It began in the treasure trove front room of Deià artist and musician David Templeton. Among David’s vast, eclectic vinyl collection is a lapful of albums with a Deià connection. Riffling through these one afternoon, I came across El Olivo.
What struck me first was the cover, instantly recognisable as being by Mati Klarwein, and the names Robert Graves and Ramón Farrán. Mati’s art graced a handful of classic albums, including Miles Davis’s revolutionary Bitches Brew and Santana’s mighty Abraxas. I was, of course, familiar with Robert Graves but I had no idea he’d been involved in making music. I didn’t know the name Ramón Farrán at all.
Flipping the album over to look at the back cover, I saw photos of Graves and, in Catalan, the explanation that it featured music by Ramón Farrán for poems by Graves. The song titles were in English. That was pretty much it.
The record label may have been Edicions Arxipèlag de la Universat de Palma de Mallorca and the year might have been 1971 but I couldn’t be certain. No musicians other than Ramón were credited and no instruments listed.
David no longer has a record player but he was gracious enough to let me take the album away and have it digitised. While I waited, I investigated.
I found out that what I read as 1971 was actually 1977 and that the album was re-released in 1984. Someone called Tete Montoliu played piano and vocals were by L. Graves. I thought that might be Graves’s daughter Lucia. The album went for almost €100. Not quite as rare as hen’s teeth but impressive.
At times like these I pick up Tomás Graves’s excellent Tuning up at Dawn, a kind of bible of mine when it comes to researching into Deià’s musical history. Tomás writes
In 1975, Ramón had recorded Olive Tree (El Olivo), an LP of Robert’s poems that he had set to music. It featured some of the best jazz musicians in Barcelona and the light, breathy voice of Lucia – reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto’s – who had never before sung professionally…Ramón had decided to release the album himself, setting up his own company, Drums…El Olivo had received excellent reviews, but sales were slow.
I now knew that the album was jazzy and featured Lucia singing but that was it.
When I met the guy who’d digitised the album for me in a café in Santa Catalina and he handed me the precious original and a CD copy it felt like I was receiving the key to some sort of secret history.
The first thing I did when I got home was play the CD. I wasn’t prepared for what I heard.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to El Olivo. With each listen the album becomes both more familiar and strange. The first time I heard it, I was simply baffled.
A haunting Arabic melody gives way to vaguely psychedelic rock to English folk to jazz fusion to lounge to out-and-out Latino pop to a guitar melody that sounds like it could have been lifted from The Shadows to…I don’t know what.
Ambient sounds of waves breaking on the shore at what must be the Cala open side two (I can tell by the pebbles). The album ends with Graves reading over the sounds of sheep bells, whistles and a rising surge of what I guess are synthesisers.
Graves’s voice appears twice, once on each side of the album. His clipped English tones should sound utterly incongruous but don’t. Lucia’s pure, girlish voice is a by turns folky, jazzy and, at one point, reminiscent of early 1960s yé-yé music. ‘Yé-yé’ comes from the ‘yeah yeah’ of The Beatles and refers to music sung by girls and popular in Spain, France and Italy.
Putting Graves’s poems to music works surprisingly well, even when the language is beyond the boundaries of most pop lyrics. ‘A Lost World’, sung by Lucia and, I think, Tomás, is particularly good, in a surreal way. (Very modest of him not to mention this in Tuning up at Dawn.)
More than anything else, El Olivo sounds like it could only have come out of Deià. It’s not just the Graves connection. There’s a kind of innocent sunny fearlessness to the way all the elements have been put together and, to me, a certain mystical vibe.
I listen to El Olivo when I’m far from Deià and want to be reminded of the spirit of the place. I listen to El Olivo when I want to go on a pleasantly bewildering musical journey, sideways in time. I’m listening to it now.
A few weeks ago, after I’d listened to El Olivo yet again, I decided to see if I could track down Ramón Farrán and attempt to unravel the mystery of the album. Tune in next week to find out what happened.