A Foreigner’s Perceptions
Think Spanish music and you think of flamenco guitars providing the soundtrack for a bull fight in a dusty plaza del toro while a stomping woman wails and cries of the splendors and battles of days past. Well actually, I doubt that the majority of Europe does. Hemingway’s idyllic and romantic image of Spain that the Gipsy Kings personify in a cover of The Eagles’ “Hotel California’ (see below) seems irrelevant to the cultureless crowd that amass on the gorgeous Balearic islands every year on a pilgrimage of promiscuity, and on behalf of the northern Europeans that tend to do so I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for my kinsmen. Since listening to the Gipsy Kings, I’ve been interested in what makes Spanish music so incredible, and if you are, read on hermano.
The Gipsy Kings
More than the Macarena
I’ve always found it simply staggering that we tend to care so little about Spanish culture in this country. When one goes to France, one does so to take in the sights, sample the culture and ultimately learn and experience another way of life. However, with Spain, a country with better cheese and wine than France (I’m sorry France, try harder next time) and a continent’s worth of culture squeezed into one country, the most that the majority of people do is buy a sombrero (wrong continent lads), and say gracias (pronounced by my kin as grassy arse) to the despairing ice cream vendor.
Spanish music screams out with a uniquely passionate and diverse voice, as you can hear in the Gipsy Kings song above and I felt I needed to know the reasons for this diversity and excitement.
Outside of Magaluf on the island of Mallorca there is a beautiful island and an entire history, culture, language and cuisine to explore. In the same way, outside of the boozey, claustrophobic and anthropophobia enducing electronic music nightclubs, there is a world’s worth of music and culture to explore. And so I intended to explore it.
Hemingway and Orwell were both greatly influenced personally by the Spanish Civil War.
Spain: From Celts to Colonialism
To understand Spain and its music, like with any country, you need to know its history. Spain’s pre-roman Celtic origins are still apparent in North Western Spain in places such as Galicia, and the culture of the so called “first Europeans” the Basques demonstrates its mystery and ancient difference through its music. After Roman rule and the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Vandals and Visigoths invaded and ruled until the Moors invaded, and the Jewish diaspora as well as Gypsies settled.
Spain was a melting pot for cultures from Europe, Asia and Africa, and that can be heard in the huge variety of music. In Andalusia, in the south of Spain, the typical image of Spanish music: guitar and flamenco music has its origins. The word guitar itself comes from the Andalusian Arabic word for an instrument which came before, called the qitara.
Flamenco is also Arabic for “fleeing peasant”, and may refer to the Gypsies who have so clearly influenced music in the south of Spain.. However, there’s a less famous side to traditional Spanish music, as in the northern communities of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, the Celtic and European influences are more apparent. Pipes, accordions and even bagpipes (called gaitas). In Basque country, instruments which resemble Irish whistles and drums are used, as well as the ancient txalapartaris (originally used as a form of communication) while in Valencia the music shows influences from across Southern Europe. Each area has such a different culture, and this is incredibly evident in the range of music all over the country, which varies from eastern sounding Flamenco, to more Western European sounding zarzuelas.
The gaita performed by Pablo Devigo.
Txalaparatis were originally a method of communication, but are now used for making enchanting music.
L'Ham De Foc infuse music from Valencia, the rest of Spain and across the Mediterranean.
Zarzuela is a form of opera which derives from Spain.
During the early years of Moorish rule, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in relative harmony in Moorish Spain. However, years of war during the Reconquista saw the expansion of Christian Spanish kingdoms and eventually kicked out the Moors in 1492. This was followed by Spain’s golden age, expanding its empire in the New World and with Incan and Aztec gold, the Spanish became incredibly wealthy. Persecution of Jews and Muslims worsened, and led to the rise of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, who would give people a choice: convert or die.
The New World’s Influence
After Spain had been influenced by so many countries in the old world, Spanish music went on to influence the musical scenes of Latin America, and hugely influential movements in their own right, such as Cuban, Peruvian and Argentinian music. Spanish colonists brought with them the guitar, other instruments, Spanish folk songs and of course the language. This combined with native music and African influences, in areas such as Peru where traditional instruments such as panpipes were combined with the guitar to produce unique sounds. A great example of this style of music is the “Flight of the Condor”. Latin American music has since had a huge impact not only on Spain, but the international music scene with musicians such as Shakira who now influence Spain and dominate its popular music. One can think of it like a tennis match of culture; volleying music across the Atlantic.
In Cuban music, you can hear the Spanish, African and native influence.
Spanish guitars accompany Peruvian panpipes in this beautiful rendition of Flight of the Condor.
Mexican folk music and the guitar playing style has been massively influenced by the Spanish.
Los Cafres are just one example of the fantastic modern day music scene in South America.
Fascism and The Falange
Wars with protestant nations followed the Spanish Golden Age. After the failed Spanish armada and the rise of Britain as the global superpower, Spain spiraled into decline for centuries, and saw centuries of internal and external conflict. Spain’s empire rebelled, lost all her colonies and was humiliated by the New World, the USA, and former colonies. The army felt humiliated and as Spain was becoming increasingly socialist as a republic, they rebelled and the Spanish civil war began in 1936. The violence led to Franco’s fascist state, and left an oppressive scar on the Spanish psyche, which now causes me to speculate that because of this, Spanish music revels in its newfound liberty. Franco and his party, the so-called “Falange”, or Phalanx, supported the Nazis and imposed a plethora of new laws that oppressed the Spanish population, in particular artists and the autonomous communities of Spain. Under Franco public use of Catalan and Basque was made illegal, similar to the persecution of the Welsh language in the UK. Many influential artists such as Picasso fled Spain in the face of censorship and oppression that would strangle artists, musicians and their creativity for the years.
