The Rat That Roared

La Musgaña talks to Steve Winick

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

Bagpipe, accordion and flute. Given these three instruments, we could be talking about folk music from almost anywhere in Europe. Add the hurdy-gurdy, and we narrow it down a bit, cutting out much of Britain and Ireland. Pipe and tabor is a bit more esoteric, best known for its use in southern France and in the Basque areas of the French-Spanish border. Add tambourine, doumbek, frame drums, electric bass, and the cittern-like laud, and we could only be talking about La Musgaña, central Spain's most important folk music ensemble. In a country whose best-known folk music is gypsy Flamenco music, and whose best-known musical export is undoubtedly the guitar, this group swims against the stream, playing exciting arrangements of indigenous Spanish music on traditional and modern instruments.

La Musgaña live in Madrid, but I met them in the less exotic environs of a seedy Manhattan hotel room, where we talked about Spanish music and La Musgaña's place on the Spanish folk scene; we spoke in Spanish, English and French, gestured, and pointed to a large map of Spain. They explained that they take their music from all over the breadth of Castilla; "from Portugal almost to the Mediterranean," says Luis Delgado, with a sweeping gesture across the map. Indeed, he points out that political borders often have nothing to do with culture, and that Portuguese pasadobles are in the group's current repertoire along with music from Spain. Even so, their repertoire comes mainly from the western part of the province: Castilla-León, Salamanca and Zamora, and Extremadura and La Mancha to the south.

Regionality is an important consideration in Spanish music, as it is in many multi-ethnic or multi-cultural countries; all the more because of the mountain ranges that criss-cross the peninsula, effectively isolating pockets of culture from one another. Carlos Beceiro points out that for a long time, the Spanish government was attempting to homogenize Spanish folklore, to rip out regional cultures by the roots and re-seed the land with a new, "decaffeinated" pan-Spanish traditions. A lot of local language and culture was forbidden for over forty years. Luis shakes his head, "sometimes, we wonder how [traditions] have survived. If instead of forty years, it had been eighty , they would have completely disappeared... Still, you have old people that have stayed alive all these forty years." Now, they say, the pendulum has swung to the other side, and regional cultures are in vogue. This has led to a new kind of distortion, in which regional politicians and artists invent traditions and fabricate history in order to glorify and distinguish their local cultures.

Still, broad regional generalizations can be made. Luis Delgado explains: "You can talk about a Mediterranean culture; you can talk about an Andalusian culture; you can talk about a northern culture. You have some other regions, like Navarra, which has its own things, or the Basque country which obviously has its own things... You can get deep into these concepts. But mainly, the most important idea is that if you drive in Spain for three hours, everything changes. Music, clothes, cooking; everything changes."

Even within a given region like Castilla, there is a range of different music traditions. La Musgaña's angle was to adapt the repertoire of a single instrument and arrange it for group playing. The instrument (or, more exactly, the pair of instruments) was the pipe and tabor, or gaita charra y tamboril. What is commonly referred to in English as the "pipe" is really a three-holed fipple flute (like a recorder or whistle), and is referred to by the group as "three-holed flute." The tabor is a deep, double-headed drum with a leather cord stretched across each head like a snare. The player hangs the drum from the arm that fingers his three-holed flute while his other hand beats the drum with a stick. The sound produced combines the deep and sonorous drum with the buzzing caused by the cord; it is called in Spanish "rugido," meaning "roar."

These instruments, according to Quique Almendros, were very popular in the middle ages, and were played throughout Europe at important events and festivals. Later, other instruments displaced the pipe and tabor. The unfortunate pair only survived among a few rural peoples, including the Occitan cultures in France and the enigmatic Basque culture. The rhythms that have been preserved in Spanish flute and tabor music are entirely different from those common on other instruments, partly because of the instrument's associations with esoteric religions early in its history; in blending with other Spanish musics, the melodies became thoroughly Spanish, but the rhythms remained oriental in flavor.

La Musgaña pride themselves on being the first band in Spain to incorporate the gaita charra y tamboril into a group sound -- before they came along, it was played exclusively as a solo instrument or in tandem with other flute and tabor players. For this reason, Quique had to have special flutes made to be in tune with the band; according to Luis, the older generations "used to build this flute with the same scale, but with different tunings. And sometimes, they play together. They are absolutely out of tune and they don't mind." As for the tamboril, the sizes, pitches, and playing styles vary from region to region; the drums are smaller and the rhythms are quicker and more complicated in the north and get larger and less complex as you travel south. La Musgaña play a version from somewhere in the middle.

