CIUDAD REAL, SPAIN • Jesus Camacho, 28, a schoolteacher, recalled a time in his youth when he refused to read Don Quixote, the most famous work by Miguel de Cervantes. "I saw that it was the same size as the Bible," he said, "so I got scared."
But last month, Camacho, who is also a rapper known as Camaccho, found himself enthralled by the themes in the Spanish writer's works as he prepared to participate in the Rap In Cervantes competition here. Contestants at the event improvise lyrics based on a phrase or a character from Don Quixote or other works by the author.
In an interview, Camacho said he had been surprised to discover that Cervantes dealt with many themes that lie at the heart of his own rap compositions. "Cervantes tells us that you can't live without having hopes, without dreaming of something beyond your everyday reality - whether things then work out as you hoped or not - and that is exactly what I believe," he said.
Rap In Cervantes is among the more innovative celebrations being held this year to mark the 400th anniversary of the author's death. It is a trans-Atlantic occasion, coordinated between two annual theatre events: the Almagro International Festival of Classical Theater in central Spain and the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato in central Mexico. An international competition was held here on July 14 and Guanajuato will repeat it in October, drawing on the same group of six finalists.
The winner here, and in Mexico, picks up about US$2,200 (S$2,950). But many of the artists said they viewed the event not in terms of winning, but as an opportunity to bridge street culture and high culture.
"We've been too separated, often stigmatised by society for being at a lower level culturally," said participant Alfredo Martinez, 30, who comes from Tijuana and calls himself Danger. "But it's also true many rappers are just content with believing that all of what they do has to come from the street. I certainly want to do an intelligent hip-hop, based on culture."
While Cervantes gained fame with his Don Quixote of La Mancha, he also suffered some major setbacks, particularly with his plays, which were mostly flops and were overshadowed by the works of his main rival, Lope de Vega, and other playwrights of the so-called golden age of Spanish literature.
Some draw parallels between Cervantes' efforts and rap. As a cultural expression, "hip-hop and rap have not been properly appreciated, which is what also happened to Cervantes during his own life, with a lot of his works", Ms Natalia Menendez, the director of the Almagro festival, said in an interview.
She suggested that you could also link Cervantes to rap because of his focus on social issues, such as the rights of the working class, rather than on religion or some of the other mainstream subjects of his day.
For example, Ms Menendez said, Cervantes pushed for the emancipation of women and called attention to the difficulties faced by prostitutes and servants. He had "a sense of social justice that had nothing to do with that of his times", she said.
In the competition, each rapper gets one minute to improvise a song based on a phrase, word or character created by Cervantes, like Rocinante, Don Quixote's horse. "I learnt something about Cervantes tonight, including some things I sort of knew but had no idea that they came from Cervantes," said Mr Antonio Morales, an oil refinery employee who was among the audience gathered in the main square of this city.
Martinez, who says his music has been influenced by a range of writers in addition to Cervantes, said the competition felt like a natural fit for him. He had won a preliminary contest to select Mexico's three representatives in the international final here. In Mexico, 87 rappers entered the event, compared with 104 in Spain.
In the jury's vote in the final, the Spanish rappers came out on top, a verdict echoed by an enthusiastic crowd. The audience "could probably understand more easily what we were talking about", said participant Jose Miguel Manzano Bazalo, 26, who is from Valencia in eastern Spain and calls himself Skone.
In his improvised lyrics, Skone praised Cervantes but also said he represented the poets of today. The winner was another Spaniard, Alfonso Campos Yuste, who goes by the name BTA.
So while Cervantes provided a starting point, the rappers came up with lyrics that focused on issues such as political corruption in Spain or drug violence in Mexico and on contemporary personalities. The Spanish competitors assailed their nation's acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy and King Felipe VI, while the Mexican contestants went after their president Enrique Pena Nieto.
Skone said: "We wanted to create something based on Cervantes but also connect with our audience - and that means finding a balance and talking to the public about things everybody knows and understands."
NEW YORK TIMES