After the death of Franco in 1975, Spain underwent a period of transformation of economics, politics and culture. Whereas artistic freedom, and the Catalan and Basque languages had been persecuted previously, after Franco’s death there was a celebration of freedom. As with any nation that goes through a traumatic period of history, it seems that Franco’s reign and subsequent demise had left a scar on the nation’s psyche: a fear of oppression. This is now apparent in the music scene in Spain, and many bands such as Ska-P write and sing about the injustices of Spanish society, and society at large. While there were some rare gems of understated musical resistance during Franco’s reign, such as in Marisol’s “Corazon Contento” (she reportedly auctioned off the awards Franco had given her to the Communist Party), it was after his death that musicians, film makers and artists were allowed to express themselves fully in the so called La Movida. It saw the rise of the famous filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, and the reestablishment of Spain as a cultural power, as it had been prior to Franco.
Alaska y los Pegamoides' explosive style symbolises La Movida.
Marisol - an example of quiet rebellion under Franco's grasp of the arts.
After La Movida, bands like Ska-p relish in their freedom and attack the injustices of society.
Menja be, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort
A good example of this reestablishment is Catalan art. Prior to Franco, Catalonia (an autonomous community in northeastern Spain) saw many great artists: Picasso, Dali, Miro and architects such as Gaudi. However, after the persecution of Catalan culture and constant censorship under Franco, this built up to a huge explosion of Catalan music and pride in the 1970s. Where once artists had fled for cultural havens in France, now, Catalonia sees some of the most influential bands in Spain, all singing in their once forbidden tongue. Catalan bands such as Manel and Mishima have that Catalan feeling of darkness, eccentricity, but an overall joy and celebration of life that makes Catalonia what it is.
Manel are one of the biggest bands in Spain, and perform in their native Catalan tongue.
Mishima's beautiful track Un Tros De Fang (a piece of clay)
Els Pets symbolise the optimism that is seen in Catalan music.
A Continent In a Country
As I mentioned previously, Spain is comprised of many different cultures and languages: Basque, Castillian, Catalan, Galician to name a few. Since 1978, Spain has been composed of 17 autonomous communities (and two autonomous cities in North Africa), and each one has a unique culture and with it music. This was due to separatist sentiment from the Catalans and the Basques, where the Spanish government tried to appease everyone by making all areas autonomous. As one travels around Spain, you can real feel the change and you can hear it in the music, with bagpipes in the north and guitars in the south.
In addition to the wide range of folk music, Spanish modern music is full of passion and draws inspiration not only from Spanish music, but British, Latin and American influences. Indie rock has a strong presence in Spain with bands such as We Are Standard, Bigott and Los Planetas all contributing with catchy songs. Spain in true Spanish tradition has a huge range of popular music in its recent past and present, from pioneers such as Alaska y Pegamoides to influential bands like La Union. From the heaviest of metal to the happiest of songs such as those by La Casa Azul, Spain seems to be back on artistic tracks.
We Are Standard from Basque Country perform in English, and have incredibly catchy songs.
From Zaragoza in Aragon, Bigott brings with him a Spanish sense of innovation and eccentricity.
With a sound similar to American and British indie bands, Los Planetas perform in Spanish.
Joyfully youthful and optimistic, La Casa Azul are like Belle and Sebastian's Spanish exchanges.
During the 1980s, bands like La Union, who resemble The Jesus and Mary Chain became popular.
In face of all the problems that Spain has faced recently, the spirit of resistance of bands such as Ska-P is apparent in the general attitude of protest in the country. This was apparent in the 15M protests last year. Spain has come a long way from the scarring fascist period, and along with filmmakers such as Almodovar, Spanish art seems to be heading towards a second golden age.
A video of last year's protests.
A Lesson For Us All?
Spain has drawn a lot from its history. There’s a huge history of culture coming in and out Spain from all over the world, and this huge amount of inspiration combines with a stubbornness and appreciation of political freedom that has produced the passionate and diverse music scene in Spain. It’s a celebration of culture and difference, and there’s room for everyone. Spain and its music scene set an example to us here. We need more politically active musicians, and a real desire to make a change, rather than wishy washy songs about some girl you once saw on a bus. We need to appreciate our freedom as we are very lucky to have it, and we need to have the same stubbornness in order to maintain it. Spain is different, and has indeed changed since Hemingway’s time, but the feeling of excitement and celebration of difference and culture is still there, and I’m sure the Gringo would be proud.
St Paul’s Tour du Monde
I’m also excited to announce that from early September I will be starting a yearlong’s stay in Spain, and then later Japan. I’ll be staying in Valencia at first, and I’m planning on going to other areas in Spain. From March, I’ll be living in Tokyo and while I’m travelling, I will be bringing you updates on music from both Spain and Japan in depth, as well as other areas around this wonderful world of ours. You can read more of my work here, and my recent feature on Indian music here. I'll be in Spain from the 7th of September and I'm incredibly excited to cover Spanish music for St Pauls Lifestyle. If you require coverage of an act or concert or anything musical, or if you're a Spanish band that would like to be listed, or want a review to help us increase your global profile via St Pauls Lifestyle, contact me at email@example.com, tweet me @stpaulslifestyl or message us on facebook here.