April 23, 2003

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Frequencies
By Josh Kun

Spanish crosses

THERE'S A SECTION of the border wall in Tijuana that's covered in crosses, hundreds of them, white and made by hand, tacked on sheets of industrial metal. The crosses are on the Mexican side, and they've been put on the border wall to keep the dead alive at the very place they vanished, memorials for migrants who crossed into a world that wasn't the North, white traces on rusty steel of lives that are no longer.

When Catalan singer-songwriter Pau Dones, leader of Barcelona band Jarabe de Palo, saw the white crosses of Tijuana, he didn't think of Mexico or the United States. He thought of home, of the watery Strait of Gibraltar border between southern Spain and northern Africa that also takes lives, but where there are no crosses to remember the dead.

Spain is a country deeply protective, and deeply forgetful, of its own African, Arabic, and Romany histories. You can ride the metro in Madrid – a system built on interconnections and shoulder-to-shoulder commingling – and still find graffiti that reads, "Spain for the Spanish. Out with the Third World." On a recent Saturday in the city's Plaza de Santa Ana, cafés overflowed with light-skinned Spaniards sipping beer and bubbling water next to a statue of Andalusian poet and champion of dark Spain Federico García Lorca. Above his name someone had spray painted "disobedience."

Dones may look white too, but he uses Jarabe de Palo's music to do his own "disobedience" to Spanish cultural chauvinism. For the band's fourth album, Bonito (Warner), Dones wrote "Las cruces de Tijuana," a song that pays tribute to Tijuana's white crosses while wishing the Spanish border cities of Gibraltar and Ceuta exhibited memories of their own. "The crosses I saw in Tijuana," Dones sings over Mexican son juasteco guitars that become norteño accordions and banda brass, "made me remember the crosses that nobody has put between Ceuta and Gibraltar."

Dones isn't the first child of Barcelona to look abroad to Tijuana to comment on Spain's cultural violence against immigrant Arabs, Africans, and Romanies. Manu Chao did it back on 1998's Clandestino, which made Tijuana, Ceuta, and Gibraltar transcontinental sister cities, connecting nodes on an imaginary musical map where people traveled across borders as free, and as invisibly, as the wind. Chao remains the unofficial godfather of the current Barcelona scene, where in the past few years anticolonial lyrics, Spanish-French-Arabic trilingualism, and first world-meets-third world sound clashes have become the city's trademark sound.

This new multicultural Barcelona that can see its own reflection in Tijuana, has been dubbed "bastard Barcelona" on the new compilation Barcelona zona bastarda (Organic/Satelite K). The white pages of the Barcelona phone book (with its catalog of polyglot, multinational last names) come stamped on the compilation's two CDs, and there is hardly a national style not represented on them. Bands like Macaco, Dusminguet, La Carrau, and El Payo Malo mash up cumbia and rai, ska and hip-hop, punk and samba, folk and techno – all the stuff that mixes up when cultures do. As the liner notes spell it out, this is "the other Barcelona," the "mestiza Barcelona" of squatters, immigrants, and ghettos that tourist maps render invisible.

Besides Dones, one of Barcelona's most important new voices is Ojos de Brujo, who turn to the Spanish musical past to figure out how to better live in the Barcelona present. Their latest, Bari (Fabrica de Colores/Satelite K), cuts up flamenco and rumba catalana guitars with turntable scratches and names it "jiphop flamenquillo" – ancient music that speaks on urban reality. Instead of looking out at Tijuana like Dones, they look right at Barcelona and see streets riddled with modern bullets and suffering that still hum with traditional soleas, bulerias, and siguiriyas. "Buleria del ay" even uses a classic flamenco form to lament a love lost on the Internet, an e-mail that never received its reply.

Ojos de Brujo rework their own past as well. "Tahita," a staccato, fret-thumped, hip-hop freestyle from their previous album, gets remixed over waves of electronic beats on Bari. Its raspy chant of a refrain – "abriendo puertas," or "opening doors" – is repeated over and over, as much a description of what they're doing as a command for what needs to be done. It's the very thing Dones went all the way to Tijuana to imagine: the power of opening doors to an outside that is already within.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.