FolkWorld article by Pio Fernandez:

Spanish traditional and folk music in perspective
The image and the reality

For years (or lets say for centuries), the common image that the rest of Europe had about the traditional music of Spain was unified under the concept of Flamenco: Spanish guitar, clapping hands, tapping shoes, castanets, frenezied dancing,.... However, it must not be forgotten that Flamenco is the music of just the southern Spanish region named Andalucia (Andalusia), although somehow it became the single representative of the tradition of the whole country.

Granada in Andalucia, photo by The MollisThe big mistake is to consider that: "Well, maybe the other regions of Spain keep a popular music not so different from the Andalusian flamenco, so lets say they are all more or less flamenco music too". What I am going to say next is probably nothing new to the readers of Folk World. The fact is that the traditional music from Castilla (Castile, the central region of the peninsula), Catalonia, Aragon and the Basque Country (neighbouring regions with France) for instance, do keep many more similarities with the musics from Portugal, Southern France or Italy than with Flamenco.

Then, what made Flamenco so popular and significant in Spain and abroad? Probably its exotic personality, strikingly different from the popular musics from Western Europe but also from most of Spain. How did Flamenco get this distinctive character? First, it is generally accepted that this music was probably brought into Spain (maybe in a more primitive form) by nomad gypsies from India that travelled west from there throughout Europe three or four centuries ago, finally settling in Andalusia. And second, Andalusia is the part of Spain closer to the north of Africa, where the cultural heritage of the moors that ruled Spain from 711 until 1492 was stronger and lasted longer. These two conditions favoured the development along the centuries of a music with intense Oriental flavour. It is easy to imagine the chronicles written by the romantic English, French, German and Italian travellers, that two centuries ago arrived to that southern corner of Europe. They found the legacy of the Arab architecture together with the life style and traditions of the Andalusians, quite well reflected in the personality of flamenco dancing and singing, and so started the myth of the "passionate Spain".

Asturian Pipe Band, photo by The MollisThat myth lasted until modern days, and it was well exploited during general Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975), starting the Spanish tourist business boom of the 60's with the slogan: "Spain is different". And what could give us a look more different to the rest of the Europeans than this hot-blooded Flamenco music and dancing (put together with the bloody bullfighting tradition).

The fact is that the richness, passion and sophistication of flamenco music and dancing made it appealing not just to the eyes of the foreign visitors (especially from Japan!), but also developed fans in many other parts of Spain, where the nomad Andalusian gypsies brought it with them. Outside Andalusia, flamenco could never replace the local traditions of the other Spanish regions, but probably could make them look duller.

Then, how are these other forgotten musics of Spain? What is left from them?

Galicia's coast, photo by The MollisA clear example of the differences between the Andalusian tradition and the ones from the rest of Spain, is found in the northern regions of Galicia, Asturias and North Castile. Over there, their ancient bagpipes have lasted as the most representative instrument of their popular music. The kind of bagpipes played there have a bass drone placed over the left shoulder of the piper, which was the most typical configuration in central and northern European countries since the middle ages. A tenor drone can be added, normally placed on the right side of the bag. The sound of these instruments is certainly comparable to the bagpipes from Scotland or France. The general Spanish name for these pipes is gaita, although that name also designates other woodwinds without bag (with and without reeds) played in several other Spanish regions. There are also bagpipes played in neighbouring regions in southern France like Aragon, Catalonia and the Balearic Isles. But over there the bass drone hangs from the front of the bag in a similar fashion to the bagpipes from the south of France or the Italian zampogna.

The kind of dances traditionally performed with the Galician or Asturian gaita jigs could be quite comparable to the circular dances of French Brittany, having practically no similarity at all with flamenco.

Mercedes Peon and Xose Manuel Budinio from Galicia, photo by The MollisIt is significant to mention at this point that besides musical traditions of this kind, northern regions like Galicia and Asturias keep other clear geographic, historic and cultural differences with respect the rest of Spain. First of all, their hilly land directly facing the Atlantic ocean gets plenty of rain, fog and moisture during the entire year. That promotes the growth of dense vegetation, creating a landscape much more similar to the one from other North Atlantic places in Europe, like the British Isles. This kind of geography and landscape extends to the eastern regions of Cantabria and the Basque Country. Meanwhile towards the south of the mountains that separate these regions from the rest of Spain, the climate and the landscape become drastically dryer. That natural barrier also probably helped to stop the penetration of the Arab invaders during the middle ages, who mainly settled in Andalusia, Castile and the Mediterranean regions of Murcia, Alicante, Valencia,... Thus the northern regions kept their Christian culture isolated from the Arab influence. Instead these regions came under the influence of the pilgrimage from central Europe that came to visit the assumed burial place of apostle Santiago in the Galician Finis Terrae (Latin, End of the Earth).

In that respect, probably a certain feeling of isolation and distinction from the rest of Spain has developed among the natives from those northern regions. Not to mention certain Galician historians that a couple of centuries ago started to dig out in their history until the days of the arrival of Celtic tribes in the Spanish peninsula. They developed theories that centered the essential roots of the Galician culture back to those Celtic peoples (something also claimed by Asturians and Cantabrians), minimising the influence of the subsequent Roman and Germanic invaders, and ignoring any Arab influence.

Kepa Junkera and band from the Basque country, photo by The MollisIt is not thus surprising that the geographical and cultural peculiarities of those northern regions, had developed among their population a feeling of "being different" from the Castileans, specially among the Basques. The case of the Basque Country (Euskadi) is special since their nationalism bases their identity in the heritage from an ancient pre-Roman and pre-Celtic culture different from the rest of the cultures from Spain or Europe. This feeling is also reinforced by the peculiar ancient Basque language (Euskera), one of the oldest in Europe together with Finnish and Hungarian.

In certain cases, these feelings of differential cultural identity have motivated certain people (like some Galician folk musicians) to approach other distant cultural movements related by their historic links along the north Atlantic seas, like the Celtic music cultural movement developed since the 70's.

The approach of traditional and folk musicians from Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria towards their counterparts from Scotland, Ireland and Brittany has progressed continuously since then. Mostly throughout the different Celtic Music festivals celebrated in Scotland, Brittany, Wales, Galicia, Asturias, Cornwall,... year after year.

All the above tries to summarise some of the explanations behind the latest trends in the Spanish traditional and folk music. I would say that since the folk music movements started in Galicia in the 70's and 80's, trying to renovate their traditional sounds chasing an approach to the "Celtic music" movement, the momentum of this has been successfully increasing since then, imitated also in Asturias and Cantabria.

This movement was not followed by the folk musicians of the other regions of Spain not so interested in their Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Roman, Visigothic (West-gothic), Arab, Jewish or any other roots. Instead, they just kept working on their music tradition as is (a cultural mix), trying to take the best possible advantage from the renewed interest of the trad and folk music audience after the boom of the Galician and Asturian Celtic folk.

In this respect, the number of folk musicians and bands that have come from all the other regions of Spain (including the Balearic and Canary Islands) are working on the renovation of their traditional musics, and they grow in number year after year creating very interesting and promising projects

Photo Credit: All photos by The Mollis: (1) Granada in Andalucia, (2) Asturian Pipe band, (3) coast of Galicia, (4) Mercedes Peon and Xose Manuel Budinio from Galicia, (5) Kepa Junkera and band from the Basque country

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