Flute and tabor music is preserved along the old ruta de la plata, or silver trail. It was along this road that the gold and silver from the American colonies traveled from the southern coast to Seville, where it was counted at the central bank. Thence it went north to the coast where it went to pay off Spanish debts in Europe. According to the group, the active commerce along the trail during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was very influential in spreading and preserving the music of the flute and tabor.

This music was introduced to Quique by a fortunate accident, without which the group would not exist. One morning, Quique tells me, his mother was listening to the radio. When the young musician woke up, he was captivated by the sound of the three-holed flute and the roaring drum. He was already involved in Irish music, and he thought the flute sounded almost Irish in its ornamentation; he couldn't believe it when the player began speaking in flawless Spanish. Luckily, the radio station mentioned the player's name and the name of his village in Salamanca. Quique tracked him down, introduced himself, and began to learn.

Quique remembers how the group first came together: "We had known each other already for a while, playing Irish music and a bit of Castillan music as well. We decided to make Castillan music as an experiment, following the model of folk groups from other European countries. It was a very artificial thing, because we decided that the best and most interesting repertoire in Castillan folklore was in Zamora and Salamanca, and we said `Okay, what instruments shall we play? You play hurdy-gurdy, you play bagpipe, and I'll play three-holed flute and tabor.' So, it was very artificial, but that was really necessary to create the group. It was the only group to play Castillan music in a new way."

The original triad of instruments, including bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy, was certainly an interesting formation for any group. The zanfona, or Spanish hurdy-gurdy, is a distinctively Spanish instrument. Like other European hurdy-gurdies, it is a stringed instrument sounded by means of a wooden wheel that brushes the strings as it is turned. The player turns the wheel with one hand by means of a crank, while the other effectively changes the lengths of the strings by means of a keyboard whose keys touch the strings when depressed. It is quite different from its French neighbor, the vielle-à-roue, lacking the loud rhythmic drone string called the trompette, and being shaped like a viol rather than a lute.

Luis, the band's current hurdy-gurdy player, explains the hurdy-gurdy tradition in Spain. "For whatever reason, everybody fights for the origin of the hurdy-gurdy. You can find it from Portugal to the eastern countries like Hungary. But it's a fact that the first hurdy-gurdy which appears in carvings appears in Santiago de Compostela (Galicia), in the front of the main door. We know that it used to be a medieval instrument, an early medieval instrument, in the eleventh or twelfth century, because there are papers and documents that talk about the zanfona."

Still, the tradition almost died out in Spain, sometimes dwindling to one or two people still playing the instrument. Luis continues, "the real tradition of hurdy-gurdy in Spain is very recent; it belongs to blind people who used to travel all the coutry singing romances. It's like the barrel-organ in other parts of the world."

In order to learn the repertoire on their respective instruments, the original members of La Musgaña went out to do fieldwork, recording and collecting tunes from old flute and tabor, hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe players. Quique remembers, "for three years I went to Salamanca once or twice a month to learn the styles of the traditional musicians. Now, I mostly go to Zamora to learn the bagpipe. I know young tamborileros from Salamanca, and when I need information, I just phone them and they send me cassettes. I don't have to go out there all the time anymore."

At the time of its formation in 1986, the group consisted of José Mari Climent, a fiddler turned bagpipe player, Rafa Martín, who played fretted strings like laud and bandurria before he became a hurdy-gurdy man, and Quique, whose original instrument was the Appalachian dulcimer. In 1987, within six months of forming a group, they enlarged and modernized their sound by adding flute player Jaime Muñoz and bassist Carlos Beceiro, and began to make a name for themselves.

Nineteen-eighty-eight was a watershed year for the young group. They released their first album El Diablo Cojuelo, certainly an important rite of passage for any band. They also won the Spanish National Folk Award for Young Performers. This prestigious prize gave them quick exposure, brought them to the forefront of the Spanish folk scene, and earned them a chance to record on the Radio Nacional España label. Their second album, El Paso de la Estantigua, was released in 1989 on this label, and earned loud critical acclaim.

