It was an early start on Monday 29th April for na-mara’s long awaited trip to play a concert in Logroño in the Rioja region of Spain in memory of the men and women of the International Brigades who so bravely set off to fight fascism in Spain in the late 1930s.
We hit the road around 6.30am and made our way to Stansted. The journey went smoothly and we were able to park up and get into the airport in good time. Having booked in on line, it was just the bag drop to deal with. However, that did include putting my precious guitar into the hold. With gritted teeth I placed it on the special items conveyor belt and it disappeared from view. Rob was spared this through having an offer of a good classical guitar waiting for him in Spain and keeping his mandolin was his hand luggage.
Once though security, we hunted down some breakfast and awaited a text from our fellow performer in Spain, burgeoning Scots folk superstar Ewan McLennan. We had had the pleasure of meeting Ewan last year at the annual International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) commemoration in Jubilee Gardens in London, and were greatly looking forward to spending some time with him.
Together, we made our way to the boarding gate and onto a packed flight to Bilbao. Clearly, Ewan’s charisma and powers of persuasion are greater than mine as he had managed to get his even more precious guitar into the cabin. So, it was only me worrying if my instrument would be matchsticks by the time we got to Spain.
After about an hour’s delay, we did eventually set off for Bilbao. We were aware the delay was causing a few concerns in Spain as, in Logroño, a press interview had been organised for the afternoon.
However, all proved well in the end. The flight was good, my guitar emerged onto the baggage carousel in one piece and we were able to meet up with wonderful riojano singer-songwriter Paco Marin, who had made the 90 minute journey from Logroño to pick us up, and his son who near the airport. Despite being under a little pressure timewise, Paco insisted we ahve some (very good) food in the airport, after which we set off, over the mountains, to Logroño.
Once there, Rob and I were accommodated in a beautifully appointed flat owned by Paco’s son. Ewan was staying with Jim Jump, a leading figure in the IBMT. We dropped off the bags and set off for a walk across the neat, pretty, town of Logroño to meet the journalist who was writing a piece for the next morning’s La Rioja journal. Given that Rob speaks Spanish completely fluently, he and Paco led most of the interview, translating for Ewan and me when required. The newspaper’s photographer also took a range of shots of us as a group.
Interview over, we returned to the apartment to start rehearsals together. The concert, which was taking place the following night, featured Paco, Ewan and ourselves doing songs from our regular repertoire. However, excitingly, there were also plans to do some collaborations. Rob was going to join Ewan on his rendition of Jamie Foyers, and Ewan was going to join us on our song, Only For Three Months. Then, there was going to be a joint rendition, with alternating Spanish and English verses, of the famous song of the British Battalion, The Valley of Jarama. These all needed rehearsal and we set to work.
The rehearsals went very well indeed and at a reasonable hour we were able to join Paco, his wife and a group of their local friends who were involved in organising the concert the following evening and a Socialist and Trades Union organised commemoration the day after, of those from the local area executed by fascists at the outset of the Spanish Civil War. We all assembled in an attractive and busy bar for some tapas and drinks. The welcome was extremely warm and with the help of Rob, Jim and others, my inadequate Spanish was no real hindrance to communication or to having a great time. Compared to the Brits, the Spanish eat late and stay up late – and so, a little later, we visited another bar for even more substantial drinks and tapas. This was the first of our late nights.
Rested and refreshed after an excellent breakfast with Paco, the next morning saw us all head off to the town auditorium to meet the sound technicians and do our sound checks and have some further rehearsals. The town auditorium holds around 800 people and we were aware that around 550 tickets had already been sold. As is always the case, it was great to get a feel for the venue and picture how a forthcoming performance might unfold.
A productive morning was followed by a gentle stroll around the town centre. At the allotted time we all dropped into the local radio station where Paco and Rob were interviewed about the forthcoming concert. After a very successful interview, we then resumed our tour of the town where, by happenstance, we bumped into the man who had designed the poster for the concert. Very generously, he quickly amended his plans for the day and, as someone highly knowledgeable about every aspect of the town’s history, adopted the impromptu role of tour guide and showed us yet more of the architectural and historical jewels of Logroño.
Our walk was followed by an excellent lunch with many of the same people from the night before. My obvious lack of Spanish could not disguise the manifest pleasure I was taking in the Spanish food being provided which seems invariably to be of the highest quality.
