Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Some Spanish instruments

I can almost guarantee, with at least as much certainty as if you were outside the East Kilbride Shopping Centre, that if you ever visit the Plaza del Obradoiro, just alongside the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, you will hear the skirl of the pipes. In fact, although they may not be your first thought as a traditional Spanish instrument bagpipes are as symbolic of the regions of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria as they are of Scotland.

Presuming that we all know what Scottish or Irish pipes look like the Spanish gaita is obviously related but smaller and with only one pipe pointing skyward. Nobody is quite sure what the origin of the pipes is but they are there in the drawings of the Ancient Egyptians and they turn up in Europe in the ninth century. I was surprised to find that pipes are native to countries as far afield as Switzerland, Iran, India and Hungary too.

There are lots of traditional Spanish instruments; Catalunya for instance has several, but taking account of my allotted word count I have limited myself to the most widespread.

If you have ever been to any celebration anywhere in the Valencian Community you will have heard the dulzaina. Although there are similar instruments in parts of France and Hungary this instrument is quintessentially Spanish. It's a double reeded wind instrument vaguely similar to an oboe. There are several types but the most typical is of dark wood, about 30cms long and with seven finger holes. The dulzaina is used a lot by traditional dance and music groups in street fiestas, often alongside drums, as both are very portable instruments. In parts of Spain, just to confuse us, it's called a gaita.

I always find it odd that the English language name – castanets – for one of the most characteristic and widespread of all Spanish instruments is different to the original Spanish name of castañuelas. Castanets are a percussion instrument made of wood with the two shell like halves bound together by a cord. They are played by clacking the two halves together. Castanets are used to accompany many styles of music from folk tunes through to classical pieces. Many Middle Eastern countries have similar percussion instruments and the consensus among musicologists is that the Phoenicians, the pre Christian traders from what is now Syria, Libya and Israel, brought the instrument to Spain.

The Spanish guitar is known the world over and, like the pipes, I'm going to suppose you know what it basically looks like. The traditional Spanish guitar has six cat gut, now nylon, strings and it has subtle differences to the steel stringed acoustic guitars. In Spain it is associated with a number of musical styles but, perhaps, principally with the music from the south of Spain such as Flamenco and Sevillanas.

If the guitar is known, and used, the world over the zambona is not. In fact most of them are home-made. They consist of a container of some sort, the favourite being a clay pot. The open end of the container is sealed with something that can be tautened like plastic or leather. A hole is made in the centre of this material and a stick is pushed through the hole. By twisting or  pulling the stick in and out the skin vibrates and produces a “musical” sound. They are all over the place at Christmas time as a sort of semi joke instrument.

And last, but not least, whilst we are jokey instruments; the anis bottle. Anis is an aniseed flavoured alcoholic drink that is still popular amongst older Spaniards. Lots of the anis bottles, like the famous Anis del Mono, have a ribbed body and by rubbing the bottle with a spoon or something plastic it's possible to produce a vaguely rhythmic sound.

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