Joaquín Sabina: ‘Ni juglar del asfalto, ni el Dylan español’

BAS editor Helen Laurenson celebrates the academic pedigree of Sabina’s lyrics – and their appearance in the 2022 Pre-U exam.

In the lyrics of the song Lo Niego Todo of the 2017 album of the same name, the Spanish cantautor Joaquín Sabina constructs an ironic self-portrait which attempts to dismantle in a pointedly self-conscious way the iconic status he enjoys in la cultura del morbo. His well-documented struggle with drugs, fidelity, love, politics and his own mortality are lyrically expressed and catalogued – ‘Ni profeta del vicio / ni héroe en las barricadas / ni el Dylan español / ni rojo del salón / si me cuentas mi vida, lo niego todo’. As a lyrical selfie, these verses allude to El Flaco’s trajectory over more than 30 studio albums and fifty years.

Sabina has provided the soundtrack to the lives of many – in Spain, Latin America and beyond – functioning as a social commentator of the historic, social and political changes since the death of Franco in 1975. Sabina occupies the interface between poetry and song, and, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a true juglar, as Joaquín Barrero observes:

Muy de vez en cuando, de la tierra yerma surge un juglar capaz de heñir los buenos sones de lo impalpable y regalárnoslos con adobos para que nuestro caminar por el misterio nos resulte más grato. Hablo de Joaquín Sabina.[1]

Whilst Sabina belongs to the same generation as the established cantautores of the 1960s, such as Joan Manuel Serrat and Luis Eduardo Aute, his political exile in London from 1970 channeled his musical formation more towards Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones than Georges Brassens and the canciones de protesta. Sabina himself admits,

No entendí una palabra de lo que decía [Dylan], pero tuve claro que me estaba hablando a mí. Su manera personal de jugar con la fonética, de escupir las palabras, de frasearlas, consiguió que aquel poeta que yo entonces quería ser decidiese convertirse en músico. Sobra decir que Dylan me cambió la vida; él es un poeta torrencial, un maestro del caos.[2]

In the same article, Sabina states that, as regards lyric composition, ‘yo soy más académico’.  As Francisco Domínguez has noted,

Sabina es un compositor muy leído, y por eso son perfectamente rastreables en sus poemas las huellas y las formas de autores muy importantes de la tradición literaria española, como Quevedo o Valle-Inclán. [3]

Sabina’s first studio album, Inventario (1978) was released at a time of desencanto, when ‘Culture lost its contestatory political function as Spaniards could now have their say via the ballot box’. 4 To a degree, political stability was the catalyst for much of Sabina’s material, much of which is an eternal quest as to how to live and love successfully (or unsuccessfully). Nothing new there as regards the content of the vast majority of popular songs in most Western countries. However, as Emilio Miguel Martínez observes, ‘Sabina ha contribuido a dotar de inhabitual calidad literaria a un buen número de sus canciones que han gozado y gozan de enorme éxito’ [5] This view is shared by Justo Zamora, who wrote his 2020 doctoral thesis on ‘Estética literaria en la obra de Joaquín Sabina: Simbología de la desesperación en el cancionero’.  According to him, ‘Sabina es un genio, pero un genio muy trabajado’. The hispanist Wolfram Aichinger elaborates on this, stating, ‘el arte poético de nuestros tiempos está en las letras de los mejores cantautores. Sus imágenes y metáforas tienen tanto ingenio como las de Góngora o Machado’.

The 1996 song ‘Contigo’ is an apposite example of the essential hibridez sabiniana.  Knowledge of neither Quevedo nor César Vallejo is needed to understand or enjoy the lyrics; however, the recognition of literary antecedents only deepens the listener’s engagement. The impossibility of love and the dismanteling of Amor Cortés conventions, along with the initial cruel tone, links these lyrics to the conceptismo of Quevedo, with its direct tone, wordplay and metaphors:

Y morirme contigo si te matas
Y matarme contigo si te mueres
Porque el amor cuando no muere mata

Porque amores que matan nunca mueren

The deconstruction of the text reveals anaphora, yo no quiero, metonyms yo no quiero cargar con tus maletas, metaphorical antithesis, ni libre ni ocupado and the ablative absolute, corazón cobarde. Indeed, this ability to lyricise the everyday – la muerte pasa en ambulancias blancas from ‘Pongamos que hablo de Madrid’ (1980) – is a central feature of Sabina’s work, affirmed by Zamora who says, ‘[Sabina mezcla] ideas abstractas con objetos concretos para construir una imagen poderosa que te trastoca a nivel emocional’. [6]

The inclusion of the lyrics of Joaquín Sabina in the final cycle of the Cambridge Pre-U Spanish syllabus in 2022 was a bold and visionary move. The cohorts to whom I have taught these ingenious lyrics, whilst initially sceptical, grew to appreciate and love them to such an extent that they became veritable trotamundos in search of concert opportunities from Madrid to Buenos Aires.  Their generation has now had the chance to write exam answers on, for example, whether love is primarily a source of conflict and disillusionment in Sabina’s lyrics; or whether compassion or comedy is the more significant feature of his work.

The last word should go to a sabinero who shouted at Sabina in the street, ‘¡Maestro, que no nos muera!’. Sabina says that the word that touched him the most here was nos.

1 Joaquín M Barrero, ‘El cantor de los tiempos de espera’ in Javier Menéndez Fores, Sabina. No amanece jamás (Barcelona: Blume, 2016), p.60.

2 Joaquín Sabina, ‘Poeta torrencial, maestro del caos’, El País, 14 October, 2016.

3 Sabina. A Boca Abierta.

4 Fernán de Val and Stuart Green, ‘Transitions of the Cantautor: Aesthetics, Politics and Authenticity in Spanish Popular Music from the Late Franco Dictatorship to the Present Day’, in The Singer-Songwriter in Europe. Paradigms, Politics and Place (Routledge: London, 2016)

5 Emilio Miguel de Martínez, Concierto Privado (Visor: Madrid, 2008), p.11.

6 Javier de Pedro, ‘Las letras de Sabina son poesía’, Última Hora, 29 September, 2020,