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Fans bid goodbye to Spanish music legend Joan Manuel Serrat on his farewell tour

Thousands of fans have showed up across the U.S., Spain and Latin America to see legendary singer Joan Manuel Serrat on his farewell tour.
Tania Victoria/Secretary of Culture of Mexico City
Thousands of fans have showed up across the U.S., Spain and Latin America to see legendary singer Joan Manuel Serrat on his farewell tour.

Updated November 23, 2022 at 3:05 PM ET

At Mexico City's biggest outdoor venue, El Zócalo, legendary singer Joan Manuel Serrat is performing. I'm pinching myself, I can't believe I'm seeing him for the first time, in the heart of my homeland.

Since late April, the 78-year-old has been performing on a farewell tour across the U.S., Spain and Latin America.

After the first song, he told the audience to "put aside any hint of nostalgia and melancholy, from now on, everything is the future." Then, Serrat sang Barquito de Papel ("Little Paper Boat"). The song took me back to my childhood. I was overcome with emotion and started crying.

My late sister, Esther, introduced me to Serrat's music in our home in the '60s. His singular style immediately caught my ear. In the '70s, I started buying every album I could find at record stores, including Dedicado a Antonio Machado, poeta.

As I began to appreciate Serrat, I was especially intrigued by his bilingual identity. His songs in Spanish were profound but the ones in Catalan were a revelation. I'd sit at home in the living room with the gatefold open, listening and quietly singing along, trying to figure out the pronunciation of songs such as Pare ("Father"), a composition about the environment.

One of his biggest hits, Mediterráneo established him as a major pop music figure worldwide. The lyrics say, "I'm a singer, I'm a liar, I like playing and drinking, I have the soul of a sailor. What can I do, if I was born in the Mediterranean."

Music critic Enrique Blanc has followed Serrat's career for decades. He says Serrat looks at the world from a critical point of view.

"What's unique in Serrat's songs is the ways he employs language," Blanc explains. "In that field, I can make a comparison with Bob Dylan. Serrat's lyrics are created with a lot of imagination, but also a precise use of the Spanish language. His songs not only offer beautiful poetry, unforgettable melodies, but a useful philosophy of life. His integrity reminds me of Bruce Springsteen: an artist that not only is talented but truthful. In a lot of ways, he has been a role model for thinkers, poets and writers that live in Spanish-speaking countries."

After Serrat's performance in Mexico City, I talked to a couple sitting behind me. Francisco Alcántara and Rocío Alvarado have been listening to his songs since the early '80s, but this was their first Serrat concert. Alvarado couldn't contain her excitement.

"This is the essence of living, it's as simple as that," she says. "There are no more words, it's like the Serrat song I always mention to my husband, "Hoy Puede Ser un Gran Día." That's how one must live, like the last day and wait for tomorrow."

Alcántara has attended concerts by Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and Cuba's Silvio Rodríguez, but he says Serrat tops them. "It's the intensity of the crowd. Of course, I like him a lot, but Serrat surrenders, he has a lot of feeling, he recites the songs like poems. The truth is, he's a completely different artist."

I love all of Serrat's songs but Elegía ("Eulogy") is close to my heart. Every time I listen to it, I remember my late sister Esther, who introduced me to Serrat when I was eight years old. I'm glad I got a chance to see him for the first and last time. Gracias, Serrat.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat performing in Mexico City, Mexico.
/ Tania Victoria/Secretary of Culture of Mexico City
Tania Victoria/Secretary of Culture of Mexico City
Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat performing in Mexico City, Mexico.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.