Saved By Music

Rafael was looking out of the window as he and Luis sped through northern Extremadura and were approaching the flat lands of old Castille. Spain offers many different faces to the visitor. The green, celtic north west of Galicia and Asturias, bagpipes, fruity wine, and clouds racing in from the Azores. The Mediterranean coasts from Catalunya to Almería and Málaga. The Moorish rooted deep south with its burning summer, lake of sky winter, and the harsh, square-jawed central plain. Heartland some called it, but the rest of the country might beg to differ.

Rafael knew the Castillian fortress towns like Segovia, Peñafiel, Salamanca, Toledo, and many more, yet he’d hardly warmed to them. Warm was a word which didn’t come to his mind up here. What he failed to get was the accent, said to be ‘Standard Spanish.’ What was considered the model, the one to look up to. It could sound harsh, like the land it came from, particularly in the capital, Madrid, and was so precise in the fast execution of cut glass vowels and military consonants, it was almost an exercise in mouth discipline. It was cold like public school English. By jingo, no emotion is getting out through my words. Chap must never let his feelings out. While standard castellano wore a jacket and tie even at home, southern Spanish was loose and sloppy like the Rolling Stones, with the groove to match, and allowed itself to lie back on the sofa in its underwear. The northern areas spoke in a clearer precise way, yet the sounds were softer, like a petite masseuse’s tiny feet smoothing the tension from your back.

And why should castellano, Castillian Spanish be considered the reference? It all came back to power and politics through the centuries, but couldn’t the modern world now preclude such throwback ideas? There were still those who considered the regional varieties spoken in Zaragoza, rural Murcia or the Canary Islands as inferior, not deserving of consideration as equals in the linguistic prestige stakes. Unlike the UK, where the media now openly embraced Lancastrian, Belfast or Scottish accents as acceptable, with scouse and cockney, almost obligatory among some of the ‘taste-makers,’ innit, Spain continued to ignore any regional deviation from the Valladolid/Salamanca academic stronghold, unless it were the ‘humorous’ portrayal of an Andalusian ‘redneck’ in the cliché ridden farces which passed for Spanish comedy. ‘Scorchio,’ indeed.

Rafael got hot under the collar any time the regional accent debate came up, and his natural form of expression questioned. ‘How dare you mock my accent, my identity? Get down from your linguistic high horse. But language wasn’t the only thing which got him riled. It was belittlement, being laughed at, and it all came from when he was little.

As a kid he’d been one of those for whom the word mischief had been invented. Always getting into trouble, always getting into scrapes and mishaps, the number of broken bones had to be counted on both hands. No wonder his parents suffered from bad nerves. Years later talking to his psychologist, she’d proffered the theory that he’d been such a handful because he needed attention. His parents were gamblers and ‘sociable’ people, perhaps too much, and had paid Rafaelito scant attention. Hence the fire in the garden. The itching powder incident at his young sister’s – and five of her classmates’ – communion. The petty larceny.

It was when he’d started at Secondary school, still eleven but already five foot ten, that he met his partner in crime, Tommy The Tortoise, so named not because his mind was slow moving. Precisely the opposite. Apart from many and varied hi-jinks, the two started on a slow slide towards a life of miscreancy, which if it hadn’t been for Don Claudio, Rafael’s music teacher at San Isidoro Secondary School in Seville, could have ended up with him in borstal. Or worse.

Tommy realised one morning before school how easy it was to nick sweets from the shop while the owner’s back was turned,. And it wasn’t long, later that afternoon, in fact, before he’d realised that the local convenience store, stationer’s, record shop and bookshop were all easy prey for somebody with a quick eye and an open school bag. Pretty soon he found himself with a spirit level, a full toolbox, a complete set of encyclopaedias – taken over three afternoons – an endless supply of chocolate bars, and the filthiest porn mags anybody at the school had ever seen, even the teachers.

Rafael aided and abetted Tommy in this larcenous world, yet was increasingly uncomfortable with the moral question behind all the fun. He had a noble heart at heart, unlike Tommy, whose good side was only in evidence when he was asleep. Even then his dreams were not what a psychologist would easily forget. Ignored at home, alienated from himself by this behaviour, as Tommy’s activities attracted darker local characters who wanted some of the action, and to push the boys into greater adventures, Rafael’s frustrations often surfaced in outbursts of anger and aggression. He insulted his classmates, teachers and parents, and got into more than one rumble, the scale of which quickly escalated until he found himself one day hiding in the church from a couple of knife wielding chavs.

