La Cantada – 6 July 2019

La Cantada – 6 July 2019

‘La Cantada’ of Calella de Palafrugell

The musical genre of havaneres and their singing groups is deeply ingrained in Catalan culture and dates back to the years when local people migrated to Cuba to seek their fortunes or simply to escape the grinding poverty that was endemic in the region in the nineteenth century. The singing of havaneres in Calella de Palafrugell has traditionally marked the beginning of the high season on the Costa Brava. Year after year, the first Saturday in July continues the musical and cultural tradition that has become so deeply rooted in this picturesque coastal resort and has now extended to the whole of Catalonia.

The first group of cantaires (singers) got together in the Can Batlle tavern in 1966 on the occasion of the launch of the book Calella de Palafrugell i les Havaneres, a tribute to the seafaring folk of Calella and the original cantaires. The event proved to be so successful that the organizers were inspired to repeat it the following year in a more formal setting, on the town’s Calau beach, attracting an audience of around 3,000 people, and the idea of an annual singing event began to take hold. In 1969, the ‘Friends of Calella’ Association, which was responsible for organizing the Cantada at that time, decided to move the event to Port Bo beach where it is still held today. From 1974 through to 1978 it was held on the first Saturday in August, but in 1979 the association decided to hold the event on the first Saturday in July in an attempt to keep audience numbers down. The stage was also moved out to the Fesol rocks to provide more room for the audience. The event now attracts 1,500 ticket holders plus a further 30,000 people to the village, 100,000 radio listeners and an estimated audience of 300,000 for Catalan TV’s live broadcast. Whole families follow the live performances on giant screens set up on the beaches.

While some people claim to miss the more intimate feel of the early days, others see it as an excellent opportunity to promote Calella de Palafrugell and its havaneres to a bigger audience. The organizers have also tried to achieve a balance in the choice of groups and songs, and the concerts now feature new havaneres written in Catalan. A tradition from the earliest days is to finish the concert with the song ‘La Bella Lola’, and the audience is encouraged to join in by waving white handkerchiefs.

The great thing about La Cantada is that it has recovered and saved the genre of havaneres from disappearing when it seemed that this form of popular culture had come to an untimely end. It has also managed to establish a real cultural phenomenon in Catalonia, with havanera recitals being held up and down the coast whereas once they were held in just a handful of towns.

What are havaneres?

Havaneres (habaneras in Spanish, named for the Cuban capital, Havana) became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the return of soldiers, traders and Indianos (Catalan immigrants who came home after making their fortunes) following the Cuban War of Independence, although the songs were called Americanas at the time.  However, by the 1950s they had fallen out of favour and could only be heard in a few locations, notably the Empordà coast.

Havaneres are often translated into English as ‘sea shanties’, though musically they are very different. Sea shanties were originally devised as working songs to be sung by sailors or stevedores while loading vessels to synchronize labour, with no instrumentation; while havaneres are liltingly melodic and often romantic or full of melancholy and longing. The one thing both genres share is an African/Creole influence.

Most musicologists and researchers point to the origin of the havanera as being Cuban or Creole contra-dance; during the eighteenth century, Spanish traders and merchants introduced the Spanish contra-dance to Cuba where it was ‘creole-ified’ by melding with the indigenous black music of the African slaves. In Cuba, the havanera first developed as a ballroom dance, which was very popular in Havana dancehalls, and later, with the addition of Spanish, African and Antillean melodies and rhythms, it branched off into separate song and dance genres, subsequently becoming the name of a singing genre for performing in musical theatre or by street musicians.

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