Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How I learned Spanish – I: Paco Ibáñez

After abandoning the universal girlhood dream of ballet, my most frequent answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was “an interpreter for the United Nations.” Seeing my fascination with languages, my father made a point of showing me the interpreters’ booths at his workplace, UNESCO, as well as at the United Nations whenever we happened to be in New York. As a child, I imagined myself sitting up there overlooking the General Assembly, my voice making the difference between harmony or discord among nations. The dream died with the realization that my language skills, though superior to my peers’, did not meet the criteria for a United Nations interpreter.

I was completely bilingual French/English before leaving elementary school, and in middle school I began to study Spanish. When I came back to the United States for high school, my chameleon tongue – as the Peruvian columnist Álvaro Vargas Llosa might call it – shed its “vosotros” for “ustedes” and learned to “hacer frases” without a lisp. By the time we got to Advanced Spanish, the class had dwindled to four stalwarts with different language learning goals and our teacher gave us the option of self-initiated independent study. I can’t remember what my colleagues chose but I embraced this opportunity to put my “translating skills” into high gear.

Several years earlier in 1969, my mother – also a student of Spanish – had the good fortune to attend Spanish singer Paco Ibáñez’s landmark concert at the Olympia in Paris. A recording was made of that concert which my mother promptly purchased and I promptly purloined, having fallen in love with Paco’s smoldering good looks, his flamenco guitar style, and the beauty of the Spanish poetry he put to music (his radical commentary between the songs didn’t hurt either!).

Adolescence is a blessed time of fearlessness so, blithely ignoring Paco’s warning that poets like García Lorca are “intraducible”, I told my teacher I would transcribe the poems on the album (the liner notes had long become separated from the disc) and translate them into English, aiming whenever possible for lyrics that would fit into Paco’s marvelous melodies. My teacher, after a stunned silence, respectfully suggested that I limit my ambition to the first of the two records in the set.

And so I spent a semester with Paco and a dictionary – writing down what I thought I heard, trying to make sense of it, and rendering it into English. To this day I can still sing many of the songs by heart like Miguel Hernández’s lovely paean to agricultural workers’ rights “Andaluces de Jaén" and can recognize other classics such as Jorge Manrique’s “Coplas por la muerte de su padre”.

The project was not a complete fiasco though my poor teacher did have to borrow the record to figure out what I was talking about in some cases. Later, when I had access to Vanderbilt University’s more ample library, I looked up a lot of those poems and used Paco’s anthology as a jumping off point for further exploration into Spanish poetry. I found out who the Arcipreste de Hita was, read some of his Libro de Buen Amor, and discovered that my translation of that fragment – “Lo que puede el dinero” – and some of the other works compared favorably with published translations.

Paco later introduced me to the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda through a recording he made with Cuarteto Cedrón. I heard lines like “Inclinado en las tardes tiro mis tristes redes a tus ojos océanicos…” and those melodious words inspired me to read Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada.

They say knowledge is more easily absorbed when put to music and I can certainly thank Paco’s dedication to promoting the works of the great Spanish poets through his songs for the love and respect I gained for that language and culture.

Finally, to prove that almost 40 years later Paco still has that fast and furious guitar style that drew me in the first place, here he is performing his signature song “A Galopar” by the poet Rafael Alberti in front of the U.S. embassy in Madrid at a protest rally on the anniversary of the 2003 death of Spanish TV cameraman José Couso who was killed when U.S. army tanks fired on a Baghdad hotel where he was staying. It’s not technically the best video but it shows the man’s fire for justice.

Gracias hermano compañero Paco!

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