Between Fish & Chips

Milladoiro talks to Steve Winick

[From Dirty Linen #45 April/May '93]

Rodrigo Romani, the English-language spokesman for the Galician group Milladoiro, stands on stage at Philadelphia's International House. The group has just played its first set of tunes before the appreciative Philly crowd, and it's time to introduce the band. He begins with an apology about his English: "I must begin begging your pardon, because my English is very bad, as you can listen... but it is not my fault. When we were at school, one hundred years ago, we had a very good English teacher, a very polite and very serious man, a very, very good teacher. We have also a French teacher, not so good... but, well, she was a pretty girl with green eyes, so everybody spoke French!"

By now, most American fans of Celtic music have heard of Milladoiro. They've toured the States and released two albums on the Green Linnet label. Even before that, groups like the Chieftains and the Battlefield Band were learning tunes from them and singing their praises all over the globe. Needless to say, their beginnings were humbler. When they attended the school with the beautiful French teacher, also known as the University at Santiago de Compostela, the members of Milladoiro were in two separate bands. "One of them," Romani explains, "played medieval music, or... not exactly medieval music, but something like it. It was a re-creation about that. Another group, four musicians, they played traditional, pure traditional music in parties and holidays in the country. They played from morning until night, walking.... And we had a concert in common, the same concert, and we met. And both groups had a wish to look for something more complicated, something more full of music, something more full of harmonies. And so we formed Milladoiro then."

The costumed wandering minstrels playing traditional music included percussionist Moncho Garcia and pipers Nando Casal and Xosé Ferreirós. Romani explains, "The traditional way to play [Galician music] is two pipes and drums... and tambourine also. This is the usual group." For their roles in Milladoiro, the pipers also play tin whistle, clarinet, oboe, Uillean pipes, and mandolin. Romani, who plays Celtic and medieval harps, ocarina, and bouzouki, was one of the medieval musicians, as was Antón Seoane, who plays keyboards, accordion and acoustic guitar. To round out the group's line-up and its sound they added jazz musician Xosé Méndez on flute and piccolo, and violinist Michel Canadá, whose background was in classical music.

The range of instrumentation to be found in Milladoiro extends from the very traditional to the revived traditional to the new. Romani explains that both the two-pipes-and-drums type of band described above and accordion music are quite current in Galician tradition, and that instruments like flutes, guitars and bouzoukis were added from the folk revival. Both the violin and Romani's instrument, the harp, were at one time common in Galician music, but, as he puts it "their traditional use was forgotten." Violins, he says, died out in Galicia quite recently, and are in photographs of traditional Galician groups from the early part of the century. "The harp," he says, "is more complicated. Harp is like Brittany, or lots of parts of Europe, where it completely disappeared. We must... try to connect with medieval traditional harping. It's very difficult, because nobody knows the medieval age technique well. But in Spain, in some parts of Spain, there are still documents about the technique of medieval harp. And we studied, but we can't exactly re-create this way to play. Also, the models of the harps are different. We have a lot of representations in stone, in churches and all that. There're harps everywhere. Then, it was traditional, but not now."

In the beginning, the road was slightly rocky for the first Galician revivalist band. This is despite the fact that, as Romani points out, in Galicia, "you can hear traditional music everywhere... It's still alive. It was very easy. We didn't have to bring back something forgotten, just re-create something still alive."

Nevertheless, there were difficulties that came not from the lack of traditional models, but from the absence of a folk revival combining traditional with modern sounds. At first, the band muddled through as best they could. "It was an interesting mixing," Romani says, "and we began to work, without knowing where we were going to go. Because we had no examples. We were the first." In the end, though, Romani expresses simple satisfaction: "We were lucky, and we found the way."

Lucky, perhaps, but also very skillful. Milladoiro have a remarkable ability to pull together all their different instruments and musical backgrounds into one appealing sound. While there were no models for this sort of eclecticism in Galicia, the band did find mentors elsewhere in the Celtic world. "When we began, there were some good groups, very interesting at that time. The Bothy band were playing, and the Chieftains also. And Alan Stivell... In the beginning we wanted to do the same that the Chieftains did for Irish music, or the Bothy Band, or Stivell with Breton music. The same, but with our music... And it was a good example for us, because nobody in Galicia was doing that."

Perhaps their ability to create a synthesis of their different musical backgrounds is natural for Galicians, who have a culture equally synthesized of divergent elements. Celtic, Latin and Germanic influences coexist quite naturally in Galician culture, and while Romani acknowledges the importance of Galicia's Celtic heritage and of the Celtic folk revival to his group's music, he does not feel it important to overemphasize the Celticism of Galicia or of Milladoiro. While most of their U.S. publicity claims that Galician music and culture is much more akin to Irish, Scottish and Welsh than to Latinate forms, this is not demonstrably true, and there were still other very important cultural factors involved.

