In November last year Folk Radio UK featured an album by Daire Ó Breacáin and Lorcán Mac Mathúna called Preabmeadar. It was four years in the making, and the source material dated back millennia. In an interview Lorcán revealed that idea was hit upon “in a place called Chanos de Somerón in Asturias.” He explained “I had been researching the music and transmission/performance of other traditions and I had been travelling with some Asturian friends from the band Tuenda on what could possibly be described an anthropology/song-collectors excursion. The people in this village danced to songs as they sang. I had never seen anything like it before. It was a total revelation, and it excited me.”
Eager to hear more about that excursion we invited Lorcán to write about it here in more depth:
Reflections from Asturias – Looking to tradition for originality and innovation
Liberta la de Llauréu’s husband, Mon, came into the kitchen and straight away told us that his cousin was eaten by a pig. People would tell you the most surprising things when you travelled with Xosé Antón “Ambás.”
Ambás (a moniker indicating his home village, a common rural Asturian custom), is a bit of a celebrity in rural Asturias where most of his archiving work takes place. A small man with overflowing energy, he has a magnetic personality and draws stories and music from everyone he meets. People open up to Ambás because he shares his own store of music and has a keen, and perceptibly genuine interest, in folk music and traditions. On top of that he gets things done, and does it with a laugh.
Mon explained that when he was a child his month old cousin was left in the cottage on his own when a pig came in through the unwatched door. He devoured the child before anyone could get back to the house.
Having told the story he sat back contented to listen to the music that was unfolding.
Liberta la de Llauréu commenced singing a Tonada (a typical type of Asturian song sang at the very limits of the voice). It crashed around the confined spaces of her kitchen, ricocheting off the hard tiled surfaces of the walls. It was a sound too large for the kitchen which lacked melodic timbre.
After the Tonada Mon brought in some of the local cherry infused liquor and a fist of glasses and Liberta began to tell us about her youth in the mountains. In the breath pauses of her rapid fire chatter my overburdened interpreter relayed to me that when she was young some people asked her to come down to a studio to record but that she was too busy tending sheep. I imagined her thunderous voice raging around a radio studio and thought they would have been getting more than they bargained for.
Before leaving we went outside in the open air to take some photos and say goodbye when Ambás dashed to the car and returned with a set of the Asturian pipes, the Gaita. Liberta had no problem doing another turn, this time in company with the Gaita, and so Ambás inflated the instrument and the two of them joined together in another Tonada. In the sunlight on the slope of the mountain, a deep V glen stretching below and opening into a corridor of spurs and crossing valleys, its steep slopes continuing above us and up towards the sky, the song filled the loftier spaces and rang softly off the valley walls
It was a world apart from the earlier version and it contextualised her descriptions of singing on the mountain side to pass the time while she tended her father’s flocks. This was singing for natural arenas measured in spans of valleys and the distance to the clouds.
The voice matched the shrill drone of the pipes in its intense tone, which carried into the open spaces with ease. The two combined to an unexpected effect of somehow softening the other mellifluously.
Like much of Asturian music the Tonada is informed by a relationship with the Gaita. The song takes a backseat periodically while the piper plays a flourish of bars and so the conversation between voice and pipes unfolds.
The Gaita working in this pattern is a major theme in Asturian traditional music. I noticed that many Asturian folk bands owe much of what distinctive sound they have to this modus operandi. A typical folk band in many ways, Los Gatos del Fornu, with an eclectic array of folk influences, could be a band from anywhere. But, the group’s relationship with the Gaita defined their style and energy, and the frenetic flourishes of piping which took the fore in the collage intermittently reminded me of the interspersions in the singing on the mountain.
Figuratively, it was the woman in the mountain that brought me to Asturias. In trying to have a more thorough understanding of my own tradition I had been puzzling over questions of what makes a tradition locally distinctive. Whether musical motifs that become part of the heritage connected with place are transportable? What are the genesis of style, and if these factors cease to exist is the style still relevant and exciting?
