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It may just sound like a local brand of rock music but there’s a bit more to Catalan Rock than first meets the eye. A genre intrinsically linked to the Catalan national identity and its history of struggle for recognition, Catalan Rock is a musical current which resonates with the cultural soul-searching of an entire generation of Catalans.
To understand the emergence and significance of Catalan Rock it’s important to look back in time at the context in which it emerged: until 1979 Spain was a dictatorship. Among many things, the Franco regime had particularly cracked down on the use of regional languages, including Catalan. Speaking Catalan therefore took on a political significance, with many young Catalans learning and practicing their regional language in secret.
Already from the 1950s onwards, musicians of the Nova Cançó or ‘New Song’ movement had taken to singing in Catalan to both defy and criticise the dictatorship. Many of these musicians were inspired by French artist Georges Brassens and started translating his often controversial material into Catalan before eventually recording their own songs in Catalan – despite the restrictions in place.
Fast-forward to 1970s Barcelona, when the opening of the Zeleste concert hall located not far from the Via Laietana in the centre of town became the incubator for a new breed of Catalan Rock now referred to as Música laietana. Artists such as Oriol Tramvia, Jaume Sisa and Pau Riba are some of the best known names from this era and are considered the forefathers of the Catalan Rock scene.
A defining moment came in 1975 when the first edition of Festival Canet Rock took place, bringing together artists from the Nova Cançó, Música laietana but also the new Andalusian Flamenco scene for what would be the first rock music festival of southern Europe. The festival became symbolic with the younger generation’s discontent with the political system and their search for recognition.
These artists paved the way for the next generation of musicians who, basking in new found freedom after Franco’s death in 1979, saw singing in Catalan as a way to affirm their cultural identity.
Throughout the 1980’s bands continued to produce what can be broadly referred to as rock music with Catalan lyrics. Many of these bands had distinctive styles, some more akin to punk-rock while others could easily be described as pop-rock. Groups such as Sopa de Cabra (‘Goat Soup’), Els Pets (‘The Farts’) and Sau, all formed in the mid-eighties, becoming the figureheads of a new movement of social and cultural self-discovery and affirmation.
Catalan Rock’s popularity at this time was also the subject of controversy as critics pointed the finger at the local council, the Generalitat de Catalunya, who had provided financial backing to many bands at the time to promote the use of Catalan language. For some, this brought into question the movement’s authenticity, accusing Catalan Rock of being just a political tool orchestrated by the authorities to help their nationalist cause.
Despite this, the Catalan Rock movement reached peak popularity in the early nineties most notably with the 1991 concert at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona. This concert featured the four most prominent bands of the time – Sopa de Cabra, Sau, Sangtraït and Els Pets – and attracted some 22,000 spectators. Although not often explicitly political, Catalan Rock also became synonymous with the growing independence movement in Catalonia, especially among the younger generation.
Throughout the ’90s and in the early 2000s, new bands emerged which were seen as carrying on in the tradition of Catalan Rock. Many of these, such as Manel, Mishima or IX! still remain active today. The Catalan Rock scene, and more generally Catalan-language music, is still very much alive and kicking in Catalonia.