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Paris, September 28, 2018. The Cité de la Musique opens its doors first thing in the morning. It is Friday, and for the weekend the Philharmonic has organized a meeting with talks, debates, book presentations and a contemporary music concert. Speakers come from different parts of the world, who receive their accreditation and talk with the attendees, gathered at the entrance. After a few minutes, they walk into the room together to begin the opening session. It is a heterogeneous public, in which the American women coexist with the shirts. Sessions begin and a speaker illustrates his lecture with a short song, less than three minutes long. As soon as it begins to play, the hundreds of people who fill the room chant the lyrics in unison, as a liturgical act officiated in the capital of European culture. They recite it from memory and the speaker, infected by the atmosphere, abandons the serious gesture to murmur some verses. The heterogeneity has been unified by the music of the honoree, the artist to whom Paris dedicates this monographic meeting: they have all gathered there to celebrate the work of Frank Zappa.
Since his death from cancer in December 1993, the recognition of the American musician has not stopped growing. Events proliferate in many countries, often organized by fans, not only veterans but also young people who discover their records on digital platforms. There is a choice, then, today, the official catalog that is made up of a wide hundred references, with endless styles ranging from rock to orchestral music, through jazz, country or electronic. “Zappa concentrates an impressive amount of music,” says one of his most famous fans in Spain, El Gran Wyoming. “It’s like an Avecrem, you drop it and it generates a hundred different musical menus.”
The volume is a deterrent for the general public, used to the rapid consumption of easily pigeonholed artists. However, those who overcome that barrier are usually trapped. This is what happened to another unrepentant fan, Pablo Carbonell: “At the age of fifteen they operated on my spine and, while I was resting in my house in Huelva, music came from the bar across the street that was very annoying to me,” he recalls the singer of Los Toreros Muertos. “However, I ended up buying that record, Sheik Yerbouti, and became my reference. Then I started collecting his albums, official and pirated. I became a zappiano absolute”. One of the secrets is in the humor. The melodies and lyrics recreate a universe of their own, full of sarcasm. “Zappa does not seek easy laughter, he uses humor as an operating system, as an attitude to the world,” explains Julián Hernández, founder of Siniestro Total. And he continues: “It was a discovery to see that you could do whatever you wanted with the music, even laugh at the seriousness of symphonic rock.”
In addition, Frank Zappa represents a kind of intellectual beacon that teaches to question official speeches. This is how Matt Groening perceived it, who discovered it in his youth. “I was attracted by his humor, his stance on authority, education, politics, culture,” confessed the creator of The Simpson. “His example showed me the way. I saw that it was good to go to mine and not follow the dictates of the authorities ”. When he finished college, Groening left Washington State and settled in California for a very simple reason: it was where the teacher lived. “If Frank Zappa had found his place in Los Angeles, he had to go there.” The cartoonist met his idol in the 90s and convinced him to incorporate him as a character in Springfield, although his untimely death truncated the plans. “Frank was a terrific tutor, the role model to look at,” Groening would add. “When Bart Simpson reaches adolescence, he will grow the mustache and goatee of Frank Zappa.” Some episodes of The Simpsons include winks for fans, like a magazine with Zappa on the cover that Homer keeps in the attic of the house.
Its presence is constant in the most diverse areas. Throughout his life, biologists gave his name to a New Guinea fish (the Confluentus hoe) and an aquatic animal of the cnidarians species (Phialella zappai). As a posthumous tribute, an astronomer named an asteroid 3834-Zappafrank in his honor, streets in various cities (such as Berlin or Düsseldorf) have been dedicated to him and statues erected. His place of birth, Baltimore, exhibits a bust. Although the most famous, where fans go on pilgrimage to take the appropriate photograph, is located in Vilnius. It is not surprising that the capital of Lithuania is the Zappian mecca, given that the American composer represents an icon of the anti-communist struggle in the former Soviet bloc. Young people from countries such as Russia or Hungary obtained their records in hiding and the police, according to the confession of some fans, responded with torture and threats such as “we are going to take Zappa’s music from you by force”. Such was his scale that, after the fall of the Wall, the Czechoslovak government of Václav Havel proclaimed the artist the country’s cultural representative, an appointment quickly revoked under pressure from the White House.
