Ávila is a city of walls — raised with both, fear and pride. It is home to some of the most important mystics and saints of the Christian empire. And cops, lots of them.
Located northwest of the Spanish capital Madrid, in the vast autonomous community of Castile and León, the historical city of Ávila was also the city chosen by the Kosovar classical guitarist Petrit Çeku to record his personal take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suites.
An essential composition better known for the cello than guitar, it was a Catalan cellist, Pau Casals, who rescued an edition of the scripts from oblivion when he found them while perusing a shop filled with musical scores. He eventually recorded them, decades later, with the Spanish Civil War in the background and his interpretation became, and remains, one of the most memorable accounts of Bach’s suites.
Casals was a vocal Catalan, who after receiving the Peace Medal at the heart of the United Nations in 1971, with his country still under the hands of Franco, delivered the speech “I am a Catalan,” in defence of Catalonia as a peaceful nation.
Whether he’s a fan of Casals or Russian cellist Rostropovich, Çeku is himself a guitarist. In 2014, he decided to record Bach’s Cello Suites, as arranged by Valter Dešpalj, for Eudora Records, a Spanish independent label. To register this moment of his career, Çeku invited along a Kosovar filmmaker and a dear friend, Kaltrina Krasniqi, to witness and document the creative rollercoaster of his enterprise.
The recordings were to be made in the auditorium of the Church of San Francisco, an acoustically perfect space for the sound of a guitar, only a few meters outside of the 11th century walls that protect Ávila’s old town.
Home to the National Police academy, the small city of Ávila receives around 3,000 trainee policemen annually. This setup was to become the scenario for a clandestine filmmaking experience for Krasniqi, who is only in possession of a Kosovar passport — a useless piece of paper for the Spanish authorities, that to date do not recognise Kosovo, to the point of not dispatching visas to Kosovar citizens.
Krasniqi’s film, “Sarabande,” is one filmed while being illegal. But if a guitarist can bring Bach and his universality back from the dead, can the force of a state really stop the force of people moving their whole being across continents?
While Çeku was in possession of a Croatian passport alongside his Kosovar one and could legally travel to Spain, for Krasniqi the cost of documenting the intimate process of Çeku’s recording involved taking the risks of an illegal journey. Her trip to Spain could have had a number of different, untested consequences: from a passport ban, to time spent in a detention center, to a forced deportation or, at the very least an unwanted early “voluntary” return if things went south. But, if nobody noticed, perhaps two cultures would meet.
Armed with a Schengen visa that clearly stated “–ES” (which means, the visa does not allow you to travel to Spain) the pair departed from Prizren to Zagreb and arrived to Lisbon, Portugal, in November 2014.
After an arrangement with a local Portuguese friend to pick up a rented car and pay for it with a Portuguese credit card, Krasniqi and Çeku drove northeast and arrived at their hotel in Ávila, where Krasniqi lied about having forgotten her passport in the country of fado to avoid any identification. The luxuries of travelling across the EU: no borders, you just drive in.
Filming in these circumstances, Krasniqi tells me, was uncomfortable. Lies and extreme caution became part of the journey, as eager young policemen in uniform are highly present and, being in a world heritage city, licenses to film are mandatory. Requests for documentation were a real possibility, not just a product of the paranoia that clandestinity can cause. Filming in the streets was reduced to early morning and late evening.
Despite these circumstances, the viewer shall notice that “Sarabande” is not a film about clandestinity.
Delicately pieced together with smooth editing and close up camera work by Krasniqi in Spain, shots of Çeku’s native Prizren easily blend with the Iberian peninsula, and a country left to become Europe’s ghetto finds its path to universality in the Spanish church, where Bach’s cello suites are revived through Çeku’s guitar.
Through the film and by witnessing Çeku’s recording, the viewer will also learn some unhidden stories behind the composition: Did Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, actually co-write or write the pieces?
The controversy surrounding this question has raised fury among scholars for decades, something that, for Krasniqi, is simply a reminder that #TimeIsUp and #MeToo stories, and the similar debates on the imbalanced relations between men and women and gender identities outside the norm have been happening across centuries and cultures, and are as timeless as Bach and the closing of borders or the underlying reality of the saraband itself.
Indeed, the saraband dance, as Krasniqi says, hides an underlying story of superiority within its transformation.
With still unclear origins, the saraband is traced back to a Panamanian poem of the 16th century, and it seems as though Spanish colonists danced it in Central America and brought it from there across the Atlantic. A Spanish Jesuit priest writing about public amusements once described it as “a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people.”
The fast and dynamic dance eventually became slow and contemplative, and the slow court dance would arrive in the hands of Bach in the early 18th century, when he wrote several sarabands as part of his unaccompanied Cello Suites. Sarabands would also be transformed and composed by other geniuses up until the modern age: from the baroque Handel, to the impressionist Claude Debussy, and the avant-gardist Erik Satie.
Talking about the transformation of the dance, especially in its early years, Krasniqi is clear: “It’s a position of superiority that brings that logic into place — where a particular piece of music is taken from one continent to another and this one is much more conservative and feels that if you want this in public it needs to be treated by our own rules…”