After they released their third album, Lubicán, in 1991, the group changed its line-up for the first time. Two of the three founders, José Climent and Rafa Martín, left the group. They were replaced by Cuco Perez, an outstanding accordionist, and Luis Delgado, a composer, percussionist, and hurdy-gurdy player. It is this line-up that toured the United States in 1992, and this line-up that hopes to record and tour again.

Live, their sound is a rumble of percussion behind a flood of melody, capable of inciting almost any crowd to move their bodies. Almost all of their music is instrumental, a situation that is very easy for Luis to explain: "You never will believe how badly we sing." Each of their albums, though, does feature some songs; the old line-up had vocalists, and Lubicán featured several guests as well.

When unaugmented by guest singers, the music that La Musgaña plays is a combination of dance tunes, marches and song airs. Because there is still a strong connection between music, dance and ritual in rural Castilla, many of the selections that they play have a ritual function; religious songs, wedding marches, and festive dances make up the bulk of their material. Their music can thus move with the solemnity of the processional, or it can enjoy the frenetic energy of Carnival; in concert, they play a devotional air that is traditionally performed at the Catholic Mass as well as a rapidly pulsating tune called the "shake your bottom dance."

It is the wind instruments, Quique's bagpipe and three-holed flute and Jaime's clarinette and wooden transverse flute, that play the bulk of the melodies. Traditionally monophonic Spanish folk music is well served by the addition of instruments with a lot of harmonic possibilities like the accordion, which instantly add a richness to the arrangements; the group has decided not to use guitars or dulcimers anymore, and the accordion definitely fills in the harmonic gaps. Carlos' bass playing can have all the intensity and attack of rock and roll, and his handling of the laud as accompaniment proved delightfully deft and subtle, like a good cittern player in Irish music. Finally, the sharp, nasal tones of the bagpipe and zanfona give them a sound as wild and elemental as any European folk music.

Perhaps the most salient feature of La Musgaña's sound, though, is the variety and volume of the percussion. Besides the tamboril, there are tambourines of all sizes, darrabukas, doumbeks, bendhirs, frame drums, and idiophones of wood and metal. Much of this percussion is handled by Luis, although, as one Folk Roots reporter put it, none of them "waste an available hand when it could be playing a drum." Happily, this wall of percussion never overwhelms the other instruments, even when the group plays with no amplification; the skillful adaptation of basically acoustic music yields basically acoustic results.

The members of La Musgaña see their own adaptations as valid parts of the Spanish tradition, an alloy tempered with equal parts of homework and spontanaeity. "The music that we play," Luis explains, "was born more or less in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and has been developed in the hands of traditional musicians. Each one has taken what he feels is right and he plays in the way he feels. Quique has had contact with many different musicians, and has compared styles and ways to play." Out of that comparison, Quique has created his own style, taking what he himself feels is right... the tradition continues.

As for influences outside of Spanish music, Jaime says that each member of La Musgaña is influenced by his own listening habits more than anything. Thus, while Irish flute music affects the way Jaime ornaments his flute music, jazz styles are informing Carlos' bass underpinnings. Quique listens to southern French music and Basque music for pipe-and-tabor ideas, as well as Celtic and American folk music. Luis' choice of percussion reflects his knowledge of Arabic music.

While they acknowledge an influence of Celtic music and Arabic music on their personal styles, they hasten to disavow the various ideologies that seem to pervade Spanish music. They do not claim Celtic, Arabic, or any other ancient origin for their musical roots. "There are a lot of people selling ideology. They say, `We are Celtic. We are fighting for our language. We are fighting for our traditions.' But [La Musgaña] are musicians. We're not selling anything but music."

Even the name of the group, La Musgaña, is an attempt to get away from an overly serious or ideological treatment of Spanish music. It means "the water rat." Although this proves that they're lighthearted in approach, they are also passionate about the music; whether you're listening to them talk or listening to them play, it's their passion that comes through the most strongly. Luis expresses it best: "This music that we play, we feel very close to it. Our attitude is that we want to enjoy the music. We are not trying to present like a window in the anthropological museum, or to show everyone how beautiful it used to be... you can find this music still alive at weddings, parties or whatever in the countryside. We don't want to call it `Sounds From Another Time'... I mean, this is the music! Enjoy yourself! Go ahead!"