Pigs’ Cheeks, Paso Dobles and Seamed Stockings


“Y per mults anys!” (“Many happy returns!”)

Basil Howitt relives a magnificent soirée in Banyuls-sur-Mer celebrating a revered Catalan musician’s 85th birthday.

I have become an ardent fan of a saxophonist for the first time in my life. The other Saturday I became hooked on the playing and persona of Ely Buxeda as he celebrated in music his 85th birthday at the cavernous Salle Bartissol in Banyuls-sur-Mer, close to the Spanish border. I was hooked not only on Ely, but also on his gorgeous chanteuse Samira, dusky, frizzy-haired, lithe – and clearly a happy mother as she sported a baby in her arms between her numbers. I might even go silly and add a mugshot of myself to the 108 photos already posted on the fan page of Ely’s website.

Gleaming saxes, gleaming pate

It was a soirée to die for: first and foremost for Ely’s saxo-sound – by turns soft, honeyed, silky, liquid, and full blown, with heavenly vibratos and immaculate breath control. You can hear him now in romantic mood on his website playing Sydney Bechet’s lovely tune Petite Fleur. Another bonus was the finesse and artistry of all Ely’s performing friends, too many to mention save three: the Catalan singing legend in his own lifetime, 87-year-old Jordi Barre; an exquisitely refined accordion player, Jean-Paul Sire; and a discreet and tasteful pianist, Jo Biskup.

On top of all this there was the scrumptious cuisine familale, the dancing until late into the night, and the friendly crowd. We seem to have been the only English couple there in a gathering of maybe 600. And yet so many people went out of their way to make us welcome during the evening. Is there a more friendly people anywhere on earth than the Catalans?

Catalan dress

We are fairly certain that a charming elderly lady in traditional Catalan dress had been detailed to make sure we felt at home. She was wearing a long full black skirt, a white blouse, a black tasselled shawl, a coloured sash with her sardane team badge, and a white lace snood. Not only did she come up to us several times during the evening for a chat: she bade us farewell with a warm embrace and a “do come again”.
We will, we will!

Dance band pedigree

If your French is reasonable you can read a biographical sketch of Ely by Louis Baills (see below). Otherwise, perhaps the most important aspects of his career to mention are that his father gave him a solid theoretical and practical grounding during his childhood in Banyuls; that he played in the French Fleet’s Military Band, then later at the White House in front of Roosevelt; and that he worked with two top French variety bands in the 40s, one directed by Fred Adison, the other by Jacques Hélian.

Never give up the day job!

Another key aspect of Ely’s career is that even though he must have made a good living as a musician, he never gave up the day job! – just like Mozart’s brilliant horn player Joseph Leutgeb, who took over his father-in-law’s cheese shop in readiness for economic downturns or for when his lip gave out. Over the decades Ely has been a rope maker, a vigneron, a dock-worker at Port-Vendres and a transbordeur at Cerbère (humping freight from Spanish gauge stock to French). He has also owned bicycle, TV and radio shops, a taxi-ambulance service, a bowling alley, a music school – and even a swish restaurant in Banyuls awarded 2 coques or chef’s hats.

Madame Olmo

Getting tickets for this shindig was quite a palaver. I rang a Banyuls number given in L’Indépendant and was greeted with a cascade of Catalan sing-song pleasantries. Eventually this marvellous lady realised I only had imperfect French. By dint of her infinite patience I managed to book two tickets and send the money to a house in a charmingly named street in Banyuls, Cami Canta Cigala or street of the cicada’s song.

Marimunt: kitchen smells to die for!

Catalan starting times tend to be a little approximate, so when we arrived quite late at the Salle Bartissol around 5.00pm the concert part of the evening was just getting under way. As Madame Olmo showed us to our place settings, the first thing that hit us was not the music but the incredibly pungent odours from the open kitchen at the back of the hall. Just imagine! About 600 pigs’ cheeks were being gently simmered with 1,200 langoustines and well over 2,000 mussels. This dish is called marimunt – deriving from sea (mar) and mountain (munt). We soon broke the ice with our neighbours who filled us in on the supporting musicians (“Jordi is 87½ and has been married three times”), their own families and careers.


As the aperitif came round in jugs with crisps and succulent, fat olives, a friendly retired gendarme on our left explained what planteur was: an easily made rum based cocktail. Here are the ingredients to be thoroughly mixed:

1 litre of white rum
1 bottle of sirop (liquidised sugar cane)
1 litre of orange juice
a good pinch of cinnamon
the juice of a lime – ice cubes (optional)

Naturally the huge team of volunteers made sure our plastic beakers were replenished! Next came a starter of beautifully dressed salade de gésiers (duck’s giblets), then the marimunt with a delicately spiced rice, all generously accompanied by a delicious rosé and a Vin de Pays Rouges Les Serettes from Lesquerde. After the cheeses and patisserie, the corks of a blanc de blanc bubbly started popping …

Frou-frou and fishnet

Even before eating had finished, almost everyone leapt from their seats and joined in the dancing. Highlights of this were the heavenly accordion playing and the enticing displays of frou-frou skirts, seamed stockings – and even fishnets too! The expert dancers of the tango and paso doble made us feel guilty to be on the same floor. But the whole point was that nobody minded as long as we were enjoying ourselves. The evening ended with tears of happiness as Ely walked among the tables playing all the while and smiling benevolently on us all. Then he came once more and just talked.
Une soirée epoustouflante (mind blowing)!

. © 2008 Basil Howitt

Basil Howitt has also written
Life in a Penguin Suit] (Camerata Productions 1993)
Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound and Vision 1995)
Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Loves and Lusts of the Great Composers] (Robson Books 1998)
More Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound And Vision 2002)
Walter and His Daughters: The Story of the Carroll Family of Manchester (Forsyth Brothers Ltd 2005)


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