Keltic united

I’ve been enjoying listening to some music over the past few weeks, and only belatedly realised it was all from the same part of the world: Galicia, in northern Spain. Once I realised that, I explored a little further.

The music comes from a part of Spain once settled by Celtic tribes, who spread over most of Spain except the extreme south, Germany, France and the British Isles in the period 1000 BC to almost 1000 AD. They left traces of their culture behind, tombs, jewelry and sculpture: and songs. There’s something poignant about the traces of Celtic music. As the Celtic tribes declined in numbers and power, and were pushed ever westward by other, more numerous peoples, they must have been aware their once glorious day was done. There’s the melancholy story of the Once and Future King, Arthur. They certainly left behind some very melancholy laments, as well as some great dance music. As their languages ceased to be spoken by their descendants, the words to many songs were adapted loosely in English or other national languages. To many melodies, new, unrelated lyrics were composed, very much a product of the 19th century, the so-called “folk music” most people are familiar with. Celtic music is associated in many areas with Celtic nationality, as ethnic minorities strive to maintain their cultural identity. However, there can be no Celtic people anywhere now who are unmixed with other racial stock. The music still calls though, to all with Breton, Galician, Cornish, Welsh, Irish or Scots descent.

In Galicia, as elsewhere in Celtic derived cultures, there is controversy about so-called ‘Celtic’ music. This is a popular genre, and in many cases has swamped local modes, tunes and instruments in favour of a kind of pan-Celtic music. It’s probably just a matter of economics, as artists strive to reach a mass audience. Making CDs is a business after all. In my opinion so-called Celtic music is not really Celtic, but a variety of New Age music, all breathy vocals and synthesisers.

The music I’ve been listening to started with a concert by Milladoiro, a band which has been around since the late 70s. Often compared to the Chieftains, Milladoiro is a seven man band that often includes guest artists in the line up, and they play bagpipes, harp, hurdy gurdy, violin, guitar, keyboards, accordion and flutes. My favourite CD is 1995’s As fadas de estraño, a concert recorded in Buenos Aires. This was originally a double album, shortened by the omission of four tracks and fitted on one CD. There’s an instrumental ‘Alalá das Mariñas’ of great strength, and an outstanding title track. They’re a great live band, and in my opinion their earlier music is more “Celtic” than later work. The 2007 CD Unha Estrela Por Guia seems much more orchestral and MOR, for instance. But the 1995 CD remains as one of the group’s best, in fact it’s one of the best recordings I’ve heard of Galician music, and one of the best recorded examples of true Celtic music. Here is ‘As fadas de estraño nome’, with all the powerful emotion that accompanies so much of the music of the Celts.

1979 A Galicia de Maeloc
1980 O berro seco
1982 Milladoiro 3
1984 Solfafria
1987 Divinas palabras
1989 Castellum Honesti
1991 Galicia no Tempo
1993 A Via Láctea
1993 A xeometría da Alma
1994 Iacobus Magnus
1995 Gallaecia Fulget
1995 As fadas de estraño nome
1999 No confín dos verdes castros
1999 Auga de Maio
2002 O niño do sol
2005 XXV
2007 Unha Estrela Por Guia
2008 A quinta das lágrimas

Carlos Nuñez is a legend as a bagpipe, or gaita, instrumentalist of phenomenal dexterity. He is as accomplished on the recorder. He has also followed the practice of the Chieftains in performing with a host of world famous instrumentalists and vocalists, and his CDs thus have a lineup of stars. His CDs cover many styles, and as well as a populariser of Galician music he is a star of ‘world’ music. In fact in concert he is very much a pop star, as the ‘Jigs and Bulls’ track from the 1999 album Os Amores Libres demonstrates. This album was my introduction to Carlos Nuñez’ music, and some tracks still take my breath away, they are performed with seemingly endless energy. I’ve heard his first three albums: all are impressive in range and in virtuosity. Carlos Nuñez is not content to merely play Celtic music of Galicia. He is actively engaged on a quest to resurrect all the influences that have contributed to that music. Music from Morocco, flamenco and Ireland all feature on his albums. Whether fighting, celebrating or lamenting, the Celts were evidently a fiery and emotional people. Here is ‘Jigs and Bulls’ from Os Amores Libres performed in concert.

1996 Brotherhood of Stars
1999 Os Amores Libres
2000 Mayo Longo
2002 Todos Os Mundos
2003 Un Galicien en Bretagne
2005 Cinema Do Mar
2006 En Concert
2009 Alborada do Brasil

Another group I’ve been listening to is La Musgana, the water rat, around since the late 80s, whose music comes from central and northern Spain. It is not Celtic, but reminds you that Spain was the meeting ground of many cultures, Celtic, Roman, Jewish, Muslim, Arabic, gypsy. La Musgana is a five man instrumental ensemble like Milladoiro, playing similar instruments to that group. The music is like the compositions of the medieval King Alfonso the Wise, whose exquisite Cantigas de Santa Maria are among the most beautiful music I know of, or like the delicate fusion of Arabic, Moroccan and Spanish music of Andalusia. In performance La Musgana can be as rousing as anyone, though on CD their range covers the whole of Spain’s many cultures over the centuries. I have a copy of Las Seis Tentaciones, from which this track comes, ‘Entradilla’.

1988: La Musgaña
1989: El Paso de la Estantigua
1991: Lubicán
1992: El Diablo Cojuelo
1998: Las Seis Tentaciones
1998: La Musgaña en Concierto
2003: Temas Profanos
2008: 20
2009: Idas y Venidas

Other artists I was inspired to listen to included Uxia Senile, a wonderful singer around since the 80s whose version of ‘Alalá das Mariñas’, from the 1995 album Estou vivindo no ceo is my favourite track of Galician music; and the extraordinary gaita player Hevia, whose music is very popular, but a bit too ‘Celtic’, especially in the company of the artists mentioned above (though I’ve only listened to Obsessión of 2007).

I also revisited the Celtic harp music of Breton Alan Stivell, though I didn’t listen to much of it, moving on straight to some favourite Irish musicians. One of the CDs I have is called A Festival of Irish Folk Music, and it includes tracks from the Fureys, including two much loved ones featuring Finbar Furey, ‘The Green Fields of France’, and a pipe solo, a ‘Lament’, one of the most moving I’ve ever heard. It’s been bringing the tears for quite a few years. Another artist featured on this CD was The Bothy Band, of Irish folk groups few were greater. But for me the greatest Irish (and, yes, Celtic) band was the Dubliners. They lasted so long they became an institution, and featured two charismatic performers, Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly, both great singers and accomplished instrumentalists, on guitar and banjo respectively. I had thought no live music of the original Dubliners was available on video, but YouTube proved that was incorrect. Rather than talk about the Dubliners, I’ll let them do the talking.
McAlpine’s Fusiliers:
Whiskey in the Jar:
Finnegan’s Wake:

As you can see I don’t know much about the Celts or their music: although I haven’t mentioned Planxty, an obsession for many years.
The Jolly Beggar:
Arthur McBride:
True Love Knows No Season:
Nor your man Ivan Morrison, whose Madame George I first heard in 1969, and I can remember who with, where and how I heard it to this day.
Into the Mystic:
But whether it’s from Ireland, Brittany or Galicia, as far as I’m concerned, it’s good music. Sláinte agus saol chugat!

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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