This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2002 issue
It’s easy for Celtic music lovers to forget that there’s more to “Celtic” than Irish and Scottish. When I began this column I tried to define the music I planned to work with and give some brief cultural background to what the term “Celtic” has come to mean. Still, I’ve focused mostly on Irish tunes and style, followed closely by those born and bred in Scotland.
This is hardly surprising. There are millions of Irish- and Scottish-Americans and seemingly millions of Irish and Scottish tunes to learn and play. There are Irish Cultural Centers across the country, Irish bars in every city, Scottish games from coast to coast, and probably a volunteer fire department bagpipe band practicing in a park near you this weekend.
But despite the saturation of our cultural awareness with things Irish and Scottish, Celtic music offers more variety than that in many ways. There are song and dance forms, instruments, and even languages included in the Celtic tradition that have nothing at all to do with Ireland and Scotland.
In the next couple of columns, I’ll stretch the geographic boundaries of Celtic music a little for you, introducing some music that you might have missed in the shuffle.
Let’s drift back in time about 2500 years. The Celts didn’t just pop into existence in the British Isles. They migrated in from the Mediterranean, over land and by sea, over a period of centuries. The seafaring Celts touched down from Spain to North Africa before sailing west past Gibraltar and north along the Iberian coast and finally all the way to England and Ireland.
But many didn’t make it to Britain. They settled permanently on the north coast of Spain in regions now called Galicia and Asturias. Their dialects were probably closer to modern Breton and Welsh than Irish. Distant echoes of the old Celtic tongue still color the modern Galician and Asturian dialects, which are very different from standard Spanish, sounding more like Portuguese, and requiring sometimes exotic spellings (lots of X’s).
But what about the music? Well, the bagpipe (or gaita) and the harp loom large in these Spanish Celtic traditions, though the physical construction of the instruments and the sound and style of play is dramatically different from their more northern cousins. And, of course, there are all manner of flutes and whistles, fretted strings, and percussion to fill out the bands.
Galicia and Asturias enjoyed a huge folk music renaissance in the last 30 years, just as Ireland and Scotland did. Some extraordinarily talented young musicians rediscovered and reinvented the traditions, importing influences from neighboring cultures as suited them and adding enough rocking drive to catch the ear of the next generation and guarantee survival into the new millenium.
Still, way out here in California and steeped in my happy Irish-Scottish musical world, I might have missed this lovely stuff entirely if it hadn’t been for an Argentine penpal who sent me a couple of cassettes about ten years ago, daring me to include this music in my repertoire if I wanted to call myself a Celtic musician.
The music was by a Galician band called Milladoiro. When I first played it, I was floored by both the familiarity and the exotica of it all. And it rocked! Here was a big, confident band with all the power of the Battlefield Band in its prime, putting across folk tunes with feverish intensity on instruments that sounded almost but not quite like the ones I was used to.
As I was listening and going through the Spanish/Galician liner notes my first two questions were: “What the heck is a txalaparta, trikitixa, or a caiza?” and “Just how much coffee did these guys consume before rolling tape?” I shrugged, pulled out the mando, and started trying to cop some licks.
Actually, the tune I’ve transcribed for you here, Aire de Pontevedra, didn’t feature any kind of fretted instrument. It’s my version of one of the faster bagpipe tunes on the tape. I tend to play it at about one-third the speed Milladoiro can crank up to. At any speed, though, there’s a hypnotic pleasure to it. And, like so many Galician tunes, the shape and flavor is much more Celtic than Spanish, somehow. When you pick it out for yourself, try to emphasize the first beats of each bar, driving it forward without much swing, though sometimes it’s fun to invert into a swing during the B part.
A fingering note: I play the snappy ascending triplets in the 11th and 12th bars of the A part as double hammer-ons. I shift up in the 11th bar to play the C# with my first finger and the high E with my fourth, then using the duration of the last open A eighth note to shift back down into first position for the rest of the tune. Get up to the B in the 5th bar however you like.
Since that first Milladoiro recording, more Galician and Asturian CDs have been released and distributed in North America. Among the easiest to find are those put out by Green Linnet Records, including two by Milladoiro; “As Fadas de Estraño Nome—Celtic Music from Spain” (1997), or “Auga de Maio” (2000). Also on Green Linnet is Susana Seivane, a top gaita player. Check them all out.
And Asturian traditional music is increasingly findable, too. Asturias lies just east of Galicia and their tradition shares many of the instruments and tune and dance forms with Galicia. Maybe the most famous Asturian band currently touring is Llan de Cubel, a sextet who have been performing for 18 years and have a number of great albums. Their most recent release is “Un tiempu meyor” on Fono Astur.
You can hear how the Asturian “alboraes” (dawn tunes) resonate with Irish slow airs or Shetland Island laments, how the “marches y pasucáis” compare with regal Scottish marches, and how dances like “saltones” and “muñeires” and polkas could medley with Irish session tunes. You’re certain to want to add a few of these far-flung Celtic cousins to your repertoire.