In search of answers to some of these questions I had connected with a number of folk musicians in Asturias who have turned their eye inwardly for inspiration.
Dolfu R. Fernández, a fiddle player from the band DRD in his late twenties who considers himself a veteran of the Asturian folk revival, explained that Asturian music is trying to get to grips with its identity. A mountainous peripheral region of Spain’s North West, bordering Gallicia and Cantabria, it dallies with the Celtic music brand and embraces to varying degrees the norms and influences of the “Celtic Music” cultures. The Asturian folk music scene had in one way been a victim of its own serendipity with a flourishing of imitation and standard folk bands but a lack of real engagement with Asturian traditions. Recent tightened times have sifted some of the chaff from the pile and have forced musicians to ask what it is they strive for.
Dolfu, whose fiddle adjusts comfortably to playing in Breton, Irish or Scottish patterns, acknowledges that incorporating an internationalised set of folk music standards does not go all the way towards reviving Asturian traditions. He sees hope though in the willingness of young people to go back to source material buried in the secluded kitchens of the rural villages; to establish a dialogue with their folk identity which, may be the genesis for creativity based on authentic Asturian traditions.
On the night of my departure Dolfu, who played with DRD and other eminently exportable folk groups, handed me a CD called Música Traditional d’Allande which turned out to be one of the best finds of my trip and closely in keeping with my reasons for visiting Asturias. It illustrated the motivation and vision of Xosé Antón Ambás with a small sample of his archive. Each piece followed by his own interpretation of it.
Ambás, whose energy never ceased to amaze me, seems to be amongst the most influential figures in a new folk revival in Asturian folk music. He has personally collected one of the largest archive of Asturian folk music in existence.
The CD had original songs collected by Ambás in the field which were followed by Ambás’s own recording of the songs with accompaniment by Dolfu and others. Listening to each piece; the field recording followed by the studio recording, you appreciate the vision of Ambás and the integrity of his approach. The result was an original sound, with production values thoroughly compatible with modern tastes, traceable to a genuine tradition. Nothing fake, nothing clichéd.
It was another manifestation of Ambás’s work, Tuenda, which brought me to Spain to see what I could learn in the context of my own traditional music. With Tuenda, Ambás, in the company of Elias Garcia and Pépin de Munalen have taken music from the Asturian vocal tradition and arranged a very distinctive sound. The result is beautiful melodies and rhythms, and thoroughly compatible instrumental arrangements which are at root vocal dance music. When they play you appreciate and can discern the techniques and patterns incorporate in the vocal dance music of the mountains. You can feel the pulse that would have quickened dusk to dancing for the villagers of Chanos de Somerón (“the plain on the mountain”) at the end of the days work during harvest, and for divers other minor village ceremonies. I realised that the reason for Tuenda’s quality and originality was their fidelity to their sources. Pretty good council for traditional musicians when you think about it!
When he started Camín de Cantares, a program on the Asturian public television channel, it became a surprise success taking 28% of the ratings in Asturias. A simple concept, where he would interview people from the villages about rural life in the old times record their songs and music and then do a studio performance of the songs, quickly became a runaway success with a massive rural following. It reflects the village pump model of rural life in many ways where gossip and stories are swapped, interspersed with smatterings of music.
When Ambás arrives in a village it creates something akin to an impromptu carnival. When we arrived in Chanos de Somerón, the sight of Ambás brought all the local women to the centre of the village in a chattering gaggle. We all went to the village bar where a cross fire of singing and good natured arguing ensued. After about an hour some of the village men came into the bar and all the women left as if on cue. It was a strange occurrence highlighting a world of two social circles which don’t mix -a completely different and unfamiliar world. An ageing world whose traditions are dying; but a somewhat magical world of music and song.
Find out more about Preabmeadar here: http://www.preabmdr.com/. This is Samhradh (Deachnadh Beag)