The song sounded soulful but also a little sad. The man’s voice, with a tremor likely absent in his youth, addressed the crowd as though we were but one.
One person. A girl. A friend. A home. I couldn’t quite be sure, losing words as they floated by in Spanish, the story of a “she” he’d lost.
The song itself had travelled far. Picked up by Spaniards who travelled to Cuba long after Columbus and his map-changing gang. Those men whose ships sought a faster route to India, their time had long since passed, their homeland’s wealth reversed.
Time was when Spain’s old colonies fared better than herself, when the young, the desperate and the brave headed west to Cuba to make their fortunes there. Nineteenth century Costa Brava lost thousands of young men, who found a country a world away from the classical Europe they left behind.
They found chestnut-skinned beauty and field after field of ripe sugar cane. Relentless humidity and a style of song that never left the streets. When the financial fortunes changed once more, the indianos (as they were called by then) decided to return home.
And they brought the songs of Cuba with them.
Today, we sit on the rugged coastal rocks of the aptly named Costa Brava (have a quick google if you want to find out why.)
The man who sings sits christened with white-silver hair that catches the sunlight before it bounces over the waves. In the distance, red and blue kayaks pull themselves along. A crab scuttles free from the shadows. And still our host plays guitar.
The remnants of our feast surround us: shelled prawns, mussels, chick peas and home-made ali-oli (a Catalan favourite that should never be called mayonnaise.)
The women close their eyes, the foreigners take photos and a second man’s voice chimes in with the first.
I still can’t be sure.
Is it a girl? Or a homeland those lingering voices are longing to find.
Once again, Spain’s fortunes are in freefall. In Italy, Portugal and even Colombia I heard, more than once, mixed surprise, sorrow and smugness that a cousin and neighbour once envied stands so ready to fall.
Right here, on these rocks, the story’s even more poignant.
For we are in Spain. And also Catalonia. A situation that many would rather weren’t true.
Catalonia has a history, a language and a culture of its own. One that spreads into regions across southwest France and that climbs into the Pyrenees to the principality of Andorra.
Independence is the watchword that whispers in the background. That hisses when the waves crash against the shore; that cries out as strong hands grind garlic into ali-oli. It’s the rumour that tip-toes through Barcelona and Girona and that rises into the sky above the Pyrenees.
It’s only a whisper. But it’s a sound that’s gathering strength. Yet each time I ask a question, it disappears like a song on the breeze.
Demonstrations are growing. The financial climate is tense. Having lived through “independence” struggles elsewhere, it makes me uneasy.
Here in this sunshine, I try to relax. To sit back and listen to songs of love and solitude. Of singing and dancing. And of a land far away, however that’s defined.
The red and blue kayaks slip out of view.
I raise the glass offered to me, say merci and make a wish.
Like the music, it’s simple and yet complex, but I’m surprised at just how fast it comes true.
Feet stamp, hands clap and the tempo picks up. Everyone waves white “flags” fashioned from hastily distributed paper serviettes. There’s more music – and even dancing – before even Elvis puts in an appearance through the tremulous, slow, lyrics of Love Me Tender.
Love me sweet.
Never let me go.
Once more, the group falls silent.
And I am left with my thoughts.
Disclosure: my involvement in this session took place thanks to the efforts of the Costa Brava Tourist Board, who, as usual, invited me there and left it at that. You can’t blame any incoherent warbling on them. It’s all my own doing. (But by the way – it’s a great place to visit ;-) )
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com