The Guitar Poet: Catalonia's Toti Soler
I was supposed to meet Toti Soler in one of his favorite places in the Gracia quarter of Barcelona, a classic Spanish bistro called Bilbao. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Catalan, so I had a friend come translate. We waited outside the restaurant at 8 pm, but Bilbao looked very closed with no signs of opening for at least another hour. Where was Toti?
In true Spanish form, no one was worried about it except me. I eventually checked my email, to which he'd sent a message saying he was down the street at a sushi restaurant. Sushi it was.
Sensitive, sweet, and funny, listening back to our conversation reminded me how wonderful of a connection we had. My questions were doled out through mouthfuls of sashimi and his colorful storytelling- in fabulous English, no less. So much for the translator!
TOTI SOLER IS, WITHOUT A DOUBT, CATALONIA'S PRIDE AND JOY. This unique region of Spain- four provinces in the northeast including Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleda- is known not just for the Pyrenees Mountains and Salvador Dalí, but has one of the oldest documented musical traditions in Europe, from medieval troubadours to opera to the Spanish classic repertoire. It has indeed served as a melting pot for the rest of Western Europe without compromising its own cultural identity.
Toti's music has taken him from Catalan folk hits of the 1960s through the Franco regime and the Nova Canço period, into today where he's validated for his innovative artistry. He is known as a guitarist, composer and performer for his generation: in 2006 he was awarded the "Creu de Sant Jordi,"one of the highest civil distinctions in Catalonia, amongst a long battery of lifetime achievement awards.
A true pioneer who has innovated Catalan guitar with worldly elements- jazz, flamenco, and poetry, Toti Soler has made music his profession for over 50 years. Our long night wove around around his life, the story of a man who’s had music- and Catalonia- in his soul since he was born.
SM: What was your childhood like? Did you grow up in a musical household?
TS: My real name is Jordi. My parents called me Jordi, but I didn’t like it. I remember saying to my mother, "I want Toti, not Jordi!" I have documents of my mother saying I wanted another name.
My great-grandfather was an opera singer. I have records from the mid-1900s in Italy, old records from a gramophone. Do you remember those? My father and grandfathers were musicians and doctors and my mother was a great piano player, but she died when I was 5 years old. I remember her getting mad with me because she gave me money to cut my hair, but I went to buy chocolates. Laughs.
SM: Chocolates! Shame on you.
TS: My brothers and my sons are musicians, and I’m sure my grandsons will be, too. There is music in all the family for generations. Music is the language for us. I discovered Miles Davis at 12. For me, it was a shock.
SM: Which album?
TS:Kind of Blue. This changed my life. Then, I discovered John Coltrane and many of the jazz musicians. Also Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan. I made a group in Spain with this style. We were called PIC-NIC with the singer Jeanette. We had a hit called "Cállate Niña". We were #1 in the US in 1967. SM: A man after my own heart. I grew up on Peter Paul & Mary, and John Coltrane.
TS: At the same time I studied classical guitar in the Conservatorium. Music was everywhere, and I never asked what I was going to do with my life. It was music for my life.
SM: You can hear the sensitivity and intuition of your approach to music, it is so unique. What is your composing process?
TS: The words are first. I take a poem and set it to music. Then I make a real piece for guitar- maybe I only have a short part for the poem- and play very slowly, so I make a concert in the back. The poem is its own music and the music helps the poem. That's it. Songs and poems.
SM: That's beautiful. What’s the favorite poem you have set to music?
Li Bai is a Chinese poet from 700 years ago. I translated the poem "Moon, Shadow and Me" first to English, then to Catalan, called "Petita Festa." But one of my favorite songs to play is Vida Sacreta, “My Secret Life.”
“There is music in all the family for generations. Music is the language for us.”
SM: Now for the important question: what kind of guitar do you play?
TS: I have a Swiss Guitar by Philippe Jean-Mairet. It's a classical-flamenco mix. For a time I lived in Bern.
SM: Bern! The home of alphorns and hang drums. I can’t wait to go there.
TS: Bern was great. I made a record there and was given the Catalan award 'Premi al Millor Disc Català de l'Any' for that album. [Catalonia's version of the Grammys]
SM: Tell me about your relationship with Taj Mahal. He is one of the States’ most iconic blues musicians.
TS: I was 20 years old, I met him on Ibiza through a friend I was working with. Taj was on tour in Europe and came over to Ibiza. The first rhythmically-strong experience I had was with him. I played bass for an hour straight. Afterwards he gave me a massage because I was so sore. My hand was completely destroyed! This was during the same time Jimi Hendrix died.
SM: Well, that’s pretty cool, Taj Mahal giving you a massage the night you find out Jimi Hendrix died.
TS: Laughs. Then when Taj came to Barcelona, we’d hook up and play together. One week we played in Madrid and he said, "This time you play guitar and I play bass." He was like a train!
SM: What's next for Toti?
TS: I am now making a translation of a Schubert song that we will sing in Catalan. Gemma Humet is an up-and-coming Catalan singer who is singing with me now. I have also been working on older songs, songs that I have had for the past 10 years, and am planning to record those.
SM: You really were one of the first here to fuse all of these global styles together.
TS: I mixed the classical technique and modern harmony with jazz. The classical sound is very round and clean, and the Flamenco sound is more powerful, pounding. Flamenco comes from the south, from the Andalusian triangle- Seville, Fronterra and Candio. [But at the end of the day] I know I'm not a Flamenco player, or a blues player. It’s not my music. I'm Catalan.