One day his music teacher, Don Claudio Crespo, having become aware of much of the above, suggested to Rafael that he should take up an instrument. His skill in handicrafts had been noticed, as had his reaction to the music that had been played in the classes, so after Rafael’s ears had pricked up upon hearing Bach’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, Don Claudio said he’d teach him the rudiments of the instrument. Rafael turned out to be a natural, a fast learner and possessing of a inherent sensitivity to music. In just a few months, he’d grasped the basics, learnt to interpret the musical stave and found an early foothold into some Beethoven, Saint-Saens and Mozart.

Still under pressure from Tommy to get up to mischief, Rafael found himself leaving the local record store one day, aged 16, with a selection of LPs under his jacket, which was to change his life in more ways than one. He never stole again, and he discovered rock. Music had never featured highly in his parents’ priorities, but while he was looking round the second-hand shop in Amor De Diós street, while Tommy kept the owner busy, he found himself drawn to the covers of albums he knew nothing about, but which caught his eye. He ended up with four stuck under the back of his shirt underneath his school blazer, exiting Nueva Música record store before he got rumbled.

Instead of divvying up the caché with Tommy, he was curious to see what strange delights lay inside these old covers and on the grooves of the vinyl inside. The first had a picture of four young hippies alongside several ragamuffin children in a bare forest, the colourful garb telling him here was something very different from José Luis Perales or Los Bravos. Something he’d never heard before. It was The Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, from 1968, and its combination of acoustic trippiness, Lewis Carroll innocence and sheer otherworldliness shifted all of Rafael’s reference points from the first crackle of needle on groove.

The next was no less of a seismic shift in his aural sensibilities. Van Der Graaf Generato’s Pawn Hearts, from 1971, had a darkness, a throbbing malevolence at its core, via Hugh Banton’s sepulchral customised organ, squeaky, awkward sax squeals and Peter Hammill’s RADA diction and intense delivery. It was heavy, manic, jazzy, soothing, all in a way Rafael had never heard before. From the same year came a gatefold with a dark photo of a group in a non-descript room, one guy with a foot in plaster, an alabaster head suspended in front of them, and they were not smiling. These boys are serious musos. From the opening salvo of Yours Is No Disgrace, with its crisp rhythms, soaring guitar and bass like he’d never heard, not to mention the authoritative voices, The Yes Album, by Yes, was every bit as engaging and invigorating as Pawn Hearts, but thrusting, positive, an original combination of rock and jazz, yet sounding like neither.

Quite how these British guys, all in their early twenties, all seemed to sound so original and so different from each other was a question Rafael would often ask himself. The quest for a singular artistic voice, the urge to stand out, not ‘be like all the guys’ created shock waves around the music world, set the template for decades to come in many areas of music, and inspired generations of artists, like the great composers, writers and painters had before them.

The final vinyl to catch fire on the Escalera family’s stereo was not by a British band, but a trio from Toronto. He was unaware that Rush had been inspired by the same artists he was discovering himself. Their sound had a compactness, three guys, six hands all pushing in the same direction with the same passion which slayed all in its path. This attitude unconsciously influenced the way he wanted his renaissance trio to come across.

The record he had was 2112, a benchmark in powerful, focused rock, with an irresistible energy you could tap into if you were angry with the world. It resonated, throbbed inside the hearts of millions around the world who felt the band’s honesty. There was no way these guys were anything but genuine. And we need our heroes to be genuine. Alex, Geddy and Neil knew how you felt as they raged against the forces of control. The feral viscerality of 2112, and the savage indictment against blame culture, Something For Nothing, quickened Rafael’s pulse, harnessed his energies, and annoyed the tone deaf neighbours. ‘We have assumed control,‘ a voice boomed out as feedback destroyed the remains of the old despots at the end of 2112, and millions around the world punched the air in defiance.

After his musical awakening, via Bach, Beethoven, Yes and Rush, Rafael knew where to get his kicks, which now precluded tea-leafing with Tommy. Babbling enthusiastically to Don Claudio one day, his teacher asked why he didn’t take up the instrument seriously? He had the ear, the passion, the talent. From there it was a new Rafael Escalera who arrived on time for school, enrolled at the Music Conservatoire. Music channelled his energies, helped him to develop his concentration, improved his patience and gave him a goal in life: to be the best he could at bringing those notes to life, enabling the music to fly from his fingers and out into the world. He was moved to see people’s reaction to his playing, hear their applause, even see some moist eyes. Nobody had ever praised him for very much before. Now he felt appreciated as if he had a place in the world. Which he did. Music had asssumed control.

Taken from Renaissance On The Road

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