"The Celtic heritage in Galicia," Romani begins, "is very important, and during the last two centuries, a lot of writers and historians recognize and fight for [recognition of] this element. Today, everybody knows it. For example, the most important football team is called the Celtics. But, it's not our only exponent, our only heritage. The Roman empire was very strong in Galicia, and left his heritage also." The Latin legacy includes the Galician language, Gallego, whose speakers are mutually comprehensible with speakers of Portuguese. The Celtic influence in the language is minimal: "only the names of cities, and places [survive]," says Romani. "Maybe some names of plants or something related to the country. But not syntactical forms. They are all Latin."

Another crucial element of contemporary Galician culture was the phenomenon of the pilgrimage of St. James (Santiago, in Spanish), which ended at Santiago de Compostela. One of the most important Catholic pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, it brought great numbers of visitors to the city, resulting in one of the most cosmopolitan centers in medieval Europe. A lot of central European influences touched Galicia through the pilgrimage, which is considered so important by the musicians of Milladoiro that they named the band after it; a milladoiro was a heap of stones left behind by pilgrims on their way through the green hilly lands of Galicia.

Most of the members are from a small town 30 kilometers away from Santiago, but it was in the University that they began playing together and in the ambience of the city that they found their inspiration. "In an unconscious way, if you are living there and playing there, and all that, Santiago is so exciting. It's a stone town; it's all stone and all splendid architecture. And, even if you don't want it, it gives you a very good ambience, and a very good spirit to do things."

The spirit and cosmopolitan atmosphere of Santiago, together with Galicia's complex cultural history, have certainly helped make Milladoiro a multi-faceted group. But there is a final reason for the band's eclecticism, one that has little to do with Galicia per se. It is the band members' own personal musical curiosity, fueled both by listening to recordings and by their peregrinations around Europe. "I think we do a synthesis of a lot of things we listen to. There's Chieftains, Stivell, Dónal Lunny. And a lot of things that are not traditional music or folk music. I hear a lot of South American harp music, and I am influenced. My playing is not a Celtic harp playing, as usual. No, it's different; a lot of things are working always in your mind when you arrange a song.

"We tour in France, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy. Portugal also. We listen also to French music. Malicorne, and all that. And also Eastern European music, like Kolinda. We work with a lot of people, playing and doing concerts, and all that gives you more richness." As for touring America, they find it "very big. Our group is very difficult to move. It's a lot of people and a lot of equipment. Very complicated." But they found touring America enjoyable. "We are very happy, because a lot of people know us. And the reception was fantastic. The first applause in all the concerts was great. It's a big, big and happy surprise for us."

The single most dominant influence recognizable in Milladoiro's sound is that of the Chieftains. By creating a synthesis of folk music and medieval "art music," they arrived at what critics have deemed "chamber folk." This sound, a very controlled and almost classical use of instruments, often seems to call for a more elevated term, like "ensemble," rather than the pedestrian-sounding "band." After the initial blending of folk and proto-classical music (which already gave their sound a certain affinity to that of the Chieftains), they accepted Paddy Moloney and company as a major model. As a result, their music is conceptually no more distant from the "Irish Orchestra" that Séan Ó Riada devised, and that gradually developed into the Chieftains, than the Chieftains' own music is today.

Milladoiro's concert repertoire differs slightly depending on what country they happen to be playing in. They realize their own uniqueness, and see that they may well be a particular audience's only chance to experience a given form of music. In Spain, they play Irish and Scottish tunes as well as Galician music, because the people there have often never heard it before. In the States, though, they stay away from it. "We can't play Irish music very well. It's almost impossible. We were born in a different place, and this is in the blood." In the States, though, they are much more likely to introduce singing into their concerts. They have always been an instrumental group, with the occasional guest singer appearing on their albums. "We never sing at concerts.... We love to sing... when we are alone, we sing. But we are not very comfortable singing.... But when we were talking about this tour in the U.S.A., we said, `Well, we must rehearse some Galician traditional songs'." While it is true that the group has no virtuoso singer, their songs, like their music, are well-rehearsed, polished performances of vibrant traditional music.

To define that music, Romani jokes, as always: "We are a mixing between a lot of things. Between Roman and Celtic, between sea and mountains, between tradition and modern times. And, like everybody, between fish and chips."