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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 Gaudí, the colorful swirling art of Joan Miró, 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 música 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, "Barí," 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 protégé, 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 Plaça 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.
For those who prefer a less corporate environment, several smaller independent shops (some selling used vinyl) line Tallers street a block away. At Discos Castelló, No. 3 Tallers, I picked up two early Serrat albums, recorded during the 1960s in his native Catalan. The language was outlawed by the Franco regime as part of a Spanish-only push, but Serrat defied the ban.
Now his CDs are openly displayed in a section labeled "Catalans," along with more recent artists, such as the band Antònia Font, popular with Catalan youth.
Serrat, who still has a huge following, wasn't performing in town during my visit. But he's scheduled to appear July 7 to 10 as part of the summer festival at the Teatre Grec, on Montjuic (Jewish Mount), a hill rising above the sea southwest of the city center.
This is also the site of the Olympic Stadium and the UFO-shaped Palau Sant Jordi, an arena for big acts such as Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Estopa, the homeboys who drew a capacity 18,000 fans last year.
I got a strong dose of the Barcelona sound at Sala Apolo, a massive nightclub near the city center, where much of the action is. The crowd was thinning out when I arrived during a lull around midnight, and I thought about leaving. But when DJ Marta Grifell started spinning a set of música mestiza, it was as invigorating as a double shot of espresso. The rhythms and melodies of this hip, turbo flamenco drew jubilant dancers back to the floor, which was packed again by 1 a.m.
"I was worried at first that people from elsewhere wouldn't like this music," said Marta, who also plays keyboards in a local group. "But they really love the sound, and they always ask, 'What's that you're playing?' "
Which is exactly what I did after her set. In the wake of the electronica wave, Marta explained, people are hungry again for real music by real musicians.
"This is a good time," she said.
Vibrant street life
Barcelona seems to have as many major venues as L.A., a metropolis three times larger. And it keeps building more.
I started my visit with a concert at L'Auditori, an ultramodern hall on the opposite side of downtown. It opened in 1999 across from the neoclassical Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, which made its debut two years earlier.
Both sit on the border of Poblenou, an area of old factories and warehouses occupied by artists, graphic designers and musicians. Ojos de Brujo, for example, is recording its next album across from a brick facade — all that's left of an old building. Around the corner is the legendary Razzmatazz, a cavernous nightclub occupying a former textile plant.
Although I found the Auditori's angular, concrete design cold, the acoustics were excellent for the concert by Milton Nascimento, one of Brazil's great singer-songwriters and best known to U.S. audiences through his many collaborations with Paul Simon, James Taylor, Wayne Shorter and others. He hails from the province of Minas Gerais, rather than from coastal Rio, where bossa nova is big. His music is earthier, more spiritual, more rooted in African traditions of the interior.
Nascimento's voice is a natural wonder, still as supple and expressive as ever. Now in his 60s, the revered guitarist appeared to shuffle stiffly onstage. But his timing was impeccable, backed by a terrific jazz-inflected band with an array of indigenous instruments. Considering his age and the distance to Brazil, I may never get to see him again. That alone made my trip memorable.
When the concert let out around 11:30, I had trouble hailing a cab, so I walked a couple of blocks to La Gran Vía, a main thoroughfare, but traffic raced by.
I continued past the city's vaguely forbidding Moorish-style bullring, and suddenly I started to get that creepy feeling, like a tourist who had strayed into the dark side of town.
Whenever someone approached, I'd get my guard up, like any good Angeleno — until I realized the shadows passing in the night were regular people, not predators: a woman walking her dog, a slightly soused middle-aged couple sauntering by, a man in a business suit power-walking past me.
My urban ghosts vanished. I finished my midnight walk, making the 20 blocks back to my hotel, Condes de Barcelona, on the graceful, tree-lined Passeig de Gràcia. The rest of my stay, I walked the streets at all hours and always felt safe.
On foot, you sense the human scale of this city, with nary a skyscraper in sight. The downtown streets are narrow and winding, but they seem always to lead back to a familiar place, a plaza, a landmark building, a main artery.
I can see why Barcelonans love to celebrate in the street.
City of fiestas
Nascimento's concert was part of Barcelona's 16th annual Guitar Festival, an eclectic, two-month affair, one of a seemingly endless cycle of festivals and neighborhood fairs that offers a great chance to see live music, especially during the big Fiesta de La Mercé in September.
