Listening to El Olivo, music by Ramón Farrán for poems by Robert Graves, is one of the ways I bring a little Deià sunlight into my heart wherever I am in the world. But it was only recently that I heard the real story of how the album came to be from Ramón and his singer daughter Natalia Farrán Graves. As you might expect, it’s a very Deià story.
But before I proceed to do my best to tell it, I’d like to tell you a little about Ramón Farrán.
Ramón is a highly respected Spanish composer, arranger, producer, conductor, drummer and percussionist. He was one of the prime movers in the Spanish jazz scene of the 1940s-50s and is the founder of the ONJAZZ, the Spanish National Jazz Orchestra. His innovative horn arrangements helped shape Spanish pop music. Ramón’s sophisticated production contributed a great deal to the new gypsy pop sound of the 1960s and 70s, especially ‘rumba catalana’. He has written many television theme tunes, including for Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, and scores for films such as Illegally Yours and Contra el Viento.
The list of jazz greats Ramón has worked with reads like a Who’s Who of jazz legends. It includes Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. Ramón has also been musical director for artists like Julio Iglesias, Joan Manuel Serrat, Montserrat Caballé, Isabel Pantoja, Shirley Bassey and Celia Cruz.
Always a trailblazer, Ramón was arguably the first person in Spain to record with synthesisers, to use a sixteen-track recording device and work with a computer on stage.
Today, Ramón continues to compose, perform and record all around the world as a drummer and percussionist, as well as conducting for ONJAZZ. He’s just finished two commissions, an opera about Picasso and a piece of Indian classical music written in Western classical musical language.
I’m sure you can see why I was delighted to speak to Ramón and Natalia.
We talked on Skype when Ramón was visiting Natalia in the UK. Although Ramón’s English is good, Natalia occasionally translated and contributed extra detail. Ramón and Natalia gave me the answers to some questions later in writing.
How did you come to Mallorca, Ramón?
In 1956, when I was 17, I flew straight to Palma after arriving back in Spain from the States, where I’d toured with Lorenzo González and played with Tito Puente. I was going to play a summer residency with the great jazz pianist Tete Montoliu, a dear friend of mine, at the Formentor Hotel in the north of Mallorca.
What did Mallorca feel like to you?
I fell in love with the place. I felt like I’d discovered paradise, a natural paradise.
Could you describe your first impressions of Deià?
Discovering Deià triggered a deep change in me and stirred up lots of emotions. There was far more to it than the Mallorca I’d experienced working at the Formentor Hotel. Deià was a fishermen’s village and the fish were brought up dirt roads from the sea on mules. There were only a few hours of electricity a day, supplied by a generator, and ice arrived once a day on the bus from Palma.
There were very few inhabitants, and it was all very relaxed. The guardia civil ran after the contrabandists from time to time, but otherwise Deià was a place of freedom.
How did you first meet Robert Graves?
I met Robert on the road one day when my friend Pedro and I were going for a swim at the cala in Deià that first summer in Mallorca. Robert was walking up, still damp from his daily swim. ‘This is Ramón, a great musician, and this is Robert Graves, the famous writer,’ Pedro said.
Robert looked me in the eye and said, ‘Fascinating! You’re a real musician. I’ll wait for you at home at tea time. See you later, bye!’ And that’s how we met. I was impressed by his self-confidence and presence. From then onwards we became friends.
When did you and Robert first start working together?
Over the course of that summer, we got into the habit of jamming together with poetry and music, for fun at first. He would challenge me to memorise the rhythm of one of his poems: he’d read it once and I would have to remember the exact beats and accents. You could say these were the first stirrings of what, years later, would become El Olivo.
That sounds daunting!
I have a percussive memory so it wasn’t that difficult. And, of course, Robert was a master of poetic meter which made the rhythm of his poems so much easier to remember.
I first set a poem of his to music for a performance at Southwark Cathedral in London to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare organised by the BBC. This would have been in 1964.
A few years later, after I’d met and married Robert’s daughter Lucia, Natalia’s mother, Robert asked me to bring my tape recorder up to a secret casita he had in the mountains. It was a simple place, not much more than somewhere you’d keep tools. When we got there, Robert said ‘Close the door. Switch on your recorder. I’m going to start reading poems. It’s for you to keep.’ At the time, Robert knew very well what he was doing. I only realised afterwards. I used two of the poems on El Olivo.
What about the other poems?
I’m keeping them to myself as a secret pleasure. For now.
How did El Olivo actually come about?