Following what turned into quite a late lunch, there was only time to return to the flat to get changed for the performance and stroll back to the auditorium to get ready for the concert. Apart from needing to restring a second guitar to suit my style of playing, it was a relaxing time in the ‘green room’ doing some gentle rehearsal. One of the obvious benefits of working so closely with Ewan was the chance to watch and hear him rehearse and get himself ready to perform. Not only is he a most pleasant person to spend time with but it is ready for all to see that he is a dedicated professional and I learned a lot watching him prepare to perform.
As the time drew near for the concert to begin, we moved into position behind the stage curtain. Paco went on first. Paco is well known and loved throughout Logroño and across the wider region as both a character and for his moving and powerful music and delivery. Paco was greeted very warmly by the now crowded auditorium and by the end of a set, in which he was joined briefly by committed local historian and musician Jesús Aguirre on harmonica he was being cheered to the rafters.
Then it was our turn. Rob had crafted a script for us in Spanish to allow us to communicate the full meaning of our songs to the audience and, with fingers crossed, I kicked off by introducing our first song in Spanish. IT was planned that the evening would not be wholly taken up with Spanish Civil War related material and our first song was The Flower of Magherally. Following earlier tuition from Rob, being a decent mimic and having some familiarity with Spanish, I was able to introduce the song and we were off! Despite the audience being somewhat unfamiliar with that sort of music, it was very well received.
On the next song, Ewan kindly joined us to play Only For Three Months which as many readers of this blog will know tells of the parting of parents and 4,000 Basque children in Bilbao in 1937. Naturally, since his father was one of those children, Rob introduced the song.
Our rendition entailed my handing over the song’s guitar accompaniment to Ewan. I concentrated solely on singing and Rob weaved his lovely guitar solos as normal. Ewan had added some very beautiful extra intricacies into the guitar accompaniment and the whole ensemble sounded beautiful and the audience, even with many of them not understanding the words, simply loved it
We then pressed on to play The Bite, which adopts the story of International Brigader George Wheeler to more broadly tell the story of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, and we finished with The Silver Duro, which tells of the reunion of some of the Basque children with their parents many years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. It was clear that the performance had gone down extremely well in what was now a highly emotionally charged auditorium.
Ewan returned to the stage for his set and, after I had exited the stage, he and Rob did a very moving rendition of Ewan McColl’s song Jamie Foyers. Rob then also left the stage and the pair of us sat behind the curtain and listened to Ewan’s performance, which was predictably excellent. From memory, he performed Banks of Marble, Robbie Burns’ A Man’s a Man For a’ That and Arthur MacBride. Rob continued to assist by introducing the songs. However, with some simple words of Spanish, Ewan won the hearts of the audience pretty much immediately!
The concert finished with all of the performers returning to the stage to perform The Valley of Jarama, with alternating Spanish and English verses. This was a fitting end to a great evening and the performance received a standing ovation, with all of us emotionally touched by the reaction.
After the concert, we joined the audience in the foyer and I can say with confidence that it has been a very long time since I have been hugged and kissed as much. It was clear that the performance had touched many people and there was immense goodwill being shown to the performers in return. Slowly, the audience drifted away from a noisy and buzzing foyer and we were able to congratulate each other and begin to get our kit together, still glowing from the emotion shown.
Despite it being an evening concert, this being Spain there was still dinner to go to – and what a treat was in store. Like many towns in Spain, Logroño has a number of gourmet dining clubs. These are places where men get together and cook. We were to be the guests of honour – and we were certainly both hungry and thirsty after the night’s performance. The meal was so full of delicious cheeses, meats, sausages, vegetables, I couldn’t possible recount them all, and it was all washed down with the very best Rioja wines. Apart from those who had been in the kitchen cooking through the evening, most of those attending the meal had been to the concert and the atmosphere was both happy and boisterous. It was well after midnight that we reached our beds. It had been a fantastic day.
The next day was altogether more sombre. It was May Day and we were to attend a memorial ceremony at a place called La Barranca on the edge of the town in the pueblo of Lardero. La Barranca means the ravine or gully and the ceremony was in remembrance of the more than 400 men and women who had been rounded up by fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and executed in that ravine between the 10th September and 15th December 1936.