For the last 12 years, La Mercé has included a concurrent, city-sponsored festival for alternative bands called BAM, which helped put the local music scene on the map. The city's bilingual website, http://www.bcn.es , has extensive information about upcoming concerts and festivals.
The guitar festival also featured a concert by Diego El Cigala, a raspy-voiced Gypsy who is the current darling of the flamenco crowd. He was scheduled to headline one of the world's most beautiful concert halls, the magnificent Palau de la Música Catalana, which represents the pinnacle of the city's Modernist architecture movement.
Cigala had a full house, and his performance rose to the occasion, as sophisticated as the hall itself and as warm as its acoustics. But it really doesn't matter who's on the bill at the Palau, Catalan for "palace." The gorgeous building, site of one of Serrat's early recitals, often steals the show.
In fact, the place is worth seeing even when there is no concert. The venue offers guided tours daily, in Spanish, Catalan and English. Or visitors can just stop at the bar inside the theater for coffee or a drink in an ornate, turn-of-the-20th-century setting. A specialized music library is situated on the fifth floor, and a gift shop is across the street.
The Palau was originally created as home for the Orfeó Català, a prestigious choral group founded in 1891 that still performs there today. Tickets for all events are available online (www.palaumusica.org), but buyer beware: The view from some of the seats at the rear corners of the balcony is obstructed. Perhaps celebrated Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner figured people in the back would be happy with a view of the spectacular stained-glass skylight or the winged horses suspended in full gallop over the main floor.
Cigala's concert let out early by Barcelona standards, so I decided to try to make the midnight show at Jamboree, a mythic venue for Spain's jazz aficionados. The club is on the Plaça Reial, a rowdy hangout for yuppies and junkies, street people and tourists in the Gothic Quarter. I walked past the main cathedral and the government buildings to this small plaza a block from Las Ramblas.
I had never heard of the artist on the bill, but I was intrigued by the name: Minino Garay y sus Tambores del Sur (Minino Garay and His Drums From the South). Garay is an Argentine expatriate living in Paris who mixes jazz with South America's mournful milonga and other folkloric song styles. He has long hair and a wild look, kicking a bass drum while he sings. He introduces his songs with sharp, satirical or sad narratives, then coaxes his accomplished band to play with rousing passion and swing.
The conversational moods Garay created were ideal for this intimate 80-seat basement club, which is no larger than some wine cellars.
The old buildings in the area, built in the 1800s, offer many opportunities for such hideaways, some of them literally and figuratively underground, exclusively for patrons in the know. The only way to find them is to ask somebody.
At Jamboree, I ran into Jordi Pujol, author of the new book "Jazz en Barcelona 1920-1965" and owner of record labels specializing in historic Cuban music and new jazz, mostly from the U.S. Pujol told me about the Pipa Club, a retreat for pipe lovers upstairs on the Plaça Reial at No. 3. Ring the bell and they'll let you up to admire the historic pipe collection or just play a game of pool. Nonmembers are welcome after 10 p.m., no cover.
The homey club has a stage where legendary jam sessions were held until recently, when the city cracked down because neighbors complained about noise. (Believe it or not, people live in these neo-classical buildings above this boisterous plaza.)
Next door is a comfortable bar named Glaciar, a bohemian hangout that was a meeting place in the '80s for people pushing independence for Catalan. I met there one night with Marina, lead singer and songwriter for Ojos de Brujo, and Javi, the band's manager, who knows the scene here.
It was Javi who tipped me to the appearance of an artist I had been hoping to see for some time: Fermín Muguruza, a scorching singer-songwriter from the neighboring Basque country, was scheduled to perform at the New York Club, around the corner at 5 Escudellers.
Muguruza, an outspoken proponent of Basque independence, rarely appears in the U.S. He sings in Basque, which is less comprehensible to Spanish speakers than Catalan. But you didn't need to understand the lyrics to enjoy the sheer exuberance of his performance.
At midnight, the club was packed, smoky, sweltering and sweaty. Some fans sported political statements on their T-shirts. One satirically labeled himself "terrorist." Another flaunted a picture of a U.S. warplane with the caption, "Democracy: We Deliver."
But the crowd was having too much fun to seem threatening. Fans hopped arm in arm, shouting chorus lines like war chants. Even upstairs, people danced so much that the balcony shook in rhythm to the mix of ska, reggae and punk.
I had not seen a club so charged up since I was in Havana 10 years ago at the peak of Cuba's astounding salsa boom. Before he closed, Muguruza thanked his fans in Spanish, acknowledged the solidarity between Basques and Catalans, and offered a plea for "un mundo nuevo para todos," a new world for all.
