The Duke of Swing

Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt. Three names which evoke memories of dance and jazz from times which, while distant, can still seem modern, and this is because each was an innovator as well as an icon of popular entertainment. They were to attain global fame between the two world wars and each had a profound influence on a waiter in the San Pedro (Puig de Sant Pere) area of Palma. His name was Pedro (or Pere) Bonet.

He was born in 1917 and at the start of the 1930s he began to be exposed to this music and entertainment. There were the films of Fred Astaire, the unusual guitar style of Django Reinhardt, which, some twenty or so years later, he was to hear live when Tito's night club opened in Palma and, above all, the jazz of Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing". Bonet de San Pedro was to eventually join this unofficial royalty: he became the "Duke of Swing".

Though his musical affinity was strongest with Goodman, there was a certain similarity in his background to that of Django Reinhardt. The Belgian guitarist's family wasn't necessarily poor but it was not one which enabled him to gain much by way of education. Though he understood music, he was illiterate when he seriously started performing in his twenties. Bonet's early years were more difficult. At the age of seven, his father, who he barely ever saw, was drowned at sea off the north African coast: he had been a ship's captain, and the ship (or boat) was struck by a fierce storm. With his father dead, he was sent to work. Like Reinhardt, his education was to be found in music, not in books.

In his teens he became a waiter at the Bar Español in the San Pedro neighbourhood. When the owner sought to drum up some more business, he asked Bonet if he would sing. He did and very quickly he gained a reputation. People would come especially to hear Bonet de San Pedro, and using the rudimentary English that he learned from the likes of Fred Astaire, he would sometimes sing in English: something that was to stand him in good stead.

With other musical styles influencing him, notably flamenco, he formed a group: Los Trashumantes. He had no musical training, couldn't write or read a note, but he had "swing" and when an orchestra from Barcelona came to Palma, he was signed up, partly because of the English, which was to prove even more valuable. It is said that the first song ever recorded in Spain in English was his. It was in Barcelona that he was to form another group, his first proper orchestra. Its name was Bonet de San Pedro y los 7 de Palma. I am not aware of an association and it may be a pure coincidence, but both the style and the title of a Madness song seem not a million miles away: "The Return of the Los Palmas 7".

Fame and success were to follow. One of his best-known songs was "Raska-yú", which despite being banned by the Franco regime (it came out in 1943) was a success. The regime thought there were references to El Caudillo in a song the origins of which have been debated. Was it really so original or had it been copied from Louis Armstrong in a Betty Boop cartoon film? Well, even if it had been, this isn't terribly important now. Other songs came out. "Bajo el Cielo de Palma": "Majorca has beautiful scenes and beautiful beaches to listen, to the sounds of my guitar, songs worthy of remembering, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay". "Canción a Mallorca": "In the bay of Palma, the first thing you see, the Cathedral, La Lonja and Bellver Castle, the first thing you see, arriving in Majorca".  

In later years, Bonet de San Pedro became linked to a camp and kitsch music of a Eurovision style, but he still clung to his jazz and swing roots, forming the Swing Group Balear. He was a regular on national television, a genuine star of Spanish music. He was honoured at tribute concerts in Palma where he performed with the likes of Tete Montoliu, the great Barcelona-born jazz pianist whose association with Majorca was strong. He died on 18 May 2002. And in celebrating the anniversary of his death and his contribution to Majorca and Spain's popular music, an exhibition dedicated to him opened on Friday at La Misericordia in Palma which will run until 10 July. Its title: "Bonet de Sant Pere, el Duc del Swing".

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