It really started with Robert and I jamming, playing our poetry-music game back when I was 17. Appropriately for Deià perhaps, it took about two years for El Olivo to come together. The album itself was recorded in my Barcelona studio in two to three weeks, but the natural ambient sounds – sheep, frogs, boats, waves – all come from Deià. Tomás, Lucia’s brother, helped me with recording these. We became very good friends with the sheep! The boat was recorded on a fishing trip, going out from the cala and back.
What were your musical influences?
I was, and still am, really interested in the musical roots of Spain. Ours is a very rich country, musically. We’re at the foot of Europe and the head of Africa and many cultures passed through Spain bringing their music with them. Each left their musical footprint.
The music on El Olivo came from my heart, just as the music I am writing today does. If you have the time to look for what’s true inside you, and know how to translate this into musical composition, you’ll find the way.
What do you feel about the album today?
When you’re a composer or writer, what you want to do is give your work to the public. If you’re thinking of doing this for money you’re completely wrong. We never thought about making money. I just thought the album was a nice gift for others.
I love the fact that so many members of the family contributed to El Olivo. Lucia and Tomás sing. So does my sister, Marta Farrán. It’s one of a handful of times Lucia ever recorded anything. She was rather shy. It was Robert who convinced her that her singing would be a very good contribution to the album.
(Natalia added: I sometimes sing the songs my mother did on the record live. When I do, people sometimes come up to me and say things like ‘I feel I now totally understand that poem’, which is very satisfying – for both my father and I.)
Lucia’s cousin Elizabeth did the beautiful cover art for the original album. Beryl, Robert’s wife, helped me select the poems (I still keep the hand-written list she wrote for me) and kept everyone going with food and encouragement. My dear friend Tete Montoliu plays piano on the album. It’s a wonderful work of collaboration and love.
It’s such a shame that the record is so hard to get hold of.
We have plans to re-release it. And, who knows, there might be a new one – a second half. Watch this space!
Let’s hope so! How would you describe the effect meeting Robert had on your life?
I learnt so much from Robert. I learnt about rhythm, and to be faithful to my art and individuality. I learnt to use the resources from the earth, to recycle – not just compost, but concepts and ideas. We used to work on the compost heap at Ca n’Alluny together. He’d come to me with two shovels: no words needed. And he taught me that, no matter how hard you’re working, it’s always good to stop for tea and talk to others.
Robert appreciated my music and concept of rhythm. We talked about music a great deal, comparing his way of working to mine. We agreed on many a subject. We worked together on many occasions and it was very gratifying.
He liked good music. He couldn’t stand hearing something which was out of tune or sounded unpleasant. It really irritated him. He discovered jazz at that time, in part through me. I was starting to consider how to renew the symphonic jazz language and found answers through my research into roots music. Robert inspired me, by example, to find a future language based on ancestral cultural roots. I later fell in love with, and married, his daughter, so we became part of the same family.
And the effect of Deià?
One word: AMOR.
What’s the single thing you love most about Deià?
The energy of the Teix mountain.
How do you look back at that time of your life?
I enjoy the present above all else but, looking back, I cannot imagine a better life for myself. I’m a very lucky person.
Thank you, Ramón and Natalia. It’s a fantastic story.
After I’d spoken to Ramón and Natalia, I asked Tomás Graves what he remembered about recording El Olivo. He wrote:
Some anecdotes about the sound effects which I recorded on a Sony stereo cassette machine. The sheep bells were recorded from the terrace of Ca n’Alluny. They were in the field above, and my mother’s nightmare was when they got through the fence and razed her vegetable bed to the ground. The sea was recorded at the cala, along with Sa Polsimada (sea spray) the fishing boat belonging to the top restaurant, with its throbbing Perkins Marine diesel motor. The voices at the end of ‘The far side of your moon’ are the Holy Week procession passing by S’Hotel d’Es Puig; the varispeed made them sound eerie.
And the frogs croaking I recorded in the water reservoir just above the Museum, which has since been covered over.
Tete Montoliu was a respected jazz pianist both in Europe and the US. Ramón would always accompany him on his gigs in Barcelona. The running joke, since he was blind from birth, was ‘Who’s going to tell him he’s not black?’
Ramón was one of the first people in Spain to wear his reading glasses on a thin string around his neck, so many people here thought it was the cable of a hearing aid. I once went to a club where they were doing a sound check and asked the bouncer if they were inside. ‘Oh, you mean the blind man and the deaf guy? Yes, they’re inside.’
After I’d spoken to Ramón and Natalia, I felt like I’d been given a great insight into how El Olivo came about but I wanted to know more about Ramón’s life and work, especially as it relates to the music of Deià. The idea that he casually bumped into Robert Graves on the way down to the cala when he was 17, beginning a friendship and creative partnership that lasted for decades is mind-blowing to me. Tune in next week for more.