Making music from the poetry of an icon

Keiron Pim He was one of the most famous casualties of the Spanish Civil War but his poetry endures. Now the work of Federico Garcia Lorca is finding a new audience through the music of a singer-songwriter who’s heading to Norwich.

Keiron Pim

Spanish fascists shot Federico Garcia Lorca in August 1936 and dumped his body in an unmarked grave.

In doing so they created an icon, as the already renowned young poet and playwright became a symbol of the indiscriminate crushing of opposition that accompanied General Franco's seizure of power from a democratically elected socialist government.

The regime banned his writing from publication in Spain but could not prevent its popularity gradually spreading worldwide. Now it is finding yet more admirers through being set to music by a British duo comprising a highly acclaimed singer-songwriter and double bassist.

Keith James and bassist Rick Foot bring their show The Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca to Norwich on October 21. The concert at Cinema City will see Lorca's poems transformed into songs, the inspiration for which dates to a holiday Keith took with his wife.

“The project came about by curious means,” says Keith, who lives in Kent. “My wife and I went on holiday to Andalusia. We were inspired to go there through a chap called Chris Stewart, who wrote a book called Driving Over Lemons, which is a little bit like A Year In Provence but set in Spain. He became a sheep farmer and bought a farm in the heart of Lorca country.

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“By sheer coincidence we ended up on holiday in a cottage in the next valley. We stayed there and loved the country. With all this I was completely taken in with everything to do with Garcia Lorca. I bought a few of his books and realised just how incredibly different and exotic the poetry was, even within the field of Spanish poetry.”

Poems such as Limonar (Lemon Grove) lent themselves to being turned into songs. Lorca's work is elemental and somehow identifiably Spanish in its mystical, pastoral explorations of love. There is a surreal streak - he was a friend of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel - and a winning directness. Take the poem Floating Bridge, with its refrain: “I know there is no straight road / No straight road in this world / Only a giant labyrinth / Of intersecting crossroads.”

That work featured as a song on Keith and Rick's first album of his poems, simply entitled Lorca, which was released to great praise last year. Coming in January will be a second CD in the project: Poet in New York, which takes its name from a collection Garcia Lorca wrote while studying at Columbia University in 1929-30. He had made his name in 1928 with his book of verse Romancero Gitano (The Gypsy Ballads). As a dramatist he is best known for Blood Wedding (1935); he became known for his support of popular theatre and it is thought that this, along with his homosexuality, led to his death at the hands of Franco's Nationalist militia at the age of 38.

With the exception of a song that combines two short poems, each of Keith's songs takes a single poem, translated into English with occasional Spanish choruses. He wrote the music in Spain because, he admits, “sitting around a kitchen table in Kent is never quite the same, no matter how much you close your eyes. There's something about hearing the cicadas in your ears, having a classical guitar in your hands and being on the veranda with a bottle of wine.”

Keith and Rick were last in Norwich with their show The Songs of Nick Drake, which presented their interpretations of the great English acoustic guitarist's work. This time, as well as focusing on Garcia Lorca, Keith and Rick will also perform songs by songwriters including Drake, Leonard Cohen and Tim Buckley who have been influenced by Garcia Lorca. Cohen is one of the few previous artists to have set the poet's work to music, in the form of his song Take This Waltz, and is such an admirer that he named his daughter Lorca Cohen.

This tour comes as Garcia Lorca has been in the news for another reason. After years of debate it has been decided to exhume his body from a mass grave where it is suspected to lie, and officially commemorate the man widely considered Spain's greatest 20th century poet. Some opponents of the move, including Lorca's descendants, fear that this will mark Lorca as being somehow distinct from the thousands of others who disappeared during Franco's long reign. Others have opposed the move from a different position - one of sympathy with the old regime and antagonism towards a perceived martyr of the left. It is an issue that has polarised opinions in Spain, showing how much Garcia Lorca continues to mean to people there more than 70 years after his death - as Keith says, “he is so important to Spanish poetry. As Dylan Thomas is to Wales, he is to Spain.”

After this concert tour it seems sure his work will exert a grip on a few more people over here as well.

t Keith James and Rick Foot perform The Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca at Cinema City, Norwich, at 8.30pm on Tuesday October 21. Tickets cost £12-14. Call the box office on 0871 704 2053. The event includes a documentary film about his life called A Death in Granada.

t For more information see www.keith-james.com and www.poemsofgarcialorca.com