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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Trance bagpipes - Spanish nationalism or a bladder full of wind?

The most exciting musical experience I had last year was in Asturias - the province of northern Spain to the east of Galicia - where I went visiting a friend, Sam Chappell, over the summer.

Sam is remarkable in several ways: not least because she is the only six foot blonde English bird living in Oviedo, a beautiful little city about 20k inland. She seems to know everyone.

And one of the people she knows - a charmer called Frankie Delgado who runs some Irish-style pubs in the region - had organised a folk festival up the road in Gijon (Xixon in the local dialect), a relatively industrial city on a beach. In its turn the festival was remarkable on several counts.

There was the Scottish pipe band with a huge drum bearing the hilariously incongruous message from home "sponsored by Tesco"; the unmistakeably Celtic feel of whole thing; and most of all there was a band called Xera.

They were already playing when I walked into the main square on the first evening of the five night festival, and the audience was rapt in between pouring glasses of the local cider from arms length overhead - to aerate it - something that became cleverer as the evening wore on.

Grasping for a way of describing them, I arrived at "trance bagpipe", because of the amazing light show, the big Celtic sound (Runrig big) and the electronica - as well as the bagpipes. It was transcendant even before the cider showed its pips.

I couldn't see any CDs for sale, so went to the internet, where I discovered that Xera give their music away for free (if you can figure out how to download it - it seems to give iTunes indigestion when attempted on the same computer). So they have strong political views about intellectual property.

But the thing that surprised me more was the Celtic-ness of the noise: I could have been at the ravey end of a Scottish folk festival. I knew about Britanny and the Scots, Irish, Welsh and Cornish diasporas to the new world that took fiddles and pipes with them, but I had no idea that there was a strand of nationalism in Spain that identifies as Celtic - and there was no mistaking the band's frequent references to Asturia (from the stage and in their publicity material online) and the huge cheers they received for those references.

Now I know you've got to be a bit careful with nationalism generally and in Spain in particular since the legacy of the civil war is everywhere - the next placa along in Gijon was pockmarked with bullet holes. Perhaps I'd be better off calling it regionalism (though Cornish "nationalism" would be a good analogy). So I asked an expert whether I'd diagnosed the cultural influences right or whether I was superimposing my expectations?

John Koch from the department of Celtic studies at the University of Wales said that the only widely agreed criterion for Celtic-ness was language and that there haven't been any dominant Celtic languages in northern Spain since pre-Roman times, dying out completely by the 7th century AD.

"And as far as the bagpipes go, they are traditional instruments in many parts of the world without Celtic cultural heritage: they're traditional instruments in Galicia and Asturias. Today they've undoubtedly come under some influence from Scottish, Irish, and Breton bagpipe music and have probably contributed to the idea that these areas have a common Celtic heritage," he said.

"In present-day Spain some extreme right-wing nationalist groups have latched onto the idea of Celtic heritage, so debunking the idea of Celtic heritage has also become political. It’s a difficult subject and the material available in English is limited.

"But the drift seems to be that 'our' ancestors, the 'real Spaniards',  were northern Europeans and not Mediterranean types, Basques or Moors. 

"I don’t know whether Asturian nationalism has any right wing tendency but I've noted the waning enthusiasm of some Spanish colleagues to become involved with highlighting Iberia’s Celticity. What I’ve seen promoting the Celtic identity of [the region] has not been very ideological apart from attachment to its own regional culture and tradition."

I put in an email to Xera asking about their politics, though their dreadlocks and penchant for covering themselves in mud for publicity shots would, at first glance, make them unlikely poster children for anything right wing.

Still, you never know. Whatever it is, it was mesmerising.

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