Saturday, March 21, 2015

Who told you a calf to be?

Joan Baez at the Palau de la Música, 19 March 2015

I went to see Joan Baez at Barcelona's incredible Palau de la Música last night. She and her music were a fundamental part of my growing up. I learned French partly to understand the words on Wildflower, I learned some piano to play the lovely intro to Both Sides Now. But mostly I remember my mom, an outspoken feminist in the 1970's, who worked long hours and then seemed always at a meeting to fix one thing or another, once in a while, to my delight, picking up a guitar and singing. Singing was my image of her as a *mom*. Don't think twice, it's all right. Suzanne. Hey, that's no way to say goodbye. Where have all the flowers gone?

In highschool I learned Donna Donna and took it on as a life lesson (and it's a good one for Catalans too!): Stop complaining, said the farmer, who told you a calf to be? Why don't you have wings to fly with, like the swallow so proud and free?

So when I read Ignasi Aragay's column in ARA newspaper last December, in which he explains how in a concert in 1977 Baez misinterpreted the Catalan people's love for their language and culture as some sort of unhealthy 'nationalism', I decided to write her. I confess it's not the first time I've written letters to famous compatriots that I don't know, and I admit it probably won't be the last.

I explained how important the language is to the people here, how peaceful their movement, how determined their cause. And I sent her a copy of my book What's up with Catalonia? I asked only that she be mindful that people want her to sing in Catalan because it's their language, nothing more simple.

At the end of February, I received a reply from her assistant. Thank you for your letter, and the book, I'll make sure she gets them. And then a special P.S.: Are you the Elizabeth Castro who writes books on HTML? I have a couple of your books, they've been my two little bibles.

I didn't sleep much that night. I took the PS as an invitation. I wrote once again, describing my new book Many Grains of Sand, a collection of photographs that explain the incredible variety of creative, peaceful, democratic, even joyful initiatives that Catalans have undertaken to make their voices heard. I explained this was just the sort of movement that Joan would be proud to be a part of. I asked if she would come talk to us, inspire us, encourage us.

That night, I received a reply from Joan herself. She insisted she is still not a nationalist, that she has wished for a borderless world since she was a teenager. But she also said she understood the "emotion and reason" behind the Catalan struggle and praised the "courage and passion" of our movement. And then she asked me for a song she could sing to show her alliance with our cause.

Another sleepless night! What a huge responsibility. I wanted a song that was well-known, easy to sing for a non-Catalan speaker, inspiring, and especially, beautiful. I chose Lluís Llach's Més Lluny after hearing it sung by my companions in Cor País Meu. I translated it, and found a version on YouTube and sent it to her. She said it was beautiful.

Last night when we got to the concert hall, I received another email from Joan. She was not going to sing the song after all, she was worried it wasn't well known enough; the people who she had asked didn't know it. I was so disappointed. So I sent a note on a scrap of paper via the receptionist, promising that people would sing with her and never forget that night.

We did sing with her, and we will never forget the night that Joan Baez inspired us with Catalan folk hero Lluís Llach's music to go “Farther, ever farther”.

(This recording is actually of the second night.)

After the show, Joan invited us backstage to say hello. I brought her a collection of Catalan music: Maria del Mar Bonet, Marina Rossell, and a compilation of Catalan artists, including Lluís Llach. I know that it is the music that brings us together. Perhaps we'll have another surprise next time she comes back.


Lluís Llach, probably Catalonia's best known folksinger, wrote the music and adapted the lyrics from Catalan poet Carles Riba's translation of Greek poet Constantine P. Cafavy's “Visit to Ithaca”. Here is my translation (with the original lyrics following)

Farther, you have to go farther
beyond the fallen trees that imprison you.
And when you have won them,
be sure not to stop.

Farther, you have to go ever farther,
farther than the today that keeps you in chains.
And when you are free
you will begin new steps again.

Farther, always farther,
Farther than the tomorrow that approaches.
And when you think you have arrived, know how to find new paths.


Més lluny, heu d'anar més lluny
dels arbres caiguts que ara us empresonen,
i quan els haureu guanyat
tingueu ben present no aturar-vos.

Més lluny, sempre aneu més lluny,
més lluny de l'avui que ara us encadena.
I quan sereu deslliurats
torneu a començar els nous passos.

Més lluny, sempre molt més lluny,
més lluny del demà que ara ja s'acosta.
I quan creieu que arribeu,
sapigueu trobar noves sendes.


More of my books