I'd been aware of Maria del Mar Bonet for years, due to a single but oh-so-memorable track on a Mediterranean compilation. Finding an entire album however proved anything but easy. That is, if you predominantly rely on chance encounters inside record stores rather than hounding on-line resouces to eventually mail-order what keeps eluding capture in situ. Bonet was born in Majorca in 1947 where she learned traditional Balearic songs as a small child. By 1967, she moved to Barcelona and began to perform with Els Setze Jutges, an important group of Catalonian songwriters/ performers. In 1968, the Franco regime censored her most popular hit "Què volen aquesta gent" and she responded by performing abroad, first in France, Denmark and England, then in more expansive circles throughout most of Europe including the former USSR and eventually even Japan.
In 1971, her album with the songs "L'Aguila Negra" and "No voldria res més ara" won her the Spanish Golden Disk award. A few years later, Maria del Mar Bonet kicked of a series of concerts during the Barcelona music festival which reportedly continue to the present day. By 1981, she had recorded Jardi Tancat in Paris with arrangements by Jacques Denjean and Celtic harp virtuoso Alan Stivell. On stage, it captured 1st prize for choreography in Köln, Germany. In 1984, she won the French Charles Cross Academy Prize for best foreign record edited in France. Still in 1984, she was honored with Catalonia's highest distinction, the Cross of San Jordi. A year later, she recorded Annells d'aigua with the Ensemble of Music Traditionalle di Tunis as a result of her research into North African music. The following year, she toured Spain with Milton Nascimento, the year thereafter their tour entered Brazil.
In 1988, Maria collaborated with Spanish dancer/choreographer Nacho Duato to create Arenal, then Cor perdut. By 1992, the Generalitat de Catalunya awarded her the National Prize for popularizing Catalan folk music and presented her new Rembetiko show The Greece of Theodorakis in Plaça del rei in Barcelona. 1993 saw the publication of El las and the show Merhaba with Turkish artist Livaneli. Bon viatge faci la cadernera and Coreografies followed and by 1995, Salmaia included themes from Greece, Turkey and Italy. In 1997, she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her career and recorded the double CD El cor del temps with Juan Manuel Serrat, Lluís Llach and Nena Venetsanou. 1999 saw Cavall de foc and 2001 Raixa.
My thick-headed (short-sighted?) reliance on spur-of-the-moment sightings recently rewarded me with a 1982 copy of Breviari d'amor from The Spanish Table in Santa Fe. Then a very kind gesture of "check out my collection and take with you whatever you like, then send it back when you're done" netted Raixa from Dr. Jim Langham's fabulous WorldMusic collection in Oakland. Nearly twenty years separate these albums but the flame of inspiration and commitment clearly burned unwaveringly through the decades. It makes the prospect of further Bonet discoveries, over what lies in-between, more tantalizing still.
Breviari d'amor sports gorgeous symphonic settings whose dynamic limitations and occasional traces of master tape deterioration are far offset by the sheer glory of Bonet's throaty melancholy realization of Jordi Sabates' arrangements. How often does one encounter sophisticated songs accompanied by symphonic forces outside of Strauss' famous Last Four Songs? To be sure, Breviari are folk songs, not classically styled challenges for diva sopranos - but that's exactly the special wonderment here. Crying celli and elegiac cor anglais intersect the dense heaviness of emotions Maria instills into the smallest of phrases. Massed strings and hollow clarinets surround aching leit motifs for deep immersion in mature and pure romanticism that's utterly free of tear-jerky manipulations. Surprising too is the developmental scope and arc of these songs. It has nothing in common with sing-along popular melodies.
Some of the best modern composing in the classical style occurs in movie soundtracks. Breviari d'amor would make a fabulous soundtrack for a European movie set in the times of traveling bards who vigilantly upheld the feminine principle as senior to masculine machinations of war and dominance. It's a return to profound emotionalism which so often lacks the true mark of authenticity in present-day popular music.
Reixa opens to the sounds of the water fountain and the clock's bell in the Plaça del rei of Barcelano. The entire CD was recorded there live July 25 - 29 during the nights of the summer festival Grec 2001. It's a heart-rending tribute to 25 years of annual intimate encounters with a loyal live audience during the outdoor gatherings in this walled plaza. The liner notes tell how the artist had always built an imaginary city based on the old neighborhood of her youth, Palma, between the cathedral and St. Francis beside Monte-Sion. They explain how Barcelona's plaza perfectly recaptures that mythical place of her dreams. Raixa is dedicated to a real Mallorcan garden designed during the Moorish reign in Spain. As such and just like Breviari, we're whisked backwards in time to the nostalgic appreciation for an ancient paradise of mountains, palaces and garden immortalized in poems by Alcover, Rossello-Porcel, Llompart, Turmeda, Ferra, Alomar and Rosalia de Castro.
The Ars Ensemble of Joan Valent provides strings, flutes, accordion and percussion while Javier Mas on 12-string guitar, Felio Gasull on guitar and Dimitri Psonis on bouzouq and hand percussion add to the Mediteranean airs. Maria's voice still holds that peculiar heaviness of toil and hardship, that thickness of suffering we instantly recognize from Black Blues singers though her range and articulation are far more classical. Rich like Aztec cocoa with chili infusions -- the kind the excellent movie Chocolat is all about -- Marie's vocal presence rests deep inside her throat and is something to get lost and carried away in without resistance. Most songs are on the short side, hence the present concert assembles 18 of them on this album. Wedded to Breviari, we're looking at Raixa as an unashamed celebration of worn voluptousness the likes of which are very hard to come by even inside an expansive record collection. Perhaps think traces of Mercedes Sosa and Savina Yannatou even though that'll still miss. While Breviari will be hard to come by, Raixa is far more current and one of those landmark albums that belong in any library devoted to the female voice and deep cante.