After breakfasting with Paco, he drove us out to La Barranca in time to see the end of the commemoration of the dead by local anarchist activists. As the red and black flags of the anarchists slowly melted away, the place became alive with the red banners, flags and scarves of the socialists and trade unionists as they assembled for their ceremony of remembrance.
This is a moving memorial to visit. When Franco was alive, there was no memorial permitted here. However, mothers, wives and other relatives of the deceased would come every November to remember their dead – watched over, abused and sometimes arrested by the Guardia Civil who stood on the nearby high ground looking down. The bravery and dignity of those women is remembered by a statue to the Mujeres de Negro - the Women in Black. Local families still hold their own private ceremony, away from the more generalised emotions of May Day, every November. The emotions and memories of those terrible times remain raw to this day in Spain.
The memorial now consists of a striking statue commemorating the fallen, an enclosed garden of remembrance marking the place of execution, and a low, open sided, building where the names and places of origin of all those executed in the local area were listed. The building proudly sports the three colours of the Republican flag of Spain, red, yellow and magenta.
There were many emotional speeches, both from trades unionists and from relatives of the dead, linking the experiences of the past with the travails of modern day Spain. Early on in the proceedings, Paco played one of his songs and we all repeated our collective performance of The Valley of Jarama. At the end of the event, the several hundred people in attendance drifted away, as did we, to join the May Day rally back in Logroño.
Politics remains alive and kicking in Spain and my rough estimate would be that the May Day march would have seen some 2,000 to 3,000 marchers touring the streets of the relatively small town of Logroño, before meeting up for a rally in the town square.
At the end of the march which, after stowing our instruments in a local bookshop run by local anthropology expert, Carlos Muntión, most of us repaired to the now busy Bank Holiday bars of the town centre for some drinks before lunch at another of the gourmet clubs of Logroño. Rob is a great cook and being keen to find out what goes on behind the scenes, offered his services to the club and disappeared to help out.
After drinks, the rest of us picked up our instruments and went off to lunch – this time we were going to do some playing after eating. Once again, the food was sublime (especially the white asparagus!) and conversation around the table was animated and interesting. After eating, we gathered around one of the big tables in the club dining room, with previously unsuspecting diners from other tables joining us. After that Ewan, Paco and na-mara played music intermittently for the next hour and a half – ably assisted at one point by a young girl from Belfast who had been telephoned by relatives in the room dining on a different table, and summoned to come and hear the music. We played a wide range of our music, with Rob once again explaining their backgrounds. Pleasingly, the reaction was very warm and welcoming.
This took us into the early evening and, having stowed the instruments again, we then went for a lengthy walk around the town with our new friends and colleagues with Carlos Muntión acting as our expert guide as we strolled through the old town and along the River Ebro in fading light. The weather had generally been overcast and rainy throughout the visit. However, it warmed a little that evening and the river walk was both pleasant and informative.
Naturally, we then returned to the still busy bars of the town for some further drinks and tapas – watching local people looking in disbelief at TV screens showing the great Barcelona going down three-nil at home and seven-nil on aggregate in the Champions League competition.
We then drifted back towards the apartment with Paco, his wife and a friend and we had a late night drink at a local bar. (I would call it a last drink – but one never has a ‘last drink’ in Spain as it is considered bad luck to do so. This is because the last drink is the one you have before you die.)
The next day, it was up early in readiness for a return to the UK. We had breakfast, packed, Paco picked us up, we collected Ewan and our instruments from Jim’s and it was then back over the mountains to Bilbao and home. All went smoothly. The dryness of the Rioja region, sitting as it does behind the coastal mountains gave way to a monumental amount of rain falling on Bilbao. Ewan’s luck finally ran out - with the bag drop personnel forcing him to put his guitar in the hold. But the flight was on time, the journey home was smooth and uneventful and both guitars survived the journey. Once we had checked the instruments were OK, it was a case of saying our goodbyes to Ewan and making it back to St Albans.
We very much enjoyed every aspect of our journey to Logroño. The generosity and welcome of the people we met there was simply overwhelming. They were great fun to be with and I certainly learned an enormous amount about Spain, modern and historical, and would like to thank them all for everything they did for us in the days we were with them. My only dilemma now is whether I will ever be able to cope with pub grub again?
It was also a pleasure to spend time with Ewan McLennan and we wish him every success with his career and very much look forward to meeting and, possibly, playing with him again at some time in the future.