She strolls through the backstage area sipping green tea. Fresh from her bath, she cradles the cup with both hands like a fledgling. She steps slowly. Serene. Elegant. Barefoot. It is 5pm in Sitges and it’s hot. She is wearing round sunglasses. We watch her extract a couple of small bottles of water from the refrigerator. My friend Gemma and I are thinking she must be thirsty. But, with an honest smile, she walks straight up to us and offers us the bottles. Although we have only just met, like buoys on the sea, her generosity and humility are already beacons. We sit on the pallet sofa, alongside the other musicians who will perform with her during one of the concert’s most special moments. We rehearse the song without microphones. A guitar and four voices. We start to sing ‘Als teus ulls’ (‘In your eyes’), the original Peter Gabriel song adapted to Catalan by Mario Muñoz, which is dedicated to the freedom of the political prisoners and the rights of Catalonia.
Standing under some trees post-rehearsal, Joan Baez tells us that tomorrow she plans to visit Carme Forcadell, the presiding officer of the Catalan parliament, in jail, in the company of Bill Shipsey, the founder of Amnesty International’s Art for Amnesty. I can feel myself choking up as she starts talking about my dear friend Carme. Discretely, I edge to the back of the group and attempt to shield my tears with my long hair. But Joan, whose gaze always goes beyond the horizon, still picks me out. With the index finger of her right hand she points to her own eyes. ‘Don’t worry’ - she tells me in English in a limp voice – ‘I am emotional too’. She comes to me and hugs me. And I let her. I hug her back, and she allows herself to be embraced. And together we weep at the shared sadness of injustice. And a beautiful silence ensues while she caresses my hair and my back. And that is all I can recall ...
Evening is now upon us and it’s time to get ready for the concert, which is part of the Terramar Festival, on the shore of the Mediterranean. After a while, Joan leaves her dressing room to say to me: write down your name and national ID number for me please. I am going to see if you can come along with me tomorrow to visit your friend Carme. She winks at me, strokes my cheek for a second, and returns whence she came. With a shaky hand I manage to jot down the details. A few minutes later I hand the paper to her. Night falls, the concert takes place. Mario, Eva and I sing with her. At midnight, the show over, all is calm again backstage. I am just on my way home when I hear her call to me: Montse, she says - holding my shoulders and looking directly into my eyes - please be at my hotel at 9.30am tomorrow. It’s just next door. We’ll go together. I could only nod a yes, smile, and say thanks to her. No, I wasn’t able to get much sleep!
A radio show with Carme Forcadell
Our car journey to the prison at Catllar in Tarragona goes by amidst pleasant and enriching chats. The visit is occurring within the context of a cultural activity at the jail: a workshop consisting of making a radio programme, which is a regular event involving female and male prisoners, including Carme. As we enter the events room we see her immediately, amidst the people taking their seats. Joan Baez gives her a gentle hug at the foot of the stage. Their gazes meet, their understanding is mutual. What a scene! ... What a pair of great women! I think to myself. They talk briefly, before Joan steps aside, revealing to Carme that, by surprise, I am also with her. The look in her eyes when she sees me ... and our friendship, and the river Ebro we share and love! And the hug that remains entrenched in my soul. We couldn’t have clung more tightly to each other. The feel of our skin. Our touch.
And the radio programme gets underway. The stage is the studio, and there are about twenty of us sitting in a circle, with the rest of the people in the seats below. Up top, Carme is flanked by Joan to her right and me to the left. Bill Shipsey sits close by. We go live. The participants sing the programme’s intro. A prisoner picks up his guitar and dedicates a song to Joan Baez, who, again barefoot, gets up to dance in the most natural manner. A woman presents her with a gift of earrings she has made by hand, and Joan straight away removes the ones she is wearing and puts them on. They seem bespoke ones. And she would keep them on right through the day.
‘I know we made Carme Forcadell happy, but it pains me to have to leave the prison without her’
I translate her answers to the questions asked by other inmates. Another young man takes up his guitar and begins to sing El sitio de mi recreo (my place of release) by Antonio Vega. I’ll return to the place where I was born… Yes, everyone wants home… and we improvise a rendition of the song. I take Carme’s hand. She grips mine tightly and doesn’t let go. I continue my duet with the young male inmate. The whole time, Baez has her attention fixed on Forcadell. Gestures, words, looks. A guy who has his limbs covered with tattoos clams up in front of Joan. He had wanted to ask something, but his voice goes, and he starts to weep softly. He has so much to say to her, but the words just won’t come out… Joan hugs him too. The programme is drawing to a close, but she doesn’t want to leave without singing for everyone. She dons her trademark finger picks and begins strumming and singing: Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto… and folk clap along and sing with her. I get goose bumps and put my arm around Carme’s shoulders. She does the same. Another woman says to Joan: thanks for coming. It says a lot about you, as someone who has sung at the White House for the US president, that you are here today to sing for us. We finally make our exit via the endless concrete yard, gazing fixedly at the solitary figure of Carme walking back to her module, until we lose sight of her. One of the prison managers asks me to inquire of Joan how she has felt during the visit. Her response is: tell him, good, that I know we made her happy, but that it’s very painful to have to leave without her… Silence prevails during the return trip.
