Clara Sanabras knows something about exile. The thirty-something Catalan singer was born in France, raised in Barcelona and for the past 20 years has lived in London. Her family history is so complicated that even she finds it a bit amusing. Her career path has had enough unlikely turns for an entire music festival.
So it is appropriate that her new album and her American performing debut on July 20 should have as their shared theme Spanish songs of exile, drawing on everything from Catalan to Ladino, from John Donne to her own great-grandfather.
“When I reflect on the songs on this album, on the history behind them, it makes me value the fact that I’ve had a choice about where I live,” Sanabras said last week in a telephone interview from her home in Stoke Newington. “I’ve always embraced whatever place I was in, and I’ve always been a hybrid. The exiles I’m singing about didn’t have a choice.”
It was music that brought her to London, a young classical pianist looking to study early music.
“When I hear early polyphony, that’s where my heart is at,” she confessed. “I’ve always been obsessed with medieval and baroque music, and that’s what brought me to London, because people told me that if I wanted to study early music, this was the place to go.”
It was that fascination that led her to learn to play the lute and then a succession of other period instruments, which, in turn, led her to Arabic music, which led her to a wide range of folk music, which led her to songwriting, which … you get the idea.
“It’s kind of schizo, but very fruitful,” Sanabras said laughing.
Her speaking voice, like her singing voice, is rich and dark, her accent a beguiling mix of Stoke Newington and Catalonia.
The spark for the new album was a gift from her mother, a book of poems by the Catalan poet Joan Llongueras, Clara’s great-grandfather.
“I opened it to the first page and there was a line that gave me the title of the song and the album, ‘Scattered Flight,’ ‘el vol dispers.’”
“To me that is a universal image,” Sanabras said quietly. “I had learned a lot about exile from Spain here in England — more than I could learn in Spain, because it wasn’t censored in England.”
She learned Sephardic songs from a close friend, a Moroccan Jew. The Catalan songs were in her blood. She wanted to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway and was grabbed by the phrase that he took as the title of his novel of the Spanish Civil War, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“I hadn’t realized until I looked it up that the title actually came from John Donne,” she said. “But Donne’s words say it all, so I sat down and set it to music.”
Asked if there is something in Spanish history or culture that seems to engender a particular need for exile, she paused.
She then refers to the legendary period of peaceful coexistence in which Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together on the Iberian Peninsula in relative harmony and intellectual ferment.
“I think that this era has been romanticized a bit, but you had the biggest minds of Europe living together and learning from each other,” Sanabras said. “Then it was all destroyed by the Catholic Church and the Crown.”
She feels a particular affinity for the songs of the Sephardic diaspora. “They are mathematically perfect; they conjure up the harmony of the stars,” she said.
Her family bloodlines are not only Catalan; she counts among her many forebears Roma and Sinti and even Sioux. She doesn’t know of any specific Jewish ancestors but suspects that, given the workings of Spanish history there probably are some.
“If they are there, they would have converted during the time of the Inquisition,” Sanabras speculates. “My grandmother looked extremely Jewish, and she didn’t know for sure the family roots, when they became Catholic.”
At least one prominent Jewish author must have had a similar suspicion. When he began work on his BBC television series “The Story of the Jews,” Simon Schama and his musical director invited Sanabras to provide songs for the program’s soundtrack.
“It was serendipitous,” she says. “Simon had been at work on the project on and off for many years and I had worked with his musical director before. They wanted music to illustrate the history and I was particularly happy with the medieval episodes.”
As for “El Vol Dispers,” Sanabras says the album, although designed to focus on the more intimate aspects of exile rather than the political ones, has a clear message.
“I want this music to carry a message of hope,” she says. “A message that life is enhanced by solidarity and coexistence.”
Clara Sanabras will make her American debut on Sunday, July 20 at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St.) at 7 p.m. For information go to http://joespub.publictheater.org. Her album “El Vol Dispers (Scattered Flight): Songs of Spanish Exile” is released on the Smudged Discs label.