A community of many voices

Many people know El Raval, but they know it in different ways. For tourists, it’s the lively grid of narrow streets beside Barcelona’s famous Rambla, a place of tapas bars, hip shops, and cultural venues like MACBA. For parts of the media, though, it’s a dangerous district, defined by drugs, prostitution and street crime. For the 47,000 people who live in one of Europe’s densest and most diverse neighbourhoods, it’s where you go to school, meet friends and work, it’s home, with all that can mean, but a home whose life is buffeted by people from elsewhere with strong opinions. When it comes to talking about Raval, it’s often outsiders (like me) who are heard, not the people who live there. Especially not those who work long hours to keep afloat and give their kids a better chance than they had.

This year, guided by Irene Calvís and Eva Garcia of the Liceu Opera, I’ve been getting to know Raval, visiting social projects, foundations and community groups. I’ve met the women of Dona Kolors, who make beautiful clothes in a project that works for employment and social inclusion, and the team at Impulsem who provide skills training and resources for community events. I’ve met the young people at Top Manta, who campaign for recognition of migrants’ rights through street clothing that unites style with politics. I’ve met the team at Fundació Tot Raval, who support the area’s many voluntary groups. And I’ve met community choirs—Trenca-cors, Flors de Maig, Musicals Choir, Kudyapi, Mon Raval, Dona Gospel—each serving and reflecting a different part of the demographic mosaic that is Raval, many of them supported by Cristina Colomer, an inspirational teacher at L’Escola de Músics, another key element of Raval’s rich cultural and social world.

Raval in figures

  • 47,142 people in 1.1 sq. km.
  • Over 40 nationalities;
  • 48% of its residents were born outside the EU.
  • Raval has 2,500 stores, 250 associations and 300 cultural sites
  • Alongside Catalan and Spanish, common languages include Bengali, Filipino, Arabic, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu

It is very hard to write about Raval, as an outsider, without falling into one cliché or another, without dramatising experiences that often form the raw material of art, without drifting into well-meaning condescension, without creating unbridgeable chasms between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Artists who invite communities into their work are especially liable to those faults. It’s not a few days spent in a neighbourhood like Raval that qualifies me to speak about it.

Still, everyone can be a witness so I try, with humility, to try to report factually what I see and hear in this kind of work. I do it because I believe that people elsewhere—and above all those who decide policy—need to understand why it’s a human right to participate in the cultural life of the community, what creating art can mean to people, and just how imaginatively, meaningfully and joyfully they use its resources when they get the chance.

My meetings with community groups in Raval are happening in the context of La Gata Perduda (The Lost Cat), a community opera being co-created by them with the professional artists of El Gran Theatre del Liceu. The Liceu will present La Gata Perduda in its main auditorium, on two nights in October 2022. It will mark the opening of the theatre’s 175th anniversary season. The Liceu stands on La Rambla, its back to Raval. Since 2018, it has been working to build a new relationship with its immediate neighbours, through those community organisations I’ve mentioned, by working with schools, libraries and health centres and by inviting people to performances, workshops and theatre visits. It is a long process, and it was made much more difficult by the pandemic, which hit Raval especially hard. When I was there in April, the city was very cautiously coming out of the pandemic; restaurants were only open at lunchtime and there was a night time curfew. Now, the tourists are back, though not in the numbers of a few years ago, but caution remains: masks are so normal that I don’t notice them any more.

On 2 October, after long months of meetings, planning and cancellations, the community opera project was finally able to move into a new phase. The composer, Arnau Tordera, presented the score to people from 12 community choirs at the theatre: rehearsals could begin. And on 6 November, barely a month later, those choirs sang a chorus from the opera in public for the first time at the Raval Festival, in the Plaça dels Àngels. The performance was the culmination of a concert in which the choirs had sung their existing repertoire, a diverse mix of pop, gospel and traditional songs.

It was a joyous morning. The Raval Cultural Festival describes itself as Fet per la gent del barri! (Made by the people of the neighbourhood!) and that was just what I saw—a coming together that both constitutes and strengthens community, as culture has always done, the ritual of performance creating a great circle in which everyone can see and is seen, audience and artists taking different roles but, as I have seen in a Hebridean ceilidh, all coming from and returning to a single body. I saw parents and grandparents watch their children, and kids watch their parents and grandparents: whoever wants to sing sings, and everyone cheers. The words ‘Som del Raval’ (We are from the Raval) are Victoria Szpunberg’s, but the librettist drew on conversations with local people in creating her story, and if this first performance is anything to go by, Raval recognises itself in what she has written.

But it was the music that surprised me. It was a long way from the melodies that had filled the square that morning. I’ve never felt much at home in opera (like many of the choir members, I think) but on this sunny Saturday, with several hundred people in and from Raval, I was swept up by the sound of people singing their hearts out, beautifully, and I cheered and clapped along with everyone. I had witnessed something special and yet everyday—a regular marvel—a communion of people from different cultures and places, celebrating their home and shared lives in music. It is the very definition of a choir, and over the next 10 months, hundreds of people in Raval will be enacting that process as they explore and learn the riches of Arnau Tordera’s score. This is quite an adventure.

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