The woman who speaks with the thunder
Saturday comes and it’s time for Joan Baez’s last concert in Catalonia. Sant Feliu de Guíxols. Festival Porta Ferrada. Rain is threatening, there’s intermittent thunder all afternoon and everywhere is drenched. We have arranged to meet at 17.30. An hour beforehand I receive a message: Come earlier, it’s raining here, but at the concert venue I have some shelter and a hot coffee waiting. Gradually, our fellow musicians start arriving. Today we are with Leo and Liz too. At about 19.00, once the soundcheck is done, Joan makes a beeline for me and asks me to accompany her to her dressing room for a moment. I would like you to help me with something, she announces. I’m thinking that she probably wants me to translate the odd sentence or that she would like my assistance to pronounce the Catalan she is making such an effort to speak. I enter, we sit down on a little sofa and she picks up a guitar with her name engraved on it. Would you help me sing 'El preso número nueve' (prisoner number nine) tonight?. As I process the question, pinching my arm in my mind, she guesses my response with her look and, smiling, starts to play the chords. You know what? At my age, I can no longer sing certain of the high notes. I heard you singing at the prison yesterday, improvising with that young guy. I love your voice and think we could do it together and share the melody between us. What do you say? Shall we give it a go? You can never say no to Joan Baez, I reply to her.
"I love your voice: would you help me to sing El preso número nueve tonight?"
Without knowing quite how I got there, I find myself singing with her, just the two of us, in her dressing room. A mutual calling, shared music, complicity. Chatting about songs, Catalonia, my grandparents, her passion for meditation, nature, life, justice. There are four hours to go until the concert and with the clock ticking down I start to study the song. There is no time for dinner. But I am already full up, with happiness. I call a few girlfriends: Hey girls, girls, you are not going to believe this! And no, they did not believe it. That was no surprise, as I didn’t either! At the age of 43, I feel like having children, just to be able to tell my grandchildren about this! And they laugh. Me too.
A while goes by and I find myself alone in the backstage artists-only area. People go for a bite whilst technicians attempt to dry out everything. From time to time, Joan Baez calls me back to her dressing room and we rehearse the song, intertwine our voices, smile. Yes, gracias a la vida. You bet! Outside there is thunder and torrential rain, but I am not even aware of it. We are in a special microclimate. I make a mental note to retain everything, to record it all in slo-mo on my heart’s retina. The yearned-for rain has made its appearance at the most inappropriate time, and the concert is within a whisker of being called off. The audience patiently snakes around the building, wrapped in waterproofs and clutching an array of multi-coloured umbrellas.
At the most delicate moment, in meteorological terms, the great American singer-songwriter reappears: Montse, come with me, please. I do so. There’s an aroma of incense. Let’s meditate together to make the rain go away. I put my hands in hers. We close our eyes. Water falls heavily on the tin roof of the dressing room. Ask your grandparents for help too, we need all the energy we can summon. And we remain in silence for I am not sure how long. I lose my awareness of time. We feel the warmth in the palms of our intertwined hands. At a certain moment, she gives me a peck on the forehead, we look at each other, we smile, and I leave her on her own once more.
It is true there was a delay of practically one hour, but the concert took place. Fully. It did not rain again. Not a drop. Moreover, the sky cleared totally. She was watched over by the stars during her last concert in Catalonia, which was her last-but-one show ever. We will all have our own thoughts. I can only say that this lady has spectacular, wonderful and contagious energy, that she can speak with thunderclaps and rain, and it would appear that they pay attention to her! The songs flowed, her velvety voice enchanted. Our duet was unforgettable and will resonate inside me forever. The audience cried Llibertat! (freedom) and Txell Bonet, the wife of Jordi Cuixart, was in the audience. When the concert was over, Joan Baez wanted to speak with Txell, and invited her to her dressing room. Caressing her already-large tummy, she looked lovingly at her and they chatted. Joan Baez comforts folk and makes them happy with her mere presence.
A living legend has decided to quit performing for good. At the age of 78, her voice has told her it’s time to stop. Attentive to her body and soul, she has done just this. Not just anyone can have a career spanning sixty years. But she will never retire her commitment. Her energy will not cease. Her sensitivity enshrouds us. She is a lady of light. You cannot go back to being your old self after meeting someone like Joan Baez. She improves you. She is one of the indispensable people. For this reason we shall miss her, and we love her because of this. From hereon in we will have to listen to her voice and the answer blowin’ in the wind.
Translated by Salomé Aguilar and Robert Strange.