and one flaviol player who plays his flaviol with one hand while he pecks at a tiny drum slung over his shoulder with the other. A flaviol is like a one-handed recorder, only more shrill. The tiples and tenoras are like large outdoor oboes with a far more penetrating sound. Tiples are the smaller of the two; tenoras are about twice their size.

Cobla bands normally consist of self-taught musicians who play simply for the love of their folk music. The shrieking sound they crank out leaves the ears ringing for a good long time. You can hear the music just by looking at the intensity in any cobla player’s face. Eyes bulge, brows knit, purple veins protrude, and cheeks puff out like Dizzy Gillespie. And when that sardana music gets to its climax and the lead tenora player sticks the bell of his long instrument way up in the air and starts wailing away…wow! That is Catalan spirit and pride at its best.

Too bad we couldn’t generate that kind of enthusiasm for our busking. Gary and I were so tired of the same old act that we started to look for excuses not to play. “José-María, how’d you like to take my place out there for a couple of days?” I whined in Spanish as we returned to his place after another poor showing.

“What’s the matter, Dan, no luck?”

“Everywhere we go, something else spoils things. Regulations, police, heat—it’s becoming a drag.”

He laughed and slapped me on the back.

“It’s not funny,” I said. “We haven’t had a single day of decent busking since last week in Munich, and we have to go as far back as Budapest a week before that to find the last time we had any regular success. We’re in a terrible slump. We need some kind of change.”

“I’ll tell you what. Put down one of the soprano saxophones for a while and take my alto. I’ll play tenor, and I’ll get a friend of mine to play baritone. We’ll put together a quartet. We can play some music from my library. What do you think?”

I translated for Gary. He liked the idea as much as I did. This was the change we were looking for. The following day, we rehearsed a few pieces of ragtime music and then hauled the equipment out onto the streets. Marga tagged along for moral support.

The quartet of saxophones attracted a lot of attention even before we played. Just the sight of four people assembling all that hardware aroused enough curiosity to make people stop and take notice. A saxophone quartet is a recommendable act for the occasional street pitch because people like to look at the four different sizes of instruments, along with the added attraction of four-part harmony. But for traveling buskers, forget it. Pity the poor soul who has to drag around the baritone.

Among those who stopped to watch us set up was a police car. An officer inside rolled down his window. More hassles, I thought. We’re never going to break out of this slump. “Is it all right if we play here?” I sympathetically asked one of the officers.

“Sure. We just want to hear some good music.” Even the police in Spain are laid-back.

We started to play, and the police soon drove away. The ragtime quartet attracted bigger crowds on the street than Gary and I ever had with Telemann. The presentation lacked polish, but the spirit of the music readily came through. Performing unrehearsed music felt like walking on eggs; every moment threatened imminent collapse. After hundreds of times through Telemann, which I could now play in my sleep, I felt refreshed by the musical adventure. We played through the rags a couple of times, then took breaks while Gary and I played a few of our regular duets. Telemann dispersed the crowd every time. Was it so obvious that we were sick of the music? When we played the rags again, the crowds grew. I wondered whether playing lighter music with more general appeal might have been a better idea all along. The smiles and coins and crowds and applause provided the lift Gary and I needed. This was the most fun we’d had at busking in weeks.

We spent our remaining time in Barcelona making the rounds to all my friends. Somehow these reunions always lasted longer than I expected, well into the wee hours of the morning. Those Spaniards know how to enjoy themselves. Alas, time in Barcelona was all too brief. Our railpasses were due to run out near the end of July, so the night before they did, we took the train north in order to be within hitchhiking distance of Amsterdam with a week to go. We departed with rejuvenated morale. Barcelona had been kind to me once again.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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