The Catalan singer Marina Rossell was born in the Castellet i la Gornal, a municipality in the valley of the Foix River. She began her professional career in 1976 and has been releasing albums at a steady rate ever since. This latest one is dedicated to her renditions of habaneras. She sings them in a rounded, pleased tone that is meant to bring out their “rhythmic measure, their swaying melodies, their undulating lyricism,” and in this she is a complete success: the songs sway, they undulate like waves, and their rhythmic measure is nicely articulated. Vistas al Mar is perfectly shaped and as clean and clear as you could wish for, but this is where it loses me, because listening to all of that swaying and undulating and rhythm-making is like lying on a blow-up mattress in a puddle. There’s not a scrap of tension or unmodulated excitement anywhere. It’s as if the singer’s emotions have been locked inside a box, and she has to speak pleasantly, otherwise the guards will never give them back to her. It’s the habanera Il Divo.
Sometimes, in “Carbón de Ron”, for instance, while singing “Pa que se encienda” for the second time, she sounds as if she’s about to go somewhere braver and deeper, but then the music grabs the steering wheel and pulls her back on track. The sadness present in her voice at the beginning of “Mi Madre Fue Una Mulata” is quickly banished after an accordion strikes up. Within the space of a few lines, she gets over it and the sadness doesn’t come back again, even after the sailor ‘I’ of the song begins singing about his girlfriend, who is possibly crying in his absence. The sailor admits that he is crying as well. The way Rossell’s voice rears up over this phrase and finishes it off with a flourish is going to satisfy listeners who like a song with a firm coda, but it makes our sailor sound smug. What does he want for his crying, a medal?
There’s no unselfconsciousness in the singer’s emotions; they’re always peeping at us out of the corners of their eyes to see if we’re watching. And not only watching, but watching and nodding and admiring as well. Is one of her characters lonely? Is he sad? Then he has to be nobly sad. Never squalidly, or shyly, or ridiculously sad, as people often are, but nobly, grandly sad, which people generally aren’t. When David’s mother dies in David Copperfield, Dickens shows us the boy acting out his own misery for maximum effect. “When I saw them glancing at me out of the windows … I felt distinguished, and looked more melancholy, and walked slower.” That’s what Rossell’s voice does whenever her characters are miserable. She’s determined to stir us, and it’s irritating.
The habanera sound is Cuban in origin. It shares a family tree with the contradanza, the danzon, the charanga, and, more distantly, the bolero and the tango. If you wanted to divide Cuban music into two loose groups, with “sounds more African” on one side and “sounds more European” on the other, then the habanera would be sitting on the European side. Its roots can be traced back to the country dances that the Spanish brought with them when they settled on the island, centuries ago. A habanera doesn’t have the sharp rhythmic drive of son and its punctuation is subtler than a donking clave. It works with pauses, and changes in tone, lifting and sinking in a rolling lilt.
Habanera travelled from Cuba with sailors and established itself in Spanish-speaking port towns in different parts of the world; it has become particularly popular in Catalonia, which has three ports, the principal one in Barcelona. Rossell, being a good and patriotic Catalonian, has sung this music before. “Habaneras colonials” reads a line of print at the bottom of the front cover. “Colonial Sea Shanties” it explains in English. The picture this conjures up of scarred and sea-battered sailors crooning soft habaneras to the stars instead of growling over their rum is an odd one to anyone who associates the word “shanties” with tough songs about brutality, drunkenness, and walking the plank, but the lyrics are seamanly enough to warrant the mar in the title. “Mil veces busqué la suerte, / Sobre las olas del mar”, she sings, “Mil veces quise la muerte, / Y no la pude encontrar”. A thousand times I tried my luck on the waves of the sea, a thousand times I wished for death but did not find it. How nice she sounds. How impossible it is to believe in this lyrical suicide for even an instant.
Was an entire album of habaneras a good idea? I don’t think so. The handsomeness of the “swaying melodies” was too seductive, they’ve sucked the humanity out of the singer. She’s so busy living up to the elegance of the sway that she doesn’t give us anything we can get our teeth into. Perhaps next time she should sing some ugly songs.
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