What an exciting way to top my visit. I could go home satisfied. Or so I thought.
The next day, I met with famed Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, who moved to Barcelona some years ago, married the owner of the Venus Delicatessen, his favorite hangout in the Gothic Quarter, had two children and settled down.
Many Cubans are moving here, Sosa said over lunch with his family at Cal Pinxo, their favorite seafood place at the city's revitalized marina, across from its acclaimed aquarium. Even his famous percussionist, Miguel "Angá" Díaz, has relocated here from Paris, where he lived for years. On Sundays, when he's not touring, Angá plays jam sessions at a Cuban restaurant named, appropriately, Habana Barcelona, also at the marina. The singer is his brother, El Indio, formerly with the seminal Elio Reve Orchestra in Cuba.
When I heard that news, I nearly canceled my departure because Cuban musicians of this caliber don't play the States much anymore.
So that ticket taker at the Apolo was right. I really should have stayed through Sunday.
Barcelona, I'll be back.
To hear samples of the music mentioned in this story, go to latimes.com/barcelona.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The city that never sleeps
From LAX, direct service (stop, no change of plane) is offered to Barcelona on US Airways, and connecting service (change of planes) is available on Air France, British, Delta, Lufthansa and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $780.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 34 (country code for Spain), 93 (city code for Barcelona) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Ritz Hotel, 5 Gran Via Corts de Catalanes; 510-11-30, fax 318-01-48, http://www.ritzbcn.com . Luxury hotel located on a major thoroughfare. Good example of the Modernist architecture of Barcelona. Doubles begin at $460.
Hotel Condes de Barcelona, 73-75 Passeig de Gracia; 4450-000, fax 4453-232, http://www.condesdebarcelona.com . Doubles from $183. Great central location, good service. Not luxurious but definitely comfortable.
Hotel España, 9-11 Sant Pau; 3181-758, fax 3171-134, http://www.hotelespanya.com . Doubles $98-$166. Near Las Ramblas. Lots of musicians and other artists stay here when they're touring.
WHERE TO EAT:
Venus Delicatessen, 25 Avinyo; 301-15-85. Good place for a light lunch or snack or coffee and pastries in the Gothic Quarter. About $11 for lunch, about $4 for a pastry.
La Singular, 50 Francisco Giner; 237-50-98. In the Gracia neighborhood, frequented by the young, hip crowd that's breathing life back into the area. Limited seating. Salads, lots of fresh fish (tuna and salmon), but the menu will vary depending on what is freshest. Entrees $7-$13.
Restaurant Hispania, 54 Carretera Real, Arenys de Mar; 791-04-57, http://www.restauranthispania.com . Fairly far out of town. This very traditional restaurant specializes in Catalan cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. Main dishes $22-$46.
L'Auditori / Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, near the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, 150 Lepant; 306-57-00, http://www.tnc.es . This 2,500-seat concert hall is the new home of the Barcelona Orchestra, with a smaller room for chamber music. The neoclassical national theater is next door.
New York Club, 5 Escudellers (just off the Plaça Reial); 318-87-30. Loud, crowded and rockin'. The club features bars upstairs and downstairs.
Jamboree, 17 Plaça Reial; 301-75-64. This underground cavern club for international jazz bands also features dancing to DJs after live music sets.
Palau de la Música Catalana, 2 Sant Francesc de Paula (east of the Plaça de Catalunya); 295-72-51, http://www.palaumusica.org . A regal venue for classical and pop music of all styles.
La Paloma, 27 Tigre; 301-68-97, http://www.lapaloma-bcn.com . A French-style, turn-of-20th-century ballroom for seniors by day. A hip club for the younger set by night.
Sala Apolo, 113 Nou de la Rambla, corner of Avenida del Para.lel; 441-40-01, http://www.sala-apolo.com . Defies its traditional décor with contemporary live music and top DJs for the late-night crowd.
FNAC El Triangle, 4 Plaça Catalunya; 344-18-00, http://www.fnac.es . Large retail store à la Virgin Megastore. Extensive sections on Latin music, including Barcelona-based artists. Helpful staff dispenses sound advice.
Discos Castelló, 3 Tallers; 318-20-41, http://www.discoscastello.es . Two doors down is a shop that sells vinyl, but this one is a modern, large music store, again with helpful staff. Extensive Catalan music section.
TO LEARN MORE:
Tourist Office of Spain, (323) 658-7188, http://www.okspain.org .
— Agustin Gurza