by Jessica Kitt
When I moved to Barcelona, my knowledge of Spanish music was as narrow as that of most expats travelling to Spain: flamenco, castanets, and … flamenco? However, as my two-year journey throughout the country proved, there is a lot more to Spanish music than just flamenco. My first partial relief of ignorance came from a student I was teaching from the region of Asturias in the North of Spain. After about the first year of teaching British English classes in Spain, I developed a certain odd nostalgia for home and my Irish heritage.
Coming from quite a traditional background, with a family of musicians and Irish dancers, I was used to being surrounded by all things Irish. Frequently, I took to listening to my father and uncle’s traditional Irish band on my MP3 player before bed. One day, during a class with my Asturian student, I indulged in a discussion about Irish music and all the “exotic” instruments we had from uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) to bodhrans (hand held drums). During this discussion, my student informed me that the music of both Asturias and Galicia in the North is Spain was surprisingly similar to both Irish and Celtic music. I promptly downloaded some of this music and was shocked by how similar it was.
This similarity between Irish and Northern Spanish music was again proven to me when I travelled to the North of Spain to work on an organic farm for a month. One afternoon, the farmer, his wife and their child joined the volunteers for a sort of cultural-swap party. I cooked some traditional Irish food and they cooked some Basque-influenced food. One of the British volunteers, whose Ed Sheeran-like singer-songwriter skills were pretty impressive, brought out his guitar in an attempt to impress our hosts. After politely listening to him play, the farmer and his wife disappeared into their house only to emerge a few minutes later, instruments in hand. The farmer was carrying a large button accordion while his wife was whistling away on the tin whistle, her daughter skipping along behind her as though she were the pied piper. The effortless, enchanting way our hosts played these instruments, like some kind of mythical fauns, was strongly reminiscent of my Irish heritage and brought warmth to my heart.
My Spanish music education continued in Barcelona where each year the popular neighbourhood of Gracia celebrates the Mallorquin Festival, a celebration of all things Mallorcan including food, dance and music. It was an extremely lively celebration with a sizeable stage set up in one of Gracia’s main squares; on it, a live band played ‘til the wee hours of the morning. The band played to droves of local, Mallorcan and curious expat groups who came to join in the fun and dance around the square. At first, the dancing was fairly free-style, and then the band announced that some real Mallorcan dancing was going to take place for those who know the moves. I was reminded of my Irish roots as the Mallorcans took over the square and danced a complicated but highly energetic and infectious partner dance that was similar to the jigs and reels performed at Irish ceilis (dances). Identifying with this kind of almost tribal group dancing that comes naturally to those brought up surrounded by it, I couldn’t stop myself from attempting to join in. However, my abilities in Irish dancing apparently do not translate to other cultures, particularly Latin dancing that requires natural, loose hip movements. A few disapproving looks sent me back to my position as a spectator.
It was some months later, when I was travelling through Salamanca in Western Spain, that I came across Mallorcan dancing again. However, this time it was done as performance during a folk celebration, and the dancers wore traditional costumes. The dancing was very different from what I had witnessed in Barcelona and was much more reminiscent of Morris dancing, as the dancers moved around a Maypole with colourful streamers stemming from it. I later read up on the history of traditional Spanish music and learned that there are a number of various Mallorcan dance forms from different periods in time and with different foreign influences such as Germanic, Roman, Catalan and Arabic.
There were a number of other traditional music moments as I continued to travel through Spain and Portugal, from fado performances to authentic flamenco. However, during this time I also learned how great the contemporary Spanish music scene is. When I was working on the farm in Burgos, the farmer’s wife and her friends kindly took me and a couple of other volunteers to a music gig in a tiny village on the other side of the Ebro River. Upon entering the tiny industrial, warehouse-type venue, where only about 30 other people were gathered, we were a little sceptical about whether this band was really as popular as our Spanish friends had made out. We were pleasantly proven wrong when Ojos de Brujo, which now a massively popular band both on the world music scene and mainstream music charts, played their unique blend of traditional and modern fusion music.
I had a similar experience during my time in Salamanca when our couch surfing host invited my friends and me to an outdoor music concert in the city’s main square. As the concert was free and we were new to the city we thought it would be a good chance to get out and meet people. We had no idea that the band we were about to see would be Macaco. For those who need enlightening, Macaco is a band from Barcelona, formed by one of the original lead singers of Ojos de Brujo, which is widely popular on the local and international music scene.
My musical experiences in Spain taught me that music can be one of the greatest means of really connecting with a culture and learning about both their past and present story.
Jessica Kitt is a world music journalist and travel writer. Her blog, World Music Travel is one of the few blogs dedicated to music-related travel.