6/11/13: Made edits for grammar, spelling, and continuity.
The first night in Spain was truly a wonder. Upon minutes of my arrival in Lugo, Eva (The woman whose family is graciously housing me) and her husband Antonio brought me to a sort of neighbourhood festival. The purpose currently escapes me. After being awake for 26-plus hours, and through three airports over 15 hours has made for some of the subtleties of the evening to be lost.
I was definitely nervous about the whole endeavour, as I didn’t know what to expect, and there were to be many, many people attending with whom I, even now, can barely converse with. It seems much of Antonio’s family live closely within this region, so they were already there upon our arrival, in addition to hundreds more neighbours from the surrounding area. The way the whole event was set up was to house the hungry masses under massive tents; they were almost too large to call them tents, but they were a sort of large, rectangular sections of tarpaulin material supported by metal framing. A tent by any other name, but multiple buses would have been pleased with the accommodation. Rows after rows of long folding tables sat under these tents, covered in paper tablecloths, seemingly miles of waxy paper, for how far the tables went. Adorning these tables were legions of plates and napkins, battalions of bottles of local wine, and eager reinforcements of free beer, all as far as the eye could see. To the right side of the tables sat a worn wooden bar shielding bottles of liquor and a solitary till. In front of the bar were massive grills covered in steaming ribs of pork, all surrounded by a phalanx of bowls brimming with local bread. Everything you could reach was free, all you could eat was fair game. I ate.
After some due time given to the crowd’s insatiable appetite, on a stage at the far end of the left-most tent, a man and woman began singing to canned music, so to speak; poppy songs from a drum machine just to get the crowds attention on anything more than the food they were quite acquainted with. I had been gnawing through a particularly chewy string of Spanish to a sea of rather patient Galicians, with Eva providing a constant and needed source of translation. The chef cutting the gristle from my words, as it were, if we are to further the metaphor.
I had been speaking some with Antonio’s brother, Juan, about the wines and where they came from. I politely told him I liked both of the wines, which was mostly true, especially due to my moderately vast consumption of the aforementioned vino in an attempt to tenderize my tongue. He, too, politely told me the wine was sort of terrible in most standards, as it was just wine poured from a larger source into the botillas upon the tables. Cheap wine for the massive crowd. Hm. After this conversation, he rose and headed off to a small house across the street; a two-story, stone structure that, as it was translated to me, used to be the schoolhouse of Antonio and his siblings, and now serves as a sort of public house. Seeing my confusion, I was told Juan was part of a musical group composed entirely of members of the community, called: “Airiños de Orbezai,” which basically means ‘the winds of Orbezai (Orbezai being the hamlet we were in)’.
Airiños de Orbezai is a traditional Galician folk group, so the music is all live, and typically acoustic. They dress in accoutrements faithful to the agrarian history of the region. The men wear black slacks, vests, and fedoras (feather optional), sturdy, brown leather boots, and a long, black wrap around the waist, like a cummerbund, called a “fajil.” It’s an an allusion to back wraps the farmers and shepherds used for support during the long days upon the fields and pastures. The women wear very plain dresses of beige, brown, or black, but combined with wildly colourful shawls and scarves to give a very pleasing contrast of austerity and a kind of with-strained passion and personality. Far from the small handful of villagers I was expecting, the group numbers in excess of three dozen, toting instruments of all types and sizes. Guitarras, tambourines, a cello (wielded masterfully by one of the smallest women in the group), a sort of square, chest-mounted drum called a caja (played by Juan), drums, accordions, sea shells, and most interestingly of all for Galician tradition: la gaita. Bagpipes.
Far be it from me to deny Galicians of their Spanish heritage, but one message I have had repeatedly impressed upon me is that of the Galician identity. They have little connection to flamenco, bullfighting, and paella. There’s actually a stronger cultural connection to the once-invading Celts, two millennium ago. They have their own language of Gallego, which is a sort of healthy blend of Castillian Spanish and Portugese. If you know Spanish, it’s close enough to Castillian to catch the gist of some conversations, but different enough to flummox the hell out of you the rest. Most of the signs in the region are in Gallego, and local schools have a constant ebb and flow between what presence Gallego belongs within the classes. Geography and Galician history are two of the subjects most commonly taught in the classic Gallego, while other classes roll in constant dispute.
Once Airiños de Orbezai began to play, I got my first taste of where Galicians near-zealousness to cultural identity comes from. The music is most often a rhythmic, playful tit-for-tat between the men and women, each claiming a superiority at working or loving; Eva described it as “I pinch you pinch me; I work harder than you, you work harder than me.” It’s loud, it’s rustic, but box my ears if it wasn’t fantastic.
The raucous, but coordinated group is headed by a local artisan of instruments (and master showman), Lys. The bagpipes in the group, as I’ve come to learn, were actually made by hand in his nearby workshop. The band was splayed in a long half-circle, Lys stood front and centre with his guitarra, conducting the flow of his fellow musicians and acting as the sort of “spokesman” for the group. He strutted before the crowd, quipped without breaking form, and at one point joined two little niñas in a spontaneous dance in front of the audience, easily two-hundred strong. He carried an air of total comfort, a consummate entertainer, and he wore a smirk almost throughout the entire performance; not from arrogance, but from a total confidence in his group. A faith, I feel, that is well-earned.
The thing that struck me the hardest was that this wasn’t for anyone but themselves. It was all family, all friends, all neighbours. Aside from me, there wasn’t a soul there that hadn’t grown up with this, or hadn’t married into it years prior. It was like seeing the coelacanth: esoteric, exciting, and seemingly impossible to still exist. I have never seen a more sincere expression of community or camaraderie than in their performance. They are just as much of a part of the crowd as the people clapping along, and the audience was just as important to the group as the musicians themselves. They clapped their hands, banged upon tables, carried one song into another in a solid, unified voice, and determined which song would come next.
It was moving almost beyond my ability to comprehend or illustrate, but for the sake of trying to do it justice, here I am. Like trying to explain the best colour of the sky, or what makes for the best wine. Impossible and almost trivializing to attempt- if even possible at all.
I couldn’t imagine a better way to be introduced to what Galicia is made from than a unified crowd spanning over three generations belting tunes created before any of them even existed. Living, breathing history.