Protest songs rock Spain’s crisis-hit youth

In a dark bar, Diego Rodriguez and his friends are thrashing out some of the wildest, angriest music in Spain: blistering guitars, keening punk vocals, barking saxophone and trumpet.

Protest songs rock Spain's crisis-hit youth
"An illegal system, imposed by the sons of fascism! The Bourbon king is robbing me from dawn to dusk!" sings Spanish ska punk group Oferta Especial. Photo: YouTube

This is protest music, Spanish style – and after five years of on-and-off recession, it has an enthusiastic audience here in the working class Madrid suburb of Vallecas.

Dressed in black, young fans pogo on the dance floor, slamming into each other as the band rampages through "Familia Y Real", its anthem against Spain's increasingly unpopular monarchy.

"An illegal system, imposed by the sons of fascism! The Bourbon king is robbing me from dawn to dusk!" Diego sings, breaking off to lay on a catchy Caribbean ska rhythm with his trumpet.

"It is a very direct form of music, which deals with social issues," says Diego, 32, a teacher by profession but currently unemployed, with brown hair down to his tattooed shoulders.

"Ska punk wasn't very popular in Spain until about 10 years ago. But I think slowly people are starting to appreciate the spirit of punk," he adds, smoking wearily after an hour roaring and hopping about on stage.

"A lot of our songs are about how bad the jobs situation is, and the political system that we don't believe in. We try to focus the songs on our own experiences: being unemployed, earning no money, having to pay the mortgage."

Like much alternative music in Spain, the songs by Diego's band Oferta Especial — currently planning a new album — echo the mass street protests in Spain over recent years.

Like the demonstrators, singers complain of social injustice, economic hardship and political corruption, outraged by scandals that have even touched the conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

At the hip hop end of the spectrum, June saw the release of a new album by Mala Rodriguez, the Latin Grammy-winning princess of Spanish rap.

The first single from it, "La Rata", alludes to what she calls a "crisis of values" in the country.

"There's the prime minister, that bastard, why did we vote for him?" she moans, dropping her consonants in her sultry Andalusian accent as the rap mounts to a climax.

"I have heard a lot of musicians in Spain who are politically engaged and not afraid to express their anger," said Rodriguez, 34, known as "La Mala", or "Bad Girl".

"Rap was the only way I found to do it when I was young," she told AFP. 

"Right know, in hard times when things are tight, you see who is armed for the fight."

Observers say the mainstream music industry is resisting the wave of protest, however.

"La Rata" has made no mark on a Spanish top-40 chart dominated by international stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna.

La Mala's new album is "an invective against complacent cultural attitudes towards the crisis our country is undergoing", according to the editor-in-chief of the Spanish edition of Rolling Stone magazine, Beatriz G. Aranda.

"The groups that grab the attention of the media and public have a naive and individualistic vision of the world," the editor told AFP.

"The protest song has taken on pejorative connotations in Spain and that has not helped."

Flamenco: Spain's original protest music

Known for rapping on social themes, Mala Rodriguez is proud of her roots in her native southern Andalusia – one of the parts of Spain hardest hit by the recession.

She says her style of rap is influenced by flamenco, the traditional gypsy lament native to her home region and itself an age-old form of social protest.

"Flamenco, like rock, is a music form created by those excluded and marginalized in a capitalist society," explained Aranda. "Flamenco has been politically engaged since the beginning."

Another Andalusian musician with flamenco roots, Chico Ocana, says he plans to release a new album of protest songs later this year.

Since the early 1990s he has fused flamenco vocals with blues and rock 'n' roll, singing poignant satirical ballads in a gravelly voice with soaring choruses.

His new album will mix in funk, rock and Latin styles, with lyrics about corruption scandals and the evictions of ruined homeowners that have sparked outrage in Spain.

"The songs are about protest, the crisis, the cuts, the war of the rich against the poor," says, Ocana, 56, recalling his own deprived upbringing in the south.

"I've been a child of crisis since I was born," he says. "When nothing is being done, you have to make something happen. That is why I sing."

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Meet the Spanish rapper bringing flamenco and bossa nova into hip-hop

Spanish rapper C. Tangana was taking a big risk when he started mixing old-fashioned influences like flamenco and bossa nova into his hip-hop -- but it's this eclectic sound that has turned him into a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic.

Meet the Spanish rapper bringing flamenco and bossa nova into hip-hop
Spanish rapper Anton Alvarez known as 'C. Tangana' poses in Madrid on April 29, 2021. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

The 30-year-old has emerged as one of the world’s biggest Spanish-language stars since his third album “El Madrileno” — the Madrilenian — came out in February. That ranks him alongside his superstar ex-girlfriend Rosalia, the Grammy-winning Catalan singer with whom he has co-written several hits.

C. Tangana, whose real name is Anton Alvarez Alfaro, has come a long way since a decade ago when he became known as a voice of disillusioned Spanish youth in the wake of the financial crisis.These days his rap is infused with everything from reggaeton and rumba to deeply traditional styles from Spain and Latin America, with a voice often digitised by autotune.

“It’s incredible that just when my music is at its most popular is exactly when I’m doing something a bit more complex, more experimental and less
trendy,” he told AFP in an interview.

And he is unashamed to be appealing to a wider audience than previously: his dream is now to make music “that a young person can enjoy in a club or someone older can enjoy at home while cooking”.

‘People are tired’

The rapper, who sports a severe semi-shaved haircut and a pencil moustache, has worked with Spanish flamenco greats including Nino De Elche, Antonio Carmona, Kiko Veneno, La Hungara and the Gipsy Kings.

In April he brought some of them together for a performance on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concert” series, which has already drawn nearly six million
views on YouTube.

Shifting away from trap, one of rap’s most popular sub-genres, and venturing into a more traditional repertoire was a dangerous move — especially for someone with a young fanbase to whom rumba, bossa nova and bolero sound old-fashioned.

“I think people are tired. They’ve had enough of the predominant aesthetic values that have previously defined pop and urban music,” he said.

Parts of his latest album were recorded in Latin America with Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista Social Club, Uruguayan
singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, Mexican folk artist Ed Maverick and Brazil’s Toquinho, one of the bossa nova greats.

“What struck me most everywhere I went was the sense of tradition and the way people experienced the most popular music, and I don’t mean pop,” he said.

A new direction

C. Tangana started out in 2006 rapping under the name Crema. When the global economic crisis swept Spain a few years later, hard-hitting trap was
the perfect way to voice the angst of his generation. But after more than a decade of rapping, things changed.

“When I was heading for my 30s, I hit this crisis, I was a bit fed up with what I was doing… and decided to give voice to all these influences that I
never dared express as a rapper,” he said.

The shift began in 2018 with “Un veneno” (“A poison”) which came out a year after his big hit “Mala mujer” (“Bad woman”).

And there was a return to the sounds of his childhood when he used to listen to Spanish folk songs at home, raised by a mother who worked in
education and a journalist father who liked to play the guitar. The Latin American influences came later.

“It started when I was a teenager with reggaeton and with bachata which were played in the first clubs I went to, which were mostly Latin,” he said.

Studying philosophy at the time, he wrote his first raps between stints working in call centres or fast-food restaurants.

As to what comes next, he doesn’t know. But one thing he hopes to do is collaborate with Natalia Lafourcade, a Mexican singer who dabbles in folk, rock and pop — another jack of all musical trades.