Joan Manuel Serrat is one of the most prolific and respected members of the Spanish musical establishment, but in his early years as a musician he came into conflict with the machinery of censorship and repression of Franco’s regime.
Joan Manuel was born in a working class area of Barcelona to a Catalan father who was part of the Anarchist movement and a mother from Belchite in Aragon. In 1965 he graduated as an industrial surveyor in Tarragona, where at the same time he pursued his hobby of guitar playing and composing. In the same year he sang on the radio for the first time and was quickly offered a contract to produce his first record. At the time most of his work was in the Catalan language, which had been totally repressed under Franco. In the sixties these rules were relaxed a little, but Catalan was still unofficial and those who promoted it were regarded with suspicion.
Serrat formed part of a Catalan musical movement and subsequently came under criticism from them when in 1968 he recorded songs in standard Castilian Spanish. He justified this move by stating it was also part of his own heritage as his mother was from Aragón. The Spanish establishment became ambivalent in their treatment of Serrat, sometimes allowing him air-time on Spanish national television, and at other moments banning the distribution of his works.
One of the most famous incidents involving Serrat was when he was selected to represent Spain in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. The song in question was entitled “La La La” and Serrat insisted that he would sing the verses in Catalan. In the end he was replaced by Massiel who sang the song in Castilian Spanish and won the competition.
Whilst in Mexico in 1975 he spoke out publicly against the executions in Spain of five opponents of the regime accused of murder and asserted his sympathy for the Spanish Second Republic. Consequently his arrest was ordered by the Spanish authorities and he remained in exile in Mexico until after the death of Franco.
Serrat’s musical influences are wide and varied and he has also brought the works of many Spanish poets to the general public by setting them to music. Two of the most famous examples are Antonio Machado’s “Caminante No Hay Camino” (Walker, There is No Path) and Miguel Hernandez’s “Nana de la Cebolla” (The Onion Lullaby).
In recent years Serrat has overcome cancer of the bladder to tour Spain once more as a soloist and also with Joaquín Sabina in a dual performance entitled “Two Birds With One Stone”. His song “Mediterraneo” was recently voted the most popular Spanish song of all time.