Upon reaching the landing, the door waits open. In the hall, presiding over the entrance, the only thing that welcomes you is a large photo of his wedding with Nuri, the woman with whom he has shared life since he was 16 years old. Both young and handsome; he, thin and very tall, honoring the sarcastic nickname that has accompanied him since he was a teenager: Petitet (little).
Up those rods!
The house is dim, since the light bothers tired eyes afflicted with myasthenia gravis, a disease that weakens the muscles and therefore also makes it difficult to breathe and speak. No one answers the greetings and, like Ariadne’s red thread, it is the sound of the respirator and the rhythm of clapping that leads to the seat where this king of Catalan rumba rests.
Son of Peret’s palm player, Petitet has sucked rumba since he was born sixty years ago on Cera Street in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, where this musical style resounded on every corner. The Catalan rumba is the daughter of “the brotherhood of gypsies and payos”, he says. He, percussionist, voice and creator of songs that, like ‘Sarandonga’ by Lolita, have animated hundreds of evenings, now he barely speaks in whispers.
Myasthenia has alienated his body from the music he loves so much, since his muscles can no longer withstand the strain of playing or singing. But his soul is still rumbera and he continues composing. Although he never studied music and can’t read sheet music, the melody “pops into my head. I project it on the walls”, he explains with a small voice.
The disease took hold of him about five years ago, after the death of his mother. That loss affected him so much that he sold the flat on Carrer de la Cera because he couldn’t bear the memories of it. “I was in bed for three months. They thought he was crazy, but he wasn’t. I wasn’t depressed either, it’s just that he didn’t understand what was happening to me after my mother died,” he recalls.
“You have to take life as it comes,” he says, in one of those philosophical outbursts that characterize him. His mother taught him, many years before the word resilient came into vogue, not to complain about things he can’t change. “You have to be friends with the disease. I am, because I am very smart and I know that he is stronger than me. My illness speaks to me, and if he tells me not to do something, I don’t do it. Because if I don’t listen to him, I know he will finish me off”, he sentences.
The gypsy who brought the rumba to the Liceu
When talking about his mother, the serenity and lucidity about the meaning of life disappear to make way for tears. A tissue paper appears several times during the conversation to catch the tears hidden behind her sunglasses. “I cry a lot. Almost every morning. It’s the best there is, I wish he could have understood it before”, acknowledges this gypsy who, today, free of complexes, feels free to cry whenever he wants.
Petitet is a sensitive and faithful man to his people and their traditions. “We gypsies are gentlemen. We always look good and we always keep our promises,” he says. And it was a promise, nothing more and nothing less than his mother, the one that would mark one of the greatest milestones of his career. She swore to him on her deathbed that he would bring the Catalan rumba to the Liceu, one of the most prestigious and important opera houses in the world.
It seemed impossible to bring together the gypsies of the Raval and that music that comes from their blood and not from the academy, with artists trained in a conservatory, accustomed to the solemnity of the most classical pieces. “It was very complicated; in that orchestra salsa was missing everywhere. They looked at their papers, but the rumba is not in the scores, but in the heart”, recalls Petitet, with the tranquility of the successes achieved. “I didn’t want to play with the best musicians in the world. That didn’t matter to me. They had to be good people and feel the rumba. If they failed at either, they walked out the door.”
It seemed like an impossible dance partner, but Petitet made it work. She united the classical with the rumba, chaos with discipline, passion with technique. And it worked. Standing on stage, he directed a group of eighty musicians in front of a distinguished audience that, far from what is usually done with Verdi or Puccini, got up to dance, surrendered to some gypsies who burst into the opera house to play Peret or Gato Pérez. “On the third song, I turned around and told them ‘they’re already ours,’” recalls Petitet.
Neither money nor fame, just rumba
The success at the Liceu is corroborated by the documentary ‘Petitet (Rumba pa’ti)’ by Carles Bosch, which was awarded a Gaudí award in 2019. An award that this musician has in his house, but not displayed on a shelf, in view of visitors. No, Gaudí, like so many other prizes he has won, is in a room, forgotten. Literally. “Once I called Carles [Bosch] to ask for the prize, which the Liceu needed to take some photos and it turns out that I had it and I didn’t even remember it!”, says Petitet, choked with laughter.
Asked why, he assures that “these awards weigh a lot.” What do you mean? “Well, what is it going to be? fillet?. That they weigh, of weigh”. In the absence of a voice, he claps his hands to get Nuri’s attention and asks him to bring the award, like someone asking for a lid of olives to pour vermouth. “Look how heavy it is”, he insists, once we have it in front of us. “To endure these awards you have to be strong. That’s why I keep them hidden, because if I take them out into the living room, they still fall and break something. I don’t have shelves for this”, she says, laughing, surfing (consciously or not) between metaphor and literalness.
Petitet doesn’t like prizes or being recognized on the street. She doesn’t like money either. “Money comes and goes, but it is the ruin of this world. Not giving importance to it comes from my father, who bought gold with what he earned from bowling with Peret. You can keep that in a drawer until you need it,” he says, stroking the huge gold forget-me-nots that wrap around his arm. “Money is ruin,” he insists. For this reason, she wanted to dedicate her last song precisely to this topic.
‘La rumba dels calerons’ is a commission from 11Onze, a Catalan ethical bank. It is one of the many proposals that have been made in recent years, of which only a select few are accepted. “I liked them because they didn’t talk to me about money. I don’t care how much you can pay me, because if you make decisions in life based on money, you will end up making very serious mistakes, ”he says.
Petitet claims to have a clear conscience, because he is endorsed by two of his great advisers. On the one hand, God, who, despite not answering his prayers, communicates with him, letting him glimpse how his actions make him feel. “If God is sad, I know something bad is going to happen to me. If he is disappointed, it is because I was wrong”, he explains, very serious and convinced. The other endorsement of his behavior finds him in bed. “Do you know where the truth of life is? On the pillow. And, to me, what he tells me allows me to sleep peacefully”, affirms Petitet.
This king of Catalan rumba just wants peace. The one that brings you music and being with your loved ones. Although theirs are getting further and further away. In the Raval, which used to be a gypsy neighborhood full of goblins, less and less guitars are heard. “There are barely one or two families left, who will soon leave,” he says, remembering with nostalgia those evenings to the rhythm of the cajon and strings, with the greats of the rumba presiding over the long tables of the bars.
But in that “embalmed” neighborhood there are still palm trees. The ones he plays to call his wife, which are the same ones that made the choirs for Peret and so many other big names that now sound through Spotify at neighborhood parties. Because the rumba does not die, he “goes inside. The rumba is true, it is love, it is peace and, above all, it is a lady”, he affirms forcefully.
“The rumba, like the important things in this life, requires seriousness, respect and being well dressed. Handsome as a gypsy ”, says Petitet that, even on the way to a hospital admission, he wears a jacket, shirt and tie. Today, although he is sitting in his chair, tired and wearing a simple white T-shirt, he exudes joy and that patriarchal elegance. “In life you only need a roof and a plate. And a bit of rumba”, he sentences as he joins his hands in that gesture shared by both pious and clappers.