Galicia is an autonomous province in northwestern Spain, directly north of Portugal. It has countless fjord-like inlets called Rîas, a fact noted and exploited by the Vikings a thousand years ago. Indeed Galicia's seafaring heritage produced many of Spain's sailors, and Galician surnames are common throughout Latin America. Traditionally one of the poorer regions in Spain, as is often the case with rural, non-industrialized societies, it has preserved an astoundingly rich folk and musical culture, which it has been sharing more and more generously in recent years with the outside world.
My own interest was piqued on a trip to Galicia in the late 70's. I found myself in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia's capital, and a famous site of a pilgrimage which has brought seekers to its Cathedral for over 1200 years. I however had heard there was an excellent bagpipe (my new passion) museum somewhere in northern Spain, and was hoping it was in Santiago. As I climbed the road from the train station into the lovingly preserved old city and the cool breeze drifted down like the breath of the ancient stone archways, the centuries seemed to melt away. Then I heard it; the sound of - bagpipes!
I charged ahead, ran around a corner and came across a traditional quartet, two pipers, a bass drummer and and a man playing tambor. I ran up to the lead piper, and in an ecstatic spasm of enthusiasm shouted out, "Bagpipes!" The piper, whose name was Galin, stopped, and stone faced, asked, "Where are you from?" “The USA,” I answered, and he quickly asked me if I knew a man named Bruce, and he did a little imitation of Bruce's distinctive walk. And I knew him. I said, I know Bruce! And without missing a beat or changing expressions, he handed me a package of bagpipes reeds and asked me to deliver them to Bruce. Then he said, "Come, we go to play". And I followed, into the world of Gaitas, the Galician bagpipes.
All countries in Europe were once home to bagpipes of all shapes and sizes. 80 different types in France alone. Luckily for we bagpipe lovers, piping is making a comeback after years of neglect. Galicia is one place where, though pipers became more rare than they had been, the tradition never really died out. Church iconography tells us that there have been pipes in Galicia in pretty much their current form for over a thousand years - 400 years before they were documented in Scotland. Today in a country of two and half million people, there are over 90,000 pipers. It is a vital and rich world of folk music, allied recently with the burgeoning Celtic category of world music. Galicia's name comes from the Gaelic tribes who were there when the Romans arrived, and the faces of the Gallegos reflect the genes generously contributed by Celts, Romans, Germans and Vikings over the years, as they came attracted by Galicia's green valleys, and wild beautiful coastline.
Today young people can learn pipes in school, there are pipes in rock bands, in military style bands that ape the Scottish tradition, in traditional bands large and small. There are even very popular pipers, such as Carlos Nunez, who are given government support to help spread Galician music around the world. Pipes can be heard on the streets, in concert halls, in competitions, and in lovely community gatherings called Serans, where amateur musical singing and instrumental groups play for each other. Groups get 15- 20 minutes, and the programs often last from 8 at night till 2 in the morning, with spontaneous dancing erupting around the often very crowded dance floors.
These are wonderful scenes, with folks of all ages, food and drink, families, and music flowing in all directions. Musical performances include the traditional bagpipe percussion quartet, more modern types of arrangements, called charangas, which can include saxophone, accordion, and sometimes bass and drums with cymbals, and singing goups reflecting Galicia's deep, strong vocal tradition. There are female singing groups, who accompany themselves with dazzling technique on pandeireta, a type of large tambourine, on pandeiro, a square frame drum, and on other percussion instruments. The vocal music reflects its Celtic, Latin and Arabic heritage in equal measure, and is mesmerizing
Traditional dance rhythms include the Muiñeira, in 6/8, the Xota (pronounced, shota) in 3/8, or fast 3/4, The passacorredoira, a walking tune in duple meter, the pasodoble, in varied meter, the alborada, a stately piece in 2/4 or 4/4 used as an invocation at dawn on feast days, marchas, danzas, and since the return of emigrants, rhumbas, polcas, and even fox trots. These are some of the main dances, though there are many more. Galicians love their traditional dances, and when the pipes begin to play, often people of all ages will start to do a Xota or Muiñeira.
We, the Family Carr, were lucky enough to spend a month in Santiago in 2010, near where our daughter Molly had been living for several years. We have deep friendships there, which feel now feel more like family connections.
Here are some notes, by no means exclusive, about the music you might want to check out.
Susana Seivane (www.susanaseivane.com) has been a virtuosic performer on Gaita, and an innovative band leader for years now. She comes from one of the foremost Gaita making families in Galicia.
Other solo Gaiteiros and Gaiteiras who front bands of their own are:
Carlos Nunez (www.carlos-nunez.com), who gained fame as a teenage prodigy touring with the Irish supergroup the Chieftains, and now is a virtuoso headliner who spreads the gospel of Galician music around the world.
There are also great pipers Xose Manuel Budiño (www.xosemanuelbudino.com) and Cristina Pato (www.cristinapato.com), who has been in the US, playing with Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and earning a PhD in piano performance.
The number of great Galician folk bands is huge. To mention a few is to do disservice to the rest, but here are a few wonderful examples.
Luar Na Lubre (www.luarnalubre.com)
Newcomers Os d'Abaixo (www.osdabaixo.com)
Please realize that this list is a small, a tiny sample of the brilliant music being played in Galicia today.
Photo Credits: (1) Carlos Nuñez (by The Mollis); (2) Cristina Pato, (3) Berrogüetto, (4) KITHFOLK Logo (unknown/website).