Their influence also resonates with various echoes, such as the Zappanale festival, which has been held since 1990 in Bad Doberan, in the former East Germany. During a weekend in August, thousands of followers turn to the figure of the musician. The meeting began in a modest way, with a trailer as the only stage and a handful of fans around. Over time it has come to congregate nine thousand people. At present, the enclosure is located a few kilometers from the town and houses a camping area, several stages and stalls selling food and records. “It’s like a Frank Zappa bubble in the middle of Germany. The atmosphere is incredible and you make friends as soon as you arrive ”, says Guillermo Laso, an industrial engineer who attends regularly from his residence in Burgos.
The Zappanale celebrates, apart from group performances, lively debates and art exhibitions. The majority audience is mature fans, although young people also attend, and it is common to see the idol’s characteristic mustache on the faces of the devotees. Luis González is a Valencian musician and producer, known by his pseudonym, Caballero Reynaldo. He has played twice at the Zappanale. “The organizers saw us at a concert in Barcelona and hired us,” he asserts. Alone or accompanied by his musicians, Reynaldo has given a hundred concerts with songs from Zappa throughout Europe and has released a score of tribute albums. These works collect versions made by different groups (such as Siniestro Total or El Niño Gusano), along with their own revisions. “The first album I made, in the mid-90s, it was very difficult,” he recalls. “Then there was no Internet and the fans were scattered. Even so, it was very well received and, from the second, I began to receive models everywhere. Fidelity is a fundamental trait of any Zappiano ”, he ends.
The arrival of the Internet, in effect, allowed contact between fans, who communicate daily in virtual communities and WhatsApp groups. Zappa recorded most of the 1,400 concerts it gave, and fans have long tracked these recordings, along with texts or anecdotes that uncover new data or previously unreleased songs. With Reynaldo, Román García, a musician from the Murcian group Los Marañones and a pioneer in the Zappian claim on the Internet, plays the bass with the creation of two web pages (Information is not knowledge and The third power) that are a must for fans around the world. His interest was born out of a curiosity to decipher Zappa’s letters. “Every time I listen to Zappa, I find something new: a word, an instrument, a melodic line or a quote,” he says. Its pages have been key to publicize its lyrics.
In addition, in the last twenty years, around 180 books about him have been released in a dozen languages, from Greek to Japanese. They include compilations of interviews, albums, sheet music and even coloring books. The interest in our language is also noticeable, with the translation of his memoirs and the imminent launch of the first biography in Spain, Music Refuses to Die: Frank Zappa. Unauthorized biography (written by me and published by Alianza Editorial, € 19.50).
The academic field is not left out either. For years, his work has been the object of study for doctoral theses, articles and conferences. Paul Carr teaches popular music classes at the University of South Wales (United Kingdom) and uses him to explain music in American society in the last century. “His work has so many academic derivations that it represents an exceptional case study for young people to learn to reflect and write about music,” he explains. Carr attended London’s Royal Festival Hall where, in October 2013, an orchestral performance of 200 Motels, the first feature film directed by Zappa, in the 70s. At the door he passed other academics, from Harvard or King’s College, mixed with the three thousand attendees who had sold out. As in Paris, people had taken the opportunity to take their icon’s T-shirts out of the closet. Official garments, with designs on old occasions, which are reserved for great occasions. The one in London was another milestone in the claim movement, given that 200 Motels it had been censored in England four decades ago. As soon as musicians from the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Southbank Sinfonia stepped onto the stage, the applause was instantaneous. Two hours later, after the last note sounded, a thunderous applause erupted, non-stop, for fifteen minutes. The recognition also went to Gail Zappa, his widow, who responded with a wide smile and a bouquet of flowers. She could not hide the emotion: thousands of people surrendered to the legacy of her husband, an artist who created an exceptional work to leave a more livable world. Demolish established categories and enjoy culture without labels. It is the lesson that Frank Zappa has taught and that his faithful proclaim throughout the planet.
* This article appears in the July-August 2021 issue of Esquire magazine