Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Jarama, February 17th 2017, Day 1

Below is an account of the first of two dayd in Madrid when we were honoured by the Friends of the International Brigades In Ireland (FIBI) with an invitation to perform two concerts in Rivas-Vaciamadrid to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Jarama, where, alongside Republican forces, the British, Irish, Garibaldi, Dmitrov, 6th February and Thalmann Battalions, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and many others fought heroically to halt the advance of fascist forces on Madrid.

Our experience in Spain was stimulating, educative and humbling; invigorating both politically and musically. The following is a personal record of what we got up to when we were there.
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The alarm clock went off at 2.45am on a cold February Friday morning and I picked Rob up 45 minutes later to get to Luton Airport for our flight. With a head full of concerns about negotiating the shambles that is Luton Airport currently, putting our precious instruments in an airplane hold plus the myriad other troubling trivia travellers usually have, we actually arrived at the airport ahead the crowds and, since the luggage drop and security went smoothly, we were having coffee in the airport before 5.00am. We even got a seat without having to mug someone.

After an uneventful flight we arrived on time into Madrid to be met by the wonderful and energetic Dougie Dalby who was looking after all the musicians for the weekend. After a quick coffee, we collected Simon, a member of Scottish-Spanish group Gallo Rojo (see below), and headed off to central Madrid by bus. This was a speedy if, to say the least, crowded service. The bus looked pretty much full when the four of us got on. So, shuffling through the densely packed passengers to find a square foot of space with bags and guitar flight cases was a little bit ‘tasty’ – anyway, we all survived.

By Atocha station, we transferred to a taxi to get us to Rivas-Vaciamadrid, a suburb of Madrid close to the battlefield at Jarama, where the concerts over the next two evenings were to be held and where we were staying.

Our first stop was to drop the instruments off at the night’s venue - and what a venue the thousand seater Auditorio Pilar Bardem turned out to be! The stage crew were already busy getting the stage lighting ready and we met a number of the Spanish organisers of the event. This was to be a themed event of music, poetry and film and the arrangements for the stage were highly complex. So, we learned a little more about how the evening would unfold – and then it was time to go and get some food.

We repaired to a local restaurant for, in our case, a superb bowl of chorizo and white bean stew along with some Jarama beer, brewed especially for the event. (The paella looked great as well – oh, and so did the chicken....!)

After lunch we returned to the venue and, on the way, met up with the four other members of Gallo Rojo - lovely, friendly, people as well as excellent musicians and singers – and headed on to the venue to begin sound checking for the evening.

Quite quickly, the other musicians involved in the event began to arrive and we were introduced to the young and highly talented Scots singer-songwriter, Calum Baird, the highly talented Spanish singer, Lucia Sócam, the highly musical and committed members of the Brigada Intergeneracional and the folk legend that is Andy Irvine.

The sound check was very thorough and went really well and, while some of the team took bags off to the hostel where most of us were billeted that evening, others chatted and got various bits of gig administration sorted out.

Other performers, choir members, volunteer stewards and others began to arrive and the buzz built very quickly for the evening. The concert was starting at 6.30pm, relatively early for Spain and, so there wasn’t a great deal of time sitting around. The auditorium filled up completely and the show was ready to start.

Telling the story of the Battle of Jarama and the role played in it by Republican soldiers and the International Brigaders meant that different artists appeared on stage at different stages through the evening, alongside poets, choirs and a very moving film about the war and its relevance for today. So, rather than recounting the event item by item, let me just say a few words about the various musicians we had the honour of appearing with.

Rob and I loved listening to Gallo Rojo. Driving electric and acoustic guitars plus expertly played bodhran accompany two lead female singers and collectively deliver delicious vocal harmonies. Even as I type now, I am humming their invigorating version of one of their rousing songs. Such fun people to be with. If you get chance to see them, do it!

Even during the sound check, it was obvious to see and hear what an exciting talent Calum Baird is. His versions of David Rovics’ ‘The Last Lincoln Veteran’ and The Wakes’ ‘These Hands’ were excellent and he also writes his own, powerful, songs on contemporary issues and these were well in evidence at the concert the following evening. With such a joie de vivre and energy, Calum is a delight to spend time with. Again, if you get any chance to see, get yourself along there!

Lucia Sócam is a well known singer, songwriter, guitarist and flautist from Seville with nine albums to her name already. She is also well known for her canción de protesta. Such a powerful deliverer of songs, she was greatly appreciated by the audience. Sadly, my lack of Spanish meant I was left solely with the emotion of her rousing music. Fortunately, Rob was later able to explain the songs to me.

The Brigada Intergeneracional is a Barcelona-based open collective of musicians and others that encourage open discourse to develop a common knowledge of recent Spanish history which, they believe, has been repressed in Spain for too long. Powerful songs in Spanish and English with Dani Caracola, Berni Armstrong and others. Check out their fascinating and important Facebook page.

Finally, Andy Irvine needs no introduction. He is a longstanding folk hero of mine and, once it was agreed that all the musicians would come together at the end of the event to sing Valley of Jarama, I was able to tell him after our brief rehearsal of it that I had just ticked off another of my bucket list items - namely, to have played with Andy Irvine. Although just in from a lengthy flight from Australia, he was kind and generous to all involved in the evening and performed his own composition commemorating inspirational Irish veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Frank Ryan.

We then ended our part of the evening with a collective version of Valley of Jarama, which as the accompanying video shows had the audience clapping and singing along. It was a very emotional and heartwarming conclusion to the evening.

After the show concluded, we were able to join some members of the audience in the foyer for a glass (or two) of beer. It being only 10.30pm - still the middle of the afternoon for many in Spain - we then went off to grab a bite to eat in our favourite cafe which, by now, was full of performers and audience members excited by the show. Sometime after that we set to walk to the hostel most of us were staying at. I wish I could say that we slept like babies – but I’m afraid I can’t. Fifteen or so bodies in a single echo-ey room is not the best setting for the land of Nod. Unfortunately, one or our number, who shall remain nameless (but wasn’t Rob or me) was snoring at an unbelievable decibel level. As he was in the bed next to me, I got the full repertoire of sawing, snuffling and occasional silences – which, when they occur, are even louder than the snoring. I feared an ‘Orient Express’ moment might happen sometime during the evening but, anyway, we (and he) made it through to sunrise.

(To be continued - Day 2)