Galician Music

The traditional music of Galicia, located along Spain’s north-west Atlantic coast, is a highly distinctive folk style. The music is characterised by the use of bagpipes. It has long been thought that Galician music might owe its roots to the ancient Celtic history of the region, in which it was presumed that some of this ancient influence had survived despite the long evolution of the local musical traditions since then, including centuries of Roman and Germanic influences. Whether or not this is the case, much modern commercial Galician traditional and folk-rock of recent years has become strongly influenced by modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh “folk” styles. Galicia is nowadays a strong player on the international Celtic folk scene. As a result, elements of the pre-industrial Galician tradition have become integrated into the modern Celtic folk repertoire and style. Many, however, claim that the “Celtic” appellation is merely a marketing tag; the well known Galician bagpipe player Susana Seivane, said “I think [the ‘Celtic’ moniker is] a label, in order to sell more. What we make is Galician music”. In any case, due to the Celtic brand, Galician music is the only non- Castilian-speaking music of Spain that has a significant audience beyond the country’s borders.

Map of Galicia

Celtic culture is known to have extended over a large part of the Iberian Peninsula as early as 600BC. During the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, the Roman Empire slowly conquered Iberia, which they called Hispania. The Celtic regions put up a long and fierce struggle to maintain their independence but were eventually subdued. In the centuries that followed, the language of the Romans, Latin, came to gradually supplant nearly all the earlier languages of the peninsula, including all Celtic languages, and is the ancestor of all the current languages of Spain and Portugal, including Galician and Astur-Leonese-Mirandese but not Basque. The departure of the Romans in the 5th century led to the invasions of Germanic tribes. The Suebi people conquered the northwest but the poor documentation from the period has left their cultural impact on the region unclear. In the 6th century, a final small Celtic influx arrived from Britain; the Britons were granted their own diocese, Britonia, in northern Galicia. Galicia was then taken over by the Visigothic Kingdom when the Suebian kingdom fell apart. Galicia came under the control of the Moors after they defeated the Visigoths in 717 but Moorish rule was little more than a short lived military occupation, although an indirect Moorish musical influence arrived later, through Christian troubadours. Moorish rule ended after two decades when the their garrison was driven out by a rebellion in 739. The region was incorporated into the Kingdom of Asturias and, after surviving the assaults of the Moors and Vikings, became the springboard for the Reconquista.

In 810, it was claimed that the remains of Saint James, one of the apostles, had been found at a site which soon became known as Santiago de Compostela. It became Europe’s premier pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages. This is assumed to have had a significant effect on the folk culture of the area, as the pilgrims brought with them musical instruments and styles from as far afield as Scandinavia and Hungary.

Like the earlier periods, little is known about musical traditions from this era. Just a few manuscripts from the time are known, such as those by the 13th-century poet and musician Martín Codax, which indicate that some of the distinctive elements of today’s music, such as the bagpipes and flutes, were common at the time. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of manuscripts written in old Galician, also show illustrations of people playing bagpipes.

The Galician folk revival drew on early 20th century performers like Perfecto Feijoo, a bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy player. The first commercial recording of Galician music had come in 1904, by a corale called Aires d’a Terra from Pontevedra. The middle of the century saw the rise of Ricardo Portela, who inspired many of the revivalist performers, and played in influential bands like Milladoiro.

During the regime of Francisco Franco, honest displays of folk life were appropriated for politicised spectacles of patriotism, causing a sharp decline in the popularity of the traditional styles in favour of modern music. When Franco’s regime ended in 1975, Galician and Asturian music experienced a strong revival and recordings flourished. The establishment of the Festival Internacional do Mundo Celta (1977), which helped establish some Galician bands. Aspiring performers began working with bands like Os Areeiras, Os Rosales, Os Campaneiros and Os Irmáns Garceiras, learning the folk styles; others went to the renowned workshop of Antón Corral at the Universidade Popular de Vigo. Some of these musicians then formed their own bands, like Milladoiro.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some Galician and performers began to win fame within Spain and the international Celtic folk scene. Galician musicians of this period included Uxía, a singer originally with the band Na Lúa, whose 1995 album Estou vivindo no ceo and a subsequent collaboration with Sudanese singer Rasha, gained her an international following. The appearance of Fía na Roca, (that means “Spin in the spinning wheel”) was undoubtedly one of the key events of the Galician musical scene in the 90’s. Fía na Roca was also the name of their debut album released in 1993. Its mixture of tradition and modernity led BBC to choose the music of this album as the soundtrack of the TV program that broadcast the Galician image to Europe in the 1993 Xacobeo Celebration (Santiago de Compostela’s Holy Year).

It is Carlos Núñez, however, who has done the most to popularize Galician traditions. His 1996 ‘A irmandade das Estrelas’ sold more than 100,000 copies and saw major media buzz, partially due to the collaboration with well-known foreign musicians like La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, The Chieftains and Ry Cooder. His follow-up, ‘Os amores Libres’, included more fusions with flamenco, Celtic music (especially Breton) and Berber music.

Other modern Galician bagpipe players include Xosé Manuel Budiño and Susana Seivane. Seivane is especially notable as the first major female player, paving the way for many more women in a previously male-dominated field. Galicia’s most popular singers are also mostly female, including Uxía, Sonia Lebedynski and Mercedes Peón.

A revival of traditional Asturian music also occurred during this period. Artists such as the popular bagpiper Hevia and music groups such as Llan de cubel and Tejedor helped to bring attention to Asturian folk music both within Asturias itself, and in the wider realm of the “Celtic” and world music scenes.

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